No less famous than Vauxhall Gardens were those of Ranelagh on the opposite side of the river. They occupied the grounds of a house built by Lord Ranelagh on the east side of Chelsea Hospital immediately adjoining; and, for some time after their opening, proved rather a dangerous rival to Vauxhall, in drawing away the most fashionable supporters of the latter.
Ranelagh had an advantage over Vauxhall, where enjoyment greatly depended on the weather: Ranelagh possessed a huge Rotunda, under cover of which its entertainments and concerts could always be attended in comfort.
This Rotunda was really a fine building in its way- 185 feet in diameter, with a series of boxes for tea and supper parties round the interior, and over these a gallery.
In the centre was a raised orchestra going up to the roof which was arched, and sprang from this central orchestra to the outer wall, so that the orchestra was not only visible, but perfectly audible all round.
It was well warmed in winter, and well lit by innumerable brackets, sconces, and chandeliers, and when filled with company, in the days of hoops and powder, embroidered coats, vests, and bag wigs, must really have presented a very brilliant sight.
The music was good, and there were frequent masquerades and other entertainments of a like character. Twice a week there were ridottos, the tickets for which were a guinea.
Walpole, in his letters to Horace Mann, tells him of the opening night May 23rd, 1742 when the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke of Cumberland, much nobility and much mob besides, were there. "There is a vast amphitheatre, finely gilt, painted, and illuminated, into which everybody who loves eating, drinking, staring, or crowding is admitted for one shilling."
Walpole seems to have preferred its rival, Vauxhall, for he says that the gardens there were pleasanter and you went by water; so you could to Ranelagh, but it was most easily accessible from Kensington, the court suburb, and you did not have to cross the Thames.
Lord Ranelagh's house was not pulled down, but formed part of the buildings. The Rotunda was in existence until the beginning of the last century, when an installation ball of the Knights of the Bath took place there in 1802.
The site was afterwards acquired by Chelsea Hospital and now forms part of the grounds on the eastern side. The late hours at Vauxhall were often exceeded at Ranelagh, for it was three in the morning before the gardens were closed.Next page: The Great Regatta