Promo: Small Eden by Jane Davis

I'm delighted to share a fascinating guest post about so-called pleasure gardens by acclaimed author, Jane Davis. The topic is linked to her new novel, Small Eden.

She is currently on blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club. Make sure to check out all the other fabulous spots here!

Small Eden

Jane Davis

Historical Fiction

A Brief History of Pleasure Gardens

In my tenth novel, Small Eden, I tell the story of how Robert Cooke creates a pleasure garden in memory of his infant sons. 

What exactly is a pleasure garden?

Before the eighteenth century, London had few outdoor spaces dedicated to enjoyment. Perhaps a piece of land attached to a tavern on which games of bowls might be played, but for the upper classes (particularly women), taverns were places to be avoided.  

There had been a public garden on the site of Vauxhall since 1661, then known as New Spring Garden. The diarist Samuel Pepys was a regular. In 1667, he wrote: 

‘A great deal of company, and the weather and garden pleasant: and it is very pleasant and cheap going thither, for a man may go to spend what he will, or nothing, all as one. But to hear the nightingale and other birds, and hear fiddles, and there a harp,… and here laughing, and there fine people walking, is mighty divertising.’ 

Entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers realised there was a market for paid entertainment. And so in 1729, Vauxhall opened its gates.

‘Pleasure of reason, pleasure of imagination, and pleasure of sense.’

Think of an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Imagine picturesque planting, winding paths, and tumbling waterfalls. Musical concerts were the chief draw, everything from contemporary composers to Italian opera. But there were also masquerades, theatricals, hot air balloon demonstrations and acrobatics. Something for almost every taste, plus the opportunity to mingle with London’s high society in their shimmering silks and their finery. 

Not only was Vauxhall probably the first of London’s pleasure gardens, it was also the most popular. Visitors arrived by boat, alighting at the Vauxhall Stairs where the main entrance fronted the Thames. From the gates, pleasure-seekers would proceed along The Grove where fifty large supper boxes lined the walkway. On offer were any number of novelties. Paintings by William Hogarth and Francis Haymen were displayed in a fashionable Chinese pavilion, making it Britain’s first public art gallery. During the 1730s and 1740s, Handel was a kind of composer-in-residence. But it was at night that the gardens really came alive. As dusk fell, servants lit thousands of lamps positioned strategically about the gardens. The effect is said to have been sensational.

Because tickets only cost a shilling, they were affordable to the emerging middle class, who went to be shocked by the antics of the upper classes and weren’t disappointed. At one masquerade in 1749, the twenty-nine-year-old Duchess of Kingston Elizabeth Chudleigh (known for her ‘adventurous lifestyle’) went as the classical figure, Iphigenia, her costume nothing more than a thin scarf. 

Unfortunately, its affordability meant that Vauxhall’s wooded groves and ‘dark walks’ became popular hideouts for pickpockets and other criminals. 

‘A humble imitation of Vauxhall.’

Despite its seedy underbelly, Vauxhall’s only real rival was the more exclusive Ranelagh. With tickets costing two shillings and sixpence, patrons were assured that they wouldn’t have to rub shoulders with the lower classes. Today, visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show may be unaware that they’re walking within the footprint of one of the capital’s most spectacular gardens. 

In this piece, Robert Cooke tells his wife about his plans: 

“Pleasure gardens?” His wife is pacing, pacing. He can hear the rustle of petticoats, the curt clip of heels. “Have you taken complete leave of your senses?”

Robert has waited a week to break the news to Freya. Now he wishes he’d waited longer. “Rosherville Pleasure Gardens was built in a disused chalk pit.”

He would not distress her, so he does not share his intentions. He doesn’t tell her, ‘I dream about them.’ Thomas and Gerrard – who appeared robust, with chubby arms and legs, but then the flush of Thomas’s cheeks, the red bumps on his chest – Gerrard’s too – the swollen glands at their necks, and the shivering. The doctor came with his Epsom salts and his razor to shave their poor heads, but no amount of cool rags could soothe them. In the end it just seemed to be something to keep Robert occupied while Freya was instructed to keep her distance. (At least he’d insisted on that.) ‘Change the rags,’ Dr Stanbury said. ‘See if they won’t take a little broth.’ He doesn’t tell Freya and so she cannot ask, ‘Do they look happy?’ In his nocturnal world, his shadow-sons thrive. Thomas is already waist-high, Gerrard not far behind. They age at the same rate as their girls, their Estelle and Ida. He doesn’t tell Freya that Thomas has lost a front tooth, or about the faces Gerrard pulls behind his brother’s back. Superstition tells Robert he ought to be worried that he sees himself in dreams, but he can’t regret this second life he leads, hearing the boys’ laughter, watching the delight on their faces. And now he will create for them a place to play.


Which pleasure gardens would have overlapped with Cooke’s?

Rosherville Gardens survived for seventy years, finally closing just before the First World War. George Jones, an Islington businessman, formed the ‘Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Company’ persuading members of the public to become shareholders. The company leased a disused chalk pit near the Thames in Northfleet, Kent. The attractions included a bear pit, an archery ground and a lookout tower on a spur of rock, but Jones failed to attract wealthy visitors as he’d hoped. He was forced to lower his prices and offer more entertainments. From 1842, there was music, dancing, tightrope walkers, balloon ascents and fortune tellers. Rebranded, the gardens became a roaring success with Londoners, who flooded in on steamboats, landing at the nearby Rosherville Pier. 

Why did pleasure gardens go into decline? 

For Marylebone Gardens, the long wet summer of 1767 took its toll. 

For Vauxhall, it may have been that its managers drank their profits, or that in 1836 (four years before they were declared bankrupt), they funded Charles Green’s ‘Royal Vauxhall’ balloon. Although it broke records for distance of travel (to Nassau, Germany) and ‘scientific ascent’ – a dizzying height of 27,146 feet – the investment didn’t pay off. 

There were complaints too. London was spreading ever outwards. Inhabitants of the new houses didn’t appreciate the sound of fireworks. 

And as demand from housebuilders grew, land became more expensive.


Cane in hand, Robert moves among the crowd, every inch the proprietor, ensuring that his visitors have everything they need – preferably things that have to be bought and paid for. He looks about, searching among faces for a Carlisle, a Colman.

“Don’t know what to make of it. If Cremorne couldn’t turn a profit, what makes Cooke think he’ll fare any better?”

But you’re here, aren’t you? He sets his face into a smile. Under his topper, Robert’s hairline already itches with sweat. The afternoon is going to be a scorcher.

“Roll, bowl or pitch! Three balls a penny! You knock ’em down, we pick ’em up.”

The girl who had been selling paper windmills outside the gates is now inside. She has stopped a couple with a child – a boy – and asked him to blow. When the windmill spins and blurs, he reacts with delight, demanding, “Again! Again!”

“I think it’s well-placed. The reason London’s pleasure gardens failed is that as the city expanded land became a valuable asset.”


For Rosherville the decline began in 1878 with the sinking of the Princess Alice paddle steamer which left 650 dead. In 1900 Rosherville Gardens went bankrupt and many of the fixtures and fittings were sold off, but new management meant a temporary reprieve. The theatre became a restaurant. Films were shown in the Gothic Hall. A small menagerie was acquired, including a baby elephant called Kim. Despite their best efforts, Rosherville Gardens still lost money, finally closing in 1914.

The First World War

Like Rosherville, the pleasure gardens I have called Cooke’s was already struggling at the time of the outbreak of war in 1914. The Ordnance Survey map of 1913 shows Rossdale Cottage with the plot of land to the left sectioned off, presumably for sale, but the gardens and pavilions still in place. Gradually, it seems, the site was being divided into plots and those plots were being sold to property developers. According to the Carshalton War Memorial website, over 1900 local men enlisted to fight, 243 of whom lost their lives. In the mid nineteenth century the total population of Carshalton was 2441, but the coming of the area brought rapid growth in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, a high proportion of the area’s young men were absent from 1914 – 1919. As happened elsewhere, women stepped into the roles left by absent husbands fathers and sons. Leisure was not foremost on people’s minds.  

Urban parks

In 1833 Great Britain’s first urban park opened its gates in Preston, followed quickly by Birkenhead, Derby and Southampton.

“There we have it, Frank,” Robert says. “It’s a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Frank sits with his hands on his knees, looking towards the gates. Robert wonders if he ought simply to leave, to give Frank time to get used to the idea, but he delays. Eventually Frank says, “So that’s that.”

Robert can smell the liquor on his breath. Perhaps, he too, sensed what was coming. “My solicitor will draft a clause so that I have the final say in how the houses will look.” He stands and makes as if to leave.

“You wouldn’t be having to do it if more money was coming in.”

“No,” he concedes. At the back of his mind he may have thought Frank would find a solution. Build a wooden frame and pour concrete in it. Construct a perfect octagonal and roof it with dragon’s scales. Transform a bandstand into an amphitheatre. Graft hardwood from one rose onto another.

“The locals still show their faces. It’s the day trippers who don’t come in the same numbers.”

“I need to advertise more.”

Frank purses his lips. “Gerrard doesn’t think that’s the answer.”

“You’ve discussed it?” Of course they have.

“The boy talks to people, Londoners especially. They still want to get out of town and visit gardens, but public parks are opening up – parks with no admission charges.”

Image (c) Jane Davis. All rights reserved.


Carshalton’s first urban park opened its gates in 1924, keeping the name of the estate, Grove Park and opened it to the public. There is no doubt that, for Cooke’s this was the last straw. He was forced to do exactly what he swore he would never do. He sold the land to property developers. 



A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.  
1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.
A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window… 

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About the Author:

Jane Davis

Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis writes thought-provoking literary page turners.

She spent her twenties and the first half of her thirties chasing promotions in the business world but, frustrated by the lack of a creative outlet, she turned to writing.

Her first novel, 'Half-Truths and White Lies', won a national award established with the aim of finding the next Joanne Harris. Further recognition followed in 2016 with 'An Unknown Woman' being named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine/the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, as well as being shortlisted in the IAN Awards, and in 2019 with 'Smash all the Windows' winning the inaugural Selfies Book Award. Her novel, 'At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock' was featured by The Lady Magazine as one of their favourite books set in the 1950s, selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice, and shortlisted for the Selfies Book Awards 2021.

Interested in how people behave under pressure, Jane introduces her characters when they are in highly volatile situations and then, in her words, she throws them to the lions. The themes she explores are diverse, ranging from pioneering female photographers, to relatives seeking justice for the victims of a fictional disaster.

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey, in what was originally the ticket office for a Victorian pleasure gardens, known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’. Her house frequently features in her fiction. In fact, she burnt it to the ground in the opening chapter of 'An Unknown Woman'. In her latest release, Small Eden, she asks the question why one man would choose to open a pleasure gardens at a time when so many others were facing bankruptcy?

When she isn’t writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

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