SYDNEY GARDEN is situated at the extremity of Great Pulteney-street. Groves, vistas, lawns, serpentine-walks, shady-bowers, waterfalls, alcoves, bowling. greens, Merlin swings, grottoes, and labyrinths, are all crowded into this fairy realm.
From: A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1803) by John Feltham.
When Jane Austen left Steventon in Hampshire to accompany her parents to live in Bath upon Mr. Austen’s retirement in 1801, she was clearly going to miss being able to walk in the open countryside. Her letters of the time that survive reveal that she hoped to find solace by living near to and walking in the Sydney garden:
My mother hankers after The Square dreadfully and it is but natural to suppose my Uncle will take her part. It would be very pleasant to be near Sidney Gardens-we might go into the Labrinth every day…
(Letter to Cassandra Austen,dated 21st January 1801)
Luckily for her, her wish came true and from 1801-4 the Austens lived at number 4 Sydney Place.
The gardens still exist,-the only surviving “Vauxhall” in England. These pleasure gardens were collectively called Vauxhallsafter the famous garden in South London. And though it is closed at the moment it houses the stunning Holborn Museum collection in what used to be the main building of the garden.
The gardens opened to the public in May 1795.
This picture is a plan of the gardens as they were at that time, as depicted in Charles Harcourt Masters’ Plan of Bath(issued 1st January 1810- do note that the canal which dissects the gardens was not in situ when the gardens first opened). You can click on this plan-and indeed all the other plans and pictures in this post- to enlarge them.
This is a contemporary plan of the garden in colour , from which it might be easier to discern the individual parts of the garden.
The Sydney Tavern, the main building, was not at this time a place where you could say as guests overnight. Most pleasure gardens in 18th/early 19th century England possessed a “long room” where you could dance country dances in long ” sets”, and where you could promenade in wet weather, not an inconsiderable point to consider in England…..The Sydney Tavern was no exception, but it differed from most such buildings as its ” long room” or ballroom, was situated on the first not the ground floor, which was the more usual plan adopted in this country.
The first tenant of the building, John Gale and his family, lived on the top floors, which also housed the staff of both the kitchen and the garden.
It was not until well after Jane Austen’s time in Bath, in 1836, that it became a hotel in the modern sense of the word, but from 1813 the building was increasingly referred to as the Sydney Hotel, so some rooms may have been available for hire to paying guests from that time . There were private dining rooms and meeting rooms (where learned societies gave talks) available for hire in the house as well as the Ballroom. To the right of the Tavern on the plan you can just make out the two ” arms” of dining cubicles enclosing a wide circular area, which was where the main activities of meeting friends, promenading about in fine clothes and taking meals took place. Remember, as ever in this era, the thing to do was to be “seen” to be indulging in the most fashionable activities
There was also a moveable ” orchestra” which was a platform made in sections, which could be wheeled out of the way if space was at a premium, and the crowd of people was too great.
The Main Walk then rose up a slope to terminate in the Loggia, the small curved building at the far end. The Main walk was very wide but you will note that there were much narrower paths leading off from the Walk. The New Bath Guide of 1801 describes them as:
Serpentine walks which at every turn meet with sweet shady bowers furnished with handsome seats some canopied by Nature others by Art
There was also a Bowling Green, some waterfalls and pavilions.
The Labyrinth, where Jane Austen hoped to walk every day was a type of maze ( a fashionable 18th century garden conceit).It was, as the Bath Guide of 1801, states:
twice as large as Hampton Court’s
Note that in the centre of the Labyrinth there was what for sometime has been a little mystery for me…The Merlin Swing.
Information on this aspect of the gardens has been hard to finds. However, the answer is that it was not some Fragonard inspired decorative swing for lovers. No, it was a form of exercise machine invented by The Igenious Mechanick, John Jospeh Merlin,seen here painted by his great friend, Thomas Gainsborough.
Merlin was the sort of interesting man the 18th century produced, and it is hard to categories him. He invented/improved musical instruments, watches, roller skates, Bath Chairs and countless other items.
With regard to the swing, he was very interested on the effects of gravity on health and it is now supposed that his swing(sadly there is no illustration surviving of the famous item) was not decorative but something like the contraptions we now see which invert you so that stresses on the body can be relieved whie you hang upside down: it has been thought that it took the form of a revolving wheel.(See speculations in John Joseph Merlin: The Ingenious Mechanick by John Jacob et al). It was accessed through a moss covered Grotto, from which an underground passage led to the centre of the Labyrinth.
The Ruined Castle( Alert John Thorpe!) was at the top right hand corner of the plan(you can see it in the picture of the Labyrinth, above). It came complete with moat.
The Ride, which is shown on the extreme outside edge of the gardens, encircles what was then a border of rough pasture, not a manicured lawn.
The Garden, needless to say, was walled off from the general non-paying public and there was only one entrance at the Great Pultney Street end.
The garden was the scene of firework displays concerts and public breakfasts: all of which Jane Austen took part in while she lived in Bath. I’ll write a little more on those in future posts.
This post will be aded to a new page, Jane Austen and Bath, which will be another on- going project for this site .