Before The Beehive

 

The Montpellier Tea Gardens, Walworth

was the name given to a pleasure garden set up by one John Bendall. It was one of several such attractions on the southern fringes of the then built-up area, where Londoners could take the air and enjoy a number of amusements. Established in the mid-to-late 18th century, and in business for nearly a century, the Montpelier Tea Gardens (and tavern) had wide and favourable renown in their day.

In Walworth the Montpelier name can be assumed to have been chosen to suggest general salubriousness: although the site was originally quite large and open - thus meeting the "airy" criterion usually associated with Montpel(l)ier elsewhere - unlike several others the Walworth example is on relatively level ground not noticeably higher than its surroundings.

The Montpelier Tea Garden at Walworth is of intrinsic interest, and it is worth detailing some of its features as they must have helped form the early 19th-century view of what `Montpelier' meant in an English setting. Its exact origins are uncertain, but lie in the second half of the 18th century - perhaps about 1780. The first proprietor was John Bendal or Bendall, who at first ran the 5 acres on which it stood, to the west of the Walworth Road, as a market garden. At that time it was largely surrounded by open ground - Wheeler's Fields and the broad expanse known as Lorrimore or Lattermore. The Poor Rate records for Newington show that John Bendall had a property with a ratable value of £34 in Walworth by 1782; before that the records are patchy, but the preceding surviving rate-books, for 1760-64, show no sign of him.

So, while the Montpelier establishment could possibly be as early as 1765, more conservatively we can assume a date of about 1780. According to Cuming (see below), having built the Montpelier Tavern Bendal then `laid out the lands in a tasteful manner with a spacious greensward and gravel-walks flanked with choice shrubs and trees, the whole area being belted with fine lofty elm trees'. William Hazlitt, the essayist, born in 1778, used to be taken there by his father, and recalled with pleasure his `infant wanderings' there.

The above description of the grounds is taken from the South London Chronicle, which in 1884 published an article on the tavern and tea gardens written by a keen local antiquarian, H Syer Cuming. The detail he gives of the tavern is full enough to suggest an eye-witness account: "The old tavern was a very picturesque structure, and retained its primal aspect until its removal to give place to the present palace. It was a long and rather low building in which lath and plaster and weather boarding played a principal part. [In fact, the earliest maps depict a square building, which became elongated to the north by 1841.] The white front faced the south and had a railed gallery covered by a verandah running the whole length of the building, which was reached by a flight of steps at its eastern end, and from this gallery access was gained to the great room where many a stately banquet was served.... The floor of the gallery formed the roof of the bar where refreshments were furnished to the frequenters of the gardens, and between the windows of the house backing this department were suspended several huge turtle shells, mementoes of the soup which had been at divers times consumed within the walls of the tavern. The public bar was at the end of the house next Princes Street [later Carter Street], which led up to the gardens from the Walworth Road....

The tea gardens in front of the tavern were a large, irregular space, neither square, round, nor oval, but a sort of compound of all three forms in one. A good part of its borders were filled up with gaily painted boxes, each with benches fixed to the back and sides, and with a table in the middle, and here persons were wont to be served with tea at 6d per head. Dotted about were turfy banks or low knolls, crowned by ponderous examples of the gigantic clam-shell (Tridaena gigas), and in the centre was the broad level grass plot upon which the volunteers of old used to assemble for drill, and where, on Monday September 2nd, 1799, they were presented with their colours, which, when peace was restored, were hung above the communion table in St Mary's Church, Newington. In the winter season the volunteers were drilled in the great room of the tavern...

One of the features of the Montpelier Gardens was a cold bath inclosed in a wooden shed near the entrance to the grounds. Each person desirous of its benefit had to pay one shilling for its use. Bendal laid out the South Western portion of his domain as a small labyrinth or maze, which, though inferior in extent to the one at Hampton Court was considered to display much ingenuity in design. The north-western part of the estate was a flower garden, where might be purchased plants and shrubs, and seeds, and where choice tulips were exhibited under canvas awnings, and Bendal's tulip show was at one time a thing to talk about....

Attached to the maze, and just outside the south-western entrance to the tea gardens, was Bendal's dwelling, known in later times as "The Maze Cottage".

It was a square, rough-cast, one-storeyed building, with sloping, slated roof. In the front were two Gothic windows and a Gothic four-panelled door, reached by two stone steps, the erection looking much like a mansion in a toy city. Standing with your back to the Montpelier so as to face the cottage, there was on the left a little stream, crossed by a rustic wooden bridge, which led to Wheeler's Fields, and on the right was the entrance to the maze, for admission to which 2d was demanded. This wonderful contrivance fell into a sad state of ruin in its later days, but its central tree, surrounded by a wooden seat, continued to flourish till its final extinction."

The Maze Cottage is the subject of the only known illustration of any feature on the Montpelier site. It has been suggested that the cottage gave Dickens a model for Mr Wemmick's residence - a toy house and a bridge - in Great Expectations.

(Although the Montpelier Tea Garden may never have been in quite the same league as the often-illustrated Vauxhall or Surrey Gardens, it seems impossible that it went completely undepicted over its long life: discovery of an illustration is awaited with interest.)

It is difficult to pinpoint confidently on the available maps any of the above features except the tavern building itself. The 1799 map shows an inverted U-shape feature in the boundary of the grounds, which perhaps indicates the course of the stream on which Maze Cottage stood, though the cottage itself might be one of several small anonymous buildings marked on successive maps. On the 1841 map, the tea-garden's boundary is marked with a broad strip feature we can probably equate to the `gaily-painted boxes'.

The garden area was big enough to accommodate a cricket ground, and in July 1796 the newly-formedMontpelier Club played their first match on The Beehive Ground there. On 10 and 11 August that year "the same ground was the scene of a match of a rather painful, if curious, character. The game, like all cricket of the period, was played for high stakes - in this case 1,000 guineas - and the players were selected (by two noble lords) from the pensioners of Greenwich Hospital: eleven men with one leg against eleven with one arm. The match began at ten, but about three a riotous crowd broke in, demolished the gates and fences, and stopped the proceedings till six o'clock, when play was resumed. On the second day the elevens reappeared, being brought to the scene of the action in three Greenwich stage-coaches, not without flags and music. The match was played out, and the one-legged men beat the poor one-arms by 103".

1844 saw the removal of the Montpelier Club, one of the strongest clubs in South London, from their Beehive Ground at Walworth due to the encroachment of building speculators and this precipitated the formation of Surrey CCC Club!. The acquisition of their ground at Walworth had left the Montpelier Club without habitation and in their hour of need, Mr. William Baker, a member, came to their relief. Kennington Oval, then a market garden, was, as now, the property of the Duchy of Cornwall. At the time the Duchy was willing to let the land for the purpose of a cricket ground and on 10 March 1845 a lease had been signed with the Otter Trustees, who held the land from the Duchy of Cornwall, ‘to convert it into a subscription Cricket Ground’. The lease was for 31 years at £120 per annum with taxes, which amounted to £20 more. The original contract for turfing the Oval cost £300 and 10,000 turfs were to come from Tooting Common, the first of which was laid in March 1845. By early summer, cricket was being played upon the newly laid 10,000 turfs. 

We are here:

60 Carter Street

West Walworth

London SE17 3EW

 

020 7703 4992

 

Opening Times:

Mon/Tue/Wed/Thu 17:00-23:00

Fri 15:00-23:00

Sat 12:00-23:00

Sun 12:00-22:30

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