Sinful "pleasure garden" unveiled at London Museum

LONDON (Reuters Life!) -Georgian London conjures up images of fine buildings, high art and an elegant gentry promenading along spacious tree-lined squares.

A recreation of a Georgian "Pleasure Garden", one of a number of walk-in exhibits at the new MoL galleries. REUTERS/Museum of London

But for most of its citizens the crowded 18th century city was a dirty, violent place, where its rotten gin-soaked alleyways teemed with vermin, thieves and prostitutes.

To escape the squalor special open public places were built offering welcome respite from the noise and wretchedness of the narrow offal-strewn streets.

The elaborate recreation of a Georgian “Pleasure Garden” is one of the star attractions of five new galleries opened by the Museum of London on Friday.

The galleries, revamped over three years at a cost of 20 million pounds ($29 million), tell the story of the capital from the Great Fire in 1666, which destroyed four fifths of the city, to the modern day.

Some 7,000 treasures have been cherry-picked from its collection of more than 2 million artifacts to illustrate the city’s rapid development.

Trade, crime, poverty, population growth, fashion and the heavy toll of war are all explored in the many interactive and high-tech displays.

In the gardens exhibit, visitors walk through a darkened room featuring real trees under star-lit skies. Mannequins adorned with original costumes, wigs, masks and hats of the period, glimmer under colored lighting.

A film backdrop recreates the drama of the gardens where the mingling social classes were served light refreshments and watched acrobats and exotic street entertainers. The evening would often climax with a firework display.

Curator Alex Werner said their popularity in London lead to similar gardens opening across Europe and America.

They were often named “Vauxhall” after London’s most famous garden situated close to the banks of the River Thames in the southwest of the city.

The underbelly of the city was never very far away, however, Werner explained.

“In the gardens, lords and ladies rubbed shoulders with merchants, shopkeepers and prostitutes,” he said.

British historian Dan Cruickshank believes there were up to 62,500 “harlots” working in the capital in the 1700s.

In his book, “The secret history of Georgian London: how the wages of sin shaped the capital,” published last year, he says there were more prostitutes than anywhere in Europe, totaling one in five of the female population.

Other walk-through exhibits include the complete interior of a cramped wooden cell salvaged from the site an 18th century debtors’ prison and a reconstructed Victorian street scene that boasts original 19th century shop fronts.

Editing by Patricia Reaney