Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Montpelier Tavern and Tea Gardens take us back to a time when Walworth was open fields and market gardens, a place where those living in the overcrowded and dirty inner city visited Walworth for fresh air, fun, amusement and recreation. The Gardens were located west of Walworth Road and south of Carter Street (now Carter Place) and were established some time between the middle to the end of the 19th century. The following history of the Montpelier Tea Gardens appeared in the South London Chronicle on 5 November 1887 and was written by Henry Cuming. It was the collections belonging to Henry Cuming and that of his father Richard that formed the basis of the Cuming Museum.
“During the last half of the 18th and early part of the 19th century few suburban places of resort stood higher in public estimation that the Montpelier Tavern and Tea Gardens, situated on the western side of Walworth Road and in good part surrounded by Wheeler’s Fields and the broad expanse known as Lorrimore or Lattermoore. This once fashionable establishment owed its origin to Mr John Bendal, who at first occupied the ground which was about five acres in extent, as a market garden, but upon which he afterwards built the renowned Montpelier Tavern, and 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. 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 which lath and plaster and weather hoarding played a principal part. 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 in the good old days “when George the Third was King,” and where his Majesty’s Jubilee was celebrated by a dinner on October 25th 1808, tickets to which were 10s 6d each.
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 diverse times consumed within the walls of the tavern. The public bar was at the end of the house next to Princes Street, which led up to the gardens from the Walworth Road. Before quitting the tavern it may be well to record here was kept for the amusement of the guests a great ring puzzle, and one of the long tricky glasses, called an ale yard, which sent the liquor with a rude splash into the face of the novice who essayed to drink from it. Many a wager has been lost and few won through the attempt to drain the ale yard.
"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 grassplot upon which the volunteers of old used to assemble for drill, and where, on Monday September2nd, 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, and where they often dined and poured forth their patriotic feelings in eloquent speeches. 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 a one time a thing to talk about. The proprietorship of the Montpelier passed from John Bendal to a Mr Aram, at least as far back as 1798: and some time after the reign of the latter host, the maze and the flower garden were detached from the tea gardens, though to the very last the only access to the florist was through the tavern grounds. The last occupant of the flower garden was a tall, brawny Scotchman, named Craig, rough, rude and unpolished, but learned in many ways beside botany, and a perfect master of the Latin, French and German languages. 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 court-panelled door, reached by two stone steps, the erection looking much like a mansion in a toy city.
"Standing with your back to the Montpellier 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 gate 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.
"But we must now return to the green in front of the Old Tavern, where the volunteers used to drill. Here in September 1824 was exhibited in a large marquee the balloon and car in which Mr Harris and Miss Stocks ascended from the gardens of the Eagle Tavern, City Road, on May 25th, and in which car poor Harris was found suffocated by gas when the balloon descended in the neighbourhood of Beddlington in Surrey. This balloon consisted of alternate gores [triangular piece of material] of black and yellow silk, and was shown on its side about half inflated for sixpence per head, children half price.
"Harris’s was not the only balloon which drew company to the Montpelier, for here on May 31st 1823, was a grand gathering to witness Mr Graham’s ascent. It was a brilliant afternoon and all Walworth was astir and the novel event was long remembered in the neighbourhood. On the same plot of ground once occupied by these two balloons was opened in December 1827 an exhibition of waxworks in several large caravans, so placed as to form an oblong apartment, the effigies being raised about four feet from the greensward. The groups consisted of a number of well executed and well attired figures representing among other subjects the death of Mark Antony after the Battle of Actium, William Wallace (the hero of Scotland) in a cave, Daniel Dancer, the miser, and his sister, and the death of Sir John Moore at the Battle of Corunna. Beside the groups there were a lot of half length figures, which seemed to stand behind a counter, which hid their lower extremities, and all this grand display was to be seen for threepence a head; but in spite of the low charge, the show was not a success and had to seek new quarters. This was, in all probability, the last exhibition to be seen in the tea gardens, but the great room of the tavern continued to be more or less frequently employed for club dinners, balls, Jewish bridal festivals, concerts and conjurations [the performance of something supernatural]. Sports were occasionally carried on in the ground, such as cricket, the picking up of a certain number of stones placed at a given distance from each other within a fixed period, and the throwing of small iron rings at a number of iron pins set upright in the earth, with the endeavour that each ring should fall round a pin, the latter being some 18 inches in height. This play is popularly called quoits, but differs widely from the classic game with the discus.
"Labour and research might recover the names of the successive hosts of the Montpelier from the times of Bendal and Aram till Rouse, the last of any local fame, but it may be doubted if the list would add any material facts to the story of the old tavern and it appurtenances. The plot had ceased to be a fashionable resort of the “quality” long before the quaint old tavern was pulled down, and its once verdant grass plot, rural walks, trim hedges, tasteful parterres and intricate labyrinth became the site of thickly planted dwellings.”
The Montpelier Tavern and Tea Gardens survived until the late 1850s by which time the surrounding area had become densely built over with terraced housing for the working classes. The building of the Chatham and Dover Railway appears to have been built going straight through the Gardens and would have finally brought about their demise. One road created through these new “thickly planted dwellings” was named Montpelier Street. A new Montpelier Tavern was built there at the end of the 19th century with a Palace of Varieties behind which by 1914 had become a cinema. Montpelier Street was shortened to Pelier Street in 1939 and is now the only reminder of the Montpelier Tavern and Tea Gardens.