Disgraced prison governor checks out the entertainment business

Sydney Gardens' most controversial proprietor dumbs down the attractions, makes himself bankrupt and ends up an inmate in the gaol he once governed!
In the summer of 1824, Sydney Gardens acquired a new proprietor. He replaced a man named Farnham, a conservative and cautious safe-pair-of-hands whose major innovations were a Naval Pillar and ‘a new and interesting representation of the interior of a hermitage’. The new man was William Bridle, who signalled his ambition by bringing in circus tumblers, strongmen and acrobats, a balloon ascent and four cosmorama illuminations at his first Gala in July, timed to coincide with the Bath Races for maximum impact and popularity. More new attractions would quickly follow. Bridle was either a smart and creative entrepreneur, or the man who vulgarised a once genteel garden, depending on your point of view. But he was also controversial for another reason – Bridle had been dismissed from his last job as governor of Ilchester Gaol for corruption, cruelty to inmates, and gross misconduct. Bridle’s corrupt record at Ilchester came to light because one of his prisoners between 1820 and 1822 was Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the radical reform leader imprisoned after arrest at Peterloo in 1819. Hunt caused a parliamentary commission of inquiry to look into Bridle’s conduct and alleged a number of charges against him, from drunkenness and gambling, to chaining prisoners to the floor, embezzlement, taking sexual advantage of female convicts and fathering children with two of them. These charges resulted in Bridle being dismissed from his post and then being convicted at the Court of Kings Bench for cruelty to a prisoner, narrowly avoiding a prison sentence, but picking up a hefty fine of £50. His sudden and unexpected appearance as proprietor at Sydney Gardens went unnoticed by most Bath newspapers, but not the liberal Bath Journal. The Journal took a vow of silence ‘with respect to the Galas while under his conduct, and our motive is founded on the detestation we have of the crime for which he was pronounced guilty by a jury of his own countrymen and a just respect for the legal decision that recorded it against him’. When the Tory Bath Herald defended Bridle and applauded a public dinner being held in his honour and to deflect attention from ‘attacks upon his character’, the Journal denounced it as ‘Humbug’. ‘A dinner to celebrate the virtues of a discarded jailor!!!... Monstrous mummery!... If our public amusements are to be of real and lasting service to the city, let them be conducted by men of unimpeached reputation.... Are we to be told that because W Bridle has added a few more lamps than usual to illumine the Gardens, and hired the Devil Antonio [tightrope artist], we are to consider him raised to the rank of respectable individuals and cower in the senseless clamour of his pot companions? Let our citizens remember that if they desire their wives and daughters to enjoy the description of entertainment to be found at public gardens, much of their safety and tranquillity depends on the character of the man who conducts them’. Correspondents chimed in: It might have been alright, said one, if he’d taken a less obtrusive job well out of the limelight, ‘but here is an individual with twenty mortal gashes on his crown, and each gash a death blow to reputation, has thought it advisable to become a caterer for our public amusements and that too in the elegant city of Bath. He has poked himself under our very noses... he has evinced a daring disregard for public opinion...’ Bridle’s first Gala on July 19 began with Mr Graham’s balloon ascent, and continued with a performance from Signor Antonio, a tightrope, flying rope and acrobatic specialist, who struck odd attitudes while in mid air, and ‘will leap through a balloon [hoop] 30 feet from the ground and 30 feet from the rope, blowing a trumpet at the same instant, and the balloon in a perfect blaze of fire’. Then there were Cosmorama views of London, Cadiz, Switzerland and Paris, complete with figures in national costume, thousands of extra lamps, flags and banners, new transparencies, and then a performance by ‘the celebrated French Hercules’ who could balance a ladder on his chin with a boy on the top... and following all this there were the more prosaic attractions of Mortram’s fireworks and the Cascade exhibition. Quite a blow-out... and although Antonio had made an earlier appearance at the Gardens (in 1820, booked by Farnham), it was the first time a populist end-of-the-pier quality had been added on quite such a scale. Bridle was determined to upgrade and expand the Gardens. Advertising his 1825 Galas, he said ‘fearless of the expense, he will continue the embellishment of his gardens, and the accumulation of novelty until, for beauty and effect, the stand in the world unrivalled’ (BC 7 July 1825). As well as his Cosmorama and Aviary, Bridle’s first King’s Birthday Gala featured a new piece by Mortram, ‘the Grand Mosaic Temple’, previously set up in Hyde Park. It is of ‘an immense height’ and features ‘many thousands of diamond lights’. In June 1826, Bridle organised a Waterloo Day event in the Gardens (an idea that had been successfully tried already at Vauxhall). Mortram’s fireworks for this would be ‘displaying occasionally an appearance of the confusion of the eventful day’, and there’s free entry for all battle veterans. Antonio on the cast list and a new attraction, Sylvia Zeppora, the infant prodigy. In 1830, Bridle had a pump room built in the centre of the gardens and brought in spa waters from leamington and Cheltenham for customers to sample. In 1831, he imported a large bear and announced intention to creating a collection of ‘curious animals’. Bridle quit the gardens in 1832. The argument that Bridle was dumbing down or vulgarising the Gardens in pursuit of broader audiences maps neatly onto what was going on in London’s pleasure gardens at the same time. A growing middle class, socially assertive, with disposable income and a hunger for ‘better’ places of entertainment in which to spend it, had taken effect at Vauxhall where, noted Thomas Creevey in 1822, ‘the Company is damned low indeed’. Vauxhall was gradually filling up with features and attractions where once it had been primarily a simple tree-lined garden in which to exercise and converse, with pavilion and supper boxes etc restricted to the entrance area. Edmund Yates: ‘it was a very ghastly place: of actual garden there was no sign’. As in London, Bath was opening up other new places of entertainment at this time – and theatres and music halls had the attraction of being indoors so were not dependent on good weather. In many ways, Bridle was simply responding to changes in the social structure and in the material culture of leisure (Source for Vauxhall, D Coke and A Borg, Vauxhall Gardens: A History (Yale, 2011), pp.251-2). This might partly explain Bridle’s other major innovation – the scrapping of the once popular showpiece, the Cascade – a mechanical marvel that included scenery, figures, moving parts etc and was not just a waterfall – and its replacement by a theatre. Kerr’s Guide calls it ‘a commodious theatre, which has been substituted for the cascade and may be considered as one of the most happy improvements’. It didn’t end well. In 1832, Bridle quit the gardens and was clearly in some financial difficulty despite the apparent success of his innovations. What went wrong? The investment in new attractions will have cost him a fair bit, but by 1834 he had been declared bankrupt and found himself in the debtors wing of Ilchester Gaol (!) From there he wrote a long letter to the Lord Lieutenant appealing for relief and complaining about his dismissal from as Ilchester gaol more than a decade earlier. By now he was convinced that he had been the victim of a conspiracy hatched by JPs in 1818 to force him from his job because he had backed a parliamentary candidate in opposition to the interests of several JPs. The bench had simply encouraged Hunt in his campaigns against Bridle in 1821. (Sherborne Mercury 10 Nov 1834) In 1842, he delivered a petition to parliament against his dismissal at Ilchester and requested an inquiry (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 July 1842). A year later, now elderly and having difficulty walking, Bridle was arrested in London for breaking a fanlight window at the Home Office with one of his crutches, ‘evidently in a state of the utmost destitution’. He told a police court in London that he had done it to get ‘protection or relief’ and that he hoped to get arrested and gaoled for it. His destitution appears to have been caused by debts incurred from his relentless campaign to clear his name. He was fined 6s for breaking the window and, unable to pay it off, he was gaoled once again (Bath Chron 14 Sept 1843) Bridle was still campaigning for redress in 1848 (Lloyds Weekly Newspaper 13 Feb 1848)