It’s 1837, and a volcano has erupted in South London, near the Oval cricket ground. It was, sadly or fortunately depending on your preferences, a fake volcano, but one that drew many thousands of people to see it over the following decade.
Although this part of London was developing, there was still a lot of farmland between the roads, and in 1831, the Royal Surrey Gardens opened, as part zoo and part entertainment park.
As part of the entertainments, a large lake in the grounds was given over to pleasure paddling boats, and along one side, a mural was painted, of Mount Vesuvius.
It was part of the entertainments to visit and see what was described as “this superb and strikingly correct representation of one of the most sublime scenes in Nature”. Presumably not so accurate as to incinerate the audience though, as they flocked to this marvel of the age.
The Italian volcano was replaced a few years later with one from Iceland, then representations of Rome, the Great Fire of London and then in 1846, Vesuvius was back.
Presumably realising that the original idea was the best one, in 1846, a much larger panorama was painted by a Mr Danson, and it was said that some 7,000 yards of canvas were used in its construction, giving it the claim to be the largest oil painting in the world at the time – and probably since.
Each evening, Mount Vesuvius would start to let of steam from the crater as a warming of the doom to come. Rumbling noises, and even the occasional flash of lightning were reported, and then the crater broke open and lava would flow down the sides of the volcano as the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed.
Then one last massive explosion was followed by fireworks.
It’s worth noting that throughout this, the zoo was also still there, so the local tigers, elephants and the like had to put up with a volcano blowing its top, every single night.
Eruptions continued for a while, but seemingly this may have been a last gasp for the park, as there’s no mention of the volcano from after 1847.
The gardens and zoo didn’t last long afterwards either, as the arrival of the Crystal Palace in 1851 sucked away a lot of the visitors. The zoo was sold in 1856 and the site used to built the Surrey Music Hall, but that burnt down just five years later. The gardens finally closed in 1862 and the land built over — although post-war clearances saw a new park emerge on the estate, which is still there today, Pasley Park.
Unfortunately, by cruel chance, the lake that once astonished so many people is to the north of the modern park, buried underneath houses along the Stopford Road.
Morning Advertiser – Friday 14 July 1837
Morning Advertiser – Monday 31 July 1837
Morning Advertiser – Tuesday 12 May 1846
Illustrated London News – Saturday 16 May 1846