The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were a place to lose oneself. Laid out among Lambeth’s green fields as an escape from 17th Century London, over the following 200 years they became a virtual town in themselves, an unrivalled destination for music and theatre, drinking and bear-baiting.
But there was seclusion and shadow amid the noise. Dark, tree-lined alleys were a favourite haunt of the amorous. And away from the major shows, smaller-scale entertainments found a hold.
Had you braved these outer avenues in the late 1770s, you might have found a makeshift wooden booth, in which a down-at-heel man offered card tricks and other small conjuring feats.
His name was Otto Heringor, and within a few short years he would outgrow the Pleasure Gardens and relocate to a large townhouse off Fleet Street. This building became a major attraction in its own right, and is of key interest to those who study the long history of London’s traversable dimensional borders:
The House of Hidden Things.
It is uncertain how Heringor’s fortunes changed so rapidly. He soon moved from his small booth to a permanent structure in a central part of the Gardens, where his demonstrations of ‘natural magic’ attracted large crowds. He became known for his ‘dancing stones’ trick – wherein a number of smooth, jet-like stones moved through the air, in “the most delightful and impossible display of magnetical physics”.
But it remains a mystery as to how, a year or two later, he found the time and means to become not just a showman but one of Georgian London’s most renowned collectors; or how he could afford the maze-like house for which he is famous.
The House of Hidden Things was in part a revival of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’, or wunderkammer; wide-ranging exhibits that emerged in the 16th Century. Heringor made particular reference to the Musaeum Tradescantianum, or ‘Ark’, which the John Tradescants had created in Vauxhall a century earlier. And whereas they had set out to display the wonders of the world, Heringor claimed he would show “the wonders of many”.
Indeed, audiences found it hard to account for the collection’s vast range and astonishing strangeness. Obscure carnivorous plants, the skeletons of bizarre sea-creatures, improbable devices of perpetual motion, and a gallery of ‘animated’ trompe l’oeil attracted a constant stream of visitors.
But Heringor hadn’t given up on performance. It seems the House operated outside the City of London regulations of the time. Theatre, music and, above all, magic provided nights of revelry on a weekly basis. Other great magicians of the day courted Heringor, in the hope of performing at the House. But he was coldly dismissive of the likes of Philip Breslaw and Joseph Pinetti. They conjured tricks from a box, he would say, while he had the physics of an entire house under his control.
The ‘physics’ of the House of Hidden Things were certainly noteworthy. Exhibits such as ‘The Returning Staircase’, ‘Eternity’s Corridor’ and ‘The Void’ were the talk of London.
Debate continues among portologists as to the extent these exhibits were achieved through architectural tricks such as forced perspective. Many of Heringor’s performances employed obvious sleight-of-hand. He hired hidden helpers, built fake walls. Frustratingly few letters or journals remain, but we do have the records of Heringor’s accountant. Entries show the purchasing of chemicals, mirrors and other items typical to a conjurer.
But while illusionists such as Pinetti suffered damage to their careers by the publication of books exposing their methods, Heringor suffered no such fate – critics agreed there was simply too much that occurred in the House which couldn’t be explained away.
The expanse of the House’s interior didn’t seem to tally with the dimensions of the House as seen from the street; a room in the attic provided access to a ‘wondrous celestial sphere’ which could not have been achieved through lighting tricks; and there was a cupboard with opposing doors which led to separate ends of the house entirely.
Not to say that the fortunes of Heringor – and his House – didn’t wane.
By the 1790s there were signs of trouble. Neighbours complained of a steady stream of strange and unsavoury characters. And Heringor, who’s House had long been known for its high turnover of servants, began recruiting from the lowest, most desperate sections of society.
But it was when members of London’s elite found cause for complaint that the House’s days were numbered. The claims of a countess that her young friend was missing, after he had failed to reappear from a darkened corridor, began a run of bad publicity.
A particularly damning article in the The Times declared that no amount of spectacle could make up for the House’s ‘foul air’, or the cockroaches which scuttled out of ‘every nook’.
Alongside a growing feeling of decay and despair, was an increasingly distressing tone to the exhibits. Several visitors claimed that a ‘bleeding-eyed statue’ had haunted their dreams since they encountered it in a far-flung corner. And there was a mirror in one lonely room that would reflect any onlooker’s face as though it were shorn of skin.
And then there were the House’s structural problems, as hinted in the accountant’s diaries: money spent to counter ‘mire’, ‘weeds’, and what seems to have been the remains of a plague pit, all of which threatened the integrity of the cellar floor.
Unsurprisingly, business dried up. By 1795 the House of Hidden Things had closed its doors, and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens reclaimed their status as London’s centre of entertainment – though their own slow decline was imminent.
Otto Heringor himself disappears from the records as quickly and mysteriously as he appeared. A story stuck that late one evening in Autumn, 1797, he had simply retired to his labyrinthine personal quarters, never to be seen again.
No new occupant could be found for the House. It was boarded up, along with much of Heringor’s collection (the odd item is said to live on in the obscurer museums of London and Oxford, but no institution was willing to take the hoard as a whole).
The supposedly empty House was known locally as a noisy place – some claimed that strangers still came and went after dark. Most Londoners stayed well clear, and the building became a feared and hated presence in the neighbourhood. It was said that birds refused to perch on it.
The House of Hidden Things was pulled down on the 1st November 1801. Its bricks were thrown into the Thames.
- Candidate: The House of Hidden Things
- Type: Various
- Status: Historic