Nineteenth century Londoners were always keen for entertainment. Though for the most part the classes did not mix, they each found something a little thrilling about running with a different crowd. During the summer months, Vauxhall allowed anyone entrance for a small price, and kings could rub elbows with commoners. But for a few years, a building on Oxford Street rivaled anything the outdoor pleasure garden could dream up. That building was known as the Pantheon.
The Pantheon was originally built as a series of opulent suites in which to hold masquerades and balls. The massive crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceilings highlighted the paintings and relief work of heroes and kings. Boxes along three stories allowed the wealthy to slip away from private entertainments while watching the revelry on the main floor. As many as three bands might play in a night, with no break, allowing constant rounds of dancing. A foreign dignitary visiting the place as it was being built remarked that only in England could such excesses be found.
At its peak in popularity, in the 1770s, the Pantheon boasted the attendance of the royal and the influential, including the king and queen. But popularity waned with the century, and in 1789, the Pantheon was converted into an opera house. Shortly afterward, it burnt to the ground. Legend has it the fire was started by a rival opera house (who knew tenors could be so vicious?). A new leaseholder rebuilt and reopened it in 1795, returning it to its original purpose. From then until 1812, it was the scene of many a salacious scandal.
The print below is from Ackermann's The Microcosm of London and dates between 1808 and 1810. Here's part of the caption: "Since the Pantheon was rebuilt, it has been principally used for exhibitions, and occasionally for masquerades, of which the plate is a very spirited representation. It is composed, as these scenes usually are, of a motley crowd of peers and pickpockets, honourables and dishonourables, . . . demireps, quidnuncs [gossips], and quack doctors."
Events were advertised in the papers, including the Morning Chronicle. When it came to masquerades, only those dressed in character or dominos were allowed entrance. Doors opened at ten pm; an optional supper was served at one in the morning. I imagine a number of mamas and papas refused to allow their young ladies and gentlemen to attend. And I also imagine no small number of them managed to sneak away to attend anyway.
In 1812, the Pantheon changed hands again, and the new leaseholders decided to make it into a theatre (original, I know). Unfortunately, the Lord Chamberlain refused to give them the proper license, and the Pantheon closed in 1814. It was once again reimagined in 1833, when it opened as the Pantheon Bazaar, one of the first indoor shopping malls, the fine suites turned into individual stores. It would later go on to be used as offices and show rooms for a wine merchant until it was demolished to build a new store for the British retailer Marks and Spencer.
Guess that just goes to show that a good deal will win out every time.