One day in August 1768, a 16-year-old girl living in Poland Street, Westminster, wrote an entry in her private journal about a conversation with a close friend of her deceased mother. The girl was the daughter of a successful London music master, and she had begun writing in her journal in a few months earlier in March. The journal itself was addressed to ‘Nobody’, and she outlined her reasoning for this in her first entry:
To whom, then must I dedicate my wonderful, surprising and interesting adventures? - to whom dare I reveal my private opinion of my nearest Relations? the secret thoughts of my dearest friends? my own hopes, fears, reflections and dislikes? Nobody!
To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved – to Nobody can I reveal my every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life!
The young woman who wrote these effervescent, deftly-chosen words was young Frances Burney, better known to modern readers as Fanny Burney, who would later in her long and eventful life become a celebrated author, a friend of the legendary lexicographer Samuel Johnson, Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, and an English exile in Paris for 10 years during the Napoleonic wars. Her last surviving letter, still showing all the signs of her keen intellect and literary talent, was written at the age of 87 in July 1839. Visitors to Soho may now stroll along an offshoot of Poland Street named after Fanny: D’Arblay Street, which runs between Poland and Wardour Streets, is taken from her married name. [Portrait: c.1784-5, © National Portrait Gallery and via Burney Texts]
Setting out on a long life of journal-writing and correspondence in 1768, Fanny’s primary concern at the outset was that the frankness and unedited scope of her private writing should not lead to social embarrassment due to a dreaded breach of privacy. For women in particular, the art of writing one’s thoughts and feelings held great potential for fraught dilemmas, because one’s standing in society and amongst one’s own kin was greatly determined by the maintenance of good relations and the elaborate standards of politeness that existed at the time.
The conversation Fanny reports with her mother’s friend Dorothy Young is a prime example of the caution with which journal writers operated at the time. It also provides an excellent example of Fanny’s writing skill, as she recreates the conversation in an entirely plausible fashion and does not stint in granting Miss Young with as much eloquence as herself. Fanny exclaims that Miss Young ‘very seriously and earnestly advised me to give mine up – heigho-ho! Do you think I can bring myself to oblige her?’ In this extract, Miss Young speaks first, on the dreadful circumstances that may ensue if Fanny’s journal were to be read by another. It sounds like she speaks from experience:
‘And suppose any body finds a part in which they are extremely censured?’
‘Why then, they must take it for their pains. It was not wrote for them, but me, and I cannot see any harm in writing to myself’
‘It was well whilst there were only your sisters with you to do anything of this kind; but, depend on it, when your connections are enlarged, your family increased, your acquaintance multiplied, young and old so apt to be curious – depend upon it, Fanny, ‘tis the most dangerous employment you can have. Suppose now, for example, your favourite wish were granted, and you were to fall in love, and then the object of your passion were to get sight of some part which related to himself?’
‘Why then, Miss Young, I must make a little trip to Rosamond’s Pond’
‘Why, ay, I doubt it would be all you would have left’
In her dialogue, Fanny alludes to a well-known location in London that has long been forgotten. Rosamond’s Pond was a secluded spot in St James’ Park a short distance from Buckingham House, the residence of Queen Charlotte that later became known as Buckingham Palace. While the Pond was a place of assignation for wooing couples, Fanny’s flippant yet pertinent reference to ‘making a little trip to Rosamond’s Pond’ refers to the darker side of the location - the widely-known 18th century practice of jilted or thwarted lovers committing suicide by drowning in its waters. The reputation of the place must have been widespread for it to be mentioned in the conversation between the young woman and her older friend without explanation.
The tragic reputation of the Pond led to it being filled in in 1770, to discourage further drownings. In Edward Walford’s 1878 work, Old and New London: Volume 4, the Pond and its environs are described in more detail:
In the south-west corner [of St James’ Park], near Birdcage Walk, and opposite to James Street and Buckingham Gate, was formerly a small sheet of water, known as "Rosamond's Pond," to which reference is constantly made in the comedies of the time as a place of assignation for married ladies with fashionable roués. The pond was made to receive the water of a small stream which trickled down from Hyde Park, and it is shown in one or two very scarce prints by Hogarth. It was filled up in 1770, soon after the purchase of Buckingham House by the Crown.
"ROSAMOND'S POND" IN 1758.
It is to its character as recorded above, and as being, in the words of Bishop Warburton to Hurd. "long consecrated to disastrous love and elegiac poetry," that Pope thus mentions it in the Rape of the Lock:—
"This the blest lover shall for Venus take,
And send up vows from Rosamonda's lake."[…]
"Rosamond's Pond," writes the author of "A New Critical Review of the Public Buildings," &c., [published in 1736?] "is another scene where fancy and judgment might be employed to the greatest advantage; there is something wild and romantic round the sides of it, of which a genius could make a fine use, if he had the liberty to improve it as he pleased." […]
"Its romantic aspect, the irregularity of the ground, the trees which overshadowed it, and the view of the venerable Abbey, not only rendered it," writes Mr. Jesse, "a favourite resort of the contemplative, but its secluded situation is said to have tempted a greater number of persons, and especially of 'unfortunate' females, to commit suicide than any other place in London."
In the spirit of investigative journalism, I decided to try to track down the site of Rosamond’s Pond, which ceased to exist 240 years ago, a mere two years after Fanny wrote about it in her journal.
To set the scene, some background: St James’ Park was founded as a royal deer park by Henry VIII in 1532 and took its name from a leper hospital for women that had operated on the site since at least the 13th century. The park was opened to the public during the reign of Charles II, and in 1761 the royal family purchased the adjacent Buckingham House for use as the Queen’s residence.
The surrounding area hasn’t changed a great deal since the 18th century, so it was relatively easy to track down using Walford’s directions above and referring to the Rocque map of London in the 1740s, which I’ve used before in my article about Denmark Street. The enlargement below shows that when the map was published Buckingham House (labelled as the Queen’s Palace in the centre of the excerpt) was at the fringes of built-up London, with its western boundaries flanked by the Five Fields. If you look closely you can see Rosamond’s Pond labelled as an offshoot at the western end of The Canal that runs through St James’ Park and parallel to The Mall. (The Pond can also be seen in enlargements of Tirion’s London map of 1754).
A few days ago I took my camera down to the park to search for any traces of Rosamond’s Pond. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given that it’s not been there for nearly a quarter of a millennium, there was no sign, and none of the park information notices nearby, which contain fairly detailed background information and timelines of the park’s history, mentioned it either. So the following photos of the vicinity will have to suffice.
Now the area is an innocuous part of the much larger park, used by tourists to stroll from the Palace to the Blue Bridge, which crosses the now undulating canal. Few who stroll through the leafy park now know the poetic and tragic reputation of this small corner of royal London that young Fanny Burney mentioned in her journal some two and a half centuries ago.
St James’ Park – Landscape history
Frances Burney – Journals & Letters (Peter Sabor & Lars Troide (eds.), London, 2001