Sep 042015

I have to start with a confession: I am not a lover of bag-pipes. Or accordions. Or indeed anything you have to squeeze in order to make a noise. ‘Droning’ just about says it all…

I find them  discordant, loud, and fit only for dirges, but if bagpipes and so on are your thing, well, good for you, but don’t invite me round to any of your parties! The phrase ‘squealing like a stuck pig’ springs to mind – which is why I was so delighted to see this caricature  entitled “Musick on an entire new plan” which was published by William Holland some time between 1782 and 1801.


It  is on the ever-fascinating Lewis Walpole site. A musician with a wooden leg is squeezing a baby boar while holding its tail, playing a tune as per the written score. I am not entirely sure if the porcine  noise  is made by its mouth or its backside – take your pick!

The artist may have been taking a swipe at the humble bagpipe, as here, with the 1793 “The strolling bagpiper.”


Or it may have reflected the fact that  the latter years of the century saw a whole range of new instruments coming through into popularity. My first thought was that it was aimed at a precursor of the accordion. The text books suggest that this was invented by Buschmann in 1822, and developed further in 1829 by the Viennese piano and organ builder Cyrill Demian, But there are also reports that an earlier pain-inducing machine  was invented by a Swede by the name of Friedrich Lohner, who was born in 1737 and died in 1816.

The satire may be aimed at an earlier instrument called a musette de cour, popular in the French court in the 18th Century but very much going out of fashion by the time of the French Revolution. Or it may have been  based on the popularity of the hurdy-gurdy, an instrument described as producing a noise  ‘like a bagpipe mated with a violin’. Wikipedia says that “During the 18th century French Rococo tastes for rustic diversions brought the hurdy-gurdy back to the attention of the upper classes, where it acquired tremendous popularity among the nobility, with famous composers writing works for [it]”

The Travelling Musician', an old soldier playing hurdy-gurdy outside the Mermaid Inn, after John Collet,  1772

The Travelling Musician’, an old soldier playing hurdy-gurdy outside the Mermaid Inn, after John Collet, 1772

Either way, for my money it says all that needs to be said about musical instruments which get the squeeze. I am reminded of a time in Spain when I was enjoying a delightful romantic meal when a pestering accordion player came round the tables, single-handedly destroying the charm of the evening. I stood up and at the top of my voice howled like a wolf at the poor musician – who promptly fled the building! I sat down to polite applause from my fellow-diners….

Aug 162015

A few caricatures on the subject of going to the opera in Georgian England – as usual, courtesy of those lovely people at the Lewis Walpole Library site, here. The first one appeared on New Year’s Day 1781 and was published by James  Wicksteed – a rather nice comment on the fashion for wearing muffs, and for enormous hair-pieces topped with  little mob-caps:1Mrs Bruin is shown using her opera glass to look across at someone else in the auditorium – surely one of the most important points about going to the opera, i.e. to see what everyone else of fashion was wearing.

Next up, a couple of Gillray’s, the first from 1791 showing Lady Henrietta Cecilia Johnston. She featured in at least half a dozen of his caricatures, this one entitled “At the Opera.”

2The next, from 1795, is called “Characters in high life : sketch’d at the new rooms, Opera House” and apparently features the Duchess of Rutland, and her sister Lady  Manners.  I bet one of those two ladies was none too pleased at that portrayal! But it does show the ridiculous lengths feathered hats had gone to by the last decade of the century – imagine sitting behind that pair having your nose tickled by ostrich feathers throughout the performance!5An aquatint from 1792 by S W Fores apparently duplicated an image from ten years earlier (so presumably the fashions are from the ’80s rather than the 90’s), and also demonstrates the absurdity of high  fashion, especially for the more mature, larger, lady! Here we see a pair, trussed and be-ribboned, under the title of  “A side box at the opera.” It is a wonder that the Georgians left us with any ostriches roaming the wilds of Africa at all….


Fast forward to 1829 and we see another example of fashion idiocy – enormous hats making the wearer either invisible or looking like a midget. It is entitled “Hat-boxes” and was by William Heath.

6It all goes to show – the first and last pictures are half a century apart, but they both show the same thing – ladies loved to get dressed to go to the opera – to see and be seen!

Post script: the more I see of caricatures the more I become a fan of Thomas Rowlandson, so here are two of his – the first showing the rake George Hanger chatting up a pair of ladies in the theatre lobby (shown courtesy of the British Museum) and the second showing the audience during a performance. In neither case is the watching of the play especially important – it was a social event which for many of the people attending was primarily aimed at flirting, and lining up the entertainment for later in the evening. It must have been quite difficult for the actors having to contend with an audience who were drinking, playing cards, chatting with others around them, and such like. On the other hand, at least they didn’t have to contend with mobile phones going off… lobby loungers

1024px-Thomas_Rowlandson_-_An_Audience_Watching_a_Play_at_Drury_Lane_Theatre_-_Google_Art_ProjectO.K., one more – “Symptoms of lewdness, or, A peep into the boxes” by Isaac Cruikshank. It appeared in 1794, is shown on the Lewis Walpole site, and features the ample charms of Maria Anne Fitzherbert and Albinia Hobart, Countess of Buckinghamshire. And yes, it is one of the images I will be using in “Sex Scandal and Satire – in bed with the Georgians.” My apologies if it appears sexist – if I had found one of half-dressed men I would have shown that as well….

I have included it because it demonstrates that the obsession of the Press with “wardrobe malfunctions”, nipples and high fashion is nothing new. The Eighteenth Century is so very like our own in certain respects!

BBB Maria Fitzherbert & Albinia C of Bucks lwlpr08317



Jan 242015

January 24th marks the birthday of Carlo Broschi, one of the most famous of the 18th Century curiosities, the castrati. He was born on this day in 1705 near Naples. Like several thousand poor Italian boys each year, he was castrated in the hope that this would preserve his high-pitched singing voice. But unlike so many of his fellow-eunuchs, he did become a singing sensation, and did become rich and famous. He adopted the name Farinelli, supposedly after an Italian magistrate who possibly acted as patron, and made his first public singing appearance in 1720. Two years later he made a sensational debut in Rome, apparently out-performing a leading trumpeter (for whom  the composer Nicola Porpora had written an obbligato) by holding and swelling a note of prodigious length, purity and power. Not only did he out-blast the trumpeter but added his own variations, roulades and trills which left the audience enraptured.

He went on to wow Venice, Vienna and Milan and in 1734 arrived in London, where Handel had established the Royal Academy of Music at a theatre in the Haymarket with the castrato Senesino as lead male singer. Senesino had been on a reported salary of some two thousand guineas – a vast sum of money. Handel and Senesino were constantly at loggerheads and when Senesino went off and set up a rival company known as the Opera of the Nobility in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it was here that Farinelli performed. He was a stunning success and was showered with expensive gifts and awarded a salary of 1500 guineas per annum. But one season’s meteor was the next season’s damp squib, and his popularity started to wane to the extent that when he received a summons to go and visit the Spanish court in 1737 he did so with alacrity. On his way he stopped off to sing for Louis XV, being rewarded with a large pile of money and his portrait framed with diamonds. He arrived in Madrid in August 1737, expecting to stay a few months, but remained for nearly a quarter of a century…

The court of King Philip V must have been a strange place – the King suffered from extreme melancholia and it was hoped that Farinelli’s exquisite voice would drive away the sadness. And so he sang, night after night, the same songs over and over again, until the old king died nine years later. This was not the end of Farinelli’s influence – far from it. The new king was Philip’s son, Ferdinand VI. He too required an exclusive access to the voice of Farinelli (who never sang in public again) and would accompany him on the harpsichord while Farinelli sang duets with  the Queen. He was  a close personal friend of them both and was made Knight of the Order of Calatrava in 1750, an honour of which he was inordinately proud. With the honours came power and influence (some have described him as being de facto prime minister, although he does not appear to have meddled in politics). Nevertheless he was extremely influential and it must have been a huge blow when Ferdinand died in 1759 and was succeeded by his decidedly non-musical half-brother. Farinelli stayed long enough to pick up a decent pension, then packed his bags and went back to Italy. He lived in considerable wealth but increasing loneliness at Bologna until his death  in 1782. His estate include art works by Velázquez and Murillo as well as a violin crafted by Stradivarius and a number of exquisite harpsichords and early pianos.

The castrati remained popular throughout the 1700’s, but fashions changed in the following century and they went out of favour. It is said that the effect of ‘the snip’ was to make the castrati not just long-lived (and hirsute!) but also altered their musculature so that they ended up extremely tall and with extended ribs and hence a huge lung capacity. This is what gave them the ability to hold a note for so long. The practice of castrating young boys for this purpose was banned in Italy in 1870, and the singing role in arias etc has been taken over by mezzo-sopranos or countertenors. Somehow baroque music will never sound the same again – poor Handel would be turning in his grave.

Nov 112014

A Master of Ceremonies Bath lwlpr08640 Rowlandson 1795Coming across this Thomas Rowlandson sketch on the Lewis Walpole site reminded me of the important role played by the Master of Ceremonies at venues such as Bath. If you went to a ball you couldn’t just go and chat up a bird you fancied – you had to be introduced. And that was one of the functions of the Master of Ceremonies – to vet the attendees, decide who they were appropriate to be introduced to, and later, to effect those introductions so that the evening would be a success. I imagine it was sometimes a case of “mix and match” – a title needed money, and vice versa, while on other occasions it was mixing “like with like”.

I am indebted to the Austenonly site here for the explanation of the MoC role, given by Joseph Moser in 1807. It was their function to:

“… introduce regularity into large assemblies, to keep order, to repress the ebullitions of passion, to banish, if possible, that contraction or thrusting out of the lips which Shakespear calls pouting; to prevent violent suffusions or flushings in the female countenance; to keep the ladies from tossing, and their noses from turning up, when precedence, partners, and people that nobody knows, with a hundred other serious circumstances, excite those emotions.  He has also annexed to his office something clerical, it being his business to join hands:  but he goes still farther, he frequently procures partners, who sometimes under his banners enlist for life.”  (See  The Sports of Ancient LondonThe Sporting Magazine. )

The print dates from 1795 and shows Richard Tyson, Master of Ceremonies, effecting an introduction of a gentleman who is clearly no longer in the first flush of youth, to a pair of ladies who definitely should only be seen by dim candlelight!

1Richard Tyson had been MoC of the New Rooms at Bath for a number of years. Since 1771 there were two separate rooms – in time, the New (upper) Rooms had a separate MoC from the (original) Lower Rooms – a far cry from when there was but one “King” of Bath, in the form of Beau Nash, who was in sole charge of proceedings  from  1704 until  around 1760.

According to Wikipedia “He  (Nash) would meet new arrivals to Bath and judge whether they were suitable to join the select “Company’ of 500 to 600 people who had pre-booked tables, match ladies with appropriate dancing partners at each ball, pay the musicians at such events, broker marriages, escort unaccompanied wives and regulate gambling (by restraining compulsive gamblers).”  Not bad for a days work!

It does seem a bit hard therefore, that when he died the long-serving, long suffering Beau Nash ended up in an unmarked paupers grave. He had been a prodigious gambler, with enormous debts. Because of those debts he was forced to move in to the home of  his mistress Juliana Popjoy. The poor girl was so distraught when he died in 1761 that she apparently went to live in a large hollowed out tree. Which is entirely proper for the 18th Century, because of course that is what one did when  feeling bereft and lonely!

Meanwhile, my thanks to Master Rowlandson for a rather lovely piece of observation of the manners, etiquette and style of Bath in its Georgian grandeur. Nice one!

The Celebrated Miss Murray, c British Museum

The Celebrated Miss Murray, shown courtesy of the  British Museum



Post script: when I started this blog I was unaware that Beau Nash figured so prominently in the early years of the illustrious harlot Fanny Murray. Orphaned as a 12 year old, selling flowers and nosegays on the streets of Bath, she had been seduced by  John Spencer. He was a notorious rake – and the grandson of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. He left the poor girl as soon as he had had his wicked way with her, leaving her with little alternative but to make her living as a street-walker. Enter the 66 year-old Beau Nash, who took a fancy to the scrap of a girl (she was just 14) and invited her to come and live with him as his mistress. Which she did, for a couple of years before moving on to greater things in London. She became one of the most famous courtesans of the Eighteenth Century, a fashion icon who rose from the depths of  being a ‘dress lodger’ (working as a prostitute to pay the exorbitant charges imposed by a bawd for the  use of clothing) to being the  mistress of  John Montagu, 4th Earl Sandwich. It was Sandwich who introduced her to the notorious Hellfire Club …

In time she achieved married respectability, but not before being an inspiration for the character of Fanny Hill in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in 1748. Her reputation was also to feature in the trial of John Wilkes for obscenity – he was charged with having published An Essay on Woman ( a parody of Pope’s Essay on Man). It was  dedicated to Fanny, and opened with the immortal words “Awake, my Fanny…”

Which brings me to when I first came to hear of Fanny Murray, because both Fanny and the John Wilkes trial will feature in my next book “Sex, Scandal and Satire – in bed with the Georgians”. Now all I have to do is write it……

Jun 092014

a card box 1I have blogged before about the fascinating treasure trove which is to be found on the Hampton Antiques site here. This month their news letter features a “Japanned polychromed card box with a chinoiserie scene depicting two figures in a garden with a Ho-Ho bird in a tree on the lid. The front and sides of the box feature inlaid gold floral designs. The Ho-Ho bird is said to bring luck and symbolizes good fortune.”

a card box 2 jpga card box 3Apparently the interior is lined with a navy blue and gold patterned paper which is a later addition, and most probably done in the the Victorian period. Traces of the original blue / green paper can be seen underneath this. There is a tray to the centre of the box which removes, which would have contained counters.It dates from 1820 – an interesting time in terms of design and fashion.

It got me thinking: you have had your guests round to dinner at a fashionable seven o’clock in the evening and have dined well. The first and second removes have come and gone, and the Ladies have withdrawn to play cards, leaving the Gentlemen to drink themselves into a stupor over the Port. The lady of the house produces this gorgeous little card box – but what would the actual cards have looked like?

In this I have been assisted by a great website called ‘The World of Playing Cards here. They have a mass of information about the history of cards. In particular I was interested in a number of sets from the Eighteenth Century which would already have been antique by the reign of George IV. I especially liked  the sets relating to the 1720 South Sea Bubble scandal – with scurrilous and often coarse pictures and verse about the people involved in this early Sock Market scam. Printed from copper plates, the red diamond and heart symbols would have been stencilled on afterwards.

a SS bubbleThen there were the Street Cries:

a criesMore recent sets might have been made by Gibson & Gisbourne, who had taken over the Blanchard card-making company in 1780 and who produced two-headed court cards which later came to be standard:

a blanchard

New out in 1820 would have been a set printed by Charles Goodall & Co, who went on to dominate the market. Jointly with arch-rivals Thomas de la Rue, they went on to produce 70% of all playing cards sold in Britain. Goodall had opened premises in London’s Soho area in the year that the Hampton Antique’s card box was manufactured. To begin with they struggled to meet demand for their  high-quality cards, Initially the backs were left plain white but in time they introduced backs with stars, fleur-de-lys and subsequently somewhat elaborate designs. Commemorative and royal images came into vogue.  More significantly, Goodall’s popularized the court cards we are familiar with today.

a court-faces

Fashions changed and Goodalls found themsleves no longer  able to sell two million packs of cards a year. They diversified into printing calendars and so on, but ended up merging with de la Rue in 1922. All this and more can be found on the World of Playing Cards site. More to the point if you are wanting to obtain replicas of these old card sets, so that you can faithfully re-enact your Regency card party, have a look at the site of  Harry Margary.

Meanwhile I will content myself with imagining that I own the lovely card box, complete with  either brass gaming counters minted to look like Spade Guineas, or else with mother-of-pearl fish-shaped counters which I can remember from when I played cards with my aged grandmother many moons ago!

a tokena counters


May 092014

a1111While doing some research for my book on Astley and his circus* I was intrigued by some of the newspaper advertisements – especially this one dating from May 1796, appearing in the Oxford Gazette. For a start it actually uses the  name “circus” – whereas Astley normally referred to the performance area as an “amphitheatre” – so much so that he was given the derogatory name of “Amphi-Philip.”

It is intriguing to see that there were no fewer than fourteen different firework ‘divisions’. Some of the fireworks look pretty impressive, with suns, wheels pyramids and ‘bombs.’ Astley promised the good burghers of Oxford an amusing and interesting spectacle, the like of which had never been seen  “Ranelagh Gardens only excepted”

aaqaaaqwI like the warning that Ladies and Gentlemen should not expect to be able to change gold at the door –  a reminder that change was in very short supply in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century. At one shilling a head for admission even to the “second places” (i.e. those towards the back) it was never cheap! But it gives an interesting insight into the popularity for anything “new” and  dramatic – and also demonstrates the clever way Astley used different spectacular entertainments to promote the actual circus. He would arrive in town on an afternoon and start assembling his temporary staging etc. He would then put on the firework display – and the next evening he would  invite the public back again – this time to see the horse riding, the clowns, and the juggling acts.

* If you are interested, the book is called ‘Astleys Circus – the story of an English Hussar’ and is available in Europe here and in the States here.

front 1200dpi 001Astley's Circus cover 001


May 032014

John Gay wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 and it was an immediate success. Various different productions appeared down the years, but perhaps none stranger than the “gender reversed” performances where female actresses took the male parts – and vice versa. Michelle Holman has kindly agreed to do a blog-post for me about these productions, as follows:

I am delighted to have been asked to write a guest blog post for the Georgian Gent, and so here I present the story of The Beggar’s Opera in Reverse. In a celebratory adjunct to the guest spot, please raise a glass for the relaunch of my website about theatre history, and Handel’s favourite trumpeter, Abraham Adcock.


‘The manager’s appetite must have been extremely keen when the ‘sacred hunger for gold’ induced him to bring upon the stage the indecorous catchpenny of the reversed Beggars’ Opera.’ ­­

Memoirs of the Colman family, edited by Richard Brinsley Peake, Vol. II

1a1a1a                                                                 Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician

So wrote George Colman the Younger regarding the raucous production of The Beggar’s Opera in reverse staged at the Haymarket Theatre in the summer of 1781. It began its long residence in early August and continued to entertain a full house up until the season closed at the end of September, thereby immortalising its success for Colman the elder. There is no doubt it was a cash cow for Colman, he must have laid down his head each night to the sound of ‘ker-ching’ reverberating in his coffers, thinking of how brilliant an idea it was to have female characters played by males and male characters by females. And success always breeds imitators or flatterers; in the October of the same year, Harris the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, went one step further with an all female cast. Even though the novelty of ‘the appearance of Ladies without petticoats’ (London Chronicle, 16 Oct 1781) began to wane [the Covent Garden performance only lasted two nights according to some sources], it seems in the regions it had ‘spread so universally, that it now rages through every barn company in the remotest corners of the island!’ (Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser 20 Oct 1781).

The Morning Chronicle looked charitably upon Colman’s entertainment suggesting he had merely returned the opera to it satirical roots with cross­dressing and the addition of a preludio, writing:

‘Powerful as the satire originally was, it gradually lost its efficacy, in proportion as the mode of representation because injudiciously refined, till at length what was meant as a piece of comic ridicule, was converted into a serious sentimental performance, and instead of its being attended as dramatic satire, the sole allurement to the Theatre whenever it was represented, was a new or favourite singer in one or other of the principal characters. Finding it in this state, Mr Colman wisely lent wings to the author’s original intention…’

Colman junior accuses ‘the manager’ of the Haymarket of despotism and coercion, suggestion some of the performers were forced into the performances:

‘Many of the actresses for instance, must have been conscious of their want of symmetry for male attire; trowsers were not then in fashion; nor were boots furnished for gentlewomen upon low salaries; those females, therefore, who could not afford the last articles appeared not only en culottes, but in silk stockings; and certes among the she­ highwaymen belonging to Macheath’s gang, thus accoutred, there were, to quote the song of Jenny Jumps, in ‘The Farmer’,

               ‘Six feet ladies,

Three feet ladies,

Small legg’d ladies,

Thick legg’d ladies,

all with horse­pistols in the hands screaming, ‘let us take the road!’ a feminine phalanx which constituted, as Macheath himself says of the Judges in the Old Bailey, ‘a terrible show!”

It is worth referencing the Biographia Dramatica, Vol. 3 for an account of the Preludio before heading straight for the death from too much laughter, elopements, satire, indignation, and letters signed by Fly­Flap &c.:

‘This trifle was produced merely to usher to the public the representation of The Beggar’s Opera, with the characters reversed. — We have seen it called The School of Shakespeare [Genest, in Some Account of the English Stage, vol. VI, calls this an error]. It consisted of three scenes of dialogue ; the first of which was between Townly and the Beggar; the former insisting that the very essence of opera consisted in absurdity; to which the Beggar acceded, and informed Townly, in order to make it appear the more strongly in that light, he had contrived that the “ladies’ characters” should be all acted by men,” and the “men” represented by “ladies:” that as the Beggar’s Opera originally owed its existence to the “feminine” rage for Italian Operas, such a risible travestie could not fail of heightening the satirical burlesque ; and this scene was concluded by the Beggar giving an account of a party of Italian chiefs having assembled at a neighbouring coffeehouse [i.e. the Orange Coffee house] to condemn the performance.

‘The second scene was in a coffeehouse, which was rendered exceedingly laughable from the groupe of characters that were discovered; namely, a musical composer, a French dancer, a John Bull of an Englishman, &c. A better idea of this scene cannot be given, than Hogarth’s Enraged Musician, to which it bore a considerable resemblance.

‘The last scene discovered Townly, the Beggar, and Prompter [played by Bannister, who also took on the role of Polly]. The Beggar asking the Prompter why he did not ring to begin, as the sticks were at work in the gallery, was answered, that “Polly” was but “half shaved;” and besides, Mr, Bannister’s “jumps” were so tight, that the Carpenter was not able to lace them; that they had disappointed Mr. Edwin in his “cork rump” for “Lucy;” that the Taylor had made Mrs. Webb’s “coat” and “waistcoat” so tight, that she could hardly get them on, and was not able to button her “breeches;” that the present state of their house was worse than the political state of the nation; — for here both “sexes” were in the “opposition” Townly saying, he began to “smell powder;” the Beggar replied, “For Heaven’s sake, don’t mention the ‘powder;’ the very name is become to my ears as terrible as an earthquake, since a very capital powder­mill was lately blown up in the ‘neighbourhood’.

After the Prelude was seemingly concluded, the Carpenter popped up his head through a “trap,” which occasioned a great roar of laughter. The Prompter came on, and asked him, what he meant by opening the trap; and was answered, that it was the place for him to prompt the opera, as they did on the other side of the Haymarket [i.e. at the King’s Theatre where all that Italian opera stuff was going on]. “Psha!” replied the Prompter, “none of your Italian tricks for me! Put up the trap again! I shall prompt in my old place; for we ‘won’t’ do ‘all’ they ‘do’ on the other side of the way till they can do all we do on ours’.

” This concluded the Preludio ; which, considered as a few light scenes, written merely as a sort of “prose prologue” to the “travestie” of “characters” in the Opera, was very well handled, neatly pointed, and highly laughable.’

Charles Bannister as Polly Peachum

Charles Bannister as Polly Peachum

The audiences flocked to the performances and the account of Bannister’s triumph as Polly in Genest’s Some Account of the English Stage, VI, is worth quoting to see why:

‘…any person who can recollect old Bannister, tho’ he never saw him in Polly, can easily imagine how his rough manly face must look in a woman’s gown ­ his first appearance excited a tumultuous roar of laughter, and his fine low courtesies, with his grave modest looks, conspired to keep it up for a considerable time… he did not disguise his natural voice either in speaking or singing when he acted Polly; nor except in holding up his train rather too high when he went off the stage sometimes, did he seem wilfully to burlesque the character ­ when he sang the songs all was silent attention and the travestie was forgotten…’

Bannister’s performance was so hilarious, a woman actually died from too much laughter. The Derby Mercury ran this story on the 4th Oct 1781:
‘… On Wednesday evening [Mrs. Fitzherbert] went to the Drury Lane Theatre*, in company with some friends, to see the Beggar’s Opera. On Mr. Bannister’s making his appearance in the character of Polly, the whole audience were thrown into an uproar of laughter. Unfortunately the actor’s whimsical appearance had a fatal effect on Mrs. Fitzherbert; she could not suppress the laugh that seized her on the first view of this enormous representation; and before the second act was over, she was obliged to leave the Theatre.
Mrs Fitzherbert, not being able to banish the figure from her memory thrown into hystericks, which continue without intermission till Friday morning, when she expired.’

*I think this is an error and should read Hay

This was not the only incident to befall the production; it was during the run at the Hay, Mrs Cargill who played the leading role of Macheath, eloped to Bath ‘with a young gentleman somewhat allied to the theatre’ (Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser 14th Sept 1781) and was eventually replaced by the very capable Mrs Wells.
Of course it was not long before the satirists got to work. Almost immediately after the first night at the Hay the St James’s Chronicle ran the preposterous story of women taking over roles in government and men taking roles at court:

‘The success of the Beggar’s Opera, since the Parts of the Men have been performed by Women, and those of the Women by Men, has determined his Majesty to have Recourse to the same Species of Management; and we are told from good Authority, the following Management is speedily to take Place:
‘… Lady Charlotte Finch, to be Lord Chancellor, vice Lord Thurlow, who is, as Governess, to document the younger Princesses… ‘The Duchess of Devonshire, to be Commander in Chief, vice Lord Amherst, Mistress of her Majesty’s Wardrobe… ‘Mrs. Yates, the Actress, to be Prime Minister, vice Lord North, who is to be Mistress of the Queen’s Privy Purse… ‘…It is not doubted, when this Change has taken Place, but our combined Enemies will tremble; and the American Congress, having Faith and Confidence in our Women, will immediately submit to them, even unconditionally.’

After the satire came letters of indignation to newspaper editors, ‘Fly­Flap’ writing in the Morning Herald on 17th August 1781 directed much of his ire at Mr Wilson in the role of Mrs Peachum:
‘Mr. Wilson did Mrs. Peachum. He had not been taught that the extravagance of burlesque has no affinity to blackguardism. The hissing he received for his indecencies was, perhaps, the only mode of instruction he is capable of understanding. His acting was as defective as his behaviour was reproachable; the want of sense can be no matter of wonder where there is total defection of decency.’

Finally, by far the best piece is the ‘speech’ from ‘The Beggar’ himself, as it appeared in the Morning Chronicle on the 22nd October 1781, following on from Miss Catley’s and Mrs Wilson’s performances in the all female production at Covent Garden:

‘Executed last week, pursuant to his sentence, the Beggar’s Opera; when arrived at Covent Garden, the place of execution. he made the following speech and confession:
“I was born of honest Aristotle fearing parents, who gave me a good education, and taught me to sing and dance. I continued for many years as a reputable tradesman, and was much in service in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, where I had interest enough to fill houses, when nothing else would. I kept my character till last summer, when getting acquainted with one George Colman, helped me into the company of women, which soon proved my ruin. His reason was, that he might make money of me. Let me warn all other Operas, especially the young, to beware of bad women. I forgive both fidlers and door­ keepers , and die in peace with all men. May Aristotle bless Mr Sheridan, for he was very kind to me, and took me into his house often. But all would not do. As a dying play, I advise Mr. Harris to repent of his many sins, and particularly the injuries he has done to me. I forgive Miss Catley and Mrs. Webb, and hope they receive mercy at the day of benefits ­ So prays the dying Beggar’s Opera…”‘

MJ Holman

Thanks, Michelle. If you haven’t already visited her newly re-launched website about Abraham Adcock, do have a look at it here:

Michelle is on Twitter as and on Facebook here.  

She  is a historical researcher and author of The Guinea Ghost, a paranormal short story set in 18th century Yorkshire, and the forthcoming book, The Sea Of Conscience, released 28 May 2014.

Apr 252014

I never cease to be amazed at the huge losses run up by wealthy gamblers in the Georgian Era. Caricaturists had a field day, as in this drawing showing the Prince of Wales being urged on by Fox  to throw the dice one more time  “for ten thousand”.

gambling at diceA famous gambler at cards was of course Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Rowlandson shows her with her sister at the card table. When the duchess died aged 48 in 1806 she had debts equivalent nowadays to three and a quarter million pounds. (“Is that all?” was apparently the response of her husband, upon hearing the news).


A variation of roulette – Odds and Evens – became popular  in the latter decades of the century, as shown in another Rowlandson drawing, called Private Amusements:

Private amusements

The extent of Eighteenth Century gambling was stunning – Sir John Bland, 6th Baronet, was born in 1722 and died at the age of 33 in Calais,unmarried. At the time when he inherited the baronetcy in 1743 the family estates included the entire city of Manchester and much of the surrounding countryside. By the time he died he had gambled away every single house, every single field, and he died intestate and penniless.

Another huge loss was reported in the Bath Chronicle of 29th March 1773:

Seventy thousand pounds at a single session! Multiply that by perhaps eighty and you get a loss of well over five and half million pounds in today’s money! Try telling an agricultural labourer, on a yearly wage of twenty pounds, that life was fair under the Hanoverians….

For some the losses were unsupportable – as in the curious case of John Damer, the son of Lord Milton. The writer Archenholz describes the man’s demise as follows:

“The conduct of the Hon Mr Damer, only son to Lord Milton was …extraordinary, and gave rise to a thousand melancholy reflections.Young, handsome, tenderly beloved by his father, nearly adored by the ladies, and with all the honours and dignified of the state within his reach he conceived a sudden disgust to life.
Having repaired to a bagnio he commanded twelve of the most handsome women of the town to be brought to him, and gave orders that they should be supplied with all manner of delicacies. Having afterwards bolted the door he made them undress one another and, when naked, requested them to amuse him with the most voluptuous attitudes. About an hour afterwards he dismissed them, loaded with presents, and then, drawing a pistol from his pocket immediately put an end to his existence.This happened in the year 1776″

Way to go! Others give different versions of the sad death – Boswell’s Johnson has him eating three buttered muffins, immediately before committing suicide and knowing that he wouldn’t be around to suffer the indigestion which would inevitably follow. Whatever – the Gentleman’s Magazine for that month gives the cause of death as “lunacy”.  I can believe the twelve naked ladies, but THREE buttered muffins! An unlikely story, about a man who had apparently never come across the word “excess” – I suppose the two stories may not have been mutually exclusive – maybe the muffins were consumed while the twelve naked ladies cavorted with each other. The mind boggles at the perversions of the Georgian Era…

The one thing which was certain is that John Damer could not face the financial burden of his gambling debts – nor the unhappy marriage which he had entered into with Anne Conway  seven years earlier. She, poor woman, was saddled with his debts, because her father-in-law insisted that she should accept personal responsibility for them. She did however go on to become a fine sculptress – the subject of another post another day.

Apr 152014

16Just a note to put a date in your diary if you are likely to be in London on Tuesday 29th July. I am giving a talk that evening at Guildhall Library – on Philip Astley, his life and achievements. I rather like the second part of the title: “From Westminster Bridge to the World” because he really was a remarkable man. The link to the Guildhall Library site for tickets is here.

Anyway, it starts at 18.00  and, allowing for the wine reception, goes on for a couple of hours.  I am looking forward to it – even if it is all a bit of a rush! I am due to get back from Canada that week, give a talk on a different subject that morning in the Cotswolds, and then will dash up to London in time for the talk and hopefully to meet as many people as possible.

As for the book, well, I cannot honestly say that it is “selling like hot cakes” – more “like warm scones,” but that is to be expected. You can find out more here (Britain) and here (the rest of the world). Amazon have included a couple of really nice reviews.Astleys Circus

Feb 112014

I am not normally very keen on anthropomorphic pictures – animals dressed up as humans – but I bumped into these two pictures of monkeys in human guise and they reminded me of Genral Jackoo, the performing monkey in Philip Astley’s amphitheatre. They are by a French artist called Christophe Huet, and were painted  around 1735. The first is a sledging-on-ice scene, and rather effectively demonstrates men’s fashion – at least in France – at that period.

Monkey business Christophe Huet 1735-40

The second is perhaps more indicative of what General Jackoo might have looked like – riding a horse:Monkey business 2 Christophe Huet 1735-40

In practice I suspect he was adorned in a rather more masculine, if not military, attire but the popularity of Christophe Huet and his monkey paintings in aristocratic circles in France may help explain why Jackoo was such a favourite of Marie Antoinette. She adored the performing simian and saw him perform on many occasions.

Huet also decorated many of the panels at the splendid chateau at Chantilly, some thirty miles north of Paris. I went there once – at least forty years ago and still shudder at the memory. I had booked a coach trip from Paris and remember being a little bemused at receiving enthusiastic applause when I climbed aboard the coach, which set off immediately. I loved the chateau and was delighted to hear that there would be sufficient time to stroll through the woods after the official tour, and that the coach would leave for Paris at 4.30. Off I strolled, returning a while later to discover a totally empty car-park, a locked up chateau, and not a soul in sight. Unbeknown to me, the clocks had changed  that day and in my ignorance/stupor I had failed to acquaint myself with the  correct time. Hence the earlier applause – and the current deserted state of the chateau…. I recall a long, long forest walk in the dusk, before reaching a train station, and having hardly enough francs to pay for the train fare into Paris.

But any bad recollections of Chantilly are unfair – there are some beautiful rooms including La Grande Singerie and La Petite Singerie, both of which Huet helped to decorate:

Monkey Business 3 La Grande Singerie

Monkey Business 4 La Grande Singerie






Again, there were (not surprisingly) a preponderance of monkey motifs, as in this detail:Monkey business 5 La Grande Singerie Chantilly






Now, a monkey on a slack-wire, that really could have been General Jackoo to a “T”

For years Jackoo (a.k.a. Jacko) performed on horse-back –  juggling, performing acrobatic manoeuvres – and balanced on wires stretched  between upright posts. I did a separate blog about him here and included this extract from a Parisian hand-bill showing the monkey going through his paces:


Astley's Circus cover 001My book about Philip Astley seems to have got off to a good start – if you are interested in finding out more about this fascinating character, his circus amphitheatres and his performing animals  (especially horses) – see the Amazon site  here for Europe and here for the USA.