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Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

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A “foolish experiment on the credulity of the public”

2nd Duke of Montagu

2nd Duke of Montagu

The Duke of Montague being in company with some other noblemen, proposed a wager, that let a man advertise to do the most impossible thing in the world, he would find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse, who would think him in earnest. “Surely,” said Lord Chesterfield, “if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that!” The Duke was somewhat staggered; but for the sake of the jest, determined to make experiment. Accordingly it was advertised that the next day, (Jan. 10, 1749,) a person would, at the Haymarket Theatre, “play on a common walking-cane the music of every instrument then used, to surprising perfection; that he would, on the stage, get into a tavern quart bottle, without equivocation, and while there, sing several songs, and suffer any spectator to handle the bottle; that if any spectator should come masked, he would, if requested, declare who he was; and that, in a private room, he would produce the representation of any person, dead, with which the person requesting it should converse some minutes, as if alive.” The prices of admission were—gallery, 2s; pit, 3s; boxes, 5s; stage, 7s. 6d.

Haymarket Theater

Haymarket Theater

4th Earl of Chesterfield

4th Earl of Chesterfield

At night the house was crowded with curious people, many of them of the highest rank, including no less eminent a person than the Culloden Duke of Cumberland. They sat for a little while with tolerable patience, though uncheered with music; but by-and-by, the performer not appearing, signs of irritation were evinced. In answer to the continued noise of sticks and catcalls, a person belonging to the theatre came forward and explained that, in the event of a failure of performance, the money should be returned. A wag then cried out, that, if the ladies and gentlemen would give double prices, the conjuror would go into a pint bottle, which proved too much for the philosophy of the audience. A young gentleman threw a lighted candle upon the stage, and a general charge upon that part of the house followed. According to a private letter—it was written by a Scotch Jacobite lady—”Cumberland was the first that flew in a rage, and called to pull down the house… He drew his sword and was in such a rage, that somebody slipped in behind him and pulled the sword out of his hand, which was as much as to say, ‘Fools should not have chopping sticks.’ This sword of his has never been heard of, nor the person who took it. Thirty guineas of reward are offered for it. Monster of Nature, I am sure I wish he may never get it.

Haymarket Theater

Haymarket Theater

At that point, most of the audience charged out of the theater, losing items of clothing in the process, but a few stayed long enough to demolish the inside and take away much of the furnishings for a bonfire on the street.

Cumberland-Reynolds

Duke of Cumberland, younger son of George II (and of Culloden fame)

 

The proprietor of the theatre afterwards stated that, in apprehension of failure, he had reserved all the money taken, in order to give it back; and he would have returned it to the audience if they would have refrained from destroying his house.

The Bottle-hoax proved an excellent subject for the wits, particularly those of the Jacobite party. In Old England appeared this advertisement: “Found entangled in a slit of a lady’s demolished smock petticoat, a gilt-handled sward of martial temper and length, not much the worse of wearing, with the Spey curiously engraven on one side, and the Scheldt on the other; supposed to be taken from the fat sides of a certain great general in his hasty retreat from the Battle of Bottle Noddles, in the Haymarket. Whoever has lost it may inquire for it at the sign of the Bird and Singing Land, in Rotten Row.”

Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse