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Amusements of Old London: Clubs and Coffee-houses

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

The origin of the gentleman’s club can be traced to the introduction of “the bitter black drink called coffee,” as described by Samuel Pepys, during the last years of William III. Boulton points to “a humble establishment which was opened for the sale of coffee in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in the year 1652, as the parent of institutions of such superfine male fashion as White’s, the Turf, or the Marlborough Clubs of our day.”

Coffee-house in Istanbul

Mr. Edwards, a Turkey merchant, who was accustomed to travel in the East, acquired the Oriental habit on his travels, and brought home with him to London from Ragusa… a youth who acted as his servant and was accustomed to prepare Mr. Edwards’ coffee for him of a morning. “But the novelty thereof,” says Mr. Oldys the antiquarian, “drawing too much company to him he allowed the said servant with another of his son-in-law to set up the first coffee-house in London at St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the coffee-houses in the town were so increased in numbers that they were reckoned at 3000 by Mr. Hatton in his “New View of London,” and the coffee-house had already taken its place as one of the most remarkable among the social developments of modern England.

For by the time that Queen Anne came to the throne all London had arranged itself into groups of patrons for one or other of the different coffee-houses. City merchants went to Garraway’s in Change Alley, Cornhill, a house which combined business with pleasure, and had an auction-room on the first floor… Much of the gambling in connection with the South Sea Bubble of 1720 was conducted at Garraway’s. Jonathan’s, also in Change Alley, was another famous house of business devoted to stock-jobbers. Lloyd’s, the great organisation of the shipping interest… is the development of a coffee-house of the same name… The doctors had their meeting-house at Batson’s at the Royal Exchange, where physicians used to meet the apothecaries and prescribe for patients they were neer to see. The clergy, from bishops downwards, went to Child’s in St. Paul’s Churchyard or the Chapter Coffee-house in Paternoster Row.  Leaving the city and proceeding westward, Nando’s, the house at Temple Bar…; Dick’s…; Serle’s…; the Grecian…; and Squire’s… were all houses near the various Inns of Court and were much haunted by lawyers.

Lloyd’s

Then there were the coffee-houses for men of a certain intellectual interest.  “The great Dryden” held court at Wills’s, on the corner of Bow and Russell Streets. Dean Swift, along with Mr. Addison and Mr. Steele, took over the literary tradition after Dryden’s death at Button’s, on the other side of Russell Street. The Bedford in Covent Garden was the haunt of Foote, Fielding, Churchill, Hogarth, Dr. Arne, and Goldsmith.

Further west still can be found the birthplace of the social club, those clubs

supported by lounging men of fashion, the “pretty fellows” of Anne and the Georges, and by the adventurers and sycophants who had fortunes to push in such fine company. The most fashionable of these houses were clustered in or near the parish of St. James’s, taking their tone, as was natural, from the neighbourhood of the court. Many of these places had a political cast, but all were meeting-places of men of birth and condition.

Rowlandson: A Mad Dog in a Coffee-house

The St. James coffee-house was primarily Whig. The Cocoa Tree at Pall Mall “gathered the Tories and those discontented gentlemen who looked askance at the Hanoverian king at St. James’s, and drank furtive healths to the Pretender.” White’s Chocolate House (the true origin the social club) “was a meeting place for the more fashionable exquisites of the town and the court, and for the followers who lived upon them.

Mr. Mackay describes the coffee-houses in “Journey Through England” (1714).

About twelve o’clock, the beau monde assemble in several coffee and chocolate houses, the best of which are White’s Chocolate-house, the Cocoa Tree, the Smyrna, and the British coffee-houses, and all these so near one another, that in less than hour you see the company of them all. You are entertained at piquet or basset at White’s, or you may talk politics at the Smyrna or St. James’s,”

Tea, coffee, and chocolate, and wine were purveyed at these houses, with light viands like biscuit and sandwiches; set meals were supplied only at the taverns—houses of a different type in which… the sale of liquor was the chief object. “But the general way here,” says Mr. Mackay, “is to make a party at the coffee-house to go to dine at the tavern, except you are invited to dine at the table of some great man.”

Boulton suggests that the development of the coffee-houses was

the expression of a feeling of security among all classes of Englishmen after the troubled days of the seventeenth century… Men now for the first time for a hundred years saw opportunities both for business and relaxation which had been impossible during the period of civil and religious tumult… which was only attained by the Act of Settlement and by the acceptance of the Hanoverian dynasty. A period of social prosperity and expansion was then beginning which leveloped later under the wise rule of the sagacious Walpole, and made possible amenities of social life which had been unknown in England since the days of Elizabeth.

The Kit Kat Club was “the very expression itself of the security and beneficence of the new order of things under the wise Whig rule.

Dean Swift, who organized the Brothers Club, stated that “the end of our club is to advance conversation and friendship, and to reward learning without interest or recommendation.”

The Royal Society and the Dilettante Society were the two clubs devoted to scholarship as well as social intercourse. Notable members of the latter were Reynolds, Fitzwilliam, Charles Fox, Garrick, Colman, and Windham, but not Horace Walpole, who failed to be admitted and was fond of saying that “the nominal qualification is having been to Italy, and the real one being drunk.”

The tradition of the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, which included such men as William Hogarth, Francis Hayman, Churchill, Mr. Wilkes, Lord Sandwich, Mr. Garrick, Mr. Chase Price, and the Prince of Wales, was “nothing more than the joviality arising from these meetings to eat beefsteak and drink port wine, the only viands allowed by its rules.”

The Literary Club was “[t]he most notable… of all these famous gatherings which were the solace of the leisure of men of distinction throughout the eighteenth century.” That choice society was so exlusive that it blackballed bishops and Lord Chancellors, and kept its own friends waiting for years for admission to its charmed circle because they expressed too much confidence of joining.

White’s Chocolate-house

Founded in 1693 by a man called Francis White, White’s was the parent of the English social club. It was here where gaming became fashionable, “Mr. Heidegger issued his tickets for the masquerade,” and where lost things, such as a sword or a lady’s lapdog, were returned in exchange for a reward.

White’s early 18th century

“The club, in its origin, was aristocratic, a lounging-place for the leisure of a lazy society.” But its reputation for nearly a century was as a location for serious gaming. The Earl of Orford called it “the bane of half the English aristocracy.”

Although it was “the club of the great noble, of the courtier and the statesman,” it wasn’t known for politics. Members included Sir Robert Walpole and William Pulteney, William Pitt and Henry Fox, Charles James Fox, and representatives from “most of the great families of that day, Russells, Churchills, Pelhams, Stanhopes, Herveys, and Cavendishes.”

Social distinction, in fact, was the chief qualification for membership… and its pretensions as an appanage of the aristocracy were never better described than by Horace Walpole, who declared that when an heir was born to a great house, the butler went first to White’s to enter his name in the candidates’ book, and then on to the registry office to record the birth.

White’s was the only club, according to Boulton, until Almack’s and Boodle’s came into to existence in the time of George III.

Member elections at White’s occurred so seldom that in 1743, certain gentlemen with aspirations to join started a second club, in its own rooms, calling itself “The Young Club at White’s (the first one thus becoming known as the “Old Club.”

The elders seem to have looked upon the junior concern with a mild and benevolent eye, and although, as we say, quite separate, with rules and a cook of its own, the Young Club at White’s was ultimately accepted by those potentates as a place of purgatory or probation, where the young man might, by the blessing of Providence, become purged from all contamination of intercourse with ordinary people, and worthy of communion with their own charmed circle.

Occasionally a candidate for the Old Club passed quickly from the Young Club, but he was invariably a man of parts and possessed of great influence; young Mr. Charles Fox, for instance, was elected to both clubs at White’s in the same year, owing no doubt to the efforts of his father, Lord Holland, who was a noted member of the Old Club. His friend George Selwyn, on the other hand, waited eight years in the junior concern, and another typical clubman of the same set, Lord March, was consistently rejected year after year, and only joined the old society when the two clubs were merged in the year 1781.

The famous betting-book contains many outrageous wagers such as the time when a man dropped dead in the doorway and the members made wagers as to whether he was alive or dead, but the most common wagers dealt with births, marriages, and deaths among the prominent society members.

On the 4th of November 1754, there was entered… the following wager: “Lord Montfort wagers Sir John Bland one hundred guineas that Mr. Nash outlives Mr. Cibber.” The bet refers, of course, to the aged poet laureate Colley Cibber, and to the equally venerable Beau Nash, for so many years a prominent figure at Bath. Below this entry is the very significant note in another handwriting (quite possibly Horace Walpole’s, who noticed the wager): “Both Lord Montfort and Sir Bland put an end to their own lives before the bet was decided.”

White’s betting-book

At the ascension to the throne of George III, who openly disapproved of gaming, White’s “became a place of meeting for serious men of affairs, the old gaiety and revel… sadly curtailed under the new dispensation… [A]nd the careless youth of the period began to look out for a place more to their liking.”

Almack’s (now known as Brooks’s)

[T]he origin of Almack’s was, as we say, a revolt of the gay youth of 1764 against the ordered decorum of White’s, and an effort to discover another place of meeting where the old rites of hazard and faro could be continued unmaimed. Almack’s assumed from the outset the greatest pretensions to fashion; the young Dukes of Roxburghe, Richmond, Grafton, and Portland were among its original members, aand its early elections included most of the famous young men about town of those days, Mr. Crewe, Sir Charles Banbury, Richard Fitzpatrick and his brother Lord Ossory, both the young Foxes, their cousin Lord Ilchester…, and the young Lord Carlisle, who seems to have been a typical pigeon of the play tables. A little later came Selwyn and Horry Walpole, Gilly Williams and March…; later still young Mr. Sheridan and the Whigs like Burke, Erskine, and Lord Holland, and the intellectuals like Gibbon, Reynolds, and Garrick; last, but not least, his Royal Highness George Prince of Wales and the Duke of York.

Brooks’s Club

Boulton claims Almack’s (Brooks’s) resembled the earlier White’s, although he says that “play revived at Brooks’s in a splendour which quite surpassed all the early glories at White’s, and was perhaps only equalled by the doings at Crockford’s during the first half of the [nineteenth] century.”

The most prominent member of Brooks’s, and its most reckless gamer, was Mr. Charles James Fox.

Charles James Fox

Mr. Fox’s first notable efforts in public life had taken the form of rather lighthearted revolts against his header, Lord North, whom he had opposed on such measures as Royal Marriage Bills, and in so doing had deeply offended the king. His Majesty had written to Lord North that he considered “that young man had cast off every principle of honesty,” and the royal scruples were increased fourfold by the reports which reached him of the excesses of wine and hazard at Brooks’s, in which Mr. Fox was the most eminent figure. Worst of all, the Prince of Wales, who was eager from the day he reached manhood to embrace every opportunity of making himself disagreeable to his Majesty, was pleased to humour Mr. Fox with his particular friendship and countenance, and to announce his intention of joining his friend’s favourite club. From that time forward Brooks’s was taboo at court, and party politics were introduced into club life for the first time.

The young Mr. Pitt, when he came into public life, realized that as long as George III was in power, any political effort that included Charles Fox was doomed. Therefore, he chose to join White’s instead, “and as long as those two great personalities remained in public life, the stormy politics of their times raged about the two clubs, and were directed from each.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, gaming-houses sprung up all over the West End, and the attraction of both of these clubs turned to the “extraordinary cult of male fashion” known as the Dandies.

The Dandies

The whole movement was the assumption by a small coterie of men of fashion of a social superiority above their fellows, and the supporting of their pretensions by an arrogance which had been unknown in polite society before their day. The inspiration was supplied by that pattern of fine gentlemen the Prince Regent, at a time of life when the charm of his youth has disappeared, and it was imparted to such among the younger men in St. James’s Street as were found worthy by the incomparable Mr. Brummell.

Brummell in 1815, the year he insulted the Prince Regent

Boulton finds it unaccountable that a man of middle-class origin who exhibited such rude and obnoxious behavior as he did, could have been made the “male fashion of an entire generation.”

The men who followed Mr. Brummell… made club life at White’s and Brooks’s well-nigh unendurable to any but their own set… Their savage blackballing decimated the club during a period of twenty years, and at least rendered necessary an alteration of rules which placed the ballot in the hands of a committee in order to save the club from extinction.

With White’s and Brooks’s off the list of possibility for most gentlemen of leisure, other clubs were established, such as the Alfred Club, for men of letters, judges, and bishops; the Travellers’ Club, founded by Lord Castlereagh, for men who had travelled “five hundred miles from London in a straight line;” and military and naval clubs, as well as others.

Amusements of Old London series

Amusements of Old London: London al fresco: Vauxhall

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

The “New” Spring Gardens

As mentioned in an earlier post, the original Spring Gardens was adjacent to Charles I’s gardens at Whitehall, which gave it an almost royal flavor. Naturally, its popularity was enough to convince the Puritans to shut it down, although it opened up almost immediately after the death of Cromwell. However, Charles II’s ambitious building plans put an end to it, leaving the name to the sole use of the Spring Gardens that had been established earlier in Lambeth along Kennington Lane.

Established around 1660, the “New Spring Gardens,” which, confusingly, ran alongside the “Old Spring Gardens” (the two were eventually combined), charged no admission, but made its profits solely on the sale of food and beverages. “Balthazar Monconys speaks of the place as “lawns and gravel walks dividing squares of twenty to thirty yards enclosed with hedges of gooseberry trees within which were planted roses.” No doubt the coincidence of the name being the same as the former royal gardens added to its popularity, as did the fact that it could best be accessed at the time by the highway of the Thames, there being no bridge between London Bridge and Kingston.

Taking water for vauxhall - Be careful, my love, don't expose your leg

Taking water for vauxhall – Be careful, my love, don’t expose your leg

The fares on the Thames were extraordinarily moderate. There are regulations of the Corporation extant which tell us that the citizen wishing to go by Vauxhall by water could take a pair-oared wherry at Whitehall for sixpence, or if he was content with sculls for half that moderate fee. Then the journey by water was itself an attraction which brought advantages to the gardens. The place was in the country, and a visit in the heat of summer was something in the nature of an expedition to the substantial merchant from the city and his family. They were apt to stay longer and eat more after the little voyage, in which their appetites were sharpened by the fresh air of the river.

The name Vauxhall took its name from a famous manor in South Lambeth called “Fulke’s Hall,” Faukeshall, Foxhall, Vauxhall.

The Gardens After the Restoration

The humours of Spring Gardens at Charing Cross were removed to Spring Gardens at Vauxhall, with little maiming of their rites; there are the same rumours of syllabubs and cheesecakes, the same wandering of damsels through the close walks of the wildrness, the same whispering of gallants in love-locks to ladies in masks and flame-coloured gowns. Spring Gardens appear in the pages of Wycherley and Congreve, and Vanbrugh and Sedley, as a spot upon which much of the glitter and revelry of that reckless society, lately released from the bondage of the Puritans, displayed itself to the best advantage. The historical evidence of Mr. Samuel Pepys, too, is to the same effect. Samuel was there often, and in many moods; with the maids, with his wife, and without his wife but with other people’s at times. The vice of the age as exhibited by the company in the gardens, would shock him one day, and on another, he would kiss Knipp [actress Mary Nepp] in the arbour, “it being darkish.” But that quaint sinner can speak best for himself. “Thence to the new one,” he says in May of 1662, speaking of the Old and New Spring Gardens, “where I never was before, which much exceeds the other; and here we also walked, and the boy crept through the hedge, and gathered abundance of roses, and, after a long walk, passed out of the doors, as we did at the other place.”

Jonathan Tyers: The True Genius

It wasn’t until Jonathan Tyers took a lease on the place, added some acreage, and spent four years transforming the place that Vauxhall Gardens began to rise above all other such entertainments, in England, and also all of Europe (the capitals of which were damaged by war at one point or another). He saw Heidegger making a fortune on masquerades in the theatre and took the idea one step further by bringing them out-of-doors in the fresh air. His ridotto al fresco of 1732 was a great success.

It requires little imagination to recall the famous Ridotto al fresco of 1732; the river still without bridges, boat-loads of happy people in fancy-dress going up-stream, as the evening closed in, in boats preceded by others playing music, the lights of the flotilla and the fancy dresses and the music giving a touch of Venetian gaiety to the lovely but sober reaches of the Thames. There were some hundreds only of the élite of London Society admitted to this fête, as we are told, and Prince Frederick, Prince of Wales, came down the river in his barge from Kew. The night was fine, and they kept it up till the birds sang and the daylight came at four o’clock the next morning.

Hogarth's season ticket

Hogarth’s season ticket

The success of the ridotto notwithstanding, the financial side of the gardens was precarious at first. At one point, when Tyers was feeling almost suicidal, he ran across William Hogarth, who was living across the street at the time. That began a longstanding friendship between the two. Hogarth lent his abilities to the enterprise by donating a painting to one of the saloons, as well as designing the silver or bronze season tickets. He himself received a lifetime ticket “to admit a coachful”, inscribed with “in perpetuam beneficii memoriam.”

The Physical Layout

The Grove in the middle; the house in the foreground is the Prince's Pavilion

The Grove is in the middle; the house in the foreground is the Prince’s Pavilion (1751).

The place was a parallelogram, and its main features were groves of trees which eventually assumed the dignity of forest timber, intersected by gravel walks crossing each other at right angles. It was entered by a gateway through an ordinary-looking house of brick of three storeys, which with a high brick wall enclosed the gardens on the western side bounded by Kennington lane. On the three other sides its borders were the hayfields of the open country. As you entered the place from the gateway through the manager’s house you looked up the Grand Walk, planted with a stately avenue of elms, and extending the whole length of the demesne. Parallel to the Grand Walk on the right hand ran the South Walk, an avenue of much the same length and dimensions, which was crossed by three triumphal arches of a rather debased Renaissance design. A third avenue, the Grand Cross Walk, ran across the whole garden at right angles to the two avenues we have named. On the right the Grand Cross Walk gave access to the Dark Walks, the Druids’ Walk, or the Lovers’ Walk, the secluded alleys of Vauxhall which gave the place much of its fame and not a little of its attractions for some of its patrons. On the left the Grand Cross Walk led to the Wildernesses and Rural Downs, more open shrubbery-like spaces which afforded a view of the country towards the river. The whole place covered about twelve acres…

The secret to Vauxhall’s long popularity was Tyers’s dedication to constant improvements to the grounds and attractions. He had sculptures of Handel and Milton made and placed them prominently in the gardens, as well as building an impressive orchestra in what he called the “Grove,” “a space of nearly five acres near the entrance on the right, where bands of the ablest musicians in London played good music in most imposing cocked hats, and tenors and prima donnas trilled and quavered for half a century.”

handel statue

Handel statue that appeared at Vauxhall Gardens for over a century

Round and about the Grove were clustered the temples, the pavilions, the rotundas, the great rooms, the music rooms, the picture rooms, the covered colonnades for wet weather, above all the famous supper boxes built in straight rows or curving sweeps. In those famous supper boxes, where generations of Londoners ate the noted Vauxhall chicken and ham, were the paintings which gave a quaint interest to each, every picture displayed by its own little oil lamp… Above all, Mr. Tyers lighted up the darkness of his groves “with above a thousand lamps so disposed that they all took fire together, with such a sudden blaze as was perfectly surprising.”

The illuminations of Vauxhall were undoubtedly arranged with much taste, and the sudden lighting of the lamps, with a simultaneous crash of music from the orchestra, had a considerable effect. Moreover, the illuminations of Vauxhall gained greatly by contrast with the aspect of the town of that day. Long after the general use of gas, London after nightfall was a dull and gloomy place. The streets were generally narrow and ill lighted… Vauxhall was really the only place where the citizen could see anything of the beauty of artificial light intelligently employed.

Vauxhall After Tyers

The great period of Vauxhall Gardens lasted, as we believe, until the year 1791, when the ordinary price of admission of one shilling was doubled by a new management, and a series of entertainments were begun… which marked the inevitable period of decline. Jonathan Tyers died in 1767, was succeeded by his son of the same name, and the old traditions of his management lasted until the year we have named.

ballloon

Although there were still nearly seventy years of life, and perhaps half that number of prosperity, in store for Vauxhall, its history after 1791 interests us less… The old social features of the gardens are much less in evidence during its later history, the spectacular and the sensational much more… The taste of Londoners progressed if it did not improve, and the new views of life and its opportunities, which began to prevail after the Revolution in France, were no longer satisfied with the placid joys which had delighted earlier generations… There was a firework platform erected at the eastern end of the grounds, a firework tower, and a mast sixty feet high, fright which the “ethereal Saqui” descended on the tight-rope in a blaze of blue flame and Chinese fire… As the present century ran into its teens, there were changes which may have caused old Jonathan Tyers to turn in his grave. They cut down many of the trees in his grove, and two sides of that pleasant enclosure and a geat part of the Grand Walk were covered in by a colonnade with cast-iron pillars… The later Vauxhall of dancing-floors and balloon ascents, of spectacular panoramas of Arctic regions, if Indian jugglers and Mr. Ducrow’s equestrian entertainments—above all the Vauxhall of Mr. Simpson, the wondrous master of the ceremonies, the “gentle Simpson, that kind smiling idiot,” whose personality is preserved in the wonderful etching by Robert Cruikshank… The stout at Vauxhall grew muddier, the slices of ham, if possible, thinner, the chickens more skinny, and the company more raffish as modern England became transformed by railways and Reform Bills. There was no place in London for an entertainment which in anyway represented the old pleasant tradition of the al fresco.

Robert Cruikshank, C.H. Simpson Esq.' M.C.R.G.V., engraving, 1833 (Lambeth Landmark 1301). The Master of Ceremonies is shown welcoming the Duke of Wellington, 19 August 1833, on the occasion of his benefit night. Cruikshank drew this scene in the gardens on the spot; the huge illuminated figure of Simpson was one of the special effects created for the event.

Robert Cruikshank, C.H. Simpson Esq.’ M.C.R.G.V., engraving, 1833 (Lambeth Landmark 1301). The Master of Ceremonies is shown welcoming the Duke of Wellington, 19 August 1833, on the occasion of his benefit night. Cruikshank drew this scene in the gardens on the spot; the huge illuminated figure of Simpson was one of the special effects created for the event.

For more information:

Susana’s Vauxhall Blog Post Series

Amusements of Old London series

Amusements of Old London: The Play and the Opera

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

The Restoration and King Charles II

The puritanical opposition to everything connected with the drama… was now exchanged for the patronage of those in high places. There has perhaps never been so good a friend to the actor and to the theatrical interest generally as his Majesty King Charles. The king, by granting a patent to Mr. Tom Killigrew at the Cockpit in Drury Lane, established that principal of monopoly in things dramatic which lasted till well on in the present reign. The actors of Drury Lane were the king’s servants and a party of the royal household under the administration of the Lord Chamberlain; a certain number of them indeed wore his Majesty’s uniform of red cloth and silver lace, and ranked as Gentlemen of the Chamber. The king’s brother, the Duke of York, had his own company at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in Portugal Street, or at Sir Christopher Wren’s house in Dorset Gardens under Davenant, with privileges scarcely less valuable, including a patent to which theatrical historians will trace back all the subsequent glories of the great house in Covent Garden. It was under his Majesty’s auspices that women’s parts were first played by women, and he was good enough, as we know, to honour the profession by forming very intimate alliances with some of those ladies. Lastly, there has never been a more assiduous playgoer than his Majesty King Charles himself.

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys

Relying on diarists such as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, Mr. Boulton states

The theatre of the Restoration was in reality much more of a social resort than the play or the opera as we know them. The pit of the playhouse of the Restoration was a social exchange, where the young man of condition displayed his graces and exchanged pleasantries with his fellows; where the man of wit discharged his carefully-prepared impromptus; and where the actors and actresses, not actually engaged on the stage, were accustomed to keep themselves in evidence by mixing freely and ostentatiously with the audience. The stage-door and the green-room, too, were attractions for a large class of men whose attentions to the actresses became a source of embarrassment to the management… Finally, the patronage which Charles the Second gave to both the theatres of his time, and the nature of his relations with some of his subjects who appeared with him in the royal box, gave an interest to a visit to the play of those days which is lacking in later and more sedate times.

Theaters of the time consisted of the pit on the ground floor, rows of continuous boxes on the first, open seats and a few boxes on the second, and the shilling gallery on the third. “The stage ran out a distance of several feet… into the body of the theatre, and was thus exposed on three of its sides to the spectators who occupied the pit.”

Riot during a performance of Artaxerxes

Riot during a performance of Artaxerxes, 1763

The prices for each sector divided the spectators into social classes. A half-crown would get you into the pit. A shilling would get an apprentice to the gallery. A box on the second floor cost eighteen pence, and the best seats in the lower section would cost about four shillings. Although you could purchase tickets for all the seats in the box for your party, if you did not, you might well find yourself sitting next to strangers.

The only manner of reserving seats in this period was to send someone ahead to pay for your ticket and hold your seat. Footmen quite frequently performed this duty for their masters and mistresses, after which they were admitted to the upper gallery to watch the play.  Boulton says that “they became a very noisy, and consequently, a very important part of the audience.”

Pepys records seeing women on the stage in 1661; prior to that, women’s parts were played by men. He complains about having to spend outrageous amounts on oranges (at sixpence each) for the ladies in his company. The seats in the pit were rows of benches without backs.

I was sitting behind in a dark place, and a lady spit backward upon me by mistake, not seeing me, but after seeing her to be a very pretty lady I was not troubled at it all.

Ah, but Pepys did have a fondness for a pretty face!

Lavania Fenton as Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera

Lavania Fenton as Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera

He is in continual ecstasy about the beauty of one or the other of those ladies of the Court, most constant, however, to the Castlemaine, but appreciative of the Stewart, “with her little Roman nose,” or “pretty witty Nell,” or Mrs. Middleton “with a very excellent face, and body I think.” If neither Hart nor Nell nor Knipp [Mary Knep] were there the play, however good, would not please him. With Knipp present he would enjoy the worst of pieces even by the side of Mrs. Pepys. “But it is pretty to observe,” he says, “how I did look up and down and did spy Knipp, but durst not own it to my wife, who do not like my kindness to her.” Little wonder, indeed, for Mrs. Pepys surely had much to put up with. Samuel was decorum itself by her side, but when she was away he would find himself sitting in front of Knipp and Pierce, “who pulled me by the hair, so I addressed myself to them.” Knipp sang a song in the flies at the King’s House which pleased Samuel mightily, “where Knipp, after her song in the clouds, came to me in the pit.” Finally, the shameless rogue had the conscience to put on record his feelings at the performance of the “Virgin Martyr,” where “the wind musique when the angel comes down is so sweet that it ravished me, so that it made me realy sick, as I have formerly been when in love with my wife.”

Joseph Addison by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Joseph Addison

Joseph Addison of The Spectator tells about the ladies of fashion in 1711 who took the notion of wearing patches on the right or left side of the forehead to indicate their adherence to a certain political party. Addison “tells us of Rosalinda, a famous Whig partisan, who had unfortunately a very beautiful mole on the Tory part of her forehead, which misled several coxcombs “to converse in the wrong strain, when on a sudden she has given them an unexpected fire which sunk them all at once.” Then there was Nigranilla too, “unhappy in a pimple, which forces her against her inclinations to patch on the Whig side.”

The Trunkmaker of the Upper Gallery

Addison’s immortal paper begins:

It has been observed that of late years there has been a certain person in the upper gallery of the playhouse, who, when he is pleased with anything on the stage, expresses his approbation by a loud knock upon the benches or the wainscot which may be heard over the whole house.

The Trunkmaker was a large black man whom nobody knew, who was never seen to smile, “but upon hearing anything to please him takes up his huge oaken plank and laid it upon the next piece of timber that stood in his way with exceeding vehemence. If the audience does not concur with him, he smites a second time, and if the audience is not yet awakened, looks round him with great wrath, and repeats the blow a third time, which never fails to produce the clap. …[H]e seldom went away from any tragedy by Shakespeare without leaving the wainscot completely shattered. The players cheerfully repair at their own cost whatever damages he makes… [T]he actors valued no applause which had not the sound of the oak plank in it.

During this time, it was common for certain fashionable braggadocios to linger on the stage and distract the audience from the play. Although Queen Anne issued a royal proclamation against it in 1711, but it was obviously not enforced, as can be seen in Mr. Hogarth’s painting of the Third Act of The Beggars’ Opera, where, in addition to the actors on the stage can be seen in the box on the right, the “Duke of Bolton ogling Vinnie Fenton, who he will presently remove from the stage and marry…” and the crowd of spectators on the stage in 1727.

William Hogarth, Act III, Beggar's Opera

William Hogarth, Act III, Beggar’s Opera

As Boulton has stated, the activities of the stage were only part of the entertainment. Observing the other audience members—particularly the noble ones—was a particular interest of Samuel Pepys. A rejected swain might get his revenge by throwing rubbish at a pretty actress on the stage. A particular target for disgruntled audience was the harpsichord, but if the play or grievance was really bad, the benches and seats and other furnishings might be destroyed as well.

Opera at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket

Opera was first patronized by King George I, who “gave a subscription of £1000, as well as his own name, to the Opera House.”

Farinelli

Farinelli

Fashionable London was so fond of opera in 1735 that it paid £5000 a year to Farinelli, and when that incomparable singer was at the Haymarket an enthusiastic lady in the boxes was heard to exclaim in her ecstasy, “One God, one Farinelli.” Then singers and their competing merits were a continual joy to generations of noble patrons, and their preferences for one singer or another often inspired ladies of high fashion with very unfashionable feelings. Thus when the rival warblers Cuzzoni and Faustina were appearing at the opera in 1726, they each had a party of thick and thin supporters in distinguished circles. There was the Countess of Pembroke at the head of her party in a box, who was prepared to go all lengths for Cuzzoni; the Countess of Burlington and Lady Delaware, with their train of young men in another, were fierce and determined on behalf of the Faustina. So when Cuzzoni came on the noble faction which supported Faustina hissed her into silence, when Faustina appeared she was shrieked off the stage by the devoted band at the back of my Lady Pembroke.

By the early nineteenth century,

…there was a cult of deportment which developed in social London, and constituted a tyranny under which society groaned for a couple of generations. Beau Brummell and his set at the clubs in St. James’s Street represented the male element of this autocracy of fashion, the lady patronesses at Almack’s in King Street the feminine; and at the opera they both united their forces… There was the peerless Mr. Brummell, with his satellite exquisites in Fop’s Alley, the interest of the whole mankind of the house, we are asked to believe, centred in the question of his raiment for the evening… The ladies of the grand tier, we are told, including the chaperons, were more anxious for his notice than for that of the Prince Regent. The opera, in fact, like Almack’s, was a social function which entirely outclassed anything of the sort at Court after the retirement of the poor blind King George the Third. There was no question of getting in by the mere payment of money, a committee of ladies supervised the issue of every ticket, and a man or a lady went to the opera or did not, according as their social position was or was not considered worthy of that honour by the Lady Patronesses… who controlled London society from the time of the Regency until her Majesty came to the throne. [They] were accustomed to sit in conclave upon all the young men about to enter life, and decide as to whether or not they were eligible for admission such stately functions as Almack’s and the opera.

Interior of theater at Sadler's Wells, 1810

Interior of theater at Sadler’s Wells, 1810

 

Amusements of Old London series

Amusements of Old London: The Cockpit

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

Cock-fighting in Georgian England

Cock-fighting in Georgian England

Cock-fighting is recorded as the diversion of ingenious schoolboys by Fitz-Stephen in the reign of Henry the Second… it was prohibited by Edward the Third… it was encouraged by Henry the Eighth, who built the first royal cockpit at Whitehall… it was so much the vogue in high circles in the reign of Charles the First that Vandyck painted a picture of the court watching a match in the royal pit… Oliver Cromwell quite naturally suppressed the diversion by an Act of 1654… and… all its ancient glories were revived by the joyful restoration of King Charles the Second. Modern England, as we contend, began with the days of that monarch, or soon after; we propose therefore to confine our survey of the sport to the days of his Majesty, and since.

Mr. Pepys’s cockpit experience (December 21, 1663)

Being directed by sight of bills upon the walls, I did go to Shoe Lane to see a cock-fight at a new pit there, a sport I never was at in my life. But, Lord, to see the strange variety of people—from Parliament man…to the poorest ‘prentices, bakers, brewers, butchers, draymen, and what not—and all these fellows one with another in swearing, cursing, and betting, and yet I would not but have seen it once. I soon had enough of it, it being strange to observe the nature of these poor creatures; how they will fight till they drop down dead upon the table and strike after they are ready to give up the ghost, not offering to run away when they are wearing or wounded past doing further, whereas when a dunghill brood comes, he will, after a sharp stroke that pricks him, run off the stage, and they wring off his neck without much more ado. Whereas the other they preserve, though their eyes be both out, for breed only of a true cock of the game. Sometimes a cock that has had ten to one against him will be chance give an unlucky blow, and it will strike the other stark dead in a moment, that he never stirs more; but the common rule is that though a cock neither runs nor dies, yet if any man will bet £10 to a crown, and nobody take the bet, the game is given over, and not sooner.  One thing more, it is strange to see how people of this poor rank, that look as if they had not bread to put in their mouths, shall bet three or four pounds at one bet and lose it, and yet bet as much the next battle (so they call every match of two cocks), so that one of them will lose £10 or £20 at a meeting; thence having had enough of it.

William Hogarth: The Cock Fight

William Hogarth: The Cock Fight

Cock-fighting

The sport of cock-fighting was not something that could be taken up by just anyone. The requisite breeding and training of the birds for at least two years prior to any matches required a great deal of money, as well as time and attention. But it could be very lucrative also, since the owners received the benefit of portions of the gate-money provided by the spectators.

Numerous books and treatises were written on the manner of breeding and training cocks, including how to choose them when small, how to feed them, and how to set them to spar with each other.

For a sparring match they covered “the cocks’ heels with a pair of hots made of bombasted leather,” that is, they improvised a sort of boxing-gloves for these interesting birds.

Prior to a match, the cock was trimmed for the fight, “his tail cut into the shape of a short fan… [and] his pinions… trimmed feather by feather, each quill being cut at a slant in order that in rising a lucky stroke might take out the eye of his adversary. Finally, his legs were furnished with the deadly ‘gaffles’ or spurs… some two inches in length, and curved like a surgeon’s needle… either of steel or a silver alloy.”

Birds were matched according to weight, those of middle weight (3-1/2 – 4-1/2 lbs.) being preferred for important venues such as the Royal Cockpit.

As you might imagine, this type of undertaking was not for any but the very rich. Poorer men, however, could and did enjoy the sport as spectators.

The Royal Cock Pit

The Royal Cock Pit

Three Orders

The Long Main—those between cities or countries—provided a full week of entertainment, since the time and expense of traveling made it impractical for an event of short duration.

The Short Main lasted a couple of days or even a few hours, and was much infiltrated by amateurs.

The Welch Main was fought for a prize of some sort—”a purse, a gold cup, a fat hog, or some other prize.” The Welch main was rather like a violent dodgeball tournament, something like the Hunger Games. Thirty-two cocks

…were arranged in sixteen pairs, and each couple fought to the death. The winners, or such as survived, were again matched in pairs, and the battle renewed. The eight winners of this second contest provided four pairs for the third; the survivors of the third contest made a couple of pairs for the penultimate combat; and the final issue of the Welch Main lay between this pair of devoted fowl, from which the much-enduring winner of the whole contest emerged… Its opportunities for betting were no greater certainly than in the Long Main… but it had great attractions for the choice spirits of the cockpit…

The Battle Royal, another variation, was simply a bloodbath of any number of birds in the pit, with the last survivor being the winner.

The determination shown by the finest cocks was astonishing. It is no exaggeration to say that the best cocks of the game would show fight as long as a spark of life remained in their devoted bodies. They might be maimed and even blinded, but when confronted by their enemy they would concentrate what little vitality was left to them in the menacing ruffling of their hackles and an expiring peck. This was so well understood that a blinded cock was never declared beaten until his beak was rubbed against that of his adversary.

Cock-fighting, Henry Thomas Aiken

Cock-fighting, Henry Thomas Aiken

A somewhat secretive endeavor

It was probably due to its gory nature and the presence of “rough” company that caused aficionados of the “sport” to keep a low profile. Boulton suggests that it was never a particularly popular support among the fashionable men of St. James’s, since there is only one entry in an entire century mentioning cock-fighting in the betting-book at White’s. The Earl of Derby and the Earl of Sefton were known to be supporters, as well as “the families of Warburton, Wilbrahams, Egertons, and Cholmondeleys” and “Lord Mexborough, the Cottons and the Meynells, Admiral Rous, Lord Chesterfield, and General Peel.”

A continuous outcry

Protests about its cruelty were commonplace, as you can see by this satirical advertisement:

“This is to give notice to all lovers of cruelty and promoters of misery, that at the George Inn, on Wednesday, in the Whitsun week, will be provided for their diversion the savage sport of cock-fighting, which cannot but give delight to every breast divested of humanity, and for music, oaths and curses will not fail to resound round the pit, so that this pastime must be greatly approved by such as have no reverence for the Deity nor benevolence for His creatures.”

The Gloucester Journal, 1756

cocks

The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835

This Act amended existing legislation to include (as ‘cattle’) bulls, dogs, bears, goats and sheep, to prohibit bear-baiting and cockfighting, which facilitated further legislation to protect animals, create shelters, veterinary hospitals and more humane transportation and slaughter.

In spite of this legislation cock-fighting did not expire without a struggle. There is an account of [a secretive meeting] in the interesting but rambling memoirs of the Honourable Grantley Berkeley, showing how the Count de Salis, a magistrate, lent his premises near Cranford to Berkeley and his friends for the purpose, gave him the keys of the whole place, and then called in the police and hauled Berkeley before the Bench at Uxbridge. There was much fun excited by the non-appearance of the count, “the cock who would not fight,” and Berkeley was fined five pounds.

Amusements of Old London series