Tag Archive | John Gay

Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble

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.

This particular book is available at googlebooks for free in ebook form. Or you can pay for a print version.

The word “Bubble” as applied to any ruinous speculation, was first applied to the transactions of the South Sea Company, in the disastrous year 1720. It originated in the exaggerated representations of the sudden riches to be realized by the opening of new branches of trade to the South Sea, the monopoly of which was to be secured to the South Sea Company, upon their pretext of paying off the National Debt. The Company was to become the richest the world ever saw, and each hundred pounds of their stock would produce hundreds per annum to the holder. By this means the stock was raised to near 400; it then fluctuated, and settled at 330.


E.M. Ward, “‘Change Alley during the South Sea Bubble.”

Exchange Alley was the seat of the gambling fever;* it was blocked up every day by crowds, as were Cornhill and Lombard Street with carriages.  In the words of the ballads of the day:—

There is a gulf where thousands fell,

There all the bold adventurers came;

A narrow sound, though deep as hell,

‘Change Alley is the dreadful name.—Swift

Then stars and garters did appear

Among the meaner rabble;

To buy and sell, to see and hear

The Jews and Gentiles squabble.

The greatest ladies thither came,

And plied in chariots daily,

Or pawned their jewels for a sum

To venture in the Alley.

Innumerable bubble companies soon started up, by which one million and a half sterling was won and lost in a very short time. The absurdity of the schemes was monstrous: one was “a company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know where it is.” In all these bubbles, persons of both sexes alike engaged; the men meeting their brokers at taverns and coffee-houses, and the ladies at the shops of milliners and haberdashers; and in Exchange Alley, shares in the same bubble were sold, at the same instant, then per cent. Higher at one end of the Alley than the other. Meanwhile, the Minister warmed the nation, and the King declared such projects unlawful, and trafficking brokers were liable to 5,000l penalty. The companies were dissolved, but others as soon sprung up. The folly was satirized in caricatures and “stock-jobbing cards.” When Sir Isaac Newton was asked about the continuance of the rising of the South Sea stock, he answered that he could not calculate the madness of the people…

Among the victims was Gay, the poet [author of The Beggar’s Opera], who having had some South Sea Stock presented to him, supposed himself to be the master of 20,000l: his friends importuned him to sell, but he refused, and profit and principal were lost. The ministers grew more alarmed, the directors were insulted in the streets, and riots were apprehended; a run commenced upon the most eminent goldsmiths and bankers, some of whom absconded.

The Committee of Secrecy reported to Parliament the results of their enquiry, showing how false and fictitious entries had been made in the books, erasures and alterations made, and leaves torn out; and some of the most important books had been destroyed altogether. The properties of many thousands of persons, amounting to many millions of money, had been away with. Fictitious stock had been distributed among members of the Government, by way of bribe, to facilitate the passing of the Bill. One of the Secretaries to the Treasury had received 250,000l, as the difference in the price of some stock, and the account of the Chancellor of the Exchequer showed 794,451l. He proved the greatest criminal, and was expelled the House, all his estate seized, and he was committed a close prisoner to the Tower of London. Next day Sir George Casual, of a firm of jobbers who had implicated in the business, was expelled the House, committed to the Tower, and ordered to refund 250,000l. Mr. Craggs the elder died the day before his examination was to have come on. He left a fortune of a million and a half, which was confiscated for the benefit of the sufferers. Every director was mulcted [fined], and two millions and fourteen thousand pounds were confiscated, each director being allowed a small residue to begin the world anew.

The history of the Bubble and other speculations contemporaneously with the South Sea scheme is well narrated in Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, vol. i. Pp. 45-84.

The Night Singer of Shares

The Night Singer of Shares

It was about the year 1688 that the world ‘stock-jobber’ was first heard in London. In the short space of four years a crowd of companies, every one of which confidently held out to subscribers the hope of immense gains, sprang into existence: the Insurance Company, the Paper Company, the Lutestring Company, the Pearl Fishery Company, the Glass Bottle Company, the Alum Company, the Blythe Coal Company, the Sword-blade Company. There was a Tapestry Company, which would soon furnish pretty hangings for all the parlours of the middle class, and for all the bed-chambers of the higher.

Others included in Mackay’s publication were:

  • The Copper Company
  • The Diving Company (to investigate shipwrecks), which put on an impressive show of their advanced diving equipment on the Thames for fine gentlemen and ladies eager to be a part of such thrilling treasure-hunting
  • The Greenland Fishing Company
  • The Tanning Company
  • The Royal Academy Company, which would educate 2000 winners of a lottery in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, conic sections, trigonometry, heraldry, japanning, fortification, bookkeeping, and the art of playing the theorbo.

Some of these companies took large mansions and printed their advertisements in gilded letters. Others, less ostentatious, were content with ink, and met at coffee-houses in the neighbourhood of the Royal Exchange. Jonathan’s and Garraway’s were in a constant ferment with brokers, buyers, sellers, meetings of directors, meetings of proprietors. Time-bargains soon came into fashion. Extensive combinations were formed, and monstrous fables were circulated, for the purpose of raising or depressing the price of shares.

William Hogarth, Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme (1721). In the bottom left corner are Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish figures gambling, while in the middle there is a huge machine, like a merry-go-round, which people are boarding. At the top is a goat, written below which is "Who'l Ride". The people are scattered around the picture with a sense of disorder, while the progress of the well-dressed people towards the ride in the middle represents the foolishness of the crowd in buying stock in the South Sea Company, which spent more time issuing stock than anything else.

William Hogarth, Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme (1721). In the bottom left corner are Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish figures gambling, while in the middle there is a huge machine, like a merry-go-round, which people are boarding. At the top is a goat, written below which is “Who’l Ride”. The people are scattered around the picture with a sense of disorder, while the progress of the well-dressed people towards the ride in the middle represents the foolishness of the crowd in buying stock in the South Sea Company, which spent more time issuing stock than anything else.

Our country witnessed for the first time those phenomena for which a long experience has made us familiar—a mania, of which the symptoms were essentially the same with those of the mania of 1721, of the mania of 1825, of the mania of 1845, seized the public mind. An impatience to be rich, a contempt for those slow but sure gains which are the proper reward of industry, patience and thrift, spread through society. The spirit of the cogging dicers of Whitefriars took possession of the grave senators of the City, wardens of trades, deputies, aldermen. It was much easier and much more lucrative to put forth a lying prospectus, announcing a new stock, to persuade ignorant people that the dividends could not fall short of twenty per cent., and to part with 5,000l of this imaginary wealth for ten thousand sold guineas, than to load a ship with well-chosen cargo for Virginia or the Levant. Every day a new bubble was puffed into existence, rose buoyant, shone bright, burst, and was forgotten.

*Mr. E.M. Ward, R.A., has painted, with wonderful effect, “‘Change Alley during the South Sea Bubble,” a picture very properly placed in our National Gallery. [Currently Tate]

Susana’s remarks

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

  • You aren’t going to win a big lottery prize. Or the Publishers’ Clearing House Sweepstakes. Or find buried treasure in your backyard.
  • When someone—even if it’s the Pope himself—offers you something that’s too good to be true, it really is too good to be true. Don’t be fooled.
  • Don’t be greedy. Be satisfied with “slow but sure gains” that are the reward of industry, patience and thrift.”


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

The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

dust jacket

The following post is the ninth of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is chock full of commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!


The Weyhill Fair

The Telegraph, rival of the Quicksilver which our author repeatedly states can do 175 miles in eighteen hours, used to pass through Weyhill, which was famous for its annual fair, “which would make those people who have never seen one stare.”

This festivity, which is indeed quite an un-English and out-of-the-way sight, begins on October 10th (Michaelmas Eve) and goes on for six days, during which all the country-side seems to have broken loose, and high junketings are to be seen. Besides junketings (which prevail chiefly on the last day of the fair in connection with peep-shows of the most blood-curdling description, whirligigs, merry-go-rounds, rifle galleries, and gingerbread) are also to be seen wonderful shows of sheep, magnificent cheeses, the finest hops in England displayed in the Farnham Row, great exhibits of machinery and enormous carthorses, and, enveloping all, a Babel indescribable.

Amesbury and the Abbey

Amesbury is where Guinevere arrived “somewhat late at night, after a ride across the Plain” after her affair with Lancelot was discovered.

“…hither came Queen Elfrida in 980…after her murder of her stepson Edward at Corfe; and, bent like all medieval murderesses suffering from a temporary mental depression, on building a church. When she came to the point however, and had interviewed the architect and the abbot, she went the whole hog and built an abbey.”

Amesbury Abbey (the church)

Amesbury Abbey (the church)

Prior to Henry VIII’s dissolution, the abbey played host, when “the Exeter road at that time was but a medieval cart-track, and a very bad one too,” to Eleanor of Brittany, sister of Prince Arthur and Mary, sixth daughter of Edward I. “Eleanor, Queen of Henry III, died here, and Katharine of Aragon stayed for a while here on her first arrival in England in 1501.”

Following the dissolution, “the abbey of Amesbury became Amesbury Abbey and passed from the Earl of Somerset, to whom it was granted by Henry VIII, into the respective hands of the Aylesburys, Boyles, and Queensberrys…”

The Abbey eventually became the parish church, and the nearby mansion of the same name built by Inigo Jones is now part of a group by the same name that operates nursing and retirement homes in the area.

Amesbury Abbey_thumb

Amesbury Abbey (the stately home)

This is where Kitty, “the charming Duchess of Queensberry played the Lady Bountiful in the place, and by entertaining Prior and Gay the Abbey graced the quaint old Wiltshire town with the memories of two of the not least celebrated of the English humorists.”

The Duchess of Queensberry

According to the Douglas family history, Catherine Douglas, née Hyde, was an outspoken, rather eccentric woman who “loved walking, avoided alcohol and was an enthusiastic planter of trees at her husband’s estates.” She’d grown up “in a household frequented by literary celebrities,” and it was she about whom Prior wrote the poem “The Female Phaeton: Upon Lady Kitty’s First Appearing in Public” when she was sixteen.

Catherine Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry

Catherine Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry

Following her marriage to Charles Douglas, 3rd duke of Queensberry, the acclaimed beauty Kitty became an avid patron of the arts, to the point of being exiled from court when her defense of the playwright John Gay offended King George II. Gay spent the last years of his life at the Abbey, where he wrote the Beggar’s Opera, and was given a lavish funeral at his death in 1732.

The Douglas family history fails to mention the fascinating story of Julius Soubise, a Negro slave from the West Indies who was given to the duchess in 1764 when he was ten years old. She gave him a privileged life, treating him as her own son, and he became a noted fencing and riding master, a member of the most exclusive clubs, and quite popular among upper-class social circles. A violinist and singer, he trained in oratory with the actor David Garrick. At times he claimed to be African royalty, calling himself “Prince Ana-Ana-maboe” or the “Black Prince.” It was rumored that the duchess and her protégé had a sexual relationship, so perhaps that is the reason Soubise was left out of the family history. Is it only coincidence that the duchess died two days after Soubise sailed for India?


Julius Soubise

One reason I love delving into these family histories is the interesting things you find. The 3rd Duke of Queensberry, it turns out, succeeded his father “due to special remainder,” when his older brother James was declared insane. Both of the 3rd duke’s sons predeceased him and the title passed to a distant cousin, William Douglas, who later became a friend of the Prince of Wales.

The Duchess of Queensberry Rules

Actually, it was the 9th Marquess of Queensberry to whom the  1867 code on which modern boxing is based can be attributed (although he was not the author, merely the endorser). This code, meant for both amateur and professional matches, is and was the first to mention the use of gloves for boxing. The dear duchess had nothing to do with it, having passed on ninety years earlier.

 Index to all the posts in this series

1: The Bath Road: The (True) Legend of the Berkshire Lady

2: The Bath Road: Littlecote and Wild William Darrell

3: The Bath Road: Lacock Abbey

4: The Bath Road: The Bear Inn at Devizes and the “Pictorial Chronicler of the Regency”

5: The Exeter Road: Flying Machines, Muddy Roads and Well-Mannered Highwaymen

6: The Exeter Road: A Foolish Coachman, a Dreadful Snowstorm and a Romance

7: The Exeter Road in 1823: A Myriad of Changes in Fifty Years

8: The Exeter Road: Basingstoke, Andover and Salisbury and the Events They Witnessed

9: The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

10: The Exeter Road: Stonehenge, Dorchester and the Sad Story of the Monmouth Uprising

11: The Portsmouth Road: Royal Road or Road of Assassination?

12: The Brighton Road: “The Most Nearly Perfect, and Certainly the Most Fashionable of All”

13: The Dover Road: “Rich crowds of historical figures”

14: The Dover Road: Blackheath and Dartford

15: The Dover Road: Rochester and Charles Dickens

16: The Dover Road: William Clements, Gentleman Coachman

17: The York Road: Hadley Green, Barnet

18: The York Road: Enfield Chase and the Gunpowder Treason Plot

19: The York Road: The Stamford Regent Faces the Peril of a Flood

20: The York Road: The Inns at Stilton

21: The Holyhead Road: The Gunpowder Treason Plot

22: The Holyhead Road: Three Notable Coaching Accidents

23: The Holyhead Road: Old Lal the Legless Man and His Extraordinary Flying Machine

24: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part I)

25: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part II)

26: Flying Machines and Waggons and What It Was Like To Travel in Them

27: “A few words on Coaching Inns” and Conclusion