La Belle Assemblée, March 1807
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 wearing of masks to disguise one’s identity was nothing new when the “quasi heathenish fêtes” of the medieval Venetians spread to 17th century England. After all, inquisitors, executioners, and highwaymen wore them as they completed their odious business. Pagan rites such as Bacchanalia and Saturnalia and the fêtes des innocents or fêtes de fous were masked revels in which participants could, along with their attire, shed their normal scruples and give way to their impulses. While there are accounts of masked events in Henry VIII’s court as well as the some of the Stuarts’, the “true masquerade,” where all guests were dressed in costume, was a long time coming to England from the Continent, probably because of its foreign origin in a Papist country.
It was only at the beginning of the 18th century that moralizing on the subject of masquerades began to appear in publications such as The Tatler and The Spectator.
It is worthy of note that the masked assembly was never an institution that had any great vogue among the common people, either in this country, or elsewhere. The wearing of masks or of disguises in private life was from very early times the exclusive privilege of the great or of those who imitated them.
Constables or police who raided some of these events discovered prominent men and women among the masked revelers and eventually released them.
The High Constable of Westminster descended upon a masquerade at midnight and made a great haul, which he duly displayed before Mr. Fielding. That eminent magistrate sat up all night to hear the charge, “but several of them being found to be persons of distinction, the justice, not thinking it proper to expose them, after a severe reprimand, dismissed them all.
“The women either come by themselves,” says Addison, describing the amenities of the masquerade of 1711, “or are introduced by friends, who are obliged to quit them upon their first entrance to the conversation of anybody that addresses himself to them.” This by the way was one of the rules of the true masquerade, which was its chief attraction for the frisky maid or matron of those days. Introductions were unknown, and absolute incognito was possible for all who wished to preserve it. The mask and domino were inviolable, except indeed to the police, and any infringement of that rule by a masker led to the inevitable chastisement of the offender by the other men in the room, of which there are numerous fatal results recorded. “But,” continues Mr. Addison, “there are several rooms where the parties may retire and show their faces by consent.”
The subject of masquerades evoked the growing censure of the press for the next half century, but “the masquerade absolutely throve on opposition.” The Bishop of London’s scathing sermons had no effect, nor did the satirical prints and prose that was disseminated throughout the city.
There were strange financial proposals too from amateur chancellors of the exchequer, who proposed to levy taxes upon all tickets for those ungodly diversions and to devote the proceeds to the Foundling Hospital, an institution which they declared was populated by the amours which were kindled by the opportunities of the masquerade. Grave statisticians drew attention to what they contended was an appalling fact, that the vogue of the masquerade quadrupled the normal number of divorces, and pious God-fearing people, whose nerves were sorely shaken by the two smart shocks of earthquake which startled London towards the middle of the century, pointed to the judgment of heaven which these unholy revels were calling upon the town.
It was precisely during the period of this continued opposition, which stretched practically from the days of Queen Anne to those of George the Third, that the masquerade established itself as one of the chief amusements of the upper classes of society in London. Middle class England might still cherish its memories of the Puritans, but there were other views in high quarters, and a mere newspaper agitation was of little effect in a day when four-fifths of the popular could not read. The diversions of an aristocracy, too, were moderately safe from interference by legislation provided by a Parliament whose two houses were composed of the aristocracy and its nominees. The well-born and well-placed classes of Anne and the Georges, in short, with King George the Second at their head, enjoyed the fredaines of the masquerade, and determined to keep them in spite of the bishops and the moralists of the press. And they succeeded perfectly.
The appearance of “party organizers” such as “Beau Nash in Bath, Robert Arthur at White’s Club, William Brooks at Brooks’s, Almack at his Assembly Rooms in King Street, Crockford at the big gaming club in St. James’s Street” had considerable influence on the amusements of late Georgian aristocrats.
John James Heidegger
The son of a pastor from Zurich, Heidegger “wandered about Europe for a quarter of a century living by his wits and acquiring knowledge of men and cities.” He came to England at the age of fifty and enlisted in the Guards, “a regiment in which you might at that time find very well-born men among the rank and file.” Known as the “Swiss Count,” his face was considered one of the ugliest ever seen. It is said that Lord Chesterfield, in lieu of paying his bill, told his tailor, a Mr. Jolly, that “he would not pay him until he could produce an uglier man than himself.” Mr. Jolly showed up with Heidegger and promptly received his money. A measure of Heidegger’s social success is the fact that he was accepted as a member of the very exclusive White’s Club.
Heidegger possessed extraordinary organizational and entrepreneurial skills. His first venture, which involved producing an opera at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket, brought him much financial success, and established him as a theatre consultant.
The great world took him up and caressed him; princes gave him amethyst snuff-boxes set in gold; if my lady wanted a rout arranged at her mansion, or if there was a musical entertainment or a dancing assembly to be arranged at a public room, Mr. Heidegger was called in and did the thing to perfection.
King George I loved him and made him manager of His Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket, where he worked with Handel on producing an opera. And then he set his mind to improving masquerades (which delighted the king even more than opera).
Unfortunately, many in the theater community resented the popularity of masquerades, seeing it as competition for their own offerings. There were also plenty of rumors of gamesters, women of the street, and even highwaymen present at these affairs. But with the king’s support, Heidegger had no fear of the naysayers—the pamphleteers and moralizers and disgruntled theatre people. (Theresa Cornelys was not so fortunate.) “Heidegger boasted of making £5000 a year by this business.” At one point, when the king signed a royal proclamation against masquerades, Heidegger called the next one a ridotto, and not only got away with it, but the king was one of the guests!
“Thou Heidegger the English taste has found
And rul’st the mob of quality with sound’
In Lent, if masquerades displease the town
Call ’em ridottos, and they will still go down.
Go on, Prince Phiz, to please the British nation
Call thy next masquerade a convocation.”
Heidegger’s legacy to the British people, according to the London Post, was the perfected masquerade. Even after his death in 1749, the masquerade continued to flourish in several new buildings around town.
The Rotunda at Ranelagh, 142 feet in diameter, proved to be an attractive venue for masquerades. There was no stage for actors and thus it was not competition for theaters. After a very successful “Jubilee Masquerade in the Venetian manner,” on 1st May 1749 to celebrate the peace in that year, “it was determined to repeat it in the form of a subscription masquerade.” Horace Walpole writes:
When you entered you found the whole garden filled with masks and spread with tents, which remained all night very commodely. In one quarter was a maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked, as were all the various bands of music, which were disposed in different parts of the garden, some like huntsmen with French horns, some like peasants, and a troupe of harlequins and scaramouches in the little open temple on the mount. On the canal was a sort of gondola adorned with flags and streamers, and filled with music rowing about. All round the outside of the amphitheatre were shops filled with Dresden China, Japan, &cc., and all the shopkeepers in mask. The amphitheatre was illuminated, and in the middle was a circular bower composed of all kinds of firs in tubs, from twenty to thirty feet high, under the orange trees, with small lamps in each orange, and below them all sorts of the finest auriculus in pots and festoons of natural flowers hanging from tree to tree. There were booths for tea and wine, gaming-tables, and dancing, and about two thousand persons. In short, it pleased me more than anything I ever saw.
The Inauguration of the Pantheon in Oxford Street (1772)
It was rumored that the managers were set against inviting women with less-than-stellar reputations, i.e. actresses and demimondaines. Sophia Baddeley was one such actress with high connections—she was Lord Melbourne’s mistress at the time—and a score or so of her supporters assembled at Pall Mall and escorted her chair to St. James’s Street, where they were joined by even more fine gentlemen from White’s. The procession continued all the way to the Pantheon, whereupon they took out their swords and frightened the porters who were ordered to deny her entrance. This allowed the triumphant Sophia to march into the “fine room under a long canopy made by the crossed swords of her gallant escort.” Eventually, the managers made their apologies to her, and two duchesses “came forward to express to Mrs. Baddeley the pleasure it gave their graces to welcome such an ornament to the assembly.”
Mrs. Cornelys of Carlisle House
was the second person to make a business of organizing amusements for the upper classes. Her story was featured in an earlier post on this blog. Click here to read more.
Amusements of Old London series
Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes
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.
Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
Teresa, by birth a German, and during man-years a public singer in Italy and Germany, settled in London about the year 1756, and for twenty years entertained “the votaries of fashion of both sexes” with great success. For this purpose Mrs. Cornelys obtained possession of Carlisle House, in Soho Square, formerly the mansion of the Earl of Carlisle.
Carlisle House was of considerable extent: the Catholic chapel in Sutton Street was the banqueting-room, and the connecting passage between it and the house in Soho Square was called “the Chinese Bridge.” The arched entrance below the chapel was exclusively for chairs or sedans.
The Antecedent of Almack’s?
The nobility and gentry had the entrée of Carlisle House by payment of an annual subscription, for which they received a ticket of admission to all entertainments given there. They had the privilege of lending their tickets to friends, provided they wrote “the name of the person upon the back of the said ticket to whom they have lent it, to prevent any mistake.” Mrs. Cornelys had great success; but she had her troubles in powerful competitors; for we find her issuing this advertisement: “Whereas, it is been industriously reported, to the disadvantage of Mrs. Cornelys, that she has expressed herself dissatisfied with a subscription now on foot to build a large room in opposition to her; she esteems it her duty, in this public manner, to declare that she never once entertained a thought so unjust and unreasonable…” The “large room” here referred to in opposition is thus referred to by Horace Walpole, in a letter dated Dec. 16, 1764: “Mrs. Cornelys, apprehending the future assembly at Almack’s, has enlarged her vast room, and hung it with blue satin, and other with yellow satin; but Almack’s room, which is to be 90 feet long, proposes to swallow up both hers, as easily as Moses’s rod gobbled down those of the magician’s.” However, Mrs. Cornelys made additions to Carlisle House, with new embellishments, furniture, and decorations, which in the year 1765 cost some 2,000l… in consequence of which she was compelled to charge subscribers an additional guinea.
The ball on Feb. 26, 1770
…Mrs. Cornelys gave a magnificent fête to some 800 maskers. Walpole devotes great part of a long letter to a description of this masquerade, at which he was present.
Our civil war has been lulled asleep by a Subscription Masquerade, for which the House of Commons literally adjourned yesterday. Instead of Fairfax’s and Cromwells, we have had a crowd of Henry the Eighths, Wolseys, Vandykes, and Harlequins; and because Wilkes was not mask enough, we had a man dressed like him, with a visor in imitation of his squint, and a Cap of Liberty on a pole… The ball was last night at Soho; and, if possible, was more magnificent than the King of Denmark’s…
…The mob was beyond all belief: they held flambeaux to the windows of every coach and demanded to have the masks pulled off and put on at their pleasure, but with extreme good humor and civility. I was with my Lady Hertford and two of her daughters in her coach: the mob took me for Lord Hertford, and huzzaed and blessed me! One fellow cried out, “Are you for Wilkes?” Another said, “D—n you, you fool, what has Wilkes to do with a masquerade?”
Among the company were Lady Waldegrave, Lady Pembroke, the Duchess of Hamilton, Mrs. Crewe, Mrs. Hodges, Lady Algeria Carpenter, &c. The characters assumed were very eccentric. Sir R. Phillips appeared as “a double man,” half-miller, half chimney-sweeper. The Earl of Carlisle figured as a running footman; Mr. James, the painter, as Midas. The Duke of Devonshire was “very fine, but in no particular character.” And “Lord Edg—b, in the character of an old woman, was full as lovely as his lady.” The ladies were superbly dressed. “The Countess Dowager of Waldegrave wore a dress richly trimmed with beads and pearls, in the character of Jane Shore.” “The Duchess of Bolton, in the character of Diana, was captivating.” “Lady Stanhope, as Melpomene, was a striking fine figure.” “Lady August Stuart, as a Vestal, and Lady Caroline as a Fille de Patmos, showed that true elegance may be expressed without gold and diamonds.” “The Countess of Pomfret, in the character of a Greek Sultana, and the two Miss Fredericks, who accompanied her, as Greek slaves, made a complete group;” and to eclipse all, “Miss Moncton, daughter to Lord Galway, appeared in the character of an Indian Sultana, in a robe of cloth of gold and a rich veil. The seams of her habit were embroidered with precious stones, and she had a magnificent cluster of diamonds on her head: the jewels she wore were valued at 30,000l.”
An “opera strife” leads to bankruptcy
In the following year, 1771, Mrs. Cornelys got embroiled in an opera strife. Walpole writes, Feb. 22, 1771: “Our most serious war is between two Operas. Mr. Hobart, Lord Buckingham’s brother, is manager of the Haymarket. Last year he affronted Guadagni, by preferring the Zamperina, his own mistress, to the singing hero’s sister. The Duchess of Northumberland, Lady Harrington, and some of the great ladies, took up the brother, and without a license erected an opera for him at Madame Cornelys’s… Mr. Hobart began to starve, and the managers of the theatre were alarmed. To avoid the Act, she pretended to take no money, and had the assurance to advertise that the subscription was to provide coals for the poor, for she has vehemently courted the mob, and succeed in gaining their princely favour. She then declared her masquerades were for the benefit of commerce.… At last, Mr. Hobart informed against her, and the Bench of Justices, have pronounced against her. Her opera is quashed, and Guadagni… is not only fined, but was threatened to be sent to Bridewell.
Mrs. Cornelys’s masquerades were characterized not only by indecency, but also by mockery of solemn feelings and principles… The lessees of the theatre, injured by her popularity, opposed her; and she was convicted before Sir John Fielding for performing dramatic entertainments without a license.… Next, bills of indictment were preferred to the grand jury, insinuating of Mrs. Cornelys “that she does keep and maintain a common disorderly house, and did permit and suffer diverse loose, idle, and disorderly persons, as well men as women, to be and remain the whole night, rioting and otherwise misbehaving themselves.” In November following, appeared in the bankrupt list of the London Gazette, “Teresa Cornelys, Carlisle House, St. Anne, Soho, dealer.”
Mrs. Cornelys’s last stand
Nevertheless, Mrs. Cornelys resumed her revels here with great spirit in 1776. Two years later, Carlisle House was again advertised to be sold by private contract…
…Mrs. Cornelys attempted to retrieve her fortunes in various places; one being in a large detached mansion, known as Knightsbridge Grove, in Porter’s Lane, approached through a fine avenue of trees from the highway. At length, in 1785, Mrs. Cornelys gave up her precarious trade. “Ten years after,” says Davis’s Memorials of Knightsbridge, “to the great surprise of the public, she reappeared at Knightsbridge as Mrs. Smith, a retailer of asses’ milk. A suite of breakfast-rooms was opened; but her former influence could not be recovered.” The speculation failed; and at length she was confined in the Fleet Prison, where she died August 19, 1797.
In the literature of the day
Murphy, in his Epilogue to Zobeide, 1771, refers to her popularity:
For her each haunt that charms a modern belle!
Adieu, Almack’s! Cornelys! Masquerade!
Sweet Ranelagh! Vauxhall’s enchanting shade!
Combe, in his satire, The Diobalady, 1777, thus severely castigates the licentiousness of the amusements:
The ready ministers of hell’s commands, Obedient, fly and take their several stands
At Court, Cornelys’, and the Coterie;
Where vice, more vicious by effrontery,
Fearless, unblushing, braves the eternal laws
Of God and man, to aid the devil’s cause.
Note: Teresa Cornelys was one of the mistresses of the famous lover, Casanova, to whom she bore a child.
Romance of London Series
- Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
- Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
- Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
- Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
- Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
- Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
- Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
- Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
- Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
- Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
- Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
- Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
- Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
- Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
- Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
- Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
- Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
- Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
- Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
- Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
- Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
- Romance of London: Voltaire in London
- Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
- Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
- Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
- Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
- Romance of London: A London Recluse