Irish poet, sometime comic actor and most notably the author of Harris’s Ladies of Covent Garden; over the past few weeks we have been reading Harris’s guides to the seedier side of London 1760’s – 1790’s not really questioning who wrote them until we noticed an article written a few years ago in the Camden New Journal, in which the author of The Covent Garden Ladies, Hallie Rubenhold, said that she had unearthed the author, but that she was still hoping to find his burial.
So, of course we were curious now to find out more about Samuel and hopefully provide her with the missing piece of her jigsaw – we simply love a challenge!
As usual we began by searching the internet and, as anticipated, much has already been written about the poet’s life, with conflicting information about the date of his death. We rapidly found ourselves confused by this man.
Apparently he died penniless with requests being made to help fund his funeral, then conflicting information saying that he was actually very wealthy when he died.
The newspapers contained much information, but the more we read the more confused we became about his death.
The St James’s Chronicle dated the 3rd – 5th March 1768 reported:
Mr Derrick who has laboured under a lingering disorder from which he was supposed to have been nearly recovered was on Tuesday evening seized of a relapse; and now lies very ill at his house in Orange Grove.
By December 1768 he had made a recovery, but in February 1769 it was reported that once again he was very ill whilst at Bath and was being attended by physicians.
A month later the same report was made in The Whitehall Evening Post. By the 11th March 1769 St James’s Chronicle informed its readers that he had died. Lloyd’s Evening Post of the 13th March also referred to him as the late Mr Derrick, saying that in his position of Master of ceremonies he earned upwards of 1000l per annum. We thought that was an end to our search, there it was in black and white – his death! No, they got it wrong!
Four days later, lo and behold he was still alive, although the newspapers said he wouldn’t be for much longer. The Whitehall Evening Post a few days later received a letter from Bath dated the 16th March –
Notwithstanding the newspapers have killed Mr Derrick, Master of Ceremonies sometime ago, yet he is still living but in so wretched a state of health, that he is not at all to be envied…
An advert appeared on the 19th March 1769 in Pope’s Bath Chronicle about letting his house, perhaps a tad inappropriate given that Samuel was not yet deceased!
To be Lett, and enter’d on immediately, a house in Bradley’s Building, very convenient, and in excellent repair, now inhabited by Samuel Derrick Esq, master of the Ceremonies of this city. The goods, which are new and in elegant taste, will be sold by private contract on the premises, or otherwise when the house is disposed of. Enquire of Mr. Smith, within two doors of the said tenement on the Horse Parade.
Finally, after much searching we found the confirmation we were looking for – he was dead! … his death being reported in the St James’s Chronicle dated Saturday 1st April 1769, confirming his death as the previous Tuesday i.e. 28th March 1769. Apparently at the time of his death he was worth a considerable sum of money which he left to a number of relatives in Ireland.
Oh no, a few days later this rumour of wealth was quashed by The London Chronicle, who said he died totally penniless with members of the nobility making donations to help finance him in his dying days. According to Charlotte Hayes, the courtesan and brothel keeper, Samuel bequeathed the profits of the final edition of Harris’s List to her, if that were true then he must have left a will, but no trace of it remains today!
We can finally confirm that Samuel’s burial took place at St Peter and St Paul’s church, Bath on the 2nd April 1769.
Shortly after his actual death The London Chronicle (29th April 1769 – 2nd May 1769) wrote anecdotes of his life in which they confirmed him to be the author of Harris’s Lists, the first edition being written by Derrick whilst confined at Ferguson’s spunging house ( a place where debtors were held), which he sold to a publisher thereby obtaining his liberty.
It said that he lived with the celebrated actress Mrs. Jane Lessingham. It seems likely that Harris simply lent his name to the book and possibly helped in providing some of the information, but Derrick actually wrote it (and wisely left his own name off!).
There was also a not very complimentary physical description given for him:
… of diminutive size, with reddish hair and vacant countenance and required no small quantity of perfume to predominate over some odours that were not of the most fragrant kind … he had a propensity for external gaiety which often induced him to appear in a laced coat, with a very dirty shirt.
Doesn’t that make him sound like a great catch??!
Foote apparently commented:
He was a very impudent fellow to have five embroidered coats and only one shirt.
From Derrick’s Jests there was a comment made by an Irish friend of his on seeing him in his coffin.
Ah poor Sammy, till this time hast been continually amidst a scene of bustle and noise; but, thank God, art now still for once in thy lifetime!
Hopefully we have finally managed to lay Samuel Derrick to rest in peace. Find out more about the life and children of his mistress Jane Lessingham.
‘If you ever wondered what Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy and his ‘fellows’ got up to on their numerous trips to London read this edition of the book they would have certainly carried around…Harris’ “List of Covent Garden Ladies” was a bestseller of the eighteenth century, shifting 250,000 copies in an age before mass consumerism. An annual ‘guide book’, it detailed the names and ‘specialities’ of the capital’s prostitutes. During its heyday (1757-95) Harris’ “List” was the essential accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure. Yet beyond its titillating passages lay a glimpse into the lives of those who lived and died by the List’s profits during the Georgian era. Hallie Rubenhold has collected the funniest, ruddiest and most surreal entries penned by Jack Harris, “Pimp-General-of-All-England” into this hilarious book’.
Featured image Courtesy of Royal Museums, Greenwich