Needless to say in the 18th century women were regarded as being of lower status than their male counterparts, this was especially noticeable in music. How many well-known female composers of the 18th century have you heard of – not many, if any for a guess! Many women were however expected to study music and to be accomplished at playing an instrument or singing, merely as a form of entertainment for their family and friends. This went hand in hand with being the perfect hostess.
In this post we thought we would take a look at how art captured women playing a musical instrument, whether these women were actually able to play theses instruments we have no idea, maybe they were simply used as props in the paintings. One of the most popular instruments for a woman to become accomplished at playing was the harpsichord and so we begin with Anastasia Robinson, mistress of the 3rd Earl of Peterborough followed by A Girl at a Harpsichord 1782 attributed to Mather Brown.
The harp was also immensely popular as we can see here in the painting by Joshua Reynolds, who captured the Countess of Eglinton playing it, then we have A Young Lady Playing the Harp by James Northcote.
The guitar was also a popular instrument for women to play as we can see in these next paintings.
And finally, an all female quartet.
But the post would not be complete without Gillray’s take on an old woman playing the harpsichord now would it!
At the beginning of March 1821 a gentleman naming himself as Mr Probus, a minister of the Episcopal Church, took lodgings at the house of an undertaker, no. 12 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Mr Probus was around 35 years of age, slender with a sallow complexion marked by small-pox scars, dark haired and with, as was realised too late, an ‘insinuating’ manner of address. He applied for a smart and genteel looking boy to wait on and be a companion to a young gentleman at a fine boarding-school (nearly equal to a college, he claimed) in the city of Lincoln. The boy would be brought up in a most respectable manner and given a first-class education, in return for doing little more than fetching fruit and pastries for the young gentlemen from a nearby village. He was inundated with applications.
Mrs Mary Ann Hurrell was the wife of a somewhat impoverished boot and shoemaker who lived at no. 27 Upper Ogle Street, Foley-lace, and at 36 Goodge Street, Marylebone. (Perhaps one address was her home and one her husband’s business premises?) She had two children from a previous marriage, a son named Benjamin Hawthorn aged 13 years and his sister, Georgiana, aged 11. Benjamin, a fine looking lad, had a good singing voice and Georgiana, every bit as charming as her brother, was articled to Mr Warburton, a professor of dancing in Burton Crescent. Mrs Hurrell saw Mr Probus’ advertisement and thought it would be an ideal opportunity for Benjamin. Accordingly, mother and son waited upon the minister on the 3rd March.
Mr Probus was especially taken with Benjamin and put his mother’s apprehensions at rest, saying that his own son was a pupil at the Lincoln academy. A Dr Nutall was to give young Benjamin a character reference but Mr Probus called on the Hurrell’s a few days later to say that he had met with a gentleman who knew Dr Nutall, who had given him every satisfaction concerning Benjamin, and there was no longer any need to call on him. The next day Mrs Hurrell took her son to Mr Probus’ lodgings where the young lad was fitted out with a new suit of clothes provided by Probus, who asked if Benjamin might stay with him that night (he had taken a bed for him at the next house). If any alarm bells were ringing for Mrs Hurrell, she ignored them.
The next day Benjamin told his mother that Mr Probus’ son was not at the Lincoln academy but had in fact died six months earlier, of water on the brain. Mr Probus now proposed to adopt Benjamin as a replacement for his own son and to bring him up as a gentleman, and also confessed that it was he who owned the boarding-school. He then asked if Mrs Hurrell would bring Georgiana to his house as he wished to ‘make her a present of a handsome dress’. The gullible woman duly did as she was bid, despite the ever-changing story, and left her two children alone with Probus. On her return, little Georgiana was so richly attired that her mother hardly recognised her.
Probus now wanted to take both children with him to Lincoln, promising to care for them as if they were his own and to place Georgiana with a friend of his in Lincoln who kept a school. To this the Hurrell’s consented, believing that they were giving the two children a chance to be brought up in a genteel fashion, and the little party left London for Lincoln the next day with promises to write at every opportunity. The first letter Mrs Hurrell received was dated the 17th March but written from York, not Lincoln.
Mr Probus had swiftly abandoned any attempt at maintaining his deception. Signing himself as F[rederick] Williams, he told the wretched mother that her daughter, now renamed Caroline, was dancing on the York stage and that he ‘could sooner part with my life than with [the children]’. Georgiana added a few lines to the letter from her new ‘dear papa’ and said that they were happy. She signed herself Caroline.
Mr Hurrell replied to the letter and asked for the two children to be returned to their home but the only answer was another letter dated the 10th April, briefly saying they were too busy to write more than once a month, were all well but leaving York and asking the Hurrell’s to address any future letters to the Rev. F. Williams at Mr Smith’s, shoemaker, Stonegate, York. On the 3rd May the Hurrell’s received another letter, in the handwriting of Mr Probus aka Williams but signed by ‘Benjamin and Georgiana Frederick Jameson’ (the trio’s new surname) and written from Hull where they were performing and making a great deal of money. Their ‘father’ performed slight-of-hand tricks, Georgiana danced and Benjamin sang, to the admiration of all. They enclosed a paragraph from a Hull newspaper.
There is now performing at the Music Hall, Albion-street, in this town, a Miss Jameson, only nine years of age, a most beautiful and interesting child, In dancing she is, for her age, unrivalled, and her singing is admirable; Mr. Jameson’s slight-of-hand performance gives the greatest satisfaction; and Master Jameson, as a singer, though only 13 years old, is a second Braham. Mr. J. and his interesting young family will perform in Leeds this present Saturday evening, and on Monday and Tuesday next, when they will quit Leeds for Wakefield.
The Hurrell’s received no further communication and, worried that their children might be carried out of the country, scraped together enough money to allow Mr Hurrell to travel north in search of his stepchildren. He set off on the 1st July, heading first to York where he found that the ‘Reverend Williams’ had made a large sum of money from their exploits upon the stage before absconding the city, leaving behind a quantity of unpaid debts with the local tradesmen. Mr Hurrell tracked them to Leeds, Wakefield, Hull, Lincoln, Boston and Stamford where the ‘Reverend Williams’ had become Munro Ridgway, then to Coventry, Leicester, Doncaster and Birmingham. The imposter frequently changed his name and his supposed character, defrauding shopkeepers as he went. The trail went cold and a heartbroken Mr Hurrell returned to London and his wife. They applied to the Magistrates, who asked that the case might receive some publicity in the hope that the children could be traced, but could offer little else in the way of assistance. Mrs Hurrell, it was recorded, left the office in tears.
But the publicity had the desired effect! On the 12th August the little troop were recognised in Billesdon, Leicestershire and the imposter was soon safely in custody in Leicester gaol. Mr Hurrell hurried there to a tearful but joyful reunion with his two step-children. Money was found for Georgiana to return to London by coach but Benjamin and his step-father had to walk the distance. But eventually they were all home and reunited. Mr Probus, alias Williams had been convicted under the Vagrant Act and, unless anyone he had defrauded acted to prosecute him, he stood to get clean away with his crime as the Hurrell’s were too poor to afford to prosecute him, much as they wished to do so. With no further mention of the fraudster in the newspapers, it would appear that is exactly what happened.
N.B. Joseph Hurrell married the widowed (and pregnant) Mary Ann Hawthorne on 18th February 1817 at St James’s in Westminster. At least three children were born to the couple, William Flower Hurrell on the 5th June 1817 and Oscar and Maria who both seemed to have died as infants. Benjamin may be the Benjamin Workman Hawthorn who was born c.1809. He grew up to be a piano forte tuner and maker and also a professor of music, relocating to Doncaster where he died in 1869.
Stamford Mercury, 17th August 1821
Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, 27th August 1821
Header image: ‘The Wellington Coach’ (The Newcastle-York-London Mail) by John Cordrey, c.1818. Ferens Art Gallery.
Roll Up! Roll Up! Today we invite our readers to visit Pidcock’s Royal Menagerie at Exeter ‘Change and also touring the country, so all can join in. All manner of incredible and rare animals, some never seen before. And all for just one shilling.
Come on in, and prepare to be amazed . . .
TO THE CURIOUS
Whatever deserves the Epithet of RARE, must certainly be worthy the Attention of the Curious.
JUST Arriv’d from the ISLAND of JAVA, in the East-Indies, and ALIVE, one of the greatest Rarities ever brought to Europe in the Age or Memory of Man,
The GRAND CASSOWAR.
It is described by the late Dr. Goldsmith as follows, viz. The Head inspires some Degree of Terror like a Warrior; it has the Eye of a Lion, the Defence of a Porcupine, and the Swiftness of a Courser; but has neither Tongue, Wing nor Tail. Its Legs are stout like the Elephant, Heel as the Human Species, and three Toes before; it is upwards of six Feet high, and weighs above 200lb. Its Head and Neck is adorned with a Variety of beautiful Colours, the Top a Sky Blue, the Back Part Orange, the Front Purple, adorned on each side with Crimson, curiously beaded, and its Feathers resemble the Mane of a Horse – and what is more extraordinary, each Quill produces two Feathers.
The Dutch assert that it can devour Glass, Iron, Stones, and even burning Coals, without Fear or Injury.
This Bird laid a large Egg at Warwick, on the 14th of January last, which is of a green Colour, spotted with white.
Ladies and Gentlemen One shilling each.
PIDCOCK, the Proprietor of this BIRD, will be at Sheffield Fair the 28th Instant; and will visit all the other principal Towns in Yorkshire.
(Leeds Intelligencer, 16th November, 1779)
GRAND MENAGERIE of WILD BEASTS and BIRDS, all alive, is just arrived, and now exhibiting at the White Lion, Corn-Market, DERBY. This invaluable Collection consists of two Mountain Lion Tygers, Male and Female – two Satyrs, or Ætheopian Savages, ditto – a He Bengal Tyger – a Porcupine – an Ape – a Coata Munda – a Jackall – four Macaws – two Cockatoos, one of which will converse with any Person in Company; with a Number of other Curiosities not inserted.
N.B. The large Beasts are well secured, so that the most timorous may approach them with the greatest Safety.
Admittance 1s. each – a Price by no means adequate to the Variety of Curiosities exhibited.
(Derby Mercury, 31st December, 1789)
Just arrived from the Lyceum, and Exeter Exchange, Strand, London, and to be seen during the fair, in the market-place, two of the grandest assemblages of living rarities in all Europe: consisting of two stupendous and royal OSTRICHES, male and female. These birds exceed in magnitude and texture of plumage all the feathered TRIBE in the CREATION. They already measure upwards of NINE FEET high, although very young! – Also a BENGAL TYGER, a young LIONESS, a real spotted HYÆNA, a ravenous WOLF, two ring-tailed PORCUPINES; an AFRICAN RAM, with four circular horns; and twenty other animals and birds, too numerous to insert. – Admittance, 1s. – Servants, half-price. – Likewise in the other exhibition is the ROYAL HEIFER with TWO HEADS, a beautiful COLT, of the race kind, foaled with only THREE LEGS, got by Sir Charles Bunbury’s Diomed, out of Barcelli, which was the dam of Marcia, now the property of Lord Derby; also a RAM with SIX LEGS. – In addition to the animal curiosities one of the most extraordinary productions of the human species will be shewn, namely the double-jointed IRISH DWARF, who will engage to carry two of the largest men now existing, both at the same time. – Admittance, as above. – Birds and beasts bought, sold, or exchanged, by G. Pidcock. – The above collection will proceed to Warrington, Liverpool, Manchester, &c.
(Chester Chronicle, 14th October, 1791)
Things did not always go to plan though. In 1792, Friday the 13th really lived up to its reputation as a day for disaster, as least as far as Gilbert Pidcock’s travelling menagerie was concerned while travelling through Lincolnshire . . .
On Friday the 13th inst. as Mr Pidcock was proceeding from Gainsborough to Brigg, with his exhibition of birds and beasts, a terrible clap of thunder, attended with lightning, took place, which frightened the horses, and they set off on full gallop, threw the ostrich carriage over, broke it to pieces, broke the back of the female ostrich which died the next day, and the male ostrich was bruised in so terrible a manner, that it died at Newark, on Wednesday the 25th. The Irish dwarf had his collar bone broke, and was otherwise much hurt, but is now in a fair way of recovery.
We had no plans to write about Elizabeth, wife of Richard Brinsley Sheridan as much has already been written about her and we have always aimed to add something new to already published information. However, having watched historian, Hallie Rubenhold on BBC 2’s Newsnight programme relatively recently, talking about women who were famous in their own right at the time but who have been overshadowed by their more successful spouses we decided to look again at Elizabeth’s life.
The first thing that jumped out was that no-one was quite sure when she was born, apart from September 1754, so, although we have not found her birth we can now confirm her baptism as it appears in the parish records, 25th September 1754 at St Michael’s church, Bath, Somerset. Elizabeth was one of 12 children born to Thomas and Mary Linley, Thomas, being a renowned composer. Elizabeth began her singing career in 17661 when she was put forward as a public singer in the rooms at Bath aged only 12. She went on to make her debut at London’s Covent Garden in 1767 alongside her brother Thomas.
Three years later when Elizabeth was a mere 16 years of age she was betrothed by her father to an elderly but extremely wealthy gentleman, Walter Long. Not long after this Elizabeth made it clear that she would never be happy in this marriage – why would she be, she was around 16, he 60 and apart from the age gap she had already fallen for Richard Brinsley Sheridan. With this, the marriage was cancelled and Walter paid Elizabeth’s father a settlement figure of £3,000 (approx. £270,000 in today’s money) and Elizabeth was allowed to keep the jewels and gifts that he had already given her.
The Public Advertiser Friday 6th July 1770 described Elizabeth in the following glowing terms:
A young lady from Bath whose general excellence in every accomplishment which can adorn and render amiable the female character and whose particular talents as a singer justify the most extravagant description. The inimitable sweetness of her voice dispelled the gloom of disciplinarian austerity, nor could the sober, morose Fellows of Colleges refrain from joining many an enamoured academic in bearing testimony by repeated bursts of applause to her great merit and graceful deportment.
However, the episode with Walter Long returned to haunt her when the whole episode which she would undoubtedly have wished to remain private became very public courtesy of Samuel Foote, who chose to write a play about it – ‘The Maid of Bath’ which opened in 1771 at the Haymarket theatre. The play only lasted for a few performances and ridiculed Elizabeth. Following that, Elizabeth and Sheridan eloped to France with the assistance of his close friend, Mr Ewart (senior), a brandy merchant, who not only helped them to obtain safe passage but also provided them with letters of recommendation. According to Sheridan’s memoirs, the couple married at the end of March 1772 in a small village near Calais by a priest well known for his services of this kind. Eloping in such a fashion caused an outcry and Sheridan was branded a scoundrel and liar.
However, when the couple returned to England and no proof could be found of their marriage they were eventually officially married on the 13th April 1773 in the presence of her father as she was still as a minor.
After their marriage Sheridan’s fame began to spread and at the same time Sheridan decided that he would no longer permit his new bride to perform on the stage as it apparently reflected badly upon his professional reputation, a fact that appears to be confirmed in his memoirs, dated 1773:
The celebrity of Mrs Sheridan as a singer was, it is true, a ready source of wealth; and offers of the most advantageous kind were pressed upon them by managers of concerts in both town and country. But with a pride and delicacy, which receive the tribute of Dr Johnson’s praise, he rejected at once all thoughts of allowing her to reappear in public; and instead of profiting by the display of his wife’s talents, adopted the manlier resolution of seeking a reputation of his own. An engagement had been made for her some months before by her father, to perform at the music meeting that was to take place at Worcester this summer. But Sheridan, who considered that his claims upon her had superseded all others, would not suffer her to keep this engagement.
Lloyd’s Evening Post of the 16th July 1773 provides an interesting article!
at the late Installation at Oxford, immediately after the honorary Degrees had been conferred in the Latin Proscenium, to which the words Caufa Honoris always are made use of, Lord north, filled with admiration at Mrs Sheridan’s excellent vocal performance, said to Charles Fox, who sat by him “I think we should give her husband a Degree Caufa Uxoris”, “I think so too, my Lord,” (replied the young commoner), and I should be very glad to be admitted on this ground ad Eundem!
In the mid-January of 1774, The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser reported that Elizabeth was ‘dangerously indisposed’ and that there was virtually no chance of her singing anywhere during the season. This opinion was followed up by Adam’s Weekly Courant a few weeks later which indicated that her health was still showing no sign of improvement
Mrs Sheridan is dangerously ill. The Queen has offered her 200l a year for life for private concerts.
Whether Elizabeth took up this offer we have no idea, but in today’s money that would have been worth about £12,000, but given newspaper references later, it seems highly likely that she complied. The next reference to Elizabeth’s health does not appear until December 1774, so whatever her illness at the time it clearly lasted some considerable time, but she appeared to be fully recovered. There were few mentions of Elizabeth in the press over the next few months.
Sheridan’s play The Rivals was first performed at Covent Garden on the 17th of January 1775 and despite no longer being in the public eye The Middlesex Journal of the 26th January 1775 provides us with a glimpse as to how Elizabeth had been spending her time and more importantly her involvement in what is arguably one of her husbands most famous works:
We hear that the admired Epilogue to the Rivals is the composition of Mrs. Sheridan. There is a delicacy in the thoughts and in the expressions of this poem, that claim the warmest approbation, and leave us in doubt which we shall most applaud, Mrs. Sheridan’s excellence in music, or in poetry.
Sheridan was now enjoying the trapping of city life was in stark contrast to that of Elizabeth who preferred to remain in the country and apparently, as a result, their marriage became somewhat tempestuous. However, despite their differences on the 16th November 1775 Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Thomas/Tom at the couple’s home in Portman Square according to the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser. The couple’s address was, at the time, regarded as one of the most fashionable addresses in London and they appear to have enjoyed socializing with the rich and famous, but of course entertaining such people by giving twice weekly concerts came at a price and not one that the couple could really afford. They were reputed to be permanently in debt.
January 19th, 1776 the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser reported that David Garrick had sold his share in Drury Lane theatre to a Dr Forde, Mr Ewart and two very familiar names – Mr Linley (father in law of Sheridan) and Richard Sheridan – the purchase price being 35,000l. Although not mentioned in this report we do know that the ‘villain’ in one of our other planned books was also involved in the purchase of the theatre and was a close friend of Sheridan’s which is another reason that Elizabeth’s story is of interest to us as our heroine would more than likely have been well acquainted with her. We can only presume that both Elizabeth’s father and Sheridan used some of the money provided by Walter Long to help fund this project.
The next mention of Elizabeth in the press was in June 1776 when she gave a private performance for the Queen where she sang several songs for their Majesties. These private concerts continued, with reference in the press being made regularly. Sheridan may have wanted his wife to quietly retire but the press were not going to let her slip into obscurity quite so readily, with her name being mentioned frequently with her setting the ‘gold standard’ for other singers to aspire to – no-one quite bettered her though for some considerable time.
Wednesday 7th May 1777 tragedy struck the couple as Elizabeth was delivered of a still born child. Clearly, this loss took its toll on Elizabeth as physicians were called to see her just a couple of days later. The Public Advertiser 12th May carried the same report about the still birth and directly below it reported the birth of a female, likely to live forever– daughter of Sheridan’s Muse!
A little over a year later on the 5th August 1778, Elizabeth’s brother tragically drowned in a boating accident and the press described Elizabeth as being inconsolable. There appear very to be few references in the press after this date pertaining to Elizabeth, perhaps she had become the dutiful wife; the press only reported the couple appearing in public at concerts and the like.
Although women were unable to vote it did not appear to preclude them from taking an active interest in the politics of the day as The Public Advertiser of 4th April 1782 confirmed Elizabeth’s presence at the hustings:
The Duchess of Devonshire, Mrs Bouverie, Lady Milner, Mrs Sheridan and some other ladies were on the hustings. The ladies joined in the shouts and applauses of the people and The Duchess of Devonshire and Mrs Bouverie who wore blue and buff riding habits and Lady Milner who was likewise in a riding habit took off their hats and joined the huzzahs of the people.
We move then on a few years to the 17th February 1784 when once again Elizabeth had been taken gravely ill at the seat of the Honourable Mr Bouverie in Northamptonshire. Sheridan immediately left London to be by his wife’s side, her life being described as in ‘immediate danger’.
After this event the press remained exceptionally quiet again for the next few years apart from a few mentions about her social diary, until 13th October 1791 when, yet again there appear grave doubts about her surviving her present illness, but as if by magic she made a full recovery some two weeks later, but then disappeared to Southampton a few weeks later to assist with her recovery, Sheridan going to collect her on the 8th of March 1792 once she was fully recovered. We know from Lord Fitzgerald’s letters to the Duchess of Leinster that he was having a relationship with Elizabeth and was fully aware of Elizabeth’s trip to Southampton; the couple had a child, Mary, born 30th March 1792.
By the 17th April 1792, Elizabeth was expected to die within 6 months according to her physicians and the media. Reports stated that as soon as she was well enough to undertake the journey she should be moved from London to Bath. A few weeks later this account was rectified and an apology printed stating that now her health was much improved, although less than one month later, initial worries were proved correct and Elizabeth was in fact dying.
Elizabeth, who was never physically strong, succumbed to tuberculosis which proved fatal and she died on the 28th of June 1792, aged just 38. The press reported her death as happening at 5 o’clock in the evening at Bristol Hot Wells with her husband present. She was buried in the same vault as her sister Mary, at Wells Cathedral on the 7th July 1792 and was followed to the grave by her legitimate daughter Mary shortly after.
The Chester Chronicle, 30th August 1799 described Elizabeth as ‘A lady of unrivalled beauty and the rarest talents’. So despite not having performed publicly for almost 30 years her reputation as a talented and beautiful singer remained.
The politician John Wilkes described Elizabeth as ‘the most modest, delicate flower he had ever seen’ when referring to Sheridan’s loss.
The Gentleman’s Magazine 138, dated 1825 includes a letter purported to have been written by Elizabeth to her close friend Miss Saunders which makes for fascinating reading.
So, Elizabeth clearly was unrivalled in her talent and beauty, but it does appear that she remained in the shadow of her husband, whether this was largely due to his ego or whether her health was the main reason, it seems hard to determine. The impression created is that he was overwhelmingly anxious about his wife’s state of health throughout their marriage and clearly, rightly so as she was incredibly fragile. Certainly, whatever the reason, Elizabeth supported her husband in not only his writing but also in his political career and she was much involved in the politics of the day, being present at the hustings with the Duchess of Devonshire.
1 Thomas Linley, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Thomas Mathews, their connections with Bath (1903)
Whilst researching our earlier article about the Nottinghamshire Giantess we stumbled across the following newspaper report from the London Standard dated the 1st February 1831. Although technically just outside our remit of ‘all things Georgian’, because William IV’s reign is sometimes incorporated into the Georgian era we thought we would include it here.
SCOTCH GIANTESS AND HER HUSBAND
On Sunday morning last, about five o’clock, information was given to a police constable on duty near the Asylum, that heavy groans were heard to proceed from the travelling residence (a large carriage) of the celebrated Scotch giantess, situated in the Mall, an open space of ground between the Westminster-road and the New Bethlem, and that it was feared that murder had been committed. The constable procured further assistance, and repaired immediately to the spot. They found the door of the carriage open, and all in darkness and groans, as if of two persons, were heard to proceed from within. A light having been soon obtained, a man and a woman, of gigantic size, were found lying on the floor, in a state of insensibility.
The man, upon being asked what was the cause of their indisposition, pointed to the table, upon which was an empty cup, with a white sediment adhering to its sides, and on the floor was a piece of paper labelled poison, the contents of which they had both swallowed. The policeman lost no time in conveying them to Guy’s Hospital, where they were immediately attended to by Mr. Collet, the surgeon. The woman was in a very deplorable state, and seemed to be past all recovery, but her husband, although in a state of stupor, was not so powerfully affected by the poison. Reed’s patent pump was applied by Mr. Hills, the cupper to the hospital, by which a quantity of arsenic was taken from the woman’s stomach, as was also from that of her husband’s, and they were put to bed in a very feeble state, and still remain so; but it is expected they will ultimately recover.
It appears that a short time since the giantess, who stands six feet six inches high, was exhibited in St. James’s-street, as “Ann Freeman, the celebrated Scotch giantess,” and whilst there her husband became jealous of her, in consequence of a man, about her own gigantic stature, called the “Spanish giant,” having shown her more attention than was deemed necessary. The husband, who is not more than half the size of his wife, as soon as it was possible, removed his better half from the exhibition, and wheeled her off in his four-wheeled residence to the space of ground near Bethlem Hospital.
A few evening after, whilst Freeman and his wife were sitting in the caravan, which is very commodiously constructed, Mr. Freeman, to his astonishment, perceived his rival, the “Spanish Giant,” looking through his carriage window, which, from his immense height, he could do without much trouble. He ran out, but the intruder had disappeared; but from that moment Freeman and his spouse had lived upon the most unhappy terms, and she would frequently seize her husband by the back of the neck, and hold him at arms length till he was nearly choked.
On Saturday night Freeman went out and did not return till early on Sunday morning, when he found his wife had taken poison (arsenic), and perceiving a portion of it left in the tea-cup, he swallowed it off, and was immediately after seized with violent retchings, and soon became insensible, as discovered by the police constable.
The first theatre on the site opened as the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on the 7th of December 1732 with the first play performed being that of William Congreve’s ‘ The Way of the World’. Over the next sixty years or so there were various alterations to it.
In the early hours of the 20th of September 1808 a fire broke out and the theatre was razed to the ground, taking with it Handel’s own organ and many of his manuscripts. The fire raged so fiercely it almost took with it other buildings including Drury Lane Theatre, but that one was to survive for a further year before it suffered the same fate.
Fires were a relatively common occurrence in theatres at that time due to the lighting and the draperies, the vast majority happening purely by accident. In order to prevent such fires The London Fire Code stated that eight blankets soaked with water were to be kept on each side of the stage which could be used immediately should anything catch fire; this is apparently where the term ‘a wet blanket’ originated.
According to the newspapers of the day, in particular the Morning Chronicle of the 21st September 1808, the fire began at 4am and within three hours the whole theatre was demolished. The books, accounts, deeds and cash were saved due to the exertions of Mr Hughes, the treasurer. A small amount of scenery survived, but all the wardrobe was destroyed. Unfortunately, the day prior to the fire the mains water supply had been cut off due to some complaints about an irregular supply so work was in progress to rectify this fault, therefore the fire engines struggled to provide sufficient water to dampen the fire. The fire was also in danger of spreading due to a westerly wind blowing towards property on the nearby Bow Street, however that apparently was short lived. The wind changed direction and did however, cause the loss of several buildings in the vicinity. According to an eye witness who was setting up on Covent Garden market there was an ‘unwholesome smell of the London smoak‘ which was thought to be coming from a local brewhouse; this was not the case and the fire was discovered by a poor girl who had made her bed in the porch of the theatre.
The newspaper provided gruesome details of the dead including 11 mutilated bodies in the grounds of St Paul’s church, Covent Garden. Many others were conveyed to nearby hospitals. Initial reports stated that as many as 20 lives were lost with far more seriously injured casualties. The press reported ‘on the whole there has not been any domestic catastrophe more fatal for many years, even the disaster at the Old Bailey and at Sadler’s Wells, not excepted.’ Properties completely destroyed on Bow Street included numbers 9 -15, with 16 & 17 being very badly damaged. Even the Beef Steak Club did not escape unscathed, it lost its stock of wine which could not be replaced! The Coroner for Westminster, Anthony Gell Esq. observed that ‘in his opinion this melancholy event was accidental and that there was not the slightest blame on the theatres management’. Although very faint the image above depicts the ruins of the theatre.
A clearer image can be found on the Victoria and Albert Museum website.
With the inquest concluded plans began immediately for a new theatre to be built in its place with various suggestions made by the media as to how this should be done with comparisons being made to other theatres, both positive and negative! The architect appointed was Robert Smirke, an exponent of the Greek revival style of architecture which he used to great effect, the new theatre was the first building in London to use the Greek Doric order.
On the 2nd of January 1809 rebuilding commenced according to The Morning Post with the Prince of Wales present accompanied by much pomp and ceremony and including many Freemasons. The first Portland stone was said to weigh one ton. Smirke presented his Royal Highness with a plan of the new building. The cement ready for the stone was laid by the workmen, then the immense stone lowered into place, this was ceremonially positioned by his majesty giving it three strokes with a mallet. Following the ceremony all dignitaries including the Prince of Wales retired to the Free Masons Tavern for a meal, the Prince still wearing his Freemasons regalia – a white apron, lined with purple and edged with gold.
On completion, which took around nine months, the media took great interest in the finished structure. Apparently the pit was very spacious, but the two galleries were comparatively small, only capable of holding 150 – 200 people. The upper gallery was divided into 5 compartments and under the gallery was a row of 26 private boxes, constituting a third tier. These boxes also had a private room behind each and not connected with any other part of the building allowed total exclusivity.
The following day a correction was published regarding some parts of the description of the theatre, this article provides a much more detailed description
The Morning Post of Thursday 14th September 1809 confirmed that the newly built Theatre Royal, Covent Garden would open on Monday the 18th with the tragedy Macbeth starring Mrs Sarah Siddons.
However, in order to recoup some of the enormous building costs the price of tickets was increased which resulted in 3 months of rioting and ended with John Kemble the manager of the theatre being forced to apologise; they became known as the Old Price Riots.
In 1792, the Carlton House Magazine ran an article, with an accompanying illustration, of two female petticoat duellists. The two participants were identified, in the magazine, as Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs Elphinstone.
The two ladies were taking tea when Mrs Elphinstone, after an exchange of ‘bloated compliments’ between them, said to Lady Almeria, “You have been a very beautiful woman.”
Lady Almeria: “Have been? What do you mean by ‘have been’?”
Mrs Elphinstone: “You have a very good autumn face, even now . . . The lilies and roses are somewhat faded. Forty years ago I am told a young fellow could hardly gaze on you with impunity.”
Lady Almeria: “Forty years ago! Is the woman mad? I had not existed thirty years ago!”
Mrs Elphinstone: “Then Arthur Collins, the author of the British Peerage has published a false, scandalous and seditious libel against your ladyship. He says you were born the first of April 1732.”
Lady Almeria: “Collins is a most infamous liar; his book is loaded with errors; not a syllable of his whole six volumes is to be relied on.”
Mrs Elphinstone: “Pardon me. He asserts that you were born in April 1732 and consequently are in your sixty first year.”
Lady Almeria: “I am but turned of thirty.”
Mrs Elphinstone: “That’s false, my lady!”
Lady Almeria: “This is not to be borne; you have given me the lie direct . . . I must be under the necessity of calling you out . . . “
Mrs Elphinstone: “Name your weapons. Swords or pistols?”
Lady Almeria: “Both!”
The ladies met at Hyde Park and set to with pistols. Mrs Elphinstone proved the better shot, putting a bullet hole through Lady Almeria’s hat. Their seconds pleaded with them to end it there but Mrs Elphinstone refused to apologise and so hostilities resumed, this time with swords. Lady Almeria managed to inflict a wound on her opponent’s sword arm and honour was deemed to have been satisfied; both ladies quitted the field.
It’s no doubt an intriguing tale and has been repeated time and time again over the intervening two centuries. Unfortunately, it is also most probably completely untrue. There never was a Lady (or a Lord) Braddock, and no contemporary account can be found of such a duel being fought, and it would certainly have excited plenty of attention if it had.
There was a contemporary Lady Almeria, but she was Lady Almeria Carpenter (20th March 1752-1809), daughter of the 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, and the mistress of Prince William Henry, the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1743-1805, son of King George II) and mother to his illegitimate daughter Louisa Maria La Coast.
The True Briton wrote of her on the 28th June 1798, ‘Lady Almeria Carpenter was at the Haymarket Theatre on Monday last; and though she has been celebrated as a Beauty for near thirty years, she may still vie in personal attractions with the fairest Toasts of the present day.’
If Lady Almeria Carpenter is not the person alluded to, we do wonder if the fictitious Lady Almeria Braddock is somehow referring back to the Georgian actress George Anne Bellamy (1727-1788)? She played Almeria in Congreve’s The Mourning Bride and was a close acquaintance of one General Edward Braddock (1695-1755). She claimed to have known him from her infancy, and in her memoir ‘An Apology for the Life of Mrs. George Anne Bellamy,’ in which she mentions him often, she said of him:
This great man having been often reproached with brutality, I am induced to recite the following little accident, which evidently shews the contrary.
As we were walking in the Park one day, we heard a poor fellow was to be chastised; when I requested the General to beg off the offender. Upon his application to the general officer, whose name was Drury, he asked Braddock, How long since he had divested himself of brutality, and of the insolence of his manners? To which the other replied, “You never knew me insolent to my inferiors. It is only to such rude men as yourself, that I behave with the spirit which I think they deserve.
In 1718 Braddock had fought a duel, using both swords and pistols, with Colonel Waller in Hyde Park. George Anne Bellamy also knew a Mrs Elphinstone; again in her ‘Apology’ she writes:
The most attached patronesses I had, besides those of the Montgomery family, which were numerous, were the Duchess of Douglas, and the Miss Ruthvens, the eldest of whom soon married Mr. Elphinstone. The latter were partial to me to a degree of enthusiasm. Lady Ruthven likewise honoured me with her support.
We can, however, give one, much earlier account of a ‘petticoat duel’ which did take place, however not with swords and pistols but with pattens (protective wooden overshoes).
Some Days ago a Female Duel was fought at Greenwich, in which one of the Combatants kill’d her Antagonist with her Patten. The Coroner’s Inquest having sate upon the Body of the Deceased, brought in their Verdict Manslaughter.