Today in theatrical history: footmen riot after being denied entrance to Drury lane playhouse, 1737.

As previously recounted on this blog, theatres were a leading arena for riots during the seventeenth century. 1737 saw significant disturbances, sparked by restrictions on the right of entry for footmen – the liveried servants of wealthy gentlemen.

Servants were a distinctive part of the eighteenth century theatre audience. From the time of the Restoration, they were regular patrons of the playhouse, arriving early, sometimes in mid-afternoon, to claim places for their mistresses and masters.

In the 1690s, actors discontented with Charles Rich’s management at Drury Lane theatre, established their own company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields with a special licence from the Lord Chamberlain. According to Colley Cibber the new company did well with “the People of Quality” to the detriment of the deserted manager.

To compensate for the loss of part of his audience Rich, “was resolv’d, at least, to be well with their Domesticks, and therefore cunningly open’d the upper Gallery to them gratis: For before this time no Footman was ever admitted, or had presumed to come into it, till after the fourth Act was ended. This additional Privilege… he conceived would not only incline them to give us a good Word in the respective Families they belong’d to, but would naturally incite them to come al1 Hands aloft in the Crack of Our Applauses.”

The innovation achieved its purpose and quickly became an established routine. “The quality” would send their servants in the afternoon to hold a place for that evening’s performance. Once mistress and master arrived, the servants would then retire to their own gallery until the end of the evening’s programme.

However, the practice was not always popular with other theatre-goers… When the footmen’s employers were late in arriving to take their seat, noise and confusion were created as places were being exchanged; the disruption was made more chaotic by the footmen’s habit of not allowing the play to begin until they were settled in their places. This disturbing situation was exacerbated when patrons were more than a little late, leaving their servants in their seats through one or two acts of the main piece, where often they loudly carried on, much to the annoyance of their neighbours.

Other theatre-goers, having two groups to focus their animosity upon, the elite and their servants, found the footmen to be the easier target when protesting the annoyance this caused.

It’s worth noting that there was a hierarchy amongst eighteenth century servants – footmen in livery being near the top (only a rich gentleman’s personal servant would rank higher). In part the footman’s status was due to their being a conspicuous sign of wealth and status for their employers. This was a position that footmen guarded jealously and sometimes abused, which included outrageous behaviour in the playhouse. While trading on the status of their ‘masters’, they were also cheekily able to get away with collectively cocking a snook at other gentlefolk. The class antagonisms and hierarchies expressed becoming very tangled. Throughout the eighteenth century there were numerous conflicts arising from attempts to expel or exclude servants as a group from various public spaces, such as pleasure gardens, and literature is filled with comment on the immorality and disorder that inevitably prevails when the lower classes are allowed access to pleasure and places of leisure. Disputes about the footmen’s occupation of their gallery have to be seen in this context.

In the 1730s, the obnoxious behaviour of servants became increasingly offensive to other theatre-goers. A correspondent to the “Occasional Prompter”, a theatre column in the Daily Journal, described the turn which things had taken. The snobbery in the tone of the letter is barely concealed…

“Not content with assuming their Masters Province, they have, for a long Course of Time, encouraged each other to look upon themselves, during the Time of their sitting to keep Places, as Representatives of those who sent them; and of course, as GOOD as any present in the house.”

Footmen were accused of talking loudly, distracting others in seats around them. Beer was brought in. The servants also sometimes hilariously refused to take off their hats, creating more noise, confusion and complaints. Gentlemen in the pit tried to command quiet, but were answered with hoots of derision.

On another occasion in February 1735, at the King’s Opera House, footmen came into the passages with lit torches. “Offending “the Ladies” and others, with the fumes from their links, they were ordered out of the passageway, but refused to leave, instead confronting “the Centnels” of the house. However, armed troops came to the aid of the latter and it was reported that “in the Fray one of the Footmen was stabb’d in the Groin, and in the Body, and its thought will die of the Wound”.

Problems with footmen at the theatre came to a head through the winter of 1736 – 1737, flaring up as ‘riots’ inside Drury Lane theatre on two separate occasions. The accounts of the dispute describe it as a reaction on the part of London’s theatre-going footmen to the end of their special status within the theatre and the loss of their gallery privileges.

The riots show elements of class conflict as well as the use of traditional popular political tactics and rhetoric on the part of the participants.

The first disturbance took place on Monday February 21, 1737, as a reaction by the footmen to [theatre owner] Fleetwood’s denying them access to their gallery. However, a letter to the Daily Advertiser indicates that the dispute began the previous Saturday and did not originally arise between the manager Fleetwood and the footmen. Instead the conflict developed out of antagonisms between the theatre-going servants and “Gentlemen in the Pit” who were “determined to make the footmen behave with Decency and proper Civility. The confrontation began with members of the pit demanding that the footmen remove their hats when the Ladies and Gentlemen, for whom they were saving seats, began to arrive. The footmen refused and one is reported to have said, “that he would not take off his Hat for anybody” and would knock down anyone who tried to see he did… striking “one of the Gentlemen going to rise.”

After this the confrontation turned into a general ruck: a dozen men from the pit climbed into the boxes and forced the footmen out. However, this meant that the footmen were not able to do the job that their mistresses and masters had sent them to do. And “upon proper Submission from some of them, the Gentlemen suffered them again into the Boxes to keep their Places.

Meanwhile word of hat had happened inside spread to the footmen assembled outside the theatre, and as they came in, they were overheard by audience members making plans to bombard the Pit from the gallery. These threats were in turn communicated to the rest of the pit; “upon which the whole Pit instantly rose, and with one Voice demanded of the director of the Theatre, that there should be either no Footman’s Gallery or no Pit.”

Worried about inconveniencing the ‘quality’, Fleetwood eventually gave in to the pit’s demands and closed the gallery. But the footmen soon broke through the doors, and after sitting through an act of the play, began their threatened barrage of fruit and words .

The well-known magistrate Colonel DeVeil (presiding in the Bow Street office just around the corner from the playhouse) was in attendance, as he often was; he made his way to where the footmen were assembled, and despite threats “to knock his Brains out,” he read out the Proclamation, “admonishing them to retire and desist from so unlawful an Undertaking; for that he came as a Friend, and not as a Foe, to warn them of their Danger. This Admonition, and reasonably reading the Proclamation, had its desired Effect, for they all went off in a few Minutes after the Proclamation was read.”

However, Fleetwood was set on keeping to the new policy. A few weeks after this first encounter, there was another disturbance at Drury Lane involving footmen. On Friday March 4, at the end of the main piece, in trying to make their way to their traditional section, three or four footmen assaulted one of the doorkeepers. Several other house employees came to help; “however, they were mistaken for interlopers by members of the pit, who joined with the footmen in their attack”. The next day, March 5, the footmen returned to continue their protest, during a command performance for the Prince and Princess of Wales. Some 300 footmen disrupted the play, and once again Justice DeVeil made his way to proclaim the Riot Act. “However, on this occasion, fearing the consequences, DeVeil didn’t read the proclamation, but instead arrested a number of those involved on other charges, who were then taken to “a room adjacent to the Playhouse.” After a lengthy examination several of the ringleaders were taken to Newgate. Two were later tried at Hick’s-Hall [the Middlesex magistrates court in Clerkenwell] and were sentenced to hard labour for six months.”

On Thursday March 10, following an announcement the day before, because the riots had “become a Topick of publick Discourse” the Daily Advertiser published ‘a true and exact Account of the Disturbances” as well as an anonymous letter purportedly sent to Fleetwood by representatives of the footmen on March 5 :

“Sir,

We are willing to admonish you before we attempt Our Design; and Provide you will use us Civil, and Admitt us into Our Gallery, which is Our Property, according to Formalities; and if you think proper to Come to a Composition this way, you’ll hear no further; and if not Our Intention is to Combine in a Body in Cognito. And Reduce the play house to the Ground. Valuing no Detection we are
Indemnified.”

The writers express the footmen’s view that their gallery belonged to them, based on precedent and tradition, and makes an offer to settle the dispute, though with an underlying hint of violent threat.

The threat however carried no weight with the theatre managers, “and with the force of the law assembled against them the footmen were ultimately denied their traditional perquisite in London’s two patent houses.” Footmen noticeably continued to attend the theatre, though possibly their employers now paying for their tickets. But their spirit of disorder was not completely subdued. “In one instance soon after the riot, a servant, keeping places on the stage, hearing audience members in the pit calling to footmen in the boxes to take off their hats, “leapt from his Seat, and opening the Curtain, cry’d out with a loud Voice, bidding the said Footmen keep on their Hats.”

The Footman’s gallery was, however, kept on at the King’s Opera House in the Haymarket. Some twenty-five years later it would seem that there were complaints about the behaviour in that gallery. A notice appeared in the Public Advertiser explaining that because patrons sitting in the Crown Gallery had had their clothes “spoiled, at different Times this Winter, by the Indecency of the Footmen” the manager of the King’s Opera was humbly hoping that “the Nobility and Gentry” would not take it amiss if he had to shut the Footman’s Gallery.”

The collective spirit of the footmen became so culturally significant within the theatre that it impinged upon the material presented onstage. A prologue, spoken by the popular comic actor William Penkethman early in the century, pointed to the power of the footmen assembled in their gallery. “Pinky,” especially revered for his prologues and epilogues, made a lengthy appeal to the “dear Brethren of the Upper Tire [tier]”, reminding them that he was a servant too. He warned all poets “Who writes not up to you [meaning the upper tier], ’tis ten to one will fail,” and then went on rhetorically:

“Your thundring plaudit It is that deals out Fame,
You make Plays run, tho’ of themselves but Lame:
How often have we known your Noise Commanding,
Impose on your Inferior Masters Understanding…”

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Much of the above was shamelessly purloined from:

Gentle Riots? Theatre Riots in London, 1730-1780 by Richard Gorrie

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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