Today in London radical herstory, 1611: thief, performer, libertine, fence Moll Cutpurse arrested, for cross-dressing

“Though no remarkable thing happened at her nativity, such as the flattering sooth sayers pretend in eclipses, and other the like motions above, or tides, and whales, and great fires, adjusted and timed to the genitures of crowned heads, yet, for a she politician, she was not much inferior to Pope Joan ; for in her time she was superior in the mystery of diving in purses and pockets, and was very well read and skilled too in the affairs of the placket among the great ones.”
(‘Mary Frith, otherwise Moll Cutpurse, The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I’)

Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, also known as the Roaring Girl: thief, adventurer, fence, stage performer, also possibly highwaywoman…

The facts of Moll or Mary’s life are extremely confusing, with many exaggerations and myths attached to her name. Sensationalised biographies and stage plays written both during her life and after her death helped to create and perpetuate many of these myths; to distort the reality of an already interesting life.

Mary Frith was born around 1584-85 to a shoemaker and a housewife, possibly in or around Aldersgate Street. She was commonly said to have, as a young girl, rejected what were then seen as a women’s dress, role and place: all accounts of her life emphasise how she cut her hair short, dressed in men’s clothes & hung out in taverns smoking a pipe, drinking and swearing.

A popular pamphlet claiming to recount her life claimed “She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls… She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels. Her headgear and handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times was for girls to be dressed in) were alike tedious to her…” (The Complete Newgate Calendar)

But the swirl of myths that grew up around Mary’s life partly evolved to enable male commentators to pigeonhole her in one or more boxes; pretty much all with the aim of fitting her back into the gender stereotypes that were expected – whether moral and conforming to social mores, or immoral and transgressing them. Not only were published accounts of her life written by men, but those men ‘adapted’ the facts to fit their prejudices, and to follow the stereotyped patterns criminals were supposed to conform to in fictional biography. In Mary Frith/Moll Cutpurse’s case this amounted attempting to represent her cross-dressing as indicating she was a “sexual aberration, a prodigy, a monster”, anything from a transvestite usurping male power, as a “hermaphrodite transcending the borders of human sexuality, as a virago, as a tomboy, as a prostitute, as a bawd, and even as a chaste woman who remained a spinster.” On top of this, writers tried to jemmy her into other clichéd narratives of the era – the royalist rebel fighting puritan Parliament, or the righteous thief defending the poor against the rich.

“the mythmaking process of transmuting the historical figure of Mary Frith into the mythic Moll Cutpurse… the main strategy the author(s) pursued was to integrate scanty historical records into the preexisting parameters of criminal biography as they had been evolved for male criminals and, if need be, to transcend or invert the pattern…  As a result of this transmutation… the historical figure, who already in her lifetime had gone through a mythologising process, was reduced to a depersonalised entity.”

Debate about the sexual and gender identity of Mary Frith has also been popular in recent decades. What did her cross-dressing indicate? Gender rebellion or role reversal? transgressive sexuality?

The traditional picture of Moll has mainly been drawn on her fictional representations as the Roaring Girl in such plays written about her while she lives, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, 1610 (the text of which is now lost) and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, as well as anonymously published biographies, notably ‘The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse. Exactly Collected and now Published for the Delight and Recreation of all Merry disposed Persons…’ and
‘The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, commonly called Mall Cutpurse, living near Fleet-Conduit; even from her Cradle to her Winding-Sheet.’

In her teenage years Mary Frith became a cutpurse, robbing people’s purses in the street:

“I had but very little choice, so I listed my self of another Colony or Plantation (but who neither sow nor reap) of the Divers or File-clerks. A cunning Nation being a kind of Land Pirates, trading altogether in other men’s Bottoms, for no other Merchandises than Bullion and ready Coin, and keep most of the great Fairs and Marts of the world. They are very expert Mathematicians, but excellently good at Dialing; as also they are rare Figure Flingers, and most dexterous at the Tactics; they had been long incorporated, and had their Governors and Assistants as other Worshipful Companies; and had a good stock for the maintenance of their Trade.”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

Her career as a purse snatcher began for certain in her teens; in 1600, she, Jane Hill, and Jane Styles, all three ‘spinsters dwelling in the City of London’, were indicted by the Justices of Middlesex for having, on 26 August 1600, snatched a purse kept in a breast pocket and containing 2s and 11d in cash, from an unknown man at Clerkenwell. However, it is suggested that the trial jury found her not guilty of this offence.

“The petty crime that led to the arrest of the fifteen-year-old Mary Frith reveals that in her formative years as a delinquent she was plying her craft with two female partners. She was obviously working in a small female gang to reduce the risk of detection. Partnership with two women is likely to have been less combative than a partnership with men as regards dividing the loot into equal shares…”

Potential pickpockets tended to drift into delinquency at an early age. Thus all the members of a gang of nineteen “cutpurses” whom Simon Forman, in 1598, “had in Examination abought” the theft of his “purse” were between fifteen and twenty years old. The youngest, Jeames Harborte, was fifteen, that is, Mary’s age, Roger Goth was sixteen, and the oldest, Jhon Tucke and Robarte Frenche, were twenty years old. There were academies specialising in introducing boys into the art of stealing. Such a “schole howse” for pickpockets was denounced to Lord Burghley in 1585. It had been “sett upp” by one Wotton, gentleman and former merchant at Smart’s Quay near Billingsgate, “to learne younge boyes to cutt purses.”

On 18 March 1602, cordwainer Thomas Dobson and the silktwister William Simons, both of the parish of St. Giles outside Cripplegate, gave evidence to Middlesex magistrates, that “Marya FFrithe” should appear at the next session of gaol delivery on suspicion of having taken “a purse with XXVs of Richard Ingles.”

In 1608, Mary seems to have turned accuser: on 13 May that year, “Maria Feith de Southworke,” spinster, and John Clementes, servant to Edward Carrell, of Hastings, Sussex, (both men being soldiers), accused Edward Welles and Gilbert Dadson of felony.

Facsimile engraving from a 17th century original  of Moll

1609 On 8 September 1609, “Maria ffrythe,” living in the parish of St Olave, Southwark, “Spinster,” was alleged to have burgled the house of Alice Bayly in St Olave by night and stole 7 [pounds sterling] 7s in money, “twoe angells of gold,” “one twentie shillinge peece of gold,” “twoe half crownes of gold,” a gold ring rated at 6s, and “twoe cristall stones sett in seluer” valued at 20d.

Again, it seems Mary was found not guilty (in March 1610). This does not necessarily mean that she did not break into the house: she may have come to an arrangement with Alice Bayly, who was present at the hearing, to return part of the stolen goods. Such deals with victims were common, because recovered stolen goods, in the event of a conviction, would be confiscated by the crown.

‘Moll’ was recorded as having been burned on her hand four times, a common punishment for thieves.

Cross-dressing in male attire and a high-profile ‘debauched’ lifestyle, however, got her into as mch trouble as thieving, but may have helped her gain a kind of profile that enabled her to escape petty thievery and set up independently in business, as a fence.

How early she took to cross-dressing is unknown – the assertions in the sensationalist biographies and theatrical portrayals, that she dressed as a boy from an early age, may or may not be accurate. There is a tradition that relatives embarrassed either by her criminal activities or her unorthodox social behaviour tried to ship her off to the early colonies in New England: She had an uncle, brother to her father, who was a minister, and of him she stood in some awe, but not so much as to restrain her in these courses ; so that seeing he could not effectually remedy that inveterating evil in her manners, he trepanned her on board a merchant ship lying at Gravesend, and bound for New England, whither he designed to have sent her. But having learned to swim, she one night jumped overboard and swam to shore, and after that escape would never go near her uncle again.”

“Among the rest Tobacco was grown to be the great Mode, and much in use, and a sect of Swaggerers there were which from thence were denominated the Puffers and high Huffers; I was mightily taken with this vanity, because of its affected singularity; and no Woman before me ever smoked any, though I had a great many to follow my example…”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

‘Moll’ was notorious for frequenting the tobacco shops and smoking: almost as much as transvestism, pipe-smoking became crucial to her image in her youth. Her stage portrait on the 1611 title page of The Roaring Girl shows her smoking a pipe.

Smoking was not only the latest fashion, but also had become associated in popular culture with music, and lecherousness. It “became a stage convention about 1599 to poke fun at the gallants who affected smoking tobacco and playing the ‘bass viol da gamba’ to ensnare women. The foppish Fastidius Brisk in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour (1599) plays on the viol while smoking and courting Saviolina.(35) Gregory Gudgeon, the city lecher in Thomas Middleton’s The Family of Love (1602), keeps “a viol da gambo and good tobacco.” “

Mary Frith was not the first female smoker in England: by 1589 “men & women were indulging in the new custom of smoking earthernware or silver pipes. By 1615 smoking was “commonly used by most men & many women.” But Mary was unusual and pioneering for a woman, in hanging out in tobacco shops, generally the exclusive haunts of men.  This may be the aspect of her smoking that caused civic and ecclesiastical authorities outrage: a lower-class woman frequenting the tobacco shops suggested to them an infringement of both gender boundaries and of class privileges.
“The authorities considered smoking as becoming the upper classes but as unbecoming to the lower orders. King James in his proclamation issued on 17 October 1604 levied a heavy custom on the weed and distinguished between “the better sort” of people who “have and will use the same with Moderation to preserve their Health,” and “a number of riotous and disordered Persons of mean and base Condition, who, contrary to the use which Persons of good Calling and Quality make thereof, do spend most of their time in that idle vanity.”

Another of Moll’s alleged feats (as claimed in her later ‘Confession’) was her ride between the London boroughs of Charing Cross and Shoreditch on the famous performing horse Marocco while wearing male attire, in order to win a wager from the horse’s owner, William Banks. She carried with her a banner and a trumpet to give her ride a dramatic air and related how she caused a riot in the streets after she was recognised, some of the crowd clamouring for her to be pulled from the horse and others cheering her on.

Perhaps Mary Frith’s most notable aspect was her wearing of clothes marked out for men.

Her notoriety as a cross-dresser, dating from some point between 1602 and 1610, had already led to her becoming a public figure, early in her life.

So much so that her name and her cross-dressing entered literature, while she was still in her 20s. Two works were written about her in 1610-11. First the 1610 drama or poem, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, the text of which is now lost. Another play (that has survived) came a year later by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl. Both works dwelt on her scandalous behaviour, especially that of dressing in men’s attire. Both portrayed her as gender-nonconforming to an extent, such as her assertion in The Roaring Girl that she will never marry.

Not only was she portrayed on stage, she herself performed – at least a few times of stage, and possibly in the street.

The Epilogue of Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-Purse, published in 1611, famously promises the Fortune Theatre’s audience,
“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, / Shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

And a few days later in April 1611, ‘Moll’ did indeed make her stage debut at the Fortune playhouse “in mans apparell & in her bootes & with a sword by her syde.” She later told the Bishop of London that “there vppon the stage in publique viewe of all the people there presente in mans apparrell,” she “playd vppon her lute & sange a songe” and made “some other immodest & lascivious speaches,” for about half an hour, the average length of an afterpiece.

Merely appearing on the stage itself was transgression – women were barred officially from performing in plays (Never forgetting however, that cross-dressing for men was a staple of the theatre – boys played female parts, since women were generally barred from the stage). If she did also perform in the street, she may well have been breaking the strict licensing rules around performance – unlicensed playing in taverns and streets went against the 1606 regulations issued by the company of musicians in the interest of public order. Offenders were fined 3s. 4d. for each infringement to the regulations.

Gustave Ungerer suggests that Mary Frith created a public persona as a cross-dressing performer, inventing her own professional signature, “a commercially and professionally motivated ploy to increase her income”, to get ahead in the cut-throat entertainment business of Southwark and the City of London. Possibly with a scheming eye towards rising from the lowest rungs of the social ladder – from cutpurse, to performer, through to businesswoman.

For obvious reasons, ‘Moll Cutpurse’s’ dressing ‘as a man’ opens up questions around her sexuality and attitudes towards sex and gender; however, women’s transvestism of the time could also be turned towards crime, as much as a “quest of her sexuality”. There was a notable transvestite scene in the capital, which had appeared in the 1570s and was to reach its peak in the 1620s.

Women wearing men’s garb seems to have been increasingly notable in that period: this caused a stir among the socially conservative, who fretted that this was an ‘affront to nature’ as well as being irreligious and a danger to the norms of society. In the years after ‘Moll’s’ famous stage debut, the controversy reached a height, and led to the publication Hic Mulier, a pamphlet attacking cross-dressing women.

For since the days of Adam women were never so Masculine: Masculine in their genders and whole generations, from the Mother to the youngest daughter; Masculine in Number, from one to multitudes; Masculine in Case, even from the head to the foot; Masculine in Mood, from bold speech to impudent action; and Masculine in Tense, for without redress they were, are, and will
be still most Masculine, most mankind, and most monstrous.” (Hic Mulier, 1620)

The author of Hic Mulier slams women dressing as men and appeals to their menfolk to intervene and correct them! Also, hilariously, identifying God as the first fashion designer: Remember how your Maker made for our first Parents coats — not one coat, but a coat for the man and a coat for the woman, coats of several fashions, several forms, and for several uses — the man’s coat fit for his labor, the woman’s fit for her modesty. And will you lose the model left by this great Workmaster of Heaven?”

The implication in the text is that this ‘fashion’ extended to various classes of society: part of the problem as usual was that what was stylish, if a bit risqué and exciting among the upper classes couldn’t be allowed to spread to the lower orders, as this might make it subversive and threaten stability.

Interestingly, a riposte to Hic Mulier, Haec Vir, published in 1620, partially refuted the charges: the characters Hic Mulier (manly Woman) and Haec Vir (Womanly Man) debate feminity and masculinity, with Hic Mulier here accusing her opposite of being effeminate and blaming masculine women on ‘soft’ men, but veering a bit into proto-feminist self-determination as well… It’s a fascinating mix, part dig at the male courtiers around alleged bi- or homosexual king James, part assertion of female autonomy, part complaint about metrosexual guys nicking yer earrings & eyeliner … Whether as a moral or to evade the censor, the two agree to go back to gender-appropriate clobber at the end.

What is partly being attacked in Hic Mulier appears to be women dressing in a sexually dominating way, or in clothes which emphasise overt sexual desire and autonomy. This was associated with whores, but also feared and hated by men who held sexual autonomy, desire, action, to be a male prerogative, to be denounced and pushed down when it came to women.

King James – generally keen to spread misogyny whenever he could – also intervened in the debate in 1620, commanding the clergy to teach, “against the insolencie of our women, and their wearing of broad brimmed hats, pointed dublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of them stilettoes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment.”

There was a relationship between transvestism and crime. Quite apart from any rebellion against rules and social codes, transvestism was also used to commit and disguise theft.

Were her street performances, her appearances in male garb, her posing in tobacco shops, at least partly a smokescreen to distract an audience, while accomplices robbed them?

According to London diarist John Chamberlain, Mary “used to go in mans apparell,” and thereby “challenged the fetid of” the town fops. Male performers and fops used to strut the streets displaying their fine clobber, helpfully providing a target for pickpockets.

In Moll’s examination by the Bishop of London in January 1612, she acknowledges that her new career as a public figure dressed up in male attire was designed as a commercial joint venture between herself and a gang of footpads. Thus, she “confessed” to having “vsually associated her selfe with Ruffinly swaggering & lewd company as namely with cut purses, blasphemous drunkards & others of bad note & of most dissolute behaviour.” The examination also confirms that while mounting her street and floor shows she was deftly practising her light-fingered art: she “confesseth” to the Consistory of London that “she is commonly termed Ma[ll] Cutpurse of her cutting of purses.”

Moll “voluntarily confessed that she had long frequented all or most of the disorderly & licentious places in this Cittie as namely she hath vsually in the habite of a man resorted to alehowses, Tavernes, Tobacco shops and also play howses there to see plaies & pryses.” Needless to say that these haunts, the theatres included, were an ideal hunting ground for a criminally minded pack of thieves waiting for Mary Frith’s beck and call. What better “pryses,” that is, presses, crowds, to relieve of their purses than guests in taverns, befuddled by drink and dazzled by Moll playing on her lute and singing a bawdy song and most likely performing a jig, or guests in a tobacco shop mesmerised by Moll smoking a pipe. pickpockets thrived under the screen cast by the music of popular entertainers.

But her Cross-dressing may also have become a performance in itself: challenging the gallants and fops on their own turf, making a name for herself… as well as asserting her own control over her image, a partial refutation of the rumour, myth and dismissal in the male-strom.

“…She let it be known in unmistakable words that she was not a transvestite, nor a hermaphrodite, nor a sexually ambiguous character of any kind. She addressed the audience of the Fortune Theatre, some 2,340 spectators, telling them unashamedly and disarmingly “that she thought that many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging, they should finde that she is a woman.” This declaration was classified by the ecclesiastical judges as “immodest & lascivious speaches” that she “also vsed at that time.” There was, however, nothing lascivious about the reaffirmation of her womanhood. Her disclosure may also have been meant as a rejection of Middleton and Dekker’s fictional representation of her as a hermaphroditic ideal.”

However, Moll’s appearance at the Fortune was with the consent of these two authors, after the scripted play about her life was performed, suggesting all parties were to an extent co-operating for the purposes of making money, with a healthy dose of publicity thrown in to enhance everyone’s rep. On Moll’s part this may have contained some ambivalence, or not. Was she eying a more permanent move from street cockiness & performance for criminal purposes, into the theatrical life (marginally less illegal and marginal, though only just, at the time) ?

Gustave Ungerer suggests that crucially her performance demonstrated how she “appealed to the lower classes, the groundlings of the Fortune Theatre, and also drew the middle-class audiences, the gallants she used to challenge in their own field.” She had honed her art in the streets, taverns and tobacco shops, absorbing the subversive and irreverent oral tavern culture, and developing a mashup of bawdy, bantering comic give n take standup and burlesquing musical interlude. In her twenties, probably at the peak of her creative ability, ripe for a sideways move onto the boards, already having an image readymade (the male attire).

“In her promotion of this view, her male dress or playing apparel had become, as it were, her signature as a popular entertainer. A graphic demonstration of the costume change is afforded by the unauthorised woodcut of the original edition of The Roaring Girl. It shows the image of a woman dressed up in male clothes, brandishing a sword, smoking a pipe, but not playing the lute. The caption, printed lengthwise on the left-hand margin, reads: “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing.” The wording sealed the demystification of Mary Frith’s sexual and gender ambiguity, signaling her desire to legitimate her profession and to earn her livelihood as a cross-dressed entertainer.”

However, if this was Mary’s aim, it was to be stymied by the City authorities.

A woman in male dress (in breach of the sumptuary laws) entertaining an audience in a public theatre, was provocation enough; her history of dress violations, outdoor pranks, and unlicensed entertainments must have also been noted. However, another not unimportant factor was the crowds any repeat of the show had the potential to draw in: uncontrollable throngs with the chance of disorder, not to mention the gangs of cutpurses (whether in deliberate league with Mary or not!)

“an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel…”

Mary Frith was arrested in April 1611, shortly after the Fortune show, and committed to the Bridewell, the not-quite-prison/proto-workhouse, an institution dedicated to containing and attempting reform of Londoners seen by the authorities as living immoral or troublesome or unruly lives. This included prostitutes, the destitute, poor orphans, those who outraged social conformity and people living on the margins. The Bridewell had started life as a royal palace, become disused and been pressed into service first as a kind of hostel for relief of the urban poor. This rapidly evolved into a correctional facility; the kind of moral improvement by force developed here laid the groundwork for four centuries of the workhouse and poor laws.

Released after a short stay, Moll’s card was now clearly marked. She was arrested again for being dressed indecently, on 25 December 1611, and accused of being involved in prostitution. She was picked up “in Powles Church,” obviously St. Paul’s Walk, near the cathedral, “with her peticoate tucked vp about her in the fashion of a man with a mans cloake on her to the great scandall of diuers persons who vnderstood the same & to the disgrace of all womanhood.” The constable who apprehended her sent her back to Bridewell, where she spent Christmas and the next few weeks locked up,

She was then interrogated by the Bishop of London on 27 January 1612. The Bishop of London reprimanded her for her habits – for the wanton pleasure of smoking and for making music in public – both activities seen to be inventions of the devil, made to inflame the passions of the addicts and of the listeners and to entice them to fall into debauchery.

In her interrogation Mary did confess to being still “associated … with cut purses” and to frequenting the “lewd company” of “blasphemous drunkardes & others of bad note & most dissolute behaviour.”

While ‘Moll’ in her theatre performance had asserted that her crossing of gender boundaries was NOT transgressive, disruptive, immoral or reprehensible, and thus not punishable, this didn’t wash with the guardians of public morality. The Bishop accused her of being a prostitute, since a cross-dressed woman was implying the assuming of the sexually active role of man, which according to the contemporary moral prism suggested a whore. While women entered prostitution and employed cross-dressing for social, economic, and security reasons, there is no evidence available to prove that Mary Frith was a cross-dressed prostitute.

In reply to the bishop pressing her “to declare whether she had not byn dishonest of her body & hath not drawne also other women to lewdnes by her perswasions & by carrying her selfe lyke a bawde”, Mary “absolutly denied that she was chargeable with eyther of these imputacions.”

The bishop, unable to pin the charge of prostitution, nonetheless, “thought fit to remand her to Bridewell … vntill he might further examine the truth of the misdemeanors inforced against her without laying as yet any further censure vppon her.”

Like all Bridewell inmates, Mary would have undergone the regular punitive regime of reform consisting of corporal punishment and hard work, a process that used to last two or three months, especially if inmates showed no tendency to be ‘reformed’. Inmates were dressed in blue garments and ordered to beat hemp and flax; and regularly beaten themselves. In compliance with the rules of the governors, she had to account to them, in their weekly routine sessions, for her misbehaviour and immorality.

Other cross-dressing women had already been subject to this process: Joanna Goodman, who in 1569 was whipped for dressing as a male servant, and Mary Wakeley, who in 1601 was detained for her misconduct as a transvestite…

Katherine Cuffe suffered the same fate, in February 1599, for cross-dressing as a boy and “for her wicked lyfe and great offence” committed within the boundaries of the Inner Temple. She confessed to the court which met in Bridewell on 13 February 1599 that Ambrose Jasper, the cook of the Inner Temple, had asked her “to come in boyes apparrell” to his room “for that he would not haue her come in her owne apparrell least that she should be espyed.” In compliance with her lover’s cunning strategem, she turned up in male disguise, flouting the rules of an all-male academic institution. She “laye” with Jasper “allnight” and he “had th’vse and carnall knowledge of her bodye a little before Christmas last.”

Depictions, Moralism, Myth

As with many figures, both real and imagined, Moll Cutpurse’s life and image was co-opted to reinforce prejudices or sell tickets/pamphlets, sometimes both. In Moll’s case this process began in her own youth with the staging of The Roaring Girl and other literary representations, but as with many another historical figure layers of myth and moralising were alter laid on top, until the ‘real’ Mary was buried under legend. It was not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries for more or less accurate hack biographies/fake autobiographies to be rushed out on the occasion of a celebrity death (with execution literature a speciality); often ‘facts’, legends or anecdotes from one life would be pasted into another for sensationalist appeal. Much as woodcuts made for one purpose would be re-titled and used for another.

Moll’s various depictions are early examples; how much of the ups and downs of her life are true to life is uncertain. An added layer of mystification is added, as she was clearly at least partly party to the myth-making about herself; when others were out to profit by inventing her life, she might as well do it herself, and slyly profit from the jumble of moralising, titillation, and projection.

Do clothes make the Man?

There is a strong link between ‘Moll’s notorious cross-dressing early career and her later rise to businesswoman: clothing. From offending against the ‘sumptuary laws’ regulating appropriate attire for her sex and class, she moved into a trade where clothing was itself a popular commodity, and stolen cloth and apparel was often altered to be unrecognisable when sold on (if it couldn’t be profitably returned to its former owner). It’s worth reading Natasha Korda’s The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage” here, where the links between both costume and its creation/repair, and the fencing and secondhand trade in clothing and the theatre, are pointed out. Korda emphasises how workers in the theatre also doubled as clothing-dealers – notably around the Fortune Theatre, where Moll made her appearance – showing individuals moving between the two,  as economic necessity dictated. But stage performance and the performance of trading, dealing, fronting up a gang, are also linked: Mary Frith created Moll as a character, in many ways, although others wrote some of the scripts, she cannily played the role when she needed to. And if the fame it brought was double-edged, she was able to turn it to her advantage to continue to make a good living.

The 1611 ‘Roaring Girl’ play also can be read to be expressing concerns about clothing (among other things), and how much clothing makes the person, more specifically, does male clothing makes a man a man, and make Moll a man for wearing it? This is expressed throughout the play in jokes and comments, and, as Marjorie Garber observes, the multi-layered sex/gender costuming (two women, played by young boys, dressing as men, one later revealing herself as a woman, the other (Moll Frith) asserting her continued femaleness though in male dress). Obviously also theatre didn’t just involve ‘dressing-up’, wearing a costume, but the idea that disguising by changing clothing actually altered Moll’s ‘case’ is definitely thrown up. Pre-saging some current 21st century debates about the nature of gender… However, how much the real ‘Moll’ bought into any of this is speculation.

The Roaring Girle, was not Frith’s only on-stage representation. Later in 1611, Nathan Field’s play Amends for Ladies was performed, very much a riposte to the Middleton/Dekker play, and Moll appears as a subversive, transgressive personality, parading the sins of thieving and lust, But clearly introduced only as condemnation. Such subversive attitudes must be punished and so Moll is put in the pillory as an emblem of everything seen as wrong with the over-independent female.

In Mary Frith’s case the Bridewell treatment failed to change her ways:
‘They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood: or that Parson who being enjoined to wear the Surplice contrary to his will’

On 9 February 1612 Mary was required to do a penance for her “evil living”, standing in a white sheet at St. Paul’s Cross (the scene of her transgression) during the Sunday morning sermon. A letter from John Chamberland, a keen observer of town and court life, to Dudley Carlton, noted that “last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants),” had done penance in public; Chamberlain noted she was later suspected of having been “maudelin druncke.” “She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three-quarters of sack”.

Ungerer suggests the severity of her treatment in the Bridewell may have influenced her to give up the public performance aspect of her life, as it was attracting too much repressive attention, and turned to ‘brokerage’ as an alternative career… By the time of her marriage she was already fencing goods on her own account.

According to the (admittedly dubiously accurate) biographies of ‘Moll’, doing penance in the pillory didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for cross-dressing: “this penance did not reclaim her, for she still went in men’s apparel, very decently dressed”. If anything she or her mates may have turned the pillory appearance to advantage, as allegedly many in the attending crowd had their clothes slashed (or got pockets picked?): “Besides, many of the spectators had little cause to sport themselves then at the sight ; for some of her emissaries, without any regard to the sacredness of the place, spoiled a good many clothes, by cutting part of their cloaks and gowns, and sending them home as naked behind as Aesop’s crow, when every bird took its own feather from her.

A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers, who by such an hazardous seizure have as thems”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

By 1614 (possibly), and by the 1620s certainly, Mary Frith was, according to her own account, working as a fence and a pimp.  It appears from a Star Chamber bill of 1621 that by 1621 Mary Markham, alias Mary Frith, alias Mary Thrift, alias Mal/Moll Cutpurse, was running a licensed fencing business or lost property office in the city of London; probably around Fleet Street. The Bill of 1621 locates Moll’s brokerage and receiving house in Fleet Street, as does The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. She was still living in this area at her death nearly 40 years later.

Elsewhere she is said to have rented a shop in Shoe Lane (the southern end of the notorious Saffron Hill rookery), which ran down to meet St Bride Street, slightly north of Fleet Street.

“she turned fence that is to say, a buyer of stolen goods ; by which occupation she got a great deal of money. In her house she set up a kind of brokery, or a distinct factory for jewels, rings and watches which had been pinched or stolen any manner of way, at never so great distance, from any person. It might properly enough be called the Insurance Office for such merchandise, for the losers were sure, upon com position, to recover their goods again, and the pirates were sure to have a good ransom, and she so much in the gross for brokage, without any more danger, the hue and cry being always directed to her for the discovery of the goods, not the takers.”

Her old connections among street-thieves and cutpurses would have served her well in the ‘brokerage’ business – doubling as a fence and also a recoverer of stolen goods on behalf of the owners – for a fee. This kind of industry was to be perfected by figures like Jonathan Wilde a century later: combining effectively running gangs of thieves and selling stolen goods, (but dobbing them in to the authorities if it was profitable) and returning goods to the robbed for a price.

Fencing stolen goods was a not uncommon way, in those times, for independent women to make a living. Largely excluded as they from any skilled, paid work regulated tightly by the male-only urban Guilds – run by men and dominated by the powerful masters in various trades – early modern working women found work where they could in London’s black economy of unregulated crafts and trades, becoming second-hand clothing dealers, pawnbrokers, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, and so forth. These ‘disorderly’ commercial practices were as common as they were frowned on by the guilds and City authorities: increasing guild restrictions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on female labour only pushed more women into this sector. The famously litigious Guild structures were generally keen to prosecute women who imposed on their male only rules (as well as non-Guild men who tried to set up in regulated businesses, and the Guilds’ own journeymen who attempted to combine collectively to fight for better conditions and pay). In this sense, as Natasha Korda points out, women’s work in the era Mary lived in should probably be seen as a spectrum from legal to illegal – criminal ways of making a living were hardly less heavily punished in many cases than legal methods when a woman took them up.

Selling of secondhand and stolen goods – a huge business, with the distinction between the two at most times loose at best – operated on this spectrum on the edge of legality; much of the merchandise in question often being clothes, fabric, household items. Women were often movers and shakers in this trade, as well as its offshoot –  quasi-official activity in the return or custody of stolen goods, and thence to emergent ‘thief-taking’.

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (allegedly auto-biographical, though this may be utterly untrue) describes her operation:

“In my house . . . I set up a kind of Brokery or a distinct factory for Jewels, Rings and Watches, which had been pinched or stolen. . . . I might properly enough call it the Insurance Office for such Merchandize, for the Losers were sure upon Composition [i.e. payment of a fee] to recover their Goods again, and the Pyrates were as sure to have good ransome, and I so much in the Grosse for Brokerage [i. e. a percentage of the whole for acting as agent] without any more danger; the Hue and Cry being always directed to me for the Discovery of the Goods not the Takers. A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between the illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers. . . . My House was the Algiers where they traffiqued in safety . . . and publiquely exposed what they got without the danger of Inquisition. . . . I may be said to have made a perfect regulation of this thievish Mystery, and reduced it to certain rules and orders, which during my administration of the Mistressship and Government thereof, was far better managed then afterwards it was. . .”

The fight to stay alive being what it was, many combined several trades, from necessity, so for instance alehouse owners might move into buying and selling goods, already having premises; broadening your options was generally useful.

The markets in second-hand and stolen goods and clothing merged and morphed: frippers (used clothing dealers) worked as pawn-brokers (and vice versa), pawnbrokers as receivers of stolen goods, and receivers as “thief-takers.” ‘Brokers’ with knowledge of criminal networks could return stolen property to its owners, others altered the goods beyond recognition for resale, or sold “the stolen goods vnto duchmen, Scotts and French Brokers,” as a letter from the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London to the Queen’s Attorney General complained in 1601.

My case is altered

As Natasha Korda points out, the caption of the woodcut used to illustrate Middleton & Dekker’s Roaring Girl, “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing”, contains sexual innuendo – ‘case’ was commonly used as slang for female genitalia. The play repeatedly suggests that Moll’s anatomical sex has been altered by her male apparel, as when Sir Alexander Wengrave declaims “Heyday, breeches! What, will [my son] marry a monster with two trinkets?”

Mary’s true motives are hard to read and impossible to pin down at this distance. What if any gender bending was actually involved here? The temptation to put 21st century labels on her should probably be resisted (though Ellen Galford’s 1984 novel ‘Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’ turns her life into an enjoyable lesbian romp)

It’s not really a reliable clue, since the ‘auto’ bit of the autobiographical The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith might well not be gospel, but in it ‘Moll’ makes pains to separate herself from at least one other ‘cross-dresser’:
“There was also a fellow a cotemporary of mine, as remarkable as my self, called Aniseed-water Robin: who was clothed very near my Antic Mode, being an Hermaphrodite, a person of both Sexes; him I could by no means endure, being the very derision of natures impotency, whose redundancy in making him Man and Woman, had in effect made him neither, having not the strength nor reason of the Male, nor the fineness nor subtlety of the Female: being but one step removed from a Natural Changeling, a kind of mockery (as I was upbraided) of me, who was then Counted for an Artificial one. And indeed I think nature owed me a spite in sending that thing into the world to Mate and Match me, that nothing might be without a peer; and the vacuum of Society be replenished, which is done by the likeness and similitude of manners: but contrariwise it begot in me a natural abhorrence of him with so strange an Antipathy, that what by threats and my private instigating of the Boys to fall upon, and throw Dirt at him, I made him quit my Walk and Habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my Neighbours, who used to say, here comes Malls Husband.”

Aniseed-water Robin seems to have been a well-known seller of aniseed-water who was indeed said to be hermaphroditic, and appears in various verses and accounts, in some of which s/he was claimed to have impregnated him/herself…!

If this is genuinely Mary or really represents her views/acts, there could be all sorts of reasons for her distinguishing herself from ‘Robin’ –The dislike of a cunning operator for competition in the cross dressed local celeb stakes? A transvestite for self-promotional gain fearing a more genuine intersex outsider? Or was it “here comes Malls Husband.” she objected to? – still refusing to countenance even the mocking suggestion of marriage?
Her contempt for Robin could of course be an insertion from a dubious biographer with his own dodgy agenda… This does echo the arguments in the ‘Haec Vir’ pamphlet somewhat…

Stephen Orgel suggests that the Mary shown in the surviving sources was essentially conservative, with “middle class aspirations”, or at least seeking a socially & economically stabile position, if through ‘edgy’ means; “a wit, a trickster, an outlaw, though on the whole not dangerous”. The contemporary sources do tend to emphasise her fundamental support for royalty, law and society, while provoking and at the boundaries of what was acceptable in her own interest, or at least learning early from her run-ins with law and order to cunningly operate in the hinterlands…

Although she was portrayed as a ‘sexual aberration’, and despite the theatrical assertions that she ‘would never marry’, in fact in March 1614, she DID marry – to one Lewknor Markham, an ‘esquire of Nottingham’. However, this may well have been a marriage of convenience, giving Moll useful legal cover in the case of actions against her for fencing stolen property. Moll’s criminal and then notorious theatrical past had laid on her a reputation as anything from monster, to sexual aberrant, to hermaphrodite; marriage conveyed status, respectability, cultural normalcy. She also used the marriage and her old and new names cunningly to outwit legal pursuit over the dubious origin of the goods she sold:

“Mary Frith took advantage of her rise in status as a married woman in claiming to be, as the case required, either a feme sole, a single woman, or a feme covert, a married woman under coverture whose legal identity was covered by her husband. As feme sole, she could pose both as a spinster, as Mary Frith, and as a married woman, as Mary Markham, who with respect to property and business was as independent of her husband as if she were unmarried. As feme covert, however, she could not contract and was liable to lose her right for independent action with regard to property and real estate as well as her right to sue and be sued on her own behalf. Thus, in 1624 when Richard Pooke, hatmaker, sued “Mary Frith alias Markham of London, Spinster,” for some unpaid beaver hats, the attorney warned Pooke not to sue her as feme sole under the name of Mary Frith, for she had already defeated other complainants by claiming that she was feme covert, married “to one Markham.” She did, indeed, resort to this legal double game in defending herself against Pooke’s complaint, arguing “that she is Maryed to the same Markham and soe being a feme Covert, she cannot be ympleaded as feme Sole”

Mary probably entered her marriage on condition that she had the right to run a business on her own account, and the couple certainly had not lived together for several years prior to her 1624 court appearance. Either her view on marriage had evolved from the time of Middleton and Dekker’s play, or she always took a flexible approach to matrimony, with her own interests in mind, and the social (and legal!) advantages to the forefront of her thoughts… From pickpocket she had risen socially, carefully building herself a position of intermediary between thief and victim, between law and crime – a fertile and profitable hinterland (as Jonathan Wilde was to later prove).

Fertile, profitable, but still unstable. A fence sat always on the fence, between abetting the underworld and acting for the lawful. When prosecutions were largely private, litigation against a receiver of stolen goods was often on the cards. In 1621, Mary was indited by Richard Dell and his wife Margaret, after apparently naming them as having robbed Henry Killigrew, gentleman, relived of “certen peeces of gold and some seales and other thinges” by a prostitute he was dallying with, down Blackhorse Alley. Killgrew had been advised to seek Mary’s hep with recovering his valuables, and she had fingered the Dells, confirmed by Killigrew identifying Margaret Dell as his sometime night-time companion.  Margaret Dell was committed to the Compter prison.

Richard Dell labelled Mary Markham as “a notorious infamous person, and such a one as was well knowne & acquainted with all theeves & cutpurses.” Mary retorted that she had a royal commission to examine thieves, and threatened that if the Dells “gaue her any ill wordes or language, she … might and did giue them some reply in some tart or angry manner agayne.”

Such murky dealings cemented Mary Frith’s reputation as a somewhat dubious broker, which lasted until her death in 1659. Merlinus Anonymus, a mock almanac by the royalist Samuel Sheppard, published in 1653, has the following calendar entry for 11 March: “Mrs. Frith tax’d for conivance and acquitted by a Jury of pick pockets’.

In Merry Mad Queries for the People’s Information (1659), a copy of which was acquired by the publisher George Thomason on 13 June 1659, a week after Mary Frith had signed her will, one query reads: “Whether Mrs. Mary Frith commonly called by some Mall Cut-purse, having formerly done so good service at the Bear Garden, and many other things for the good of the Nation, being now aged and having no children of her own body lawfully begotten, as ever I heard of, might not do a pious Act to appoint one to succeed her to help the people to their purses again when she is gone?”

And in Sir John Berkenhead’s Libri Theologici, Politici, Historici, Nundinis Paulinis (una cum Templo) prostant venales … Done into English for the Assembly of Divines (1651/52) Berkenhead couples William Lilly, the astrologer of the Parliament, and Mary Frith, the retriever of stolen goods, listing a spoof joint book venture of Lilly and Frith; “Pancirolla Medela. A way to find out things lost and Stoln; by the said William Lilly. With a Claris to his book, or the Art of his Art. By Mistris Mary Frith.” Berkenhead was seemingly poking fun at both Lilly’s dubious divinations and on the impotence of Mary Frith to beget children, though dressed as a man.

Being recouered of their former sences

In the early 1640s Mary Frith was declared insane and hospitalised in Bethlehem Hospital. The administration, the running of the asylum, and the vicious and inhuman ‘treatment’, (generally beating and punishing the inmates), lay in the hands of the governors of Bridewell, subsidised by the City parishes. How had Moll Cutpurse ended up there? Sectioned after some arrest and committal to the Bridewell? Pretending madness in order to avoid the political turmoils and survive the economic disruption of the civil war?

She is recorded as being released after being cured of insanity: the Bridewell governors meeting on Friday, 21 June 1644, “thought fitt & ordered … that Gilbert Stopford, Katherine Killingham alias Killigrew, Anne Parrett, Mary Frith, Margery Houghton, Robert Crockett and Mary Thornton shal bee delivered & discharged out of the Hospital of Bethlem, London, being recouered of their former sences & may bee kept & provided for in any other place as well as in the hospitall of Bethlem. And that they bee every of them respectively sent to the severall Parishes from whence they came.”

One of the most famuous tales recounted of Moll Cutpurse, is that in her 60s she robbed Parliamentary Civil War supremo General Fairfax “of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her, and killing two horses on which a couple of his servants rode, a close pursuit was made after her by some Parliamentarian officers quartering in the town of Hounslow, to whom Fairfax had told his misfortune. Her horse failed her at Turnham Green, where they apprehended her, and carried her to Newgate.” From where she is said to have escaped, or bribed her way out…

Is this true though? It’s a great story, which we’d love to believe just because it so outrageous; but doubt has been cast on it. It runs somewhat against the patterns of her life, and of petty crime generally, for a London-bred thief and fence to ‘go out on the roads’. The publisher George Horton, who put out the 1662 account, The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, had a specifically anti-parliamentary agenda, being a dedicated royalist with a penchant for ensuring an anti-republican slant was overlaid on works he sponsored. Cocking a snook at parliamentary general Fairfax was not the only apparent royalist attitude this work attributes to Mary – whether accurately or not is anyone’s guess.

She had lived for some time before at a house in Fleet Street, possibly around the site of the present no 133 Fleet; dying there aged around 78 on 26 July 1659 of ‘dropsy’ (oedema, or fluid retention).

She was buried in nearby St Bride’s Church, in an unmarked grave.


Some good reading on Moll/Mary:

Gustave Ungerer, “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature.”

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith

Mary Frith, Otherwise Moll Cutpurse in The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I

Natasha Korda,  The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage”

See chapter 6 in Linda Woodbridge, Woman and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womanhood, 1540-1620

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl

Ellen Galford,  Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’  (historical novel)


Today in London theatrical history, 1805: tailors offended at anti-tailor play riot, Haymarket Theatre

One of the most unique riots in London history took place at the Haymarket Theatre London in 1805.

In 1767 playwright and impresario Samuel Foote wrote and staged a production of a play called The Tailors: A Tragedy for Warm Weather, a satire about Tailors. The revival of this play nearly four decades later sparked a furious response from the tailoring trade: the tailors of London vowed to oppose the performance by any means necessary.

Tailors in this era were often sneered at and satirised, their craft, highly skilled though it was, was regarded as ‘unmanly’.  Even in folk tales the tailor is often a fill Possibly because they worked inside, in a trade that require skill and patience, rather than brawn – was tailoring somehow seen as ‘women’s work’ ? It’s also worth noting that tailors were famous for political discussion and radical activity through the 18th and 19th centuries, so there may have been an element of class snobbery too – look at these plebs getting above their station…

Tailors were often also portrayed in political cartoons as mean and grasping for money.  A good part of this probably arose from the dependence that the well-off actually had on their tailors. Clothes were vitally important as a signifier of who you were in society and what your position was; ever-changing fashion required a constant supply of new clothes. But depending on the skill of low-class tailors for their image no doubt irked the wealthy… In addition, in certain periods, like the Regency, noble folk could in fact be heavily in debt, and relied on stiffing various creditors for payment as long as possible. Tailors regularly complained that they were owed large sums by the aristos they clothed; the well-to-do generally thought such questions beneath them, and sneered at those who had to chase what was owed to them.

Another reason for abusing tailors came from simple prejudice – the tailor might often be a foreigner – a Frenchie, or even a Jew!

However, messing with the tailors may have been unwise. London tailors had a long history of self-organisation – the trade’s journeymen fought battles to improve wages and conditions for centuries, dating back to the Middle Ages.

In the 18th century, the journeymen’s collectivity was so strong they were nicknamed ‘the tailors’ republic’.

The play itself (some of which is on google books) seems to be a satire on heroic theatre, but is also a clear dig at the journeymen tailors banding together to fight for better wages and conditions. This was very much a live issue in London. Several times in the eighteenth century the journeymen combined or went on strike – the latest wage battle had taken place only in 1763, a few years before Foote’s drama was composed. The play casts tailors’ self-organisation against their masters in the style of a Shakespearean war tragedy – with the clear aim of making the idea of those weedy tailors engaging in struggle appear ridiculous…

When actor William Dowton tried re-staging ‘The Tailors: a Tragedy for Warm Weather’ in 1805, the London tailors took umbrage. Not had their power to organise collective action diminished… Dowton received a series of threatening letters, warning him to abandon the plans to perform the offensive play, or else seventeen thousand tailors would attend to hiss and boo the piece; one letter signed “DEATH” added that ten thousand more tailors could be found if required.
Dowton laughed these threats off, and pressed on with the performance. However, when opening night came, it turned out that the tailors were deadly serious. They had managed to book almost every seat in the theatre, and a large crowd outside the Haymarket weren’t able to get in.

The moment Dowton appeared upon the stage, there was an uproar, and someone threw a pair of shears at him:

“At an early hour in the afternoon of August 15 about 700 persons mostly Tailors were waiting to gain admittance to the theatre at the opening of the doors. The greater portion went to the galleries while some took their station in the pit and the moment they got in commenced shouting and knocking their sticks in the most turbulent manner. The utmost noise and confusion prevailed in the house and when the curtain rose there was a general cry of ‘Dowton! Dowton!’  Mr Dowton, came forward but the tumult increased and there were loud shouts of ‘No Dowton!  No Dowton!’  He attempted to speak but could not be heard, the uproar now greatly increased.  A Tailor’s thimble and a pair of scissors were thrown from the shilling gallery on the stage; they passed very near to Mr Dowton and he took them up and coming to the front said “I would give twenty guineas to know who threw these scissors!”  This proceeding so alarmed some ladies in the stage box that at their request he left the stage.

The noise continuing with increased violence the managers despaired of obtaining a hearing in the usual way and had recourse to the exhibition of a large board whereon they asked to know the pleasure of the audience.  Papers were handed to the galleries and every possible intimation was given that offensive piece should be withdrawn and the farce of Village Lawyer substituted.  This however did not produce a cessation of hostilities and about nine o’clock managers finding it impossible to procure peace despatched a messenger to Mr. Graham the magistrate at Bow who soon arrived with some officers and having sworn several extra constables proceeded to the galleries and on the ring leaders took about a dozen of the rioters custody and lodged them in St Martin’s watch house.

After Catherine and Petruchio, the curtain being up discovered three Tailors seated upon a board.  The uproar then became universal; loud vociferations of every kind were made, and a very strong opposition was again formidably manifested.  The Bow Street Officers made their appearance after a time and eventually several of the most riotous were put out of the house.  The piece then proceeded but in consequence of these interruptions it was nearly one o’clock before the performance was over.  A party of the Horse patrolled up and down the Haymarket and remained until the crowd had dispersed.”
(from the Introduction to a later published version of ‘The Tailors, (or “Quadrupeds,”): a tragedy for warm weather, in three acts’)

The episode in which the theatre managers came on stage and tried to negotiate with the spectators is interesting. The objections being passed up to the stage and the attempt to get a different play put on reflect a very different attitude to theatre prevailing – almost an expectation of democracy, where the audience has a right to partially determine events on stage. As noted on this blog before, eighteenth century theatre audiences were drawn from a much wider spectrum of society than is generally true today – there was almost as moral economy, where cheap tickets and seats for different social sectors was expected (and attempts to restrict this ‘right’ caused riots). The right to view plays may have helped give birth to a sense that theatre belonged to all in a wider way – that audiences could take part in what was put on and how it was staged, even who could act. In 1773 the actor Charles Macklin’s role as Macbeth at Covert Garden caused so much controversy that a performance was halted when a large part of the audience demanded he be immediately sacked mid-play…

Partly this may have arisen from a peculiar lack of separation between performers and audience in many London theatres. There could be many factors that contributed to this. Street theatre and performance were so ever-present in London streets, that awe and distance when faced with a stage had evaporated somewhat? Trends in theatre production may also have helped – before naturalistic theatre in the 20th century, actor’s soliloquising and breaking the fourth wall was much more common, bringing the spectator into the play…

Theatre was also so accessible going to a performance was as routine for many as going to the pub, and some theatres became places to hang out and socialise – not necessarily to watch the play…

As late as 1844, in Sadlers Wells Theatre, the rowdy audience had become notorious for their refusal to behave like an audience. Respectable folk were increasingly staying away. Inside the theatre itself was even worse: the audiences mainly turned up to impose THEIR desires, and have a collective rowdy time, not to watch plays. The Sadlers Wells audience, “of the lowest possible class”, had, according to the Daily News, become “a sink of abomination, its plays a travesty, riots among its degraded audience a commonplace”. The performance was usually inaudible, drowned out by the shrieks, yells, lewd heckles and whistles, stamping and hails of thrown objects (including fruit and veg), and shouted demands for comic and popular songs. Charles Dickens disapprovingly described the “foul language, oaths, catcalls, shrieks, yells, blasphemy, obscenity – a truly diabolical clamour.”  This inversion of the spectacle sounds brilliant, in its total subversion of the ‘separate’ roles of performers and audience; more like a revival of the medieval carnival culture, where this separation was paper thin, and soon broken down. Theatre traditions like this helped evolve the great Music Hall scene onf the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The 1805 controversy over The Tailors also sparked a good old-fashioned pamphlet war. After the riot, a mock-heroic poem entitled ‘The Tailor’s Revolt’ was published under the pseudonym of ‘Jeremy Swell, Gent.’  Tailors issued a riposte in a tract called: ‘The Tailor’s Answer to the Late Attacks Upon their Profession from the Stage and Press With Critical Remarks on Jeremy Swell’s Mock Heroic Poem, by ‘a Flint’. (A ‘flint’ was a tailor working in a union shop):

“Does a man degenerate from his nature by becoming a Tailor?  Certainly not!  Why then do you laugh at us?  Is it because we sit cross legg’d at our work?  Fools who make themselves merry with this Circumstance do not know perhaps that this is the general posture of sitting adopted by all the Eastern nations as the most graceful and natural; nobody was ever seen to laugh at the Grand Signior and his Haram sitting cross legg’d at the Circus, but two Tailors in the same position at the Haymarket were deem’d a fit subject for mirth – 0 Tempore!  0 mores!  “But,” says some pert witling, “ a Tailor is only the ninth part of a man.””

Don’t mess with the Tailors’ Republic…

Today in London entertainment history, 1907: striking performers & artistes launch the ‘Music Hall War’

The ‘Music Hall War’ of 1907 saw music hall employees, stage artistes and London theatre proprietors walk out on strike against changes in conditions imposed by music hall and theatre proprietors. The strike was sparked by changes to pay, the scrapping of perks, and an increase in working hours, and a dispute about increased matinée performances.

The strike officially began on 22 January 1907 at the Holborn Empire in London. It lasted for two weeks, winning support from popular entertainers of the day including Marie Dainton, Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Joe Elvin and Gus Elen, all of whom took an  active part in picketing outside both London and provincial theatres.

The strikes ended two weeks later and resulted in a rise in pay and better working conditions for both stage workers and artistes.

Music hall entertainment evolved in the London taverns and coffee houses of 18th century, where performers were hired to sing whilst the audience socialised. By the 1830s many publicans set aside specific rooms for punters to play music or sing together; some of these groups met to rehearse during the week, then put on a Saturday evening show at the end of the working week. Sometimes such gatherings were known as a ‘free and easy’. These meetings became popular and increased in number to two or three times a week. Gradually ‘music halls’ grew out of these back rooms, and theatres were purpose-built to house the growing popularity of Music hall entertainment. The audiences consisted of mainly working class people; the performers overwhelmingly arose from the same class. While the old ‘free and easy’ groups had initially been generally male, and this was reflected in early audiences, impresario Charles Morton actively invited women into his music hall, believing that they had a “civilising influence on the men”. The surge in popularity further attracted female performers and by the 1860s, it had become common place for women to appear on the music hall stage.

By 1875 there were 375 music halls in London, and a further 384 in the rest of England. As the number of venues increased and their popularity rocketed, other avenues for profit-making opened up – for instance, Music-hall proprietors enlisted a catering workforce who would supply food and alcohol to the punters. To capitalise on the increasing public demand, some entertainers frequently appeared at several halls each night, especially in London, where travel between halls was relatively quick and easy. As a result, leading performers became popular, not only in London, but in the English provinces.

Music halls adopted a design based on contemporary theatres – which included fixed seating in the stalls. These improvements proved expensive and managers had to abide by the strict safety regulations which were introduced for theatres in the late 19th century. The mounting overheads, including building costs and the performers fees, music hall proprietors were forced to sell shares to raise cash – many formed syndicates with wealthy investors.

In 1898 Oswald Stoll had become the Managing Director of Moss Empires, a theatre chain led by Edward Moss. Moss Empires had bought up many of the English music halls and came to dominate the business. Stoll became notorious among his employees for implementing a strict working atmosphere. He paid them a little wage and erected signs backstage prohibiting performers and stagehands from using coarse language.

By the start of the 1900s music hall artistes had been in several unofficial disputes with theatre managers over the poor working conditions, low pay, lack of perks, and a dramatic increase in the number of matinée performances. By 1903 audience numbers had fallen, in part due to the banning of alcohol in auditoriums and the introduction of the more popular variety show format, favoured by Stoll.

Until the turn of the century, most music hall entertainers had enjoyed relatively flexible working arrangements with music hall owners. By the Edwardian era, however, terms and conditions were increasingly formal, preventing entertainers from working at other local theatres, for example.

The Variety Artistes Federation had been founded in 2006, and quickly amassed a membership of nearly 4,000 performers. In the same year the Federation initiated a brief strike on behalf of its members.
This was not the first attempt to organise a trade union for music hall performers: in 1873, a short-lived Music Hall Protection Society had been founded, and in 1884, the Music Hall Artists Association had briefly existed, founded in response to managers’ imposition of a maximum salary and wage reductions. In the latter case the association had lapsed after management’s offensive was broken, partly by divisions among managers, some of whom broken agreed wage levels to hire music hall stars.

In the late 1890s a 5000-strong Music Hall Artistes Railway Association had also campaigned to secure cheaper rail travel for artistes from the railway companies. This Association had united with the Grand Order of Water Rats and several other smaller music-hall friendly societies in 1906 to form the Variety Artistes Federation.

The 1907 dispute began when in addition to the single matinée (afternoon) performance included in most performers’ contracts, music hall owners began to demand additional shows – adding up to four matinées a week to the workload, in some cases, for no extra pay. A memorandum distributed by the VAF on its founding summed up the artistes’ resentment of this practice:

“Notwithstanding the vast increase in the popularity of music entertainments (due, sin some measure, your memorialist submit, to the work of the artists themselves), and the great addition to the number of variety theatres, the position of the artist has suffered great deterioration.

Whereas a few years ago artists were called upon to give only six or seven performances per week, they are now required under the two-houses-per-night system to play twice that number (and in some cases, unfortunately, matinees in addition), but except in a very few instances they have had to give these twelve, thirteen, fourteen or fifteen performances for the same salary they received for six or seven hithertoo. To these altered conditions they have submitted in the interests of the proprietors; but now the provisions of the barring clause are being so rigourously enforced as to inflict a great additional hardship and heavy financial loss on artists who are out or work by preventing them from accepting contracts when engagements are offered.”

(For the issues caused by the barring clause see the strikers’ demands, below).

In December 1906, Walter Gibbons, proprietor of a chain of music halls, attempted to transfer the entire staff working at the Brixton Hippodrome to the Brixton Empress and vice versa, in response to a licensing dispute with the London County Council. Resenting this diktat, the VAF picketed both theatres; Gibbons tried to beat this by hiring non-VAF artists. A fortnight of chaos followed. Although Gibbon eventually backed down, the VAF decided now was the time to escalate the dispute across a number of venues.

A mass meeting of VAF artists, members of the Amalgamated Musicians Union and the National Association of Theatrical Employees at the Surrey Theatre on 20th January 1907 agreed demands and launched a strike.

On 21 January, workers at the Holborn Empire joined the strike action, and theatrical workers at other venues followed suit and initiated widespread strikes across London. The strike eventually spread to 22 London variety theatres, involving some 2,000 of the Variety Artistes Federation’s membership on picket lines at one time or another.

Picket lines were organised into shifts outside theatres by workers and artistes. The news reached provincial theatres and managers attempted to convince their artistes to sign a contract promising never to join a trade union.

The disputes were funded by the few more famous and wealthy performers, including Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Gus Elen – as well as by the Edwardian labour movement. Labour leaders including Ben Tillett and Keir Hardie spoke out in support of the strike.

Lloyd frequently performed on picket lines for free and took part in fundraising – playing a well-publicised benefit gig, dubbed ‘A Night With the Stars’, at the Scala Theatre on February 11th. Generally she donated her entire fee to the strike fund. Lloyd explained her support for the strike: “We the stars can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken.”

The strikers’ set out their list of demands, as follows:

  1. That at all halls working two shows a night, all matinees shall be paid for at the rate of one-twelfth salary for each matinee. In one-show-a-night halls, all matinees over one per week to be paid for at the rate of one seventh salary.
  2. That no artiste or artistes shall be transferred from one hall to another without his, her, or their consent.
  3. That “time” shall not be varied after Monday in each week without the artistes consent.
  4. That all disputes shell be referred to a Board of Arbitration, such board to consist of two nominees of ________________ the undersigned, and two nominees of the Variety Artistes Federation Executive Committee, and an independent chairman, to be nominated by the above four nominees.
  5. That a “barring clause” of one mile and three months in London, and five miles and five months in the provinces, be adopted.
  6. No commission to be stopped where artistes are booked direct.
  7. No bias or prejudice to be shown to any artiste who has taken part in this movement.
  8. This agreement to refer to all existing and future contracts, and to become operative on _____________ 1907.
  9. That the V.A.F. form of contract be adopted as soon as supplied.

The causes and grievances lying behind these demands were legion:

  1. That at all halls working two shows a night, all matinees shall be paid for at the rate of one-twelfth salary for each matinee. In one-show-a-night halls, all matinees over one per week to be paid for at the rate of one seventh salary.

In the years leading up to the strike a number of music hall managers, in a bid to increase their revenues, had decided to stage two performances every evening instead of one. The first typically beginning around 6:45 and the second at around 9:00PM. As the overall lengths of these performances had to be shortened to fit two shows into one evening admission prices were reduced, but doubling up on attendances led to greatly increased receipts overall. When this system was implemented the majority of performers were told that they would have to give two performances per evening instead of one, but without any increase in salary. Of course, the length of their individual turns was reduced but with earlier start and later finish times they were made to remain in the theatre much longer. Thus the artistes were expected to contribute more to each evenings performances without any corresponding increase in payment. Even so, most accepted this with minimal complaint. However, the unfairness did not end there.

In the music halls at that time it was customary for performers who were engaged for a full week of evening performances to give one afternoon matinee performance free. When the performers were engaged for twice the number of evening performances, even without their salaries being increased, they were expected to give twice the number of free matinee performances as well, ie. two per week instead of one. This further increased the burden placed upon them with still no increase in payment. Some managers went even further, writing into contracts “matinees as required”, and at holiday periods performers might be expected to give matinee performances daily – for no pay.

This demand by the V.A.F. therefore was for nothing more than a return to the original status quo. Where performers were contracted to perform one show a night they would give one matinee free as before, and additional ones would be paid pro rata. Where they were contracted for two shows a night, each matinee would be paid at what amounted to half their nightly salary, so for two matinees they would be paid one evenings salary which effectively amounted to the same thing.

  1. That no artiste or artistes shall be transferred from one hall to another without his, her, or their consent.

Music Hall artistes were generally contracted to the manager rather than the hall, and as many managers controlled more than one hall they would expect to shift their performers around as and when they saw fit. If a performer was transferred to another hall in the same locality that might present little hardship, but a performer might just as easily be moved to a hall across London or somewhere in the provinces. This might make it impossible for that performer to fulfill other engagements he or she may have entered into with another manager (and which he/she could easily have kept whilst working at the original location), thus leading to a loss in earnings. Furthermore, artistes could be transferred to halls in different parts of the country from week to week thus accumulating considerable travelling expenses for which they were not compensated.

This clause therefore sought to protect the artistes from these types of hardships by ensuring that they would only be transferred to other venues by mutual agreement.

  1. That “time” shall not be varied after Monday in each week without the artistes consent.

Managers would sometimes manipulate the timing of certain acts to force out artistes whose services were no longer required. For example, a particular performer may have two concurrent engagements for twenty minute ‘turns’ at different halls, timed to appear on stage at one venue at say 8:00PM and the other at say 10:00PM. If the manager of one hall decided he no longer required that act he could not dismiss it without paying up the remainder of the contract. So instead he would deliberately change the timing of that turn so that it clashed with the artistes other commitment. This would force the artiste to be the one to break the contract since he/she could not be in two places at once, and the manager would not then be liable to pay compensation.

This clause in the V.A.F.’s demands was intended to give some measure of protection to artistes against this form of constructive dismissal. It was hardly unreasonable to ask that artistes be informed on Monday at what hours they were required to perform for the remainder of that week, and would afford them some measure of security to accept other bookings.

  1. That all disputes shell be referred to a Board of Arbitration, such board to consist of two nominees of {space for signatory} the undersigned, and two nominees of the Variety Artistes Federation Executive Committee, and an independent chairman, to be nominated by the above four nominees.

In all disputes between managers and artistes the managers themselves had always been the sole arbiters. The artistes had had little choice in most cases other than to bow to the managers will, however unfair that may sometimes have been.

The purpose of this clause therefore, was to ensure that future disputes would be settled fairly, according to the facts.

  1. That a “barring clause” of one mile and three months in London, and five miles and five months in the provinces, be adopted.

It was common practice for music hall performers contracts to include a clause barring them from performing at another hall within a certain distance to the one at which they were contracting to appear. This was not unreasonable since engagements were usually arranged in advance. If an artiste was then to appear at another nearby hall before actually commencing a given engagement the local populace would already have seen his or her act. This reduced the novelty of that artiste’s performance and lessened his/her drawing power, potentially reducing attendances at the second hall.

What was unfair about this restriction however was that it commonly took no account of time, but simply came in to effect from the moment the contract was signed. Some engagements might be arranged a whole year or more in advance however, and it was unfair to prevent an artiste from earning a living within a particular area for so long a period of time. Furthermore, an artiste may have signed a number of such future engagements, thus adding to the areas in which he/she is barred from appearing in the short term.

The purpose of this clause was simply to limit the time and distance over which this barring clause applied in an effort to be fair to both parties. Since halls were more numerous in London, and the population more densely packed so that they drew their patrons from a smaller area, the restriction was less here than in the provinces.

  1. No commission to be stopped where artistes are booked direct.

Oftentimes, artistes would be booked through a theatrical agent, in which case the agent would be paid a commission consisting of a percentage of their salary. This commission was recompense to the agent for their time and effort in finding work for the artiste. When no agent was involved however, it was common practice for the theatre managers to stop the customary agents commission (5%) from the artistes salary which they would then keep instead!

This clause then was intended to end a practice which was unique to the music halls and which the artistes considered to be little less than extortion.

  1. No bias or prejudice to be shown to any artiste who has taken part in this movement.

This clause was simply to protect any performers who had taken leading roles in the strike from reprisals by the managers.

  1. This agreement to refer to all existing and future contracts, and to become operative on {space for date} 1907.

This clause was to the date, when agreed, from which the these new terms and conditions were to come into effect.

  1. That the V.A.F. form of contract be adopted as soon as supplied.

The V.A.F. were to supply the managers with a new form of contract document encompassing these terms and conditions which the managers were then to use for future contracts.

The strike was not limited to the artistes alone. The orchestra musicians also took part, their main grievance being with their low pay. They asked for a minimum salary and payment for matinees based on one full evenings salary for one show a night houses, and half an evenings salary for two show a night houses.

The National Association of Theatrical (Stage) Employees, which represented the music-hall stage hands, also joined in the strike. In some ways their members had most to strike about. They had been particularly hard hit in those houses which had changed to two shows a night. Two shows meant a longer evening, more scene and lighting adjustments etc. All of which meant more work for everyone from the dressers and make-up artists to the scene changers and lighting men. Poorly paid already, they had been expected to work even harder for the same money. Their demands were simple, just a decent living wage – fair pay for honest work.

Some music-hall managers either recognised the justice of the strikers claims or felt the pressure and quickly came to terms. Others resisted more strongly, attempting to keep the halls open by bringing former performers out of retirement and booking unknowns. The striking artistes picketed these halls distributing leaflets declaring ‘Music Hall War!’; the managers responded distributing leaflets of their own defending their position. But by and large the public supported the strikers, especially when they had such popular favourites as Marie Lloyd and Marie Dainton on their side.

When the music hall owners responded by engaging lesser known acts and bringing others out of retirement, the union picketed theatres. On one occasion, Lloyd recognised one of those trying to enter and shouted, “Let her through girls, she’ll close the music-hall faster than we can.”

The strike lasted for almost two weeks.

Gradually the managers were worn down and forced to come to the negotiating table to settle the dispute with fairer pay and better conditions.

In due course, the dispute was referred to arbitration – the suggestion apparently coming from the author Somerset Maugham – and Sir George Askwith, conciliation officer at the Board of Trade, was appointed to try to find a resolution. A ruling was agreed, and on February 12th theatres re-opened as the strike was settled.

After 23 formal meetings and numerous less formal ones, the resulting settlement produced a national code, a model contract and a procedure for settling disputes. In effect, the performers won more money, plus a guaranteed minimum wage and maximum working week for musicians.

Askwith conducted a hearing taking evidence from the Music Hall owners and representatives of the Unions. However, although his February ‘Interim Award’ ended the strike, it took months for the final award to be settled. In June 1907, the first Askwith Award – a 32 page document – was published, attempting to clarify the appropriate “rules, regulations and rates that are applicable to variety theatres in Great Britain and Ireland.” The Award guaranteed musicians in London 30/- per week as minimum pay although drummers only received 28/-.

But it was only 12 years later in 1919 that many of the contracts agreed were actually made mandatory across the music halls a a whole.

Although the strike ended well, the music hall owners exacted small revenges on Marie Lloyd. For instance, five years later, when the first music hall royal command performance for the music hall was held, vengeful managers excluded the greatest star of the music halls from their line-up.

Grievances and disputes in the music halls continued, however, as this extract from the 1907 Trades Union Congress Annual Report reveals:

  • Mr. J. O’Gorman (Variety Artistes Federation) took the opportunity of thanking the Trade Unionists for the help they gave the members of his society during the late strike, especially Mr Isaac Mitchell. He went on to explain the growing evil of the matinee custom, which compelled variety artistes to give a lot of extra performances for nothing. They went to arbitration, and they got an award: but he was sorry to say that, with one exception, the music-hall proprietors were trying to evade it. He hoped the Trades Unionists of the country would continue to support them if they were driven further.

But over time conditions did improve. The music hall artistes had shown that they now had a voice, and the V.A.F. would continue the fight to protect the rights of its members for many years to come. It began its own regular weekly publication, “The Performer”, which was founded by ‘Uncle Fred’ who had been a journalist before becoming a renowned ventriloquist. It would remain the main association for members of the Music Hall and Variety profession until 1957 when it amalgamated with British Actors Equity (formed 1930).


An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London history: a somewhat xenophobic riot, Haymarket theatre, 1738.

“Monday 9. Was a great Disturbance at the New Theatre in the Haymarket, where some French Players newly arriv’d from Paris, attempting to act the Comedy of L’Embarras des Riches, met with such rude Treatment, and were so interrupted with hissing, catcalling, ringing small Bells, knocking out the Candles, pelting, & notwithstanding the Guard of three Files of Musqueteers that they were forced at last to quit the Stage with Precipitation. The French Ambassador left the House at the Beginning of the disturbance; the Haymarket was full of People, and the Mob in the Street broke the Windows of the House all to Pieces.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, October, 1738)

London in the middle of the eighteenth century was a relatively cosmopolitan city, and that a significant number of non-native Londoners were Protestant refugees or of Huguenot ancestry. Many of the trades catering to the culture of affluence were practiced by crafts-people from the continent, including the wigmakers whom the letter writer threatens to unleash. The writer’s true feelings are revealed in the comment about French people in London making a fortune now that there was peace. There was obvious bitterness about the state of affairs that saw peace benefiting Britain’s enemies, even if they were immigrants to the country.

A vivid example of this bitterness is seen in the riot that greeted a French Company at the Little Haymarket in 1738. The riot occurred at an auspicious time. There was a growing discontent with the policies of Robert Walpole’s administration that had failed in the early 1730s to implement a highly unpopular excise scheme. By 1738 there was much opposition to the country’s foreign policy; in particular, the administration’s ambivalent relations with Spain. In March 1738 there were debates in the House of Commons over how to deal with Spanish naval activities in the Atlantic and Caribbean and in May parliament took steps to strengthen Britain’s naval squadrons in opposition to Walpole’s policy. Within a year, the failure of the Convention of Prado (an unpopular initiative to begin with) to stop Spanish incursions against British shipping, would lead Walpole to reluctantly declare war on Spain.

More directly associated with theatre, there was significant opposition to the Licensing Act of 1737, passed by the administration of Robert Walpole. While the Act was not universally decried, it did put people on the alert for abuses. There were substantial concerns about freedom of speech and what the act might bode for the liberty of the press.

The actual effects of the Licensing Act upon London theatres were immediately discernable. Two plays were censored, and two theatres, Goodman’s Fields and the Little Theatre in the Haymarket were closed down.  One consequential effect was an increase in the level of unemployment in the theatre. Moreover, unemployed English actors had been imprisoned for debt. In the midst of these developments came the news that a French company was being granted a license to perform at the vacant Little Theatre in the Haymarket. The company in question, led by Francisque Moylen, had arrived in London in early October 1738 and numbered some seventy persons. In the press the connection was made immediately between the official sanction of the company and the recently enacted prohibitory power of the administration through the Lord Chamberlain’s office. A correspondent to the Daily Advertiser remarked that it “seem[ed] to be a little unnatural that French Strollers should have a Superior Privilege to those of Our own Country.” A piece in the London Evening Post continued the attack.

With this sort of pre-publicity, it was not surprising that the theatre was extremely crowded when the Company eventually appeared on Monday, October 9th. Benjamin Victor, a theatrical writer and occasional administrator, arrived early and had a place “in the Centre of the Pit.” Victor provides an extremely vivid account of the evening’s events. Amongst the audience members assembling in the pit, he noted there were the justices

DeVeil and Manning, two Westminster magistrates. Justice DeVeil had been prominent during the Footman’s riots at Drury Lane theatre the previous year.

As was often the case with an evening’s theatrical entertainment, people began gathering in the house several hours before the performance was scheduled to begin. “The Leaders, that had the Conduct of the Opposition” were in the pit and “called aloud for the Song in Praise of English Roast Beef, which was accordingly Sung in the Gallery by a Person prepared for that purpose.” The whole house joined in on the choruses and “saluted the Close with three huzzas!” Whether or not everyone present actually sang, as Victor claimed in his rather enthusiastic eye-witness account of the events, others reported that there was a remarkable sense of unanimity amongst the audience. This is not something that was often a part of theatre riots. In most theatre riots there were divisions along class lines, attenuated by the tripartite seating arrangements. Very often sides were aligned according to the theatre section in which they sat. However, that was not the case on this occasion.

“Never appear’d at any Theatre a greater Unanimity,” wrote the correspondent for the London Evening Post.

At this point, with the play still some time off, Magistrate DeVeil decided to cal1 this exuberant display on the part of the audience a riot and made preparations to read the Riot Act. However, in the close quarters of the theatre auditorium his judgment was immediately disputed, and a public discussion was “carried on with some Degree of Decency on both Sides” as to whether or not this was actually the case. DeVeil then explained that he was there by the King’s command to maintain the monarch’s authority and was backed by a Company of guards, waiting outside the theatre. While no doubt DeVeil was concerned with the rapidly escalating demonstration, and was anxious to exert some sort of authority over the situation, these were the wrong words to use under the circumstances. Victor noted however, that there was a reasoned response from the audience to “these most arbitrary Threatenings” and “Abuse” of the King’s name. Purportedly they replied back to DeVeil:

That the Audience had a legal Right to shew their Dislike to any Play or Actor; that the common Laws of the Land were nothing but common Custom, and the antient Usage of the People; that the Judicature of the Pit had been acknowledged and acquiesced to, Time immemorial; and as the present Set of Actors were to take their Fate £rom the Public, they were free to receive them as they pleased.

There are a variety of important eighteenth century themes woven into this response. At the heart of the issue was the belief on the part of the audience that they had a legal right to show their displeasure based on principles of common law and precedent. Once again we see the idea of judgment as being a right and responsibility on the part of the audience. The ‘rule of law’ was a cherished idea in the minds of Englishmen and central to their political identit~.)~L egal matters were the subjects of much interest for the contemporary observer, including questions about the status of common law versus parliamentary statute.

This initial interaction between the magistrate DeVeil and the audience was a detailed example of the bargaining that was involved with’ the reading of the Riot Act in the confined, well lit theatre space. In outdoor demonstrations the Riot Act was sometimes read in absentia and was not guaranteed the same degree of focus as it was most times in the theatre. The confines of the auditorium made the reading of the Act even more theatrical than was the case outdoors. This is not to Say that negotiating didn’t take place outdoors, but that inside the theatre the process was enacted in a place that was constructed for performance. On this occasion Victor was able to pin down accurately the essentials of the bargaining that took place.

This initial encounter between DeVeil and the audience was only the beginning of a series of statements and counter statements from both sides in the dispute. Moreover events soon overtook the discussion. Near six o’clock, just prior to the beginning of the performance, the honoured guests of the evening arrived, including the French and Spanish Ambassadors with their wives, and Lord and Lady Gage as well as Sir T- R- (possibly Sir Thomas Robinson), who “all appeared in the Stage Box together!” Very soon after their arrival the stage curtain was raised, revealing several files of Grenadiers, with fixed bayonets , bracketing the performers onstage. “At this the whole Pit rose, and unanimously turned to the Justices, who sat in the Middle of it, to demand the Reason of such arbitrary Proceedings?” Again the justices were caught in the spotlight.

They claimed to know nothing about the troops being called onstage. Outraged members of the pit insisted that Colonel DeVeil, who earlier had acknowledged that he was their commanding officer, should order the troops off the stage. He quickly acquiesced and then disappeared.

With the troops routed, volleys of sound, both vocal and instrumental, greeted the initial dramatic performance. The level of noise drowned out any spoken words and a grand dance of 12 men and 12 women was begun. However “they were directly saluted with a Bushel or two of Peas, which made their Capering very unsafe.” The entertainment, Arlequin Poli par L’Amour was then attempted, but that, too, was impossible above the noise.

Finally magistrate DeVeil again made his presence known, standing on his seat in the pit, motioning for silence, and making the following proposal to the house:

“That if they persisted in the Opposition, he must read the Proclamation; that if they would permit the Play to go on, and to be acted through that Night, he would promise, (on his Honour) to lay their Dislikes, and Resentments to the Actors, before the King, and he doubted not but that a speedy End would be put to their acting.”

The audience replied “No Treaties, No Treaties!” indicating their impatience with diplomacy.

DeVeil then ordered the Guards to be readied and proceeded to ask for a candle to read the Riot Act. Victor suggests that DeVeil was only stopped by the reasoning of an individual close by him in the pit, who warned that the appearance of soldiers in the pit would lead to violence and the loss of life. Turning ”pale and passive,” DeVeil heeded the proffered advice. The performance onstage was restarted, but the uproar in the house resumed as well, and soon after the resumption of the programme, the French and Spanish ambassadors left amidst cheers from the house. Eventually, after the audience’s repeated insistence, the great curtain was finally brought down and the performance was over .

During the course of the riot inside the theatre, there had been little violence, either against the theatre property, or between individuals. Victor points to this with pride in his closing remarks on the riot. He was informed by a “Person of Distinction” that his name was seen on a list “lying on the Table of a great Duke” of individuals opposing the French players. When asked about it, Victor replied “that as the Opposition was conducted without Mischief” he was “honoured by being in that List.” Outside the theatre was a different matter. The torch of protest was passed, so to speak, and “the Mob in the Street broke the Windows of the House all to pieces” Furthermore the Spanish ambassadors, having been driven from the house, had the traces to their coaches cut.

In this instance, Victor no doubt summarises the spirit of many of the protesters, comparing the event to the heights of Britain’s military greatness: “I will venture to Say, that at no Battle gained over the French by the immortal MARLBOROUGH, the Shoutings could be more joyous than on this Occasion.” While Victor’s hyperbole situates the riot in the context of Britain’s conflict with her traditional enemies, France and Spain, the riot had also been a successful skirmish against the administration and a government that would pass a law so contrary to the spirit of British freedom as the Licensing Act.

As has been noted above, during the French Strollers riot there was a strong spirit of common cause among the various sections of the audience and the demonstration was a cooperative effort between the pit and the gallery, with the elite in the boxes offering little support to the French performers. The combined wrath of the audience was directed at a very select target, one in absentia, an administration that had exerted itself in a significant restrictive manner regarding the stage.

It was directly prompted by the Ambassadorial parties and their hosts, the soldiers onstage and Justice DeVeil, and finally by the blatant unfairness of a French Company being allowed to perform when the administration was preventing and indeed imprisoning English actors, even though only for debt.

(from GENTLE RIOTS? THEATRE RIOTS IN LONDON, 1730-1780, Richard Gorrie)


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

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited.” (CLR James)

“James’s treatment of ‘the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in world history’ will remain an inspiration, because of its universal theme, for the foreseeable future.” (Christian Hogsbjerg)

In 1791, inspired both by the ideals of the French Revolution and the horrors and toil of their existence, slaves on the Caribbean island of San Domingo rose in revolt. For twelve years they fought off the white French masters, and armies from France, Spain and Britain, ultimately founding the independent black republic of Haiti. A number of outstanding military leaders masterminded the war for Haiti’s freedom: most famously, Toussaint L’ouverture, who emerged from the struggle as its most clear thinker and general, though he was betrayed into the hands of the French before the final victory and died in a French prison.

Hollywood, the socialist Paul Foot once noted, ‘made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him’. His being black may have something to do with it…

There may be no Hollywood blockbuster (I’m guessing it’d end up with Matt Damon in blackface anyway), but there is a French TV movie

And there was once a ground-breaking play…

In 1934 the fantastic Trinidadian Marxist polymath CLR James, then living in London, finished writing his play Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The playscript was long presumed lost, (although James did revise the text in the 1960s), until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005. James was to go on to write the classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938.

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was to become a marxist activist and theorist, leading pan-Africanist, cricket commentator, and cultural thistorian. He had arrived in England in 1932, and became engaged not only in literary challenges to racism, in revolutionary politics and the African and West Indian independence movements, in resistance to fascism… James’s play about a revolutionary leader defeating brutal oppressors was both a historical drama and a response to the news of the day.

Toussaint Louverture was staged on March 15th and 16th 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre; another black communist, the incredible Paul Robeson, starring in the title role, one of the world’s most famous actors and singers– making it an event of international interest. The League of Coloured Peoples (discussed on this blog the other day), of which James was an active member, helped sponsor the performance. This was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and interestingly despite his long acting career and lifelong anti-racist stance, was to be the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. Just the idea of a meeting of the work these two giants of the twentieth century is enough to send shivers down the spine…

James wrote the play in 1934, but it remained unproduced until 1936, when the script came into the hands of Robeson, who had been looking for a chance to portray the Haitian leader on stage. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.” In 1935 Robeson had even discussed the idea of a film about the Haitian revolt with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had become fascinated with the Haitian story. Sadly this film never happened (is there an alternative universe where Eisenstein filmed Robeson in James’s play! – imagine…)

For an interesting and detailed description of the plot, themes and staging of he play, it’s worth reading Christian Hogsbjerg’s introduction to his published edition of Toussaint Louverture.

“The cast assembled around Robeson was remarkable, featuring as it did other black professional actors from throughout the African diaspora, including Robert Adams, who played Dessalines. Adams, born in British Guiana, had, like James, been a distinguished schoolteacher who produced and acted in amateur productions before coming to Britain. He had worked with Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River and Midshipman Easy, and in 1935 he made his London stage debut in Stevedore. Also recruited from Stevedore was the Nigerian Orlando Martins, who played the role of Boukman. Black amateur actors—including other veterans of Stevedore, such as John Ahuma, Rufus E. Fennell, and Charles Johnson—were included, while the remaining cast was recruited through the Stage Society itself, many of whom were experienced professional actors or rising stars such as Harry Andrews.

The play was staged at the 730- seat Westminster Theatre, on the fringes of London’s West End in Palace Street. The owner of the Westminster Theatre during this period was A. B. Horne, and it was managed by Anmer Hall. Michael Sidnell notes that Hall learnt that “Sunday performances were a way of getting a hearing for new or neglected plays without going to great expense.” With its quite liberal management, it is not surprising that the Westminster Theatre was a home for the radical Group Theatre, and James’s Toussaint Louverture had followed a series of plays by “the Auden Group,” most notably Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin. The famous theatre critic Herbert Farjeon noted at the end of the 1930s that “the Westminster Theatre has probably housed during the present decade a higher percentage of interesting plays than any other theatre north of the Thames.” In 1955, the Westminster Theatre produced an all- African play, Freedom, which toured Europe and was filmed in Nigeria in 1956 with a cast of thousands.

Those wishing to see the performance had to pay at least one guinea, the basic annual membership subscription to the Stage Society. As well as the Sunday evening performance on 15 March, there was a matinee the next day, and for this final performance James himself was called upon to step in for Rufus E. Fennell, the actor playing the “small part” of Macoya. “I was in it by accident. . . . I wanted to sit in the back and watch the play . . . not to be mixed up in it. But I dressed myself up and played it.” Overall, though the production went well, James would always remember it was Paul Robeson who stole the show.” As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him—you could see it when he was on stage.”

Reviews were said to be mixed (twould be interesting to know on what grounds – the explicit radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperial message may have coloured the artistic opinions of white reviewers), but by all accounts Robeson’s performance was typically outstanding. The first performance received an ovation. Broadway made noises of interest, and a couple of critics suggested the play would adapt well to screen, though in the end neither a Broadway run or a film materialised.

James was, according to Christian Høgsbjerg, (who discovered the manuscript in the papers of the former trotskyist Jock Haston, a sometime comrade of James in 2005), “acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. Indeed, in the original version of the playscript C.L.R. James mentioned Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision… decided to remove the explicit mention of the abolitionist Tory MP… to help bring home the essential truth about abolition — that it was the enslaved who abolished slavery themselves — to a British audience who would almost certainly be hearing such a truth for the first time.”

The play mingled elements of classic theatre (eg the use of the rebellious slave army as a kind of chorus, in the ancient Greek tradition) – though radically subverted “the final scene of revolutionary history sees what James would in 1963 describe as “the entry of the chorus, of the ex- slaves themselves, as the arbiters of their own fate,” making for an ending to a drama that no Greek tragedian or even someone with the far- reaching imagination of Shakespeare could have envisaged” – with modern alternative theatrical ideas and ideals. The mix of music dance and drama evokes the latest methods in European theatre, like the work of Brecht, while also deliberately echoing African culture.

James portrayal of Toussaint is of a tragic hero, as a revolutionary leader who ends his days in prison, having failed in the end to follow through the struggle to complete independence for Haiti (a task his lieutenants were left to finish), and paid the price for it. Having not begun the slave revolt, but emerged from it and been shaped by it, he became its outstanding strategist and thinker, but didn’t have enough faith in the black rebels’ ability to make their own future. Believing they should make a semi-colonial peace with revolutionary France, in the end he contrasted this with too much faith in the European enlightenment, and was betrayed, captured and imprisoned by the French republic. James was again bringing past, present and theory together in his raw discussion of the ideas of revolutionary leadership, charismatic thinkers and hero-figures, and the ability of the oppressed to shape their own destiny: vital questions then, as in the 1790s, as now…

The story of Haiti’s successful slave revolt is inspiring at any time, but in the 1930s, with almost all of Africa still under the colonial control of white European powers, putting on the play in the heart of what was then the most powerful empire of all was a bold move. The context of the times is crucial – fascism, based securely in the idea of racial hierarchies and white superiority, was rising; Italy had Just invaded Ethiopia (James was also a founder of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called, and the parallels of Haiti with Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion were obvious and stark); but also political opposition and revolt against the colonial powers across Africa was beginning to coalesce. This could not ever be seen only as a play about incidents from the past; it was also a clarion call for massive social change from below for in the present and the future. It’s worth noting that the audience very likely included a range of vital figures in the future development of black self-determination across three (if not more) continents, with Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams being part of James’ immediate circle.

As Christian Hogsbjerg points out, the staging of the play also illustrates “the radical counterculture that has always existed in the “dark heart” of the British Empire”, and forms a brief bright illustration of the black radical traditions, leftwing ferment and literary bohemianism which all met and flowered so productively in both James and Robeson. James’ background in the Caribbean added a specific motivation for telling Toussaint’s story (which he had been researching for several years, spurred on by inadequate and racist accounts of Haiti and dismissals of black people as inferior to whites). If the project was “fundamentally inspired by James earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity,” (Hogsbjerg) it also reflected how James had evolved politically since he left the West Indies – moving from “a continuing identification with imperial Britain” to a Pan-Africanist viewpoint and then on to Marxism.

But Christian Hogsbjerg also discusses how the staging of the play itself, not just the subject matter, formed both a break and a link with theatre traditions. A link to black West Indian theatre: “Although James’s play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as “the revolutionary tradition in black drama,” a “tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation.” This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint- Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that “the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent.”

But also a defiant two fingers to the racially dubious portrayals of black people on the British stage – of ‘nigger minstrels’, or credulous childlike figures needing a white authority figure.

Interestingly, nearly 30 years later, James also adapted his account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, into a play:

“James felt the victory of many national liberation movements internationally in the postwar world meant that, as he later recalled, “the idea I was expressing should be differently expressed . . . writing about the struggle for independence in 1956 or 1960 was very different from what it was in 1936.” As James told Reinhard Sander, “After twenty- five years the colonial revolution had made great strides so about that time I began to rewrite it [the play] in view of the new historical happenings.” The play version of The Black Jacobins was first performed at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1967, directed by Lyndersay amid the tumult of civil war to an enthusiastic reception. It has since been staged numerous times, and this later script has necessarily formed the basis of scholarly discussion of “James’s play.” The later play essentially followed the same chronological structure as Toussaint Louverture. There is the same humour, the lively music, drumming ebbing and flowing into the action, and there are still moments of rare dramatic power. Yet by the 1960s James had experienced for himself, in Trinidad with Eric Williams and in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, both the excitement and the disappointment generated by movements for colonial liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. If Toussaint Louverture was about the vindication of national liberation struggles written in the age of colonialism, in The Black Jacobins James and Lyndersay explored what lessons the Haitian Revolution might hold for national liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.”

Christian Hobsbjerg’s book, which includes the full script of the play, the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, is published by Duke University Press. Tis a bit expensive however… 

Have a look at Hogsbjerg’s blog

And you can watch an abridged performance of the play put on by Bowdoin College (Maine, USA) students in November 2014.


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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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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 :


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

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…”


Much of the above was shamelessly purloined from:

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


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

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Riot at Covent Garden Theatre against ticket price rises, 1763.

“One Way only is left us, to obtain redress, which is, to assemble at the Playhouses, and demand, with Decency and Temper, an Explanation on this Grievance, which, I am certain, cannot be supported; and owes its Establishment to an Opinion, that every Imposition, not openly opposed, acquires the Sanction of prescription.”

‘The mischief done was the greatest ever known on any occasion of the like kind: all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine)

On 24 February 1763 a mob protesting the abolition of half-price admissions stormed the theatre in the middle of a performance of the opera Artaxerxes.

Visiting the eighteenth century theatre was a very different experience to today. Performances were not received in polite respectful silence – far from it. Audiences were often noisy, rowdy, heckled the actors regularly, brought in food, drink and smokes; started fights and even duels, and on numerous occasions, broke out into rioting. “Depending upon one’s definition of a riot there were thirty-six major disturbances in London’ s three major theatres between the years 1730-1780, or more than one every two years.”

According to Professor Richard Gorrie, riots were an integral part of the total eighteenth-century theatrical experience. “London theatre during the eighteenth century was the site of a highly interactive and wide ranging cultural activity and the theatre riot was a prominent, and not unexpected, part of that encounter.”

The riots had a wide range of causes, but the spark that kept provoking disorder was repeated attempts to put up entry prices.

In the early part of the eighteenth century it was customary to sell theatre seats at full-price if you wished to see the entire show (typically a shorter play, the main feature which might be a play or an opera, and possibly several entr’actes). If you only took your seat after the third act of the main attraction, you could generally get in for half-price. This obviously suited those with less ready cash, amongst others. But in late January 1763 the management of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre, (the only two theatres fully licensed to show plays), who were effectively running a ticket-pricing cartel, decided to alter this arrangement, and started charging full-price regardless of whatever point in the performance the audience arrived.

In part the aggro that followed arose from a feud between flamboyant and opinionated critic Thaddeus Fitzpatrick the pamphleteer said to be the eminence grise behind the riots) and theatre actor-manage David Garrick, (then running Drury Lane Theatre). Fitzpatrick had criticised Garrick in public and then in print and the latter had satirised him in his plays in return, at first in jest but increasingly bitterly. “Reporters and later historians decided that Fitzpatrick had disrupted the performances at both theatres as a clumsy tactic in this war of wits”. However, this is only a part of the story…

The price changes didn’t go down well with the more plebeian element of London’s theatre audience. Pamphlets were published, and audience members rioted at Drury Lane theatre on January 25th, and a more muted disturbance took place the same night at Covent Garden, which was quickly dispelled when the manager, John Beard, temporarily gave in to the rioters’ demands.

Earlier in the day handbills had been distributed around the various taverns and coffee houses, and other public places, addressed to the ‘Frequenters of the Theatres’; it was a call to arms to protest the new pricing policy.

When the play opened, part of the audience made a great clamour, calling for the theatre managers to appear an account for themselves: “I call on you in the name of the public to answer for your RASCALLY impositions” came the challenge, with the word rascal repeated through the house according to one source.” The theatre next became a sort of parliament… On one occasion the audience were asked to vote on the continuation of the play, but a minority had already started to break up the benches and props… The guard had to be called and the rioters dispersed.

There was clearly a particular concerted effort being made to disrupt performances: there was often much audience traffic between the two theatres during an evening, with boisterous groups of patrons moving rowdily from one venue to the other (though riots generally did not take place simultaneously at both theatres or spread from one house to the other).

However, a month later Beard tried again to implement the new prices. “Once again a handbill was printed and distributed “at all the public places in London:

‘To the frequenters of theatres,
In defiance of the regulation which your resolution and steadiness, lately established at Drury-lane theatre, and in which it was universally understood, that the managers of the other theatre had fully acquiesced, there appeared this day advertised, the opera of ARTAXERXES, with this remarkable notice, viz. Nothing under the full price CAN be taken. It now therefore behooves you, gentlemen, to enforce your decision, and convince the directors of Covent-Garden, that a point once determined by the tribunal of the public, must and shall forever remain a law, subject to no alteration, but by their own authority.

I am gentlemen,
Your Humble servant,
An enemy to imposition.’

However on February 24th, the rioters returned in force to Covent Garden, this time to a performance of Artaxerxes. While women were often a part of theatre riots and generally left or were ushered out only when the situation became violent or destructive, on this occasion it was noted in the press that very few women were present in the first place, perhaps pointing to a more confrontational attitude on the part of the protestors. Beard now refused to back down, and insisted on charging full-price, and in spite of the singers’ best attempts to get on with the opera, the stage was stormed, and the opera stopped. A great noise greeted the drawing of the curtain, and from the beginning of the evening members of the audience demanded that Beard appear to answer their charges. A significant amount of negotiating back and forth took place, with, at one point, someone in the pit declaring that the management “ought to submit in this to the town…”

By 9.30 p.m. when the management were showing no signs of giving into audience demands, the rioters had enough, and started to tear down the chandeliers and the pillars supporting the gallery. They caused £2,000 worth of damage – this at a time when a servant-girl’s annual wage would amount to little more than £4. In addition, several employees of the theatre were hurt. The theatre was dark for four nights.

The Public and Daily Advertiser of the following day contained a statement from Beard with the management’s side of the dispute, arguing that the production expenses of opera justified the change in ticket pricing. Furthermore, after presenting his case to the public, he hoped that no one would think the innovation exorbitant.

The print by L.P. Boitard (see above) to commemorate the Fitzgiggo riot (as it came to be known, taking its name from Thaddeus Fitzpatrick) shows the singers attempting to repel the audience members climbing on to the stage.

The delay occasioned by the extensive repairs gave Beard a chance to temper his stand. By early March Garrick had visited Beard at Covent Garden to see if he was going to insist on full prices as they had agreed in their posted bills. If they were going to remain united, Garrick was prepared to endure another onslaught of protest. However Beard said he had consulted friends who had advised him “to give it up.” With this knowledge, Garrick was prepared to give up the ‘pricing innovation’ as well.

However he was not as quick to drop the charges against the rioters and this rancorous issue was still unresolved at the theatre the following evening. A spirited crowd gathered and once again the orchestra was commanded to play the popular favourites of “Hearts of Oak,” “Britons Strike Home,” and “Rule Britannia.” A clamour followed which precluded any performance and Beard was summoned.

Initially the manager did not guarantee that al1 charges would be dropped, but finally “for the sake of public tranquility” he gave in to the protesters on every point.

Gentle Riots, Theatre Riots in London 1730-1780, Richard Gorrie, is a wondrous read and invaluable reading on the subject…

And London’s theatre audiences would continue to riot in defiance of price rises


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

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Actors nicked in Clerkenwell, & jailed, 1649.

It is mentioned in Whitelocke’s Memorials, that on the 20th of December, 1649, some stage players were seized by troopers at the Red Bull Theatre, in Sekforde Street or Woodbridge Street (then Red Bull Yard), Clerkenwell; their clothes were taken away, and themselves carried off to prison. The elevated and prestigious role the theatre had attained in the days of the monarchs Elizabeth and James had altered greatly with the increasing power of the puritans, and the devastating civil war.

There were several orders issued by Parliament, and late under the Commonwealth, during and after the Civil War, closing down theatres and banning most plays for encouraging immorality and frivolity. To a certain extent, as with bans on other aspects of popular culture in the era, there was a limit to the success of these orders, although it was easier to close down a theatre, a fixed visible building, than to, say, prevent private citizens celebrating xmas. AS the piece below suggests, there may have been a sympathy of the acting profession generally with the royalist side in the civil war, although how much this may have been created or inflated by hatred and resentment of the puritan view of their way of life is open to question. Maybe it was more of a cultural leaning generally; although it is worth remembering how much actors and theatres often depended on royal or aristocratic patronage for funding.

Regular complaints against the hardships on actors and the professions who depended on the theatre for a living, and petitions for relief of the anti-theatrical ordinances, op up through the 1640s, including this one.

The following, from Davies’ “Miscellanies,” is a striking picture of the condition of actors at this time, interestingly coloured by a strongly pro-royalist bias:

“When the civil wars shut the doors of the theatres, many of the comedians, who had youth, spirit, and vigour of body, took up arms in defence of their royal master. When they could no longer serve him by the profession of acting, they boldly vindicated his cause on the field. Those who were too far advanced in age to give martial proofs of their loyalty, were reduced to the alternative of starving, or engaging in some employment to support their wants. During the first years of the unnatural contest between King and Parliament, the players were not unwelcome guests to those towns and cities which espoused the royal cause; but in London, where bigotry and opposition to the King were triumphant, they experienced nothing but persecution. A few of the nobility, indeed, who loved the amusements of the stage, encouraged the players to act in their houses privately; but the watchful eyes of furious zealots prevented all public exhibitions, except, as the author of Historia Histrionica asserts, now and then such as were given with great caution and privacy. Some time before the beheading of the unhappy Charles, a company of comedians was formed out of the wreck of several, who played at the Cockpit three or four times; but while they were acting Fletcher’s Bloody Brother, the soldiers rushing in, put an end to the play, and carried the actors to Hatton House, at that time a sort of prison for royal delinquents; where they were confined two or three days, and, after being stripped of their stage apparel, were discharged. Much about this time, Lowin kept the Three Pigeons at Brentford, where he was attended by Joseph Taylor. Here they lingered out an uncomfortable existence, with scarce any other means of support than those which they obtained from the friends of royalty, and the old lovers of the drama who now and then paid them a visit and left them marks of their bounty. Upon these occasions Lowin and Taylor gave their visitors a taste of their quality. The first roused up the spirit and humor of Falstaff. Again the fat old rogue swore that he knew the Prince and Poins as well as he that made them. Hamlet, too, raised the visionary terrors of the ghost, and filled his select auditors with terror and amazement. To entertain their guests we must suppose they assumed various personages, and alternately excited merriment and grief. How often were those honest fellows surprised into a belief of the good news that the King and Parliament had come to treaty, that peace would be restored, and the King return to his capital in triumph. How would their countenances then be lighted up with joy, the glass cheerfully circulate, and the meeting be dismissed with: ‘The King shall have his own again.’

Their honest friend and associate, Goff, the actor of women’s parts at Blackfriars and the Globe, was the usual jackall to summon the scattered comedians together, that they might exhibit at Holland House, or some nobleman’s seat, within a few miles of the capital.”

But not even “the saints” were immaculate; one Robert Cox found means to bribe the officers appointed to look after such affairs, and gave short interludes and “drolls” at the Red Bull to crowded houses, under the guise of rope-dancing entertainment. It was vile buffoonery, and could scarcely be dignified by the title of dramatic performance, and was therefore more likely to be tolerated by their saintships than the noble productions of Shakespeare and Beaumont; and therein they are closely followed by the Mawworms of the present day, who grin at the dreary and doubtful jokes of a circus clown, and gaze approvingly at the lightly-skirted young ladies with one toe on the bare-backed steed and the other in a horizontal line, but would consider it sinful to listen to the noble with of Touchstone, and highly indelicate to look upon Rosalind in her forester’s dress. With a company consisting only of himself, a man, and a boy, Robert Cox contrived, in spite of ordinances, to travel all over the country, to perform at the Universities–which, for want of better things, eagerly welcomed his–and to make a large fortune by his mummeries.

But even the partisans of the Commonwealth were beginning to grow a little weary of the Cimmerian gloom and intellectual paralysis in which they lived, and having obtained the countenance of Whitelocke, Sir John Maynard, and other persons of distinction, Davenant, in 1656, opened a sort of theater at Rutland House, Charterhouse Yard, where he began with the representation of what he called an opera (“The Siege of Rhodes”). This was followed by other works of a similar kind. In 1658 he went a step farther, and opened the Cockpit with a performance he described as “The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, expressed by instrumental and vocal music, and by the art of perspective in scenes, at the Cockpit in Drury Lane, at three in the afternoon.” We see he carefully avoided the word “play,” that red rag of bull-headed fanaticism. It is said that Cromwell’s hatred of the Spaniards, who in this piece were held up to execration, had much to do with my Lord Protector giving his consent.”

Ironically, before the Civil War, the Red Bull Theatre, where the actors were arrested, had had a bit of a reputation for satirical theatre against the king. In 1638 the Theatre had got into trouble for putting on a play satirising William Abell, one of the most powerful monopolist merchants of the City. “The most unhappy, hated object of three kingdoms”, Abell was also instrumental in attacks on opponents to king Charles I’s policies in the City. Of course popular opposition to the king and the pre-civil war elite is not incompatible with opposition to the puritan ascendancy; you could be against both politically, and satire generally tends to take on the authorities whoever they are.

The Red Bull was also famous for its stroppy and disruptive audiences, and for several incidents – in 1610, 1622 and 1638 – when there were riotous occurrences either in or around and associated with the theatre.

Now, theatre audiences between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were notoriously rowdy, disrespectful and easily provoked; not only eating, shouting, arguing, with each other during the performance, but also interrupting the actors, heckling, picking pockets…

There is disagreement among historians about how much also theatre audiences were prone to erupt into rioting, or riots were prone to start in or outside theatres. But there were enough incidents between the 1590s and the 1610s for the association to be commonplace – the perception of the London authorities was that playhouses were hotbeds of possible sedition and trouble. Add to that a widespread (though not universal) puritan perception of plays as encouraging immorality and of theatres as facilitating it… Interestingly, the perception of theatre audiences as troublesome may have extended to the playwrights and theatre management; Eric Dunnum reads much of the presentation of the idea of drama within early modern London theatre as an attempt to discourage action of any kind from the audience. The authorities blamed the theatres for encouraging riots, and threatened to close the playhouses down – in response, Dunnum suggests, early modern playwrights sought to ‘construct’ a non-reactive audience, who would not act in any way in response to drama.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s theatrical history: playing Bottom on a Sunday gets Mr Wilson into trouble, 1631.

The branches of protestant Christianity generally lumped together and described (particularly when discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain) as puritanism were in fact widely variable.

But we’re not going to go into that… What follows may include a lot of simplification.

Puritans were generally concerned to reform and ‘purify’ the existing church, or to separate themselves as an elect apart from those they considered unsaved or unsaveable.

One well-known aspect of puritan belief was their attack on popular culture; a widespread attempt to close down many of the festivals, holidays, pastimes, performances and other daily pleasures that had characterised everyday life for centuries. Puritans were far from alone in campaigning to shut down the teeming rambunctious whirlwind of drink, dancing, sex, satire and abandon that made life bearable – catholic and protestant authorities were also often jointly keen to clean up daily life and its immoralities. The puritans were pretty dedicated however…

Puritan activists had tried and failed in the late sixteenth century to capture and reform the national church according to their program… However to some extent they fell back on what has been called the “puritan reformation of manners” – attempting to impose their moral reforms on the communities around them at a local level. This took the form of denouncing what they saw as the excesses of popular culture, trying to enforce restrictions as to how people were allowed to behave in their daily and weekly life, especially their pleasures. Most notably on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day Christians considered holy, a day puritans thought should be spent in worship of God only. But Sunday was most people’s only day off, so where they could, large numbers would spend the day in pleasure, whether taking part in games and sports, drinking, meeting up and hanging out… The puritans did not originate the idea of the Sabbath as holy, or a day that should be upheld morally, it had a long history on various branches of Christianity

So on a local level, puritans attempted to enforce the ‘holiness’ of the Sabbath; in the early 17th century, they were successful in London (and elsewhere) in making links with constables and justices, through whom they administered their moral agenda, which became translated into ‘county and corporation orders’…

Attempts to repress culture they considered immoral and ungodly took many forms, and formed a constant barrage of local laws, agitation, denunciation… Another aspect of life many (though not all) puritans took a dim view of was theatre. Between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century, sections of puritan opinion waged a propaganda war against the putting on of plays; when a Parliament with a substantial ‘godly’ element came to power as the English Civil War was fermenting and breaking out, the banning of theatre in 1642 was among its early acts relating to social policy.

For many of the Godly, theatre encouraged disorder, immorality, sexual banter and frivolity. Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses, (1583), levelled a barrage of charges against plays: “Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry? Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof mark but the flocking and running to Theaters and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see plays and interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like is used, as is wonderful to behold.”

It wasn’t just the content of the plays themselves, it was also the nature of the threatres, spaces where crowds of man and women gathered together, jostling and unruly, encouraging intimacy, levity, intermingling… But the huge popularity and attention given to plays was also time and energy that should be directed to more serious matters – theatre is mocking godliness, in that “the attention which the plays commanded is not unlike worship… there are analogies between dramatic and and religious expression in the ritual participation of actor and audience, in the use of heightened language and dressing up…” (Margot Heinemann). Theatre is setting itself up as dangerously close to a mockery of true religion.

Puritan repression could fall not only on the licensed theatres. On the 27thSeptember, 1631, a Sunday, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was privately performed in the house of John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln, in London, “by order of the right reverend prelate, and for the amusement of himself and divers knights and ladyes…”, beginning about ten at night and ending about two or three in the morning.

Putting on plays on Sunday was bad enough – a definite breach of the Lord’s Day; however there is also a suggestion that Mr Wilson, the actor playing the character of Bottom (said to have been the brains behind the event), had perhaps offended against other mores.

The Puritans had become a powerful force in London life by this time, though still in opposition to the hierarchy of the established church. Their political influence led to an inquiry into the affair. Puritan preacher John Spencer condemned the bishop, wrote at least one letter a letter of reproof from John Spencer, a Puritanical preacher, to a lady who was amongst the audience; and Mr Wilson was punished.

Although puritans are sometimes labelled as being humourless, as the writer of the Chambers Book of Days commented: “there is something rather humorous in what was decreed to the performer of Bottom the weaver”:

‘We do order that Mr. Wilson, as he was a special plotter and contriver of this business, and did in such a brutish manner act the same with an ass’s head, shall upon Tuesday next, from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night, sit in the porter’s lodge at my lord bishop’s house, with his feet in the stocks, and attired with an ass’s head, and a bottle of hay before him, and this subscription on his breast:

‘Good people, I have played the beast,
And brought ill things to pass;
I was a man, but thus have made,
Myself a silly ass.”

Mr Wilson was described as a ‘cunning Musition’… It has been suggested that he could be John Wilson, known as having written songs for theatre company the Kings Men from 1614, and as being a lutenist in this company in 1635. He was later a professor of music at Oxford in 1656.

To some extent, its thought that this may have been an episode in an ongoing culture war, which also played out in political faction fighting in London in the tense years pre-civil war. Bishop Williams was a major player in church and state hierarchies, an opponent of the high church authorities like Archbishop Laud, and tolerant towards puritanism, but a liberal, who tried to steer a middle course in the civil war years… Whether this played part in the puritan denunciation of the play in September 1631 is hard to discern.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s theatrical history: Old Price Riots begin, 1809.

As we commented in a previous post London’s eighteenth/early nineteenth century theatre audiences were often rowdy, unruly, fond of breaking down the supposed line of separation between performer and spectator. They often disrupted plays or actors they took a dislike to, organised themselves to resist attempts to control them and impose order and quiet, and violently objected to any rise in ticket prices…

The most famous struggle that erupted from this disorderly audience was the Old price Riots, which began on 18 September 1809. Over sixty-seven nights of protest at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, often collectively referred to as the OP war, crowds protested against a rise in seat prices, a reduction of the size of the gallery (all working class people could afford), and the increase in the size of private boxes taken by the rich.

The audience divided themselves into the supporters of the cheaper ‘old price’ tickets, the ‘OPs’, and those who supported the management, the NPs.

As the name ‘Old Price’ suggests, the riots were sparked by the dissatisfaction of London’s theatregoers with the new price of admission to the theatre. As had been the case throughout the eighteenth century, these theatregoers believed in the common ownership of theatre prices, and were prepared to act to defend low prices as a matter of principle. “Theatre protest was intertwined with long eighteenth-century multi-class metropolitan political expression and theatre-going in this period was not the passive, solemn experience we take for granted today. In these lively, volatile metropolitan spaces the justification for and exclusiveness of new theatre pricing regimes, the resentment of theatre monopolies, and the suspicion of impositions along class lines had been issues before”… in the 1763 Half-Price Riots at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the 1755 Drury Lane riots against Garrick’s Chinese Festival… 1743, 1750, 1770, and 1776 saw comparable, violent protests at Drury Lane…

Theatre in the 18th century played an entirely different social role than it does today – open to all classes, it addressed them and catered for them… The theatre was hugely popular in late Georgian Britain: every fair-sized town had a theatre; schools, the armed services, different trades, aristocrats and gentry all had their own amateur groups. There was no assumption that visiting the theatre was, or should be, an elite activity. The opposite view, in fact, prevailed – there was a conscious and widespread feeling that it was and should be open to all, and almost that it was a service, that should be open to everyone, rather than being a money-making concern.

The auditorium of a Georgian theatre was encircled with tiers of enclosed seats known as boxes, with a gallery above. The gallery was the cheapest; the first row of the boxes the most expensive. The floor of the theatre was furnished with simple benches and called the pit. The best view of the stage was from here, and it was only later that theatre managers realised that they could put the most expensive seats there and call them the stalls.

Theatre programmes often started at about 6.30pm and could go on until after midnight. The main play was preceded by songs, dances and perhaps a tightrope walker or juggling act, with a shorter play (usually a comedy) at the end. The scenery was spectacular, particularly for pantomimes, and often painted from eye-witness drawings. Tickets were half price if you came at the interval.

In London there were two Theatres Royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (the ‘major’ theatres). They were the only two royal patent theatres sanctioned to stage five-act spoken word drama within Westminster, even though, in reality, the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction extended to the whole of London and its environs. In the 1790s Drury Lane was completely rebuilt and Covent Garden renovated. Both were enlarged to seat approximately 3,000 people.

In December 1808 Covent Garden burned down, with a loss of thirty lives, the destruction of Handel’s organ and much scenery and costumes. Forced to fund an entirely new theatre, the management solicited donations from the rich – including £10,000 from the Duke of Northumberland – and borrowed extensively. More space was devoted to boxes for richer patrons, the most expensive private boxes being luxurious with curtains. They hired the top soprano, Angelica Catalani, at an enormous fee to attract wealthier patrons. Prices in the gallery remained the same, but had a restricted view.

While Covent Garden was being built, the other major theatre, Drury Lane, also burnt down (in March 1809). Covent Garden was now the only theatre permitted to perform plays.

A crowd of thousands was waiting to get in to the theatre when it opened on 18 September 1809. Perhaps only a quarter managed to do so. But many were there not to spectate – they had grievances, and were determined to air them. These included “the removal of the cheapest section of the house, the one shilling gallery, to a ‘pigeon hole’ on high; the expansion of private boxes and the enclosure from prying eyes of areas only affordable to the elite; and the cessation of sales of half-price tickets after the third act, a custom that had hitherto opened up the theatre to a multitude – if not the very poorest – of Londoners and made the space egalitarian in its usage.” Added to this, rumours of financial mismanagement and embezzlement, anger that increased prices seemed to be paying for expensive foreign actors as lead players…

When the theatre’s actor-manager/owner John Kemble, appeared on stage, he was received with applause, but when he began to speak he was drowned out by roars, hisses and hoots whistles, shouts, calls, songs, and stamps which continued right through Macbeth.

Magistrates were called from Bow Street magistrates’ office to read the Riot Act, which would have allowed them to force the crowd to leave. The crowd did not disperse promptly, only a few were removed, and, as they had begun, the audience closed their performance with stirring renditions of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ But a debate began as to whether a paying audience could legally be ordered to disperse.

After the disruption of the opening night, Bow Street officers patrolled the corridors of Covent Garden Theatre (this lasted into the new year). Invited in by the Theatre’s doorman, James Brandon, they were tasked with keeping order and removing anyone disrupting the plays.

But the disturbances continued. The OPs arrived with ‘musical’ instruments – frying pans, tongs and a dustman’s bell, and performed the ‘OP dance’, a kind of wild welly dance, on the benches, accompanied by shouts of ‘OP!’ Horns and bells were sounded.

Kemble closed the theatre for six days to allow a neutral committee to decide on the prices. But they supported the new prices, so when the theatre re-opened the OPs returned with banners, placards, songs and chants. Running races along the benches and mock fights were started, and the ‘OP rattle’, (satirically inspired by the rattle watchmen carried) used to drown the actors out.

Policing became a crucial issue. Many OPs were arrested, night after night, and prosecuted privately by the theatre staff… There was a close relationship between the theatres and the Bow Street magistracy. Bow Street had become central to the state’s maintenance of public order and morality, in an era when the French revolution had sown a fear of radicals and of the disorderly working classes had among the British establishment.

Heavy policing and repression of rights became, if anything, more of a central issue as the weeks of Old Price protest went on. By October, the Ops were rioting “not because of an increase in admission price by itself but rather because of a perceived affront to their freedoms and associated customary rights as ‘Free-Born Englishmen.’”

For their part, the authorities began to see the OP riots as more even of a threat than the Gordon riots (according to Attorney General Vicary Gibbs, who intervened to support the Theatre’ position, denounce the OPs as rioters and label the dispute ‘the greatest riots that had every disgraced the Metropolis.)

By early October 1809, anyone found in possession of or using horns or bells within the theatre to be arrested; as was anyone distributing handbills among the audience, and soon, outside the theatre,

OPs repeatedly changed tactics so as to avoid arrest, and, in response, officers amended their grounds for arrest. Arrests in the pit, the corridors, the gallery, the one-shilling gallery, and the private boxes of Covent Garden Theatre continued unabated. As the protest moved into November 1809, men and women were brought before the Bow Street magistrates charged with having caused or incited disturbance, riot, and tumult for singing ‘God Save the King,’ using rattles, blowing whistles, gesturing, walking about, sneezing loudly, and wearing the words ‘O.P’ or ‘N.P.B’ (No Private Boxes) in their hats.

When arrested, men and women were brought to Bow Street, and there the magistrates expressed themselves by demanding bail. Bail ranged from £100 to £500, plus sureties.

With this kind of noise going on throughout the performance, Kemble employed boxers to throw people out. This back-fired however: when the doorkeeper, Brandon, detained a well-known radical barrister, Henry Clifford, he was found guilty of false arrest. This gave the advantage to the OPs, and although Kemble had originally vowed not to give in, by 14 December 1809 he had met Clifford for dinner and agreed peace terms. The following night Kemble apologised for raising the prices, and for employing the boxers. Charges against the rioters were dropped. The OPs had won.

It would be too simplistic to frame the Old Price Riots in terms of class struggle. More accurately “a multi-class rejection of perceived elite chicanery was a crucial feature of the OP war.”

Just as those from every class attended the theatre, so OPs were drawn from all classes. Apprentices, clerks, both skilled and unskilled workers, business and professional men and even an earl’s daughter were among those arrested throughout the two and a half months of riots.’

However the theatre’s location was perhaps crucial. Many of the OPs lived near to the theatre, in Westminster, an area then known for its radical ethos, fond of electing radical MPs and constantly teeming with riotous mobs and home to pubs full of debating reformers…

A common idea of what kind of space the theatre was, and for who, lay at the heart of the riots. “Private boxes, for example, were novel, constructed zones of ambiguity whose mechanics – private, hidden, aloof, seemingly beyond reproach – upset values the OPs saw as central to London theatregoing, to see and to be seen in a public theatre, open exchange, and the equality of all under the law.”

In some ways this aspect reflected the conservative and reactionary aspects of the Old Price campaign. While there was an egalitarian spirit, it was also balanced by a dose of moral judgmentalism – private boxes were opposed as being set up to encourage infidelity. The OP campaign also brought up bilious gouts of anti-semitism and xenophobia – ‘foreign’ talent hired to adorn the Theatre, and the hiring of some jewish boxers to act as bouncers, were seized on and turned into additional outrages to be protested. So in some ways the OPs wanted to be seen, and can be viewed, as patriotic defenders of the status quo – “a multi-class public suspicious of novelty”.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online