Deep Play

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 4.

‘There is nothing, however trivial or ridiculous, which is not capable of producing a bet.’ 
Gambling at White’s club, noted by Connoisseur Magazine, May 1754.

We last met Hogarth’s rakish anti-hero in Covent Garden, insensible with drink in a room at the Rose Tavern; that was plate 3. In plate 4 Tom is in the process of being arrested for debt, the action taking place on the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s St., with St James’s Palace in the distance. As ever with Hogarth, the specificity of locale is key: St. James’s is the playground for the super-rich, although even children wager at cards here. The building being struck by lightning is White’s, 37-38 St. James’s St., oldest and grandest of St. James’s clubs. Although much rebuilt, White’s still operates on the same spot, its members list a roll-call of three centuries of the British establishment, but its heyday was the high Georgian period, when the mania for gambling on anything ran rampant throughout society. White’s and the other clubs of St. James’s., including Almack’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s, etc., gave the monied class a congenial environment in which to flirt with existential ruin.

White’s gaming book was kept from around the 1740s, and some of the more insane wagers of the era may be found within its pages. For example, ‘Lord Montfort wages Sir John Bland one hundred guineas that Mr. Nash outlives Mr. Cibber.’ That particular wager was rendered void as both backers had killed themselves before any outcome was reached (gambling debts, naturally). It was at White’s where Lord Arlington bet £3,000 on one raindrop beating another to reach the bottom of a window pane. In 1750, the diarist Horace Walpole reports an incident where a man who collapsed in the street was carried up the steps and into the hall of White’s, whereupon members began wagering whether or not he was dead. Other stories have members of White’s staving off their aristocratic boredom by betting on which of their alumni would be the next to catch the pox from the girls at Mrs Comyns’ brothel a few doors down; or rolling a sentry box and its occupant downhill, laying bets on the occupant’s chances of survival. At Brooks’s, across the street, Lord Cholomondley bet Lord Derby 500 guineas that he would have sex with a woman in a hot air balloon ‘one thousand yards above the earth’. That was in 1785. No-one knows whether Lord Cholomondley pulled this off or not.

By the end of the 18th century, there were many amazing tales of fortunes being lost – and occasionally won – at games like Faro, Hazard, Picquet, Whist, etc.. Amongst gamblers of ‘the quality’, there was a divide between the shrewd, calculating operators who practised games of skill and those who were addicted to risk itself. The daughters of the aristocracy were not immune either and many were cleaned out by elegant but wily professionals such as John, 2nd Lord Hervey (a courtier of George II and an expert at Quadrille, he made a speciality of relieving the ladies of court of their fortunes). Hogarth dramatised the dilemma of the aristocratic lady embarrassed by her losses in his painting The Lady’s Last Stake, wherein the subject is given the option of repaying her debt to a soldier by taking him as a lover.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 6.

White’s is also the scene of plate 6 of A Rake’s Progress, where Hogarth’s doomed anti-hero Tom gives in to despair as his debts mount in the club’s gaming room. An interesting detail in this image is the night watchman attempting to alert the oblivious gamblers that the building is on fire. (This is a nod to the fact that the original White’s club caught fire in 1733, around the time Hogarth was working on the series.) Brooks’s, at 60 St.James’s St., was founded in 1764 as a more political, even progressive, gentleman’s club; but it was also a theatre for even deeper ‘deep play’ than was practiced at White’s. In the words of the Member of Parliament and wit George Selwyn, Brooks’s was a ‘precipice to perdition’. It once boasted a window at ground level that afforded passers-by a look at the aristocrats losing their shirts at the tables. Amongst so many of the latter, brothers Charles and Stephen Fox deserve special mention, as they ramped up scarcely conceivable debts at games of chance, especially Faro, during the 1770s. By the end of 1773, the brothers’ indulgent, sorrowful and terminally ill father, Lord Holland, was trying to pay off Charles’s debts of £130,000 (something like £11M today); in spite of this, Charles went on gambling at Brooks’s, borrowing wantonly from friends, money-lenders, and, at one point, even the club’s waiters, to finance his compulsion. Like many who lost heavily, Fox’s debts were incurred during all-night sessions where judgement was muddied by booze and fatigue. This is a common factor in the histories of fortunes squandered. The ones who actually made money were the abstainers, the percentage men; men like General Scott, who is reported to have dined exclusively off boiled chicken, toast and water, and who won £200,000 during a bout of whist at Brooks’s. By 1781, Charles Fox’s house on St. James’s St. was in the hands of bailiffs; yet at the same time as all his possessions were being loaded onto carts, Charles returned to Brooks’s in a desperate attempt to turn his finances around. Amazingly, he seems to have had a run of the cards – for a while anyway. For those who were less fortunate, suicide was an honourable way out, although it seems that the accepted thing to do was to dispatch yourself into eternity in a distant and less toney district: Covent Garden perhaps, or Smithfield maybe. Hogarth’s Tom ends up in Bedlam. Charles Fox ended up as Foreign Secretary.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 8.

See also: Greene and Philby in The King’s Arms.

The Return Of King Mob

What follows is a post which originally appeared here in April 2020. I am re-posting because it feels appropriate for the surplus of history we are currently living through. The past is never far away; we are lumbered with it the whole time, even the bits we’ve forgotten or would prefer to forget.

‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne) depicts the Gordon Riots.


Lord George Martini’
Ingredients:
One gin distillery.
Equipment:
One anti-Catholic mob.
Method:
Set fire to distillery; drink contents until building explodes.

The opening of chapter 52 of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841):

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from or whither it goes, few men can tell. 

If you are looking for some lockdown reading with contemporary overtones, Barnaby Rudge might fit the bill. The climax of Dickens’s early historical novel features one of his most vivid set pieces, as London is put to flame by a monstrous assembly. Dickens was recreating the incendiary climax of The Gordon Riots of June 1780. This orgiastic week of violence, fuelled by anti-Catholic paranoia, which threatened to overwhelm the army and unseat the government, came to be named after their unwitting instigator, the deluded Lord George Gordon, an MP and demagogue who was seeking to overturn a law aimed at relaxing restrictions on Catholics. (This was at a time when England was at war with America and there was widespread fear that older enemies such as France and Spain were poised to invade.)

Newgate feels the heat: the night of 6 June 1780 as reported in a contemporary pamphlet.

The riots were the most destructive in London’s history, as the ‘No Popery!’ agitators joined common purpose with London’s slum-dwelling poor, who emerged from the city’s favelas with curiosity and absolutely nothing to lose. On the night of Tuesday 6th June, they torched that symbol of state oppression, Newgate Gaol. A note written on the smouldering walls of Newgate stated that the inmates had been released on the orders of ‘King Mob’. Embittered convicts swelled the crowd as they sacked and burned swathes of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury (although, in the aftermath of the fire, there were also reports of bewildered lifers wandering amidst the ruins of Newgate, waiting for someone to take charge of them).

The next night, another hot one, the mob set fire to Fleet Jail, King’s Bench Prison, the Borough Clink, and several other clinks, freeing about 1600 prisoners, and then marched on Langdale’s gin distillery. Thomas Langdale was a Catholic who had a chapel on the premises of his distillery at the corner of Holborn Hill and Fetter Lane, along with 120,000 gallons of gin. Troops guarding Langdale’s had been called away to shore up defences at the Bank of England and on Blackfriars Bridge, leaving the distillery an open goal for the rioters. Langdale attempted to buy the mob off, but they weren’t buying and the building was soon alight. At the same time, a gentle wind began to blow, fanning the flames until all Holborn resembled ‘a volcano’.

And this is where British character asserts itself and revolution turns into an opportunity for a party. As the distillery went up, rioters brought raw gin and casks of rum out of the cellars by whatever method available – a pig trough was put to this purpose. Rather unfortunately, a fire engine briefly employed to douse the flames pumped gin instead of water, fuelling the fire even further. Another fire pump was captured by an old cobbler who used it to draw buckets of gin from Langdale’s cellars, selling it on to spectators at a penny a mug.

‘Phiz’ illustrates the Langdale episode for Dickens in ‘Barnaby Rudge’.

As the stills inside exploded, rivulets of raw gin poured into the streets. This 20th century description is too good not to quote:

By nine the buildings were enveloped in smoke and flame, while there flowed down the kennel of the street torrents of unrectified and flaming spirit gushing from casks drawn in endless succession from the vaults. … Ardent spirits, now running to pools and wholly unfit for human consumption, were swallowed by insasiate fiends who, with shrieking gibes and curses, reeled and perished in the flames, whilst others, alight from head to foot, were dragged from burning cellars. On a sudden, in an atmosphere hot to suffocation, flames leapt upwards from Langdale’s other houses on Holborn Hill. The vats had ignited, and columns of fire became visible for thirty miles around London. (John Paul DeCastro, The Gordon Riots, 1926.)

Gillray’ contemporary comment, dated 9th June.

The riots petered out shortly after that, and order was restored amidst an epic collective hangover. ‘King Mob’ came very close to overwhelming the army and it’s interesting to consider what might have happened if so many rioters hadn’t got smashed at Langdale’s. For all the ambition of political agitators (‘populists’, as we’d say now) who were exploiting latent xenophobia borne out of misery and deprivation, the broader mob had no clearly defined aims. As far as ‘King Mob’ was concerned, it was just a chance for a piss-up, with a bit of recreational arson thrown in. A very British coup.

Further reading: King Mob: The London Riots Of 1780 by Christopher Hibbert.

Some Fleet Street Killers

John Strype, Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720: Adjoining to St. Dunstan’s Church, Eastwards, is a small Place of two Houses, which bears the Name of Hen and Chicken Court. And near unto this Court, Fetter lane falleth into Fleetstreet. Flower de lyz Court, or rather Alley, being long, narrow and ordinary, with a Freestone Pavement; hath three Out-lets, two into Fetter lane, and another into Three Leg Alley. This Court is of very small Repute, being but meanly inhabited; the Buildings are on the East side, the West being the back Yards to the Houses in Fetter lane. It is of some Note for the Mousetrap House, being the Receptacle for leud Persons.

Hen and Chicken Court remains an actual address in 21st century London, a dingy survivor of ‘The Great Wen’ amidst gleaming corporate anonymity. Sadly, The Mousetrap House has vanished, so if it’s lowlife drinking you’re after you’ll have to go elsewhere. There are more than a few websites that list this spot as the site of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop, a joint where you risked getting turned into a savoury pastry for the sake of a shave. Sweeney Todd is, of course, entirely fictitious, a character created for a mid- 18th century Penny Dreadful called The String of Pearls. But the era didn’t need fictional killers, it had more than enough real ones.

Sarah Malcolm was a 22-year old laundress of Irish extraction who lived above a local pub and did laundry for various Temple residents. One of these was Lydia Duncomb, a rich 80-year old who lived in a house with her two maidservants. One morning in February 1733, Miss Duncomb and her maids were found dead, variously strangled or stabbed, and the house ransacked. Sarah was quickly connected to the murders by a stolen tankard and some bloodied clothing found in her room. At her brief trial (lasting all of five hours) she maintained that she’d only kept watch for the gang and hadn’t killed anyone, and said that her clothes were bloodied with her own menstrual blood. But in the absence of other culprits, she was convicted and hanged on the corner of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. Days before her execution, Hogarth visited Sarah in Newgate Gaol and painted a celebrated prison portrait of her. She’s holding a rosary in the picture, which is significant: catholics weren’t too popular in England at that time. The great artist thought she was capable of any vice, although it seems that her hangman thought she was innocent. She maintained her innocence to the end (her confession became a posthumous bestseller) and was pitifully distressed that she was to be executed on Fleet Street, where her death would be witnessed by neighbours and acquaintances.

The Fleet Street/Fetter Lane junction had long been a busy venue for hangings, with a gibbet on the spot since at least the 16th century. Sarah was executed there in accordance with the convention that criminals hanged close to the scene of their crimes might be a warning to other likely offenders. But public executions functioned as a spectator sport, and the advent of the ‘bloody code’ in the 18th century increased the number of offences that carried a death sentence, offering greater opportunities for popular entertainment. At this time Temple Bar * was festooned with the decaying heads of miscreants stuck on poles and displayed as examples of justice exacted. Horace Walpole wrote in a letter in 1746 about seeing the ‘new heads’ on Temple Bar, ‘where people make a trade of letting spy glasses at halfpenny a look’. (* Christopher Wren’s elegant gateway, removed in 1878 as an impediment to traffic. It languished in the grounds of a brewer’s mansion in Hertfordshire until it was finally moved back to London in 2004. It now gleams white and pristine in the environs of St Paul’s cathedral, its associations with past horrors seemingly expunged.)

In 1767 a further address mentioned by Strype became associated with another notorious murder case. Mary Clifford was a fourteen year-old apprentice killed by her employer, Elizabeth Brownrigg, a midwife who lived in Fleur-de-Lis Court. Mary had been placed at Mrs Brownrigg’s establishment by the newly-established Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields, Bloomsbury. The Hospital was looking to find apprenticeships for the adolescent orphans in its care, but they were not bothering to vet the employers too thoroughly. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Brownrigg was a violent sadist who abused the three girls in her care in horrific ways: chaining them up and beating them, starving them, locking them in the coal cellar, cutting their tongues with pincers and so on. Mary was treated so badly that she died of her infected wounds. Mrs Brownrigg was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and was duly hanged at Tyburn. This was a cause celebre in its day, highlighting the plight of orphans and the extent to which they were prey to slavery and cruelty, even when they were under the care of a charitable institution like the Foundling Hospital.

One final word on Sweeney Todd: the following Georgian news item has an eerie echo of the mythical barber …

The Annual Register, December 1st, 1784: A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been for a long time past jealous of his wife, but could no way bring it home to her. A young gentleman by chance coming into his master’ s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned his having seen a fine girl home to Hamilton Street, from whom he had certain favours the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber concluding it to be his wife, in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’ s throat from ear to ear and absconded.