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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Review. The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, by Julian Woodford.  

boss-of-bethnal-greenSometimes you have to wonder how someone as notorious as Joseph Merceron (1764 – 1839) can become all but forgotten to history. Well, it happens, because that is exactly the case here, until historian Julian Woodford stumbled across him while investigating something else, which is so often the way. It must be said that Merceron did catch the attention of radical historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the early 20C, but after that, what little there was, has been based almost entirely on the Webbs’ own research. But now Woodford, who has spent over a decade investigating the life and career of Merceron, has put him firmly in the spotlight. Joseph Merceron was singularly nasty local politician who exercised total control over the a large swathe of East London for half a century during which time Bethnal Green was – according to Roy Porter – “a law unto itself”. It can be argued that his “reign” is still being felt by the area two centuries later.

As his unusual name might suggest, Merceron was born of a proud Huguenot family made good, largely thanks to his father James, a former silk weaver who had become a well-off local rent collector and pawn broker, based in Brick Lane. Not the most noble of professions in an already poor area, you might think.

Whatever the sins of the father, Joseph put these in the shade. Of James’s children, Merceron junior took to the business to the manner born, collecting rents from the benighted local poor while still in his teens. Expanding this side of the business, he quickly expanded his intrests to property development, pub management and local politics. He became all-powerful locally through control of the parish vestry and control of the finances – virtually all the finances – of Bethnal Green by dint of being its Treasurer. There were few areas of local life that Merceron’s tentacles did not reach. He became a senior magistrate, notably the licensing Magistrate for pubs. Thereby he took care of his own and clients’ pubs, many of which descended into brothels, notably and controversially in Shadwell. Equally, if you weren’t a Merceron adherent, your pub would not get licensed. Similarly, he held a seat on the Commission of Sewers while simultaneously being a director in a water company. Conflict of interest clearly didn’t apply. In addition, Joseph sat on countless committees for this, that or the other. Whatever he didn’t control utterly, he at least influenced. Like organised criminals in the modern sense, he had placemen everywhere and, if things seemed in the balance, he could summon a mob of heavies in a trice.

When corruptly amassing eye-watering wealth, you need tame bankers. Merceron placed his and Bethnal Green’s money with Chatteris & Co, run by the Mainwaring family.  He backed William and George Mainwaring, father and so respectively, to be one of the MPs for Middlesex, thus ensuring a voice in Parliament.

When you find that Merceron defrauded members of his own family of an inheritance which was relative peanuts to him, one must conclude that his avarice was pathalogical, for he did not lead an extravagant lifestyle personally.

There has never been an individual as powerful on local government before or since, including Lutfur Rahman, whose reign in Tower Hamlets quite recently was thankfully quashed (it carried many Merceron hallmarks).

Apart from being a superb and informative read, the book is very nicely constructed. Beautifully designed and peppered with well-chosen photos, illustrations and portraits, all where they belong in relation to the text. Amazingly, no known portrait of Merceron exists, though likenesses of most of the other leading players are featured. Very good end notes, bibliography and index.

The Boss of Bethnal Green is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account. It is sensational without being sensationalist, which is what makes it such a gripping read. It’s everything an accessible history book should be and I commend it to you.


The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, 396pp by Julian Woodford is published by Spitalfields Life Books, with a jacket price of £20. Out of stock at Amazon at time of writing, it’s available in Waterstone’s, other bookshops and directly from the publisher.

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A guest post by London Historians Member, Rob Smith.

November 2016 is the 200th Anniversary of the Spa Fields Riots, a series of demonstrations in favour of parliamentary reform and against taxation that were held on open ground called Spa Fields in Islington, part of which is still a public park today. The Riots were another of the many steps on the way to universal suffrage, but also an example of the ideological splits and personality clashes that will be familiar among protest groups and political movements.

The Times December 3rd 1812

The Times December 3rd 1812

 

The Battle of Waterloo may have ended the Napoleonic Wars but it did not end the discontent the wars had created across Britain. The cost of the wars had been horrendous and taxation had increased to pay for them. The export market for the luxury goods produced by skilled craftsmen had dried up, while the belt tightening going on in Britain’s country houses meant that the market inside Britain was smaller too. George III, now elderly and infirm, left the Prince Regent’s extravagant spending go unchecked, making the monarchy unpopular on the streets of London. The assassination of Spencer Percival meant that the Earl of Liverpool was Prime Minister, effectively the 5th choice man for the job. A rapidly rising population, uncontrolled urbanisation, uncertainty caused by the industrial revolution and higher food prices all added to make, what should have been a time of triumph for Britain, a time of turmoil.

Opposition to war with France had started back in 1789 when the London Revolution Society were addressed by Richard Price at the Crown and Anchor on the Strand, with a call for support for the French Revolution, an end to the British monarchy and parliamentary reform. During the years of war, legislation like the Treasonable Practices Act of 1795 aimed to prevent literature critical of the war. In 1799 reform groups like The London Corresponding Society were banned, and those attempting to sell Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” were imprisoned for selling a dangerous book.

One such was Thomas Spence – one of the more radical revolutionaries in London in the Napoleonic war period. Spence demanded the end of the monarchy, aristocracy and landlords and common ownership of all land. He wanted votes for all, including women, an end to child labour and other cruelties to children, and an end to the war with France. He also called for reform of the English Language, with the introduction of phonetic spelling, which would make learning to read easier for those without access to education. When Spence died in 1814 his followers vowed to continue his work as the Society of Spencean Philanthropists.

In 1816 three Spenceans – Arthur Thistlewood, James Watson and Thomas Preston, decided the time was ripe for action. If they could gather together a large enough group of supporters, the chance to bring about the revolution they had hoped for was finally here. But how to draw the crowd? Thistlewood wrote to two of the best known speakers in the land, William Cobbett (later known for his book Rural Rides) and Henry Hunt. Cobbett refused to attend and warned Hunt not to get involved either, but eventually Hunt agreed to speak at the meeting on November 15th 1816 at Spa Fields in Clerkenwell. Hunt was certainly experienced at talking to huge rallies. Appearances in Birmingham, Blackburn, Stockport and Nottingham that year had drawn audiences of up to 80,000 – earning him the nickname Orator Hunt. The day was set for a huge rally in London.

Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, NPG London.

Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, NPG London.

At that time Spa Fields was much larger than the small park it is today, stretching beyond Sadler’s Wells and was one of Clerkenwell’s many places of recreation. A crowd of over 10,000 gathered, forcing Hunt to address them from the upstairs window of the Merlin’s Cave pub (now commemorated by Merlin Street). The crowd was swollen by people returning from a public hanging at Newgate prison. Hunt spoke about the poverty British workers were living in, despite being the most industrious in the world. The cause of this was taxation, taxation to pay for a standing army occupying France and an army in Britain to stop the populace demanding its rights. According to Hunt, the British worker had not wanted the war, it had been brought about by the MPs in the rotten boroughs that represented a minority of landowners. Therefore the only cure was parliamentary reform.

merlin-st_500

A petition was drawn up and signatures collected, demanding the Prince Regent provide relief for the poor and put together proposals for parliamentary reform. In the end Hunt was refused permission to deliver the petition, and a second meeting was called for December 2nd. Meanwhile Preston had been grumbling about Hunt – a country gentleman – taking the lead role in the movement. Would it not be more appropriate that a London artisan like himself took the lead?

The authorities had not been idle either. A man named John Castle had infiltrated the Spenceans. On the day of the second demonstration, Castle waylaid Hunt in Cheapside, allowing Watson to address the crowd outside the Spa Fields Cake shop, comparing the Tower of London to the Bastille. By the time Hunt, who was opposed to the use of force, arrived, Watson was leading a crowd behind the revolutionary tricolour on the way to meet with Preston and Thistlewood at the Mulberry Tree Tavern. A group split off to raid a gun shop in Snow Hill, during which raid the owner was shot and wounded.

The breakaway rioters then moved to the Royal Exchange on which they opened fire. Militia soldiers returning in kind. Rioters also broke into Fleet Street and smashed windows in Somerset House. Others made for Newgate Prison, while Thistlewood headed for the Tower of London where he made a speech to the soldiers, demanding they lay down their arms. They refused and with the protests breaking up, order was restored. Most of the people had stayed at Spa Fields listening to Hunt give a long-winded self congratulatory speech. It had not been the general uprising Thistlewood, Watson and Preston had been hoping for.

The next day arrests were made and the organisers charged with sedition. Amazingly though, after a defence by Sir Charles Wetherell, Thistlewood, Watson and Preston were all acquitted, on the basis that government spy John Castle had acted as an agent provocateur.

The movement was now firmly split into reform and revolutionary camps. Hunt continued to push for reform of Parliament, standing as an MP, and addressing the crowd at the ill-fated meeting in Manchester known as Peterloo. Thistlewood became involved in the 1920 Cato Street Conspiracy, a plot to kill the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He was hanged for treason when the plot was discovered.

The Spa Fields Riots were interesting as they show that the road to parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage was a long one, with many false starts and incremental progressions along the way. The reforms the protesters were demanding did not come about until many years later, but they might not have come about at all without protest. The riots are also interesting because they show how any cause can be riven with splits, something anyone who has been involved with politics will be familiar with.

Spa Fields Today

Spa Fields Today


Islington Museum has an exhibition called Commit Outrage to commemorate the riots, and there will be two free walks led by Rob Smith and Philip Nelkon talking about them.

Saturday 26th November 2016 11am
Led by Rob Smith

Saturday 3rd December 2016 11am
Led by Philip Nelkon

Where: Meet in the foyer of The Islington Museum
14:45h, St John St, London, EC1V 4NB
Duration: 1 hour

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carl gilesToday we celebrate the centenary and life of the cartoonist Ronald “Carl” Giles (1916 – 1995), who was born and raised in North London.

Giles was probably the most beloved cartoonist of the 20C with his gentle pictorial commentary on the impact of politics and current affairs on – primarily – working-class Britain. The Giles annual became an inevitability for every dad’s Christmas stocking filler. Today it remains ubiquitous at charity shops and car-boot sales throughout the nation. Nobody could capture the misery of grotty British weather quite like Giles.

He worked for Express Newspapers between 1943 and 1989, producing three or four cartoons per week during most of that period, a total of over 7,000 pieces of work. Much of that time he alternated with Michael Cummings whose style was far more hard-edged, direct and overtly political. It was a nice balance.

giles-annual

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Giles developed his skills in an animation studio in the 1930s before joining the left-wing Reynolds Weekly as a cartoonist before being enticed by the larger coffers of the Express group. Uncomfortable to begin with, it was a situation which clearly grew on him, allowing him to feed his enthusiasm for classic sports cars, fine cigars. There was definitely a Mr Toad side to his character.

World War 2. Unfit for active service, Giles nonetheless had an extremely interesting war. As a war correspondent, his illustrations of army life became increasingly cartoony and mixing with the troops allowed him to develop the world-weary everyman characters which populated his post-war output. Doing reportage as an illustrator, when the Nazi regime crumbled, he frequently found himself in the grim surroundings of internment camps, notably Bergen-Belsen. Against his better judgement he couldn’t help liking the murderous camp commander Josef Kramer, who was an admirer of his work!

American soldier in WW2 enjoying an English pint. From the Carl Giles Collection, University of Kent.

American soldier in WW2 enjoying an English pint. From the Carl Giles Collection, University of Kent.

For more on Carl Giles, there are good entries in both Wikipedia and the ODNB (sub required).
I found this nice page, featuring Giles on the home front in WW2.

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430 years ago today – also a Tuesday – Anthony Babington and six of his co-conspirators were executed. A guest post by Mathew Lyons.


On Tuesday 20th of September 1586, seven Catholic men were bound to hurdles in the Tower of London – one of them, a priest named John Ballard, on a single sled, the others two-a-piece – and were dragged westward on their final slow journey through the city’s autumnal streets to a hastily erected scaffold in the open fields ‘at the upper end of Holborn, hard by the highway-side to St Giles’, probably somewhere a little to the north west of what is now Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then known as Cup Field. The crowd gathered at the scaffold numbered in thousands. The authorities had fenced off the site to stop horsemen blocking the view, and had also raised the gallows ‘mighty high’, so that everyone could see justice being done.

The names of the men were – Ballard aside – Anthony Babington, John Savage, Robert Barnwell, Chidiock Tichbourne, Charles Tilney, and Edward Abingdon. (Seven more conspirators and their accomplices would die the following day: Edward Jones, Thomas Salisbury, John Charnock, Robert Gage, John Travers, Jerome Bellamy and Henry Donne, elder brother of the poet.) Most of them were minor courtiers, well-connected, wealthy; it was said they wore fine silks on this, their last day. Just a week before they had been tried at Westminster and found guilty of treason; six weeks before that, they had still been free men. But then had come intimations of arrest – one story is that Babington was alerted by catching sight of a message delivered to a dining companion named Scudamore and realising that Scudamore was, in fact, one of Walsingham’s men – followed by dispersal and desperate flight, Babington and four others taking to what was then still wild woodland beyond the city at St John’s Wood.

babington

Contemporary illustration of the Babington conspirators.

The authorities searched the houses of some thirty known recusants around London. Almost all were outside the city walls in places such as Hoxton, Clerkenwell, Highgate, Enfield, Islington, Newington and Westminster. One conspirator, John Charnock, was captured on the road from Willesden, where he too had slept in the woods. Babington and his companions, hungry and fearful, disguised their clothing and cut their hair, smeared their faces with green walnut shells, and then – with watches guarding every road out of London – made their way cross-country to what they hoped would be a safe house near Harrow-on-the-Hill. Servants there noticed the strangers’ arrival, their oddness; furtive conversations and the gold lacework of a fine cloak over coarse yellow fustian doublets. The five were finally taken, hiding in the barn. Bells rang out across the city as news of their arrest spread; fires were lit and psalms sung, song and smoke rising together in the late summer air.

And now the men were to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Although the exact site of the gallows is unknown, we do know that it was chosen for symbolic purposes: the men had used these fields for secret meetings as they plotted to assassinate Elizabeth I and replace her on the throne with Mary, Queen of Scots. Indeed, much of their conspiracy seems local to this area, just beyond the city’s western edge where streets and houses seeped into pasture, and where, on warm spring days, women dried their washing out in the fields, weighting down the sheets with rocks and stones. If in some senses the locale emphasises the marginality of their deadly enterprise, it also perhaps hints at a fatal detachment from reality.

Two of the conspirators’ favoured inns were nearby: The Plough, which seems to have been close to Fickett’s Field, between Cup Field and The Strand, and The Rose Tavern, which was on the south side of the Strand itself, just without Temple Bar on the corner of Thanet Place, and well-known for its garden. (A character in Middleton’s Roaring Girls claims to ‘have caught a cold in my head… by sitting up late in the Rose Tavern’.) Savage, Charnock and Babington had rooms in Holborn, the latter at a place called Hern’s Rents, an address he shared – coincidentally or otherwise – with another would-be Catholic regicide, Edmund Neville, who also used to walk in the fields with his co-conspirator, William Parry. Just eighteen months earlier, Neville had betrayed Parry to Walsingham – and to the fate that now awaited Babington and his friends.

Francis Walsingham, circa 1585, attr. John de Critz the Elder. National Portrait Gallery.

Francis Walsingham, circa 1585, attr. John de Critz the Elder. National Portrait Gallery.

It was customary for a traitor’s death to come by hanging, and for the blood rituals to be enacted on his corpse. This day, however, was different. One after another, the men were left to swing briefly by the neck – until they were half-dead, an onlooker wrote – and then cut down from the gallows, still alive and conscious, and made to watch as the executioner hacked off their genitals and dug out their guts – and then eventually their hearts – with his knife. As their insides were cast into a burning brazier, each man’s body was then dismembered, and the severed head set above the gallows.

As the historian William Camden – a likely an eye-witness – noted, the day’s events were ‘not without some note of cruelty’

The first man to die, was Ballard, arguably the plot’s ringleader. The second, its lynchpin, was Babington. He alone of the men standing beside the scaffold awaiting their fate watched Ballard’s agony’s unflinchingly, coolly, not even deigning to remove his hat; the others turned away, fell to their knees and bared their heads in prayer. But when it was his turn to suffer, and he was pulled down breathing from the gallows to face the executioner’s knife, he cried again and again Parce mihi Domine Iesu, Spare me Lord Jesus.


A longer version of this article was first published in London Historians Members’ newsletter of December 2011. A pdf version can be found on our Articles page. Scroll down to December 2011. LH Member Mathew Lyons is a writer, historian and author of The Favourite, which relates the story of Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Ralegh.

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Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

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Quite recently I read Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson, A Biography (2008). There was a lovely episode involving a convoluted prank which James Boswell conspired to play on his friend. It featured the firebrand John Wilkes (1725 – 1797), one of my all-time favourite Londoners. As an establishment Tory, Johnson (1709 – 1784) had a poor opinion of the radical Wilkes, whom he had never met; he felt Wilkes to be no more than “a criminal from a gaol”. Equally dismissive, Wilkes viewed the lexicographer as “a slave of the state.” Boswell thought it would be a rum caper to engineer a situation whereby the two men unavoidably bumped into each other socially – a challenge, given their different circles.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

He set the trap with the help of a mutual friend of all the parties, Charles Dilly. Dilly was a publisher who liked to entertain at his home in the Poultry, which had become something of an informal literary hub. Both men were invited to dinner on the evening of 15 May 1776 without the other’s knowledge.

On the evening itself, on discovering Wilkes was in the room, Johnson sulkily sat down with a book. But Wilkes – as charming as Johnson was grumpy – sat next to the older man and made a big fuss over him. Johnson’s resistance evaporated almost immediately and the two great men spent the evening in sparkling and warm conversation.

Boswell didn’t mind a bit that sparks didn’t fly. It was just a mischievous experiment and he was no doubt pleased that for once his friend failed to dominate the room.

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sheridanTwo hundred years ago today, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816)- a titan of the London theatre – died in  poverty at home in Saville Row.

Things didn’t go well for him after his Theatre Royal Drury Lane burned down in 1809 and he lost his seat in Parliament in 1812 after 32 years an MP.

Sheridan it was who gave us the malapropism after Mrs Malaprop from The Rivals (1775), one of the great comic characters of English drama.

This great man was born in Dublin in 1751. His parents moved to London when he was young and sent him to Harrow school and then further education privately. He spent time at Middle Temple but hankered for a career in the theatre in which there was a strong family background. This was the London of David Garrick and Samuel Foote – it was a very exciting time for the stage.

Success came quite quickly with The Rivals – initially badly received but transformed spectacularly and almost instantaneously with a rewrite and a new cast. Sheridan epitomised the can-do attitude of the Georgian period. There followed School for Scandal in 1777. Aged 26, the playwright had produced two of the great plays of the English canon. Many other productions followed.

Between 1778 and 1780, Sheridan bought by instalments the Theatre Royal Drury Lane from Garrick. Then as now, it was the greatest of all London theatres. The building was thought to have been designed by Wren (we now know it wasn’t, the architect remains unknown), but the reputation of London’s great architect paled besides Sheridan’s ambition and vision. He tore it down and built an even bigger building in 1794 with all the latest fire safety features (actually laid down by recent law). This was the one which burned down in 1809, leaving Sheridan in the street – glass in hand – to remark laconically: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

Sheridan’s other great interest was politics. As with the theatre, he engaged in it with no half-measures, taking his seat at Westminster in 1780. Already a famous man about town, he was soon at the heart of the Foxite Whigs, the circle of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and the Prince of Wales himself. With Fox, Burke and others, he vigorously sought the prosecution and impeachment of Warren Hastings, formerly governor-general of Bengal. In pursuit of this, he stood up in court and spoke for several days, finally collapsing theatrically back into his seat, uttering: “My Lords, I am done!”. And so was Hastings. It was a trial which took 148 days over seven years. Chilcot is by no means new.

Sheridan’s fame coincided with Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence et al, so it’s perhaps surprising that there are relatively few likenesses of him. His face was markedly disfigured from the second of two duels he had in 1772 aged just 21. They were against a thuggish army captain, one Captain Mathews. It all resulted from Sheridan rescuing and eloping to France with a 17 year old girl whom the married Mathews had been pestering. Brave and physically courageous. Yet another reason to love Sheridan. He went on to marry Eliza Linley. They were both spectacularly unfaithful to each other, but stuck together.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Brave, quixotic, talented, ambitious. A great man and a great Londoner, who typified a great age. He is buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey and today we remember him.


Good coverage on Wikipedia and an even better entry if you can access by subscription the Dictionary of National Biography.

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