The Bottle Conjuror.

Hey all, just a quick foreword. I’m not sure if I’ll be on track to release the Lord Lucan podcast episode exactly to schedule – besides small technical things like writing appropriate music (the man is/was a huge fan of Bach, which doesn’t reflect the era terribly well + from a technical standpoint is probably easier for me to approximate on an acoustic guitar (which takes longer for me to mic up properly and record) than on the tiny GarageBand keyboard on the iPad) I’m also two days off schedule as is. I’ll have the episode out as soon as humanly possible in any case. 

In the meantime, a short Blog Only Tale this week. If going from this to John Bingham, arguably only the third worst person on his family tree – in spite of being a killer and massive loser (if you’re still alive John, and want to argue that fact, there is a comment box below) … to this tale, it may seem I’m consciously taking a swipe at the Hooray Henrys’ – I am. 

It’s also a short Tale at a time when I’m a little time poor – unlike the deadbeat aristocracy of the 18th Century, many of whom it seems had but world and time to get sozzled on gin all day – and do dumb, cruel things to those they deemed beneath them. 

Anyway, please enjoy.

Today’s tale is set on the night of January 16th 1749; the setting, The Haymarket Theatre – on London’s West End. Originally built in 1720, on a site formerly taken up by a pub and a gunsmith’s, there seemed a bit of ‘the little theatre who could’ about the place. While the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatre put on grand, operatic blockbusters – the Haymarket became well known for staging satirical pieces, often highly critical of the ruling elite. In 2021 many of these plays; penned by the likes of Henry Carey, Henry Fielding and a man named ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, would seem painfully conservative – we are talking about Tory writers after all, with their now painfully conservative values – These writers, and indeed thinkers, were trailblazers at the time. They advocated for property rights for the middle classes, more say in government, championed individualism, and demanded the aristocracy give a free hand to the market, to grow and innovate (something thought unthinkable in England before the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688). 

The Haymarket Theatre, with it’s – for then – radical ideas, found plenty of willing patrons in the growing middle classes. On January 16th 1749, the place was packed to the rafters – not for John Gay’s The Beggars Opera, or Fielding’s Rape Upon Rape – but for an illusionist. For weeks now, buzz had been building around the arrival of ‘The Bottle Conjuror’.

The easiest way to explain the Bottle Conjuror is to just paste the text of the advertisement, which ran in papers throughout January 1749, and let you all read it yourselves … so here goes. 

“At the New Theatre in the Hay-market, on Monday next, the 16th instant, to be seen, a person who performs the several most surprising things following, viz. 

first, he takes a common walking-cane from any of the spectators, and thereon plays the music of every instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection. 

Secondly, he presents you with a common wine bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this bottle is placed on a table in the middle of the stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it in sight of all the spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle any person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common tavern bottle.

Those on the stage or in the boxes may come in masked habits (if agreeable to them); and the performer (if desired) will inform them who they are.”

A singer and multi-instrumentalist, a mentalist with an ability to recognise you from behind a mask – and most importantly – a contortionist so skilled he could climb into a ‘common wine bottle’? How could anyone miss that? The Haymarket was packed with paying customers, waiting in anticipation for this wonder. They waited, first patiently, then less so. The crowd would wait for several hours – staring at the empty stage – before the booing and calls for their money back started to shake the walls.

Samuel Foote, the manager of the theatre stepped out of the wings in an effort to calm the angry mob. As demands for a refund rose, someone in the crowd shouted something to the effect that they’d pay double if this conjuror just climbed into a pint bottle. This comment seems to be the match which lit the fuse to the crowd’s sudden, violent explosion. A significant portion of the audience rushed the stage, and began smashing, looting and engaging in arson. In short order, the rioting crowd had all but demolished the Haymarket, completely gutting the theatre.

A bonfire was lit in the street by the mob, made from the smashed up benches. Lit by the torn down curtains.    

All other write ups on the incident mention at least one aristocrat was in the mixed crowd that night, Prince William – Duke of Cumberland. The second son of King George II escaped more or less unhurt, but was stripped of a jewel encrusted sword, which has never been seen since. 

In the aftermath of the riot, several newspapers made light of the gullibility of the crowd. Some going as far to suggest – tongue in cheek – the act was a no show after someone put a cork in the bottle and kidnapped the performer during rehearsals. Suspicion for the hoax initially fell on theatre manager Samuel Foote, who legitimately appears to have had no part in it. A mysterious, shadowy figure described only as “a strange man” had put the night together. 

Who was “Strange Man”? Academics’ best guess is John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu – a bored English peer with a love of ‘practical jokes’. A trained physician, former governor of the West Indies isles of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent; and philanthropist who established a foundling’s hospital for abandoned children – as well as having paid for the education of two prominent black Englishmen – the writer and composer Ignatius Sancho, and poet Francis Williams… Montagu is clearly a complex character. For our purposes, what’s worth knowing is he had a sense of humour which normally ran to dousing house guests in water and lacing their beds with itching powder.


He was rumoured to detest the rising middle classes, and it is said he staged the Bottle Conjuror hoax following a night drinking with other toffs. It’s said he made a bet enough Londoners would be stupid enough to believe a fully grown adult could climb into a quart bottle, that he could fill a theatre with them. The aristocracy being a law unto themselves in those days, no one ever charged the Duke – who, in any case, would die in July of that year.  

Would they have been met by a wall of silence, had authorities called on the toffs to turn on one of their own? Well, maybe let’s discuss that after the episode on Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan. 

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