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 occupied by a pub and a gunsmith’s, there was something 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 – something akin to an indie movie today. These plays were often highly critical of the ruling elite.
In 2022 many of these plays; penned by the likes of Henry Carey, Henry Fielding and a man named ‘Maggoty’ Johnson seem conservative – we are talking about Tory writers after all, with their now painfully old-fashioned values. These writers were trailblazers at the time. In 1688 a Dutch bloke called William basically stole the throne from the unpopular James II. The ruling class chose to look the other way as the coup happened, on the understanding the new king would give them a freer rein than the previous guy. The move away from authoritarian rule led to a middle class movement demanding greater rights. They advocated for property rights, representation in government, championed individualism, and demanded the rights to trade and innovate free of royal injunctions and tariffs.
All very middle class stuff now, but in 1749 this was relatively progressive stuff.
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 abuzz with paying customers, gathered in anticipation for this wonder. They waited, first patiently, then less so. The crowd waited, in fact, for several hours – eyes affixed on empty stage – before booing and demands for a refund finally broke the silence.
Samuel Foote, the manager of the theatre stepped out from behind the curtain and attempted to calm the angry mob. 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, of all things, seems to be the match which lit the fuse to the crowd’s sudden, violent explosion. The audience rushed the stage, and smashed, looted and tore up anything they could get their hands on. One angry lunatic even set a small fire off. The angry mob destroyed the Haymarket Theatre.
A bonfire was lit in the street by the mob, fed by the debris from the riot. Lit by the torn down curtains.
As much as the Haymarket was popular with the middle class, at least one aristocrat – Prince William, Duke of Cumberland – was present. The second son of King George II escaped more or less unhurt, but lost a jewel encrusted sword in the riot. The sword was never recovered.
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 became a no show after someone put a cork in the bottle, kidnapping the performer at rehearsal. 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” organised the event.
Who was “Strange Man”? The 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; he was also a philanthropist who established a foundling’s hospital for abandoned children. Montagu paid for the education of two prominent black Englishmen – the writer and composer Ignatius Sancho, and poet Francis Williams. It’s fair to say he was a complex character. For our purposes, it’s worth knowing is his sense of humour was less complex, typically running to dousing house guests in water and lacing their beds with itching powder.
He detested the middle classes, with their demands for greater freedom – and it is said he decided to stage the Bottle Conjuror hoax following a night drinking with other aristocrats. He allegedly bet his companions enough Londoners would be dumb enough to believe a fully grown adult could climb into a quart bottle, 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, died in July of that year.