Biographical Sketch of Richardson, the Showman

With a Peep at Bartholomew Fair.


Seventeenth Edition, 4to.

In a periodical like the present, a contributor, if he really have anything in him, ought to set off at score. Such is my determination.

Works of the sort can only be produced by the exhibition of three rare qualities, namely, Wit, Humour, and entertaining Fiction. The first has been compared to a razor, which "cuts the most when exquisitely keen;" the second I will venture to liken to a table-knife, which slashes away at all on the board, and the best when broadly shining and tolerably sharp in the edge; and the last is familiar enough to everybody, under the term of "throwing the hatchet." But whatever the instrument, be it razor, or knife, or axe, it is quite essential that it should never lose its temper.

Mais l'audace est commune, et le bon sens est rare; Au lieu d'ętre piquant, souvent on est bizarre:

which, being freely translated, means,

In life there's so much impudence, And very little common sense, That writers trying to be witty, Are only foolish: more's the pity!

"The Showman,"—for so was this eminent individual designated by the world at large, and so upon memorable occasions he called himself;—was, it will be felt, a title of high distinction. When we look around us, and see how many men are playing showmen, and how miserably they succeed, we shall at once be convinced that nothing but very superior merit could have won for Richardson the glory of the definite "the." He was not showing off himself, but others: he was nor showing off his own follies, but the follies of society. Thus, instead of being a laughing-stock, he laughed in his own sleeve; and by keeping a fool, instead of making a fool of himself, he eschewed poverty, and ultimately died in the odour and sanctity of wealth.

Richardson originated at Great Marlow, in the county of Bucks; the very name of the place seeming to intimate that he was born to achieve greatness. Whether he was lineally descended from the author of Clarissa Harlowe is, and will long continue to be, a disputed fact. There was a family resemblance between them; both were country gentlemen, and both wore top-boots.

For breeding, Mr. Richardson was indebted to the parish workhouse,—fair promise of his future industry. In those days the poor laws had not been amended; and children, being victualled satisfactorily, generally throve accordingly. Under correction be it spoken, workhouses in country towns were then far from being houses of correction. So our hero grew up.

When big enough, he acquitted himself with reputation in the employment of out o' door activity; for he never resembled the lazy fellow  reduced by idleness to want, who said in excuse, "When they bid me go to the ant to learn wisdom, I am almost always going to my uncle's."

From Marlow, after due probation, young Richardson, it is stated, sought his fortune in the metropolis, and entered into the service of Mr. Rhodes, a huge cow-keeper—a colossus in the milky way. Here it is probable he acquired a taste for pastorals, and that extraordinary proficiency in the Welsh language which rendered his dialogue in after-times so strikingly rich and Celto-Doric. Some etymologists thence infer that it was Pick't; but we don't believe it.

We never read the life of an actor or actress without being told, about the period of Richardson's career at which we have now arrived, that the "ruling passion" took such strong possession of them, that they must break all bounds, run away, and join some strolling company, to "imp their wings," or some flight of that sort. So it happened with our hero: he cut the cows, and hastened to adhere to Mrs. Penley, then performing with unprecedented success in a club-room at Shadwell, a small town in the vicinity of Wapping. The houses were crowded; receipts to the full amount of five shillings nightly crowned their efforts, and the corps, consisting of two gentlemen and two ladies, divided the five among four, playing as it were all fours in a fives court. Encouraged by this success, Richardson resolved to extend his fame, and accordingly visited many parts of the provinces, starring it from the Shadwell boards. Mighty as must have been his deserts, he met with no Bath manager, no Tate Wilkinson, no Macready or Kemble, to appreciate his histrionic talents. One night, having accidentally witnessed a representation of the School for Scandal, he fancied he could play the little broker; so he returned to London, and took a small shop in that line of business. About the year ninety-six, he was enabled to rent the Harlequin, a public-house near the stage-door of old Drury, and much frequented by dramatic wights. It was of one of these that Richardson used to tell his most elaborate pun. Being asked if he did anything in the dramatic line, he answered, "I do more or less in it in every way: I do what I can in the first syllable, dram, and in the first two syllables, drama; in the last two syllables, attic, I am to be seen every night; and in the last, tick—m' eye! I wish you knew my exertions."

It was not to be expected that the Harlequin could last long without a change; for not only was the sign contrariwise thereto, but the place itself was a change-house. Our landlord therefore let it; and crying "Damned be he that lets me!" bought a caravan, engaged a company from among his customers, and opened his first booth at Bartholomew Fair. But the name of this famed annual assemblage—now, alas! in a deep decline—is enough to tempt a scribbler for hire to branch off into an episode. And here it is.

Proclaimed on the 3rd of September, to last during three lawful days, exclusive of the day of proclamation, "Bartholomew Faire," as appears from a pamphlet under that title, printed for Richard Harper, at the Bible and Harpe, in Smithfield, A. D. 1641, began on the 24th of August, old style. About the year 1102, in the reign of Henry the First, Rahere, a minstrel of the king, founded the priory, hospital, and church of St. Bartholomew, in Smithfield, as requested by the saint himself in a dream, and, it is presumed, upon a bed where the  dreamer could guess what it was to be flea'd alive. Rahere was the first prior, and in his time there was a grand row with Boniface, Archbishop of Canterbury, on a visitation, when sundry skulls of canons, monks, and friars were cracked, which probably suggested that the site would be very eligible for an annual fair. Henry the Second accordingly granted that privilege to the clothiers of England and the drapers of London; and his charter to the mayor and aldermen is extant to this day. Theretofore called "The Elms," from the noble trees which adorned it, Smithfield became in turn a place for splendid jousts, tournaments, pageants, and feats of chivalry; a market for cattle and hay; a scene of cruel executions; and one where, as old Stow acquaints us, loose serving-men and quarrelsome persons resorted and made uproars, thus becoming the rendezvous of bullies and bravoes, till it earned the appropriate name of "Ruffians' Hall." King Solomon, alias Jacobus Primus, caused it to be paved two hundred and twenty years agone, which we have on the authority of Master Arthur Strange-ways, whose statement leads us to infer that the Lord Mayor of 1614 had never opened a railroad, like Lord Mayor Kelly in 1886. Then and there our ancient civic magnates were wont to disport themselves with witnessing "wrastlings," shooting the broad arrow and flights for games, and hunting real wild rabbits by the city boys, with great noise and laughter.

Posterior to the priors, and superior to the sub-priors of St. Bartholomew, the canons have been succeeded by common guns; and the friars by fried pigs, the most renowned viand of the festival; the monks have given place to monkeys, and the recluses to showmen. Such are the mute abilities of Father Time. "The severall enormityes and misdemeanours, which are there seene and acted," are they not upon record? "Hither resort (says Master Harper, 1641) people of all sorts, high and low, rich and poore, from cities, townes, and countrys; of all sects, Papists, Atheists, Anabaptists, and Brownists; and of all conditions, knaves and fooles, cuckolds and cuckoldmakers, pimpes and panders, rogues and rascalls, the little loud-one and the witty wanton. The faire is full of gold and silver drawers: just as Lent is to the fishmonger, so is Bartholomew Faire to the pick-pocket. It is his high harvest, which is never bad but when his cart goes up Holborne. Some of your cut-purses are in fee with cheating costermongers. They have many dainty baits to draw a bit; fine fowlers they are, for every finger of theirs is a lime-twigge with which they catch dotterels. They are excellently well read in physiognomy, for they will know how strong you are in the purse by looking in your face; and, for the more certainty thereof, they will follow you close, and never leave you till you draw your purse, or they for you, though they kisse Newgate for it."

Hone, in his Every-day Book (Part X.), furnished an excellent view of this fair, full of curious dramatic and other matter. He describes the shows of 1825, among which, ŕpropos, Richardson's theatre figures prominently. The outside, he tells us, was above thirty feet in height, and occupied one platform one hundred feet in width. The platform was very elevated, the back of it lined with green baize, and festooned  with deeply-fringed crimson curtains, except at two places where the money-takers sat, in roomy projections fitted up like Gothic shrinework, with columns and pinnacles. There were fifteen-hundred variegated illumination-lamps, in chandeliers, lustres, wreaths, and festoons. A band of ten musicians in scarlet dresses, similar to those worn by his Majesty's Beefeaters, continually played on various instruments; while the performers paraded in their gayest "properties" before the gazing multitude. Audiences rapidly ascended on each performance being over; and, paying their money to the receivers in their Gothic seats, had tickets in return, which, being taken at the doors, admitted them to descend into the "theatre." The performances were the Wandering Outlaw, a melodrama, with the death of the villain and appearance of the accusing spirit;—a comic harlequinade, Harlequin Faustus;—and concluding with a splendid panorama, painted by the first artists.—Boxes, two shillings; pit, one shilling; and gallery, sixpence.

The theatre held nearly a thousand people, continually emptying and filling, and the performances were got over in about a quarter of an hour! And, though anticipating a little of our personal narrative, we may as well mention here, that occasionally, when the outside platform was crowded with impatient spectators waiting for their turn to be admitted, though the performances had not lasted more than five minutes, Mr. Richardson would send in to inquire if John Over-y was there, which was the well-known signal to finish off-hand, strike the gong, turn out the one audience, and turn in their successors, to see as much of the Outlaw, the Devil, or Dr. Faustus, as time permitted.

Ben Johnson's play of Bartholomew Fair in 1614 explains many of its ancient humours, and particularly the eating of Bartholomew pig, already noticed, and not to be repeated, as we desire to pen something more to the purpose in Smithfield than a dry antiquarian essay, though it relate to hares playing on the tabor, or tigers taught to pluck chickens. In the latter way a ballad of 1655 may suffice.

In 55, may I never thrive If I tell ye any more than is true,— To London she came, hearing of the fame Of a fair they call Bartholomew.
In houses of boards men walk upon cords, As easy as squirrels crack filberds; But the cut-purses they do bite, and rub away, But those we suppose to be ill birds.
For a penny you may see a fine puppet play, And for twopence a rare piece of art; And a penny a cann, I dare swear a man May put zix of 'em into a quart.
Their zights be so rich, is able to bewitch The heart of a very fine man-a; Here's Patient Grizel here, and Fair Rosamond there, And the history of Susanna.
At Pye-corner end, mark well, my good friend, 'Tis a very fine dirty place; Where there's more arrows and bows, the Lord above knows, Than was handled at Chevy Chase. 
Then at Smithfield Bars, betwixt the ground and the stars, There's a place they call Shoemaker's-Row, Where that you may buy shoes every day, Or go barefoot all the year, I tro.

In 1715 the largest booth ever erected was in the centre of Smithfield, "for the King's Players;" and, in later times, we read of Garrick going to see the pieces at Yates' and Shuter's booth. Hogarth in his youth painted scenes for a famous woman who kept a droll in the fair; and the old lady refused to pay because Dutch metal was used instead of real gilding with leaf-gold. Pidcock and Polito exhibited their finest animals; Astley his troop of horse, succeeded by Saunders. Puppet-shows, or motions, as they were called, were also always popular here; and giants, dwarfs, and whatever was singular in nature, or could be made to seem so by art, have from time immemorial been the wonders and favourites of Bartholomew Fair.

Having now brought "the Showman" to the management of what he might have designated the National Theatre, with the long-established Jonases, Penleys, Jobsons, et hoc genus omne as his rivals,—the commencement of a career of half a century's duration,—may we not pause to point towards him the finger of admiration? What are the lessees of Drury Lane or Covent Garden when compared to him? What have they done, or what are they likely to do, for the legitimate drama, when compared to him? He was a manager who paid his performers weekly on the nail; meaning by "the nail" the drum-head. On the Saturday evening, assembling them all, willing and buoyant, around him, he spread the sum total of their salaries upon the drum,—not double base, like the frauds of modern managers,—and then there was a roll-call of the most agreeable description. Sometimes the merry vagabonds would shove one another up against their paymaster; but the worst of his resentment was to detect the larker, if he could, and pay him last; or, if sorely annoyed, forget to invite him to the following supper: punishments severe, it must be acknowledged; but still the sufferers had their money to comfort themselves withal, and were not obliged to wait, like the waits in the streets at midnight, till after Christmas for the chance of their hard-earned wages. And he was grateful, too. When marked success attended any performer or performance, a marked requital was sure to follow. The Spotted Boy was a fortune to him, though not all so black as Jim Crow; and his affection grew with his growth. His portrait adorned the Tusculum of the Showman; and, after his death, he could not withdraw the green silk curtain from it without shedding tears. Had that boy lived to be a man, there is no doubt but Richardson would have made him independent of all the dark specks on life's horizon. As it was, he was treated as by a father like a spotless boy, and buried in the catacombs of the race of Richardson.

Next to the Spotted Boy, the performer whom Richardson most boasted of having belonged to his company was Edmund Kean. He, with Mrs. Carey, quasi mamma, and Henry, quasi brother, were engaged by our spirited manager; and Kean, over his cups, used to brag of having, by tumbling in front of the booth, tumbled hundreds of bumpkins in to the spectacles within. He did Tom Thumb as tiny Booth does now at the St. James's Theatre; and at a later period, viz. 1806, is stated to have played Norval, and Motley in the Castle  Spectre, for him at Battersea fair. Another story adds, that he was called on to recite his Tom-Thumbery before George the Third at Windsor; but we will not vouch for the truth of the newspaper anecdote.

From the metropolitan glory of Bartholomew Fair, the transition to the principal fairs of the kingdom was obvious. Mr. Richardson went the whole hog, and, in so doing, had nearly gone to the dogs. At that revolutionary period, neither the fairs nor the affairs of the country were in a wholesome condition. Politics are ever adverse to amusements. Vain was the attempt to beguile the snobbery of their pence; and our poor caravan, like one in the deserts of the Stony Araby, toiled on their weary march with full hearts and empty stomachs. At length it is told, at Cambridge Fair,—well might it be called by its less euphonous name of Stirbitch, so badly did the speculation pay,—that Richardson and his clown, Tom Jefferies, of facetious memory, were compelled to take a sort of French leave for London, leaving much of their materiel in pawn. Undamped by adversity, they took a fiddler with them; and the merry trio so enamoured the dwellers and wayfarers upon the road, that they not only extracted plentiful supplies for themselves, but were enabled to provide sufficiently for the bodily wants of the main body of the company, who followed at a judicious and respectable distance.

The pressure from without was, however, luckily but of temporary endurance; and Richardson was soon well to do again in the world. Fair succeeded fair, and he succeeded with all. His enterprise was great, and his gains commensurate. He rose by degrees, and at length became the most renowned of dramatic caterers for those classes who are prone to enjoy the unadulterated drama. Why, his mere outside by-play was worth fifty times more than the inside of large houses, to witness such trash as has lately usurped the stage, and pushed Tragedy from her throne, and Comedy from her stool. Of these memorabilia we can call to mind only a few instances; but they speak volumes for the powers of entertaining possessed by our hero.

It was at Peckham one day,—and a day of rain and mud,—when Richardson, stepping from the steps of his booth, as Moncey, the king of the beggars, was shovelling past on his boards, happened to slip and fall. We shall not readily forget the good-humour with which he looked, not up, but level, upon his companion, and sweetly said, "'Faith! friend, it seems that neither you nor I can keep our feet."

At Brook Green, as the fair and happy were crushing up to the pay-door, a pretty servant-girl was among the number. "I should like to hire that girl," said a dandy to his comrade. "I rather guess you would like to lower her," whispered Mr. R. in his ear. But she was a good lass, and not at all like the French gentleman's maid, to whom her master uttered these humiliating words: "Bah! you arre a verry bad girl, and I shall make you no better."

Mr. R. misliked drunkenness in his troop. "A fellow," he exclaimed to one he was rating for this vice,—"a fellow who gets tipsy every night will never be a rising man in any profession."

In a remote village some accident had destroyed a grotto necessary to the representation of the piece entitled "The Nymphs of the Grotto." What was to be done? There was no machinist within a  hundred miles! "Is there not an undertaker?" exclaimed Mr. R.: "he could surely execute a little shell-work!"

In an adjoining booth at Camberwell was exhibited a very old man, whom the placards declared to have reached a hundred and five years of age. "Here is a pretty thing to make a show of," observed R. "A wonder, indeed! Why, if my grandfather had not died, he would have been a hundred and twenty!"

But why should we dwell on his facetić? Only to point the poignant grief which tells us we shall never hear them more,—shall never look upon his like again! Yes: let others mourn their Prichards, their Garricks, their Kembles, and their Keans;—our keen is for thee, John Richardson, the undisputed head of thy profession, the master-spirit of them all, the glory of the mighty multitude,

"Where thou wert fairest of the Fair."

And how liberal thou wert! Thou wert not a manager to debar from their just privileges thy dramatic brethren, or insult the literary characters who honourably patronised thy honourable endeavours. Thy "Walk up!" was open and generous. When Jack Reeve and a party from the Adelphi visited the splendid booth at Bartholomew Fair, the veteran recognised his brethren of the buskin, and immediately returned to them the money they had paid on entrance, disdaining to pocket the hard-earned fruits of the stage. "You, or any other actor of talent," said the old man, "are quite welcome to visit my theatre free of expense." "No, no," replied Reeve, "keep it, or (noticing a dissenting shake of the head) give it to the poor." "If I have made a mistake," retorted John, "and have not done so already, give it to them yourself; I will have nothing to do with it, and I am not going to turn parish overseer."

At length, alas! his days—his fair days—were numbered, and, as the song says, "the good old man must die." As his first, so was his last exhibition at Smithfield; but Smithfield, like the other national theatres, shorn of its splendour, degenerate, and degraded. It seemed as if the last of the fairs: others had been abolished and put down; and this, the topmost of them all, was sinking under the march of intellect, the diffusion of knowledge, and the confusion of reform. Fairs in Britain were ended, and it was not worth Richardson's while to live any longer. He retired, tired and dejected, to his "Woodland Cottage" in Horsemonger-lane; and on the morning of the 14th of November was expected by the Angel of Death. His finale was serene: his life had been strange and varied, but industrious and frugal. The last time we saw him,—and it was to engage him on his last loyal and public patriotic work, namely, to erect the scaffolding for the inauguration of the statue of George III. in Cockspur-street,—he approached us with a fine cabbage under his arm, which he had been purchasing for dinner. His manners, too, were equally simple and unaffected;—he was the Cincinnatus of his order. He told us of the satisfaction he had given to George IV. by transporting the giraffe in a beautiful caravan to Windsor Park. The caravan was Richardson's world; and he might well have applied to that vehicle the eastern apologue, "the place which changes its occupants so often is not a palace, but a 'caravan'-serai." But we are giving way to sorrow, though "away with melancholy" is our motto. A wide-mouthed  musician—we forget whether clarionet or trombone—applied to Richardson at Easter for an engagement at Greenwich fair: "You won't do any thing till Christmas," said he: "you must wait, as you are only fit for a Wait: you are one to play from ear to ear."

It is said that Richardson died rich; and indeed the sale of his effects by auction showed that if other persons were men of property, he was a man of properties. Three hundred and thirty-four lots of multitudinous composition were submitted to the hammer; and it was truly a jubilee to see how the Jews did outbid each other. There were Nathan, and Hart, and Clarke, and Levy, besides an inferior and dirtier lot, who got velvets, and silks, and satins, for the old song, "Old Clo'!" Though their late owner, in the heyday of his prime, observed, "I have to show my dresses by daylight, and they must be first-rate; anything will do for the large theatres in the night-time, either green-baize, or tin, or dog-skins for ermine;" yet their prices were by no means considerable. Two Lear's dresses, two Dutch and one Jew's ditto, sold for thirty-five shillings; one spangled Harlequin's dress, one clown's, one magician's, and pantaloon's, came to one pound eleven shillings and sixpence; five priests' and a cardinal's dress, and the next lot, six robbers' dresses and a cardinal's dress, went very low; and six satyrs' dresses were absolutely given away. A large scene waggon brought fourteen pounds, and a ditto scene carriage only eight pounds. Then there were sundries of curious character in the catalogue:

Ten common whigs, trick-bottle, and trick-box (probably what Stanley called the thimble-rig).

A trick-sword, a coffin and pall: tomb of Capulate.

The old oak chest, with skeleton and two inscriptions (a very superior property).

A spangled woman's dress, white gown, &c. complete.

Two handsome spangled women's dresses, with caps, complete.

Five chintz women's dresses, two bow [qy. beau?] strings and scarf, eight fans, four baskets, and fifteen tails.

A man's ghost dress, complete.

A handsome woman's velvet dress, and Roman father's ditto.

Three magicians' dresses, and five musicians' ditto.

Nine spangled flys.

A handsome demon's dress, spangled and ornamented with gilt [guilt] mask, and mace.

Four demons' dresses, with masks, complete!

Executioner's dress and cap, complete; six black gowns, and four falls.

A superfine admiral's coat and hat, trimmed with gold lace, breeches, and waistcoat.

Ditto (no breeches).

Lion, bear, monkey, and cat's dresses, with two masks.

Two handsome nondescript dresses.

Such and so various were the articles in this unique three days' sale; and in the last some pieces of good old china were knocked down. Three weeks previously their owner was deposited in the cold church-yard of Great Marlow, in the grave, we are assured, of the Spotted Boy. The funeral was, at his request, conducted without Show; and his nephews and nieces—for he left no  family—inherit his worldly wealth, under the executorship of Mr. Cross, the proprietor of the Surrey Zoological Garden and its giraffery.

Many actors who have risen to celebrity began their course with him: Kean, first as outside and inside tumbling boy, and afterwards as a lending tragedian, with a salary of five shillings a day; Oxberry, Mitchell, Walbourn, and Sanders, A. Slader, Thwaites, Vaughan, S. Faucett, &c. were introduced to the public under his auspices. Who now shall open the gates of the temple to dramatic fame? The Janitor is gone for ever. A hearse is the last omnibus, after all. A hearse is the end of the showman's caravans, and the sexton is the last toll-collector he encounters in this world. John Richardson,