A SHORT CURTAIN SPEECH FROM THE AUTHOR AT THE FOOTLIGHTS
‘I have nothing against your right leg . . . the trouble is, neither have you.’
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, The Tarzan Sketch
Foote had two legs to begin with. He was born with the full set and may have been buried with both when he was interred, clandestinely and at night as it turned out, in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. Well-to-do amputees of the Georgian era were sometimes reunited with their long-lost limbs, especially embalmed by surgeons for the purpose so that they might meet their Maker with full symmetry, if not with grace. It was a similarly literalist view of the afterlife that had inspired Westminster Abbey in the eighteenth century to start reuniting in death the celebrated writers and actors of the age. They were shunted together in an area soon dubbed ‘Poets’ Corner’, as if to add to the country’s cavalcade of kings a classical pantheon of nation-builders. Or simply for a hellishly convivial afterlife.
The one-legged comedian Samuel Foote was smuggled as close to Poets’ Corner as his friends dared. But his burial was a hushed and hugger-mugger affair. By 1776 Foote’s name may have been one of the most celebrated in the English-speaking world, but by the time of his death in late 1777 he was more notorious than famous. He died only months after the conclusion of two of the most scandalous trials of the eighteenth century, in both of which he played major roles and in one of which he faced a charge of ‘sodomitical assault’. This is why you may not have heard of him. Like Oscar Wilde a century later – another dandywit and epigrammatist-playwright ruined by an accusation of homosexuality – Foote’s posthumous reputation was destroyed by slur and prejudice. Unlike Wilde, though, Foote had initially been supported by the establishment, even by the King. All support vanished, however, in the wake of his last, disastrous performances at the Haymarket and his sudden death. ‘He sacriﬁc’d friends and foes to a joke,’ David Garrick wrote to Lady Spencer, in explanation of his absence from Foote’s funeral, ‘& so has dy’d very little regretted even by his nearest acquaintance.’1 More memorably, Henry Fielding had sneered that Foote died ‘pissed upon with Scorn and Contempt’, and Sheridan was pithier yet: ‘He could never show his face again – nor did he.’
The career that ended in notoriety had in effect begun there too. Long before he wrote comedies, Foote had come to the attention of the Georgian public as a crime-writer, the chronicler of a violent murder within his own family. The crime he wrote about connects the ghoulish business of anatomizing criminals in the eighteenth century and the later interest in Foote’s own anatomy, and more widely in the bodies of celebrities themselves: such that, bizarre to relate, the sources for this book include volumes still bound in human skin of one the protagonists (a sentence I feel unlikely ever to have cause to write again): the skin of a murderer who was hanged and dissected for his crimes.2 Crime and criminal trials being the other theatrical sideshow to the birth of modern metropolitan culture, perhaps it was to be expected that Samuel Foote had been a lead player in those too.
Comedy, as they say, is all about pain.
Pro’leg/omenon. The ﬁrst questions asked of authors are regularly the most pertinent.
Was ‘Foote’ Samuel’s real name, or was this a stage-name in reference to his leg amputation? It was real. He suffered plenty of jokes about it after, as Dr Johnson put it, ‘the Depeditation of Mr Foote’.
Was the Tarzan Sketch, performed by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, based on the story of Samuel Foote? Probably so. For anyone who has missed this comedy classic, put down this book – temporarily – and have your life ‘improved by laughter’, as Foote once put it. There’s always YouTube. Pete and Dud knew the works of Samuel Foote and the singular physicality at the core of many of his later stage routines. Foote cast himself a number of times in scenes in which ‘two legs would be considered the minimum requirement’, and the sketch, which originated at Cambridge in a 1960 undergraduate Footlights revue when Pete was studying eighteenth-century French drama, indubitably has as its ancestor Samuel Foote. Did Foote really escape through the trap-door of the Haymarket after giving his shocked audience a Wilkesian rodomontade on liberty and sexual freedom, then attempt to run away to France but die in Dover, waiting for the ferry? (A story that gave me my ﬁrst laugh at Foote’s expense, as told to me by a fellow actor long into his anecdotage.) No. The real story is rather better, in its way, more tragic and more political. The descent of Foote’s myth, though, via the lore of old actors is one triumph of oral history over recondite fact, and is not the less telling of the style and reputation of the man for being more darn than sock.
Why should a man once famous enough to be represented by a simple icon – a foot – be forgotten now? A coiner of comedies for one-legged actors and the original celebrity-impressionist, Foote must own some of the authorship of his own obscurity. ‘Few things are as ﬂeeting as a joker’s reputation,’ wrote one early chronicler of Foote, ‘the jest may survive, but the jester is usually forgotten’; and an impressionist’s reputation falls faster than any into oblivion because it relies on the celebrity of the victims as much as the impersonator. Added to this, Foote’s famous name became a whispered one in the immediate aftermath of his scandal-palled death. Neither, it should be said, are his plays very funny any more. His thirty-odd comedy ‘afterpieces’ relied heavily on the inwit of a celebrity-impressionist rather than writerly skills per se and only a few remained popular into the nineteenth century. If his ribaldry sings out still in the names of his creations – Sir Archy McSarcasm, the priapic Harry Humper or one-legged Sir Luke Limp – their lines, regrettably, now ring hollow. So relax. To trawl through the works of Samuel Foote would do him, me and you poor service: to write about comedy, as Foote allowed, is tougher even than making people laugh.
This is instead a cyclorama of mid-eighteenth-century London viewed from the unique vantage point of a one-legged master of ceremonies, a man of breathtakingly catholic experience and larrikin good humour; a tale told by an actor. The masks over the proscenium arch, however, are not so much comedy and tragedy as comedy and crime – the twin fascinators of eighteenth-century discourse and intrinsic to the story of Foote. How Samuel Foote lost his leg and thereby gained a royal licence for a theatre – one of only three such Theatres Royal in the whole history of the London stage – is one subject of his play. The supporting cast of friends – from Dr Johnson, David Garrick, Henry Fielding, Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin Franklin to John Hunter, the Duchess of Kingston and everyone from Peg Wofﬁngton to George III – lend a certain metropolitan ´elan to this panorama of Theatreland:
Samuel Foote’s scapegrace London on the cusp of modernity. How a man of such singular anatomy could be at the centre of one of the most sensational buggery trials in British history – a subject of hilarious conjecture at the time, wiping the American Declaration of Independence off the London papers for many months – turns out to be a story less of perplexing balance than of shocking brutality and prejudice. It is also viewed afresh here through the recently discovered and uncomfortably explicit ﬁrst-hand trial records, and new evidence that, in one instance, justice may have been thwarted by greater powers. How Foote came to be on trial in Westminster Hall straight after the errant Duchess of Kingston had been arraigned in the same building in a grand state trial for bigamy is a tale of further legal prejudice and sexual intrigue. It has, of course, some resonance with the scandal that ended Oscar Wilde’s career, though Foote’s story turns out to be tellingly different, not least in the establishment’s reaction to his trial. Yet in key regards he is indeed ‘the Oscar Wilde of the eighteenth century’, as he is sometimes called: with his fame, personality and tragic trajectory illuminating uncomfortable truths about his era and his posthumous allure inextricably linked to his downfall. Instead it is the question of why Londoners should turn their attention to scandal, celebrity and laughter through 1776, when they might have paid closer attention to events in America, that begs our attention as well as forging both backdrop and cacophonous noises-off to Foote’s tragi-comedy. Appropriately enough then this is the story of the man who coined the phrase ‘Tea Party’ – a rallying cry at Boston harbour in 1773 – though Foote used it as an irreverent circumvention of the London censors: he sold tickets for tea, and added a scurrilous satire on the side. So now, ﬁnally, he is having the last laugh, as the unexpected godfather of an American reactionary movement, which, given his other reputation as sexual deviant and reckless satirist, would surely give him cause to smirk.
This is not, therefore, a literary biography in the usual sense, but an exploration of a myth of personality, Samuel Foote’s, in an age when the idea was born and personal narratives of self-invention were ﬁrst ﬂoated on the marketplace of fame as going concerns. It is a story of comedy and criminality, of rakes and revolutions, lowlifes and high art, cottaging and kings, and of the brave new world of London: the world’s original anonymous metropolis. Foote used his off-stage dramas, in prescient style, to publicize himself. Consequently his centre-stage role in the ﬁrst perfect media storm has some claim to be the proper prologue to modern celebrity and therefore, in a sense, to modernity. But beyond that, we who please to live and live to please, as Dr Johnson remarked, have also the simple benediction of storytelling, and Foote’s is a bloody good story to tell. And it has been lost only for reasons that are indeed themselves worth telling.
Most jokes in this book are not Foote’s, though many are original to the eighteenth century. Any errors or lack of taste are generally mine.
Scenes from an actor’s life
“It is the faculty of laughter alone that distinguishes Man from all other creatures”
Joseph Addison, coffee-house wit
Leicester Fields, London, 1741. The two feet that emerge from the sedan chair, expensively shod in buckled shoes, hit the gravel and sea-coal ash of the square, most likely closely followed by a cane. These feet, and the short legs above them, are those of a young man who does not need to be carried the half-mile from the Fleet prison – via Temple Bar and across the pebbles of Covent Garden piazza, up Long Acre towards Panton Street – though perhaps his costly buckled shoes do.
Dandily attired in lace and pea-green silk, the young law student, newly released from his second spell in gaol, was pointed at by those who noted him – the royal servants, hawkers and artisans who frequented Leicester Fields. But this was not for reasons of his dress. Samuel Foote, twenty-one-year-old youngest son of a Truro lawyer and a Worcestershire heiress, was notorious in London neither for his dress sense, eye-catching though it was, nor his unusual lineage. Rather he was notorious, all but instantly in March 1741, for his writings, his proﬁting by them and for his debts.
Sam encouraged his fellow London law-students to introduce him around the West End as ‘the young Gentleman whose uncle has been hanged for the murder of his brother’, a presentation that, it was said, ‘had great success and caused much amusement’.2 Crime pays, in terms of urban notoriety. It pays especially well if a crime links troubling themes in revolutionary times, offering a story such as Foote’s newly published account of his uncle’s murder. The crimes he wrote about in his bestselling Genuine Account (two editions in March and April 1741) describe the ﬁrst circle of his notoriety. They were crimes of vicious animosity between brothers – Sam’s uncles – and across declensions of class: a story of an interminable law case involving altered codicils, entails upon estates and abusive marriages. It was a story about land, sex, class, murder, dissections and insanity, and it was set against a naval backdrop, aboard a hulking man-o’-war at sea. Little wonder, then, that young Sam Foote’s account, as nephew and heir to murderer and murderee, outsold the sheet-music for the newly composed ‘Rule, Britannia’.3 Foote’s story was similarly rousing and seasalted, and addressed equally contemporary anxieties of what constituted Britishness, manliness, honour and identity. It also paid just well enough to keep him, erratically, out of debtors’ prison through his very early twenties. Just.
The twin nexi of Foote’s London, a city on the cusp of modernity that he came to know in the early 1740s when he, too, was just on the edge of adulthood, were the Fleet prison on what is now Farringdon Street, and Leicester Fields, later Square, where he took lodgings when and if he could afford them. The story of his crime bestseller, which rescued him from debt, and of his two abodes set the scene for the opening of his bizarre and unique career, which straddled notoriety and celebrity, showbusiness and crime, respectable fashionability and life beyond the Pale. It could only have happened in London.
Foote had ﬁrst used his lodgings in Panton Street, just off Leicester Fields, when he was an Oxford undergraduate, but he had them full-time from 1741 onwards and lived there when he was not in prison, which he was, twice, over the course of that year. One of the most vibrant areas of mid-eighteenth-century London, Leicester Fields was an area in almost constant ﬂux. The heir to the throne, Frederick, Prince of Wales, had turned Leicester House, on the north side of what would become the square, into a royal residence, but artists and writers could still afford to live in the area around it. John Gay had worked in a drapery yards to the south in New Exchange, by the Royal Mews – now Trafalgar Square – before he hit the big time with The Beggar’s Opera, a spectacular commercial success that was still playing in London when Foote arrived. William Hogarth was working on sketches that year for what would become his Marriage a` la Mode sequence of paintings in studios on the west side of the Fields, in sight of Foote’s lodgings. Five minutes away by sedan chair was Bow Street. Here Henry Fielding was busy attacking the government in his Grub Street Journal, presiding later as magistrate from his own front room, arraigning, among other miscreants, the itinerant ne’er-do-well Giacomo Casanova while simultaneously working on drafts of Shamela and later Tom Jones. Bow Street was also where the actors Charles Macklin, David Garrick and Peg Wofﬁngton – the original Polly Peachum in the Dublin production of The Beggar’s Opera – all had lodgings. It was an area for artists and writers of every school, for newcomers to London, for those who sought the oxygen of creativity and attention even in the fug of a malodorous city.
The young Cornishman was very quickly taken up by Covent Garden society. He was instantly conspicuous, soon enough notorious, and he was dazzlingly funny. Even in an age that had yet to discover minimalism in men’s fashion, Foote stood out as a miniature peacock. What he lacked in physical grace – he was said to have a formless face and low-slung gait – he made up for with his ebullient presence, his many voices and his clothes. He owned, for instance, one suit in ‘birds eye orange’ lined with pea-green satin, one of spotted velvet, another of ‘striped strawberry coloured corded silk with spangl’d buttons’ and, eccentrically, a whole suit made entirely of brown beaver.4 So attired, he soon became recognized around Covent Garden, as well one might. Descriptions of the young blade as ‘one of the most distinguished wits who frequented the coffee-houses’5 rarely fail to mention that he was also ‘one of the greatest of the beaux even in those days of general overdress’. Those who ﬁrst met him were almost invariably bowled over, even if, as was the case with Samuel Johnson, they had determined beforehand to disapprove because of his fast-acquired reputation as a reprobate.
The ﬁrst time I ever was in company with Foote [as Johnson recalled of this period] having no good opinion of the fellow, I was resolved not to be pleased, and it is very difﬁcult to please a man against his will. I went on eating my dinner pretty sullenly, affecting for a long time not to mind him, but the dog was so very comical, that I was obliged to lay down my knife and fork and throw myself back in my chair and fairly laugh it out. No sir, there was no avoiding it: the fellow was irresistible.6
Foote was, according to Dr Johnson, a one-off. Where James Boswell, who knew Foote slightly later, was always equivocal, in awe of Foote’s wit but shocked by his insouciant amorality, Johnson merely observed that he was funny: ‘Foote has the greatest range for his wit,’ the doctor remarked simply, ‘he never lets truth stand between him and jest, though he is sometimes mighty coarse.’7 Later he claimed, ‘He has no principles and is governed neither by good manners nor discretion and very little by affection. But for a broad laugh,’ and here the doctor would smile at recollection of it, ‘I must confess the scoundrel has no fellow.’8
A great capital is a constellation of friendships as well as ideas, and London, as Foote discovered it, afforded an extraordinary array of both, all within easy access of his occasional Leicester Fields home. For a witty and attention-seeking young man, one of mixed fortune and ﬁssured fame, as he would prove to be, it was easy to establish himself in a city that seemed as open to new people as it was to new ideas, a city stretched, challenged and enlivened by waves of ambitious new immigrants. The cast list of those who came, and prospered, and knew Foote is still recognizable in part. They enter the stage haphazardly over Foote’s ﬁrst months and years as a young man about town, sometimes walking centre-stage to greet him, sometimes merely walking past the stagecloth, brief early cameos that may or may not lead to further life in Foote’s drama.
His Panton Street lodgings were between an alley where Jonathan Swift had once cowered from gangs of rufﬁans and the studios of portraitist Thomas Hudson and his new apprentice, Joshua Reynolds. West Country boys both, new to London and to adult life, Reynolds and Foote would become ﬁrm friends. Foote was also soon spending time with the half-French jeweller based in Covent Garden, Lambert Lacam; he died young and was buried with a large enamel of his wife painted by another of Foote’s drinking partners of these years, the Irish miniaturist Nathaniel Hone.9 James Boswell would later come from Scotland to lodge in Downing Square – now Street – at that time an unprepossessing backwater of Whitehall and a cul-de-sac. His introduction to Foote came via Garrick and Johnson, Lichﬁeld men both, and the Ulsterman Charles Macklin, who met Foote at Tom’s coffee-house on Russell Street. Benjamin Franklin took lodgings on his return from America in Craven Street and met up with Boswell and later Foote every other Thursday at Davies’s bookstore, below Tom’s, to ‘enjoy literary conversation’.10 Boswell’s fellow Scots, the Hunter brothers, John and William, had anatomy practices in Leicester Fields and became known to Foote through Reynolds. The Hunters soon moved their business – a practice combining theatre, freak-show and medical demonstration – to Great Windmill Street and a building that serves dankly still as the Lyric Theatre’s dressing rooms. Some came to London to make their fortunes, some arrived with them, but for those with means, and a taste for novelty and argument, Leicester Fields and Covent Garden provided a scene of expectation and wonder, a blurring of class delineations and upbringing in a fervent search for the new. ‘Wine and punch on the table,’ Boswell describes the convivial scene of Foote’s London, ‘some of us smoking pipes . . . [and] a side-board with Welsh rabbits [sic] and apple puffs, porter and beer; our reckoning about eighteen pence a head,’ such that Johnson could make the reasonable assertion, of the same occasion, that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that Life can afford’. Or so it seemed to its many new inhabitants in the mid-eighteenth century and certainly to the young Cornishman Sam Foote.
When two enterprising contemporaries took it upon themselves to walk all the way around London, keeping countryside in view at all times, it took them seven hours.11 The largest city in the world, and indisputably its richest, was still small enough to be dominated by personalities who became known by sight and voice, not through media. Most Londoners knew exactly what members of the royal family looked like, as well as famous actresses and politicians or physically striking men like Dr Johnson or John Wilkes or, soon enough, Samuel Foote, pointed out on the street as the infamous author of the Genuine Account. People saw their ‘personalities’ on the street and in person – it was one of the principal pleasures of London, an open, homosocial and surprisingly pedestrian city. They saw them not as we do, in frames and in oils, but in all their human and voluble peculiarity. They saw them often through the smirched glass of sedan chairs – three hundred of which were available to hire daily from the chair-ranks at St James’s Palace – but just as likely walking in the parks, at church or, of course, at the theatre. The age that gave us, via Dr Johnson, the word ‘clubbable’ was perforce an age when London felt small enough to be just that: a club – and one not just for men but for the larger-than-life female personalities of the day: actresses like Kitty Clive and Peg Wofﬁngton, singers like Susannah Cibber, courtesans like Kitty Fisher, all of whom sat for Reynolds and all of whom would become friends or close enemies of Foote. The famous and infamous of London rubbed shoulders closely and frequently, even more so than might be the case for those same coteries today.
So, it was apt that London should give the world its ﬁrst ‘celebrity-impressionist’ – a man who initially made his name, those ﬁrst few years in London, through a singular skill honed at his parents’ table in Truro and his school in Worcester: a simple but devastatingly accurate talent for mimicry. Sam Foote was ﬁrst known about town for his gifts as a coffee-house comedian, unabashed and unashamed to be introduced as the nephew of ‘the uncle who has been hanged’12 and able to ‘take off ’ the great names and famous voices of a famously voluble age. His skill was said to be second to none. He watched people, then reproduced their mannerisms and voices instantly. It was said he could fool a tapster after hearing one order of drinks from a new acquaintance. Such a skill has probably always been prized. It found a new audience, and a new possibility as a career of sorts, in a city that was self-referential, and to some extent self-parodying; a city suddenly obsessed with personality and fame. His fearlessness was soon legendary, too, as he lampooned and caricatured people to their faces. Nearly all the meaning, and certainly most of the hilarity of this, is lost to us. But the moment is signal, historically, in the story of London. Samuel Foote was soon celebrated around the West End not just as the overdressed author of a crime bestseller, but as the funniest and wittiest man in town, and the most gifted imitator of the famous – in the ﬁrst city and age when such a thing might be possible. A minor claim to fame, maybe, except that it spoke, too, of the ﬁrst modern metropolis, its signal and prescient interest in ‘personality’ and the importance of satire in understanding the British. Foote, debt-ridden law student and brieﬂy gaolbird, ﬁrst came to the notice of Georgian Londoners by impersonating the London famous in West End coffee-houses.
Just ﬁve minutes east of his Panton Street lodgings, around the piazza of Covent Garden, the young Cornishman soon discovered the most fashionable of London’s celebrated coffee-houses. The once grandiose piazza homes of aristocrats had been converted, variously, into taverns, brothels, bagnios and shops, and there were rooms to rent up once-grand staircases for the purposes that often befall a neighbourhood heading rapidly downhill. An image of Samuel setting foot in Covent Garden is provided by his later friend and biographer, William Cooke:
In this early part of his life he was what the world called a fine gentleman: and in his morning rambles from the [Leicester] ﬁelds towards Covent Garden he exhibited a full dress suit, bag wig . . . sword, muff, rings, &c . . . He was fond of dress to the last; but his taste in this was not so correct: he was seldom wholly uniform; and took snuff in such quantities, as often rendered him a very slovenly beau. He lived much in taverns, and at public places, in this early part of his life.13
Covent Garden was where Foote saw his ﬁrst professional actors. Rehearsals at the two Theatres Royal were signalled daily by a drum, beaten around the piazza to round up the two companies from their digs or coffee-drinking. He could gawp at the great names of the day as they traipsed over the pebbled market square past fruit and ﬂower stalls, dofﬁng hats or curtsying, as appropriate, to the crowds, interrupted from whatever distractions of the piazza they had been enjoying till their knell called them to work.
Young Foote had only to walk across the piazza from west to east, past this actorly roll-call, to reach the coffee-houses: Bedford’s, Button’s, Tom’s and Will’s were all on Russell Street, the thoroughfare from the piazza to Drury Lane that is, in a sense, the heart of Theatreland. In 1741 the coffee-houses, even Lloyd’s and Child’s in the City, were still open to anyone who could buy coffee, talk well and read deeply. They were not yet private clubs. William Cooke later wrote that Sam was seen ‘pro forma’14 at the Temple and the Inns of Court at this time and even acquired ‘handsome chambers’ there. But there is no record of him as a lawyer. He spent his days and nights instead in Covent Garden’s more easterly coffee-houses, for it was here that new, more artistic and literary reputations were being made. And it is here, consequently, that he ﬁrst enters the record of London wits.
Of the three great coffee-houses of Russell Street, Tom’s had Foote’s custom at ﬁrst. It was a seat of the new English radicalism, but also of literary aspiration. Like Will’s, where Dryden wrote, Tom’s was a ﬁrst-ﬂoor suite of rooms above a print- and bookshop. The entrance was at 17 Russell Street. The original Tom – Thomas West – had thrown himself from the upper window ‘in a delirium’15 nineteen years earlier, but the name had stuck, along with the association of fervid partying, disputation and radicalism. The bookseller that traded downstairs, Lewis’s, published Alexander Pope, which was convenient, as Pope wrote and drank his coffee in Tom’s above. Mainly, however, Tom’s came alive at night. One foreign writer observed: ‘The best company generally go to Tom’s and Will’s coffee-houses, where there is the best conversation til midnight. Here you will see [aristocrats] sitting familiarly and talking with freedom . . . and a stranger tastes with pleasure the universal liberty . . . of the English.’
At Tom’s, as at all the major coffee-houses, there were also newspapers, ‘not only all the foreign prints but the English ones . . . besides papers of morality and party dispute’.16 Eventually Tom’s had to be subdivided into a rambunctious cafe´ – alive with debate and argument and laughter – and a quieter room for readers and for perusal of a growing lending library of books and periodicals. This latter had a subscription book, which was used well into the nineteenth century and provides some insight into the bookishness of Foote’s coffee-addict chums. Arthur Murphy, another lawyer-cum-theatrical, signed next to Foote in the subscription book for newspapers, as did David Garrick and Samuel Johnson. There were bankers and even scions of dukedoms signing too; the rakehell Earl Percy, friend of Casanova, along with George Colman, the dramatist, the book-loving Polish ambassador and Thomas Paine.17 A young aristocrat called Francis ‘Frank’ Delaval signed there too, borrowing play scripts. This fast-living and loud-laughing Northumbrian would become one of Foote’s closest friends.
It was a convivial meeting place. One extant bar tab from this period covers a generous round of ‘46 dishes of chocolate and coffee’ to a total of £1 3s. to which the sweet-toothed literati had added an order of ‘34 jelleys [sic] and biscuits at 2s. 3d. extra’. It is unclear who paid. There was a large snuff box, which Dryden had owned, in the middle of the upper room. A pinch of communal snuff was the reward for a tale well told, an argument won or a quip well stropped. This ‘snuff of glory’ soon became the regular prize of Sam Foote. It was the only free item. Beyond one’s ﬁrst cup of coffee – served gratis with the penny entry fee – everything at Tom’s cost.
But it was the Bedford that soon became Foote’s favoured coffee-house. It was the pre-eminent establishment in a city that boasted at the time at least ﬁve hundred coffee-houses18 but, as Henry Fielding quipped, the Bedford was best known to ‘those Gentlemen to whom Beds are unknown’.19 Frequenters of this ‘emporia of wit’20 included William Hogarth – it seems he and Foote met there – the actors Macklin and Murphy, and writers and poets, like William Collins, Alexander Pope and Thomas Sheridan, when he was not in Dublin. Even the diarist Horace Walpole, not usually a man for crowds, was often there. Thomas Arne, Drury Lane’s resident composer, met Foote in Bedford’s too, dressed always in velvet, even in the dog-days of 1741’s sticky summer. Newly famous for ‘Rule, Britannia’, Arne was ﬁghting in the courts that summer for his copyrights in a landmark case, convincing other authors, Foote soon included, that they had been sold short in publishing deals. The fervid, sociable atmosphere of the coffee-houses became the essential fuel for Samuel Foote’s talents and his fame.
The Bedford, increasingly, was where Foote was to be found every day, ignoring the law studies that supposedly had brought him to London in the ﬁrst place, and spending money he could ill afford. It was on the piazza itself, on the corner of Russell Street, entered from the eastern side of the market through the arcades. If Lloyd’s, Jonathan’s, Child’s, Dolly’s Chop House and the Grecian spawned banks and insurance houses, newspapers and a Royal Society respectively, the Bedford, the Grecian, Tom’s and Button’s would also found London institutions. They were art salons, discussion shops of the Enlightenment. They were also the cradle of early book and comedy clubs, and, in the course of Foote’s story, the site of the ﬁrst British drama school.
The Bedford served food late into the night for the post-theatre crowd. As such it has some claim to infamy as the ﬁrst critics’ circle, the favoured haunt of professional theatre reviewers. One paper noted that the Bedford was ‘every day and night crowded with wits . . . jokes and bons mots are echoed from box to box’21 [the wooden seats]; ‘every branch of literature is examined, every performance of the theatre weighed’.22 It was said actors and playwrights at Drury Lane and Covent Garden could ascertain the success or failure of their ventures within ﬁve minutes of entering the Bedford’s wainscoted rooms after the curtain had fallen on opening night. Only a Broadway opening and ﬁrst-night party, these days, offers such alacrity of damnation. These men of letters and of the theatre (there were ladies too, but they were not respectable) could use the Bedford as their postal address. There were rooms to rent by hour or day. One carrel, or booth, was especially reserved for competitive punning, another for debate on natural sciences, a third exclusively for actors. As Foote arrived in London in 1741 the ‘eminent natural philosopher’ J. T. Desaguliers had moved from a carrel into an upstairs room to give lectures.23 The atmosphere, therefore, hung as thick with intellectual ambition as with tobacco smoke, and the wooden panelling did little to lessen the din of the raucous noise of the over-articulate. By late evening, the Bedford became the spill-on bar from the Green Rooms of both Theatres Royal, and this favoured haunt of the actors and actresses of Covent Garden and Drury Lane rang to the sound of singing as well as laughter: the ﬁrst airings of Thomas Arne’s ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’, if not, for form’s sake, his new National Anthem, were heard there. And, intriguing to relate, the wainscoting featured ‘window soil-boxes’ lined with lead: they may have been window boxes in the usual sense but seem also to have been placed high above the piazza for gentlemen to relieve themselves, rather than offending the crowd below in the manner more usual to the age – a ‘London shower’, as it was termed. Foote’s ﬁrst view, therefore, of the Fielding brothers, Davy Garrick, Thomas Sheridan or, less likely, Horace Walpole – the ‘ﬁnest wits and men of letters’ of the age – may well have revealed them, from the perspective of the piazza, availing themselves of the Bedford’s unusual facilities while whistling Dr Arne’s new ‘Rule, Britannia’.
The London Spy described the style of Foote’s new Bedford world:
like a swarm of rats in a ruinous cheese-store . . . some were scribbling, others talking; some were drinking coffee, some smoking, and some arguing; the whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge . . . long clay pipes, a little ﬁre on the hearth, and over it a huge coffee-pot . . . and . . . a parliamentary ordinance against drinking and the use of bad language. The walls were decorated with gilt frames much as a smithy is decorated with horseshoes. In the frames were rarities; phials of a yellowish elixir, favourite pills and hair-tonics, packets of snuff, tooth-powder made of coffee-grounds, caramels and cough lozenges . . . had not my friend told me that he had brought me to a coffee-house, I would have regarded the place as cabinet of curiosities or as [a fair ground].24
On to this peculiar coffee-spattered stage stepped young Foote. He made it an art form to enter a room well. One Dr Barrowby happened to be there the very ﬁrst time ‘Sammy’ Foote came in. He spoke of Foote always afterwards as a ‘young man of extraordinary talents’, and seems to have been one of those many who wanted to believe that behind Foote’s carapace of reckless wit and dandy disdain hid a warmth to be discerned by the elect. As another wrote, Foote was ‘a man who . . . possesses a real fund of feeling’.25 Dr Barrowby’s account of Foote’s de´but at the Bedford, however, is more of mask than man. Foote, already a far more dandiﬁed character than his Truro mother might have imagined, thus made his ﬁrst Bedford entrance up the stairs from the piazza:
He came into the room, dressed out in a frock suit of green and silver lace with bag-wig, sword, bouquet, and rufﬂes, and immediately joined the critical circle of the upper end of the room. He soon boldly entered into the conversation, and by the brilliancy of his wit, the justness of his remarks, and the unembarrassed freedom of his manners, attracted the general notice. The buzz of the room went round:
‘Who is he? Whence comes he?!’
etc which nobody could answer; until, a carriage stopping at the door to take him to the assembly of a lady of fashion, and they learned from the servants that his name was Foote, that he was a young Gentleman of Family and of Fortune.26
The style is recognizable from his later stage entrances. The servants, it seems, were all primed to speak their parts and the carriage was hired to go nowhere.
The comedic young law student who entertained the coffeehouse crowd soon left a trail of anecdotes in his wake. Some were recorded eventually by his exegete, Cooke, and published as his Bons Mots. Others were chronicled by diarists and letter-writers. Whimsy as much as wit to the modern ear, their renown sprang equally from the speed of Foote’s response as from his wordplay and his impersonations. But if Foote has an early claim to be ‘the Oscar Wilde of the eighteenth century’, it is because, long before he wrote a play or, indeed, worked on a professional stage, he was already famous, as the funniest man in London. As instance, one late night at the Bedford one of the theatre crowd took issue with Foote on the business of personal satire:
‘Why, what would you have?’ exclaimed Foote, ‘of course I take all my friends off, but I use them no worse than myself, I take myself off.’
‘Gadso! Now that I should like to see,’ said the other, whereupon Foote took up his hat, and left. The room fell about laughing, and the story spread the faster as Foote did not return.
On an actress with a dubious past who was said to have married happily by the expedient of telling her husband beforehand of all her previous lovers, Foote remarked on her bravery to his companions at the Bedford:
What candour she must have had! What honesty! . . . and what an amazing memory!
On another occasion, Foote had become somewhat bored by a doctor who had had a yen to publish poems that he had inﬂicted, extempore, upon the Bedford group. The doctor complained he hadn’t had time to get to a publisher as he had ‘so many irons in the ﬁre’. Foote ﬁred back:
Take my advice, dear Doctor, and put your poems where your irons are.27
His wit turned often on frank sexual knowingness. Covent Garden Magazine published one Foote retort from this period when the conversation at the Bedford had turned to the vibrating effect of being driven in hired carriages over the cobbled streets of London and ‘a Gentleman observed that riding in a hackney coach always gave him an e . . . . . . n [erection]’. ‘Egad,’ said Foote, ‘never let your wife know that or she will insist upon your never hiring but keeping a carriage.’28
And so, again, the Bedford rang with laughter, heard even, it was said, on the far side of the piazza, attracting further drinkers and roisterers to admire the celebrated Mr Foote.
Coffee-houses have their unique place in the history of what would later be termed the Enlightenment, and the coffee-house comic Samuel Foote has his place in this too. As Dr Johnson noted, the coffee-houses ‘had a perceptible inﬂuence on ‘the conversation of the time’; they ‘taught the frolic and the gay to unite merriment with decency and argument . . . effects which they could never wholly lose’. It was only in coffee-houses in London, as in Paris or Venice, that all classes might ﬁnd a venue for sociability. To be sure the clientele was drawn from what the French called honˆetes gens – a literate and genteel class of mainly men – but in London the potential rough edges of different classes rubbing together were smoothed, most often, with comedy. Just as the theatre played to all at once, and had done, arguably, since the days of Shakespeare, so the coffee-house came to be a forum, too, where ideas from across all society might be aired. The point of the coffee-house was conversation, just as the point of theatre was dialogue. And all voices might be heard. Special privilege, however, was given to those who made people laugh. The discussion of the ideas, news and literature of the modern city marked a new stage in the growth of civility, the dawning, over coffee and hot chocolate, messy newsprint, lewd cartoons and tobacco, of something both dangerous and exciting: public opinion.
Coffee fuelled Foote’s ﬁrst experience of live comedy and performance, but also his earliest foray into writing and his ﬁrst taste of fame. The largest city in the world, with a population by 1740 of more than 650,000 and, according to contemporary statistician Malarchy Postlethwaite,29 as many as one million, may also have been the world’s most literate. Fourteen newspapers were published daily or tri-weekly in London and on any given day up to 20,000 papers circulated in the capital, many with serial readers in London’s coffee-houses.30 Even while Horace Walpole might rant over the ‘ridiculous rage of buying biographies’31 something about eighteenth-century London seems to have forged a companionate love of reading and gossiping about personalities in public: dramas unfolding in real time, often sexual morality tales or crime stories, to be savoured and salivated over. It is therefore reasonable to speculate that as many as a quarter of a million people had heard Samuel Foote’s name or read it within days of his account of the infamous 1741 murder of his uncle, before we even tally provincial coffee-houses and the longer-term circulation of crime-pamphlets printed to survive the thumbs of many more coffee-drinkers. It was quite a launch.
For Foote, therefore, the coffee-house was his ﬁrst constituency, the site of his personal fame in London, and his wider renown in print as a crime writer. This is some of what guys his story so strongly in the fug of the Georgian coffee trade while making it conversely so very much a tale of now. Coffee-houses were reading rooms, news rooms and gossip halls all at once. They were the water-cooler of Georgian sociability, deciding what was fashionable, interesting or amusing. The rich life of London’s coffee-house Enlightenment – the exchange of ideas and the creation of a fervid challenging newspaper culture, uncensored by royal or government decree – has been cited as one reason our Enlightenment led to peculiarly British revolutions in science, industry, literature, in acting and sex even, a glorious if etiolated revolution through the long eighteenth century that was more political than is often allowed, but was accompanied by laughter and satire. London’s coffee-houses fed directly into the political life of the city, but also notably into its comic and theatrical cultures.
It was this ‘public sphere’ – the new fused world of political ideas, of coffee-house revolutions – that needed a new sort of comedy, a new sort of satire. Coffee-houses became the place where public opinion was formed, but also published. In turn they rejoiced in a sort of critical, satirical comedy that feels akin to modern political satire, to stand-up even, enacted live, over coffee, by the likes of young Sam Foote. The age that gave us the most scabrous and irreverent cartoons in the history of the medium – one signiﬁer of new freedoms – gave us also a political satirist and impersonator in Foote. Rooted in pain, like the best comedy, fearless, which was his accidental position in life, Samuel Foote rounded his gifts with an ability to pen live cartoon sketches of ‘celebrities’ – in the spirit of Hogarth or of Rowlandson – drawn from the new city and brought to life, and ridicule, at the Bedford.
Life as a comedic coffee-house idler should not have been wildly expensive for a gentleman with a modest allowance and great expectations of inheritance, but Foote lived constantly beyond his means, falling repeatedly into debt. Eventually, of course, it landed him in prison. It was a pattern that had been set at Oxford in the few years he spent studying there. However, he found that debt would be the making of him, for it was because of the Fleet prison that Foote ﬁrst turned to writing, and to the business of marketing his family’s notoriety in an arrestingly modern manner. ‘Iterum, iterum, iterumque’ (again and again and again) ran the legend on his carriage door years later when he would joke about his three terms of imprisonment for debt – twice in London and once in Oxford. By the time he was customizing his livery in London, a dazzlingly successful playwright and comedian, he could afford to be jocose about debt and his youthful fecklessness. But his spells in gaol, in 1740 and 1741, were as frightening as they were intended to be – wake-up calls to a young wastrel, eventually heeded and acted upon. In Sam Foote’s case, debtors’ prison scared him ﬁrst into matrimony, and then into his ﬁrst literary endeavours as a crime-writer.
Excerpted from Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly. Copyright © 2012 by Ian Kelly.
First published 2012 by Picador. First published in paperback 2013 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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