London's Most Ridiculous Riot?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 44 months ago

Last Updated 11 September 2020

London's Most Ridiculous Riot?
Taken from a tongue in cheek apology 'from the conjurer', published shortly after the hoax

A quite ludicrous claim

What was quite possibly London's most ridiculous riot stemmed from one of the most ludicrous adverts to appear in a newspaper:

At the New Theatre in the Haymarket, on Monday next, the 16th instant, is to be seen a Person who performs the several most surprising things following...

You can imagine the readers staring in disbelief, shaking their heads, tutting — and finally laughing out loud — as the ad claimed that the conjurer in question...

  • "...takes a common walking Cane from any of the Spectators, and thereupon plays the music of every Instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection."
  • "...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 the sight of all the Spectators, and sings in it."

That wasn't all. That ad went on to say that anyone...

desirous of seeing a Representation of any deceased Person, such as Husband or Wife, sister or Brother, or any intimate friend of either Sex (upon making a Gratuity to the Performer) shall be gratified by seeing and conversing with them for some Minutes as if alive...

This conjurer was quite the miracle maker... almost suspiciously so. But we've wrongly given those 18th century Londoners the benefit of the doubt; many went ahead and booked tickets. As the Handy-book of Literary Curiosities puts it, "the public rose to the bait like a huge gudgeon." London thrummed with talk about the wine bottle conjurer for days. And then things got ugly.

From The Ipswich Journal, 21 January 1749. Image © The British Library Board

I predict a riot

By the night of 16 January, levels of anticipation at the Haymarket had reached fever pitch. The theatre was a sell-out, with standing room at a premium. But as London's public waited and waited, there was no sign of the conjurer who'd promised so much. As the Ipswich Journal reported:

...without so much as a single Fiddle to keep the Audience in good Humour; many grew impatient. Immediately follow a Chorus of Catcalls; heightened by loud Vociferations; and beating with Sticks...

Honestly, it was a perilous profession being a performer in those days. Except, in this case, there was no performer. Eventually, an apologetic soul from the theatre edged on stage and promised that if the conjurer didn't, er, magically appear within 15 minutes, there would be refunds all round. "A wag in the pit," says the Handy-book, "shouted that if the ladies and gentlemen would give double price, he would climb into a pint bottle."

Always one isn't there.

The theatre at which the hoax took place (enlarged in later years). Photo: MrsEllacott

The laughter was short-lived. Someone threw a lit candle onto the stage, and all hell broke loose: "The mob rose en masse, tore up the seats and benches, and proceeded to demolish everything in sight."

Rioting spilled out onto the street, with the theatre's insides piled up and made into a huge bonfire, and its curtain hauled up onto a pole like a sad flag. The box receipts went missing in the madness. Those same dim Londoners who'd forked out to see the impossible had now forfeited their right to a refund.

The fall out

Just as these days the Twittersphere would erupt with tongue-in-cheek memes, a number of parody adverts began to appear in the press. Adverts like this:

And this:

London was a laughing stock, and the papers milked the joke dry. So who'd devised such an uncanny ruse? Though early fingers pointed at 'notorious prankster' Samuel Foote (we presume the Ashton Kutcher/Jeremy Beadle of his day), Foote denied it outright. Then it was suggested the playhouse's proprietor John Potter was to blame — unlikely, as he'd have known all too well about theatregoers' temperaments.

Although there's no absolute proof, it's widely believed that it was the Duke of Portland, who'd made a wager with the Earl of Chesterfield (over a few sherries no doubt) that he could "find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse." They were fortunate not to be found out until years later —otherwise, surely they'd have been in line for the motherload of all pranks played on them one after the other after the other — like a never-ending episode of Trigger Happy TV, but with more fops.

As the Handy-book of Literary Curiosities concludes: "The newspapers were probably the only gainers by the hoax." Indeed, it still makes a good yarn well over 250 years later.