On this day in history : 16th January 1749 – Riots break out at the Haymarket Theatre, London – after crowds flock to the theatre for a sell-out performance by a conjurer….who fails to materialise….

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An advertisement had appeared in London newspapers during the first week of January…. It read….

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 –viz.., 1st. He 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. 2dly. 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 the 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. Stage, 7s.6d. Boxes, 5s. Pit, 3s. Gallery, 2s. Tickets to be had at the Theatre. To begin a half hour after 6 o’clock. The performance continues about two hours and a half.

Note,– If any Gentlemen or Ladies (after the above Performance), either single or in company, in or out of mask, is 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; likewise, if desired, he will tell you your most secret thoughts in your Past life, and give you a full view of persons who have injured you, whether dead or alive. For those Gentlemen and Ladies who are desirous of seeing this last part, there is a private room provided.

These performances have been seen by most of the Crowned Heads of Asia, Africa and Europe, and never appeared public anywhere but once; but will wait on any at their Houses, and perform as above for five Pounds each time. A proper guard is appointed to prevent disorder.

Yes, it all sounds ridiculously far-fetched….surely nobody would fall for it? But for days Londoners could talk of little else – and they rushed to buy tickets….

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English wine bottle 17th/18th Century – The Higgins Museum & Gallery, Bedford

On the evening of the performance the theatre was packed to the rafters; every box, every seat in the gallery and in the pits taken…. Standing room was at a premium….and the anticipation was at fever pitch….

The audience waited….and waited….and waited….but nothing happened – no performer showed – and not even a fiddle to keep the crowd amused…. People began to get restless; it started with sighs and groans – escalating to catcalls….and then came the stamping of feet and banging of canes….

Eventually, somebody from the theatre timidly ventured on to the stage….bowing and apologising profusely…. He said that if the conjurer didn’t make an appearance in 15 minutes everyone would be refunded their money at the door on the way out….

But the crowd were not to be placated…. Someone shouted from the pits that everybody would willingly pay double if he (the theatre employee) climbed into the bottle…. It was just after then that somebody from one of the boxes threw a lit candle on to the stage….and all hell and mayhem broke out….

Seats were ripped apart, benches smashed….the crowd demolished everything they could lay their hands on…. The theatre was gutted….and the riotous mob spilled out on to the street, carrying with them many of the interior fittings….with which they made a huge bonfire…. Even the stage curtain was ripped from its hangings and hoisted on to a pole – to be waved around like a giant flag…. As to the audience getting its money back – well, no chance of that – as in the pandemonium somebody stole the box-office takings….

The whole farcical event became the target of just about every newspaper and publication….satire went crazy…. It became known as ‘The Great Bottle Hoax”….

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Image of William Phillips as Harlequin in a representation of the Bottle Conjurer – English broadside dated 1748/9 B.Dickson – Public domain

So, who was behind the hoax? Initially the blame was laid on the theatre manager, Samuel Foote, a notorious prankster of the time – but he vehemently denied any involvement…. The finger was then pointed at the owner of the theatre, John Potter – but it was highly unlikely to be his doing….

It is now widely believed – (although never proven)that the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield may have been behind it…. The pair had been amongst a group of English noblemen, discussing human gullibility – when the Duke announced (most likely after consuming one too many alcoholic beverages)…. “I will wager, that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there”…. To which the Earl replied…. “Surely, if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that”….

Not surprisingly, the Duke and Earl lay low after the events of the 16th of January 1749….their secret didn’t come out until many years later….

 

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