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Samuel Foote – Eighteenth century Actor & Wit

These snippets come from accounts of the life of Samuel Foote, a celebrated humourist, ‘whose comic genius procured for him the appellation of the English Aristophanes.’

Foote was born in Cornwall in 1721. Having attended Oxford, he entered the Inner Temple to study law, but his career quickly failed. After attempting a life as an author, and then a beer seller, not to mention suffering a spell in debtor’s prison in 1742, Foote embarked on a career as an actor. In 1746-7, he rented the Haymarket theatre, assembled together a group of actors, and commenced his first theatrical venture, The Diversions of the Morning, or, A Dish of Chocolate. The advertisement ran as follows:

On Saturday noon, exactly at 12 o’clock, at the New Theatre, in the Haymarket, Mr Foote begs the favour of his friends to come and drink a dish of chocolate with him; and ’tis hoped there will be a great deal of comedy and some joyous spirits; he will endeavour to make the Morning as diverting as possible. Tickets for the entertainment to be had at George’s Coffee-House, Temple Bar, without which no person will be admitted.—N.B. Sir Dilbury Diddle will be there, and Lady Betty Frisk has absolutely promised.

His nineteenth century biographer contends that this announcement ‘attracted a considerable audience, many of whom, however, were rather befuddled in regard to the promise of chocolate, and seem to have expected that they would be served with that refreshment.’ Although the performance was a great success, lampooning many notable and popular performers of the day, including David Garrick, the confusion over the title led to Foote renaming the entertainment Tea several weeks later, and showing it at a more appropriate time of 6.30pm: ‘At the request of several persons who are desirous of spending an hour with Mr Foote, but find the time inconvenient, instead of chocolate in the morning, Mr Foote’s friends are desired to drink a dish of tea with him at half an hour past 6 in the evening.’

The show continued to be a great success, and Foote soon grew rich. He also inherited a large sum of money in 1748, which enabled him to live ‘the gay life of a gentleman at large, which he indulged for several years, residing principally, during that period, on the continent.’ In 1752, cash spent, Foote returned to the London stage, and resumed management of the Haymarket in 1760. In 1766 he was granted a royal patent to entertain the Duke of York. However ‘this boon was indirectly indebted to an unlucky horse-accident which had befallen him in the duke’s company, and cost him the loss of one of his limbs, instigating him to use a cork leg for the remainder of his life.’

On 8th July 1775, John Sangster, a servant of Foote, ‘charged the actor with an attempted homosexual attack, a capital offence. Foote’s sense of personal security collapsed under the repeated and vicious attacks. His case came to trial on 9 December 1776, and he was quickly acquitted, but his spirit was broken,’and when ‘Arthur Murphy, who acted as Foote’s attorney, visited the actor to tell him he had been acquitted, Foote collapsed on the floor in strong hysterics.’ Foote fell into a depression after this, and died in Dover in 1777.

Foote died a ‘controversial and celebrated public figure, an actor, playwright, wit, and brilliant conversationalist.’ Garrick commented that he ‘had much wit, no feeling, sacrific’d friends & foes to a joke, & so has dy’d very little regretted even by his nearest acquaintance.’

Dr Johnson related to Boswell: ‘The first time I was in company with Foote was at Fitzherbert’s. 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 not to mind him; but the dog was so very comical, that I was obliged to lay down my knife and fork, throw myself back in my chair, and fairly laugh it out Sir, he was irresistible.

Foote’s nineteenth century biographer was good enough to assemble a few of the quips and retorts for which Foote developed his fame as a Wit:

While present one evening at the Lectures on the Ancients, adventured on by Charles Macklin, the lecturer hearing a buzz of laughter in a corner of the room, looked angrily in that direction, and perceiving Foote, said pompously: ‘You seem very merry, pray, do you know what I am going to say?’  ‘No,’ replied Foote, ‘do you?’

‘Why do you hum that air?’ he said one day to a friend. ‘It forever haunts me,’ was the reply. ‘No wonder,’ he rejoined, ‘you are for ever murdering it.’

One evening he was asked at a coffee-house if he had attended that day the funeral of a friend, for whom he cherished a great regard, and who happened to be the son of a baker. ‘О yes,’ he replied, ‘poor fellow, I have just seen him shoved into the family oven.’

Having once paid a professional visit to Scotland, where he was well received, he was one day dining at a gentleman’s house, when an old lady present was called on for a toast, and gave ‘Charles the Third. ‘Of Spain, madam?’ said Foote. ‘No, sir, she replied somewhat tartly, ‘of England.’ ‘Never mind her,’ said one of the company, ‘she is one of our old folks who have not got rid of their political prejudices.’ ‘Oh, dear sir, make no apology,’ cried Foote, ‘I was prepared for all this; as, from your living so far north, I suppose none of you have heard of the Revolution.’

Foote’s mother, ‘though she was heiress to a large fortune, was carelessness in pecuniary matters and became dependent on the bounty of Samuel, who allowed her a hundred a year. On one occasion she wrote him as follows:’Dear Sam, I am in prison for debt; come and assist your loving mother, E. Foote’. To this brief note he replied: ‘Dear Mother, So am I; which prevents his duty being paid to his loving mother by her affectionate son, Sam Foote.’

For more on Foote see: P.T Dircks, A.H.Scouten, W.Cooke, R Chambers

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved


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The Fryer Well-fitted

This snippet is a little song, published anonymously between 1663 and 1674, with the subtitle: Pretty jest that once befell how a maid put a fryer to cool in the well: To a Merry tune. I have omitted most of the Fa la la las.

As I lay musing all alone
A pretty jest I thought upon
Then listen a while and I will you tell
Of a fryer that lov’d a bonny lass well.
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

He came to the maid when she went to bed
Desiring to have her Maiden-Head
But she denyed his desire
And told him that she feared Hell Fire:
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

Hush (quoth the fryer) thou need’st not doubt
If thou were’st in Hell I could sing thee out
Then (quoth the maid) thou shalt have thy request
The fryer was as glad as a Fox in his nest
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

But one thing (quoth she) I do desire
Before you have what you require
Before that you shall do one thing
An angell in mony thou shall me bring
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

Hush, quoth the fryer, we shall agree
No mony shall part my love and me
Before that I will see thee lack
I’ll pawn my Grey gown from my back
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

The maid bethought her of a while
How the fryer she could beguile
While he was gone, the truth to tell,
She hung a cloth before the well
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

The fryer came as his convenant was
With mony for his bonny Lasse
Good morrow fair maid, good morrow, quoth he
Here is the mony I promised thee
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

She thank’d the man and she took his mony
Now let us go to it, quoth he, sweet hunny
Oh stay, quoth she, some respite make
My father comes, he will me take
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

Alas, quoth the fryer, where shall I run
To hide me till that he be gone
Behind the cloth run thou, quoth she
And there my father cannot thee see
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

Behind the cloth the fryer crept
And into the well all the sudden he leapt
Alas, quoth he, I am in the well
No matter, quoth she, if thou wert in Hell
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

Thou sayest thou couldst sing me out of Hell
Now I prithee, sing thyself out of the well
The fryer sang on with a pittiful sound
Oh help me out or I shall be drowned
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

Aye true, quoth she, thy courage is cool’d
Quoth the fryer, I never was so fool’d
I never was served so before
Now take heed, quoth she, thou comes’t here no more
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

Quoth he, for sweet Saint Francis sake
On this Disciple pitty take
Quoth she, Saint Francis never taught
His Schollars to tempt young maids to naught
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

The fryer did entreat her still
That she would help him out of the well
She heard him make much pitteous moan
She helped him out and bid him be gone
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

Quoth he, shall I have my mony again
Which thou from me before-hand hast taken
Good sir, said she, there is no much matter
I’ll make you pay for fouling my water
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly

The fryer went all along the street
Dripping wet like a new washt sheepe
Both old and young commended the maid
That such a witty prank was plaid
Fa la la la la-tre-down-dilly &c


Corpulent Rivals

This snippet is from an account of some of the plumpest men in history, gathered together by a 19th Century author with a splendid sense of humour. The author describes a Mr Daniel Lambert, who died at Stamford on the 21st of July 1809, ‘at the advanced weight of 739 pounds’. In 1806, Lambert exhibited himself in London, and the following is a copy of his advertisment:

Exhibition—Mr Daniel Lambert, of Leicester, the heaviest man that ever lived; who, at the age of thirty-six years, weighs upwards of fifty stone (fourteen pounds to the stone), or eighty-seven stones four pounds, London weight, which is ninety one pounds more than the great Mr Bright weighed. Mr Lambert will see company at his house, No. 53 Piccadilly, next Albany, nearly opposite St James’s Church, from eleven to five o’clock. Tickets of Admission – One Shilling each.

The author goes on to recount how:

Lambert died suddenly. He went to bed well at night, but expired before nine o’clock of the following morning. A country newspaper of the day, aiming at fine writing, observes: ‘Nature had endured all the trespass she could admit; the poor man’s corpulency had constantly increased, until, at the time we have mentioned, the clogged machinery of life stood still, and this prodigy of mammon (sic) was numbered with the dead.  His coffin was 3 feet 6 inches broad at the shoulders, and more than 3 feet in depth. A way was cut through the wall and staircase of his house to let it down into the shop. It was drawn to the church on a low-wheeled carriage, by twelve men; and was let down into the grave by an engine, fixed up on the church for that purpose, amidst a vast concourse of spectators from distant parts of the country.’ After his death, a wager was laid that five men, each twenty-one years of age, could be buttoned in his waistcoat. It was decided at the Black Bull Inn, at Haldon, when not only five, as proposed, but seven men were enclosed in it, without breaking a stitch or straining a button.

To compete with Mr Lambert in the fatty stakes, there is also an account of:

A Mr Palmer, landlord of the Golden Lion Inn at Brompton, in Kent, who was another great man in his way, though not fit to be compared with either Bright or Lambert; weighing but 25 stone, a matter of some 380 pounds less than the great Daniel.  Palmer came to London to see Lambert; yet, though five men could be buttoned in his waistcoat, he looked like a pigmy beside the great Leicestershire man.It is said that the superior grossness of his more corpulent rival in greatness, so affected Palmer as to cause his death. However that may be, he certainly died three weeks after his journey to London. A part of the Golden Lion had to be taken down to allow egress for his coffin, which was drawn to the grave in a timber wagon, as no hearse could be procured either large enough to admit it, or sufficiently strong to bear its weight.

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