Today (April 17) in London History – “she died laughing”

Poor Mrs Fitzherbert. She went for a fun night out on the town with some friends (on April 17th, 1782). Went to the theatre, to the Beggar’s Opera. Something tickled her fancy. She burst out laughing. She couldn’t stop laughing. 36 hours later she died laughing. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


Poor Mrs. Fitzherbert. She laughed herself to death. 

It’s like a police line-up, these Today in London History candidates. 

You round up the usual suspects. Well, I round them up.

And then I review them. Like a General reviewing a line of troops.

And depending on the look of them and how I’m feeling I pick one out. And he, she, it ends up as the grist for today’s Today in London History Mill.

In our line-up today – April 17th – well, at the far end, 1397, we’ve got Geoffrey Chaucer reading The Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of King Richard II. If I didn’t have such.a pronounced streak of the mischief-maker in me, that’s the one that probably would have got tapped. It didn’t, though – the mischief-maker in me, my fondness for the bizarre and flaky and eccentric – got home, made the running, so I went for poor Mrs. Fitzherbert laughing herself to death.

The other candidates were pretty stern and rock-bound – I just didn’t like I could face them. We had more than enough bombs yesterday – more than enough in the last week or two. Didn’t need a further helping of that today.

But just to run you through the candidates, on April 17th, 1999 the 23-year-old right-wing extremist David Copeland planted a nail bomb near a market in Brixton. It exploded. 50 people were injured. 23-years-old he was. What can you say? Well, you can start I suppose by taking on board the fact that the human brain isn’t fully developed until people are 25 or 26 years old. I used to have fun at home with that fact of human development and physiology. Teasing my kids. Asking them, “what’s it like having an 80 per cent developed brain?” It always got me punched. Which is, if you think about it, a pretty good way of answering that fatherly question.

Moving on down the line, on April 17th, 1969, Bernadette Devlin – she was 22 – won the seat of Mid-Ulster and became the youngest female MP. I hadn’t thought about her in, well, decades. Extraordinary to think she’s now 75. The tricks time plays. The antics it gets up to. How can Bernadette Devlin possibly be 75 years old.  There’s a poem about this of course. A. E. Houseman’s To An Athlete Dying Young. Look it up. It’s worth getting to know. It’s the counterpoint to the shock of Bernadette Devlin being an old lady. Ploughs that same furrow – that perception – that Princess Diana will always be in the bloom of youth. 

Another candidate: WPC – Woman Police Constable – Yvonne Fletcher being shot dead outside the Libyan Embassy in St James’s Square. That happened on April 17th, 1984. We covered it of course. Those were in my journalist days. It was the one and only time my walking tour career and my television news editor career interacted. They sent me down there because the police had sealed off the square and they thought – rightly as it turned out – that I might be able to find us a camera position that wasn’t off-limits. And indeed somebody in the square to interview.

Finally, two years later – April 17th, 1986. My journalist colleague John McCarthy was kidnapped in Beirut. On his way to the airport. Trying to get out of there. Spent the next five years of his life – this was a young man in his 20s – chained to a radiator in a shit-hole – excuse the French – in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Horrible, horrible. That wasn’t London. But it’s a sharp memory because I was the overnight Editor a couple of nights earlier. The night the Yanks bombed Tripoli. I woke John up. Told him what had happened. Said “the Arab street is going to be up in arms – we need to get some coverage.” So I was one of the last people in our office to speak to John. 

Anyway, enough personal reminiscence.

Let’s find out about Mrs. Fitzherbert.

First of all, who was she? The Gentleman’s Magazine described her as “the relict of a Northamptonshire clergyman.” Love that word ‘relict’. It’s of course completely archaic now. Means ‘widow’.  But as is so often the case, it’s fun to look at word origins. The word ‘relict’ is cognate with the word ‘relinquish’. The prefix ‘re’ means ‘back’ and the main part of the word, ‘linquere’ means to leave. So a relict – a widow – is one who is left, one who remains. She who is left behind.

Anyway, yes, Mrs Fitzherbert was the relict of a Northamptonshire clergyman. She and some friends had come to the Big Smoke – come to London for entertainment. They’d gone to Theatre Royal Drury Lane to see the transvestite Beggar’s Opera, in which the popular actor Charles Bannister played Polly Peachum. Now look, Polly Peachum, the character, is of course a very fetching, very pretty young woman. Charles Bannister was of course in drag. But even in voluminous skirts and a wig and a very feminine hat and holding a fan, Polly Peachum he wasn’t. 

He was lantern-jawed. Five o’clock shadowed. Double-chinned. Broad-shouldered. Deep-voiced. Hirsute hands. You get the idea. You’re male and you go to a pub to pull and that young lady – that vision of female loveliness – sets her cap at you you sprint for the door. And keep on going once you’ve got over the wall.

Anyway, when Charles Bannister’s Polly made her entrance the audience fell about. Including Mrs Fitzherbert. Gales. Howls of laughter. The whole audience in fits of laughter. Tears in their eyes, stitches in their sides.

Eventually, the subsided and the play continued. Except it didn’t stop with Mrs Fitzherbert. She couldn’t stop laughing. She had to leave before the end of the second act. 

Getting up and getting out of there didn’t do the trick. She roared with laughter all the way back to Northamptonshire. She couldn’t stop the hysterics. Kept on laughing. All through the next day. April 18th. And on into April 19th. 

Whereupon she died. Died of laughter. Died of laughing. It’s rare but apparently it does happen from time to time. It’s usually a heart attack. Maybe not a bad way to go though.

Here’s how the Gentleman’s Magazine put it, “Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until the morning of April 19th when she expired.”

There’s a neat connection here. A great London connection. Dr Johnson was a contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine. Its Editorial offices were in a very special building – a building that’s still there – I show it to people when I guide Shakespeare’s & Dickens’ London. There are few if any buildings in London that have richer literary associations. It’s not just the Gentleman’s Magazine and the thought of Dr Johnson pitching up there when he first came to London – the building’s also got stunning Shakespeare associations. He will have known it, he will have gone there. Anyway, 1782, Dr Johnson was still alive. I expect he – like pretty much everybody else in London – will have known about poor Mrs Fitzherbert laughing herself to death.

And you know the Johnsonian London sentiment that chimes with – in all probability it’s the most famous utterance ever about London – Dr Johnson’s pronouncement, “Sir, When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” And because I sometimes flatter myself that I’m sort of one – and because it absolutely sums up my feeling about the subject – I also very much like the way Dr Johnson leads into his pronouncement. Here’s what he says: “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.”

Amen, Dr Johnson. And Amen to:

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Never truer words were spoken.

And that’s why my choice for today’s Today in London History subject isn’t in fact barefaced triviality and whimsicality. The tale illumines a fundamental truth about Londoners, about their character. Which is this: Londoners are almost impossible to impress. Why is that? Because they’ve seen it all, that’s why. “There is in London all that life can afford.”

Now one of the attractions that life can afford is a visit to Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square. Just off Fleet Street. I recommend it. And, yes, you’re right – it’s what turning the flap up on the Today in London Yule Calendar has disclosed. It’s my London tip, my London recommendation for this podcast.

And on that note, look who’s here: Monsieur Signoff Time. Sorry to say he’s not wearing a voluminous frock and a dainty little feminine hat, nor is he fluttering his eyelashes at you over a fan.

He’s more or less clean-shaven, he’s wearing a polo top and a pair of jeans and he’s getting ready to head to Kensington to do his Thursday afternoon Kensington Walk.

Monsieur Signoff is of course me, David.

And here’s that signoff, that London Walks salutation. You’ve been listening to the daily London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning company. London Walks – the premier walking tour company in the entire as they so kindly put it a few years ago at that American convention of walking tour guides.

Our credo is: it all comes down to the guiding. Which is why, with London Walks, uniquely you 

walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London

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All the best, Toodlepip and all the rest from London. See ya tomorrow.

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