Today (August 19) in London History – “the gleeful immorality of the 18th century”

George III was furious at the “immorality” of the London crowd for delaying a hanging. This Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

What’s the world coming to?

Good heavens. Appalling. Shocking. Unforgivable. Why, it beggars belief. Where will it end?

It’s August 19th, 1763. A coachman – Matthew Dodd – is hanged at Tyburn. His crime: he raped a farmer’s daughter. But would you believe, crowds delayed the execution! They delayed an execution. When apprised of what happened the King himself – George III – commented on the immorality of the times.

They had to delay the execution because of the rambunctiousness of the crowd – dear, dear me, we live in fallen times. 

Well, that anecdote is a prelude to the main part of the story. But that word “immorality” in that context is a pretty good fit with the main thrust of the tale. And believe you me, thrust is the mot juste.

Having got Matthew Dodd launched into eternity – and that appallingly badly behaved crowd dispersed – we’re going to head to a drinking establishment and talk about the immorality of the times and, as long as we’re at it, talk about Matthew Dodd’s employer. Ogle her in our mind’s eye.

Her name was Kitty Fisher. She was the most celebrated – and lusted after – courtesan of her time. 

Just a few brushstrokes. 

She was a London lass through and through. Bit exotic from the get-go. Her father was German. A stay-maker. Yes, how perfect is that – the father of the most celebrated courtesan of the 18th century was a corset-maker. Kitty was baptised in St Anne’s Soho. Not only do I want you to think about Kitty Fisher when you’re down that way – I want you to go into that churchyard, sit down on one of their benches and eat your sandwich right there, thinking all the while about Kitty Fisher. And make sure it’s a sandwich.

Anyway, let’s get Kitty on her career trajectory. She’s working in a milliner’s shop. She’s a teenager. A young teenager. She’s a looker about to become a hooker. A very high-class hooker. 

No one knows for sure which slipways she went down to get the Good Ship Kitty Fisher, Courtesan launched. Some say it was Ensign – he’ll later become a Lieutenant General – one Anthony George Martin who broke the bottle of champagne across her. Seduced her. And then deserted her. 

There’s another school of thought that Captain – later Admiral – August Keppel launched her. Still others – I think they’re probably right – say there were too many candidates, too many faces in the crowd to identify the man who did the deed. It doesn’t matter. Was Kitty ruined? 

Anything but. Kitty Fisher was off to the races – and in no time at all, making the running.

By the winter of 1758 – Kitty was 17 years old – was in the public eye. And for the next five years she was referred to as one of the top courtesans in London, if not the most prominent of all. 

She had it all – beauty, a lively sense of humour, a sense of adventure – London was at her feet. 

She was well known for riding through St James’ Park and the Mall. In 1759 she fell from her horse. In no time there was a poem making the rounds that that wasn’t her first fall. Another publication thundered that her luxurious life was enough to debauch half the women in London. 

Ok, four more brushstrokes. Her extravagance, the famous painting –  it was one of many – a couple of faces in the crowd and her end.

Kitty’s extravagance was legendary. It was said that she once ate a £100 banknote. Casanova said its value was 1,000 guineas. £100 would be worth about £20,000 today. Then there was the tale that she blacklisted Prince Edward the Duke of York – said he was never again to be admitted to her house – her house which was in either Carrington Mayfair or Cranbourne Street, Leicester Square – London streets through and through, she’s SO London, Kitty Fisher – anyway, she said Prince Edward the Duke of York should never again be admitted to her house because he’d left a less generous than expected payment of 50 guineas. The Duke of York was of course royal moron who marched 10,000 men up the hill and marched them down again. Well, he didn’t march up Kitty’s hill again. Had his father, George III, found out about Kitty’s avarice I’m sure he would have fulminated against the immorality of this day and age. 

As for the painting… Well, that needs to be plural. The great portraitist Joshua Reynolds himself painted Kitty Fisher four times. But the really famous one is Nathaniel Hone’s portrait of 1765. Kitty is shown sitting beside a bowl full of goldfish, in which a cat is attempting to fish. Needless to say, the scene is a clever pun on her name, her love of gold, and her relationships with men.

And just to single out a few more of those relationships, well, let’s first think about Kitty’s widespread popularity. The members of White’s Club – the most exclusive gentlemen’s club of them all – raised a subscription to fund her extravagance. White’s gave. Arthur’s Club, took. All the members of Arthur’s were said to have enjoyed Kitty’s favours. 

As for individuals, well, back we go to that sandwich in the churchyard of St Anne’s Soho. Yes, you’ve maybe guessed, John Montague the fourth Earl of Sandwich – the inventor of the sandwich – had a tryst with Kitty. And maybe a tuna sandwich afterward to recruit his strength. 

As for Kitty’s end. She finally married. John Norris, the MP for Rye – Rye, where Mary and I honeymooned. MP for Rye and into the bargain the Captain or Governor for Deal castle. Aside here: Deal is a really special place. It definitely should go on your Must Visit list.

And this is good. Reports were soon circulating that the new Mrs Norris was busy reforming her husband’s dissolute habits and shaky finances. 

But alas, Kitty didn’t have long to live. She was said to be ‘in a decline”, apparently from consumption but lead poisoning from the use of cosmetics was also blamed.  As was smallpox.

The Fisher of men died, in Bath, on March 10th, 1767. She was 26 years old. 

And for a Today in London recommendation – I think pay another visit to the V & A. Its Georgian collection. Either off your own bat or on the London Walks V & A tour which runs every Friday morning.  

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.

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