Today (December 8) in London History – the first English actress

The first woman known to perform on the English stage was Margaret Hughes. The date was December 8th, 1660. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s like being a jazz musician, this pastime. Go ahead, call me the John Coltrane of Today in London History gigs.

And by that I mean, you’re in this driver’s seat – or on this stage – you improvise.

You head off in one direction – every intention of seeing it through to the end – and what do you know, something comes up, something floats by that’s too good to let get away. So you do a handbrake turn and before you know it, you’ve got a completely different podcast, you’re rolling out a completely different piece of London history. London’s like that. That’s really the essence of London, the appeal of London. The place is so stimulating. So, yes, you’re going to see under the bonnet with this one. You’re going to see how it works.

 Our starting point, as always, is the date. Today’s date. It’s December 8th. And the line I was going to take – revving up the engines, this – the line I was going to take was that today, December 8th, 1868 was another first for London. And not just for London – for the world. 

The first ever traffic light. It was a semaphore system. It was installed at Parliament Square. And I had a pretty good connection to make. I’d learned a few weeks ago that back then the lower end of Whitehall – the Parliament Square end – was the busiest street in London. Which is why it was the widest street in London. The width of the street is mute testimony to that. So that had some appeal, at the very least it was a good piece of London trivia real estate. But then Margaret Hughes pitched up. And who’s going to deny Margaret Hughes. And not just because she was a great beauty. No, Margaret Hughes took over my podcast because – well, not because she was the first professional actress on the English stage, as good as that is – no, Margaret Hughes grabbed the limelight because it was on this day, December 8th, when she became the first woman known to perform on the English stage. The date was December 8th, 1660. You go, girl. Hats off to you. And you’re going to like this a lot: her role was Desdemona in Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Othello. The production was mounted by Thomas Killigrew’s new King’s Company at their Vere Street Theatre.

King’s Company, well, that’s a cue. King Charles II was the difference maker, the decider, to use the ghastly George Bush Jr’s ghastly phrase. His Majesty always had an eye for comely female flesh. It wasn’t for nothing that his contemporaries called him Old Rowley. the nickname won’t make any sense to you until I tell you that Old Rowley was the principal stallion in the royal mews and the king was named after him. Endless mistresses of course. Royal bastards stretching as far as the eye could see. Well, you get the idea. Anyway, during his long exile in France his Majesty developed a taste for – indeed, a hearty appetite – for the theatre. And of course the French weren’t nearly as squeamish as the English. The English had boys or young men playing the women’s roles. As far as the French were concerned, that was Les Anglaises gone more usually mad. Mon Dieu, they have men playing the women’s parts? Are they out of their minds? They’re a very strange lot, the English.  Anyway, so Charles takes to the theatre – and the pretty young things – the pouting mademoiselles – he sees on the French stage. So come the Restoration, his Majesty is back in England – and, yes, he puts his foot down. If the French can have actresses so can we. There was one other factor. Charles’ decision was reinforced by concerns that men dressed as women and camping around as females – well, that that might encourage “unnatural vice.” I.E. homosexuality. So in 1662 Charles II locked the innovation down by issuing a royal warrant declaring that all female roles should be played only by actresses.

Now let’s get back to our actress, Margaret Hughes. She was 30 when she played Desdemona. And she was a looker. If in any doubt take a look at Peter Lely’s portrait. She couldn’t be more fetching, more come hither, not least with that left breast exposed the way it is. Samuel Pepys the diarist was also a connoisseur of female flesh. Pepys said she was “a mighty pretty woman – a great beauty, with dark ringletted hair, a fine figure and particularly good legs.”

The clincher for me, though, was when I found out Margaret was an item, for a time, with that fop Sir Charles Sedley. Though she is also said to have shared her favours with the other Charles – the big Charles – Charles II. My all-time favourite Restoration tale is a Charles Sedley tale. He’s 21 years old. The Restoration has just happened. In the words of his biographer, young Sedley took enthusiastically to the pleasures of the court and town. He was hanging with another aristocratic rapscallion – Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, later the sixth Earl of Dorset. For the record he was also a favourite drinking companion of Charles II himself. Anyway, one night in June of 1663 Charles Sedley, Charles Sackville and Sir Thomas Ogle provoked a riot in Covent Garden. They got roaring drunk at The Cock Tavern in Bow Street. Went up onto the balcony. Some of the good folk of London took exception to their drunken antics. Needless to say, these three young aristocrats felt nothing but contempt for ordinary Londoners. And they proceeded to show their contempt. In the words of the court document, Sedley confessed to “showing himself naked on a balcony.” I think we can safely assume Sir Charles Sedley mooned the hoi polloi down below. And then he went one further. In the words of the court document, he “threw down bottles (pissed in) among the people.” Basically he pissed on the populace. Second-hand accounts spoke of quote-unquote “further enormities”. 

He was hauled before a court, briefly imprisoned and heavily fined. But there you’ve got a crystallisation of aristocratic privilege and their infinite sense of superiority, at least for those times. They were the Restoration England version of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford to which a couple of our recent prime ministers belonged. And disported themselves irresponsibly and unbecomingly. If you haven’t heard of the Bullingdon Club and what Boris Johnson and David Cameron got up to there in the way of sowing their upper-class oats, well, you’ve got an education ahead of you.

And, well, you can what happened to my podcast. First English actress. Playing a great Shakespearean role. And in her spare time shagging his majesty and Sir Charles Sedley, who in his spare time was pissing on the populace, well, how do you stay on at Parliament Square to see a traffic light in when you’ve got those sirens calling to you, come over here, David, it’s a lot more fun over here. Charles is naked up on the balcony, he’s urinating in a bottle and is about to anoint the lower orders and they’re not best pleased.   

And on that note, a Today in London recommendation.

Another London Christmas gem. Go ice skating at Somerset House. Everything about it is magic. It’s St Petersburg on Thames. It’s lit beautifully. There’s a lot of camaraderie. And if you don’t want to skate, well, you can watch. And snap away.

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. See ya tomorrow.

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