Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

W. T. Moncrieff Gipsy Jack, or, The Napoleon of humble life c.1834

The Third Division of this entertainment is headed The Beggars Bush, Finchley 1818 and opens in “The smoking parlour of the Beggars’ Bush Public House, the ancient residence of the Beggars Kings” and is followed by a mock battle in the Skittle Ground of the pub between gypsies mounted on “basket horses”.

There is no record of a Beggars Bush pub in Finchley, though one may have existed. There were at least two in London. It is a mocking scenario, and echoing the literary usage of foolishness. Another scenes is set in The Horns tap, where the landlord & landlady are Mr & Mrs Swearall.

Gipsy Jack was one of many entertainments written by W. T. Moncrieff of whom E. B. Watson wrote that from the 1820s until the 1840s he was “the most persistent cultivator of roguery for the boards”. Gipsy Jack seems to date from the period when he was lessee of New City Theatre, Milton Street between 1833 and 1835, along with his Vampire and The Lear of Private Life. The 1850 edition says it was written to mock a play on the life of Napoleon about 3 years previously. The New Monthly Magazine records that as a “splendid farrago of meretricious buffoonery” staged at Drury Lane in 1831, including a claim that the hat worn by the leading actor had actually been worn by Napoleon.

Gipsy Jack

Watsons says “In an amusing extravaganza entitled ”Gipsy Jack, or the Napoleon of Humble Life” Moncrieff burlesqued Napoleon’s career and an earlier dramatic representation of it. This travesty shows Gipsy Jack as a brigand on a smaller scale, born of a drab in a Blackheath ditch, and the hero of Fives’ Court. He undertakes the siege of Norwood Common, from which the Gypsies have been driven, effects the daring passage of Highgate Hill, is crowned emperor of the Gypsies at South Mimms, attacks the Finchley beggars, ravages Hendon and Barnet, carrying off no end of poultry and linen, fights the constables at Battle Bridge, surrenders at Hampstead Heath, and after incarceration at Newgate, is transported, but escapes by feigning death.“

Moncrieff was familiar both with debt, and with the original rogue literature. The play features beggars called Harman, which refers back to Thomas Harman, and Carew, who must have been intended to reference Bampfylde Moore Carew. Moncrieff’s play The Beggar of Cripplegate contains Cock Lorrell as “Prince of Patricos, Chancellor of the Cadgers, and Lord High Commissioner of all the jarkmen, rufflers, and uprightmen”.

William Moncrieff (1794–1857)

William Moncrieff was born William Thomas Thomas in London, the son of a tradesman. He started work aged 10 in a solicitor’s office and as a law stationer but started to write songs, criticism for The Satirist and The Scourge.

He wrote his first play aged 16. His plays were put on at the Olympic, Astley’s, the Adelphi and Coburg theatres. Even before his career ended he estimated he had written 200 plays or which no more than 70 had been published. For a period he was paid a weekly salary of £10 to supply any piece the Drury Lane theatre required. His Cataract of the Ganges was an afterpiece featuring a waterfall and raging fires, and Zoroaster had a diorama advertised as 482 feet long. He described himself as a hack, but he was a good one; Tom and Jerry, a dramatization of a novel, ran for 300 nights. He was able to write quickly to exploit popular interest, such as The Shipwreck of the Medusa when Géricault’s painting was being exhibited in London. He completed a dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby before Charles Dickens had finished writing the novel.

By 1842 he had become blind and when he applied to the Literary Fund for assistance claimed that “the cold gloom of poverty is added to the darkness that half shuts out life”. In 1850 his final Dramatic Feuilletons, a series of theatrical reminiscences, appeared in the Sunday Times. This may have prompted the printing of the later edition of the play. Moncrieff became a brother of the Charterhouse in Aldersgate Street but later described its austere rules as not “in unison with the liberal spirit of the age.”

Further Reading

W. T. Moncrieff , Gipsy Jack, Cumberland’s Minor Theatre, no. 73, London, J. Cumberland, 1835 ?

W. T. Moncrieff , Gipsy Jack, The Music Publishing Company, London, 1850 ? (from a performing edition with cast, stage directions and costumes notes)

John Russell Stephens, ‘Moncrieff, William Gibbs Thomas (1794–1857)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

E. B. Watson, Sheridan to Robertson: a study of the nineteenth-century London stage (1926)

Posted: April 20th, 2012 | Filed under: Writers | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

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