London was agog. Gathering at what is now the Theatre Royal in Haymarket on the evening of 16th January, 1749, the city’s inhabitants were ready to experience a most amazing spectacle as a man would not only play a “common walking cane” as if it were any instrument but, apparently shrinking himself, step inside a common, ordinary sized wine bottle placed upon a table.

Spurred on by newspaper advertisements promising a night of “surprising things” (which also included the promise of the performer taking on the likeness of any person, living or dead), it was with great expectation that the crowd, which included the Duke of Cumberland, settled into their seats in the theatre, having willingly paid at least two shillings (and some substantially more) for the privilege of being present.

When the time came for the curtain to rise and nothing happened, there were no doubt some who thought it merely a tactic of the performer to build suspense. But the crowd was getting restless and soon after began booing and stamping their feet in their annoyance.

One of the theatre’s staff then appeared on stage to inform them the performer had not arrived and that all entrance fees would repaid  – his comments were apparently answered by a wit who claimed they would pay double if the magician could enter a pint bottle instead of a quart bottle. Further catcalls followed and before long someone apparently threw a candle, setting the stage curtains on fire. Panic broke out among those in the theatre as people sought to escape but for some rage took over as they realised that they had been the victims of a hoax.

The theatre was destroyed as people tore up the seats and smashed the scenery, carting what they could out into Haymarket where it was burnt in a bonfire. The theatre manager called out the guards but the rioting was largely over by the time they arrived. There were apparently no casualties, apart from the theatre itself, although the Duke of Cumberland did, it was said, lose a jewelled sword.

Apparently a bizarre hoax, attention quickly turned to who was behind it. It was commonly believed that it had been the 2nd Duke of Montagu, a notorious practical joker, who had placed the advertisement in order to win a bet that he could fill a theatre by promising something impossible such as a man being able to step inside a bottle. Yet to this day, the identity of the hoaxer remains something of a mystery and the case went on to be cited in reference to the gullibility of the London populace.

PICTURE: Kbthompson at English Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

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Montagu-HouseThe first home of the British Museum, Montagu House was originally built on what is now the site of the museum in Great Russell Street for courtier and diplomat Ralph Montagu, the 1st Duke of Montagu (among other titles), in the late 1670s.

The Bloomsbury property, which was designed by Robert Hooke and had both French and Dutch influences, had a central block and two service blocks built around a courtyard and featured murals by the Italian artist Antonio Verrio and wall paintings by Frenchman Jacques Rousseau.

In 1686, only a few years after it was completed, the house was gutted in a fire. But the duke had it rebuilt to the designs of French architect Pierre Pouget. It featured a prominent Mansard roof, had interiors created by French artists and formal, much admired, French-inspired gardens (see picture).

In the early 1700s, the 2nd Duke, John Montagu, relocated to the then more fashionable district of Whitehall where he constructed a more modest residence which was later replaced with a mansion.

In 1754, the now neglected Montagu House in Bloomsbury was sold to the trustees of the British Museum and both the gardens and house were restored. The museum, which was officially founded by an Act of Parliament in 1753, opened to the public in the property on 15th January, 1759, with free entry to “all studious and curious persons” (the gardens had opened two years earlier).

The collection was initially based on that of physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (see our earlier post here), who has bequeathed the 71,000 objects he had collected to King George II (in return for a payment of £20,000 for his heirs).

Montagu House remained the museum’s home until it was replaced by the current museum building, designed by Sir Robert Smirke, which was completed in 1850s.

PICTURE: Wikipedia/James Simon c 1715