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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This curiously named street in the heart of London’s St James district traces the origins of its moniker back to the 17th century when the game of “pall mall” (“pell mell” and “paille maille” being among a host of alternative spellings) was played there.

The game, mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary, involves the use of a mallet and ball similar to that used in modern croquet but, according to some commentators, pall mall was more likely a predecessor of golf than croquet, with players attempting to belt the ball as far as possible along a pitch before putting the ball through a hoop suspended high off the ground.

Pall Mall, which runs parallel to The Mall from St James’ Street in the west to Haymarket in the east with an eastern extension, Pall Mall East, completing the journey from Haymarket into the northern end of Trafalgar Square, became famous in the 19th and early 20th centuries for housing numerous ‘gentlemen’s clubs’. Among those still in business are the Travellers Club, the Athaenaeum Club, the Reform Club, the Army and Navy Club, the Oxford and Cambridge Club, and the Royal Automobile Club.

St James’s Palace sits at the street’s western end and it is of note that nearly all of the southern side of the street is still part of the Crown Estate (the exception being a home Charles II is believed to have given to the actress Nell Gwynne, who apparently sensibly demanded the freehold on the property).

Other buildings along the street include Schomberg House, built for the Duke of Schomberg in the late 17th century (only the facade of which remains), and the Sir Christopher Wren-designed Marlborough House, which is tucked in between Pall Mall and The Mall and sits opposite St James’s Palace. The National Gallery and the Royal Academy also both briefly had homes in Pall Mall.