Arthur William À Beckett.

The à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons online

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impaired his editorship of his paper, for on May 31,
1834, he addresses the " readers of Figaro all over
the world," and tells them that during the last few
weeks circumstances had arisen to absorb so much
of his time and attention that he had occasionally
neglected his duty to his first and best friends,
the readers of that periodical. He says that the



neglect had not affected in the slightest degree the
sale of the paper. He wonders that it had not
occurred, for he merited it. Then he explains an
excess of other and various occupations has dis-
tracted him too much from his work, which has
often gone forth to the world full of imperfections,
and very late in publication. All this is to be
amended in the future. My father brought his
apology to a conclusion as follows — " The editor
hopes that the present number may not be taken
as a specimen of the intended reform which will
commence next week, and in the meantime he
claims the indulgence of his readers, which by the
bye is asking lenity at the hands of the whole
country." It is interesting to note the sympathy
existing between the editor and the public. My
father takes his readers into his confidence in
return for some very outspoken criticism, and here
again is an excuse for the quarrel with Seymour.
After praising up the artist as he praised all his
friends, Seymour turned round and complained of
his impertinence. It was not unnatural that my
father should have felt scornful annoyance.

It has been said that the easiest road to ruin is
by the copyright of a paper or the lease of a theatre,
My father was interested in the Fitzroy and editor
of Figaro in London, and ultimately was forced to
sever his connection with both. But now he was
writing, at express train speed, plays for what were
known as the minor theatres. Amongst the rest
he became stock author of the Royal Coburg,
built by Joseph Glossop. The lessee of this



property was the younger son of a Derbyshire lad
of good family, who had made his fortune in
London from a very limited capital as a commence-
ment. All Joseph's brothers without exception
were clergymen. The Derbyshire lad, the founder
of the family (so far as London was concerned)
was desirous to see all his sons parsons. But one
of them, Joseph, refused to take orders. He was
a friend of George IV, and Adjutant and Clerk
of the Cheque of the Body Guard, and later on
acted as King's Messenger. I never met him,
because he died before my time. But from all
accounts he seems to have been what is now
known as a " good sort," with the additional dis-
advantage of being " no one's enemy but his own."
He was keen about theatres, and induced his
father the millionaire to help him to build the
Royal Coburg. The title was selected in compli-
ment to the Court. It was opened in state by a
member of the Royal Family. Mr. Glossop was
very anxious to make a good start, and provided
what was called a looking-glass curtain. His
original idea was to have the mirror made of one
continuous sheet of glass, but of course this turned
out to be impossible, so the screen was composed
of squares, with frames in between. At its best
the curtain looked " patchy," but when it was
handled by the scene-shifters it was further adorned
by the impress of dirty fingers. The eventful night
arrived, and the glass, which had been largely
advertised, was seen for the first time. The front
of the house was faithfully reproduced, and caused



a roar of laughter. What with the panes and the
dirty linger-niarks, and a rather plebeian gallery,
the picture was distinctly comical. When the
merriment had subsided one of the gods cried out,
" Well, that is pretty ; now show us something
else." And then came a second roar of laughter.
The Royal Coburg was the original of the Victoria
Theatre, once famous for its blood-and-thunder
dramas. It still exists close to the Waterloo
terminus of the London and South Western Rail-
way. Joseph Glossop had married the daughter
of Count de Feron, who was a French emigre whose
father had been guillotined in the Place de la
Republique — afterwards and at present the Place
de la Concorde — during the Revolution. The
emigre had entered the British Amiy as a Surgeon,
knowing something about medicine. He was in
the 13th Light Dragoons, and changed his regiment
so as never to fight his countrymen on the Calais
side of the English Channel. His daughter, who
subsequently became Mrs. Joseph Glossop, had a
most lovely voice, and was a born musician.
Miss Mary Anne Glossop, who inherited her
mother's gifts, met my father at her father's house,
and soon after (January 21, 1835) became Mrs.
Gilbert Abbott a Beckett. My grandmother knew
all musical London, and it was through her intro-
duction that my father met Henry Braham, who
was then building the Royal St. James' Theatre.
He became a great friend of the famous tenor,
and was appointed stock author; in that capacity
he translated two or three of Auber's operas, and



wrote original farces by the dozen. But Braham,
before falling back upon the foreigner, thought he
would give native talent a chance. Would my
mother write an opera for him ? My father
answered without hesitation in the affirmative,
and furnished the book. So it came to pass that
the Royal St. James' Theatre commenced its for-
tunes in King Street with an opera called " Agnes
Sorrel," written by my father and composed by
my mother. It was proposed at the time that
the lady should conduct in the orchestra the
initial performance. But my dear mother, who
was devoted to my father — she put him in a posi-
tion to get called to the Bar without any assistance
from Grandfather a Beckett — drew the line at an
appearance in public. She did not mind singing
for a charity if need be, but she had no taste for
waving the baton on the audience side of the
footlights. I am afraid " the first opera written
by a lady " was not a complete success, so Braham
soon had something else. There still hang on the
walls of the St. James' Theatre some old play bills
showing that "The Postilion de Lonjumeaux" and
"The Ambassadress" were produced there in the
thirties. The librettos were provided by my
father. At this time he was on the best of terms
with Charles Dickens, and it was through my
father's introduction " The Village Coquettes "
was produced at the Theatre Royal, St. James'.
And yet another link in the chain that bound my
father to Punch. " The King Incog " was pub-
lished by John Miller of Henrietta Street, Co vent



Garden, and described in 1834 as Agent to the
Dramatic Authors' Society. The first secretary
to that Society (of which I myself became a
member some eight-and-thirty years later) was
Stirling Coyne. So here wc have, in close con-
nexion with my father, Henry Mayhew and Stirling
Coyne, both of whom signed the original deed
creating Punch. I may have something more to
say about the Dramatic Authors' Society, to which
all the earlier literary members of the Punch staff
belonged, but it is sufficient for my purpose at the
present to show how close was the connexion
between those who signed the original deed of
creation, and even contributed to the initial
number, so early as 1834. My father was close
friends with Coyne, Henry Mayhew, Douglas
Jerrold, Mark Lemon, and Percival Leigh. The
two latter were medical students, who were friends
of my uncle, Arthur Martin a Beckett, the doctor
of the family. So the nucleus of the Punch staff
were ready for employment some half-dozen years
before the paper was started. The signal had
only to be given to commence. That signal, I
contend, was given by the ultimate decease of
Figaro in London in 1839. There was a short
interval, then the staff-in-waiting were collected,
and out came the first number of Punchy or the
London Charivari.

Besides the opera of " Agnes Sorrel," my father
wrote the libretto of, and my mother composed
the music for, " Little Red Riding Hood," pro-
duced in the Surrey Theatre on Monday, August 12,



1842. It is interesting to note this date, as it
shows my father was keeping in touch with the
world of the theatre, associating with Douglas
Jerrold from December, 1835 (the date of the
production of " Agnes Sorrel " at the St. James*
Theatre), until 1842, a year after the first appear-
ance of Punch. Reading all my father's notices
of Douglas Jerrold's pieces, I find nothing but
praise, which negatives the suggestion that there
was any ill-feeling existing between them caused
by conflicting interests as newspaper proprietors.
I write this as I have seen it stated that some of
the early journals started in opposition to Figaro
were edited by Douglas Jerrold. Be this as it
may, those papers had disappeared before my
father had resigned his editorship at the end of
1834. Later on, just before the final stage of
Figaro in London, he was called in again to edit it.
Although the paper still boasted of its upright-
ness, it had changed its character to a theatrical
journal and little more. It had increased its size
from four pages to eight, still retaining its original
price of one penny. Its address to its subscribers
on the occasion of the enlargement ran as follows —

Figaro in London will as usual possess the same portion
of satire, or " folly as it flies " ; a larger portion will be devoted
to theatrical critiques and intelligence throughout the country
on a novel plan. A powerful article on any crying evil of
the day — not an attack on private persons or property, for
the purposes of extortion or such vile purposes, but the legiti-
mate object of an honest journal — removal of the abuse for
the benefit of the subscribers to Figaro in London. This
journal J although it has created a sensation by the sharpness



of its satire, never has debased itself by an attack on individuals
for the purpose of blasting their character, or the infamous
object of enforcing blood money for its silence : its object has
been, as it always should be, pungently to portray the vices,
improprieties and cant of the times, by fair and honest attack.
The subject reprobated, the victim to the sharpness of the
razor — not the individual.

These were brave words, but glancing through
the eight volumes representing as many years I
cannot gainsay them. It seems to me, with some
knowledge as a journalist, that the first idea was
to resuscitate Figaro in London, and then, as there
was no vitality in it, to let it die and start another
periodical. Henry Mayhew, Stirling Coyne, and
Last were all interested in Figaro in London, and
started Punch. My father was quite ready to help
with his pen, but preferred to keep his purse
unopened. He was in 1841 a young married man,
not yet turned thirty, with three children — two
boys and a girl. The elder boy and the daughter
were both old enough for school bills. So my
father, I consider, was wise to accept no pecuniary
liability in the new venture, although quite pre-
pared to give to it his best services with the pen.
Thus it came that my father's signature did not
appear to the original deed which Mr. Spielmann
has produced in his book in fac simile. It is very
probable that the original idea was to see if any-
thing could be done to revive Figaro in London.
But, as I have suggested, it was too late, and it
was considered better to commence an entirely
new journal. It is a painful labour to look through
the last volume of this paper which began so well,



and with the prospect of such a successful future.
First, the proprietors declare that the number will
be composed of entirely new matter. They give
themselves the lie direct in the next issue by lifting
columns and columns of matter that had already
appeared in a previous number. Then the type is
made larger, no doubt to save expense. Later on
the few advertisements have their position altered.
From the back page they are put in special position
in the inside sheet next matter, to the experienced
eye a proof that the canvasser has had to offer
great attractions to secure a repeat. Then a
sheet of ** Places of Entertainment," with just here
and there programmes given (no doubt for a
suitable consideration), are represented only by
a tariff of prices, which certainly could not have
been sanctioned as " money's worth " by the
acting manager. At length, on August 17, 1839,
it came to an abrupt conclusion. It contained an
advertisement repeated from the last issue, an-
nouncing something " next Saturday." The
editor had not taken the trouble to alter it. To
this volume there was no preface, and the date of
its natural determination had been forgotten. It
had every sign of decay and demoralization. So
ended Figaro in London, after a career of eight
years and eight months.

During the interval between the time of my
father's connexion with the early satirical papers
and his reappearance in the initial number of
Punch he was keeping his hand in by writing
topical burlesques. In the days of Figaro in



London I have shown that he suggested a weekly
cartoon to Seymour, with disastrous results, when
that eccentric artist repudaited his assistance.
Wlien Robert Cruikshank took up Seymour's work
my father schemed the cartoon for him. So his
experience was valuable to Punch on its appear-
ance. I have gone into the matter rather fully
because my friend Mr. Spielmann observes in
his excellent work the History of Punch : — '* It
has been worth while for the first time, and it is
to be hoped the last, to collect and compare the
various versions of the foundation of Punch and
ascertain the facts as far as possible." Then he
says — " Although Henry Mayhew was not the
actual initiator of Punch, it was unquestionably
he to whom the whole credit belongs of having
developed Randall's specific idea of a * Charivari '
and of its conception in the form it took. Though
not the absolute author of its existence, he was
certainly the author of its literary and artistic
being, and to that degree, as he was wont to claim,
he was its founder." Unfortunately, Mr. Spiel-
mann did not give me an opportunity of offering
the evidence I have now prepared. My father
edited and founded Figaro in London. I say that
Punch, or the London Charivari was on the lines
of Figaro. I claim for my father, Gilbert Abbott a
Beckett, the merit of having helped to found


chapter II

Yes, my first glimpse of the master who
half hid his identity under the name of Michael
Angelo Titmarsh and other nommesde guerre, was
obtained at a round table. Not the famous
" mahogany tree " in Bouverie Street on which
he carved his monogram side by side with the
initials of his old friend " a Beckett the beak "
and " that excellent magistrate's " two sons,
"G. a B." and ''A. W. a B.," but at No. lo, Hyde
Park Gate South, when Kensington was without
the postal '' W."

I was a child in those distant days. I was en
route for '* Dominie " Birch (by the way, did this
suggest the title to one of Thackeray's Christmas
books ?) who lived in Scarsdale Villas giving the
western boundary to the playground of Kensing-
ton Grammar School (three laps to the mile), now
the site of the High Street, Kensington, Station
on the Metropolitan Railway. Opposite our
house was the studio of Cope, the Royal Academi-
cian, next door to Redgrave. Our immediate
neighbour at No. 9 was Cook, also R.A., the marine



painter, who called his place the Ferns and de-
nounced the side of our mansion as an eyesore.
" I tell you what I will do," said he to my father,
" I will paint Mount Blanc on the stucco."
" Much better make it Vesuvius in eruption,"
replied the beak, " then you will be able to account
for the smoke from the chimneys."

And I believed for some time that No. ii be-
longed to Thackeray himself. The reason for
my belief. Our parents were away on the Conti-
nent, and the control of affairs was in the hands
of my eldest brother (" third election " at West-
minster) and a sister a year older. We behaved
very badly. We turned our small garden (after-
wards to be converted into a studio by Corbould,
the drawing master of his present Majesty) into
a military camp, and besieged No. ii with pea
shooters. It was in the days of the Crimean
War, when England, France, Turkey, and Sar-
dinia were attempting to take Scbastopol. No. ii
— he later on became head of B.N.C., Oxford —
said he would write to his landlord. My elder
brother informed the reverend gentleman (who
objected to the rattle of peas when he was com-
posing his sermons) that it was no use complaining
to Mr. Thackeray, as he was a great friend of our
father. But recently my friend Mr. Henry Silver
has told me that No. ii belonged to his uncle, the
Rev. Mr. Watson, the aforesaid head.

The occasion of a great dinner was the enter-
taining of my father's most intimate friends and
colleagues from the " Bouverie Street mahogany



tree/' and a few of the beloved " outsiders." One
of the latter was Balfe the composer. He was a
jovial, amusing Irishman. He played the accom-
paniment to my mother's songs, " Ne'er think
that I'll forget thee," and '' Dear Italy " (words
by G. A. a B.), when she subsequently sang them
in the drawing room.

As I have said, facing lo, Hyde Park Gate South,
was the studio of Cope the R.A. Coming home
from school with his son Charley I used to know
when the late Prince Consort was there by the
horses walking up and down the street, which was
only about three hundred to four hundred yards
in length, and ended in a cul de sac. East of us
were fields, now occupied by Queen's Gate. On
the site of the Imperial Institute I remember a
country fair. I was carried to it by my nurse
somewhere about the earliest of the fifties, and
remember the gingerbreads. The whole suburb
was intensely literary and artistic. South Ken-
sington was still Brompton with a slip then called
Kensington New Town — due north of the last

Thackeray must have been living in Kensington
at the time of " The Great Dinner." The earliest
arrival was Horace Mayhew, brother of Henry,
author of London Labour and the London Poory
and one of my father's schoolfellows at West-
minster. He was immensely fond of children,
and was promptly captured by the olive bran-
ches and taken to the pantry to see the dessert.
" We don't have this sort of thing every night,



Mr. Mayhew," explained one of my brothers,
" and those are our best decanters." I was re-
turning, I fancy, from that visit to see the special
dessert in the pantry with " Ponny " Mayhew
when I came face to face with William Makepeace
Thackeray. Ellerman, our man — on state occa-
sions he was our butler, when we had auxiliary
assistance from the ushers of my father's court
at Southwark — was helping him to unwrap.
Wlien Ellerman had divested Mr. Thackeray of his
coat, and left him revealed in the rather elaborate
evening dress of the period, I have a recollection
of silver white hair, gleaming glasses, and a fine
mouth. He exchanged kindly greetings with his
colleague " Ponny," did this tall, prosperous-
looking gentleman. Then he peered at me, patted
me on the head, put his finger and thumb in the
pocket of his waistcoat (I fancy it was of velvet),
and gave me a shilling. Then we exchanged
smiles, and I knew intuitively that he loved chil-
dren. For the remainder of the evening I held
him in less fear than the rest of the company.

There were very pleasant gatherings in Bou-
verie Street round the " Mahogany Tree." As
my father scarcely ever was away from the Wed-
nesday feast, week after week, month after month,
and year after year, and I was continually with
him as a child, I learned (and remembered)
a good deal that happened in the famous dining-
room. Douglas Jerrold represented the extreme
left, and Thackeray the most pronounced right.
Mark Lemon — the best of editors — was neutral,



with a tendency to Radicalism. My father, espe-
cially after he had been appointed a Metropolitan
Police Magistrate, was also neutral, with a ten-
dency to follow the policy of the Times. He had
been on the staff of that paper as a leader-writer
for many years, and was a fast friend of the
Walters and the Ingrams. Douglas Jerrold used
to say that the paper to which he contributed the
Caudle Lectures set its watch by the clock of the

The " Mahogany Tree " had a magnetic attrac-
tion for those invited to the hospitable board.
My father took a large part of his annual holiday
at Boulogne, so as to be able to get back to town
to the Wednesday council. True, " the across-
the-Channel suburb of Folkestone " was very
popular with the Bouverie Street Brotherhood.
Dickens loved Boulogne, and was much honoured
by the inhabitants. " Look at the way they treat
him ! " exclaimed an envious writer. " He is
met on the quay by the Mayor, and conducted to
a banquet. When / go to Boulogne they don't
let off fireworks in my honour ! " " No," replied
my father, " for when you go to Boulogne, you
take good care that no one shall learn your ad-
dress ! " (Boulogne in those days was the sanc-
tuary for those avoiding imprisonment for debt.)

My first meeting with Douglas Jerrold was at
Boulogne, I repeat in the year of my father's
death. I remember the little gentleman with the
leonine head and the bright blue eyes talking and
laughing with my father on the sands in front of

65 E


the old Etablisment, a low-roofed building, the
site of which is now occupied by a palatial casino.
I was duly presented to the author of Black-eyed
Susan, who graciously pinched my cheek, and, to
the delight of my mother, approved of my Sunday-
go-to-meeting hat and feathers. Later on I
heard my father say that he was very glad to have
met Douglas " away from the Table," as they
were not always quite as friendly as he would
wish to be in Bouvcrie Street, " a Beckett the
Beak," as Thackeray called him, supported his
neighbour in Kensington, and " W. M. T." and
" D. J." belonged to opposite camps. But large-
hearted Jerrold bore my father no malice. The
obituary half-page that was printed in the paper
they both served so well it will be seen furnished
the copy for the tombstone in Highgate Cemetery.

And this reference to Douglas Jerrold and Thack-
eray in Bouverie Street brings me to the reason
why the latter ceased to write ior Punch. Thack-
eray was a patriot, and took the keenest interest
in the politics of the hour. Dicky Doyle left
Bouverie Street on account of the attack upon the
spiritual powers of the Papacy. Thackeray ceased
to write because he objected to the treatment
of Louis Napoleon, subsequently Napoleon HI,
Emperor of the French.

The Table was never deserted by Thackeray,
but he ceased to be a contributor. He may have
wished still to have a voice in the composition of
the cartoon. The first bone of contention was the
appearance of "A Beggar on Horseback," in



which Louis Napoleon, in rags and tatters, was
represented with gory sword riding over dead
bodies to power. Then came a number of cartoons
attacking the Prince President right and left.
The climax was reached when the Emperor
visited this country. Thackeray and my father
strongly recommended a heroic cartoon, showing
Britannia grasping hands with France. They
both believed that the best interests of the Em-
pire would be served by a firm alliance with our
neighbours across the Channel . The opposition were
in favour of the same line of chaff that had been
the tradition of the paper since the appearance
of " A Beggar on Horseback." Thackeray had
shown in his History of the Next Revolution that
he was willing to admire the new Emperor, so he
resented the attack from two points of view — the
personal and the politic. There was, as customary,
a compromise. Instead of Britannia and France
grasping hands appeared Louis Napoleon in
Rotten Row attire simply ringing the visitors' bell
of Buckingham Palace. A sentry was presenting
arms, and the cartoon was labelled " Who would
Have Thought It ? " But in spite of the com-
promise, the author of the Book of Snobs wrote no

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Online LibraryArthur William À BeckettThe à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons → online text (page 4 of 21)