Away with the Showfolk

As I hinted the other day, I am still separated from all my notes for this blog because I recklessly tried to upgrade my laptop to windows 10 and it didn’t like it. I know I had something planned for today, but can’t for the life of me remember what it was.  So I had a look at what Robert Chambers had to say about April 14th, back in 1864, in his ‘Book Of Days’. Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the Stage

Robert tells us that, on this day in 1684, a notice was published suppressing all ballad singers, rope dancers and mountebanks who did not have a licence to perform from the Master of Revels. At that time the Master of Revels was Thomas Killigrew, who I feel certain I’ve mentioned before. A rope dancer, I discovered, is a tightrope walker. Robert has quite a lot to say about mountebanks. I knew the term referred to some sort of scurrilous person, but according to him they seem to have been specifically showmen who travelled about selling fake medical cures. They did not work alone. As well as having accomplices amongst their audience to come forward and be ‘cured’, their shows seem to have included a harlequin, a clown and possibly a brass band. I learned two names for a clown that I’ve never heard before. They are merry-andrew and jack-pudding. The entertainment value of the shows they put on was well worth the sixpence they charged for whatever quack cures they were selling. Sometimes, they practised dentistry. It seems pulling teeth was a spectator sport back in the day. The brass band was to drown out the cries of the patient.

Robert Chambers mentions several people who I’d like to revisit on another occasion, but for now I want to tell you about a character surnamed Russell who seems, among other things, to have claimed some medical knowledge. I don’t know when this person was born, probably some time in the late 1660s or early 1670s and lived in Streatham, London. Russell died in 1772 and was buried on April 14th. Russell is described as an itinerant vagabond and seems to have lived to be at least a hundred years old. You might have noticed that I’m avoiding the use of a gendered pronoun for this person. The reason is that, in life, everyone believed Russell to be a woman called Elizabeth, but after her death she was found to be a man. What little information I’ve found about Elizabeth Russell is very old and uses the word ‘he’ all the way through, but as Ms Russell chose to live as a woman, I’m going to stick with ‘she’.

An examination of church registers reveals that her father, John Russell had two sons: William in 1668 and John in 1672. If Elizabeth was born John, she lived to be 100, if William, she was 104. Elizabeth herself believed that she was 108. In 1770 she acquired a copy of a certificate of baptism belonging to her sister Elizabeth who may have died in infancy or just moved away. Elizabeth Russell seems to have taken up a travelling life with ‘strollers and vagabonds’ and she travelled all over Europe. Sometimes she travelled in the company of another once famous, now forgotten vagabond, Bamfylde Moore Carew. In later life, she settled in Chipstead in Kent, where she kept a large shop. She also travelled the countryside hawking her wears along with a man she said was her husband. In fact, she changed her surname to his and was known as ‘Bet Page’. I have been unable to find out exactly what it was that she sold. Googling ‘Bet Page’ is hopeless, you just end up with loads of gambling websites. But I did find out that she worked with travelling physicians and learned their ways.

She had a good reputation as both a healer and an astrologer. She was also an excellent seamstress who could sew a mean shirt. Elizabeth could have lived comfortably on what she earned, but spent most of it in the alehouse, buying drinks for herself and her friends. It’s pretty amazing that, over two hundred years later, we know anything at all about her, but she really came to attention because she was so very old. She became a frequent visitor to Henry Thrale, the MP for Southwark and it was at his house that she met Samuel Johnson. Doctor Johnson enjoyed talking with her very much. He found her shrewd, sensible and to have an excellent memory, despite her advanced age.

Elizabeth died very suddenly and everyone was astounded when it was discovered that she had been a man. Elizabeth had been a woman for as long as anyone could remember. I’ve no idea what prompted her to live as a woman. Whether it was what she actually wanted or whether it was just a really good disguise, she certainly had everyone fooled. She often used to share the bed of her landlady when a new lodger came along unexpectedly. Tantalisingly she is described as having a: ‘wildness and eccentricity… which seemed to border on insanity’ but no one seems to have gone into any detail about how this manifested itself.


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