02 26 william kitchinerToday I want to tell you about William Kitchiner. He is one of those people who’s date of birth is lost in the mists of time, but it was probably some time in the 1770s. I do know that he attended his last party on this day in 1827. It always feels a bit odd to be commemorating a person’s death on this blog, rather than their birth, unless they were completely awful. But I can tell you that he’d had a really lovely evening with his friends.

William Kitchiner was the son of a coal-merchant who left him a large fortune, maybe £60,000 or £70,000. So he could do pretty much what he wanted with his life. He liked music, he was very fond of telescopes, but the things that he really enjoyed most were cooking, sharing his food with friends and writing about it. He wrote a book called ‘The Cook’s Oracle’, in 1822, which was a best seller in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Most of the six hundred or so recipes in his book had been prepared by him personally. He cooked them and he did the washing-up afterwards. He also tested them out at a weekly club he called his ‘Committee of Taste’ at his home in Warren Street, Camden. His book contains not only recipes but general tips on household management: how to preserve foods, look after your pans properly and where to buy the best nutmeg graters. He was also considered rather an eccentric man, particularly in respect to time-keeping.

William’s invitations were highly prized but you needed to be punctual. He had dinner at five and supper at half past nine. Arrive late and you would probably find you were locked out. His reasoning was that, whilst it was okay for people to be hungry for a little while if the meal wasn’t quite ready, once the dinner was prepared it could easily be ruined if it was not served immediately. He even suggested that families should synchronise all their clocks and watches to make sure this did not happen. If you tried to stay too late, you would suddenly find yourself out on the street at 11pm with your hat and coat. Fail to respond to his invitation within twenty four hours and he would assume that you weren’t coming. Fail to come up with what he considered to be a proper excuse and he would think you were very rude and probably wouldn’t invite you back. He seems to have had only three acceptable excuses: being detained by the law, visiting the doctor or being dead. Interestingly, being dead did not excuse the host from providing the promised meal. In that case, he would have a stand in host in the form of either a friend or his executor. William took his food very seriously.

Manners were terribly important to him, in his book he says: “Good manners have often made the fortunes of many, who have nothing else to recommend them: Ill manners have often marred the hopes of those who have everything else to advance them.” which is very sound advice. As long as you observed his time-keeping rules, behaved well and ate what you were given, it sounds like a fun evening. He was always careful, when introducing his guests to one another, to point out what it was that they had in common and to sit like-minded people together. We read that, on at least one occasion, he greeted his guests by playing a chorus of ‘Hail the Conquering Hero’ on the piano whilst playing the kettle drums with his feet.

He wasn’t particularly bothered about whether his chosen guests were considered respectable and he didn’t much care what people thought of him, so long as they didn’t find him rude. He lived with a woman who wasn’t his wife and they had a son who they had sent to Charterhouse, which in case you don’t know is a very posh school indeed. He was no snob, as we mentioned, he had inherited his fortune from his father, who had begun life carrying coal on the London Docks and he is described as ‘splendidly indifferent to social disgrace’ which is lovely. He invited Mary Shelley at a time when most people thought she was a dreadful embarrassing mess. He also invited Theodore Hook, who was renowned for his practical jokes but had been arrested for debt. My post about him has been the most popular by far, so if your bored today and haven’t read it, you might want to check out ‘The Berners Street Hoax‘.

02 26 griffin and mock turtleMany of his recipes are of his own invention. He had a particular fondness for gravies, sauces and condiments in general. He had a box of 28 condiments, all numbered and ordered, that he kept in his kitchen and that could also be put on the table for people to help themselves. he called it his ‘Magazine of Taste’. He had a smaller version that he used to take with him to dinner parties. One of his concoctions, Wow-Wow Sauce, has gained some notoriety, not because it’s nice, but because it appears in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Disc World’ novels. His book seems once to have contained a recipe for turtle soup which we couldn’t find as it has been omitted in later editions because it was so difficult and expensive to prepare. Instead he tells us he has used the space for more condiment recipes. There is however a recipe for ‘mock’ turtle soup which, if you’ve looked at your ‘Alice in Wonderland’ properly, you’ll know is made from the head of a calf. In case you can’t be bothered with all that he also includes a recipe for ‘mock’ mock turtle soup.

02 26 condiments

I wasn’t very impressed with his ideas for cooking vegetables. He tells us that carrots will take between 1½ and 2½ hours to cook. For cucumber, he suggests frying it and then boiling it. If you wanted a salad, he recommends a book by someone else entirely. There is definitely one of his vegetable recipes that you will have tried though. He invented potato crisps.

As well as his famous cookery book he also wrote about how to choose the right opera glasses in a book called ‘The Economy of the Eyes’. He also wrote books titled: ‘The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life’, which you should probably ignore because he died at about the age of fifty-one. Also, in its sixth edition, it was published with an extra section ‘The Pleasure of Making a Will.’


The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur

02 21 robert coatesToday I want to tell you about Robert Coates. I don’t know when his birthday was, but I do know that he died on this day in 1848, after being run over by a Hansom cab outside the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane at the age of seventy-five. Robert was the son and heir of a sugar planter and was born in Antigua some time in 1772. Robert was a most flamboyant amateur actor. He was also a terrible actor, and it made him famous.

Robert was educated in England and became enamoured of amateur dramatics after he returned to Antigua in the West Indies. In 1807, after his father died, he inherited the estate and a huge collection of diamonds, which he also loved. He returned to England and settled in Bath, where he lived as a ‘gentleman of fashion’. By 1809, he was acting at the Royal Theatre, Bath, though it seems no one paid him to do so. He particularly loved Shakespeare and made his debut as Romeo. He designed the costume himself. It consisted of a flowing sky blue cloak with sequins, red pantaloons, a muslin shirt worn with a huge cravat, a long wig that Charles II would have been proud of and white hat with ostrich plumes. He also wore diamonds. Lots and lots of diamonds. What’s more, he had had his costume made rather too small, which made him move awkwardly and also the pantaloons split part way through the performance. But it wasn’t just his costume that was comical. He also forgot his lines, ad-libbed, stopped in the middle of the balcony scene to take snuff, and then offer it to the audience and at the end, he tried to open Juliet’s tomb with a crowbar.

This title role was his favourite, it was one he would revisit often. It led to him being given the nickname ‘Romeo Coates’ His performances were always sell-outs. People went to see him just to see if he was bad as everyone said. He was not above repeating his favourite scenes during a play. As Romeo, he might die three or four times. On one occasion he caused a lot of hilarity when he took out a handkerchief to dust down the stage and arrange his hat as a pillow before he lay down to die. The laughter, the abuse, the cat calls that accompanied his performances often drowned out his actual words. It’s hard to say whether he actually knew he was bad and just didn’t care or whether he was doing it all on purpose.

He certainly bore the abuse he received in good humour. Even when he received an invitation to a ball given by the Prince Regent. He dressed in his finest clothes and presented himself at Carlton House, only to find that the invitation had been a forgery and he had to go away again. The Prince felt terrible about it when he heard and really felt that Robert ought to have been let in anyway because everyone would have enjoyed his company. In fact, he felt so bad that he invited Robert to come along afterwards and have a look at the decorations which were still up. Robert was delighted and said that he would love to see the preparations that had been made for the honoured guests, of whom he had almost been one. The forger turned out to be Theodore Hook, who we mentioned several weeks ago as the perpetrator of the Berners Street Hoax. The joke fell rather flat in this case and probably even Theodore thought he’d been quite mean, because he was always quite apologetic when ever it was mentioned.

After moving to London, he soon became a well recognised figure. Particularly as he used to go about in furs, whatever the weather. But it was really the carriage he had made for himself that truly made him stand out. No one else had anything quite like it. It is described as shaped like a scallop shell and ‘a beautiful, rich lake colour’ which I can only assume means crimson lake, a dark pinkish red. It had his own heraldic device on the side, a crowing cockerel, with the motto ‘While I live, I’ll crow’. It also had at least one silver plated crowing cockerel on it. It was drawn by two white horses.

Of course, he ac02 21 the gay lotharioted in London. He appeared frequently at the Haymarket Theatre. He usually appeared as part of a benefit performance. For this he earned, or perhaps gave himself, his preferred nickname ‘The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur’. The manager knew he would be guaranteed a full house when Romeo Coates was on the bill. In fact, they would often have to turn people away. At one of his performances, several audience members had to be treated for ‘excessive laughter’. People who had to act with him had a difficult time, because they had to work round what ever he happened to do. Once, when his Romeo was about to die a third time, Juliet had to put an end to it by stepping up and saying. “dying is such sweet sorrow, that he will die again until tomorrow.” His tour of the provinces proved equally popular, as were the impersonations given of him by comedians. Sadly, his popularity declined and he was forced to retire from acting, in public at least, around 1816.

He married, moved to France for a time and then back to London. On February 15, 1848 he was leaving the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane when he realised he had forgotten his opera glasses, which he had borrowed from a friend. He stepped down from his carriage to fetch them and was hit by a speeding Hansom cab. Rather than stop, the driver ran right over him and sped away. He was never caught. Robert died six days later from his injuries.

crest of robert coates

Someone at the Door

11 27 berners street hoaxToday I am celebrating the anniversary of the Berners Street Hoax. It all started when a young man called Theodore Hook bet his friend one guinea that he could, within a week, turn any house in London into the most talked about address in the whole city. Whether he picked a house at random, or had some particular grudge against the lady who lived at 54 Berners Street isn’t clear. But here is how events unfolded on November 27th 1810:

At five o’clock in the morning, a chimney sweep arrived. The maid, who answered the door, told him that no one in the house had arranged to have the chimneys swept and sent him away. Almost immediately, another sweep arrived, then another, then another. Soon there were twelve chimney sweeps outside number 54. As soon as they had been sent away, wagons of coal began to arrive, blocking the whole road. They were followed by several cooks, at least one of whom had a massive wedding cake. Doctors, lawyers and priests arrived, having been informed that someone in the house was dying. An undertaker turned up with a made-to-measure coffin. Tailors arrived in Berners Street, so did boot makers, artists, furniture makers and upholsterers. A dozen coach and horses tried to pull up outside the house, so did several drays bearing barrels of beer. The street was so full of people that no one could get near the house. Still, more tradesmen were arriving, There were forty fishmongers with cod and lobster, forty butchers with legs of mutton and at least twelve pianos were being delivered.

It wasn’t just the tradespeople either, the spectacle had attracted quite a crowd. They found it hilarious. The people who had arrived expecting to ply their various trades were less amused. Poor Mrs Tottenham, who lived at 54 Berners Street was verging on insanity. Then, the Lord Mayor of London arrived. He had received a letter, as he thought, from Mrs Tottenham saying that she had been summoned to appear before him, but she was ill, and would he do her the great favour of visiting her at home. When he saw the crowds, his coach was turned around and he went straight to Marlborough Street Police Office to tell them what was going on. Officers were dispatched to restore order to Berners Street, but at first it was impossible. It was chaos. The sight that greeted them was six large men struggling with an organ, surrounded by wine porters, barbers with wigs, dressmakers and opticians. The street was still heaving at four in the afternoon. Then, at around five o’clock the servants started to arrive. They all had letters of commendation and were expecting to gain employment.

Among the more noteworthy of Mrs Tottenham’s visitors that day were the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chairman of the East India Company. They had both received letters alluding to the fact that the lady had knowledge of fraud that was being perpetrated, accompanied by a suggestion that they visit number 54. The Duke of Gloucester received an invitation to visit a dying woman who had once been a confidential attendant of his mother. No doubt all three of them had some skeleton in their closet that they did not want revealed and they hastened to the address.

11 27 theodore hookWhat Theodore Hook had done, along with perhaps two accomplices, was to write to around a thousand different tradesmen, professionals and noteworthy people asking them to attend 54 Berners Street on November 27th at a specific time. Then, he and his friends that sat all day in a house across the road and watched the drama unfold. Although he never publicly admitted to being responsible, everyone knew it was him. Afterwards he was suddenly, and conveniently, taken ill for a couple of weeks, then took off on a convalescent tour of the country. By the time he returned, the fuss had died down a bit and he was never charged with anything for the trouble he caused.