Beggars’ Opera

“the Beggars' Opera” and Gay's Chair

It is not my intention to give a detailed biography of John Gay, for such is easily procurable, either in Cox's Life of the poet, or in the Dictionary of National Biography , or, again, in the Life, prefixed to his works, by J. Underhill, 1893. All here proposed is to give a brief sketch, and fill out two points, the story of The Beggars' Opera , and that of the discovery of MSS. in Gay's chair.

The Gays of Goldsworthy were an ancient Devonshire family, tracing back in direct descent from a John Gay, already seated in his warm nest at Goldsworthy, in Parkham, near Bideford, a parish that nursed as well the Giffards of Halsbury and the Risdons of Babley. But if Parkham nursed these families, it did not keep them; Giffards, Risdons, Gays are all gone, and the Gays had sold Goldsworthy before Risdon wrote his Survey between 1605 and 1630. But the Gays still retained the old priory of Frithelstock which they held on a long lease from 1602, and where lived the widow of a Gay in 1822, when Lysons published his “Devonshire” in Magna Britannia .

John Gay was the son of William Gay, fourth son of John Gay of Frithelstock. William had married the daughter of a Dissenting preacher named Hanmer, in Barnstaple, and there John was born on 30 June, 1685. William Gay died when John was but ten years old, and he was brought up by his mother in Ivy Street, Barnstaple, and sent to school to Robert Luck, a would-be poet, who wrote Latin and English verses, in one of which, “The Female Phæton,” he depicted the career and lapse of a fast young lady of fashionable life.

Mr. Gay

Gay was bound apprentice to a London mercer, but, his health failing, he returned to Barnstaple, where he dwelt with his uncle, the Dissenting minister, John Hanmer. The association must have been most unsuitable to both. John “toujours gai ” with a poet's fancy, a buoyant heart, what more incongruous than to be lodged under the roof and nourished at the table of a sour and moody Puritan!

How and when he broke away from this depressing and distressing environment we do not know. All that is known of this early period is to be found in a little work called Gay's Chair , written by his nephew, Joseph Ballard. At the age of twenty-one he wrote his first piece, Rural Sports , which he dedicated to Pope, with whom he became afterwards allied in intimate friendship. In 1712 we find him secretary, or rather domestic steward, to the Duchess of Monmouth, in which station he continued till the beginning of the year 1714, at which time he accompanied the Earl of Clarendon to Hanover, whither that nobleman was dispatched by Queen Anne. In the latter part of the same year, in consequence of the Queen's death, he returned to England, where he lived in the highest estimation and intimacy of friendship with many persons of rank; he became, in fact, the petted lap-dog of fashionable society.

Queen Caroline, then Princess of Wales, was interested in him, and sent to invite him to read his play, The Captives , before her at Leicester House. The day was fixed, and Gay was commanded to attend. He waited some time in a presence chamber, with his manuscript in his hand, but being a modest man, and unequal to the trial into which he was entering, when the door of the drawing-room was thrown open, where the Princess sat with her ladies, he was so much confused and concerned about making the proper obeisance that he did not see a low footstool that happened to be in the way; and, stumbling over it, fell against a large screen, which he upset, and threw the ladies into no small disorder.

In 1726 he dedicated his Fables , by permission, to the Duke of Cumberland. From his countenance, and promises made of preferment, he hoped to have obtained some office in which, without being overworked, he might be well paid, and able to devote himself more at leisure to the Muses. Instead of which, in 1727, he was offered the place of gentleman-usher to one of the youngest princesses; an offer which, as he regarded, it was insulting to make. In a fit of resentment, and in ill-humour with the Court, he wrote The Beggars' Opera  as a satire on the Italian opera, then warmly patronized by the Court.

Swift had observed to Gay what an old, pretty sort of thing a Newgate pastoral would make. Gay was inclined to consider the suggestion, but afterwards, hot in his resentment against the Court, turned the theme into a comedy. He began The Beggars' Opera , and mentioned it to Swift, but the Doctor did not much like the project. As he carried it on, he showed what he had written to him and to Pope, and they now and then gave him a correction or a word or two of advice; but it was wholly of his own writing. When it was done, neither of them thought it would succeed. The play was offered in 1727 to Cibber at Drury Lane, and was by him rejected with contempt. Congreve read it over and said, “It will either take greatly or be damned confoundedly.”

Grammar School, Barnstaple


The play was, however, accepted by Rich, and produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. When brought on the stage on the first night, 29 January, 1727–8, Gay's friends sat in great uncertainty of the event, till they were vastly encouraged by overhearing the Duke of Argyll, who sat in the next box, say: “It will do—it must do! I see it in the eyes of them!” When Polly Peachum sang her pathetic appeal to her parents—

O ponder well, be not severe
To save a wretched wife,
For on the rope that hangs my dear
Depends poor Polly's life,

and this, to the air of “The Babes in the Wood,” familiar to the entire audience from their nurseries, the effect was magical. The audience broke into a roar of applause, and the success of the play was established.

The plot of the piece was thin and poor, but the people were refreshed, and rejoiced to hear again the old familiar notes of English music. There were sixty-nine airs in The Beggars' Opera , and nearly every one was an old English ballad or song air. Gay was not himself a musician, but he had his head full of old ballads and their airs, most, doubtless, picked up about Barnstaple or Bideford, and he set to the tunes words suitable to his characters and the dialogue, and then got a German named Pepusch to note them down for him and write a simple orchestral accompaniment and an overture. The author, according to Mace, got the entire receipts of four nights, amounting in the aggregate to £693 13s. 6d., whereas Rich, the manager, after the piece had been performed thirty-six times, had pocketed nearly £4000. It was well said that this play made Rich gay , and Gay rich .

Lavinia Fenton had been tempted by Rich from the Haymarket to Lincoln's Inn Fields to act the part of Polly in The Beggars' Opera  at a salary of 15s. per week, but owing to the enormous success of the play he raised it to 30s.; and such was the rage of the town respecting her that she was obliged to be guarded home every night by a considerable party of her confidential friends, to prevent her being hurt by the crowd or being run away with. The Duke of Bolton became enamoured of her—took her under his protection, as the euphemism went. The Duke was then in the prime of life, living apart from his wife. “Polly” was not remarkably pretty, but she had a charming manner and a delicious voice. Wharton tells us that he knew her, and could testify to her wit, intelligence, and good manners. “Her conversation,” says he, “was admired by the first characters of the age, particularly the old Lord Bathurst and Lord Grenville.” She and the Duke had several quarrels, and after one very serious explosion he gave her notice to quit the house.

She retired to her room, assumed the costume of Polly Peachum, returned, and presenting herself before him in all the grace and charm with which she had first won him, with tears in her eyes, sang—

Oh, what pain it is to part!
Can I leave thee? Can I leave thee?
Oh, what pain it is to part!
Can thy Polly ever leave thee?

to the air “Gin thou wert mine ain thing,” to which it had been set by Gay.

Touched by the remembrance of the past and by her witchery of manner, the Duke opened his arms, she flew to his heart, and the reconciliation was complete. On the death of the Duchess, the Duke married Lavinia Fenton at Aix in Provence, 21 October, 1751, just one day beyond the month after the death of his wife, who died on 20 September.

The children borne by “Polly” to the Duke before the marriage were three sons, who all assumed the name of Powlett. The Duke died on 26 August, 1754, and was succeeded in the dukedom by his brother. “Polly” Fenton died at West Combe Park, Kent, on 24 January, 1760, at the age of fifty-two.

Assuredly never was a more sudden, complete, and unexpected success achieved than that by the production of The Beggars' Opera . It defied the prevailing taste; it went contrary to all the received canons of art, it was as audacious as a play as it was musically. Hitherto the Opera had been in the hands of Italians. The themes selected for musical setting had been classic and mythological. Then came Gay, taking his subject from the lowest class—gaol-birds; and discarding all intricate and foreign music, set his songs to melodies familiar to all from their cradles.

It was said of the deserted stalls and boxes at the Italian Opera whilst Gay's piece held the town, that he had made of the Italian the veritable Beggars' Opera.

Sir Robert Walpole was frequently the subject of Gay's satire. Nevertheless he attended the first performance, and sat in one of the stage lounges. When Lockit sang—

When you censure the age,
Be cautious and sage,
Lest the courtiers offended should be.
If you mention vice  or bribe ,
'Tis so pat to all the tribe,
That each cries—That was levelled at me!

Sir Robert observing that all eyes turned upon him at these lines, parried the thrust by leading the applause. After an uninterrupted run in London of sixty-three nights, and emptying the Italian Opera House, the play spread into all the great towns of England, and was played in many places thirty or forty times—in Bath and Bristol fifty times. It made its progress into Wales, where it contributed some of its airs to national Welsh melody, to Scotland and Ireland; and last of all it was performed in Minorca.

Nor was its fame confined to the reading and representation alone, for the card-table and the drawing-room shared with the theatre and the closet in this respect; the ladies carried about the favourite songs engraven on their fans, and screens were decorated with scenes from the play.

Hogarth's painting representing the first scene on the boards, with noble dukes and earls on fauteuils upon the stage, is well known. His portrait of Polly Fenton is in the National Gallery.

The Beggars' Opera  was revived by Messrs. Gatti at Covent Garden in the season 1878–9. On this occasion wrote Punch : “The house was literally crammed from floor to ceiling by an audience whose enthusiastic temperature increased in a graduated thermometrical scale, the over-boiling point being reached at the back row of the upper gallery; and this on a night when, in the stalls and boxes, wrappers, furs, mantles, and ulsters were de rigueur  on account of the rigour of the cold.... Let those who do not believe in a comic tenor see Sims Reeves as Captain Macheath, and they will discover what magic there is even in a refrain of ‘tol-de-lol, lol-de-rol, loddy,' when given by a tenor who is not impressed by the absurd traditional notion that he is nothing if not sentimental. His acting of the celebrated song ‘How happy could I be with either' is full of humour, and his change of manner from ‘tol-de-rol' in a tender tone, when addressed to the gentle, confiding Polly, to the ‘tol-de-rol' with a true Cockney chick-a-leary twang when addressed to the vulgar Lucy Lockit, is a clever idea, most artistically carried out; and then his dance up the stage while singing, giving his last note good and true to the end in spite of his unaccustomed exertion, as with a jump he seats himself in a natural devil-may-care style upon the table, was followed by an encore  so momentous that even he, the anti-encorist , was fain to comply with the enthusiastic demand; so he repeated the two verses, the dance, and the jump with as much freshness and vigour as though he had not already sung six songs—snatches, more or less, it is true—and had got ten more to follow.”

As a man, Gay was amiable and winning in manner. He had a foible—indolence. Nevertheless he had saved several thousand pounds at the time of his death, which occurred in the house of the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, in Burlington Gardens, in December, 1732, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

And now, having done with the man, we come to his chair.

Rather over eighty years after the death of Gay some unpublished poems of his were found in an old arm-chair which had belonged to the poet, and after his death had been retained, with other relics, by the surviving members of his family. The history was fully narrated immediately after the discovery in a little book, called Gay's Chair , along with the life of the poet and a selection of the poems discovered; some were too broad in humour for publication.

It appears that at a sale in 1818 of the effects of a man called Clarke, who had kept an old-clothes and curiosity shop in Barnstaple, an antique chair was disposed of. It is described as of mahogany, with the seat, back, and arms stuffed, and covered with brown leather and studded with brass nails. There was a long drawer under the seat, and two other drawers were fixed on pivots so as to turn back under the arms, and were fitted for writing materials, with a brass candlestick attached to each and a wooden leaf for reading or writing. It was knocked down for a few shillings, and being rather dilapidated, was sent to Mr. Crook, cabinet-maker, to be repaired. Whilst doing this he found that the drawer under the seat did not extend the full depth of the seat, and that when this drawer was taken out it disclosed another behind it. This concealed drawer was crammed with MSS. and paper. These were submitted to inspection, and found to consist of some unpublished poems, together with a variety of other documents and accounts.

This discovery caused much local sensation at the time. It was ascertained that the chair had been purchased some years previously at the sale of the effects of Mrs. Williams, a descendant of Catherine, the poet's sister, who had married Anthony Baller. She had come in for Gay's furniture as next-of-kin, and it was then considered as proved beyond all reasonable doubt that it had been Gay's property. Mr. Henry Lee edited the poems, and they were published in 1820, with a frontispiece representing the chair. Mr. Chanter says:—“Now all this seems like a clever fiction introductory to a book, and indeed the idea of finding papers in a concealed drawer or cabinet has been used so often as to become threadbare. I have therefore taken pains to verify the story, gaining further details from Mr. Crook himself, who is still living, and, fiction-like as it appears, it is strictly and literally true.”[19]

[19]“The Early Poetry of Devonshire” in the Transactions  of the Devonshire Association for 1874.

Grammar School, Barnstaple



Under the arms of the Chair are drawers, with the necessary implements for writing; each drawer turns on a pivot, and has attached to it a brass candlestick. The wooden leaf for reading or writing upon, may be raised or depressed, or entirely let down, at the student's pleasure. Under the seat is a drawer for books or paper, and behind it is the concealed drawer , in which were found the manuscripts; it is curiously fastened by a small bolt, not perceivable till the larger drawer is removed. The Chair is made of very fine grained, dark coloured mahogany; the seat, back, and arms stuffed, and covered with brown leather, ornamented with brass nails; the whole, considering its antiquity, in pretty good repair, and admirably constructed for meditative ease and literary application.

One of the poems found in the chair is “The Ladies' Petition to the House of Commons,” the suffragettes of the day. It is founded on the old ballad of “Nice Young Maidens.”

Here's a pretty set of us
Nice young maidens.
Here's a pretty set of us
All for husbands at a loss
But we cannot tarry thus,
Nice young maidens.

There is a Scottish version of the same, “Puir auld Maidens,” borrowed from England.

Gay wrote:—

Sirs:—We, the maids of Exon-City,
The maids—good lack! the more's the pity!
We humbly offer this petition
To represent our sad condition.
Which, once made known, our hope and trust is
Your honoured House will do us justice.
First you shall hear—but can't you guess?—
The reason of our sad distress.
A maiden was designed by nature
A weakly and imperfect creature,
So liable to err and stray,
She wants a guide, requires a stay:
And then, so timorous of sprites,
She dreads to be alone at nights.
Say what she will, do what she can,
Her heart still gravitates to man.

As Mr. Chanter has pointed out, Gay has scarcely received due credit for the number of proverbial couplets and sayings which have entwined themselves in our daily language; for instance:—

When a lady's in the case
You know all other things give place.
Those who in quarrels interpose,
Must often wipe a bloody nose.
Can Love be controll'd by advice?
While there's Life there's Hope.
If the heart of a man is depressed with cares,
The mist is dispelled when a woman appears.

The epitaph which Gay wrote for himself is a fit conclusion:—

Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once, but now—I know it.