Daniel Mendoza in Dublin

My wife's illustrious forebear, Daniel Mendoza, champion boxer, Light of Israel, author of The Art of Boxing as well as a splendid memoir, spent time in Dublin under the showman's eye of the equally illustrious Philip Astley, the inventor of the circus.

Daniel Mendoza was already a star in England before his final fight with Richard Humphreys at Doncaster on 29 September 1790, but his victory there produced a burst of invitations from every corner of the Kingdom.

He went first to Edinburgh and then to Dublin, where he had been engaged to perform exhibition bouts with his brother at Astley’s Dublin amphitheatre, known also as the Equestrian Theatre Royal, in Peter Street.

Dublin was – and indeed remains – a great Georgian city. Its inhabitants were proud of it. Handel’s Messiah had its premiere there in 1742. Jonathan Swift had been Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral at the time. Congreve and Goldsmith were natives. And Dubliners were proud. Mendoza was challenged to a duel merely for suggesting that large as Dublin was, it perhaps wasn’t as large as London. It was a serious challenge. Pistols were produced. Mendoza dealt with the affair in a characteristically straightforward manner. Having been invited to meet his adversary at a nearby hotel, he “requested to examine the pistols… and having obtained them, immediately drew their contents and threw away the flints, and once more offered to settle the affair amicably.” To no avail, however, and Mendoza was forced to punish his adversary’s conduct (scurrilous and insulting language had been used – a very unwise course of action in the hearing of the supersensitive Londoner) by giving him “a severe caning” in the public room of the hotel.

Nonetheless, Dublin was indeed a fair city, and it was certainly grand enough a place for one of Philip Astley’s amphitheatres.

Philip Astley is an important figure in the history of the theatrical, for he is generally acknowledged as being the inventor of - although his protégé Charles Hughes actually coined the term - the circus.

Astley had joined the army as a boy and distinguished himself as a cavalry trooper. He rose to the rank of Sergeant Major and was presented to George III. It is said that at his discharge his commanding officer gifted him a white stallion.

Astley set up a riding school in Lambeth on the south bank of the Thames, including an equestrian show, in which he did his own tricks. His wife, Patty Jones, was also an accomplished rider and often stood in for her husband. The space in which these tricks were accomplished was circular, thereby increasing the centrifugal force on the horses and their riders and affording greater stability.∗ One equestrian act called le grand saut du Trampolin featured ‘The Great Devil’ (an acrobatic rider by the name of James Lawrence) somersaulting over twelve horses. Another turn was that of clown Billy Buttons (played by Astley himself), a character that survived for over a hundred years. Even now the name evokes ghost-like memories of clowns jumping on and off horses. Year by year the equestrian tricks were augmented by other spots and acts, by non-equestrian clowns and acrobats, by, say, French horn players, or the novel act of a performer named Carr, who stood on his head in the centre of a globe, and ascended thirty feet “turning round in a most surprising manner, like a boy's top”. Nor should we forget the ‘Grimacer’ from Paris or indeed Toby the Sapient Pig. Eventually a stage was added to the ring, and Astley brought in actors to put on short sketches, often illustrative of current news items. It was this bringing together of diverse entertainments within one performance space, one ring, that made what Astley offered unique.

Philip Astley was tall and handsome and brave and he was to prove a canny businessmen. By his death he had established no less than eighteen amphitheatres around the British Isles and Europe. In October 1783 he opened in Paris, in the rue Faubourg-du-Temple, under the patronage of Marie Antoinette. Philip’s son John, who danced on horseback, had captivated her. John eventually married Hannah Waldo Smith, the niece of the author of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith. Whether the great economist ever attended a circus performance or what he thought of it if he did has not been recorded.

The Dublin amphitheatre had been established in Peter Street in 1789, as Mendoza entered his period of greatest fame, and as the French commenced their revolution, an event first dramatized for the London stage at Astley’s amphitheatre, and to have repercussions for his Dublin theatre.

Mendoza reports that he was “recognised much sooner” in Dublin than he had expected. On entering town he was accosted by “an honest Hibernian who, after fixing his eyes very steadfastly on me, exclaimed in a loud tone of voice, - “Ah! By Jasus, master Mendoza, to be sure I am very glad to see your honour safe arrived in Ireland; pray let an old servant carry your portmanteau for you.” It turned out that the old man had been engaged as a porter at the Finish Coffee House in Covent Garden and had often seen Mendoza there.

The old man was not the only Irish frequenter of the notorious coffee house. It was “open very early in the morning, and therefore resorted to by debauchees shut out of every other house” ; “a vulgar, noisy place enough; but stamped with undying gentility by the patronage of his late Royal Highness the Prince of Wales”. And one evening “In a peaceable gutter in front of the ‘Finish,’ Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Esq., M.P., lay down overtaken in foreign wines, and told the guardian of the night that his name was Wilberforce. A wild place, that ‘Finish’”. Sheridan of course was another native Dubliner, whose family had left for London following a riot at the Smock Alley theatre, of which Sheridan’s father had been manager. As for Wilberforce, he was a deeply committed Christian and as likely to be found in such a “peaceable” gutter as trading for slaves on the quay at Bristol.

The Finish was on the south side of Covent Garden, and while frequented by the Prince Regent, literary Members of Parliament and champion boxers, it was also the bolt hole of the “’gentlemen of the road’ [who] used to divide their spoil in the grey dawn of the morning, when it was time for the night birds to fly to their roost” . It illustrates well the fluidity of the class system in late eighteenth century London. As indeed does the ‘Boximania’ of the day that made a superstar of Mendoza. And maybe revolution could not break out in such a society, a society in which footpads and princes shared tavern tables and sporting enthusiasms.

Ireland was different however. Ireland contained a definitely oppressed majority in the form of Irish Catholics. In Dublin the protestant ascendancy was badly slipping, and it had become a Catholic city once more. (So far as the Jews were concerned, by 1791 the population had decreased to such an extent that the synagogue was closed). Irish Dissenters similarly felt the weight of the English presence in Ireland and the two groups came together in October of 1791, some months after Mendoza had left the island, as ‘The Society of United Irishmen’. Their aim was to abolish all religious distinctions, unite all Irishmen against the unjust influence of England, and to secure proper representation in a national parliament. Obviously, the influence of the American and French revolutions was prevailing. The leader of the United Irishmen, Wolfe Tone, a lawyer from County Kildare, was greatly influenced by the latter. Like so many young and idealistic men and women in the United Kingdom, he saw the French revolution as "the dawn of a new and perfect age".

The Peter Street Amphitheatre was a staunchly loyalist establishment (in 1793, at the age of 50, Astley re-enlisted to fight the French) and anti-French scenes were re-enacted, often to the dislike of an audience broadly sympathetic to the revolution (although it ought not to be forgotten that almost everyone was delighted to see the fall of the French monarchy). Barracking rising the to the pitch of riot was common.

Mendoza reports that he himself was a tremendous success.

“I had the satisfaction of experiencing the most flattering reception during the whole of my engagement.” Rioting only broke out when he did not perform:

My engagement with Mr Astley was for a certain number of nights … but he afterwards changed his mind, and wished a benefit for his son to take place, on which occasion some new entertainments were to be brought forward… and he therefore intimated to me his intention of dispensing with my performance for that night.

This new arrangement, however, was not approved of by the public… indeed, such was the uproar and tumult that prevailed in the amphitheatre that his Grace the Duke of Leinster, who was present, came behind the scenes and desired I might be permitted to appear on the stage and go through the usual performance, declaring at the same time, he was fully convinced that otherwise the house would be demolished.

The man who had stepped backstage was William Robert Fitzgerald, second duke of Leinster, Ireland’s premier peer . He wasn’t someone with whom you argued, even if you were Philip Astley. At the time of Mendoza’s engagement he was recently out of government, having declared himself in favour of parliamentary reform and opposed to the war with revolutionary France. His brother was leading United Irishman Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

Leinster lived in a palace built by his father in the 1740s. It was grand enough to become the eventual seat of the Irish republic’s government, and is said to have been the model for The White House in Washington DC. He appears to have been a frequenter of Astley’s, certainly while Mendoza was there, for following the near riot of the benefit night, he was witness to a more or less amicable spat between the boxer and the ur-Barnum:

Mr Astley seemed to imagine, like many other stout and athletic men, that the utmost art in boxing would not avail against superior strength, and would frequently express himself of this opinion. One evening, upon the duke of Leinster’s entering our dressing room, he addressed his Grace in the following curious manner: ‘I can assure your Grace, my house is not like a red cabbage, but like a variegated one; here now is horsemanship, dancing, and pugilism; all different, all variegated; here is Mendoza, the famous pugilist, whom I have brought down at a prodigious expense, he is received every night with great applause, and brings a great deal of money to the house, but Lord! What could he do against a man like myself, why he would never be able to strike a blow’. I happened to be present during these observations, and proposed to have a trial with him as we sat, to which he consented, and we accordingly drew our chairs near to each other, and set to, but I soon convinced Mr Astley that he was mistaken, for notwithstanding his superior length of arm I contrived to knock him off his chair in the course of five minutes: as he lay sprawling on the ground he exclaimed, ‘Ah, Dan, this is too bad, did you do this for the purpose, aye, for the purpose, Dan?,’ upon which I assured him if I had hurt him it was not intentionally; and having assisted him to rise, we shook hands, but he never afterwards proposed to renew the contest.

Despite or perhaps because of his popularity Mendoza was continually menaced while in Dublin, receiving threats by letter and imprecations in the street. He took to walking back to his lodgings in disguise because he was “frequently laid wait for”. Whether he was despised as a Jew or distrusted as an Englishman or simply regarded as fair game, being a fighter, it is impossible to say, but he was certainly unimpressed by “the ferocious conduct of the lower orders of the Irish”.∗ However, he was anxious not to be thought of as “casting illiberal reflections on the Irish in general” and in fact took the opportunity in his Memoirs to gratefully acknowledge his “generous reception… from numerous persons of all ranks”.

Another measure of his success was that (again by his own reckoning) he was a bigger draw than Mrs Billington, who was playing at the Smock Alley theatre. The Smock Alley theatre had opened in 1662, and was until the appearance of Astley’s the principal theatrical venue of the city.

Elizabeth (“Betsy”) Billington was a serious star of the stage. She had been a child prodigy, playing piano at a concert in the Haymarket in 1774 at the age of nine, and, before her twelfth birthday, composing two sets of keyboard sonatas. However stressful this might have been, it was surely a relief from a childhood dogged by suggestions of illegitimacy and of incest, and the stark reality of rape. In August 1777, aged twelve, she accused and had convicted of rape her own godfather, violinist James Agus.

She married her teacher James Billington in 1783 and the couple went straight to Dublin where she commenced her operatic career as the principal in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. By 1786 The Times could report that “Mrs Billington is already established in the opinion of the public, as the first rate English singer, and taking her in comparison with Madam Mara, an ear, not exquisitely nice, would find it difficult to discover where the superiority lay, either in point of natural ability, or improved taste.” She went on to shine in Italy whither she went after the publication of scurrilous although possibly true revelations about her love life. Leigh Hunt thought her “a fat beauty” with “more brilliancy of execution than depth of feeling” .

Her presence in Dublin at the same time as Daniel Mendoza was due to a falling out with Covent Garden. Reported The Times for October 20th, 1790: “At Covent Garden things are at what is called sixes and sevens – Penury at the close of last season, wanting to curtail her salary, lost Billington to the House – and an exorbitant demand of 100 guineas per night, for a stated number of performances at the commencement of the present season, made her re-engagement impossible – She therefore decamped for Ireland on an engagement with Daly, for fifty pounds per night – out of which, in the usual Irish mode, she may probably receive one half”. The economics here are somewhat baffling, and how justified The Times’s dig at Irish bookkeeping is difficult to say, but there may have been other reasons anyway. She was having an affair at the time with Richard ‘Dick the Dasher’ Daly, the manager of the Smock Alley Theatre (among others) and “infamous seducer of actresses”. But whatever the reason, Mrs Billington was a major draw, and while her acting (and apparently wardrobe) left something to be desired, “listening angels would applaud” her singing. That is if they weren’t watching Daniel Mendoza spar with his brother. Which, it seems, they were.

His contract with Astley did not allow him to exhibit “the art of self-defence” in public anywhere other than at the amphithetare, but he was not debarred from teaching in private. One particular man, an experienced pugilist by the name of Fitzgerald, insisted on a serious set to. Mendoza reluctantly agreed; the two men fought with predictable results.

Mendoza was not in Ireland for very long, a month at most, but, as usual, he managed to get himself into a number of scrapes and aggressive episodes: duelings, muggings, riotings, fightings. He seems to have had the ability to draw violent activity to himself while at the same time enjoying the genteelest of company. He was also obviously a natural performer, a handsome, proud man who enjoyed the limelight. And, though he says it himself, Mendoza was successful in Dublin. On the strength of his appearances Astley engaged him for the following season, this time to perform at Liverpool. Despite all the aggravations he seems to have liked Dublin. What is more, in introducing modern boxing into Ireland, the Jew from Aldgate may have been the progenitor of that fearsome pugilistic tribe that was to dominate boxing for almost a hundred years, the Fighting Irish.

Daniel Mendoza returned to London by way of Belfast, Edinburgh and Liverpool, and at the end of November he and Tom Johnson “joined their interests” in order to publicly exhibit the art of boxing, with other celebrated pugilists, at the Grand Saloon of the Lyceum in the Strand, tickets 1/6d in the saloon, a mere shilling in the gallery. The show rolled on.

∗ Dublin wasn’t exactly a haven of the pacific: rival gangs known as the "Liberty Boys" - mostly weavers from the Liberties - and the "Ormonde Boys" - butchers from Ormonde quay on the northside - fought bloody street battles with each other, sometimes heavily armed and with numerous fatalities.

Copyright Wynn Wheldon, March 2007