The Macaroni Club

Homosexual Scandals in 1772

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.


The conviction of Captain Robert Jones for sodomy in July 1772, followed by his royal pardon in August, prompted widespread comment, discussed in my article on The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England This debate took place against a background of earlier homosexual scandals in the same year, notably a series of incidents involving the bookseller and jeweller Samuel Drybutter, and the allegation that the dramatist David Garrick was having a homosexual affair with his fellow dramatist Isaac Bickerstaffe. All of these incidents coalesced in the construction of a caricature of homosexuals called ‘the macaronies’.

The Macaroni Club

The primary correspondent of the Public Ledger, calling himself A MAN, in several letters to the Public Ledger castigated Captain Jones’s supporters as ‘maccaronies’: ‘the country is over-run with Catamites, with monsters of Captain Jones’s taste, or, to speak in a language which all may understand, with MACCARONIES’. This word especially connotes upper-class effeminate practitioners of sodomy, ‘a crime imported from Italy by our spindle-shanked Gentry, who make the grand Tour but to bring home the vices of our Neighbours, and return, if possible, greater Coxcombs than they were before Embarkation’ (5 Aug.). Captain Jones was a ‘MILITARY MACCARONI’, ‘too much engaged in every scene of idle Dissipation and wanton Extravagance’, and hopefully his execution would teach a lesson to ‘his CORNELLYAN Brethren: deign, therefore, ye Beaux, ye sweet-scented, simpering He-she Things, deign to learn wisdom from the death of a Brother’. The reference is to those who attended the fashionable masquerades organized by the society hostess and impresario Teresa Cornelys.

A ‘macaroni’, was a fop or dandy with an extravagant hairstyle and affected mannerisms. More literally, a ‘macaroni’ was a small tricorn hat placed on top of a high wig. Hence, when Yankee Doodle ‘stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni’, it was the entire cap, not just the feather, that constituted a ‘macaroni’, and which symbolized him as a Dandy and a bit of a buffoon. Paul Langford in A Polite and Commercial People (1989) says that ‘The macaronis took their origin from a society of enthusiasts for Italian culture who were determined to display their contempt for the values represented by the Beefsteak Club.’ The Beefsteak Club was a genuine club, called the Sublime Society of Steaks, founded around 1735 by John Rich and Lord Peterborough. But I doubt very much that a ‘Macaroni Club’ was ever a genuine club formed as a contrast to The Steaks.

The earliest speculation on the etymology of the word that I know of is a letter from a correspondent calling himself Juventis, published in the Middlesex Journal, or Universal Evening-Post for 27-29 October 1772: ‘To the Italians it owes its origin. When they say that any one is a rude, low fellow, they call him Macarone: whence macaronic poetry, which is a kind of metre, generaly burlesque, wherein the native words of a language are made to end in a Latin termination.’ In the seventeenth century, John Donne in one of his Satire IV refers to the vain talk of ‘this Macaron’, which is simply the Italian word for ‘buffoon’. The word ‘macaroni’ appears in David Garrick’s play The Male-Coquette (1757), which features a character named the Marchese di Macaroni. Oliver Goldsmith, in his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773), has the following lines:

Let all the old pay homage to your merit;
Give me the young, the gay, the men of spirit.
Ye travell’d tribe, ye macaroni train,
Of French friseurs, and nosegays, justly vain,
Who take a trip to Paris once a year
To dress, and look like awkward Frenchmen here.

The earliest reference to the Macaroni Club occurs in Horace Walpole’s letter of 6 February 1764 to the Earl of Hertford: ‘The Maccaroni Club (which is composed of all the travelled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses).’ The Earl of Chesterfield also seems to suggest the existence of such a club, when he writes to his godson on 8 June 1769: ‘And if I should live till you are a man, what a cruel blow would it not be to me, to hear that like most of the young men of the present time, you passed yours in frivolous dissipation, losing your time, you passed yours in your character, at the Macaronies or Almacks.’ However, there is no historical evidence that such a club ever existed. I think that Longford (and many other writers and historians) have misinterpreted Walpole’s and Chesterfield’s faceitious use of the word ‘Club’ and elaborated upon it. This fantasy-construction was consolidated in the public imagination in the 1770s.

Most of the satires (including many prints) about the ‘Macaronies’ (few people used the correct Italian spelling ‘macaronis’) begin in the 1770s and pretty much end in the 1780s. The origin of the word is described by Giuseppi Baretti in his book Easy Phraseology (1775):

M. When we will say that a man is a booby, a man of gross understanding, a dolt, a fool, a vulgar fellow, we [Italians] say he is a maccherone.

E. Strange, that this word has so much changed of its meaning in coming from Italy to England! that in Italy it should mean a block-head, a fool; and mean in England a man fond of pompous and affected dress!

M. This shall not appear so strange to you when I tell you the reason of it. ... I have heard it said, that at Newmarket a club of young gentlemen made a bargain with the inn-keeper, where they went every day to dine all together, that he should give them every day a dish of macaroni's, thus affecting to show, that they were all travelled people, as they call them. ... Hence it happened, that the scoffers, from that regular dish which those gentlemen would have every day on their table, denominated that club the macaroni club [in Italian, ‘il crocchio de’ maccheroni’], and each individual of it a macaroni, not knowing that this word has in Italy a very different meaning.

E. This is a very curious etymology.

M. I do not give it to you for infallibly true; but have it for what it costs me. I don't give this to you for infallibly true, either, but take it for what it’s worth.
                    (pp. 39-40)

And Laurence Dermott in his book Ahiman Rezon; or, A Help to All that Are, or Would Be Free and Accepted Masons (1778) lists ‘The Maccaroni Club’ among ‘a great number of what may be called tippling clubs or societies in London’ (p. xli).

Theatrical mannerisms and clothing that was fashionable to the point of burlesque were characteristic of the macaroni, whose signature was an elaborate wig, often with an enormous pigtail. A typical satire on them is Dr Young to the Macaronies. In so far as the macaronies aped ladies’ fashions, they were deemed to be effeminate and sexually indeterminate:

But Macaronies are a sex
Which do philosophers perplex;
Tho’ all the priests of Venus’s rites
Agree they are Hermaphrodites.
               (‘The Vauxhall Affray’, a 1770s print)

In the Middlesex Journal for 7-10 November 1772 Juventis commented on the current usage of the term: ‘If I consult the prints, ’tis a figure with something uncommon in its dress or appearance; if the ladies, an effeminate fop; but if the ’prentice-boys, a queer fellow with a great large tail.’ In other words, when ladies looked at prints of a macaroni, they interpreted him as an effeminate fop, but when the working-class lads looked at such prints, they interpreted the figure as a molly, i.e. an effeminate sodomite – which indeed is the explicit meaning given to the term in many newspapers during 1772.

More than anything else, the affair of Captain Jones served to cement the link between homosexuality and effeminacy in satires on the Maccaronies:

‘You will wonder, my Dears, why I thus rudely address you; you will deem it a mark of prodigious unpoliteness thus to accost a Race, who, however addicted to the crime for which Jones suffers, have, as yet, escaped detection, and therefore cannot fairly be charged with the criminality; but Suspicion, that jealous, troublesome passion, Suspicion is got abroad – the carriage – the deportment – the dress – the effeminate squeak of the voice – the familiar loll upon each others shoulders – the gripe of the hand – the grinning in each others faces, to shew the whiteness of the teeth – in short, the manner altogether, and the figure so different from that of Manhood, these things conspire to create Suspicion; Suspicion gives birth to watchful observation; and, from a strict observance of the Maccaroni Tribe, we very naturally conclude, that to them we are indebted for the frequency of a crime which Modesty forbids me to name. Take warning, therefore, ye smirking group of TIDDLY-DOLS: However secret you may be in your amours, yet in the end you cannot escape detection; nor are we as yet so wholly degenerated by your practices, as not to shudder at the thoughts of Beastiality.’ (Public Ledger, 5 Aug. 1772)

The correspondent knew full well that any sodomite in search of rough trade would find it in abundance among the soldiers who frequented St James’s Park, who parade themselves for the benefit of swooning women during the afternoon, ‘and at night retire to the Bird Cage Walk, with some male cara-sposa, there to practice those infernal rites for which Jones this day is to make his military exit’ (5 Aug.). Sodomites-cum-maccaronies keep mistresses for two purposes: ‘first, they remove all suspicion; secondly, they are at hand to appear in case of need at the Old Bailey, and exculpate the charge laid against them. For, is not the Gentleman addicted to women?’ (Women did in fact frequently appear at trials, to testify that the accused was ‘too fond of a pretty Girl, to fall into sodomitical actions’.) On 13 August he expanded on the Maccaronies’ cruising grounds: ‘these hair-plaited, white-breeched, short-skirted Gentry ... frequent the Park, the Play, the New Exchange, and the Bird-cage Walk’. The satirical illustration of "The Firework-Macaroni", published on 26 October 1772, is probably a caricature of Captain Jones, whom newspapers reported was discharged from Newgate during the last week of October 1772 – Jones was famous for popularizing fireworks as well as figure-skates.

Certain aspects of the homosexual subculture were brought to light by the scandals of 1772. The London Evening Post advised its readers that ‘the set of detestable villains who nightly infest the piazzas of the Royal Exchange, have removed westward, and are to be seen every evening in the avenues of a certain great man’s house, which they now look upon as a secure asylum from justice, and a safe place to act their diabolical practices’ (11–13 Aug.). Sodomites were now behaving with greater impunity than ever before. ‘Among the many places of resort within the metropolis for these infernal wretches, that part of Sherborne-lane next Lombard-street, is not the least. Their amours are carried on in the open street; but to prevent any surprize, a watchman, or more, is placed at the avenues. And the advantages that arise to these guardians of the night, makes them not a little contentious who shall be placed upon that station’ (London Evening Post, 18–20 Aug.).

Samuel Drybutter

Samuel Drybutter was a jeweller and bookseller, who kept a shop in Westminster Hall. The newspapers often refer to him as a ‘toyman’, which means a seller of luxury goods such as jewellery, watches, and various trinkets. He began as an assistant to his mother Jane Drybutter, acting as manager of her shop in Pall Mall where she sold luxury items such as tortoishell snuffboxes and diamond rings and books with gold mounts, while he worked mainly from the shop (or stall) in Westminster Hall, where he also sold books. Jane Drybutter let out rooms above her shop in Pall Mall, and she also had a shop in Tunbridge Wells selling similar and less expensive items such as pocketbooks and ribbons and linen goods. The Drybutters frequently dealt with the wholesalers James Cox and Edward Grace. In October 1757 Cox and Grace prosecuted Samuel Drybutter for stealing two tortoishell snuff boxes from them, which he had had mounted in gold and had pretended he got them from another source. When charged, Drybutter claimed they were in a consignment of things for him to consider on a ‘sale or return’ basis, and that in the meantime he had them mounted for one of his customers who had seen them in his shop. He fully intended to pay for the boxes. Although Drybutter had previously been investigated for dealing in stolen goods, on this occasion it looked as though Cox and Grace had made a mistake in their records, and Drybutter was acquitted. Many people in the trade – a case maker, a jeweller, a bookseller, a silk weaver, a watchmaker, a tailor, etc. – testified to Drybutter’s honesty and good character.

Drybutter again appeared at the Old Bailey in September 1767, but this time as the prosecutor, alledging that two boys, William Wools and Thomas Mills, had broken into his shop in Westminster Hall and stolen two silver watches, twenty-seven gold rings, a silver nutmeg-grater, thirty-five pairs of silver buckles, and other items. They were convicted and sentenced to transportation. In January 1771 Drybutter again appeared at the Old Bailey, to prosecute Michael Welch for stealing numerous items from his shop: a lacquer snuffbox, a silver nutmeg grater, silver thimbles, a bracelet set with garnets, numerous shoe buckles and knee buckles, watches, pencil cases, silver tankards, candlesticks and snuffers etc.; and further charged Michael Welch’s wife Lettia Johnson for receiving these goods, knowing them to have been stolen. Most of the goods showed up in a pawnbroker’s shop in Holborn. Welch was found guilty and transported, though his wife was acquitted. Drybutter again appeared at the Old Bailey in October 1776, in a complicated case in which William Davis was prosecuted for counterfeiting a warrant for the delivery of casks of wine and other goods by the United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies, for which Drybutter had advanced the sum of £1,900. Drybutter was now living in the rooms above his house in Pall Mall, and let out the ground floor premises as a lottery office (his mother had died in 1761). An interesting bit of information from this trial relates to Drybutter’s physical size. William Davis, in his defence, said ‘I should not have suffered myself to be taken in my own house by Mr. Drybutter, a very little man, who I could have put down with one hand; he took me in my own house, where the greatest opportunity was offered me for escaping’ had he wished to do so. He claimed he did not intend to defraud Drybutter but intended to reimburse the funds in several months. Davis, who had a wife and three children, was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Samuel Drybutter was in fact a notorious sodomite, and was considered to be the leader of the Macaroni Club in the 1770s. He was first arrested for attempted sodomy on 23 January 1770; he was committed to Tothill Fields Bridewell (Gen. Even. Post, 23-25 Jan. 1770). In September 1770 he was again apprehended soliciting a man in St. James's Park. He was already so notorious that "the populace, especially the women, were so enraged agaisnt him, that guards were sent for to attend the coach, and protect him from their fury" (Oxford Journal, 1 Sept. 1770). A newspaper reported that a year earlier he had solicited his own servant boy, but the matter was made up with the boy's friends. He apparently approached many of the boys playing in Westminster Hall near his toyshop (Reading Mercury, 3 Sept. 1770). Despite this, in July 1771 he again attempted ‘to repeat the infamous and detestable crime to which he seems to have so strong, though unnatural, a propensity’, and one evening tried to pick up a horse grenadier patroling at the Horse Guards. ‘He wanted him to dismount, and accompany him to a private place; the fellow refusing to comply, he offered him money and used several indecencies with him.’ The soldier seized him and a watchman put him in the round-house overnight. But the next day Drybutter counter-charged the grenadier with an attempt to extort money, and the grenadier was himself arrested. ‘In the morning they were carried, in separate coaches, before Justice Wright. The concourse of people to see the offender was so great, that it was thought prudent to drive him up towards Pimlico, lest he should have fallen a prey to the fury of the mob. When they got to the Justices, he found means by parting with some of the wages of his iniquity, to make the affair up: they were accordingly both discharged; and the catamite, to escape the populace, was carried off in the coach to some place at a considerable distance.’ He was said to have retired to his seat in the country for a few days. (London Even. Post, 25-27 July 1771). It appears that he was exhibited in the pillory, as a news report referred to ‘the late severe discipline he underwent’ (London Even. Post, 25-27 July 1771).

In October 1771 an extraordinary incident took place, when Drybutter was sworn into the office of Petty Constable for the parish of St. Margaret, Westminster. His name had really been put forward as a joke, but he rose to the occasion, addressing the Court of Burgesses, asking to be excused from serving: "you know I am the detestation of all mankind; every man who hears me, hates, detests, and abhors me; I am presented to the office partly out of joke, and partly from malice; they who have presented me know what I am, and you, all of you know, that I am not a fit person to be put into this office." Mr. Sayer, the Deputy Steward of the Court, then asked him what he called himself; to which he boldly replied, "The world calls me a Sodomite; I am one." (London Evening News, 10 Oct. 1771). Such a defiant assertion of a homosexual identity would not become common until two hundred years later.

During 1772, according to newspaper reports, Drybutter narrowly missed being apprehended for sodomy, always managing to escape. Immediately after Captain Jones was tried for sodomy, newspapers began urging the Magistrates to do something about Drybutter: ‘A celebrated toyman [i.e. Drybutter], not far from Westminster-hall, has taken a house in Pall-mall for the reception of a detestable set of wretches of his own stamp.’ (This identical notice appeared in the Westminster Journal for 18-25 July 1772 and in the London Evening Post for 21-23 July). Soon after hearing the news that Captain Jones would be given a pardon, a sarcastic notice appeared in the papers: ‘Mr. Dr-b-tt-r’s club are desired to meet at the Gomorrah, to-morrow evening, to consider of a proper address of thanks to the throne for the respite of brother Jones. The Macaroni, Delettanti, and other Italian clubs will bring up the rear of the cavalcade, all dressed in white linen breeches’ (Morn. Chron., 7 Aug.). Many of the satiric references to Drybutter and the members of the Macaroni Club are full of such puns on sodomy.

Drybutter was often the victim of homophobic attacks. According to one anecdote, one day when Drybutter was in a coffee house he rose to the defence of Captain Jones who was being berated by the other customers, saying ‘You would not, surely, hang the man, would you? But would it not be hard, that a man should forfeit his life for his particular taste?’ At this point a porter arrived saying he had a letter for Mr Drybutter. Drybutter identified himself and took the letter. ‘This company thus discovering who this advocate for the particular taste was, one walks up to him and pours his chocolate over his wig; the enraged advocate asking the meaning of that treatment; it is my particular taste, replies the gentleman; the rest taking the hint, this is mine, says another, pouring a glass of capillaire down his neck, and this mine, cries a third, sousing the milk-pot into his face; it is my particular taste, cries the bar-maid, to pour this dish of coffee into the waistband of your breeches; and mine, says the waiter, who was an honest Irishman, to kick your Old-Bailey face out of the coffee-house.’ The noise drew a mob together, and carried Drybutter off to duck him in the nearest horse-pond. (Reported in the General Evening Post for 22-25 August 1772). At another incident, Drybutter was recognized when he went into an eating house and ordered roast pig for dinner. One man threw a pint of liquor into his face, saying ‘that as he loved pig, he should not want for sauce’. Upon hearing this, other people gathered round and pulled Drybutter up to the open fire, ‘where some of them basted him, with the contents of a bountiful dripping-pan, whilst others applied the reeking spit to his nose: greasy dish-clouts in abundance were occasionally made use of, and after rolling him in saw-dust, they suffered him to decamp.’ (Reported in The Craftsman; or Say’s Weekly Journal for 12 Sept. 1772).

There is a tradition, possibly erroneous, that in 1757 Drybutter was pilloried for selling copies of John Cleland's pornographic novel Fanny Hill, or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. There is one homoerotic passage in that novel, which did not appear in the first edition, and which is usually omitted from modern editions. It has been suggested (in works such as Ernest Baker's The History of the English Novel) that Samuel Drybutter was the person responsible for inserting salacious additions into the novel: perhaps he, rather than Cleland, was the author of the description of sodomy in the novel.

Drybutter was again arrested for attempted sodomy on 6 July 1774, and again aquitted. His pimp on this occasion was a man who had organised meetings at a public house at which nineteen men had been arrested in April 1774. Later narrow escapes also seem to have occurred. In 1776, Drybutter was satirized in Sodom and Onan, where he was nicknamed Ganymede. A contemporary satirical illustration titled "Ganymede & Jack-Ketch" shows him in fetters standing beside the hangman. "Jack Ketch" holds up a noose to put around Drybutter's neck and says "Dammee Sammy you'r a sweet pretty Creature & I long to have you at the end of my String." He is tweaking the chin of "Ganymede", who replies "You don't love me Jacky."

Some time later, on Monday, 30 June 1777, Drybutter tried to pick up a man in St James’s Park, who rejected his advances and reported him to two soldiers on duty there. The soldiers escorted Drybutter to Pall Mall, where they declared his offence and released him to the fury of the mob which had gathered. He was pelted with mud and severely beaten, but managed to reach his own house. Several hundred people then attacked his house, breaking all the windows and smashing up his shop, but were prevented from tearing it down by the arrival of a military party. One of Drybutter’s arms was broken in a dangerous manner, and his innards were so seriously bruised that ‘he now lies without Hope of Life’. It was reported that he died on Saturday, 5 July. Although gay men were occasionally killed by the mob while standing in the pillory, it was highly unusual (and not otherwise documented) for the mob to kill a gay man before he was even formally charged with a crime. It seems that in this case, the populace, who had been denied the chance to hang Captain Jones in 1772, after a long-simmering resentment decided to take the law into their own hands and exact their revenge by beating Drybutter to death.

But they do not seem to have succeeded. In The Complete Modern London Spy published in 1781, Drybutter was referred to as if he were still alive. In that pamphlet, one man out walking with another says, ‘do you observe that man who is now sauntering towards Covent garden? – he is one of those wretches, once almost unknown in England. He subsists by gratifying the unnatural vices of his own sex; in short, he is the companion of an infamous fellow, whose name is Dr–b—r, and who, though well known to be guilty of this horrible crime, has hitherto evaded all attempts to bring him to condign punishment.’ [The Complete Modern London Spy, For the present Year, 1781; or, A Real, New, and Universal Disclosure, of The Secret, Nocturnal, and Diurnal Transactions, In and about the Cities of London and Westminster, and the Borough of Southwark (London, [1781]), p. 84.] It is hard to appreciate how Samuel Drybutter managed to live as a publicly known homosexual and to set society at defiance for such a long time, but clearly he was one of life’s survivors despite being queer-bashed and despite a long campaign of press vilification.

It is now known that Drybutter had fled to France, where he lived in an apartment on the Rue du Petit Lion, Paris, until his death probably in 1787. [John Culme, ‘Trade of fancy: new findings from eighteenth century London’, Silver Society Journal, Autumn 2000, pp. 98–110, esp. pp. 104–107.] His Will takes the form of a letter dated 16 September 1787, addressed to his long-time friend William Hodges, who kept a lottery office in the lower part of his house in Pall Mall: ‘Two days ago, I thought my writing was all finished to all the world for I was seized just after Dinner with a fit in which I continued insensible for four hours . . . I can truly say that I have been in the jaws of death – for I have felt every thing that must be felt by a dying person a total deprivation of all Corporal and mental powers.’ It is not certain how long he survived this apparent heart attack (he was christened on 17 February 1729, and would now be nearly 60 years old), but by the time his Will was proved in London on 8 May 1793, France was on the eve of The Terror. As The Times reported on 3 April 1793: ‘The inhabitants of Paris have now reached the zenith of infamy, and their City is in a state similar to that in which the City of Sodom was, immediately prior to Lot’s departure.’

The newspaper items referring to Drybutter are on a separate page.



Isaac Bickerstaffe and David Garrick

In 1772 ended abruptly the career of Isaac Bickerstaffe, the dramatist who was responsible for establishing comic opera on the English stage. Bickerstaffe grew up in Dublin as one of Lord Chesterfield’s pages in the 1730s, and through his efforts obtained a commission in the Fifth Regiment of Foot, the Northumberland Fusiliers, at the age of twelve. He resigned his lieutenancy in 1755 (some said under scandalous circumstances, but this was not proven), and went on ensign’s half-pay, and moved to London to begin his writing career. There he produced a series of comic operas, including the very popular Love in a Village. During the 1760s he was dining out with Dr Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick the hugely successful actor and theatre manager, and most of the leading London artists of the day. Garrick and Bickerstaffe were the reigning king and queen of the London stage. A modern study of his accounts has shown that Bickerstaffe earned a very great deal of money and spent it on purposes unknown, chiefly on frequent trips to the Continent.

His last trip abroad was prompted by a notice which appeared in The Daily Advertiser on 30 April 1772 :

Whereas on Tuesday Night last, between the hours of Eight and Ten, A Gentleman left with a Centinel belonging to Whitehall Guard, a Guinea and a half, and a Metal Watch with two Seals, the one a Cypher, the other a Coat of Arms, a Locket, and a Pistol Hook. The Owner may have it again by applying to the Adjutant of the first Battalion of the first Regiment of foot-Guards at the Savoy Barracks, and paying for this Advertisement.

In the fateful days that followed, the ad was explained in the St James Chronicle and other London newspapers:

The History of this Watch, &c. is this: A Gentleman grew enamoured, the other Night at Whitehall, with one of the Centinels, and made Love to him; the Soldier being of that rough cast, who would rather act in the Character of Mars than Venus, not only rejected the Lover’s Suit, but seizing him, threatened to take him immediately to the Guard-Room. The Affrighted Enamorato, to avoid the consequences of Exposure, with the greatest Precipitation gave the Soldier his Watch, Rings, and other Valuables, for his Liberty.

The paper went on to explain that the sentinel bragged about his good fortune to the corporal, the corporal told the serjeant, the serjeant the adjutant, and soon the whole corps of officers knew about it, as did the press. The Savoy Baracks ran parallel to Dutchy Lane where Bickerstaff lived, separated from it by the French Church and some private dwellings.

Some of the articles, such as a mourning ring, easily established the identity of the owner as ‘a Man of some Fame in the Literary World’. On 18 May the Northampton Mercury reported that the Literary Character had absconded, and the day after that everyone knew this was Garrick’s good friend Isaac Bickerstaffe. Mr Thrale told Dr Johnson that Bickerstaffe had long been a suspected molly. Dr Johnson was shocked, and replied, ‘By those who look close to the ground, dirt will be seen, Sir. I hope I see things from a greater distance’.

Rather than attempt to reclaim watch and rings, Bickerstaffe sailed to St Malo, where he assumed the name Burrows and took lodgings in a bookshop near the cathedral. He wrote to Garrick on 24 June:

Ayant perdu mes amis, mes espérances, tombé, exilé et livré au désespoir comme je suis, la vie est un fardeau presque insupportable; j’étois loin de soupçonner que la dernière fois que j’entrais dans votre librairie, serait la dernière fois que j’y entrerais da ma vie, et que je ne reverrais plus le maitre. (Having lost my friends, my hopes, fallen, exiled and delivered into despair as I am, life is a burden almost unbearable; little did I suspect that the last time I entered your study would be the last time in my life that I would enter it, and that never again would I see its master.)

Garrick wrote on the letter: ‘From that poor wretch Bickerstaffe. I could not answer it’. Garrick desperately felt the need to dissociate himself from his former friend, in order to defend his own reputation.

Garrick was quickly attacked by his fellow dramatist William Kenrick, who accused him of being Bickerstaffe’s lover in Love in the Suds; A Town Eclogue. Being the Lamentation of Roscius for the Loss of his Nyky (London, 1772). This eclogue is spoken by Roscius (Garrick), lamenting the loss of his Nyky (a diminutive of Isaac):

     Whom fliest thou, frantic youth, and whence thy fear?
Blest had there never been a grenadier!
Unhappy Nyky, by what frenzy seiz’d,
Coulds’t thou with such a martial thing be pleas’d?
What, tho’ thyself a gentle horse-marine*,
Couldst thou with foot-soldiers at land be seen?

          (*Nyky is an half-pay officer of marines. The term horse-marine is well known to some kind of sailors. Modò vir modò foemina.)

The phrase ‘horse-marine’ appears in several homophobic satires, as a symbol for something unnatural – it is an obvious impossibility, because there is no need for the cavalry at sea.

Roscius defends his lover’s taste:

     And yet, ah why should Nyky thus be blam’d?
Of manly love ah! why are men asham’d?
A new red-coat, fierce cock and killing air
Will captivate the most obdurate fair;
     Yet slight the cause of Nyky’s late mishap;
Nyk but mistook the colour of the cap:
A common errour, frequent in the Park,
Where love is apt to stumble in the dark.

This apologia praises homosexual love as being more refined than and superior to vulgar heterosexuality, though the Italian gusto and bon ton of France make but slow advance among the low-bred English. Precedents for such love can be found in classical Rome and ancient Greece, where it was practised by men such as Virgil, Socrates, and others: ‘The gay Petronius, sophists, wits and bards, / Of old, bestow’d on youth their soft regards’. Kenrick finds it necessary to disclaim these ‘Southern modes’ and ‘Platonic love’ in a footnote in which he describes himself as ‘A Briton blunt, bred to plain mathematics, / Who hates French b[ou]gres, and Italian pathics’.

Kenrick’s satire went through five editions in 1772, and Garrick began a prosecution for libel. Kenrick had to publicly apologise to Garrick and disclaim the libel, but the war of libels and counter-libels raged in the newspapers for several years, until by 1777 several newspapers also had to make apologies. Kenrick privately admitted that he never believed Garrick to be a molly, but that he thought it was a good opportunity to attack a competitor. But he did believe that Garrick knew about, and tolerated, an earlier affair between Bickerstaffe and ‘a masculine dancer’, presumably a ballet dancer, and even suggested there had been an affair between Bickerstaffe and Garrick’s brother George.

In 1777 Bickerstaffe wrote once more to Garrick, this time from Vienne (a town in France; not Vienna in Austria), to complain that Garrick in the libel controversy was destroying his reputation even more than it had already been destroyed. He concluded by begging Garrick for £10, as he was impoverished. Garrick never replied. The Biographia Dramatica of 1782 noted that Bickerstaffe ‘is said to be still living at some place abroad, to which a deed without a name has banished him, and where he exists poor and despised by all orders of people’. In the years that followed, there were newspaper reports that Bickerstaffe was drinking two pints of spirits a day, that he died in Sussex in 1783, that he had drowned himself, that he had hanged himself, that he was writing for the Marseilles stage, that he was living in Milan, that he was sighted in Charing Cross in 1811. He sent a play to Mrs Jordan for one of her benefits in 1790, but no other plays from these last sad years of his life have been traced. He probably died at the age of 75 in 1808, the last year in which he drew his half-pay pension.

Bickerstaffe’s one-time friend Charles Dibdin, in Professional Life of Mr. Dibdin (1803) summed up his reaction to the affair: ‘It was, as those things generally are, food for the newspapers and the town for a few days, and then nobody cared three-pence about it’. The following is a selection of the many newspaper items that were prompted by the Bickerstaffe scandal and by Kenrick’s slander against Garrick.

ACKNKOWLEDGEMENTS: I am grateful to Leslie Ritchie, Christopher Mayo, Jim Chevallier, George Boulukos, Patricia Crown, Jack Lynch and other members of C18-L, the online Eighteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List, for information about the word ‘macaroni’. I am grateful to the silver historian John Culme for additional material about the last years of Samuel Drybutter's life.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "The Macaroni Club: Homosexual Scandals in 1772", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 19 December 2004, updated 10 Feb. 2021 <>.

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