Early Eighteenth-Century Newspaper Reports compiled by Rictor Norton

Contortionists and other Performers

9 April 1704

During the time of May-Fair, will be seen a compleat Company of near 10 of the best Rope-Dancers, Vaulters and Tumblers in Europe, who are all excellent in their several performances, and do such wonderful and surprizing things as the whole world cannot parallel; where Finley, who gave that extraordinary satisfaction before Charles III. King of Spain on board the Royal Katherine, performs several new entertainments, and where the Lady Mary, likewise shews such additions to her former admirable perfections, as render her the wonder of the whole world. [Postman]

10 April 1712

The famous Posture-Master, being returned from Cambridge, performs as usual.
     At the Duke of Marlborough’s Head in Fleet-Street, in the great Room, is to be seen the famous Posture-Master of Europe, who far exceeds the deceased Posture-Master Clarke and Higgins: He extends his Body into all deformed shapes, makes his hip and shoulder bones meet together, lays his head upon the ground, and runs his body round twice or thrice, without shifting his face from the place, stands upon one leg, and extends the other in a perpendicular line half a yard above his head; and extends his body from a table, with his head a foot below his heels, having nothing to ballance his body but his feet: With several other postures too tedious to mention. Likewise a child about 9 years of age, that shews such postures as never was seen performed by one of his age. Also the famous English Artist, who turns his balls into living birds; and takes an empty bag, which after being turned, trod, and stampt on, produces some hundred of eggs, and at last a living hen. Side boxes 2s. Pit 1s. To be performed at 7 a’clock this evening, and to continue every evening at the same hour till Easter. [Spectator]

30 April 1720   On Monday last some Officers and Gentlemen being got together at a tavern in Leicester-Fields, they had got a conjurer among them, one who is come from beyond sea, and sets up for a scholar in the first form of Belzebub’s School. The Gentlemen smoaking [i.e. detecting] his ignorance, took an opportunity to send for the Speaking Smith, famous some time ago for deluding people with a feign’d inarticulate voice, and frightning many a poor sinner out of his little wit; making some pray, others curse, by leading them into cole-holes, cellars, houses of office, up chimneys, &c. the Smith having got his cue, call’d to the conjurer by his name, who answer’d, and thinking somebody had call’d him without, he ran to see who it was. Here, here, cries the Smith, upstairs. Up went the conjurer, saw no body, but still heard a voice. He began to think it must be the Devil come to claim him, for pretending to invade his province. The voice cry’d out, Say your prayers; I’ll try, replied the conjurer; pray Mr. Devil have a little patience with me. Down he went on his marrow-bones, began the Lord’s Prayer, but was not able to go thro’ with it. In short, after he had frightned him till he stunk again, he brought him to confession, That he was no conjurer, but an impostor; that talk’d the ignorant out of their money; and are you not, says the voice, a very wicked fellow. I own I am, replied he, a very wicked fellow, but I am resolv’'d now to mend my course of life, and seek for some honester employment. This done, he return’d to the company, hartily [sic] fear’d, and ’tis thought, in a very shitten pickle. [Read’s Weekly Journal]

21 April 1721   Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess having been told of the pleasant and diverting trick the Speaking Smith had lately put on the Sham Conjurer at the Standard Tavern in Leicester-Fields, they were pleas’d to express their desire of seeing and hearing some of his surprizing exploits: He was introduc’d into their presence on Thursday sennight in the evening, where he very much diverted them, by frightning one of the pages, feigning a woman’s voice, and speaking as if up the chimney, and saying, She was with child by the page, and alluring him to look up the chimney to see the woman’s legs hang down, which prov’d matter of laughter to the company. [Read’s Weekly Journal]

7 May 1723   Last week died in Green-Street, near Leicester-Fields, Mr. Honyman the blacksmith, a man famous for a power he possess’d of uttering a strange inimitable iward voice, to the utmost surprise of all that heard him. [British Journal]

24 August 1723

The famous Mr. Fawks at his great Booth in Westsmithfield, overagainst Hosier-Lane-End, during the time of Bartholomew Fair, performs his most surprising tricks by dexterity of hand, who far exceeds al that ever show’d in Europe before, with the cards, &c. corn, mice, curious India birds, and money; and also several curious fancies different from what has been perform’d before, being entirely new, which has given satisfaction to all persons that have seen him perform. Likewise the surprizing activity of body perform’d by his little boy, of 12 years of age; turning his body into so many various shapes, that surpasses humane faith to believe without seeing; for which he has received considerable rewards from the Nobility of the Kingdom who have seen him perform. Also vaulting and showing postures on the slack rope, the like neer perform’d by any person in the Kingdom before. His performances are from 10 in the morning till 9 at Night. [Mist’s Weekly Journal[

[ Fawkes set up his own Theatre in James’s Street near the Haymarket, and during 1729-31 presented his illusionist shows. But one of his legs became mortified, and he died in May 1731, with an estate worth £10,000. ]

5 June 1731

Epitaph on the famous Mr. FAWKES

Two strove each other to outvie,
Both dext’rous to deceive the eye;
Fawkes was the only Man i’ th’ World,
But on his back the man is hurl’d:
Old Raw-bones envy’d, and in rage,
Unseen, he tripp’d him off the stage.
Reader, believe me, here he lies,
Lifeless, and stripp’d of all disguise,
Or you could not believe your eyes.
     [Fog’s Weekly Journal]

3 June 1727   On Wednesday last in the evening Mr. Violante, lately arrived from Italy, slid down a rope head foremost from the top of St. Martin’s steeple to the west side of the Meuse [i.e. Mews], in half a minute, which is computed to be about 300 yards. There were present in the Meuse the young Princesses, and several persons of quality and distinction, and an infinite number of people to see this uncommon piece of activity.
     We hear that this incomparable artist proposes, during his stay in this Kingdom, to instruct any noblemen, gentlemen, or others in his art, so that they may let themselves down from the highest Eminence with great ease, and without any danger from giddiness, want of skill, or the attempts of those below them. N.B. He has had the honour to teach several great Personages in most Courts of Europe, with great applause, of which he is ready to produce ample certificates under their hands, if required. [The Craftsman]

10 June 1727   The famous Italian Flyer, who was to have shown his dexterity again this week from St. Martin’s steeple, has now removed his seat of entertainment to Belsize-house; the scaffold at that steeple being taken down by order of the Vicar. [The Craftsman]

Saturday, 26 August 1727

At the GREAT-BOOTH, with a Flag on the Top, over-against the Hospital-Gate, in Smithfield, During the Time of Bartholomew-Fair, will be Rope-Dancing and Tumbling, by a Company compos’d of English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, &c.

1. A boy twelve years of age dances on the rope with swords to admiration.   2. A celebrated Dutch woman’s daughter, whose mother had the honour to dance before King Charles the Second, dances a jigg, and shews as great variety of steps as any dancing master can on the ground; likewise dances upon a board laid on the rope blindfold, with fetters and baskets.   3. A famous German woman dances a minuet on the rope as well as any person on the ground, and jumps the garter, the heighth of herself forwards and backwrds, which was never perform’d by a woman before; and also dances without a pole.   4. Two famous persons from the Court of Turin, a young man and woman, now in the service, by patent, of his Royal Highness the Prince of Pyrmont, who performs in dancing and vaulting such variety which has not been seen in England, for the young man in dancing without a pole, not only turns twice in one place, but jumps round and falls astride on the rope, and returns with a flourish, which no body can do but himself; he also dances and plays the colours on the rope.   5. A famous French woman that vaults the high rope to admiration.   6. A Danish woman walks the slack rope, stands upon the same and swings several yards distant.   Lastly, a famous company of tumblers far excelling any that yet appear’d in a fair, for Flip-flop, Somerset, forwards and backwards, Round-All Flip-flop and Somerset, Malt Horse, Half Flip-flop, with several other surprizing tricks in tumbling; together, with a good set of musick, and the comical humours of several of the best Merry-Andrews.
           (Weekly Journal: or, The British Gazetteer)

28 September 1732   Cambridge, Sept. 16. The 9th inst. a man flew down from the top of S. Mary’s steeple upon the shambles, and up again with great dexterity, firing 2 pistols, and tossed his flags when he was midway, and hung by his feet, and acted the Taylor and Shoemaker, to the great admiration of the spectators. — On the 16th he fixed his rope to the top of Chesterton steeple, and had like to have pulled part of it down; so they would not let him proceed. DJ. (Grub-street Journal)

27 July 1732   Norwich, July 22. On tuesday a famous Frenchman flew off from the top of St. Giles’s steeple into the broad street, and then went up the same way he came down, performing several surprizing things on the rope as he went: and on thursday he flew from the same steeple again, being the highest tower in the city, to the surprize of thousands of spectators. P. (Grub-street Journal)

28 September 1732   Cambridge, Sept. 16. The 9th inst. a man flew down from the top of S. Mary’s steeple upon the shambles, and up again with great dexterity, firing 2 pistols, and tossed his flags when he was midway, and hung by his feet, and acted the Taylor and Shoemaker, to the great admiration of the spectators. — On the 16th he fixed his rope to the top of Chesterton steeple, and had like to have pulled part of it down; so they would not let him proceed. DJ. (Grub-street Journal)

5 October 1732   On Tuesday the Flying Man attempted to fly from Greenwich church; but the rope not being drawn tort enough, it waved with him, and occasioned his hitting his foot against a chimney, and threw him off the same (chimney according to my grammar, but rope according to my author’s) to the ground; whereby he broke his wrist, and bruised his head and body in such a desperate manner that ’tis thought he cannot recover. — On saturday he died. [Grub-street Chronicle]

18 August 1739   On Tuesday a very surprising fellow made his appearance at Kensington, who walks on stilts, each seven foot high, which he fastens about each thigh, upon which he walks at the rate of five miles an hour. Yesterday in his way from Kensington to London, he several times stept over Hyde-Park Wall, and many people rode between his legs. He puts on his stilts himself, and raises himself against a wall by the help of a pole; by the means of which also he as dexterously disingages [sic] himself from them. (The Country Journal: or, The Craftsman)

[ The next item relates to The Living Colossus, or Wonderful Giant, from Sweden, who exhibited himself in a glass shop at Charing Cross in 1742, at a charge of one shilling per viewer. ]

24 April 1742
Written extempore by a Gentleman on seeing the GIANT at Charing-Cross.

Amazing Man! of such stupendous size,
As moves, at once, our wonder and surprize.
The Son of Kish (being head and shoulders taller)
Was chose a King, to govern all the smaller:
Had you been there, the stately Monarch Saul,
Had had no title to that sacred call.
   Repair to Oxford, that sublime retreat,
The source of wisdom, and the Muses seat;
Her learned sons (who rummage Nature’s ways)
Shall come with pleasure, and with wonder gaze:
In ev’ry science there each curious spark,
May mark how Nature has o’er-shot her mark.
     [Daily Advertiser]

late September 1754

For the Benefit of Mr. Garman and Master Rayner,
At Sadler’s Wells, Islington, Tomorrow, the 2d of October, will be presented the usual diversions of that place. With variety of curious Balances by Mr. MADDOX, never perform’d before; particularly, he will drive a wheelbarrow before him, with a dog in it, and balance a pipe at the same time in full swing. Rope-Dancing, by Mrs. Preston; Master Raynar will dance with a pair of baskets tied to his feet, and beat a tamborine without a pole; particularly, Mons. Vangable, just arrived from Paris, will dance on the tight rope in jack-boots, and jump over a garter his own height forwards and backwards; also Miss Garman, an infant twenty months old, will walk on the soft rope forwards and backwards; and, by desire, a hornpipe by Master Rayner. The whole to conclude with a short entertainment of musick and dancing, called,

   Mr. Garman, who was once famous for rope-dancing and tumbling, but having had the misfortune to break his knee-pan, hopes for the indulgence of the publick. Boxes 2s. 6d. Pit or Gallery 1s. 6d. [Daily Advertiser]

(Texts have been modernized with regard to capitalization, italicization, and punctuation, but original spelling has been retained. This edition copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. These extracts may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the compiler.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, Early Eighteenth-Century Newspaper Reports: A Sourcebook, "Contortionists and other Performers", 9 May 2002, updated 25 February 2005 <http://grubstreet.rictornorton.co.uk/perform.htm>

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