Little slices of London's history

Actresses, oranges, and paille-maille

This day in London’s history: on 8 December 1660, Thomas Killigrew opened his new theatre and made history by having the first actress to play on the British stage. The role was Desdemona in Shakespear’s Othello but there is some debate as to who the actress was; many sources point to either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall.

Another, less likely, candidate is Katherine Corey, who was involved in a major scandal. Nell Gwynne, perhaps the most famous of Charles II’s mistresses, was embroiled in a feud with a noblewoman by the name of Elizabeth Harvey. Nell bribed the actress to mimic Harvey on stage, an act that moved Lady Harvey to hire thugs to hiss Corey on stage and throw oranges at her.

The oranges, presumably, may have been a reference to Nell’s earlier life; in her teens she sold oranges at the King’s Theatre, when the actor Charles Hart became her lover. (Before she became a royal mistress, another of her lovers was Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. Nell referred to her lovers as Charles the First and Charles the Second, so that when the king came along, he became to her Charles the Third.)

In the last years of her life, Nell lived in Pall Mall, which takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

3 responses to “Actresses, oranges, and paille-maille”

  1. […] It was not the first time the palace had been struck by flames: in 1691 a fire broke out in the apartments of the Duchess of Portsmouth, one of Charles II’s mistresses. The Duchess, born Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille of French nobility, was Catholic and was not popular with the English – in particular one of Charles’s other mistresses, Nell Gwynne. […]

  2. […] Mall also bears a plaque on the site of the house occupied by Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne in the last 16 years of her life. She, too, had an impressive bed that may have served as an […]

  3. […] Back to the Theatre: it was established by James Burbage and his brother-in-law John Brayne around 1576. James’s son, and the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage,  would have taken the role of Romeo in that first performance, and Juliet would have been played by a young boy actor. It would be another 65 years before female roles were played on the stage by women; the first such role was Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. […]

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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