St David’s Day, Nell Gwyn, and David Garrick

Today’s blog is based on the facts that, first, it is St David’s Day; St David being the patron saint of Wales and, second, that I had a recent ‘I never knew that’ moment when I learned that the Pretenders were (apart from Chrissie Hynde) from Hereford. Or at least the original band members were.

So, here we go again with the tenuous connections, and leap straight to Nell Gwyn (or Gwynne). The city of Hereford claims to have been the birthplace of Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II, and supporters of that theory point to the fact that Gwyn is a name of Welsh origin and Herefordshire borders Wales.

It is, however, considered more likely that she was born in London, in Coal Yard Alley off Drury Lane. The alley did actually lead to an old coal yard; in the 19th century it was described as “a row of miserable tenements”. Much of the ‘facts’ about Nell Gwyn are largely a matter of speculation: Pepys records that Nell said she was “brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong water to the guests”.

Incidentally, there is a Hereford Road in West London; the land in this area was developed by a Mr William Kinnaird Jenkins, a Herefordshire lawyer and landowner (with a Welsh name) who named many streets after places in Herefordshire and the neighbouring Welsh area.

But back to Nell, who was described as the “indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in court”; it was also said of her that “the King loved more for her wit than the attractions of her person … it was difficult to remain long in her company without sharing her gaiety”. Indeed, Charles II’s last words were reputed to have been “Let not poor Nellie starve.”

Nell did not try to hide her humble beginnings or her status as a concubine; one example of her wit was when she was bing booed by people mistaking her for Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, another of Charles’s mistresses, Nell said, “Pray, good people, be civil – I am the Protestant whore.”

Nell spend the last years of her life in Pall Mall, where she spent her last years and where she had a solid silver bed in a room lined with mirrors.

And even more – not even that tenuous – connection: Nell was reputed to have sold oranges outside of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane; the actor and playwright David Garrick managed the theatre for nearly 30 years. Oh, yes, and Garrick was born in Hereford.

An actor, an artist, tug of war, and bushrangers

David Garrick in the Alchemist
Garrick (right) in Jonson’s The Alchemist, painted by Johann Zoffany

On 19 February 1717 Hereford-born actor, playwright, and producer David Garrick was born. Apart from his successes on stage, Garrick was responsible for establishing the fame of German artist Johann Zoffany, after whom Zoffany Street in Islington is named.

Zoffany was born in Germany and ran away from home at the age of 13 to study painting. He went to England in 1758 and had his first success in 1762 when he was commissioned by Garrick to use him as the model to paint a scene from Garrick’s own play, The Farmer’s Return.

The painting was very popular with the public, establishing Zoffany, who became a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768, as a name in the art world.

Johann Zoffany self portrait
Johann Zoffany, a self portrait

Zoffany, who also enjoyed the patronage of George III and Queen Charlotte, spent many years in Italy – at the expense of George III – and, later, in India, where he made enough money to return to England and buy the copyhold (tenure of land) of a house at Strand-on-the-Green, now named Zoffany House.

19 February is also International Tug of War Day. Tug of War was once an Olympic sport and in 1908 (the first games to see the now traditional gold, silver and bronze medal awards), the City of London Police took gold for Great Britain in the Tug of War event. They took gold again in 1920, the last time Tug of War was an Olympic sport, so technically they are still the reigning champions.

The 1908 games were held in the purpose-built stadium at White City; the White City area of London features many streets names with an international flavour, including Batman Close.

John Batman
Engraving of John Batman

Batman Close is nothing to do with comic book heroes or member of the armed forces (a batman was a soldier assigned as a servant to a commissioned officer). In this case, the street is named for John Batman, the Australian who founded a settlement on the River Yarra; that settlement later became the city of Melbourne.

Batman gained prominence for his capture of Matthew Brady, an English-born bushranger known as the Gentleman Bushranger due to his good manners when robbing his victims and the fact that he never insulted women. Before Brady’s execution in Hobart Town, his cell was filled with flowers from the women of the town.

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