Business in London is Dull as Dish-Water
P.T. Barnum arrived in London at 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening, December 3, 1845, concluding his on-site role in France with Gen. Tom Thumb’s entourage. In London, with its population of over two million, Barnum anticipated being able to make “the General’s” European tour profitable once again, mirroring their success in the United Kingdom in 1844. Aside from performances in Paris during the first few months of 1845, turning a profit had been difficult in France. Both the travel expenses as the dozen moved from town to town, and the French taxes on theatre performances were considerable. Barnum admitted—just to those with whom he was close—that not much money was being made on the French tour, even in the larger towns, and despite having performed on several occasions for the King and Royal Family. He eventually extricated himself from the remaining contractual obligations and cut the tour short by a month or so.
As we learned in letters written from France in late October and through November, Barnum was already focusing his efforts on London, and had high hopes of getting seven-year-old Charles Stratton (Gen. Tom Thumb) booked in theatres, to be part of their popular Christmastime pantomimes. Barnum had first contacted a couple of theatre managers directly, but not hearing back, had written to an agent friend of his, Mr. Fillingham, to see if he could get things rolling and work out preliminary arrangements. He had also employed Albert Smith, a popular writer, to re-craft Tom Thumb’s play, Le Petit Poucet, for British audiences. Despite all of Barnum’s efforts, things suddenly did not seem so promising in London, nor even for a second tour of UK cities and towns. One can only imagine how deeply disappointed Barnum must have felt when he realized that the intended “encore” in the UK could be fraught with challenges, and would certainly take a lot of hard work to make it successful.
On December 4th, writing to an unnamed correspondent involved in managing the tour, Barnum gave the discouraging news, though tempered by the feeling that being in England would nonetheless be better than remaining in France:
I have been to the various theatres to day & can do nothing here with the General. Every kind of business is dull as dish-water in London. So at present I think our best plan will be to commence operations in the country. . . . It’s no matter how quick you quit France, for we cant do worse here than there.
Barnum’s never-give-up attitude kicked into gear, and to that end, he determined that information-gathering and perhaps hiring an experienced promoter would help him plan a tour until the London theatre scene revived. He continued,
I am going down to Camberwell [an area in south London] to night to try to find Mr Sheffield who advertises for Vanamburg [Isaac Van Amburgh, the lion tamer] & Titus 7 years. He knows every inch of ground in England, Ireland & Scotland, every hotel & editor & hall & road, and would be of great value to us if we can get him—if not I can at least get some information out of him.
Selling souvenirs on tour would also add to the profits, so Barnum touched base with the Birmingham firm of Allen & Moore, which had been making finely detailed medals for him that seemed to be selling well. (See October 2, 2020 blog post Souvenir Medals and a Snug Saloon.)
“. . . [since] we have not a single medal left, we shall want 1000 or thereabouts to begin on. I would like however to have you send me one in a letter to [the] above address, as a sample of the new die with 4 ponies. . . . As soon as I have examined it I will decide & write you regarding the number to be made for us.”
In addition, he advised his tour manager to tell Mon. Pinte, their translator, “. . . to be a good fellow & make himself useful by translating all of that portion of the Genls’ Biography which relates to France . . . & send it to me immediately by mail so that I can get it into his book here.”
Barnum must have wanted to expand the souvenir booklet that would be sold to visitors to Egyptian Hall, for example, the popular exhibition hall in London where Charles had been so successful in 1844. He would certainly have wanted the printer to update the original booklet with stories of Gen. Tom Thumb’s performances for King Louis Philippe and other highlights of the French tour.
Two days later, Barnum’s optimism about embarking on a tour suffered a blow after meeting with Mr. Sheffield. On December 6th, he wrote to Charles’s father, Sherwood Stratton, who as his business partner, needed to know what lay ahead when they arrived in mid-December.
Things still look very dull in England. I have had a long interview with Titus’s advertiser & find that we have been already to all the principal good towns in this country. We cant go to Oxford & Cambridge till February on account of the vacations—[and] we cant go to Scotland till March on account of snow & how we shall make out in dodging about the best towns we can find in England is a matter of uncertainty. I wish to the[sic] God we were safely in America—however, we may find on trying that our business here will be better than prospects indicate.
Barnum, of course, came up with another plan, which he shared with Stratton:
It seems almost necessary to open here one week merely to get time to start and to get the big bills [handbills or small posters] printed from the new Cut [woodcut] you are to bring & c, but as it would cost too much to open a hall purposely for one week I am going to try the Adelaide Gallery to day, for if they stand all expense & give us half & if besides we can get a few nights at the up town theatres, it will not be bad.
In the meantime, Barnum temporarily left the place where he usually stayed in London (25 Rupert Street in Haymarket) to go and lodge at 16 King Street in Portman Square. His strategy was to move closer to writer Albert Smith, as he wanted to meet with him and discuss the play. His note of December 5th begins,
I stop here nights, so I can call on you on my [way] down town any morning that it is requisite, by your dropping a line into the post the evening previous. My present opinion is that the General will not play in London for the present & therefore that we can give you more time to finish his piece.
Suggesting that they plan to have dinner together, and perhaps also hoping to expand his contacts, Barnum continued,
I shall be in town 6 8 or 10 days & will be most happy to have you dine with me on any day & hour and at any place you name. I merely lodge up here & dine wherever it happens, so if you will name time & place to meet & dine with me I’ll feel most happy & much obliged. We can then have a chance to talk up the matter of the piece. As I am quite alone, I shall be happy for you to bring along a friend if you think 3 will make a more agreeable party than two.
The “matter of the piece” referred to Barnum’s concern that the play was too short. It is not clear how he came to hear it, but he told Smith,
Since hearing the first act yesterday I quite fear that it may have one fault (and I fear only one) viz brevity. I more than half think you had better make 3 acts of it. I fear it would not do for us to talk to a manager about playing our new piece—unless that new piece took an hour or more for its performance.
Smith must have responded with a firm rebuttal about the length of the play, and perhaps he even felt that Barnum was giving him a backhanded compliment, hinting that the play was not yet “stunning.”
I have such facilities for making noise in America, that I expect to have . . . the biggest fuss got up there about the General’s new piece and its immortal author that you have seen for many a day, & expecting to have said “fuss” pay me well, I am of course the more anxious to have you “hit them hard” and give them something particularly stunning.
Whatever it was that Smith wrote in response, Barnum quickly sent back an apologetic note on December 6th, fearing he had insulted Smith.
My dear Smith
I guess you are more than two thirds right and that I was tarnally [e.g., damnably] mistaken in supposing that you had read me one scen act instead of a scene. I must have been cursedly stupid & so I was. However I see now that I was particularly green, and that you are up to snuff—so I have only to confess my faults & say to you “Go Ahead.”
No doubt feeling sheepish, he closed with, “I await your directions regarding dinner.”
The majority of Barnum’s other letters from these early December dates is taken up explaining the best routes for the entourage to use in getting from France to London, and reducing baggage expenses if possible. The “Boat” leaving Boulogne would go to Folkestone, a busy harbor on the English coast (today, where the Channel Tunnel or “Chunnel” begins). From Folkestone they should take the train to London. Just as we might do today, Barnum offered tips on getting the baggage through Customs quickly. He recommended, “pay your passages & have your names entered the moment you get on board St.[steam] Boat and by that means you will be first on the list & get through the Custom House in time for the Express train.” All in all, leaving Paris on a Thursday morning (or afternoon) for Boulogne, then crossing the English Channel and taking the express train to London, meant they could expect to arrive on Saturday at 2:30 pm.
Barnum’s letters include several other interesting details: a friend of the Mr. Lawson he has often referred to was apparently given permission to buy things at auction in Paris for him. Barnum instructed Stratton to pay whatever was owed to Mr. Lawson and “tell him to keep the things till I give him directions about them—except any little things which you can bring, you will please bring.” In a separate letter he advised Stratton, “Dont let the miniature painter disappoint about those likenesses & if possible have Mrs Collins’ pin-mounted in Paris.” My curatorial imagination has me thinking that Barnum commissioned an artist to paint a few miniature portraits of Gen. Tom Thumb while he was in Paris, and the one for Mrs. Collins was to be made into a brooch, as jewelry. Portrait miniatures were popular (though not inexpensive) in the days before photography, and would be considered a special gift. In 1845 photography was still in its infancy with daguerreotypes, a format that would not replace portrait miniatures made into wearable items.
Finally, as Barnum worried that he might “lose his shirt” in his next venture in the UK, it is intriguing to discover that in fact he had just lost several of his real shirts. He wrote to Stratton about the theft.
You know I had 12 linen-shirts made in Brussels. Six of them are gone. Please tell Mrs Lawson that they must have been taken from the drawer in my Bureau, as I generally left my door open, and that I want her to keep her eye open & perhaps she may find out the thief. They were all linen, with ruffle shirts-collars & wristbands stitched inside for turning over–& a loop & button hole at the breast.
Barnum was not being extravagant in having a dozen shirts made. It was common practice in the 1700s and early 1800s to have several made at one time as it was less wasteful to cut multiples of the shirt pieces—which were just rectangles, squares and triangles at that time—from a length of cloth. The owner’s initials and a number were usually added in ink or embroidery to ensure that the identical shirts were evenly rotated through wearing and laundering, and that they were returned to the proper owner. Therefore, if a suspected thief was identified, there might be evidence proving he had pilfered Barnum’s shirts!
Barnum Museum Curator