A priest’s hilarious diary reveals how rowdy London’s theatres were in the 1700s

Karl Philipp Moritz
A portrait of Karl Philipp Moritz

In the late 1700s, a young German priest and self-confessed Anglophile called Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) fulfilled an ambition to go travelling around England. The product of that trip is an incredible diary Journeys of a German in England in 1782, though the translated edition in English is called, somewhat less pithily, Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend.

Moritz offers an incredible window into English social history, detailing his encounters will people from both low and high society, in all sorts of scenarios, from cooking toast over the fire in a tavern to being shown around the university buildings in Oxford. He encounters a lot of friendliness, particularly in London, but as he travels out to the country, he experiences a lot of anti-German xenophobia, which taints his love for England.

One of the most memorable passages in the diary – and there are many – is his description of how rowdy London’s theatres were in their Georgian heyday. So here it is below. (If you want to read Moritz’s diary, Project Gutenberg turned it into an ebook and there’s even a free version for the Kindle.)

The Theatre in the Haymarket.

Last week I went twice to an English play-house…For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling. And it is the tenants in this upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the English play-houses are so famous. I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above another, from the top to the bottom.

Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence. At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up. I saw a miller’s, or a baker’s boy, thus, like a huge booby, leaning over the rails and knocking again and again on the outside,
with all his might, so that he was seen by everybody, without being in the least ashamed or abashed. I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one.

Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a footstool. In the boxes, quite in a corner, sat several servants, who were said to be placed there to keep the seats for the families they served till they should arrive; they seemed to sit remarkably close and still, the reason of which, I was told, was their apprehension of being pelted; for if one of them dares but to look out of the box, he is immediately saluted with a shower of orange peel from the gallery.