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The Case of the British Inquisition: Money and Women in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London Debating Societies

  • Mary Thale


In 1754 when the London debating societies were non-profit entertainments exclusively for men, the well-known actor Charles Macklin attempted to commercialize and feminize them in one step. Ostensibly the time was ripe for these changes because the popularity of the public debating societies demonstrated their potential profitability and because the exclusion of women from these artisan societies was being seen as out of step with the trend of public entertainment and manifestations of the Enlightenment. The temporary success of Macklin’s British Inquisition documents the readiness of a growing middle class to extend the range of their commercialized leisure; more significantly, the failure of the British Inquisition reveals the hazards of violating male space and trying to gentrify a workingmen’s entertainment in one stroke. Macklin’s ambitious attempt to cash in on the cultural trends of mid-century London merits a place in the study of the commercializing of popular entertainment and the feminizing of masculine entertainments for commercial ends. Its inclusion of women in public debating foreshadows the later participation of women in public debates and the consequent assigning to public culture values previously regarded as feminine, or, in Terry Eagleton’s phrase, the “feminization of discourse.” Macklin’s enterprise changed significantly the questions debated at these public meetings. However, the failure of his enterprise shows the difficulty of deliberately attempting to change the character of popular culture and to expand gender conventions exponentially.



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1 Cited by Shevlow, Kathryn, Women and Print Culture: the Construction of Feminity in the Early Periodical (London, 1989), p. 4.

2 “Science, provincial culture and public opinion in Enlightenment England,” in The Eighteenth-Century Town, ed. Peter Borsay (London, 1990), p. 253.

3 For an account of this society see Thale, Mary, “The Robin Hood Society: debating in eighteenth-century London,” The London Journal 22 (1997): 3350.

4 Quoted by Pounce, Peter [Lewis, Richard], The Robin Hood Society: a Satire. With Notes Variorum (London, 1756), p. 27n.

5 The Covent-Garden Journal, No. 9 (1 Feb. 1752).

6 Brewer, John, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1997), pp. 7782.

7 See the 1764 History of the Robin Hood Society in which speakers were evaluated in terms of these traditional areas of classical rhetoric.

8 Benzie, W., The Dublin Orator: Thomas Sheridan’s Iinfluence on Eighteenth-Century Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (Menston, 1972), pp. 2324 . An incomplete list of subscribers to Sheridan’s 1762 Course of Lectures on Elocution, which names sixty-three women, indicates the interest of single women in elocution: six were titled, nineteen were “Mrs.” and thirty nine were “Miss” (pp. xix-xxviii). See also, Thale, Mary, “Women in London debating societies,” Gender and History 7 (April 1995): 78.

9 “Institution of a new disputant society for the female sex,” Have at You All: or, the Drury-Lane Journal, Nos. 6-9, 11, 13 (Feb.-April 1752): 125-286.

10 Shevlow, Women and Print Culture, p. 1.

11 An Apology for the Robin-Hood Society (London, 1751), p. 48.

12 General Advertiser, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26 Feb; 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11 Mar. 1752).

13 The seats at plays were priced at box 5s., pit 3s., first gallery 2s., upper gallery Is.

14 The advertisements more directly appealed to women by announcing that “great care” would be taken to make the room “airy, without any danger of the ladies catching cold.” Another advertisement suggested that the entertainment was appropriate for women of higher rank; it announced that “ladies are desired to send their servants by four o’clock” (i.e., to save seats for the ladies, as was done at theatres)(General Advertiser, 26 Feb. & 3 Mar. 1752).

15 General Advertiser, 24 Feb. 1752.

16 The second questions at the second and third meetings asked whether the “good-natur’d, illiterate man [is] more beneficial to society, than an ill-natur’d philosopher” and “which character is most difficult to support with reputation, that of the orator or the player?” (General Advertiser, 24 Feb. & 4 Mar. 1752.

17 Drury-Lane Journal, 27 Feb. 1752, p. 153.

18 Probably the men who started the Temple of Taste thought that the debating would flourish of its own accord. If the augmented speakers from the Robin Hood were paid, the expences of harpsichordists, flautists, violinists, lecturers, and orators must have greatly cut down on profits, even if all the performers were ill-paid.

19 According to William Appleton, Macklin spent £1,200 refurbishing the rooms (Charles Macklin [Cambridge, Mass, 1960], p. 99). He also spent a further £700 on the space above his dining room (A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, eds. Philip Highfill, Jr., Kalman A Burnim, and Edward A. Longhans [Carbondale and Edwardsville, 111., 1973-84]).

20 Public Advertiser 11 Mar. 1754.

21 Public Advertiser 27 Mar. 1754.

22 15 Dec. 1753.

23 Despite this lofty announcement, Macklin followed the example of the Temple of Taste in excluding questions on religion and politics, the subjects which brought most criticism of the Robin Hood.

24 Public Advertiser, 7 Dec. 1754.

25 Public Advertiser, 20 & 21 Nov. 1754.

26 At one of these meetings Edmund Burke is said to have “made the first essay of his powers of Oratory” ( Cook, George, The History of Party, 3 vols. [London, 1836], 3: 66). This is unlikely. By 1754 Burke was 24 or 25 and had been in London four years. The honor of receiving his maiden speech more likely belongs to the Robin Hood.

27 Public Advertiser, 25 & 30 Nov. 1754; Daily Advertiser, 29 Nov. 1754.

28 Daily Advertiser, 23 Dec. 1754; Public Advertiser, 30 Nov. 1754.

29 Public Advertiser, 23 Dec. 1774.

30 Public Advertiser, 6, 9, 11, 18 Dec. 1754.

31 Public Advertiser, 25 Nov. 1754.

32 At the third debate a question asked “Whether a manager of a theatre, or any other person, in prudence or morality, ought to endeavour to suppress it [the British Inquisition]” (Public Advertiser 27 & 28 Nov. 1754). Competition at this time of the year would severely hurt the theatres, for they had to make their annual profit between mid-November and mid-March (George Winchester Stone, Jr, The London Stage 1747-1776: a Critical Introduction [Carbondale, 1968], p. xlvii).

33 Daily Advertiser 11 Dec. 1754.

34 Daily Advertiser 30 Nov. 1754. The first question dealt with the suicide of Cato. After the first meeting of the British Inquisition three questions were advertised for each meeting. There is no evidence whether all three were debated.

35 The price and time of the ordinary were mentioned in every advertisement up to 28 December. On the 30th and 31st, the advertisements state that it was discontinued.

36 Public Advertiser, 16 Jan. & 18 Feb. 1755.

37 Public Advertiser, 27 Jan. 1755.

38 Macklin had to return to the stage for his living, but his interest in debating societies continued and as late as October 1789—his 90th year—he was speaking at the Westminster Forum (Gazetteer, 3 Nov. 1789).

39 Pounce [Lewis], The Robin-Hood Society: a Satire, p. 87n; Cooke, William, Memoirs of Charles Macklin (London, 1804), p. 207.

40 Pounce [Lewis], Robin Hood Society, p. 87n.

41 The only exception was a meeting during Christmas week when Macklin suddenly changed the day of the British Inquisition. Foote’s interruptions of Macklin’s lectures may have been merely a continuation of his fooleries at the Robin Hood, but his holding his “Writ” on the same nights as the British Inquisition, to the detriment of Macklin’s income, suggests hostility and makes unlikely the story that it was all part of a friendly feud. Foote may have been taking revenge for what he regarded as Macklin’s incompetent performance in the title role of his recent comedy, The Englishman in Paris. Foote said the play was “damnably acted” and “Macklin miserably imperfect in the words and in the character” (De-laval MS, quoted in London Stage pt. 4, sec. 1, p. 360). However, the play (without Macklin) was a success; and subsequently Foote had provided tea at Macklin’s final benefit performance a year earlier (Public Advertiser, 17 Dec. 1753).

42 Read’s Weekly Journal, 21 Dec. 1754. Foote also mimicked some of the speakers of the Robin Hood Society. Foote’s ability to draw audiences to this guying of debating societies testifies to the public interest in them.

43 Which has the most modesty, his Honour Esquire F__t or his Highness the Inquisitor?” (Public Advertiser, 17 Dec. 1754.

44 Daily Advertiser, and Public Advertiser, 2 Jan. 1755.

45 Public Advertiser, 16 Jan. and later, Daily Advertiser, 20 Jan. and later. Stevens had recently indicated his contempt for women speakers in an advertisement for an entertainment ridiculing the British Inquisition: “Ladies will be admitted—not to speak” (Public Advertiser, 24 Dec. 1754).

46 Public Advertiser, 10 Jan. 1755.

47 “The Commercialization of leisure,” in The Birth of a Consumer Society, ed. Neil McKendrick, et al. (London, 1982).

48 Female Rights Vindicated; or the Equality of the Sexes Morally and Physically Proved. By a Lady (London, 1758). The rights were well vindicated, for the text was reprinted in 1780 word-for-word but with a different title: Female Restoration, by a Moral and Physical Vindication of Female Talents, in Opposition to all Dogmatical Assertions Relative to the Disparity in the Sexes.

49 Pinchbeck, Ivy, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution (London, 1981), pp. 29597.

50 Like many such changes in gender relations, the Female Coterie, whose members included Horace Walpole and Charles Fox, was seen as an attack on male space. According to a letter in the Gentleman’s Magazine (1770: 263) it “excites the indignation of the virtuous, modest, and religious of both sexes.” The Evening Post (19-22 May 1770) proclaimed it “the most immoral institution, taken in every point of view, that ever was set on foot in this Kingdom.” A satiric print of the Female Coterie shows cheating at cards, heavy betting, a usurer, and a man leading a woman upstairs as if to a bedroom (Catalog of Political and Personal Prints Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, ed. Frederick George Stephens [London, 1978] 4: 4,472).

51 Morning Chronicle, 5 May 1775.

52 Borsay, Peter, The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town 1660-1770 (Oxford, 1989), p. 257.

53 London Evening Post, 6-8 Nov. 1766.

54 See Thale, “Women in London debating societies,” pp. 9-21.

55 The society at Free Mason’s Hall advertised that the tea rooms were painted in a color flattering to women.

56 Sophie in London, trans. Clare Williams (London, 1933), p. 230.

57 Gazetteer, 21 Mar. 1787.

58 Morning Chronicle, 17 Feb. 1791.

59 John Binns recorded that in the 1790s he and two friends lived on the profits of one debating society (Recollections of the Life of John Binns [Philadelphia, 1854], p. 41).

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The Case of the British Inquisition: Money and Women in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London Debating Societies

  • Mary Thale


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