Once more the manager essayed the difficult task of convincing madness by
appealing to reason. As soon as the din of the rattles and post-horns
would permit him to speak, he said, he would throw himself on the
fairness of the most enlightened metropolis in the world. He was sure, however strongly they might feel upon the subject, they would not be
accessory to the ruin of the theatre, by insisting upon a return to
the former prices. Notwithstanding the little sop he had thrown out to
feed the vanity of this roaring Cerberus, the only answer he received
was a renewal of the noise, intermingled with shouts of "Hoax! hoax!
imposition!" Mr. O'Reilly, the gallant friend of Madame Catalani,
afterwards addressed the pit, and said no reliance could be placed on
the report of the committee. The profits of the theatre were evidently
great: they had saved the heavy salary of Madame Catalani; and by
shutting out the public from all the boxes but the pigeon-holes, they
made large sums. The first and second tiers were let at high rents to
notorious courtesans, several of whom he then saw in the house; and it
was clear that the managers preferred a large revenue from this impure
source to the reasonable profits they would receive from respectable
people. Loud cheers greeted this speech; every eye was turned towards
the boxes, and the few ladies in them immediately withdrew. At the
same moment, some inveterate pitite hoisted a large placard, on which
"We lads of the pit
Will never submit."
Several others were introduced. One of them was a caricature likeness
of Mr. Kemble, asking, "What do you want?" with a pitite replying,
"The old prices, and no pigeon-holes!" Others merely bore the drawing
of a large key, in allusion to a notorious house in the neighbourhood,
the denizens of which were said to be great frequenters of the private
boxes. These appeared to give the managers more annoyance than all the
rest, and the prize-fighters made vigorous attacks upon the holders of
them. Several persons were, on this night, and indeed nearly every
night, taken into custody, and locked up in the watchhouse. On their
appearance the following morning, they were generally held to bail in
considerable sums to keep the peace. This proceeding greatly augmented
the animosity of the pit.
It would be useless to detail the scenes of confusion which
followed night after night. For about three weeks the war continued
with unabated fury. Its characteristics were nearly always the same.
Invention was racked to discover new noises, and it was thought a
happy idea when one fellow got into the gallery with a dustman's bell,and rang it furiously. Dogs were also brought into the boxes, to add
their sweet voices to the general uproar. The animals seemed to join
in it con amore, and one night a large mastiff growled and barked so
loudly, as to draw down upon his exertions three cheers from the
So strong did the popular enthusiasm run in favour of the row,
that well-dressed ladies appeared in the boxes with the letters O. P.
on their bonnets.
O. P. hats for the gentlemen were still more common,
and some were so zealous in the cause, as to sport waistcoats with an
O embroidered upon one flap and a P on the other. O.P. toothpicks were
also in fashion; and gentlemen and ladies carried O.P. handkerchiefs,
which they waved triumphantly whenever the row was unusually
deafening. The latter suggested the idea of O. P. flags, which were
occasionally unfurled from the gallery to the length of a dozen feet.
Sometimes the first part of the night's performances were listened to
with comparative patience, a majority of the manager's friends being
in possession of the house. But as soon as the half-price commenced,
the row began again in all its pristine glory. At the fall of the
curtain it soon became customary to sing "God save the King," the
whole of the O.P.'s joining in loyal chorus. Sometimes this was
followed by "Rule Britannia;" and, on two or three occasions, by a
parody of the national anthem, which excited great laughter. A verse
may not be uninteresting as a specimen.
"O Johnny Bull, be true,
Confound the prices new,
And make them fall!
Curse Kemble's politics,
Frustrate his knavish tricks,
On thee our hopes we fix,
T' upset them all !"
This done, they scrambled over the benches, got up sham fights in the
pit, or danced the famous O.P. dance. The latter may as well be
described here: half a dozen, or a dozen fellows formed in a ring, and
stamped alternately with the right and left foot, calling out at
regular intervals, O. P. - O. P. with a drawling and monotonous sound.
This uniformly lasted till the lights were put out, when the rioters
withdrew, generally in gangs of ten or twenty, to defend themselves from sudden attacks on the part of the constables.
An idea seemed about this time to break in upon them, that
notwithstanding the annoyance they caused the manager, they were
aiding to fill his coffers. This was hinted at in some of the
newspapers, and the consequence was, that many stayed away to punish
him, if possible, under the silent system. But this did not last long.
The love of mischief was as great an incentive to many of them as
enmity to the new prices. Accidental circumstances also contributed to
disturb the temporary calm. At the Westminster quarter-sessions, on
the 27th of October, bills of indictment were preferred against
forty-one persons for creating a disturbance and interrupting the
performances of the theatre. The grand jury ignored twenty-seven of
the bills, left two undecided, and found true bills against twelve.
The latter exercised their right of traverse till the ensuing
sessions. The preferment of these bills had the effect of re-awakening
the subsiding excitement. Another circumstance about the same time
gave a still greater impetus to it, and furnished the rioters with a
chief, round whom they were eager to rally. Mr. Clifford, a barrister,
appeared in the pit on the night of the 31st of October, with the
letters O. P. on his hat.
Being a man of some note, he was pounced
upon by the constables, and led off to Bow Street police office, where
Brandon, the box-keeper, charged him with riotous and disorderly
conduct. This was exactly what Clifford wanted. He told the presiding
magistrate, a Mr. Read, that he had purposely displayed the letters on
his hat, in order that the question of right might be determined
before a competent tribunal. He denied that he had committed any
offence, and seemed to manifest so intimate an acquaintance with the
law upon the subject, that the magistrate, convinced by his reasoning,
ordered his immediate dismissal, and stated that he had been taken
into custody without the slightest grounds. The result was made known
in the theatre a few minutes afterwards, where Mr. Clifford, on his
appearance victorious, was received with reiterated huzzas. On his
leaving the house, he was greeted by a mob of five or six hundred
persons, who had congregated outside to do him honour as he passed.
From that night the riots may be said to have recommenced, and
"Clifford and O. P." became the rallying cry of the party. The
officious box-keeper became at the same time the object of the popular
dislike, and the contempt with which the genius and fine qualities of
Mr. Kemble would not permit them to regard him, was fastened upon his underling. So much ill-feeling was directed towards the latter, that
at this time a return to the old prices, unaccompanied by his
dismissal, would not have made the manager's peace with the pitites.
In the course of the few succeeding weeks, during which the riots
continued with undiminished fury, O. P. medals were struck, and worn
in great numbers in the theatre. A few of the ultra-zealous even wore
them in the streets. A new fashion also came into favour for hats,
waistcoats, and handkerchiefs, on which the mark, instead of the
separate letters O and P, was a large O, with a small P in the middle
The managers, seeing that Mr. Clifford was so identified with the
rioters, determined to make him responsible. An action was accordingly
brought against him and other defendants in the Court of King's Bench.
On the 20th of November, the Attorney-general moved, before Lord
Ellenborough, for a rule to show cause why a criminal information
should not be filed against Clifford for unlawfully conspiring with
certain others to intimidate the proprietors of Covent-Garden Theatre,
and force them, to their loss and detriment, to lower their prices of
admission. The rule was granted, and an early day fixed for the trial.
In the mean time, these proceedings kept up the acerbity of the O.
P.s, and every night at the fall of the curtain, three groans were
given for John Kemble and three cheers for John Bull.
It was during this year that the national Jubilee was celebrated,
in honour of tile fiftieth year of the reign of George III. When the
riots had reached their fiftieth night, the O. P.s also determined to
have a jubilee. All their previous efforts in the way of roaring,
great as they were, were this night outdone, and would have continued long after "the wee short hour," had not the managers wisely put the
extinguisher upon them and the lights about eleven o'clock.
Pending the criminal prosecution against himself, Mr. Clifford
brought an action for false imprisonment against Brandon. The cause
was fixed for trial in the Court of Common Pleas, on the 5th of
December, before Lord Chief-Justice Mansfield. From an early hour in
the morning all the avenues leading to the court were thronged with an
eager multitude; all London was in anxiety for the resuit. So dense
was the crowd, that counsel found the greatest difficulty in making
their way into court. Mr. Sergeant Best was retained on the part of
the plaintiff, and Mr. Sergeant Shepherd for the defence. The
defendant put two pleas upon the record; first, that he was not
guilty, and secondly, that he was justified. Sergeant Best, in stating
the plaintiff's case, blamed the managers for all the disturbances
that had taken place, and contended that his client, in affixing the
letters O. P. to his hat, was not guilty of any offence. Even if he
had joined in the noises, which he had not, his so doing would not
subject him to the penalties for rioting. Several witnesses were then
called to prove the capture of Mr. Clifford, the hearing of the case
before the magistrate at Bow Street, and his ultimate dismissal.
Sergeant Shepherd was heard at great length on the other side, and
contended that his client was perfectly justified in taking into
custody a man who was inciting others to commit a breach of the peace.
The Lord Chief-Justice summed up, with an evident bias in favour
of the defendant. He said an undue apprehension of the rights of an
audience had got abroad. Even supposing the object of the rioters to
be fair and legal, they were not authorized to carry it by unfair
means. In order to constitute a riot, it was not necessary that
personal violence should be committed, and it seemed to him that the
defendant had not acted in an improper manner in giving into custody a
person who, by the display of a symbol, was encouraging others to
commit a riot.
The jury retired to consider their verdict. The crowd without and
within the court awaited the result in feverish suspense. Half an hour
elapsed, when the jury returned with a verdict for the plaintiff --
Damages, five pounds. The satisfaction of the spectators was evident
upon their countenances, that of the judge expressed the contrary feeling. Turning to the foreman of the jury, his Lordship asked upon
which of the two points referred to them, namely, the broad question,
whether a riot had been committed, and, if committed, whether the
plaintiff had participated in it, they had found their verdict?
The foreman stated, that they were all of opinion generally that
the plaintiff had been illegally arrested. This vague answer did not
satisfy his Lordship, and he repeated his question. He could not,
however, obtain a more satisfactory reply. Evidently vexed at what he
deemed the obtuseness or partiality of the jury, he turned to the bar,
and said, that a spirit of a mischievous and destructive nature was
abroad, which, if not repressed, threatened awful consequences. The
country would be lost, he said, and the government overturned, if such
a spirit were encouraged; it was impossible it could end in good.
Time, the destroyer and fulfiller of predictions, has proved that his
Lordship was a false prophet. The harmless O. P. war has been
productive of no such dire results.
It was to be expected that after this triumph, the war in the pit
would rage with redoubled acrimony. A riot beginning at half-price
would not satisfy the excited feelings of the O. P.s on the night of
such a victory. Long before the curtain drew up, the house was filled
with them, and several placards were exhibited, which the constables
and friends of the managers strove, as usual, to tear into shreds. One
of them, which met this fate, was inscribed, "Success to O.P.! A
British jury for ever!" It was soon replaced by another of a similar
purport. It is needless to detail the uproar that ensued; the jumping,
the fighting, the roaring, and the howling. For nine nights more the
same system was continued; but the end was at hand.
On the 14th a grand dinner was given at the Crown and Anchor
tavern, to celebrate the victory of Mr. Clifford. "The reprobators of
managerial insolence," as they called themselves, attended in
considerable numbers; and Mr. Clifford was voted to the chair. The
cloth had been removed, and a few speeches made, when the company were
surprised by a message that their arch-enemy himself solicited the
honour of an audience. It was some time ere they could believe that
Mr. Kemble had ventured to such a place. After some parley the manager
was admitted, and a conference was held. A treaty was ultimately
signed and sealed, which put an end to the long-contested wars of
O.P., and restored peace to the drama.
All this time the disturbance proceeded at the theatre with its
usual spirit. It was now the sixty-sixth night of its continuance, and
the rioters were still untired -- still determined to resist to the
last. In the midst of it a gentleman arrived from the Crown and
Anchor, and announced to the pit that Mr. Kemble had attended the
dinner, and had yielded at last to the demand of the public. He
stated, that it had been agreed upon between him and the Committee for
defending the persons under prosecution, that the boxes should remain
at the advanced price; that the pit should be reduced to three
shillings and sixpence; that the private boxes should be done away
with; and that all prosecutions, on both sides, should be immediately
stayed. This announcement was received with deafening cheers. As soon
as the first burst of enthusiasm was over, the O. P.s became anxious
for a confirmation of the intelligence, and commenced a loud call for
He had not then returned from the Crown and Anchor; but of
this the pitites were not aware, and for nearly half an hour they kept
up a most excruciating din. At length the great actor made his
appearance, in his walking dress, with his cane in hand, as he had
left the tavern. It was a long time before he could obtain silence.
He. apologized in the most respectful terms for appearing before them
in such unbecoming costume, which was caused solely by his ignorance
that he should have to appear before them that night. After
announcing, as well as occasional interruptions would allow, the terms
that had been agreed upon, he added, "In order that no trace or
recollection of the past differences, which had unhappily prevailed so
long, should remain, he was instructed by the proprietors to say, that
they most sincerely lamented the course that had been pursued, and
engaged that, on their parts, all legal proceedings should forthwith
be put a stop to." The cheering which greeted this speech was
interrupted at the close by loud cries from the pit of "Dismiss
Brandon," while one or two exclaimed, "We want old prices generally,
-- six shillings for the boxes." After an ineffectual attempt to
address them again upon this point, Mr. Kemble made respectful and
repeated obeisances, and withdrew. The noises still continued, until
Munden stood forward, leading by the hand the humbled box-keeper,
contrition in his looks, and in his hands a written apology, which he
endeavoured to read. The uproar was increased threefold by his
presence, and, amid cries of "We won't hear him!" "Where's his master?" he was obliged to retire. Mr. Harris, the son of Kemble's
co-manager, afterwards endeavoured to propitiate the audience in his
favour; but it was of no avail; nothing less than his dismissal would
satisfy the offended majesty of the pit. Amid this uproar the curtain
finally fell, and the O. P. dance was danced for the last time within
the walls of Covent Garden.