Any reader of the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer will be aware of one of the important sporting haunts of Regency gentlemen, Henry Angelo’s Fencing Academy, in Bond Street. If scenes were not set in the environs of the academy, it was often mentioned as a place where one or more of the male characters in the story spent some time in manly pursuits. Years ago, I found a reference to the Reminiscences of Henry Angelo in the bibliography of an old book on Regency history. Once I knew the book existed, I kept an eye out for it, assuming sooner or later I would find a copy somewhere. Finally, just last week, I came across a copy of the book, only to discover it was not at all what I expected it to be.
Some of the surprises in Henry Angelo’s Reminiscences . . .
First, it is important to understand that there were actually three Henrys in the Angelo family during the Regency, father, son and grandson. The eldest was Henry Angelo I (1760-1839), his son was Henry II, (1780-1852), and Henry III (1806-1866), was the son of Henry II. Henry I was the grandson of Domenico Angelo, who had founded a dynasty of fencing masters who promoted fencing as a healthful exercise, not just a military skill. Domenico had been appointed fencing master to the two eldest sons of King George III. He then went on to found a fencing academy in the Soho section of London, probably around 1765.
Though Domenico trained his son, Henry, in the fine art of fencing, he sent the young man to Paris to complete his education. In 1785, Henry I took over the management of his father’s London fencing academy. For a time, Henry I moved his academy into space in Albany, in Piccadilly. During that time, he befriended retired pugilist, "Gentleman" John Jackson. Henry I encouraged Jackson to establish a boxing studio and provided him with space in the Albany academy. Eventually, Henry I and Jackson moved to Old Bond Street, where they set up new premises next door to one another. Henry Angelo I ran his fencing academy on Bond Street until 1817, when he retired. His son, Henry II, took over running the business, which remained on Bond Street until 1830.
Henry Angelo I took up writing in his retirement and in the late 1820s, he wrote his Reminiscences, a rambling tale of his life from his childhood. Volume I was published in 1828, and Volume II was published in 1830. Angelo did write about his recollections of his father, who was both a fencing master and a riding master, who taught many prominent members of the beau monde from the mid-eighteenth century. However, Henry I does not expend a great deal of ink and paper on his own experiences at the fencing academy. What as most surprising to me was that Henry Angelo had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances among prominent artists, actors and musicians and enjoyed a life of high culture. Though he made his living from providing instruction in a sporting activity, the first volume of his Reminiscences was rife with anecdotes about actors, painters, and composers. He was eventually bitten by the acting bug and acted in a number of amateur theatricals before he moved on to perform in some of the legitimate theatres in London.
The full title of this book is Reminiscences of Henry Angelo, with memoirs of his late father and friends, including numerous original anecdotes and curious traits of the most celebrated characters that have flourished during the last eighty years. And it certainly lives up to its subtitle. Volume I of the Reminiscences was dedicated to King George IV. It is a rambling series of gossipy anecdotes about the many people Henry I had met as a child through his father, and his continued relationship with many of them when he became an adult. He was acquainted with several members of the royal family, he knew the painters Gainsborough and Reynolds, Rowlandson and Gillray, Garrick and Sheridan, Abel and Bach, among many others. Henry regularly socialized with his wide circle, dining with them, even sometimes travelling with them. I learned while reading this volume that in the late eighteenth century, playing cards were also known as "devil’s pops." This volume is a fascinating picture of the social life of London from the middle of the eighteenth century through the reign of George IV.
Volume II of the Reminiscences is less focused on the arts and includes a number of anecdotes about some of the more popular venues in London, including Vauxhall Gardens, and Ranelagh. He compares these places of public entertainment with those he knew in Paris. Having spent time at both Vauxhall and Ranelagh, Angelo describes some of his experiences there. Sporting events, such as walking races and boxing matches are also mentioned in this volume. The cross-dressing Chevalier d’Eon and the sexologist, Dr. James Graham also get a mention here. Angelo’s fencing academy does get a few mentions in this second volume. He relates the tale of when his studio was near the Opera House, which caught fire one night and what he was able to rescue. Perhaps the most amusing is the time a group of his fencing students took a meal with him at the academy. Since it was a casual affair, most of them did not bother to don the shirts they had removed while fencing, and dined wearing only their jackets. One fellow imbibed to deeply, and his friends took him home. When Angelo paid a visit to the fellow’s home to inquire after him, the servant who answered the door was very upset, believing his master had been robbed of his shirt and his watch before arriving home. Angelo knew both were still at his academy and had them delivered to the young man’s home. He also tells of his acquaintance with Lord Byron, from the time he taught the young man at Eton, though the times he provided private lessons to Byron in his rooms at Albany. But perhaps the most surprising revelation was that Henry Angelo I had taught fencing to a number of actresses, whom he names and describes their respective abilities.
One of my favorite stories in this volume is about Mrs. Zoffany, the wife of the artist. She did not care to spend time with her husband’s guests after dinner, so arranged with her baby’s nurse to drop a heavy book on the floor of the chamber above the dining room at a certain time. Mrs. Zoffany reacted to the loud thump with a cry of alarm that her child must have been dropped by the nurse and fled the dining room. She did not return that evening. Angelo relates his recollections of other dinners he attended through these years, discussing both the food which was served and those who attended the meals. He also accepted invitations to dinners at a number of public houses and taverns in London and across England. In many cases, he shares his views on the meals served there as well. He also tells an amusing tale of how, as a young man, he attended the Lord Mayor’s Dinner, only to find himself placed at a table on which the dirty dishes were stacked. Henry I made his way to one of the larger tables, ingratiated himself with a lady diner and was able to partake of most of the delicacies served.
Angelo writes about his various travels to Europe, including France, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland over his lifetime. He had traveled to France as a young man, and in August of 1814, he traveled to Holland and Belgium. In the 1820s, after his retirement from the fencing academy, Angelo again traveled to the Continent, at leisure to spend more time and visit more countries. A keen observer of his fellow man, Angelo shares a number of anecdotes about those people whom he encountered in his travels. He also employed a number of different types of conveyances during the course of his travels, sharing his experience of each. The hotels and other accommodations at which he stayed on his journey also come in for their share of comment.
The Reminiscences are a bit of a challenge to use as a reference source, since neither volume has a Table of Contents. Fortunately, there is an index, which covers both volumes, at the end of Volume II. Browsing the Index will provide a tantalizing list of the topics covered by Henry Angelo’s recollections. The copy I discovered is available in digital format, and therefore is electronically searchable, which can save a diligent researcher quite a lot of time when seeking information on a specific topic.
The 1828 edition of Volume I of the Reminiscences was uploaded to the Internet Archive in December of 2008, but it was not until January of 2015 that the 1830 edition of Volume II of the Reminiscences was uploaded. A 1904 reprint of both volumes was uploaded in July of 2015. Personally, I prefer the original edition, both volumes of which are now available in a selection of digital formats at the Internet Archive:
Though this book is not a detailed account of the operations of Henry Angelo’s fencing academy, it is a wonderful, rambling account of life in London and England in the last decades of the eighteenth century though the end of the reign of George IV. Henry Angelo I had remarkable access to a wide range of British society from the time he was a child and he has recorded his memories of that life in this entertaining book. I suspect that many Regency authors will find snippets of vocabulary and real-life anecdotes in the Reminiscences which can be used to embellish a Regency romance or three. Since it is available for free from the Internet Archive, why not add a copy to your own digital research library?