Two hundred years ago, this coming Sunday, a man who came to be dubbed "the dandy-killer," spent the day at White’s gentlemen’s club, where he told everyone who would listen that Beau Brummell was deeply in debt and unable to pay his creditors. Making this news public put Brummell in an extremely precarious position and the Beau knew he could no longer remain in England. The following evening, Beau Brummell left his box at Covent Garden and stepped into a chaise which whisked him out of London. Early the following morning, he chartered a ship in Dover which took him across the English Channel to Calais. He would spend the rest of his life in northern France and would never set foot in his homeland again.
How the dandy-killer precipitated Beau Brummell’s flight to France . . .
Some people believed the beginning of the end for Beau Brummell began when he insulted the Prince Regent at the Dandies’s Ball in July of 1813. Others, including Brummell himself, believed his downfall was precipitated by the loss of his lucky silver sixpence. But sadly, the true cause of his social ruination would also be the eventual cause of his mental and physical ruination, and ultimately, his death.
As a young man, Brummell had a commission in the Tenth Royal Hussars. He was only nineteen years old when his regiment spent the summer in Brighton. It was there that he probably had his first exposure to ladies of the demi-monde, but it would not be his last. Though he was never known to be an overtly romantic man, the Beau would enjoy the favors of some of those ladies from time to time for the rest of his years in England. It is believed that the result of one of these amorous encounters, probably in 1814, was that he contracted syphilis. There was no cure for syphilis in the nineteenth century. Its symptoms were usually treated, on an ongoing basis, with mercury, which had its own unpleasant and toxic side effects, which could sometimes be fatal.
After his contretemps with the Prince Regent at the Dandies’ Ball in the summer of 1813, most people were much more sympathetic to Brummell than to the Regent. Therefore, even though Brummell’s relationship with the Prince was irrevocably ended, he still retained most of his other prominent friends and his place in society. However, he lived well beyond his means, and developed a growing obsession with gambling, by which he supported his expensive lifestyle. Remarkably, for quite a long time, Brummell won more than he lost at the gambling tables of the gentlemen’s clubs of London. Enough to preserve the pretence that he had a gentleman’s income and keep his creditors at bay.
At some point, an acquaintance had given the Beau a silver sixpence with a hole in it. They told him that as long as he took good care of it and kept the sixpence with him, everything would go well for him. And so it did. But one night, probably after a long evening of gambling and drinking, Brummell inadvertently used his lucky sixpence as payment to a hackney coach driver. Desperate to get it back, he advertized for his special sixpence, offering a reward for its return. Though many people came forward with a plethora of silver sixpences which had holes in them, none of them was the Beau’s special lucky sixpence. Soon thereafter, Brummell’s luck at the gambling tables deserted him and he began loosing much more than he won.
In truth, the loss of the lucky sixpence was less of a disaster for Brummell than was the progression of his venereal disease. Over the previous couple of years, he had had to endure several mercury treatments for his syphilis. It is likely that both the disease and the mercury treatments were beginning to take their toll, not just on his physical condition, but on his mental state, causing him to suffer both physical malady and severe depression. He became increasingly reckless at the gambling tables and had bouts of what can only be described as self-destructive impulses, borrowing large sums of money he could not repay at exorbitant rates of interest. He was only able to continue along this path by borrowing larger and larger sums, at even higher interest rates, to make the payments on the previous loans. But he seemed unwilling or unable to stop this frenetic spiral of increasing debt.
Unfortunately for Brummell, he had inadvertently made another enemy in London, in addition to the Prince Regent, though much lower on the social scale. Richard Meyler was several years younger than Brummell, and had arrived in the metropolis after the Beau was already on the rise. Meyler soon developed an intense hatred for Brummell, probably due to envy, contempt and a sense of social and sartorial inadequacy. There is no doubt that Brummell could be quite snobbish, but most of his aristocratic friends were amused rather than offended by his attitude. Meyler, however, though he was quite affluent, got his money from the Bristol sugar trade and had no aristocratic connections. One of Brummell’s friends, Lord Alvanley, called Meyler "that methodistical little grocer."
Meyler had developed a strong attraction to Harriette Wilson, and after she had ended her relationship with the Marquis of Worcester, they had a passionate affair. This was a very rocky relationship, fraught with numerous violent disagreements followed by ardent reconciliations. During and after this affair, Harriette Wilson maintained her relationship with Beau Brummell. Meyler, who still harbored feelings for her after they parted ways, came to believe she preferred Brummell to him. Perhaps even worse, one night, during a performance at the King’s Theatre, the Beau and Harriette shared a box together just across the way from that of the Duchess of Beaufort, the mother of Meyler’s friend, the Marquis of Worcester. The Duchess, who liked attractive young men, had invited the very handsome young Meyler to join her in her box. As Harriette and the Beau laughed together while they watched the play, Meyler became convinced they were laughing at him. His sense of mortification only deepened his hatred of Beau Brummell.
By early May of 1816, Brummell was in very serious financial difficulty. He had borrowed so much money that he could no longer make even the interest payments. He had only been able to get some of these loans because his wealthier aristocratic friends had stood surety for him, so the burden of repayment was not solely on him. One of those friends was the Marquis of Worcester, whom he met at Watier’s club late one evening, after a long session of gambling which resulted in very heavy losses. Brummell confessed his situation to his friend. Perhaps in a fit of anger, and probably unaware of the depth of Meyler’s hatred of Brummell, Worcester told Meyler of Brummell’s circumstances. Meyler saw his chance to destroy his hated nemesis. On Wednesday, 15 May 1816, Meyler went to St. James’s Street, to the gentlemen’s club of which both he and Brummell were members, White’s. There, he spent the day, exposing the true state of Brummell’s finances to anyone who would listen.
When the news of Meyler’s betrayal of his financial situation reached Brummell, he is reported to have paid a visit to Fribourg and Treyer, his snuff merchants in the Haymarket. There, he purchased a large jar of Martinque snuff, then went to his home, at 4 Chesterfield Street, in Mayfair, were he spent the rest of the day. So long as the truth about his finances was known only by a few close friends, Brummell had been able to maintain the illusion that he was a prosperous man about town. With Meyler’s very public disclosure, that was no longer possible. Brummell was well aware that at least some of his creditors would demand he be incarcerated in a debtor’s prison. He would have to act quickly if he were to preserve his freedom.
The Beau spent much of the next day, Thursday, 16 May 1816, at home, where he made plans and wrote letters to several friends. Late in the day, he ordered in a bottle of claret and cold capon from Watier’s Club. After he dined, he dressed in his usual evening garments of black pantaloons, black jacket and waistcoat, pure white shirt and neck-cloth. He then set out for the Covent Garden Theatre, where he was seen in a box watching the last act of the play. He casually nodded to several acquaintances during the course of the performance. Many of them expected to converse with him in the lobby of the theatre after the play, but they were to be disappointed. During the curtain call, Brummell quietly slipped out of the theatre and stepped into a chaise which had been loaned to him by one of his noble friends.The chaise quickly pulled into London traffic, travelling across Westminster Bridge and carrying the Beau to Clapham Common.
In a quiet corner of Clapham Common, Brummell’s own carriage waited, harnessed to a team of four fresh horses. Earlier in the day, Brummell had packed most of his clothes and as many small valuables as he could, and all were stowed aboard his carriage. As soon as he took his seat, the horses set off on the road south at a brisk pace. By dawn, Brummell arrived in the port of Dover. There, he engaged a small ship to carry him to France. His carriage was put on board the ship, and as the tide turned, the ship sailed out of the harbor, carrying Brummell away from his homeland. It is reported that the Beau stood on the deck of the ship, watching as the coast of England slowly receded from his view.
Within days of his flight, the bailiffs descended on Brummell’s home on Chesterfield Street. Before the month was out, all of the possessions he left behind which had any value went on the block at Christie’s auction house in Park Lane. The catalog of the sale noted the furniture, books, porcelain, silver, art drawings, several dozen bottles of fine wines, and even a double-barreled fowling piece by Manton, were all the property of "A Man of Fashion Gone to the Continent." The sale was scheduled to run for two days, from Wednesday, 22 May 1816, to Thursday, 23 May 1816. In the end, bidding was so brisk and intense that every lot was sold on the first day of the sale. A number of Brummell’s friends purchased souvenirs of the Beau at the Christie’s auction.
Since he had been forced to flee England without a passport, Brummell could not go further into France than Calais. So he sold his carriage to shore up his cash reserves, found a neat but inexpensive apartment and settled into the much slower life of a French costal town. He often walked down to the docks, looking across the Channel to the shores of his homeland, which were just visible on a clear day. He was particularly pleased when an arriving ship brought some of his friends for a visit. And so it was, just three years before the Regency came to a close, that the jealous and spiteful dandy-killer, Richard Meyler, forced Beau Brummell, one of the most well-known figures of Regency London, to leave England, never to return.