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The Bard of the Beefsteaks

In Coldharbour Gentlemen, when young Harry is taken to a meeting of the Gentlemen’s Darking Club by his kinsman Lee Steere Steere, he hears a ballad sung by Captain Charles Morris, a crony of the Duke of Norfolk. In 1800, this would have been a rare treat for an obscure boy from the countryside because Captain Morris kept the most exalted company and spent nearly all his time in London. He had also, by the mid-1790s, largely ceased writing the popular songs, bawdy and political, for which he was famous.

     Born in 1745 into a military family of Welsh and Irish origins, Charles Morris joined the 17th Foot and attained his captaincy whilst serving in America. Later he transferred to the Royal Irish Dragoons and then the 2nd Life Guards so that he could remain in the metropolis, an environment that suited him far better than a military encampment. His gift for clever, ribald, and timely verse brought him to the attention of Charles James Fox during the heated political campaigns of 1784. Morris wrote songs mocking Fox’s opponent William Pitt that became wildly popular, and their author found himself taken up by the scandalous political hostesses of the day, Mrs Crewe and the Duchess of Devonshire. Both women, impatient with the unspoken rule that ladies had no place in the rough-and-tumble of political life, hosted salons for the Whig opposition and introduced Captain Morris’s raunchy balladry to their female friends in their drawing-rooms.

James Gillray, ‘Homer Singing His Verses to the Greeks’ [Charles Morris, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Charles James Fox] (1797), hand-coloured etching published by Hannah Humphrey. NPG D12619. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

     The notoriety of his verses won him an invitation to join the Sublime Society of Beef-Steaks in 1785. The Beefsteaks was a very small club that had originated as a small gathering in the atelier of a scene-painter for Covent Garden’s Theatre Royal. The twenty-four members would convene for lively conversation—often centred on one member ruthlessly roasting another—and a dinner of steak grilled in the room. Wit was favoured over birth in selecting members, and no one could join until an existing member resigned or died. Once radical politician John Wilkes joined the Society in the 1750s the group’s membership changed, with politics becoming a more prominent part of the conversation.

     By February 1785 when Captain Morris was invited to join, the company though still showing signs of its theatrical origin (playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a member) leaned heavily towards the aristocracy: the Duke of Norfolk and the royal Dukes of Clarence and Sussex were members, and the Prince of Wales successfully petitioned for admission shortly after Captain Morris had been named Chief Bard and Punch-Maker. After the steak dinner at each meeting, once the Duke of Norfolk had tucked away three or four steaks, Morris was expected to take to the boards of the theatre and sing one of his comic ballads.

Morris became a lifelong companion of Norfolk and the Prince, both of whom eventually rewarded him materially—the Prince with an annuity of £200 and, after 1800, the Duke with property: Brockham Court Lodge, a small house in the hamlet of Brockham just east of Darking, under the shadow of Box Hill. This was high living for the younger son of an obscure military family.

After a portrait by Archer James Oliver, ‘Charles Morris’ (1808), mezzotint engraving by and published by Thomas Hodgetts. NPG D13747. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

     For a man of relatively modest means, such exalted company must have been a strain on both spirits and pocketbook. In 1773 Morris had married a widow (née Anne Hussey Delaval) some eight years his senior, and although they had no children he did have a household to maintain in London on his military pay and a little money that had been settled on her at the time of her first marriage. It must have been humiliating on occasion literally to have to sing for his supper. Nevertheless, Morris appears to have accepted his rôle as tame monkey for aristocratic gatherings with grace and good cheer. The Prince referred to him as “the Sun of the Table” when he dined at the Prince’s Carlton House residence.

     Captain Morris was notorious for his love of London life and his distaste for the countryside, writing in ‘The Town and Country; or, The Contrast,’

                        In town let me live then, in town let me die;
                        For in truth I can’t relish the country, not I.
                        If one must have a villa in summer to dwell,
                        Oh! give me the sweet shady side of Pall Mall.

It is ironic, therefore, that when the Duke of Norfolk extended to his longtime friend the kind gift of a home (shamed into the act, it is said, by actor John Kemble), it was a villa in a backwater rural village. It seems that Morris adjusted to the life, however, resigning from the Beefsteak Society in the early years of the nineteenth century but living on for years at Brockham until he died at age ninety-three, in 1838. He is buried in the churchyard at Betchworth, to the east of Darking.

     The poem in the Gentlemen’s Darking Club scene of Coldharbour Gentlemen, ‘The Veteran Bacchanal,’ is excerpted from a posthumous collection of Morris’s verses, the Lyra Urbanica.

6 September 2021

Sources

Walter Arnold, Life and Death of the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks (London, 1871).

Charles Morris, Lyra Urbanica; or, The Social Effusions of the Celebrated Captain Morris, 2 vols. (London, 1840).

 Ian David Newman, Tavern Talk: Literature, Politics & Conviviality, Ph.D. diss. (UCLA, 2013).

Thomas Seccombe, “Morris, Charles,” Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 39 (1885–1900).

John Timbs, Club Life of London, vol. 1 (London, 1866).

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