Colley Cibber’s Daughter
by John Adcock
From infancy Charlotte was masculinely inclined, a Regency tomboy if you will. Once, expecting an attack on the house by thieves, she let off a blunderbuss through the windows. She was petted as a child but after a marriage to a dissolute violin player failed her father began to make her life miserable. In the Memoirs of Robert William Elliston, Comedian it is related in melodramatic fashion that Mrs. Charke had been living unpleasantly with her father for some time, and set out to lighten his pocket-book once he had ceased to honour her drafts. She hired a fiery steed, equipped herself as a gentleman of the road, and stopped his transport on a lonely road in Epping Forest where, pointing a pistol at his head, she demanded he stand and deliver.
“Young man, Young man,” said the comedian and dramatist, “this is a sorry trade; take heed in time !”
“And so I would,” replied Charlotte, “but I’ve a wicked old hunks of a father, who rolls in money and mistresses, yet denies me a guinea, and has had the impudence to make so worthy a gentleman as yourself answer for it !”
When Charlotte heard a man relate this untrue story it “mortified her so much that she nearly killed the fellow.”
Her first appearance on the stage was in a small part as Mademoiselle in the Provoked Wife on April 28, 1730. This led to engagements at the Haymarket and Drury-lane Theatres. A quarrel with a manager left her unemployed and she opened a grocer shop in Long Acre. Tricked and robbed she opened a puppet-show in James-street, near the Haymarket. She was thrown into debtors prison, and rescued by the charity of the celebrated Mrs. Elizabeth Hughes. At this time she began calling herself Sir Charles and appeared about town in male attire. Partly she went about in disguise to avoid the bailiffs. As times got harder she began a bewildering variety of occupations, including beggar, and spent nearly nine years as a member of a group of strolling players.
“Her feats were extraordinary and her occupations multifarious. She was a match for the best with a fencing foil, was a good shot; she would ride a race against a jockey, and curry a horse with any groom. She was a fiddler, an actress, a shopkeeper, a sausage-seller, a valet de chambre, alehouse-keeper, and the manager of a puppet-show. Now in affluence, next in indigence, and then set up again, says my authority, by a subscription raised by harlots. Mrs. Charke wrote three pieces for the stage. The Carnival, The Art of Management and Tit for Tat.”- The Somerset House Gazette (1824)
Charlotte wore men’s breeches off the stage as well as on, and took the name Charles Brown while she was living with a woman named Mrs. Brown in Petticoat Lane, Whitechapel, where she was involved in legerdemain. She charmed a lady who proposed marriage, leading to a disclosure of her true sex “to the disappointment of the lady.”
In an article in All the Year Round, Literary Adventurers, October 10, 1863, the story is told of an Irish gentleman, Mr. Whyte, who paid her a visit in company with a London book-seller.
“She was then a widow, but her father was still living. Charlotte, who in her youth had dwelt in luxury equal to that of many ladies of title, was now domiciled in a wretched thatched hovel in the purlieus of Clerkenwell Bridewell, at that time a wild suburb, where the scavengers used to throw the cleansings of the streets. (Note: In Mr. Whyte’s original account he wrote with less restraint ; ‘It was usual for the scavengers to leave the cleansings of the streets, and the priests of Cloacina to deposit the offerings from the temples of that all-worshiped power. The night preceding a heavy rain had fallen, which rendered this extraordinary seat of the Muses almost inaccessible; so that, in our approach, we got our white stockings enveloped with mud up to the very calves…’) The house and it’s scanty furniture sufficiently indicated the extreme poverty of the inmates. Mrs. Charke ( White : ‘a tall, meagre, ragged, figure with a blue apron‘) sat on a broken chair by a little scrap of fire, and the visitors were accommodated with a rickety deal board. A half-starved dog lay at the authoress’s feet; a cat sat on one hob, and a monkey on the other; while a magpie perched on the back of its mistress’s chair. A worn-out pair of bellows served for a writing-desk, and a broken cup for an inkstand : these were matched by the pen, which was worn down to the stump, and was the only one on the premises. The lady asked thirty guineas for the copyright; the bookseller offered five, but was at length induced by his friend to give ten, on condition that Mr. White would pay a moiety, and take half the risk. In addition the authoress was to receive fifty copies for herself, which was probably equal to so much more money.” Possibly the manuscript referred to was a novel with a homosexual character, Henry Dumont (1754).
At one time she wielded a quill for the Bristol Weekly Intelligencer, leaving when the printer welched on payment. She penned her autobiography A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke in 1755, which was published in numbers. Her vengeful father died in 1757 and, angry to the last, left her £5 as a bequest. The extraordinary woman died on April 6, 1760.
Biographical Notes : Biographia Dramatica: Or, A Companion to the Playhouse 1764.
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*May Turpin, The Queen of the Road. A Romance* By the Author of "Dick Turpin, A Romance of the Road," "Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild," &c., &c. Newsagents' Publishing Company (Limited) 147, Fleet Street. 1864