A Schoolboy Comedian’s Prank (Snippets 40)

Haymarket

The Haymarket Theatre, where Mathews made his first London performance, photographed c. 1900.

Charles Mathews (1776-1835) was an English comedian, known chiefly for his impressions, and for playing many different characters in one performance (see also Katie’s Pick of Punch 5.  His memoirs were published posthumously in 1839 by his widow.  Autobiographical writing can often be amusing, but especially so when written by a comedian.  Remembering his school days, Mathews wrote of his cruel treatment at the hands of his teachers, and the moment when a practical joke went wrong:

In due course of time I was sent to school — St. Martin’s Free School was, I believe, the first. In the indiscriminate selection of a first school, there are very few who reflect on its consequent effects in after life. Had I twenty sons, I would never send one to the school of a man fond of punishment. I say fond, for I am convinced that my first pompous pedagogue had no gratification equal to the superintending a flagellation. “Let this little gentleman feel the rod!” I have the sound in my ears at this moment. Had flogging given knowledge, I might have been a dangerous rival to the seven Greek sages. But, alas! I did not flourish, though my master did! Often have I cast an eye to the little cherubs that clung on the corner of the organ at the end of the schoolroom, and wished I had been shaped like them, — only head and wings!

Our master, Pownall, was a remarkably handsome man, but pomposity itself. His usher, Shaw, a lank bony Scotchman, — how can I describe him? — squinted “more than a gentleman ought.” He had a barbarous accent, and therefore, I suppose, was selected to teach the “Breetish languitch in its oreeginal peurity” to us cockneys. He was a quaint man — thin as a pitchfork. He used to shamble up and down the school by slow fits, rubbing his gamboge chin with ‘his burnt-umber fingers, and directing little bits of broken unintelligible advice to the leering, sheepish, idle little animals who sat in rows up the room, walking before them like Aaron with his rod.

I was at that time particularly fond of carrying a bit of broken looking-glass, to dazzle “Shaw’s queer optics” with. Many were the convulsive, painfully-smothered laughs I and my wicked co-adjutors writhed under, (while I remained undiscovered,) at his simplicity and patience, enduring this infliction day after day, squinting up to discover through what cranny in the blind it was that the sun came in to occasion this annoyance: but at length I was caught in the fact; for, while I thought he was looking in an entirely opposite direction, I found he was looking me and my bit of glass full in the face. I was horsed, and now really flogged — barbarously birched; while Pompey Pownall roared out, with a voice of thunder, this facetious moral, — “That, sir, will teach you, I hope, not to cast reflections on the heads of the school!”

Here may be traced my first attempts at mimicry. I remember the flogging fellows to this hour, — their voice, tone, and manner; and my ruling propensity was thus early called into action at their expense.

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