Being of the wild, reckless generation of the dissolute Prince of Wales who eventually became George IV, the 7th Earl of Barrymore has gone down in history as 'Hellgate' Barrymore, rake of rakes.
Richard Barry was son of Richard Barry Senior, 6th Earl of Barrymore, and his wife, Emily, 3rd daughter of William Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Harrington. He inherited the earldom from his father at the age of only three. His mother placed him under the care of the Rev. John Tickell of Wargrave in Berkshire, but died herself when the boy was only eleven. Richard’s maternal grandmother, the Countess of Harrington, then sent him to Eton - with £1,000 in pocket-money! An intelligent and precocious child, he won a bet of a thousand guineas at Newmarket when he was but sixteen and he straightaway determined to own a stud of racehorses when he came of age.
Whilst on holiday, Richard and his two brothers often visited his old tutor in Wargrave where the devilish combination caused havoc by changing all the inn signs for miles around; riding around the village smashing windows with their horsewhips; disguising themselves as postilions in order to terrify their friends; and walking through Wargrave wearing only their shirts. The villagers forgave them, for the brothers arranged, among other treats, games and sports, on their behalf and gave liberally for prizes. The stage was the young Earl’s greatest passion and he organised several productions in a Wargrave barn, though he always dreamt of, one day, owning his own theatre.
At the age of eighteen, the Earl began to build on his dreams, having secured advances against his expected inheritance from Jewish moneylenders, amongst them the notorious 'Black Dick'. He rented a small house (now called Barrymore’s) in Wargrave and lived their in style, setting up stables in Twyford from which to develop a stud and buying a pack of hounds. His huntsmen, he dressed in the most elegant of uniforms and he employed four mounted black servants dressed in scarlet and silver to blow French horns before them! He wished to hunt red deer and, after much trouble, secured four beasts for the purpose. However, they proved to be either too old or too lame and he was forced to change his plans.
A lively wit with a marked talent for mimicry and the gift of the gab, Barrymore oozed charm and was adored by the ladies. Being very tall, slim and agile, he excelled at most physical undertakings. He was skilled with a sword, a good boxer and, of course, an excellent horseman and whip. His horses often won on the racecourse since he usually rode them himself. He was, of course, a heavy gambler and, in 1788, even bet he could find a man to eat a cat!
That same year, he began to erect his own personal theatre, opposite his Wargrave residence. No expense was spared and, by the time of its completion in February 1789, Barrymore had spend some £60,000 on what was described as "the most handsome and luxurious theatre in the country." The opening night was celebrated by a great dinner and ball which the Earl held in Henley, before the performance put on by distinguished amateurs as well as professional actors from Reading and London. Barrymore and several friends were, of course, included amongst the cast and he is said to have performed brilliantly. The people of Wargrave were all allowed to attend at no cost to themselves.
A range of plays, dramas and farces followed in the theatre's programme of events, all with intermission refreshments of wine and cake costing up to £20. In the August, Barrymore reached his majority. He celebrated with another grand dinner and theatrical performance which, being attended by the Prince of Wales, turned his little playhouse into the ‘Theatre Royal’ for the day. The Prince was a good friend and the Earl spent much time leading him astray in Brighton. The following year, his lordship's birthday celebrations became the talk of London. Though postponed until September, they lasted a whole week and included a masked ball which was said to have been one of the most brilliant spectacles ever seen in the country. These extravaganzas could get quite out of hand, so Barrymore would keep the wilder spirits among his guests in order by holding a mock court, called the 'Two O'Clock Club', which would impose the most ludicrous punishments at that hour of the morning. He was a member, and often a founder, of a number of such laddish societies. Most, like the 'Je ne said Quoi' Club - of which the Prince of Wales was a member - met in taverns, but the 'Bothering Club' met at Barrymore's Wargrave home.
Amongst his other characteristics, the Earl of bright, creative and, above all, motivated. He became an avid fan of boxing and barefist fighting when they became fashionable. He retained his own personal boxer, one 'Hooper the Tinman', who also acted as his tutor in the so-called art. Barrymore therefore fought himself, but was also a great patron, staging a number of fights in Wargrave and putting up the pugilists at the George and Dragon Inn. He once one £25,000 on the Hooper when he beat a boxer named Watson. The man became his constant companion and body-guard, being obliged to step into the Earl's arguments with various low-lives on numerous occasions. For Barrymore's darker side liked to spend time amongst the thieves and delinquents of London's less desirable haunts. He particularly enjoyed baiting a stranger into some practical joke or other, and cared nothing if the unfortunate fellow was hurt in the process. One might, therefore, think of the Earl as something of a 'hard man', but the he also had a softer side. He was an expert in the kitchen and liked nothing better than to cook a meal for his friends. At night, he insisted that all his windows were covered with blankets to completely cut out the light. While the blankets on his bed had his sheets sewn to them, so they could not touch his sensitive skin!
In April 1790, Barrymore's gambling reached its height when he took part in an incredible bet whereby he would race on foot against a certain Captain Parkhurst who was mounted on a horse! There was a thirty yard straight course with a turn around a tree. The winner was to be the best of four heats, but the results ended in a tie. On another occasion, the Earl was tricked out of his winnings when he failed to do his homework thoroughly. A rather rotund Mr. Bullock offered to race his lordship over a hundred yards, claiming he could beat him if given a thirty-five yard head-start. Barrymore eagerly agreed but, unfortunately, allowed his opponent to pick the course. He chose one of Brighton's narrowest lanes and though the Earl quickly caught him up, he found himself unable to pass!
That same year, Barrymore purchased a second theatre, Frantiocini's Marionette Theatre in Saville Row, which he renamed the London Theatre, and also a new town house. However, such extravagance was putting his financial situation in dire straits. Since MPs were exempt from arrest, he decided to contest the parliamentary seat first for Oxford and then for Reading. He held another great dinner at the Crown Hotel to ingratiate himself with the voters but, unfortunately, even the 150lb turtle he had delivered from London to make soup, managed to obtain him the seat. The following year though, he was elected MP for Heytesbury in Wiltshire.
He seems to have courted a Miss Pensonby around this time, but his financial situation led to her father objecting to the match. On 6th June 1792, however, he eloped (needlessly) to Gretna Green with Charlotte Goulding, the niece of Lady Lade but daughter of a sedan chairman! They were certainly married soon afterward, though they apparently never reached Scotland.
Tradesmen soon began to refuse him delivery and several legal actions were brought against the Earl. Things came to a head when the Sheriff’s officers seized his Wargrave Theatre. All the fixtures and fittings were sold and the building itself demolished. His racing stud was also sold. Barrymore remained optimistic throughout and tried to raise his profile by taking a commission in the Royal Berkshire Militia.
The French Revolution was in full swing and the Earl’s regiment was sent to Rye in Sussex to help strengthen the coastal defences there. At Folkestone, he was placed in charge of sixteen French prisoners, so was obliged to keep his rifle constantly loaded with shot. Later, they stopped at an inn for refreshment and the Earl enjoyed the interlude in his usual jovial manner. On leaving, he kissed the landlady goodbye and climbed into his gig. Shortly afterwards, he dropped his gun which accidentally went off and he shot himself in the eye, wounding his head so badly that he died forty minutes later. He was only twenty-four.
Barrymore had sold off the family's Irish estates and was said to have squandered £300,000 during his wild career. To avoid seizure of his body by debtors, his friends therefore brought it back to Wargrave in stages by night. He was buried in the parish church on Sunday when arrest was not allowed; but, when all his finances had been sorted, he was found to be solvent!
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