1708 – 1760
What I love about Greenwich is that whatever cliche you care to mention, we have an example of it somewhere. Lavinia Fenton is 18th Century ‘actresses’ personified (child prostitute to duchess with a spot of acting in between) and it’s very pleasing to know that she once walked at least one or two of the streets we know today (no – not that kind of walk – by that time she was most definitely in “respectable” mode.
There is, of course, as with all stories of this nature, a questionable lineage. She was brought up by her mother’s husband, but it’s unlikely he was her real father – that honour probably going to a sailor (see what I mean about cliche?) called Beswick.
These were saucy days – where London was a dangerous and exhilarating world full of coffee houses, silks, satins, grand buildings – and footpads, murderers, cozeners, whores, drinking and gambling dens. She became a child prostitute (there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of filles-de-joie in those days – it’s worth taking a peek at a copy of the slightly later quarter-million seller Harris’s Lists of Covent Garden Ladies which was literally a catalogue of hookers – what they looked like, where they lived and what they would do, including ‘specialities’ of eye-popping inventiveness – any notions of genteel history fly right out of the window…) but really made her (stage) name as an actress.
As Lavinia Fenton she played Monimia in Thomas Otway’s The Orphan in 1726 at the Haymarket Theatre, and then moved onto Lincoln’s Inn Fields where she joined a theatre company and became quite a starlet – mainly with the gentlemen. It wasn’t that she was particularly beautiful, but she was vivacious (why aren’t people described as ‘vivacious’ any more?) had a good figure and could sing well
Her big moment came with the still-performed (though more often as the inspiration for Brecht/Weil’s Threepenny Opera) Beggars Opera by John Gay. No one was interested in any of the other poor sods in the show – all the notices raved about her portrayal of Polly Peachum and she became almost synonymous with the role.
Audiences went mad, buying up all the souvenirs they could – mezzo-tint drawings, ‘biographies’ – and the lyrics of her songs printed on ladies fans (I wonder if they have one in the Fan Museum..?)
There was one fan in particular, of the supporter-variety, Charles Paulet, who became really obsessed. The fact that he was the 3rd Duke of Bolton probably made the attention a bit more palatable but he was hardly a catch looks-wise. Much older than her, in Hogarth’s painting of a performance of the show, he is the creepy bloke watching her intently from the box in full stalker-fashion. The flesh crawls even more when you know that this particular performance was taking place in Newgate Prison.
It was the talk (though hardly scandal – everyone was at it) of the town but she knew which side her crumpets were buttered and, after several revivals of the show, she moved in with him. He married her as soon as his wife died. They had three illegitimate children.
So what’s the connection with Greenwich? Well, she survived her husband and came to live at Westcombe House. This is not, of course, John Julius Angerstein’s Woodlands; it was an earlier building. I think there’s a painting of it in The Spread Eagle restuarant. She spent the rest of her life living grandly as a Duchess, and when she died was buried in St Alfege’s Church. I’m not sure where her grave is; I assume it’s in the crypt with Thomas Tallis and General Wolfe, but if anyone knows for sure, I’d like to know.
We don’t have any real reminders of her in Greenwich, which is a shame – a nice statue of her as Polly Peachum would be a welcome feminine addition to a largely masculine bunch of sculptures here – but there is, inexplicaby, a Rua Lavinia Fenton in Sao Paulo and a Lavinia Fenton suite in a hotel in Basingstoke.