Golden Ball’s ‘Divine Fairy Sprite’
Today I would like to talk about a sparkling celebrity couple. A teenage pop sensation, and a dandyish sporting man, whose love-match was to make them the darlings of the gossip pages. Long before the days of Heat, Hello and, er, Love It, David Beckham is not the first man to have been described in gilded terms…
Allow me to introduce Edward ‘Golden Ball’ Hughes, who, had Blackadder III have actually been real, would have been front of the queue at Central Casting for Stereotype-Dandy-Number-One. Born in 1798, Ball-Hughes was Eton-educated and had a commission bought for him in the 7th Hussars.
After an uncle died in 1819, he acquired £40,000 a year, an extra ‘Hughes,’ making him Edward Hughes-Ball-Hughes, and the rather obvious nickname, “Golden Ball.” Morphing into full ‘Regency Beau’ mode, he became part of Prinny’s set and paid much attention to his appearance, gambling and the ladies, not necessarily in that order. Here he is:
Of his appearance, he did pretty well. He was described as “remarkably handsome,” (though this seems to have been a more frequent cry after the money rocked up) ran around town in a striking chocolate-brown carriage and – I promise I’m not making this up – invented his own cravat, an elegant black affair, much copied by the dandies of the day.
In gambling, he did extremely well – or badly, depending on whether you count success as the amount of time spent at the tables or the amount of cash lost. Actually, come to think of it, he did quite impressively at both. He particularly liked Battledore and Shuttlecock, but he was up for anything where there was money at stake.
With the ladies, his results were rather more mixed.
He was clearly a highly eligible bachelor – long before Mrs Merton came on the scene, his mate from Eton, Captain Gronow, noted wryly that “no dinner, ball, pic-nic, or party was complete unless the popular millionaire formed one of the social circle.”
Curiously, though, he managed to get himself a bit of a reputation as a jilted John. He was very good at falling head over heels in love, but somehow always ended up getting rejected. Lady Jane Paget, the lovely Miss Floyd, Lady Caroline Churchill and Lady Caroline Pennant all turned him down flat. Miss Floyd added insult to injury by marrying a policeman instead (albeit a top one – Sir Robert Peel, no less).
I don’t know if these good ladies were sniffy before or after the forty grand appeared on the scene; I do know that a couple of them regretted the choice afterwards and were lampooned for it by anonymous gossips like the English Spy. Word got around that he was soiled goods, but that didn’t stop the Mrs Bennetts of this world from chucking their daughters at him, especially after his change in fortunes.
But let us change the scenery, to Andalusia, Spain, and to a certain 15 year-old dancer, Maria Mercandotti. Stunningly beautiful, fabulously talented – and with a rich patron, Lord Fife, who may or may not have been her natural father, it wasn’t long before she made her way to England where she became, as they say, the talk of London.
A Mr Ebers, manager of the Kings Theatre, snapped her up at the dizzy sum of £800 for a single season. Her USP was supernatural fantasy, born directly out of the Stuart masques and full of gothic imagery, fairies and elfin-folk. The tiny Miss Mercandotti was captivating – not least because the heavy costumes associated with masques had been replaced by – well, very little, actually. Gauzy gowns and silk tights and that was about it. Dancing on points had been introduced in 1821 and sylph-like Maria Mercandotti was in her elemental. ‘A divine fairy sprite,’ one critic called her.
When she was the first dancer to portray Cinderella in 1822, the public went wild. All manner of dandies, beaux, creepy old men and stage-door Johnnies hung around hoping for a piece of her. Some wanted her to be their wife, some wanted her to be their mistress, others would have been content with a quick grope. But she had eight hundred pounds – it was going to take more than that to lure her from the public.
A hundred and twenty grand would do it though. On the evening of March 8, 1823, the theatre was packed again, but no divine fairy sprite appeared. Instead, a rather sweaty Mr Ebers stood on stage and admitted that the Andalusian Venus had ‘disappeared.’
The papers were full of the Gretna Green ‘elopement’ of the petite opera dancer and Golden Ball. One claimed the marriage “made as much noise in England as the war against Spain.”
“The bride is described as a beautiful Spanish girl, with a small and delicate person, formed with perfect symmetry. her movement that of a sylph, her face interesting and rather pensive, with dark, beaming, and intelligent eyes.”
The husband, it admits, had “the solid charms of an income in the funds, of one hundred and twenty thousand a year. “ Clearly the interest rates were better in those days.
Everybody sniggered at the match. Every possible pun on the name ‘Ball’ was pressed into service. The novelist Ainsworth declared “”The damsel is gone, and no wonder at all, bred to the dance, she is gone to a Ball”. I won’t bore you with any more terrible word-play; I’ll leave you to make up some of your own.
The satirists had fun too. This is a terriblly low-res image but it’s the best I can find. Maria Mercandotti is the little girl in pink with the, er, golden ball in her hand.
There’s another one here. As it turns out, the ‘elopement’ was not quite what we might imagine. Present at the wedding were Signora Mercandotti Snr, Lord Fife and, ahem, Mr Ebers.
After honeymooning at Oatlands, Ball-Hughes’s pile in Surrey, the happy couple settled at Greenwich Park, where they held open house. I don’t know which side of the park “Greenwich Park” would have been, but whichever, they’d have been in the thick of Society Greenwich, dominated by gossip surrounding Caroline of Brunswick’s disgrace and death, and the last days of John Julius Angerstein.
Golden Ball was a man’s man – he liked cricket, racket tennis and billiards (though, apparently he didn’t care for the hunt). He also liked am-dram. But his real passion was gambling.
At Greenwich he would play whist for five pound-points and put twenty five pounds on ‘the rubber’ (someone tell me what that means, please…) but always thinking of the less well-off, after dinner he was ‘willing enough’ to play vingt-et-un, loo or hazard, and limit the stakes to mere shillings.
To the yawns of his guests, he seemed to need no sleep at all. In fact with the exception of Lord Wellesley (a particularly fine Regency rake who locked his young bride in the gothic grotto at Wanstead then gambled her entire fortune away) no one stayed up later than Golden Ball. He’d game all evening then, at two or three o’clock in the morning he’d announce supper, before ushering everyone back to the tables.
It’s hardly a surprise that poor Maria got a bit bored. The pair argued and divorced, and she disappears from history. I cannot find anything more about her.
Golden Ball just wished he could disappear. After gambling away absolutely everything, he scarpered off to Paris, to hide from his creditors at Engheim les Bains, a strange spa town that I’ve always found just a little bit creepy, but which would have been in its element at the time. He rubbed shoulders with Louis Napoleon and became known as the Wellington des Joueurs. “He is no longer Golden Ball,” noted a pal, “but since the gilt is off, he rolls on much more smoothly than he did.”
He died in 1863, not quite as badly off as he’d originally thought as he remembered just in time that he still owned Oatlands (as you do) and sold it off to railway developers for some ready cash.
Each time I think there are no more interesting people to find in Greenwich, new ones seem to appear out of the woodword. The town is positively teeming with brilliant characters. But I’ve gone on far too long this morning. Happy Weekend, folks…