Is this the original Hurdy Gurdy Man?

Updated: Sep 14



This is from the book Vagabondiana; Or Anecdotes of Itinerant Traders Through the Streets of London, in Antient and Modern Times.  © 1839 by John Thomas Smith. 


Within the memory of the author’s oldest friends, London has been visited by men similar to Bernardo Millano, whose figure is pourtrayed in the following Plate. About sixty years ago there was a Turk, of a most pompous appearance, who entertained crowds in the street by playing on an instrument of five strings passed over a bladder, and drawn up to the ends of a long stick, something like that exhibited in the etching, and which instrument is said to have been the original hurdy-gurdy.


This Turk contrived by the assistance of his nose, which was a pretty large one, to produce a noise with which most of the spectators seemed to be pleased. The splendour of his dress, and the pomposity of his manner, procured him a livelihood for some years. His success induced other persons to imitate him; the most remarkable of whom was the famous Matthew Skeggs, who actually played a concerto on a broomstick, at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, in the character of Signor Bumbasto.


Skeggs’s celebrity is noticed in the following extract from G. A. Stevens: “The choice spirits have ever been famous for their talents as musical artists. They usually met at the harvest-homes of grape gathering. There, exhilarated by the pressings of the vintage, they were wont to sing songs, tell stories, and show tricks, from their first emerging until their perihelion under the presidentship of Mr. George Alexander Stevens, Ballad-Laureat to the Society of Choice Spirits, and who appeared at Ranelagh in the character of Comus, supported by those drolls of merry memory. Unparalleled were their performances, as first fists upon the salt-box, and inimitable the variations they would twang upon the forte and piano Jew’s harp; excellent was Howard in the chin concerto, whose nose also supplied the unrivalled tones of the bagpipe. Upon the sticcado, Matt. Skeggs remains still unrivalled. And we cannot now boast of one real genius upon the genuine hurdy-gurdy.


Much about this time another Bladder-man was in high estimation, whose portrait has been handed down to us in an etching by Miller, from a most spirited drawing by Gravelot. The following verses, which set forth his woful situation, are placed at the foot of the Plate:


1. “No musick ever charm’d my mind So much as bladder fill’d with wind; But as no mortal’s free from fate, Nor nothing keeps its first estate, A pamper’d prodigal unkind One day with sword let out the wind! My bladder ceas’d its pleasing sound, While boys stood tantalizing round. 2. “They well may laugh who always win, But, had I not then thought on tin, My misery had been compleat; I must have begg’d about the street: But none to grief should e’er give way: This canister, ne’er fill’d with tea! Can please my audience as well, And charm their ears with, O Brave Nell.”


Some few years since a whimsical fellow attracted public notice by passing strings over the skull of a horse, upon which he played as a fidler. Another man, remarkably tall and thin, made a square violin, upon which he played for several years, particularly within the centre arches of Westminster Bridge.


To the eternal honour of the street-players of former times, it will ever be remembered that the great Purcell condescended to set one of their elegies to music. “Thomas Farmer, in 1684, lived in Martlet Court, in Bow Street, Covent Garden. He was originally one of the London street waits, and his elegy was set to music by Purcell.” See Hawkins’s History of Music, Vol. V. p. 18.


The Guardian, No. 1, March 12, 1713, notices the famous John Gale. “There was, I remember, some years ago, one John Gale, a fellow that played upon a pipe, and diverted the multitude by dancing in a ring they made about him, whose face became generally known, and the artists employed their skill in delineating his features, because every man was judge of the similitude of them.”


A sort of guitar or cittern, and also the fiddle, were used in this country so early as the year 1364, and may be seen upon a brass monumental plate to the memory of Robert Braunche and his two wives, in the choir of St. Margaret’s Church at Lynn. The subject alluded to is the representation of a[Pg 95] Peacock feast, consisting of a long table with twelve persons, besides musicians and other attendants. Engravings of this very curious monument may be seen in Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments, vol. i. p. 115; in Carter’s Specimens of Ancient Sculpture, vol. ii. plate 15; and in Cotman’s Norfolk Brasses, Pl. III. p. 4.

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