An 18th Century Stocking-Filler

In the new Cragg and Fidelis novel Dark Waters, which is published tomorrow, 2 August, an intriguing little volume called Penkethman’s Jests has a moment of its own. Titus Cragg, always interested in a book, notices it at the bedside of the Irish mountebank Shackleberry, who has presumably been using it as a source-book for his jokes.

The book’s full title is:

PENKETHMAN’S JESTS: Or Wit Refin’d, being a New Year’s Gift for Young Gentlemen and Ladies the whole being an Agreeable Entertainment adapted to the Conversation of People of the best Taste.

Penkethman’s Jests was first printed in 1721 and, as the title page says, it was meant as a gift-book, a stocking-filler. It was very like a lot of publications intended today for the “Christmas market” – a combined celebrity- and joke-book, a bit like the sort of thing Harry Hill turns out.

What the recipient of the gift found inside was a compilation of witticisms and moral sentences supposedly put together by the comedian William Penkethman (c.1660-1725). The book did well, well enough to be republished four times – the last, in an expanded edition, in 1735 .

Popular it may have been in its day, but sadly few of the book’s jokes pass the test of time. Many turn on lame, and some on quite dreadful, puns, which are very frequently about the miseries of marriage. The selection of song lyrics – which were added in the expanded 1735 edition, after Penkethman himself was dead – are distinctly misogynistic, which tells us that the book was catering for a male readership, and possibly that its material would be used mostly in male company.

 I’ll give three examples of “Penkethman’s” rather regrettable sense of humour:

  • A Serving Man being sent to tell a Gentleman that his Lord was coming to visit him, “Say ye so?” answered the Gentleman. “Pray is he at hand?”  “No,” replied the Fellow, “he’s a-foot, Sir.”
  •  One was saying that Whoring was necessary as Physick. “Say ye so?” says another. “Why, if Whoring may be reckoned a Purging, then Matrimony seems to be entering into a Course of Physick.”
  •  Mr Dryden [the poet] once at Dinner, being offer’d by a Lady the Rump of a Fowl and refusing it, the Lady said, “Pray, Mr Dryden, take it. The Rump is the best part of a Fowl.”  “Yes, Madam,” says he, “and so it is of the Fair.”

 The “quotable quotes” section looks as if it was intended as a source of amusing debating points or one-liners for public speakers and letter writers – but are not all that amusing today. There are many like this

  •  A sensible man and a silent woman are the best conversation.

 A little better, if not really comic, is

  •  Were we to believe nothing but what we can comprehend, every man upon the earth would be an Atheist.

 while some of the would-be proverbial saws are frankly baffling.

  •  Not only Religion and Law, but even Gold and Silver, are falsified to procure Gold and Silver.

There is one element of the book that I’ve found a little more attractive, the collection of similes that Penkethman (or his ghost-writer) included, presumably to help writers and speakers to spice up their patter or their prose.

  •  One said of two Persons, that had been at high words, that they sputtered at one another like two roasted Apples.
  •  One said he hated a Thing worse than a Quaker did a Parrot, or a Fishmonger a Hard Frost
  •  One seeing a gouty fat Alderman in his robes said he was like a Lincolnshire ox in a furbelowed scarf.

 Penkethman's Jests was, of course, cashing in on its “author’s” celebrity. William Penkethman, whom the public nicknamed Pinky, was famous in London in the early 18th century. He was a comic actor who worked with the leading playwright and actor Colley Cibber, and who made his name in plays at Drury Lane and other theatres, particularly by delivering comic prologues and epilogues from the back of a donkey. He didn’t just act in permanent theatres, but put on shows of his own at a comedy booth at the annual Bartholomew Fair in Smithfield, and was an astute theatrical entrepreneur who made (and sometimes lost) a great deal of money in the course of his career. He was, however, also considered a good enough all-round actor to play Shakespeare, in which one of his meatier roles was Polonius in Hamlet.

His celebrated comic eating routines drew the attention of Alexander Pope who mentions him in one of his Imitations of Horace:

And idle CIBBER, how he breaks the laws,
To make poor PINKY eat, with vast applause.

Pope’s lines echo a 1710 article by “Isaac Bickerstaff” – actually Pope’s friend Richard Steele – in The Tatler, whose collected bound volumes are among Titus Cragg’s favourite reading. Steele had earlier written an item comparing the technical skills of Cibber and another actor, and he now printed a letter purporting to be written jointly by two rival comedians, Penkethman and William Bullock, requesting that he give them the same treatment.  This is what Steele wrote:

For the Information of Posterity I shall comply with this Letter, and set these Two great Men in such a Light as Sallust has placed his Cato and Caesar.  Mr. William Bullock and Mr. William Penkethman are of the same Age, Profession and Sex. They both distinguish themselves in a very particular Manner under the Discipline of the Crab-Tree*, with this only Difference, that Mr. Bullock has the most agreeable Squawl, and Mr. Penkethman the more graceful Shrug. Penkethman devours a cold Chick with great Applause; Bullock’s Talent lies chiefly in Sparagrass.+  Penkethman is very dext’rous at conveying himself under a Table; Bullock is no less active in jumping over a Stick. Mr. Penkethman has a great deal of Money, but Mr. Bullock is the taller Man.

*I cannot tell you what the Discipline of the Crab Tree was, but presumably the reference is to the London theatre, or to some comic routine. A crab tree branch or stick was proverbially associated with wife-beating: perhaps Bullock and Penkethman acted as Pantomime Dames.
+Sparagrass, or sparrowgrass, is still used as a cockney name for asparagus.


For this post I have consulted the article on William Penkethman by F. H. Mares in the Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press 2004)



Posted on August 1st, 2012


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