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Indian Jugglers c.1810

​Indian Jugglers, c.1810

The Indian Jugglers of Pall Mall

Story-telling and the re-telling of stories by piecing together the evidence that one discovers in the archive is a rewarding experience. From a few documents discovered amongst the miscellaneous bills of entertainments held by London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Charlotte Hopkins has pieced together the story of the Indian jugglers who first performed in London in the Regency period when spectacle and curiosities were very much in vogue.

"Tell me about the three Indians you have had at the house to-day…It's just possible, Betteredge, that my stranger and your three jugglers may turn out to be pieces of the same puzzle."

(The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins, 1868)

The discovery of some visual material in bills of miscellaneous entertainments held at London Metropolitan Archives prompted this article. There were three entertainers that kept appearing and I wanted to know their story. I also found a snippet of ephemera - a handbill - that began to anchor the images I had found. This is the story I have pieced together.

No. 87 Pall Mall

The entertainers were known as the ‘Indian Jugglers’ who appeared at 87 Pall Mall around the 1810s. This location was in the heart of gentleman’s club land during the late 18th and early 19th century. In the near vicinity was Carlton House, the London residence of the Prince Regent, where the handbill says the jugglers had also performed. 

A map by Richard Horwood (1799 and a subsequent revised edition in 1819) shows the location of no. 87 in relation to Carlton House which is a few doors down to the west.

There are references to the new Schomberg House being at no.87 Pall Mall where Robert Bowyer opened the Historic Gallery in 1793 and that in 1805 this building was bought by the British Institution to hold exhibitions. This may be incorrect as further reference to this spot on Pall Mall is made in the Survey of London which suggests that no.87 was the site of Cumberland House which was acquired by the Board of Ordnance in 1806. So it is not entirely clear what the space was like where the Indian Jugglers were performing, but if they were at Cumberland House then we can imagine them perhaps in a Robert Adam interior. However, if the Indian Jugglers were exhibited on the site of the Historic Gallery, then this would represent some continuity with Robert Bowyer’s ‘Picturesque Views of Seringapatam’ which also appeared there. 

Mysterious aliens and extraordinary foreigners

In Sumanta Banerjee’s article, ‘The Mysterious Alien: Indian Street Jugglers in Victorian London’ we find reference to: “a troupe of magicians brought by a certain Captain Campbell from India as early as 1814. He installed them in Pall Mall, where they demonstrated their skills in jugglery, acrobatics, yogic contortions, and sleight of hand, for ‘an audience that was curious about the quaint customs and strange manners of India.’”

However, newspaper reports reveal the appearance of jugglers in 1813 in the capital:

“The exhibition of the Indian Jugglers, at no. 87 Pall Mall, has been attended by nearly all the Families of distinction in town; and is becoming extremely popular. The swallowing of the sword, and the novelty of the other performances, have attracted the public attention beyond anything that has appeared in the metropolis for many years past.” The Times, July 27, 1813.

In an article from the Morning Chronicle entitled, The Indian Jugglers Eclipsed their success is echoed to amusing effect:

“The extraordinary foreigners have been compelled for a period to put a stop to their wonderful performances, being unable to withstand the overwhelming attraction of a more modern wonder. The crowds, which but a short time since were seen thronging Pall Mall, are now flocking day after day to Bedford Square. The circumstance to which we allude was buzzed about, nearly a week since; the report was at first scouted by all, it being deemed like the ‘Sword’ - too much to be swallowed - actual observation has however since proved the truth, and our readers may rely upon it, that the Lord Chancellor is actually having the front of his house new stuccoed!” The Morning Chronicle, September 8, 1813.

Indian Jugglers handbill, 1813

​Indian Jugglers handbill, 1813

There seems to have been a particular fascination with the sword swallowing aspect of their act which the critic William Hazlitt wrote about in his piece The Indian Jugglers in 1828: “As to the swallowing of the sword, the police ought to interfere to prevent it. When I saw the Indian Juggler do the same things before, his feet were bare, and he had large rings on the toes, which kept turning round all the time of the performance, as if they moved of themselves.”

As a result of Hazlitt’s article there was a shift in the usage of the term juggler which in its original sense meant conjurer to that of someone who performed the ball trick. Here he admires the elegance of this trick: “To catch four balls in succession in less than a second of time, and deliver them back so as to return with seeming consciousness to the hand again, to make them revolve round him at certain intervals…”

We are not sure which troupe of jugglers the handbill discovered at LMA represents or if they are one and the same as Captain Campbell’s. The advertised entry fee of three shillings or two shillings for the upper seats indicates that this performance was not for the common man.

Seringapatam and The Moonstone

The Siege of Seringapatam (1799) would have been fresh in the minds of the Regency public and is referenced in a pamphlet at the British Library entitled: “Description of the performance of those superior Indian jugglers lately arrived from Seringapatam and now performing at the Public Room, no 23 New Bond Street.” I wondered if these were the same troupe as the Pall Mall jugglers or if they included the famous juggler Ramo Samee. We do not know for certain, but given the success of such troupes others indeed followed to demonstrate their skills. The New Bond Street troupe is described as coming on, “the Honourable East India Company’s Ship Alexander.”

The spiritual legacy of jugglers from the East and their association with the mystical through the magical illusions they performed is seen years later in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) which is set in 1842. Interestingly, a dramatic performance of The Moonstone was performed at the Olympic Theatre in the 1870s where Indian jugglers had performed some years before. The Moonstone begins with the looting of the jewels removed from Seringapatam in 1799 from the legendary treasury of Tipu Sultan.

The Indian jugglers are essential to the plot of Collins’s novel in providing a distraction technique to remove the Moonstone (the diamond stolen from Seringapatam by Miss Rachel’s uncle, a British soldier at the siege in 1799). Collins uses terms allied with the occult to describe the trickery that the Indian jugglers employed to remove the diamond, such as “clairvoyance” and “mesmerism”. Indian jugglers were able to blend in with the other “strolling Indians who infest the streets.”

Final word

This raises some interesting questions about how the Indians who were becoming increasingly apparent on the streets of London were received. The British East India Company had brought Indian sailors back to England and they were often not able to get work other than to perform in order to survive. Banerjee says that in London: “By the end of 19th century the number of Indian immigrants was estimated to be about 70,000…among a population of one million.” Did the positioning of Indian immigrants as entertainers in the early 19th century make them more accepted? A taste for spectacle and curiosities were very much a part of the flavour of the Regency period.

The collection of miscellaneous entertainments is uncatalogued, but can be seen by appointment by contacting LMA Enquiries

Published:
27 October 2015
Last Modified:
15 October 2019

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