In Covent Garden at the Hummums, now
I sit, but after many a curse and vow
Never to see the madding City more;
John Wolcot, Ode of Condolence, 1816
William Holland was among the most well-known purveyors of satirical prints in late eighteenth-century London. A patron of Gillray, Rowlandson, Newton and Woodward, as well as a skilled caricaturist in his own right, Holland’s name ranks alongside that of Hannah Humphrey and Samuel Fores in the list of those printsellers who were to define much of what is commonly thought of as the golden age of British caricature.
It is possible to construct a brief biographical sketch of Holland’s life from the snippets of information gathered together in catalogues and histories of satirical prints, as well as contemporary newspapers and magazines. Born in 1757, he began selling prints, pamphlets and music in the early 1780s and was to remain active in this field for upwards of thirty years. He was a political radical during his early years, serving a twelve month prison sentence for distributing the works of Thomas Paine in 1793 and also being brought before a civil court on a charge of libeling the governors of Gloucester jail over their treatment of the inmates there. He continued publishing satirical prints following his release from jail, eventually moving to larger premises at 50 Oxford Street. The backroom of the new shop was transformed into a gallery space in which Holland would frequently stage displays of dozens of his latest satirical designs. Patrons were asked to pay a shilling to enter the “Laughing Lounge”, the price of admittance being deductible from the price of any prints purchased therein .
It’s commonly assumed that Holland continued in this vein right up to his death in the summer of 1815, but in fact it would appear as though he had already decided to abandon printselling several months earlier. In February 1815 he placed the following advertisement in the Morning Post:
Cheap Caricatures and Other Prints. The large stock of caricatures and other prints of W. Holland, No. 11 Cockspur-street, to be sold at reduced prices. Going to remove into another line of business. Ladies and Gentlemen have now an opportunity, at a cheap rate, of decorating screens, dressing rooms &c with caricatures of genius, wit and humour, by the first caricaturists from Gillray to Williams .
A portion of his stock may have been purchased by a perfumer named E. Brooks, who issued a handful of caricatures of the royal scandals of the post-war years and described his wares as being “late[ly of] Holland’s” . What happened to Holland himself is not known, as the next time his name appeared in the newspapers was in a short obituary that appeared in July 1815, bluntly stating that the printseller had died “suddenly” of unspecified causes. A second and slightly more substantial obituary was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine at the end of the year, which read:
At the Hummums, Covent-garden, a few minutes after coming out of the warm bath, aged 58, Mr William Holland of Cockspur-street, formerly of Oxford-street; an eminent publisher of caricatures… He was himself a man of genius, and wrote many popular songs and a volume of poetry, besides being the Author of the pointed and epigrammatic words which accompanied most of his caricatures .
The Hummums (above) was a name which would have been familiar to most fashionable eighteenth-century Londoners. It referred to a large bath-house, or ‘bagnio’, located at the south-eastern corner of the piazza in Covent Garden. The unusual name of the establishment being derived from a mispronunciation of the Turkish word for a bath-house, a ‘hammam’. London was littered with bagnios, many of which provided nothing more than a venue for polite bathing, relaxation and rejuvenate treatments such as cupping and the application of poultices. However in many instances the title bagnio was almost entirely honorific and used as a polite form of labeling for high-end brothels. The German traveler Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz wrote of such establishments after visiting London in the late 1780s:
… a certain kind of house, called bagnios, which are supposed to be baths; their real purpose, however, is to provide persons of both sexes with pleasure. These houses are well, and often richly, furnished, and every device for exciting the senses is either at hand or can be provided. Girls do not live there but are fetched in chairs when required… A girl who is sent for and does not please receives no gratuity, the chair alone being paid for.
The Hummums was one of a number of a bagnios in the Covent Garden area which acted as discreet venues for prostitution and carousing. Dr Johnston famously claimed it as the setting for the riotous drinking scene in Hogarth’s A Midnight Modern Conversation (1732) and more unusually, also stated that the building was haunted by the spirit of his cousin, a grossly intemperate parson who died in the midst of a drunken debauch .
Although there’s no direct evidence to indicate that William Holland met a similar fate, the location and manner of his passing certainly raises the possibility that his death was not entirely respectable. Reading between the lines of his obituary, one could speculate whether the description of him having expired “a few minutes after coming out of the warm bath” was designed to explain away the fact that he wasn’t wearing any clothes at the time of his death. Holland had a widow and a large circle of friends who would have been keen to ensure that any embarrassing details surrounding the death were kept quiet. The management of the Hummums would also have been willing to collude in any cover-up, the conventions of the day dictating that even the most louche establishments should contrive to appear respectable. As Archenholz explained, this even resulted in some brothels fitting elaborate baths and forcing their customers to go through the rigmarole of preparing to bathe, even if they had no intention of actually doing so:
The English retain their solemnity even as regards their pleasures, and consequently the business of such houses is conducted with a seriousness and propriety which is hard to credit… In every bagnio is found a formula regarding baths, but they are seldom needed .
So it’s possible that there may have more to William Holland’s death than initially meets the eye. I certainly like to think that someone who was responsible for producing hundreds of prints celebrating the rollicking, roistering nature of London’s high and low life might have met a more appropriate end than merely collapsing after emerging from a hot bath.
1. Morning Post 19th May 1802.
2. Morning Post 16th February 1815.
3. Brooks had been selling perfumes and toiletries from a substantial shop located at 16 Panton Street, Haymarket for at least a decade before he began publishing caricature prints. The premises were advertised for let in the Morning Chronicle of 30th September 1806 and described as being “a substantial brick-built dwelling house, 3 stories high, containing 2 servants rooms, 3 chambers, dining room, parlour, and shop, with modern sash front, two kitchens, washhouse, with paved yard, coal cellars &c.”, available at a cost of £30 per annum. Brooks moved into the site sometime during the following six months, as an advertisement of his published in the Morning Post on 11th March 1807 gives 16 Panton Street as his business address.
4. Gentleman’s Magazine, 85(ii), p.380.
5. Johnson’s cousin was a parson named Ford, he recalled how a waiter at the Hummums, “in which house Ford died, had been absent for some time, and returned, not knowing that Ford was dead. Going down to the cellar, according to the story, he met him; going down again, he met him a second time. When he came up he asked some people of the house what Ford could be doing there. They told him Ford was dead. The waiter took a fever, in which he lay for some time”. See http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/maclauchlin.html
6. Quoted in Dan Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London…, 2009.