J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Legend of “Champagne Charley” Townshend

Charles Townshend (1725-1767) was the British Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-1769s responsible for the Customs duties on tea, glass, lead, paper, paper, alcohol, and painter’s colors that became known as “Townshend duties.” Many modern histories say he was nicknamed “Champagne Charley” or “Charlie,” but that phrase arose nearly a century after his death.

Townshend did like champagne. His taste became notorious after he delivered a striking speech in the House of Commons on 8 May 1767. Unabashed gossip Horace Walpole recalled:
It was on that day, and on that occasion, that Charles Townshend displayed in a latitude beyond belief the amazing powers of his capacity, and the no less amazing incongruities of his character. He had taken on himself, early in the day, the examination of the [East India] Company’s conduct; and in a very cool sensible speech on that occasion, and with a becoming consciousness of his own levity, had told the House that he hoped he had atoned for the inconsideration of his past life by the care he had taken of that business. . . .

He returned about eight in the evening, half-drunk with champagne, and more intoxicated with spirits. He rose to speak without giving himself time to learn, and without caring what had been in agitation, except that the motion [proposed in the afternoon] had given an alarm. The first thing he did, was to call God to witness that he had not been consulted on the motion,—a confession implying that he was not consulted on a business in his own department; and the more marvellous, as the disgrace of which he seemed to complain or boast of, was absolutely false. There were sitting round him twelve persons who had been in consultation with him that very morning, and with his assistance had drawn up the motion on his own table. . . .

before he sat down, he had poured forth a torrent of wit, parts, humour, knowledge, absurdity, vanity, and fiction, heightened by all the graces of comedy, the happiness of allusion and quotation, and the buffoonery of farce. To the purpose of the question he said not a syllable. It was a descant on the times, a picture of parties, of their leaders, of their hopes, and defects. It was an encomium and a satire on himself. . . .

Such was the wit, abundance, and impropriety of this speech, that for some days men could talk or inquire of nothing else. “Did you hear Charles Townshend’s champagne speech?” was the universal question. For myself, I protest it was the most singular pleasure of the kind I ever tasted. The bacchanalian enthusiasm of Pindar flowed in torrents less rapid and less eloquent, and inspires less delight, than Townshend’s imagery, which conveyed meaning in every sentence. It was Garrick writing and acting extempore scenes of Congreve.

A light circumstance increased the mirth of the audience. In the fervour of speaking Townshend rubbed off the patch from his eye, which he had represented as grievously cut three days before: no mark was discernible, but to the nearest spectators a scratch so slight, that he might have made, and perhaps had made it himself with a pin.

To me the entertainment of the day was complete. He went to supper with us at Mr. [Henry Seymour] Conway’s, where, the flood of his gaiety not being exhausted, he kept the table in a roar till two in the morning, by various sallies and pictures, the last of which was a scene in which he mimicked inimitably his own wife, and another great lady with whom he fancied himself in love, and both whose foibles and manner he counterfeited to the life.
When Walpole wrote that everyone was asking, “Did you hear Charles Townshend’s champagne speech?” one suspects that Walpole himself was asking that question and spreading that phrase.

It spread far enough that another politician, Sir George Colebrooke, later insisted:
Mr. Townshend loved good living, but had not a strong stomach. He committed therefore frequent excesses, considering his constitution, which would not have been intemperance in another. He was supposed, for instance, to have made a speech in the heat of wine, when that was really not the case. . . .

He had a black ribbon over one of his eyes that day, having tumbled out of bed, probably in a fit of epilepsy, and this added to the impression made on his auditors that he was tipsy, whereas it was a speech he had meditated a great while upon, and it was only by accident that it found utterance that day.

I write with certainty, because Sir George Yonge and I were the only persons who dined with him, and we had but one bottle of champagne after dinner...
Colebrooke’s version matches a lot of the details in Walpole’s, just with more sympathy for Townshend. The term “champagne speech” stuck, especially as Walpole’s memoirs were reprinted in the 1800s and quoted by historians.

In 1866 the English music hall performer George Leybourne introduced the song “Champagne Charlie”, which became a big hit. The next year Punch magazine headlined a short article “Champagne Charley,” beginning:
It is with a gentleman’s reluctance that Mr. Punch has brought himself to print the above vulgarity. But he heeds no sacrifice of feeling when he can instruct. He has just lighted upon an amusing passage in that most entertaining book, Mr. [J. Heneage] Jesse’s Memoirs of George the Third, and it is a triumph of art to be able to append a morsel of readable stuff on such a peg or such a name for a time:—

“Exactly a hundred years ago Charles Townshend delivered one of the most brilliant speeches over heard in the Commons. He had previously spoken with calmness and judgment, then went to dinner with two friends, and re-appeared in the House about eight, half drunk with champagne, and more Intoxicated with spirits. But whatever may have been the source of his inspiration, there flowed from his lips such bursts of impassioned eloquence, such flashes of wit, such bitterness of invective, so varied a torrent of mingled ribaldry and learning, of happiness of allusion, imagery, and quotation, that everybody was enchanted. For some days, says Walpole, the universal question was, ‘Did you hear Charles’s champagne speech?’”

Now, if Townshend had been called Champagne Charley, the words, instead of being intolerable (luckily the cleverest of the burlesque writers, and a respected contributor to Mr. Punch, has wittified the tune) would have been worth remembering. As it is, they inspire Mr. Punch with a desire to kick the person who uses them. When shall we escape the Cad-lyrics of the music-halls?
Note how Mr. Punch managed to express disdain for popular music-hall songs and yet give a good plug for one written by a contributor.

That magazine item appears to have glued the nickname of “Champagne Charley” to Townshend even though it obviously referred to a modern song (and therefore a “vulgarity”) and said Townshend did not have that nickname in his lifetime.

TOMORROW: General John Burgoyne, Gentleman.


Unknown said...

I have to put in a plug for "Champagne Charlie," the 1940s Ealing studios film about Leybourne's music hall career. Stanley Holloway (best known to US audiences as Alfred P. Doolittle) plays his rival and nemesis. Very entertaining stuff, particularly the title song!

J. L. Bell said...

I came across mentions of that movie while researching this posting, but I've never seen it. Thanks for the recommendation.

Chaucerian said...

Interesting story. I wonder about whether the excesses of the speech were actually a result of alcohol or if there was something else physiological going on. So many people remembered this speech as having been a tour de force rather than a slurred repetitive maunder. The reference to epilepsy might be significant, and of course there are always the mood disorders to consider (in this case, mania). And who knows, it might have been a more manly explanation for the event that he had been in his cups than that he had any sort of brain or emotional damage.

J. L. Bell said...

All true. Another wrinkle is that our main reporter, Horace Walpole, was an idiosyncratic personality himself—from a leading political family but happily on the sidelines, probably gay, looking back years after Townshend's death.