An American in London

The young Peter Manigault (1731—1773), as was the case with many of his contemporaries, was sent from Charleston to London by his family in order to complete his education. Manigault arrived in England in the summer of 1750, and returned to America in the fall of 1754. In between he wrote many letters to his parents, which were published in a series of articles in the South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine between 1930 and 1932. His father, Gabriel Manigault, was a wealthy merchant and landowner, and able to support his son in a growing style, as these extracts from Peter’s letters reveal.

On landing in England, he sent a quick note back to his father:

We arrived here last Sunday after a pleasant though dangerous Passage, for off of the Banks of Newfoundland we met with several monstrous Islands of Ice, which with the Help of a Gale of Wind had like to have shortened our Passage some hundred Leagues, And indeed considerg the Darkness of the Night twas great good Fortune, we had not all perished. Mr. Corbett & Myself intend to set out for London tomorrow Morning..

His first letter to his father from London gave warning of the expenses to come.

I have lost no time since I have been in London; I have been at Westminster Hall every Day since the Courts have sit, and have kept my Commons at the Temple Hall. Though I know little of London, yet I can perceive, that nothing can be done in it without Money, But I shall make such good use of all that shall be expended upon me, that I am sure you will think it well laid out.

Peter Manigault’s observations on London remind me of the great quote by a slightly later traveler, Casanova, that: “In London, everything is easy to him who has money and is not afraid of spending it”. Peter Manigault’s stay would cost his father around £1000.

Once settled in, he wrote to his mother:

I have seen most of the Places of Diversion about London, and find none of them come up to my expectation, or the Charactar I heard of them. I was at Windsor, at the Installation of the Knights of the Garter, on the 12th of July, which, I think the finest Thing, I have seen, since I have been in England; Especially the Ball in the Evening, at which two or three hundred of the finest Ladies, in the Kingdom were present.

Later in August, another letter shows him becoming serious about his education:

I am, this day, to begin to learn to dance, of a Master who has as good a Name, as any in London, he has therefore, no doubt, as good a Price; no less than two Guineas Entrance! & two Guineas a Month, however he waits upon me, at Mr Corbett’s to teach me, there are Masters, who would teach for half the Money, but both Mr Corbett & myself, think, tis best to learn of the most expert.

Letters went back and forth on the various ships that travelled between England and America, at a very uncertain speed and with no guarantee of arrival. Along with the letters, Manigault sent back presents of the latest London type.

I have sent by Capt Crosthwaite, some Prints for the Camera, & also four Fans, One, for yourself, & the other three, for Miss Banbury, Hasell, & Prioleau, which I hope will come safe.

For his own part, he felt he should dress as a gentleman, but not too extravagantly. In a letter to his mother of February 1751, he wrote:

You desire to know how I dress, I suppose you mean by that, how many laced Coats I have had, I can easily satisfy you in this Particular, by telling you I have had one, which I was in a manner forced to get, for I never went into public without Lace, and was taken any Notice of; they wont even give one a Seat in Church, without a good Suit of Clothes on, as I can witness; For one Sunday Evening, I went with Billy Drayton to hear the celebrated Mr Foster, I was drest quite plain, my Friend had a Laced Waistcoat and hat, he, or rather his Laced Waistcoat, was introduced into a pew, while I, that is, my plain Clothes, were forced to stand up, during the whole time of divine Service, in the Isle. This Coat is a very decent, and in my Opinion a very proper one, when I desired Mr Corbett to let me have such a Coat, he answered me, that he thought it was not at all improper, but that he was afraid my Father might not altogether approve of it, but that however I might please myself; By pleasing myself, I hope I have not displeased you, For as to my Dress in general, (If I do not neglect Matters of greater Moment,) I am willing to believe, you would have me please myself, provided I am neither foppish nor extravagant.

By April 1751, he had been dancing for six months and, after a certain amount of negotiation with his father of whether he would get a full-length of half-length portrait, he was painted by Allan Ramsay..

And now a few Words concerning my Picture, which comes by this Opportunity. Tis done by one of the best Hands in England, and is accounted by all Judges here, not only an Exceeding good Like ness, but a very good Piece of Painting: The Drapery is all taken, from my own Clothes, & the very Flowers in the lace, upon the Hat, are taken from a Hat of my own…I was advised to have it drawn by one Keble, that drew Tom Smith, & several others that went over to Carolina, but upon seeing his Paintings, I found that though his Likenesses, (which is the easiest Part in doing a Picture,) were some of them very good, yet his Paint seemed to be laid on with a Trowel, and looked more like Plaistering than Painting, you may guess at the Difference between Ramsay, & Keble Painting, by the Difference of their Prices, What Ramsay demands Four & Twenty Guineas for, T’other humbly hopes, you’ll allow him Seven… You’ll also tell me if you think any Part of it to gay, the Ruffles are done charmingly, and exactly like the Ruffles I had on when I was drawn, you see my Taste in Dress by the Picture, for every thing there, is what I have had the Pleasure of wearing often.

The picture’s current location is unknown, but there is an old photograph of it.

Armed with the ability to dance minuets, and a fashionable portrait taken care of, Peter Manigault did settle down to study law, eventually securing his father’s permission to rent his own chambers, and being called to the Bar in 1754, a few months before his return. His letters provide a charming snapshot of life in London for a young, rich American in the 1750s. He was fond of the theater, graduating from the Pit to a box suitable for a gentleman over the course of his studies.

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2 thoughts on “An American in London

  1. smelvill5

    He seems a charming lad and I like the painting quite a lot, but, oh, my, his use of, commas, is, just, astonishing!

    Reply

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