Wife, Mother, Mantua Maker (Dress-Maker), Pastry Maker, Registry Office Keeper for Servants, Playwright and Author.
The exceptional Elizabeth Burgess was born in Canterbury as Elizabeth Smith. In 1817 she and her brothers celebrated their lives with a dinner described in the Kentish Gazette as follows:
‘A remarkable instance of longevity in one family. Five brothers and one sister dined together at the Eight Bells, in King-street, when the following five brothers and one sister, whose ages amounted to 442 years, dined together at that house: —Mrs. Burgess 80; John Smith 78; Edward Smith 76; Andrew Smith 72; Benjamin Smith 69; Henry Smith 67.’
They were baptised at St Alphege, Canterbury, children of Benjamin Smith and Elizabeth Wootton (married 1734 St Andrews), and Elizabeth married Edward Burgess (1726-1807), a Freeman silk weaver, at St Alphege in 1765.
In 1762 an Edward Burgess, living near the Eight Bells, St Alphege, now 43 King Street, is mentioned in Kentish Gazette as one of those selling tickets for a concert, and in 1770 Elizabeth Burgess placed a large advert in that newspaper:
ELIZABETH BURGESS, MANTUA-MAKER, FROM St. ALPHAGE’S, TAKES this Opportunity to inform her Friends, that she has taken the House of Mr Farr, in St. GEORGE’S, CANTERBURY: Where she continues to make, as usual, all Sorts of SACKS, SLIPS, and GOWNS, after the newest Fashion. – She hopes the Ladies will continue their Favours, which will be gratefully acknowledged, By their humble Servant E. BURGESS.
Genteel Lodgings to be Let ready-furnish’d, during the Race-week
In 1772 Kentish Gazette advises that Mr Burgess next door to the Post Office is selling tickets for the Theatre (Post Office then in St George’s Street and described in 1794 as ‘Opposite the White Friars Gateway by St George’s Church’ but probably from 1768 till about 1790 between the Corn Market (now Longmarket) and Butchery Lane), and in the same year the following appears:
ELIZABETH BURGESS Begs Leave to inform the PUBLIC, That she has opened a SHOP, in St. GEORGE’S STREET, CANTERBURY; Where are MADE and SOLD all Sorts of PASTRY and CONFECTIONARY.
Those Gentlemen and Ladies who please to favor her with their Commands, may be served with RICH CAKES, MADE-DISHES, JELLIES, SOUPS, HAMS, POTTED and COLLARED MEATS, etc. In the neatest and genteelest Manner, and their Favors gratefully acknowledged.
RICH SOUPS ready every MONDAY, WEDNESDAY, and FRIDAY, from Twelve till Two. TURTLE-SOUP on MONDAY next.
Meanwhile Edward and Elizabeth had at least four children: Edward 1765, George 1770, Thomas 1773, William Smith 1778.
Then in April 1780 Elizabeth Burgess is announced in the Kentish Gazette as Author of a Comedy (never acted) called ‘The Oaks or The Beauties of Canterbury’. ‘Written by Mrs Burgess. The Prologues to be spoken by Mr Miell and the Epilogue by Mrs Dawes’. The play was performed at Canterbury’s Theatre, a rickety wooden building over the Buttermarket outside Christchurch Gate, and seems to have been very successful. It was printed at her own expense and survives in full.
In May she is announced as Author of a new Prelude called ‘The Freemen of Canterbury, Or, Preface to the Election’, which features Mr Miell in the role of Nimbletongue, a hairdresser. Unfortunately this and the following pieces announced for Friday 17th August 1781 do not survive: ‘The Oddities, or the Canterbury Races’ and also for a ‘new Prologue she has written for a Comic Opera called The Wedding Ring’ to be performed on the same evening. It was of course no coincidence that this performance took place during ‘Canterbury Races Week’, an annual event on Barham Downs.
The Oaks is a very light comedy that revolves around various romances. There is perhaps only one really memorable line, ‘In your way here from the Cathedral there is, Sir, a place called the Oaks. Sir, it is a genteel walk, frequented by the ladies in the morning, and by the other sort of ladies in the evening’, spoken by the inn landlord.
The ‘Red Lion’ innkeeper’s overcharging of the Duke de Nivernois, the French Ambassador recently arrived at Dover, that caused the populace of Canterbury so much amusement in 1762 (and is mentioned with amusement in the letter of Madame de Pompadour to the Duke in the same year) is referred to, as is a more recent small fire that apparently caused a stampede in the Canterbury theatre when the famed Mr Palmer from the Drury Lane Theatre London was performing. These lines were no doubt well received by the Canterbury audiences. However one can but conclude that this is a competent rather than a brilliant piece of work.
For the next twenty years any further literary output is unknown. The Thespian Dictionary in 1802 has an entry: BURGESS, (Mrs.) is author of a comedy, called “The Oaks; or, Beauties of Canterbury”, 1780, several times acted in that city, where she keeps a shop in St. George’s Street.
A family website, no longer live, advised that:
‘My great grandmother was privately a very charitable woman as far as her means would allow. Among other cases I have heard, that she was so kind to the poor French prisoners of war, that when they were released by exchange, they desired to be marched past her house and cheered her calling out in both languages “God Bless Mrs. Burgess”. I believe my father witnessed the above. Being a good cook, she knew how to make French soups and also provided them with soup and the ingredients for them to make that and other French dishes. She used to entertain some of the officers on parole at her house and kept good society.’
The same site advised that she was very tall (around 6ft) and lends credence to a pleasing self-mockery of her own ‘awkwardness’ in her Prologue to ‘The Oaks’:
What is this play wrote by Burgess the Pastry Cook;
To thrive she’s turn’d her Hand a thousand ways,
But why attempt such things as writing Plays;
Let her make Sacques, Gowns, Tarts, and Pies,
And not presumptuously an Authoress rise.
It surely must be shocking Stuff; however,
To write a Play, she should be something clever,
But she is such an awkward clumsy Woman,
Quite impolite – her education common.
Then in 1805 she published a book called The Life and History of Betty Bolaine – a notorious miser who had just died aged 85. It sold well and went through several editions over the next 30 years. Elizabeth (Betty) Bolaine was sister to a well-regarded Canterbury surgeon and apothecary Noah Bolaine, who in 1753 published a repost to Mr Delafaye’s, Rector of St Mildreds and All Saints, denial of the efficacy of inoculation in the prevention of smallpox. The account of her life runs to over 60 pages including illustrative verse by Elizabeth Burgess. On reading it one cannot but be horrified by Betty’s avarice, but perhaps there is also a streak of admiration for another woman determined like Elizabeth to do her own thing. They were not alone. Mrs Sarah Baker, who managed an East Kent Company of Actors and built the new Canterbury Theatre in Orange-Street that opened in time for Race Week on 24th August 1789, was another.
The Kentish Gazette records Elizabeth Burgess’s death in 1825 with the following words:
‘Aged 88. Blessed with a strong mind, the deceased, many years ago, produced a satirical piece, called The Maid of the Oaks,* which was acted on our stage. The incidents, on the first representation, being known to the audience, it received considerable applause: a few years since, it was again performed, but the love for scandal, and allusion to the parties, having diminished with the growth of time, the prominent features of the play were lost — At the death of a female, familiarly known by the name of Betty Bolaine, Mrs. B. again exerted her talents, in writing a history of the old lady’s life, and depicting, in very glowing colours, her penurious and eccentric manners. Implicit faith was placed upon this production; although it was known that the writer pretty liberally bestowed vituperation upon her names, in consequence of the disappointments she experienced in not participating in the wealth which the old niggard had amassed.—The work had a great sale. Mrs. B. for many years was in the habit of selling cakes in the city, and latterly kept a registry-office for servants.’
*The Maid of the Oaks was a different play; it should read The Oaks.
The Oaks, or The Beauties of Canterbury. A Comedy, as performed at the Theatre in Canterbury by Mrs. Burgess printed by Simmons and Kirkby Canterbury 1780.
The Life and History of Betty Bolaine, Late of Canterbury, printed and sold for the Author by J. Saffery, Canterbury 1805.
The Thespian Dictionary printed by J. Cundee Ivy Lane for T Hurst Paternoster-Row London 1802.
Inoculation an indefensible practice: a sermon preached at the United Parish-Churches of St. Mildred’s and All-Saints, in the City of Canterbury, on the third and twenty-fourth of June, 1753 by Theodore Delafaye. Printed for M. Cooper London 1753.
‘A letter to the Rev. Mr. Delafaye, in answer to his sermon, lately publish’d, intitled, Inoculation an indefensible practice’, By N. Bolaine, Surgeon. Printed for R. Baldwin, at the Rose, in Pater-noster-Row, London 1753.
‘A vindication of a sermon, entitled, inoculation an indefensible practice. In which Dr. Kirkpatrick’s Arguments in Favour of the Operation, together with his and a certain Letter-Writer’s Objections to the Sermon, are distinctly consider’d and reply’d to; and the Practice demonstrated, in the amplest Manner, highly culpable in a Moral, extremely absurd in a Physical View’, By Theodore Delafaye, A.M. Rector of St. Mildred’s and All-Saints, in the City of Canterbury Printed for S. and E. Ballard, at the Blue-Ball, in Little-Britain, London 1754.
‘Remarks on the Rev. Mr. Delafaye’s vindication of his sermon, intitled, inoculation an indefensible practice’, By N. Bolaine, surgeon. Printed for R. Baldwin, in Pater-noster-Row; and sold by Mess. Flackton, in Canterbury, 1754.
‘Some Remarks on the Rev. Mr Delafaye’s vindication of his sermon against Inoculation In a letter to a friend’’ By a regular Physician. [Signed, Philalethes.] Printed for Mr T. Smith Bookseller in Canterbury 1754.