The ’Squire of Alsatia advertises his own grandeur and nobility. One hand on his hip and the other on his silver-knobbed cane, this dandy flaunts the splendours of his carriage and foppish dress, especially his glorious wig. He stands exactly as a nobleman would – in fact, his hand-on-hip pose was the prerogative of aristocratic men. He has all the nonchalance and Baroque swagger of a nobleman but the Squire’s ‘sublime’ pose with its exaggerated gallantry, aristocratic authority and courtly, romantic air is a two-edged sword, however. It ridicules the claims of this petty criminal.
Despite his elegant cane with its bejewelled neck and silver foot, the fellow is a gentleman in appearance only, a rogue and a petty criminal in reality. His true identity appears in his title; he is the Squire of Alsatia, a ghetto in London known for its gambling, drinking, lewdness, and sedition named after the war-torn frontier between France and Germany. Alsatia was the cant name for Whitefriars, and was a sanctuary for the disaffected and the criminal, a ‘theatre of sin’ where immunity from the law derived from the indifference of the authorities and the solidarity of the community.
The real Squire was a notorious swindler, card shark, and womanizer named ‘Bully’ Dawson. Dawson earned his reputation as a ruffian by cutting off a knight’s thumb in a duel and keeping it in his pocket as a tobacco stopper. A man of ‘mean’ birth and parentage, Dawson made his livelihood by dressing as ‘quality’ and courting gentlewomen and ladies with fortunes. By this chicanery, he managed well, until, leaving the protection of Alsatia to woo a widow in the north of England, he was discovered to the woman by one who accidentally recognised him. On his next visit, her ladyship’s footmen stripped him almost stark naked, cuffed him soundly, and chased him off. Stealing a horse in Yorkshire, he made a saddle from a bundle of hay, a bridle from a hayband, and, in this state, rode through the country to London. Safely back in Alsatia, he returned to his life of gambling, cheating and conning. He died poor and diseased in the Lock of Southwark at the age of 43, to the great satisfaction of his eighteenth-century biographer, Theophilus Lucas.
This portrait is said to represent Bully Dawson, a notorious gambler and black-leg from London, in the time of Charles II. His name became a byword for a swaggering fool. His character is summed up by Charles Lamb:
“Bully Dawson kicked by half the town, and half the town kicked by Bully Dawson.”
He is said to have come from either Blackfriars or Whitefriars and little is known of him other than he was a gambler and “sharper.” He may have been a punch brewer. Some idea of his reputation can be gleaned from the various works of literature that mention him. In Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” Hardcastle refers to him in Act 3:
“And can you be serious? I never saw such a bouncing, swaggering puppy since I was born. Bully Dawson was but a fool to him.”
He also appears in one of Joe Miller’s ‘Jests’:
“Bully Dawson was overturned in a Hackney-Coach once, pretty near his Lodgings, and being got on his Legs again, he said, ’Twas the greatest Piece of Providence that ever befell him, for it had saved him the Trouble of bilking the Coachman.”
The Specator of the second of March, 1711, reports that: “Sir Roger De Coverly was what you call a fine Gentleman, had often supped with my Lord Rochester and Sir George Etherege, fought a Duel upon his first coming to Town, and kick’d Bully Dawson in a publick Coffee-house for calling him Youngster.”
Another time, getting into a gaming-house frequented much by Bully Dawson, and perceiving he had won a great deal of money, Davy Morgan requested the favour of speaking a word or two with him in the next room. Dawson, taking him to be some chub or cully, went along with him, where, shutting the door, Davy pulls out a pistol, and presenting it to his breast, quoth he: “I want money, sir, for a very extraordinary occasion; therefore deliver what you have without any resistance, for if you make but the least noise soever I’ll shoot you through the heart, though I were sure to die on the spot.” Bully Dawson, being strangely surprised at these words, and dreading what a desperate man might do in his rage, gave him all his money, which was about eighteen guineas. Then, tying him hand and foot, Davy went about his business. By that time the bully thought this bold robber was gone, so calling out for help, several sharping gamesters came out of the gaming-room to him and, untying him, asked how that adventure came to pass. Which Dawson relating through several volleys of loud oaths, they fell a-laughing heartily at him, and cried: “Dawson, ’twas a fair nick.”
He is reputed to be the model for Captain Hackum in Thomas Shadwell’s “The ’Squire of Alsatia” (1688):
“Captain Hackum, a blockheaded bully of Alsatia, a cowardly, impudent, blustering fellow, formerly a sergeant in Flanders, who has run from his colours, and retreated into Whitefriars for a very small debt, where by the Alsatians he is dubb’d a captain, marries one that lets lodgings, sells cherry-brandy, and is a bawd.”
“The ’Squire of Asatia,” which was very probably done from the life, means one of the gamesters of Whitefriars, which was notorious for these pests of society, who were generally dressed to the extremity of the mode. Their phraseology abounded with such words as are sometimes introduced by pretenders and “dunces of figure,” whom Swift reckons among the principal corrupters of our language. The reader may see much of this jargon, which indeed requires a glossary to understand it, in Shadwell’s comedy, entitled “The ’Squire of Alsatia,” which was brought upon the stage in this reign. The play represents, in dialogue full of the local argot, the adventures of a young heir who falls into the hand of the sharpers there.
This picture is taken from The Cryes of the City of London, drawne after the Life, a set of 74 portraits of London characters by Marcellus Laroon, first published in 1687. One of them is The Squire of Alsatia, the reproduction above taken from a reprint of 1813.
Portrait found here