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The following article appeared in the Dorset Year Book 1995

The Comical Innkeeper of Lulworth

By Paul Randall

It is not everyone who takes pride in the fact that one of his ancestors was held up to ridicule on the London stage, but I do. I think it worthwhile to tell how it came to pass that the character of my great-great-grandfather figures in a play written by a nation­ally known playwright and which was performed before King George III at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

William Randall was born in 1728 in the home of his ancestors, West Lulworth, and can justifiably be called “a character”. We read a contemporary account which I think must be somewhat exaggerated, ” He was tall, thin and bony, with a long sal­low face and dark staring eyes. His dress consisted usually of a short white flannel coat, a scarlet waistcoat with brass buttons, brown stockings and thick solid shoes with iron buckles. When speaking he gesticulated wildly, swinging his arms and head about and continually stammering over the many long and fine sounding words with which he endeavoured to embellish his speech.”

He was the eldest son of a respected innkeeper and farmer who rented land and the inn from the Lulworth Castle estate. His mother was an educated woman, the daughter of the Rec­tor of Fordington, but the mid-1700’s was a time of depres­sion in Dorset with poverty al­ways round the corner. Once he walked to London to look for employment but when he got to Tyburn Gibbet (now Marble Arch) he found himself con­fronted with the body of a fel­low villager. Quite distraught, he walked back home and never left Dorset thereafter. The ar­rival of the King and his Court at Weymouth in the last two decades of the century brought a wave of prosperity to the Dorset coast. The doctors had told the King that sea bathing was ‘a cure for his incipient insanity.

One of the earlier visitors was John O’Keeffe who was born in Dublin in 1747 and studied painting with some success. Failing eyesight drove him to writing. He moved to London and wrote some thirty comedies and comic operas which delighted the theatre goers and in particular the Royal Family.

In June 1791 he felt the need of a summer holiday and, on the recommendation of a friend, he became one of the first tourists to Lulworth. The journey by coach took three days with overnight stops at Salisbury and Blandford and when he and his family arrived at the Red Lion he found the inn so minute that he doubted the wisdom of his choice. The beauty of the countryside and the warmth of his welcome soon changed his opinion and for the rest of his days the famous playwright retained the happiest memories of his visit.

He lists with relish the fare set before him, “Roast loin of lamb, young chicken, tongue, local peas and potatoes, home baked bread, local ale and port wine.” This “pub lunch” was followed by lobsters, crabs, cold lamb, pie, bread and cheese as an evening snack ! O’Keeffe was an indefatigable walker and for the good of his digestion, perhaps this was just as well.

Many years afterwards he wrote his memoirs and gave a memorable account of Dorset people and places two hundred years ago. He tramped over the Purbeck coast accompanied by his eldest son, Tottenham, visiting Lulworth and Corfe Castle and all the picturesque bays. One foggy night he got completely lost and had to be rescued at the cliff’s edge by his host.

We know that as he came from seafaring stock William was an adept swimmer but the locals were astonished to see O’Keeffe and his sons bathing in the Cove. They eschewed the water and one old man said, “No maister, I cannot fathom you Lonnon Volks who do come here at vast expense to sop and souse yourselves in cold water.” About this time King George visited the Village, arriving by sea and was greeted with loyal cheers by the entire population on the beach. The oldest inhabitant made a touching little speech, concluding that he was eighty three years of age and would have gone to his grave without the supreme honour of welcoming his Majesty, but for the visit.

There is no doubt that the great playwright was fascinated with Lulworth and his hosts. When he returned to London he proceeded to enshrine for all time both the Randalls and the Red Lion in his play “The London Hermit or Rambles in Dorsetshire”. Dorset was the flavour of the month and the Theatre Royal Haymarket was packed with applauding playgoers. The King asked for a Command performance. The bucolic antics of the actors were much appreciated but it was only gentle fun and one cannot take offence at the lines. William was portrayed as John Barleycorn, his principal servant as Toby Thatch and his daughter as Kitty. The latter was described as a young girl educated much above her station and acted by no less a person than the celebrated Mrs. Kemble. The most laughter was reserved for the Boots, John Grum. Weirdly dressed and speaking only one line ,”HUM”, he stole the show without any histrionic effort.

There was some artistic licence; Edward Weld of Lulworth Castle was Richard Whimmy, an eccentric character, and Kitty in the end married “The London Hermit” who turns out to be a rich London banker. Fun is also poked at the visiting townees and the predilection of the aristocracy to adorn their gardens with classical statuary. Copies of the play ran to four editions but can only now be found in the London Library.

We know that William kept a plentiful supply of smuggled spirits and tobacco in his ample cellars but tactfully O’Keeffe avoids mentioning the source of the wines and brandy which he appreciated. Lulworth would have been on the brink of starva­tion at the end of the 18th century but for the “Free Traders”. Nevertheless the Red Lion now entered into a period of great prosperity.

Royalty, politicians and playwrights, all of whom had seen or heard about the “London Hermit”, publicizing the Red Lion, called to sample William’s Dorset Lamb or “Scotch Scollops” and doubtless to smile indulgently at the rustic antics of Toby Thatch and John Grum. The stables, brewhouse and kitchen had to be enlarged and it was a good thing that he had three sons capable of running the farm. The whole village profited from this wave of tourism. Most visitors came by sea as the Dorset roads were in a deplorable state. Even the outbreak, of war with France made no difference and French wines still found their way into the inn’s capacious cellars.

At the end of the century many landowners had adorned their gardens with imitation Greek and Roman statues and in his play O’Keeffe tilts against what he considered a ridiculous fad. The down-to-earth banker Mr. Pranks is made to echo his thoughts, “Your modern gardens are art spoiling nature, fixing up a stone woman where one expects to find a rosy girl of health, flesh and blood. If we must have statues, instead of heathen gods in English meadows why not encourage British artists to celebrate British heroes. The five thousand pounds laid out upon the clumsy Pantheon here would have built a neat cluster of almshouses where age might find an asylum from the pangs of indigence.” We have no evidence that Mr. Weld favoured statues so this was obviously a general view.

Many years later, when he was completely blind, the author dictated his memoirs. He nostalgically recalled those enchanted summer days in Lulworth and wrote “Had I at that time been divested of care and of independent means, I could in that sweet and gentle retirement have ended my days with my three children.” He goes on to say he was tempted to buy a newly constructed house in “Watery Lane” for £200.

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