Historians seeking insight into the characters of Georgian London could do worse than read Arthur Conan Doyle’s largely forgotten novel Rodney Stone, set during the Peace of Amiens in 1803. In the book, the young eponymous narrator is whisked around the metropolis by his uncle Sir Charles Tregellis, ‘King of the Bucks’ and very particular friend of the Prince of Wales, on his way encountering a host of real-life characters including Beau Brummell, Charles James Fox, Lord Nelson and the Prince himself.
Much of the novel is taken up with the sport of prize-fighting, and in one memorable scene Rodney visits a low-life drinking den in St. Martin’s Lane where a bare-knuckle fight is to take place for the amusement of the Prince and his friends. Entering the bar, Rodney sees a group of pugilists seated round a table bearing a tray of small glasses and pewter mugs:
‘The boys were thirsty, sir, so I brought up some ale and some liptrap’, whispered the landlord.
Liptrap? Was this slang for some extraordinary concoction so strong that it froze the mouth of the imbiber? The derivation is more prosaic: Liptrap was a popular brand of London gin, produced at the great distillery of S D Liptrap & Son off the Whitechapel Road, just west of the London Hospital and on the site of today’s Whitechapel Sports Centre.
Site of S D Liptrap & Son (later Smiths) distillery, Whitechapel (1830)
It’s unclear whether Conan Doyle knew it, but had a real landlord served Liptrap’s gin to the Prince of Wales, it would have triggered a strong response. The Prince and the distiller had a history:
John Liptrap, the owner of the Whitechapel distillery, was born in 1766 and had inherited the business on his father’s death in 1789. A Middlesex magistrate, Liptrap was also a philanthropist and patron of the arts and sciences, a governor of the London Hospital and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also active in City of London politics, culminating in 1795 with his election at the age of just 29 as one of the City’s two Sheriffs.
It was during his year as Sheriff that Liptrap had an encounter with Prince George that would result in the word Liptrap forever leaving an unpleasant taste in the Prince’s mouth. In his capacity as Sheriff, the distiller invited the Prince to dine with him and various other worthies at his house in Whitechapel. During dinner the Prince, recently disentangled from his disastrous marriage to Princess Caroline, was captivated by the charms of Liptrap’s wife Elizabeth, a celebrated beauty. According to Robert Huish, the Prince’s early biographer, Mrs Liptrap was flattered:
…her eye beamed with desire and passion, and her LIP was not the first TRAP which, by its lovely pouting, had ensnared the affection of the enamoured Prince.
When the ladies left the table, the Prince – unable to resist temptation – excused himself and followed them. When his guest of honour failed to return, Liptrap became concerned and went to investigate. Huish continues:
There were several places in the house to which it was possible that the Prince had retired, but there was one, in particular, in which it was highly improbable that he be found, and that was the bed-chamber of his lady. It was, therefore, the last which the worthy Sheriff visited – but, had he visited it first, it would have saved him a great deal of trouble, and calmed at once his anxiety for the safety of his Royal guest.
Notwithstanding the interloper’s identity, Liptrap responded in the only way open to a gentleman of the time: he drew his sword and chased the Prince out of the house. The heir to the throne found himself pursued around Liptrap’s garden in pitch darkness, with no sign of an escape route. His only option was to vault the garden wall:
…and he now found the adage to be true, that a man should always look before he leaps. The Prince did not look; and therefore he leapt into as vile a compound of dirt and filth as ever received the body of a human being, much more that of a Prince.
The story concludes with the comment that from that day on, the Prince could never hear mention of the name Liptrap without exclaiming: Oh, but it has a rank, unearthly smell!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Liptrap’s career appears to have taken a turn for the worse after this encounter. In 1804 he got into financial difficulties and entered bankruptcy proceedings. In 1812, Liptrap set himself up in opposition to Joseph Merceron, the infamous ‘Boss of Bethnal Green’ and Godfather over much of London’s East End (of whom much more later*). This was a very unwise tactic, given that Merceron owned or controlled most of the local inns and was also the licensing magistrate, well known to withhold licences from publicans unless they sourced their ales and spirits from Merceron’s favoured suppliers. It seems that Merceron exercised his nefarious influence over Liptrap’s customers and suppliers with the result that by the end of 1812 the Liptrap distillery company had unpaid debts amounting to more than £100,000.
Early in 1813 the government instituted further bankruptcy proceedings. That July, Liptrap’s fine house and mahogany furniture were auctioned, together with his art collection, impressive library and the assets of his distillery (including 100 bags of juniper berries!), and he departed from the East End for good.
We hear no more of Liptrap until his death in Canterbury on May 17 1826 at the age of 60, his mind weakened by repeated attacks of paralysis . His obituary described him touchingly as ‘a gentleman who for literary acquirement, gentlemanly feeling and benevolence of heart, was second to none’. His name lives on only in Australia, in the form of Cape Liptrap, a beautiful coastal park 160km south of Melbourne, named after him by his friend and its discoverer, Lieutenant Grant, R.N.
And so, dear Readers, in memory of this fine London citizen please help resurrect a lovely and apposite name for a shot in the arm. The next time you are offered a drink, instead asking for a plain old G&T, please raise the cry:
Make mine a Liptrap!
* Further details of John Liptrap’s feud with Joseph Merceron are set out in my book The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London.