Georgian England saw first 'celebrity'

January 9, 2004

The cult of celebrity may seem a modern phenomenon. But historians have found that Britain's first modern-style celebs started pursuing fame for fame's sake more than two centuries before Big Brother and OK magazine.

Among the newly identified progenitors of today's celebrity was a publicity-seeking aristocrat called George Robert Fitzgerald, whose antics helped to fill the pages of the newspapers in late 18th-century England.

While the likes of Samuel Johnson, James Watt and William Pitt were carving out careers that immortalised their names, Fitzgerald dedicated himself to manipulating the nascent media's growing fascination with the lives of the famous.

Yvonne Cornish, an Oxford University PhD student, told Fitzgerald's story to last weekend's conference of the British Society for 18th Century Studies.

The rise of the celebrity can be attributed to the greater availability of print, a growing emphasis on the individual, a rising population and increasing affluence as the British economy expanded.

Newspapers and journals found they sold better if they included accounts of people's private lives, but they soon needed to turn to publicity seekers to meet demand.

"Fame itself was becoming devalued because people were becoming famous who were no longer achieving anything," Ms Cornish said.

Fitzgerald was an effete, well-educated, fastidious man who wore a muff.

But he nonetheless had a reputation for being aggressive and vengeful.

In 1773, at the age of 25, he got into a row with the editor of the Morning Post over the harassment of an actress in a public park, which peaked with the journalist - an ordained minister of the church - beating Fitzgerald's footman in a coffee house.

The Vauxhall affray, as it was known, prompted a literary battle lasting two months, was reported in nine newspapers and, ultimately, a bestselling pamphlet.

Fitzgerald ensured that future disputes - including a duel in France - received maximum publicity through his own pamphlets and newspaper articles. Stories about him were widely discussed.

The nature of his celebrity was apparent even then, with one critic describing him as a "pasteboard hero".

After a dispute with leading members of the judiciary, Fitzgerald was hanged for a crime he did not commit.

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