The next time you glance at your Oyster card, take a moment to remember Edward Dando: guzzler of oysters, bane of fishmongers, and London’s oddest working-class hero.
In a few short years until his death of cholera in 1833 (at around the age of 30), this young hatter’s apprentice built a reputation as Britain’s leading ‘bilker’ of unpaid restaurant bills.
Arriving at an oyster-stall, Dando would eat hundreds of the bivalves before telling the anxious owner he was penniless. Unsurprisingly, he endured numerous beatings and several spells in prison. On release, Dando would head straight for the nearest oyster-shop – and do it all over again.
“CAUTION TO SHELL FISH DEALERS, PUBLICANS, &c. – DANDO THE OYSTER-EATER, ABROAD”
(Notice in The Morning Chronicle, 2nd April, 1832).
According to the writer and historian Christopher Impey, “On the evening of his release from Brixton, he walked straight into a shop and devoured thirteen dozen [oysters] washed down with five bottles of ginger-beer.”
Dando became a celebrity. The public wanted to read about his exploits, and the media happily obliged. It helped that he knew the value of a good soundbite. Impey quotes from one of Dando’s many court appearances:
“I suppose you are brought here again for gormandizing, and not paying for it?”, asked the magistrate.
“I had a few oysters, it is true, your worship.”
“What have you to say to the charge?”
“Nothing, Sir, but that I was very hungry.”
After his death, his fame continued to spread. Obituaries popped up in various magazines. A play about his life, Dandolo; or The Last of the Doges, was staged at the City of London theatre. He began to attract high-profile fans, including Charles Dickens (who mentions Dando in one of his ‘Sketches by Boz’), and William Makepeace Thackery (author of Vanity Fair).
In a wickedly funny tale by Thackery, published under a pseudonym, Dando disguises himself as Italian nobleman ‘Roderick Dandolo’ in order to blag a job at an all-girls school, where he seduces one of his pupils:
“Adeliza looked down and blushed. ‘My parents are lowly,’ she said.
‘But how then came you at such a seminary?’ said he; ‘twenty pounds a quarter, extras and washing not included?’
‘They are humble, but wealthy.’
‘Ha! who is your father?’
‘An alderman of yon metropolis.’
‘An alderman! and what is his profession?’
‘I blush to tell; he is – an oystermonger.’
“AN OYSTERMONGER!” screamed Roderick in his loudest capitals […]”
Dando’s reputation spread through the cheap broadsheet ballads that were many Londoners’ main source of news. The penny-dreadful merchant James Catnach published the most popular of these ballads, The Life and Death of Dando, The Celebrated Oyster Glutton:
“So shickery, trickery, rum tum ball,
Sponging and lounging on victims all;
Death collar’d Dan in Clerkenwell –
Dando, the bouncing seedy swell !”
Even the prestigious Edinburgh Magazine printed a Dando poem, an overblown, mock-heroic elegy which began “Oh, death! what havoc in the world you make!”, before breaking the news to London’s oysters that their greatest foe was dead: “Rejoice, testaceous tremblers!”
Today, Dando’s legacy lives on. For Stage Award-winning poet and performer Luke Wright, Dando was “a hero”. After reading an article about the glutton by Sarah Murden and Joanne Major, Wright felt he had to write about him – and it had to be a ballad. “I think the broadside ballad is ultimately a more honest medium than a tabloid newspaper,” says Wright. They share a sensationalist tone, but “by turning something into a poem, it’s saying, this is just for your fun and amusement – let’s not pretend it’s news.”
“You’ve got to admire a man with that much dedication to his stomach,” Wright tells me, but it was Dando’s political stance that really struck a chord.
He saw himself as a social campaigner, highlighting society’s double-standards. “I refuse to starve in a land of plenty,” Dando explained in April 1832. “Instead I shall follow the example of my betters by running into debt without having the means of paying. Why, some men live in great extravagance and luxury, owe money and cheat their creditors, yet they are still considered respectable and honest. I only run into debt to satisfy the craving of hunger, and yet I am despised and beaten.”
“It’s exactly the same thing today,” says Wright. “If you rack up credit card bills, you’re in trouble, and yet the people who’ve caused the need for austerity have got away scot-free.”
As the academic Ann Featherstone notes, against the backdrop of the 19th century’s “corrupt banking practices and government bail-outs”, Edward Dando seemed like an anti-hero for the times. Today, we may need him more than ever.
You can read and listen to Luke Wright’s ballad about Edward Dando here