A scene from Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, by Degas

A scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil, by Degas

In 1886, a man appeared before the magistrates of the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour.

The man had been on Oxford Street shortly after midnight the previous night, and his behaviour had gathered such a crowd around him that a policeman walking down the street had gone over to see what was going on. The man was using ‘filthy language’, was obviously very drunk, and refused to leave the area when the policeman requested him to. He was therefore charged with the above mentioned offence.

He was a black man, according to the newspapers, who refused to give his real name to the magistrate, instead stating that he was called ‘Robert the Devil’.

The magistrate asked what he had to say, and Robert answered, “Oh! Nothing at all, Boss.”

The local gaoler, Sergeant Vine, told the court that Robert was a frequent offender, and had appeared in the police court several previous occasions. Robert was told he would have to pay a 10 shilling fine or go to prison for seven days. Robert’s response was to say,

“That will be all right, Boss; the Prince of Wales will pay that for me.”

Robert evidently had long term alcohol abuse or mental health issues. His naming of himself as ‘Robert the Devil’ may not have had racial allusions, though, despite the devil’s likeness being a black goat in some 19th century literature, and there being increasingly negative depictions of black men and women in England during the latter half of the 19th century.

Robert_the_Devil_(horse)

Robert the Devil: a horse, not a man

Robert the Devil was a medieval legend; later, in 1831, Giacomo Meyerbeer created a romantic opera of the same name that saw great success in London in the 1830s and 1840s, and a resurgence in popularity in the 1890s. The name referred to Robert, Duke of Normandy, who was the father of William the Conqueror – but also, in some stories, said to be the son of the devil.

Did the defendant see himself as a devil, a character incapable of redemption? Or was he a romantic hero? The truth is probably somewhat more mundane. In the 1880s, there was a racehorse named Robert the Devil, whose career was eagerly followed in the English press. This drunken man may simply have adopted the horse’s name to avoid giving his own. The racehorse died at Bernham Paddocks ‘somewhat suddenly’, in 1889, aged 12; but what happened to his namesake is not known.

(Sources: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 September 1886; Dublin Daily Express, 28 October 1880; South Wales Echo, 2 May 1889; Saunders’s News-letter, 8 June 1832; The Graphic, 4 December 1886)