Robert Coates was one of the most well-known and interesting eccentrics who lived in Regency England, so much so that he acquired a number of different nicknames over the course of his life, all of them related to those things about which he was quite passionate. He was partial to an extravagant style of dress which often generated derisive comments from those who saw him. He was thoroughly enamored with acting and did so at nearly any opportunity, yet Coates was considered a perfectly dreadful actor, and was often jeered by the audience. Remarkably, Coates seems to have been oblivious to the negative remarks made about his wardrobe and his acting, among his other eccentricities. He blithely went about his life in England, amusing many of the people who encountered him throughout most of the Regency, doing quite a bit of good along the way.
How Robert Coates came to London . . .
Robert Coates was born in 1772, on the island of Antigua, in the West Indies. His parents were Alexander and Dorothy Coates, who had nine children, but sadly, Robert, their seventh, was their only surviving child, all the others died in infancy. Alexander Coates was a wealthy merchant and sugar planter who owned a 20,000-acre sugar plantation. The elder Coates was also engaged in various philanthropic pursuits in his community. His parents wanted the best for him, so young Robert was sent to school in England at the age of eight. There, he attended a first-rate boarding school where he got an excellent classical education and made several friends. It was also during these early school days that young Robert Coates was first exposed to the theatre, an interest which would remain with him for the rest of his life.
When his education was completed, and he returned to Antigua, Robert was soon bored and began looking for distractions. He was delighted to find amusement with a group of friends who were involved in amateur theatricals. There was no public theatre in Antigua, but a number of the residents had formed an amateur theatrical group which staged performances in a rented hall a few times each year. New members were always welcome, particularly a well-educated young gentleman. These amateur thespians particularly enjoyed staging very melodramatic versions of Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially King Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Robert soon became one of the most active members of the group and had roles in nearly every play they performed for the next few years. One of his favorite plays was Romeo and Juliet, and he especially enjoyed playing the part of Romeo.
Even this theatrical distraction eventually paled, and perhaps in another attempt to relieve his boredom, Robert informed his parents that he wished to acquire a commission in the Life Guards. Alexander was loath to risk the life of his only child and heir in combat, so he sent the young man on an extended tour of the United States, where Alexander had a number of relatives. Though Robert seems to have enjoyed his visit to the former English colonies, it did not dissuade him from military aspirations. Therefore, Alexander next sent Robert to Europe for a lengthy Grand Tour. The tour of the Continent apparently did the trick, for when Robert Coates returned to Antigua after his Grand Tour, he had lost his interest in obtaining a military commission. Instead, he tried to settle down to the life of a sugar planter and amateur thespian, but his broad education and extended travels had left him with more sophisticated tastes and greater aspirations than he could satisfy on his island home.
When his father died, in November of 1807, Robert Coates found himself a wealthy and unfettered single man with a fortune of £40,000. He soon left his sugar plantation in the hands of a manager and moved to England, where he settled in Bath. Tall, slim, dark and handsome, with charming manners, Robert Coates was a wealthy and fashionable bachelor about town. He soon made friends among other fashionable and wealthy bucks of the city. In addition, he gradually found acceptance among a number of members of the upper-class society of Bath, a number of them families seeking eligible suitors for their daughters. Nevertheless, he also caused a fair bit of comment among the residents of the city for his rather outlandish style of dress. He wore furs, even during what was considered warm weather in Britain. It should be noted that as a native of the much warmer West Indies, Coates may well have felt the need for more substantial clothing, even in what passed for an English summer. However, fur was certainly more flamboyant than a well-cut woolen cloak or greatcoat. Coates was especially fond of diamonds and had inherited quite a collection of them from his father. Many of his coats and waistcoats were secured with gold buttons studded with diamonds. When he went out, he also carried a sturdy cane with a diamond-encrusted handle. In fact, his penchant for wearing diamonds gave rise to his first nickname, "Diamond Coates."
Coates did not lose his interest in the theatre when he relocated to Britain. By 1809, he had made the acquaintance of William Wyatt Dimond, the manager of the Theatre Royal in Bath. Soon thereafter, though he was not a professional actor, and spoke in a voice with a noticeable metallic twang, Coates was able to convince the Theatre Royal manager to allow him to appear in some of the plays staged there. In February of 1810, Coates had prevailed upon the manager to allow him to stage some performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the Theatre Royal, Bath, at his personal expense. Naturally, since he had control over the production, Robert Coates elected to play the lead male role, despite the fact he was in his mid-thirties at the time. In addition, he became his own costume designer. One of the playgoers wrote a description of Coates’s Romeo costume on the night of his debut:
His dress was like nothing ever worn. In a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a waistcoat of white muslin surmounted by an enormous cravat, a wig in the style of Charles the second, capped with a plumed opera hat, he presented one of the most grotesque spectacles ever witnessed upon the stage.
Perhaps driven by his vanity, Coates’ costume had been made at least one size too small. It was so tight that he could hardly move his arms and had difficulty walking. Even worse, more than halfway into the first act, the action required that he bend down, at which point, the back seam of his pantaloons split wide open, revealing an ample section of his white undergarments. The audience burst into laughter every time he turned his back, but they soon realized that Coates was not aware of his costume malfunction. This only triggered even more laughter, to all of which Coates appeared to be oblivious, or he may have enjoyed it. By the end of the third act, the audience finally realized this performance was not intended as a parody of Romeo and Juliet and began pelting the actors on stage with orange peels, jeering and shouting "Off! Off!" very loudly. The other actors ran off the stage in fear and confusion. Concerned that the crowd may riot, the manager then brought the play to an end, and the fourth act was not performed that night.
There were several more performances of Romeo and Juliet at the Theatre Royal, in Bath, over the course of the next few weeks, all starring Robert Coates as Romeo, since he was footing the bill. Word of Coates’ atrociously bad acting immediately began to circulate in Bath. Remarkably, the tales did not repel theatergoers, but attracted them instead. Soon people were flocking to the theatre to see the hilarious spectacle. Coates particularly enjoyed playing Romeo’s death scene, so much so that he often enacted it more than once during the performance. One evening, he had played Romeo’s death scene three times and was about to play it again when the actress playing Juliet "came to life" and hustled him off the stage. Despite the boos, hisses and jeers to which he was subject during each performance, Coates was convinced he was an extremely gifted Shakespearian actor and continued to act at every opportunity. That summer, he made arrangements to take his version of Romeo and Juliet on tour across Britain. All of those audiences reacted in much the same way as had those in Bath, with boos, hisses and jeers, often accompanied with the tossing of orange peels and other trash onto the stage. Apparently still oblivious to the meaning of those audience reactions, Coates then decided that he must make arrangements to appear on the London stage.
Coates relocated from Bath to London early in 1811, where he was accompanied by his theatrical reputation and the new nickname which had been bestowed upon him in Bath, "Romeo Coates." He continued to wear furs and diamond-studded buttons on his clothing, though he expanded his wardrobe with richly colored silks and velvets, often accented with thick gold braid. He also added a diamond-encrusted band to his oversize hat and diamond-studded knee buckles on his evening breeches. In addition to his lavish wardrobe, Romeo Coates had a singular curricle made for himself, in the shape of a gigantic cockle shell. The exterior of this carriage was painted in a rich lake [crimson] color, while the spokes of the pair of high wheels were picked out in multiple colors. The interior of the curricle was well-appointed, with luxurious upholstery fabric over thickly padded seats. Even greater comfort was provided by the strong, light springs which supported the cockle-shell body of the carriage. Though Coates’ family was not armigerous, he chose a crest for himself which he used much like a heraldic device. This crest, a cock crowing with wings outstretched, was emblazoned in life-size on his shell-shaped curricle, surmounted by Coates’ motto, "While I live, I’ll crow." The step to enter the carriage was made in the shape of a cock, the splinter bar, to which the harness for the horses was attached, was fitted with an ornate brass rod on which stood a gold-plated brass crowing cock, and numerous large gilt brass crowing cocks decorated the carriage harness. Romeo Coates’ golden crowing cock-bedecked, crimson cockle shell curricle was drawn by a very fine pair of perfectly matched white horses. It can come as no suprise that he acquired yet another nickname, "Curricle Coates."
Whenever Curricle Coates drove his curious curricle through the streets of London, any street urchins in the vicinity where he passed would quickly begin shrieking "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" Yet he seemed quite oblivious to the din. It is possible he had no idea it was directed at him, or he thought it was intended to recognize his supposed talents as an actor. During the London season, Coates regularly drove his curricle through the city to Hyde Park each afternoon, to join the parade of carriages which transported their socially prominent passengers along the length of the famous Rotten Row. Apparently, there were quite a few ladies who were highly gratified to be invited to drive through Hyde Park with Mr. Coates in his cockle shell curricle. One of those ladies was Catherine Tylney-Long, the wealthy heiress, who had a flock of suitors, including Robert Coates and several of his friends and acquaintances.
Some of the friends Robert Coates had known in Bath were also residents of London and he soon made other friends in the metropolis. Coates had become acquainted with the dandy, Scrope Davies, in Bath and encountered him again after he moved to London. In the metropolis, Coates made the acquaintance of the well-known and charming eccentric, Charles Stanhope, Viscount Petersham. Like Coates, Petersham had his own quirks, including requiring his staff to wear brown livery and painting his carriage brown to show his devotion to his paramour, the lovely widow, Mary Browne. Lord Petersham was a good friend of Beau Brummell, but it is not clear if the viscount ever introduced Romeo Coates to the Beau. Coates also knew Henry Barry, the 8th Earl of Barrymore, dubbed Cripplegate by his friends, and Lumley Skeffington, another dandy who was already a successful playwright. But perhaps Coates’s best friend in London was the notorious and exotic Baron Ferdinand de Géramb, another eccentric, who had arrived in London from Europe the year before Coates. Despite the fact that both Coates and Géramb were suitors for the hand of Miss Tylney-Long, they remained good friends. In fact, Géramb could be seen from time to time as a passenger in Coates’ cockle-shell curricle, when Romeo was not squiring a lady.
Robert Coates had moved to London soon after the Prince of Wales was declared Regent. It seems he was a great admirer of the flamboyant Prince and was very eager to meet him. One of his acquaintances took advantage of Coates’ fondest wish to play a cruel and petty prank on him. In June of 1811, the Prince Regent held a grand celebration at Carlton House, ostensibly to celebrate the ailing King’s birthday. The French royal family, then in exile in Britain, would be the guests of honor at the banquet. Initially, the Prince’s mistress, Lady Hertford, had ordered that no one below the rank of the son or daughter of a peer was to be sent an invitation. The Prince, or someone at Carlton House, reversed her command and it was reported that more than two thousand invitations were sent out, across a wide array of classes. Romeo Coates had high hopes that he would be the recipient of one of those invitations.
One of Robert Coates’ first acquaintances in London was Theodore Hook, a rake, part-time writer, composer and chronic practical joker. Hook was able to get a look at one of the official invitations for the Regent’s grand banquet, based on which he produced a very close copy. This he sent to Romeo Coates, who was over the moon to think he would finally get to meet the Prince Regent, not to mention the French royals and the cream of high society. Coates immediately paid a visit to his tailor and ordered a lavish scarlet uniform for the banquet, despite the fact that he had never held a commission in any branch of military service. He also acquired a fine sword with a diamond-studded hilt to accompany his magnificent new uniform. The newspapers estimated that his ensemble for that evening had cost him at least £5,000. On the evening of the banquet, Coates dressed in his scarlet uniform and strapped on his diamond-hilted sword. He then had his tiger drive him to Carlton House in his crimson cockle-shell curricle. Assuming he would be at the banquet for several hours, he directed the tiger drive his curricle home, with instructions to come back for him much later in the evening. In eager anticipation, Coates then smartly walked up the steps of Carlton House and into the main hall. There, he proudly presented his invitation to the Regent’s private secretary. One can only imagine the shock and disappointment Robert Coates experienced when he was told his invitation was a fake. He was politely asked to leave, which he did without further comment.
Theodore Hook had hidden in the shadows of the portico of Carlton House that night so he could watch the results of his prank. Since he had dismissed his curricle, Coates had no choice but to walk from the Regent’s town house to the nearest hackney cab stand in order to make his way home. Hook followed him all the way, laughing up his sleeve at how completely he had duped Coates with what he considered to be a clever prank. But it seems that Coates deep dejection affected him, for though Hook told the story to friends for years after, he always seemed to be remorseful at how disheartened his target had been. Yet, in the end, there was an unexpected silver lining for Robert Coates. The morning after the banquet, the Regent learned what had happened and told his private secretary that he was sorry to learn that Coates had been turned away. He considered the amateur actor with the fanciful carriage to be an inoffensive and charming gentleman who would have amused the invited guests. To make amends, in a rare act of kindness, the Prince sent his secretary to Coates’ home to apologize in person as well as to offer Coates a personal invitation from the Regent to come to Carlton House to view the elaborate decorations and ornamentation which had been set up for the banquet. Coates was very pleased to accept the Prince’s invitation and went almost immediately to Carlton House. There, he was even more delighted to be greeted with great respect and he was given a private tour of the house and grounds.
Next week, a look at Romeo Coates’ career on the London stage and beyond.