Robert Coates:   The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur

Last week, I wrote about the early life of Robert Coates in the West Indies, his move to England, Bath to be specific, and his introduction to life in London. Over the course of his life in Britain, he acquired a plethora of nicknames, most given to him by others. But he did have one, which he most preferred, probably because he chose it for himself. Though he came to Britain as a wealthy man, he was very generous with his money, and in the later years of the Regency, the source of his wealth was affected by trouble in his homeland so much that his failing finances forced him to flee to France.

Robert Coates ‘ life in London, and beyond . . .

In early September of 1811, Robert Coates was asked by several of his friends to perform the part of Shakespeare’s Romeo at the Theatre Royal in Richmond. Probably due to his reputation as a dreadful actor, the news of Coates’ appearance spread quickly and the theatre had a full house for that performance. Many of the bucks who attended that evening had come with the intent of roasting Coates during his performance. Most of them had enjoyed a meal and ample alcoholic libations before they arrived at the theatre. Of course, the majority of playgoers had come simply to see the singular performance of Robert "Romeo" Coates, of which they had heard such outrageous rumors. The inebriated young bucks began laughing even as Romeo prepared the poison for his death scene. But they were quickly silenced by the many ladies in the audience, most of whom had already developed something of a tendre for Coates. The majority of the jeers faded away and Coates was allowed to complete all four acts of the play.

As he became established in London, Coates began to make the acquaintance of some of the theatre managers in the city. Though few amateur actors received any notice by the press, Coates did, and the story of his Richmond performance made the newspapers, including the fact that he had played to a full house. This fact was not lost on the theatre managers of London. On the evening of 9 December 1811, Romeo Coates took the stage at the Haymarket Theatre. However, he was not playing his signature role. Instead, he was playing the role of Lothario, in the early eighteenth century tragedy, The Fair Penitent, by Nicolas Rowe. Coates was listed on the playbill as " a Gentleman, 1st Appearance on any stage," which was not quite the truth, though it was his first stage appearance in the London area. As was his habit, Coates had his own costume made, which was at least as outlandish as was his costume for Romeo. The Lothario costume in which Coates appeared consisted of a crimson silk waistcoat and cloak, a white shirt, white satin breeches with diamond-studded knee bands, white stockings and shoes with diamond buckles. He also wore a wide-brimmed Spanish hat with a tall plume of white ostrich feathers. Though he provided his own costume, Coates did not fund this performance as he had many of his previous performances. Rather, it was a benefit performance, purportedly for "the widow Fairbur," though many now believe that was a cover to maintain the anonymity of a well-known actor who had fallen on hard times. Coates may have been invited to perform in that benefit since his presence would almost certainly ensure a full house. The invitation was wildly successful, since many people had to be turned away on the night of the play. Many of those who were not able to buy a ticket tried to bribe their way into the theatre. It must also be noted that Robert Coates, like his father before him, was something of a philanthropist and he was quite happy to take the stage to help a fellow thespian in need. In fact, Robert Coates’ own preferred sobriquet was "The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur."

Over the course of the next few years, Robert Coates energetically earned the title he had conferred upon himself as the "The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur." He performed in dozens of plays, all to benefit a host of theatrical folk, sometimes financially subsidizing the performance to ensure the play took place, and that the beneficiary received a substantial sum from the performance. His presence was regularly requested by theatre managers and/or other theatre folk, all of whom knew that notice of an appearance by Romeo Coates would be published in the London papers. And that publicity would ensure a full house on the evening of any Coates’ performance, thus practically guaranteeing the maximum proceeds for the benefit. Coates was also known to have provided loans, and sometimes even monetary gifts, to theatre folk who found themselves in difficult financial circumstances. Though he could sometimes be rather arrogant about his acting skills, Coates was a kind and courteous man at heart, with the unfailingly good manners of a gentleman. Over the years, he became quite popular and well-liked among the theatre set.

Though he had enjoyed playing the part of Lothario, it was not to be expected that Romeo Coates would forsake his signature role. Just a few weeks after his first performance in London, he was invited to play at the Haymarket Theatre again, this time in his favorite role, in yet another benefit performance. As he had in Bath, he supplied his own costume, which was very similar to that original costume, but apparently made in a larger size, which did not restrict his movements and did not put him at risk of another split seam. He added a large white ostrich feather plume to his hat, as well as a diamond-studded hat band, along with diamond-encrusted knee bands and shoe buckles. At one point in the play, Romeo was supposed to exit the stage, but instead, Coates dropped to the floor on his hands and knees, obviously searching for something. From the wings, the stage manager called out to him "Come off! Come off!" in order to get him to leave the stage. Coates shouted back "I will come off, damn you, as soon as I find my diamond knee buckle!" The audience went into whoops of laughter at his antics and it took some time to restore order in the theatre. That was just one of the many faux pas by Coates which entertained the crowd that evening. There were more to come.

During the balcony scene, Coates bowed to the audience, then, with a wide grin on his face, paused to take a pinch of snuff, before offering his snuff box to his friend, Baron Ferdinand de Géramb, who was seated in the side box nearest the stage. A few members of the audience, closest to the stage, called out "I say, Romeo gives us a pinch". Coates happily handed his snuff box around, amid great laughter, before he once again turned his attention to the scene he was playing. This off-the-cuff action became a semi-regular part of Coates’ future performances. Coates sometimes declaimed his dialog incorrectly, causing members of the audience to shout out the correct lines. He would typically retort, with clear glee, that he knew that reading by heart, but felt he had improved upon it. Occasionally, just before Romeo’s death scene, Coates would come on stage with a crowbar, which he used to pry open the Capulet tomb and then ignominiously dragged Juliet’s "corpse" out of it as though she was little more than a sack of dirty laundry. To prepare for his death scene, with exaggerated effect, Coates usually swept the stage where he was to lie with a silk handkerchief, then spread the handkerchief, placed his hat upon it for use as a pillow, after which he finally laid down. For a time he would remain motionless, but on some evenings, he moved one or the other of his feet to see the flash of his diamond shoe buckles in the footlights. Knowing his penchant for the death scene, once Coates lay quietly, the audience would often shout out, "Die again, Romeo!" Happy to oblige, Coates would leap up and play the scene again. One of his more long-suffering Juliets found a graceful means by which to bring the repeated death scenes to an end. She would rise from her tomb and step toward the front of the stage, where she declaimed in an apt Shakespearian-style couplet:

Dying in such sweet sorrow,
That he will die again until to-morrow.

She would then escort Coates off the stage. Before leaving the stage after Romeo’s death scene, he would often address the audience and ask, "Haven’t I done it well!" This was usually met with hoots of laughter, loud calls of Cock-a-doodle-doo and the waving of many handkerchiefs in the auditorium. Apparently, Coates saw this all as audience approbation of his acting ability.

Romeo Coates’ outrageous style of acting regularly drew large audiences to his performances, nearly all of which were reported well in advance in the newspapers so the public had ample time to acquire tickets. But his performances were not just popular with the bucks and rowdies in the pit. Many among the upper classes filled the boxes on the evenings when Coates played either Romeo or Lothario, his two most popular roles. Even the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family, as well as a number of visiting dignitaries, attended performances by Romeo Coates during the early years of the Regency. Coates was always very gratified when important social or political figures attended his performances and was even more delighted when they asked to meet him, which many did. Friends and acquaintances familiar with the theatre in which he was performing on a given evening often waited for Coates in the green room after the performance. When Coates joined his friends in the green room, refreshments were often provided and many convivial gatherings took place. These impromptu green room gatherings were nearly always preludes to lively evenings on the town.

The droll, often outlandish stage performances of Romeo Coates were so well-known in London, and even beyond, that it was only a matter of time before they were parodied. In February of 1813, the talented comedic actor, Charles Matthews, debuted his play, At Home, at the Covent Garden Theatre. This play was a series of sketches in which Matthews, a gifted mimic, played all the parts. One of the sketches in this play was a caricature of Romeo Coates. Charles Matthews played "Romeo Rantall,", a close, if more extravagantly ridiculous, impersonation of Coates. Matthews developed a costume which was as close as possible and every bit as exaggerated a those favored by Romeo Coates. The sketch opened with a drawing room scene, in which Romeo Rantall recited a long dramatic poem, something Coates often did before, or after, his performances. More action was followed by an extended death scene in which Matthews mimics Coates’ habit of dusting the place where he would lay with a silk handkerchief before placing his hat on the silk square to serve as his pillow. While he was "dying" Matthews raised one leg to be sure the audience could admire his diamond shoe buckle. Though many thought this sketch was intended to hold Coates up to ridicule, it seems that Coates did not agree. He attended the play on opening night, seated in one of the boxes near the stage. As Coates had often done during his own plays, Matthews, in the guise of Romeo Rantall, came down to the front of the stage and extended his hand to Coates, who eagerly accepted. The audience roared as the two "Romeos" shook hands, both grinning widely. This moment was captured by George Cruikshank, who created a print entitled The Rival Romeos or Coates & Mathews, which was very popular. Audiences loved this play, which enjoyed a long run, first in London, then later in the provinces. It does not appear that Robert Coates was at all offended by this farcical parody of his melodramatic performances.

Romeo Coates lived the life of a Regency gentleman and he continued to act in benefit performances at various theatres in London, and sometimes in Bath, until at least 1816. He prefered playing the roles of Romeo or Lothario, since both had long and elaborate death scenes, which he often enacted more than once during the performance. In the waning years of the Regency, audiences no longer seemed amused by Coates’ performances. Instead of laughter, he was once again subject to the boos and hisses which had been the usual response to his earliest performances, typically accompanied by the throwing of orange peels, apple cores and any other trash those in the pit had at hand. As the crowds became increasingly unruly during Coates’ performances, theatre managers became increasingly concerned for the welfare of their players and the risk of damage to their theatres. Gradually, most theatre managers and owners became unwilling to take the chance that their staff and their facilities might come to harm at the hands of the crowds. Therfore, they were no longer willing to allow Romeo Coates to play any role in their theatres. By the end of 1816, his stage career had effectively come to an end.

Coates continued to live well in England for at least another couple of years, though he no longer took to the stage. In the last years of the Regency, there were problems in the West Indies which significantly reduced his income from his sugar plantation. In addition, he had continued to make loans and monetary gifts to friends in financial difficulty. Eventually, that all caught up with him and he could no longer afford to maintain his lifestyle in London. Probably sometime between 1819 and 1820, Coates left Britain for France and settled in the area of Boulogne. In time, by practicing many economies, he was able to gradually retrench his finances. While living in France, Robert Coates was introduced to the attractive daughter of a British naval officer, Emma Anne Robinson. By 1823, Coates was able to settle his debts in Britain, or make payment arrangements with his creditors there. He was finally free to return to England, and once again, he took up residence in London. Soon thereafter, Robert Coates married Emma Anne Robinson in St. George’s Church, Hanover Square. The couple lived quietly in London, where Coates still had a number of friends. As a married man, Coates lived a much more circumspect and respectable life. He gave of both his time and his money in a number of philantropic endevours and he was very much esteemed by most of the people who knew him. Though he no longer performed he regularly attended the theatre later in his life. Sadly, while he was leaving a concert at the Drury Lane Theatre, on 15 February 1848, he was crushed between a private carriage and a hansom cab. Though he survived the crash, he was so badly injured that he died the following week, on 21 February 1848, at the age of seventy-six.

[Author’s Note:   A biography of Robert Coates, by John Robert Robinson, was published in 1891. A digital copy is available at the Internet Archive, in multiple formats. It can be found here, for those who would like to learn more about this singular Regency eccentric.]

Dear Regency Authors, might the real-life Romeo Coates find a part in one of your upcoming novels? Or would you prefer to create a fictional version of him, selecting those character traits or eccentric behaviors which best suit your tale? Might some of your characters attend one of Romeo Coates’ benefit performances? Or, will they discuss doing so, after reading a newspaper article about an upcoming performance, only to have some of their number object? Then again, instead of attending a performance by Mr. Coates, will they attend the play, At Home, in which Charles Matthews mimics the overly melodramatic performances of Romeo Coates? In contrast to his theatrical pursuits, might one of your characters, a young lady, take the air in Romeo Coates’ cockle-shell curricle in a drive along Rotten Row? Are there other ways in which Romeo Coates, or a character like him, might be featured in a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Robert Coates:   The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur

  1. A much nicer and warmer person than came across in the brief article about him which first introduced this character to me, in the children’s magazine ‘Look and Learn’. A true gentleman, including his eccentricities. And a sad reminder of how common street accidents were. I can see a heroine, torn between two suitors, discovering that one of them has a cruel streak when he takes her [obviously in a party] to see a performance by Romeo Coates in order to jeer at him, as his means of impressing her.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I learned about Coates, he was quite a nice guy. He was friendly, kind and generous, and he helped a lot of people over the course of his life, especially theatre folk, who were often snubbed by folks in regular society. He was rather eccentric, but not in any way that ever hurt anyone. Yet, just like today, he was often taunted or teased by mean-spirited and cruel people just because he was different. It seems nothing ever changes. A pity humans cannot learn to practice the Golden Rule!

      I love your plot bunny! What a clever way to show that someone is lacking in kindness and consideration for others. Certainly not someone to whom one would want to be yoked for life!



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