The Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital was described as being ‘For the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’. Similar hospitals had already been established in Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Rome, Venice and Amsterdam and when Captain Thomas Coram returned to England he was shocked by what he saw, children dying and discarded in the streets of London and could not understand why there was no similar provision in England.  During the reign of Queen Anne a similar suggestion had been mooted, but nothing came of it, despite various people having left legacies in their wills to help such children.
Captain Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram (1688 – 1751), almost single handedly, spent 17 years trying to establish the hospital; finally achieving Royal Charter on 17th October 1739.  The first General Court was held at Somerset House on the 20th November 1739 and was chaired by the Duke of Bedford who presided over the hospital until his death in 1771. The committee was authorized to

‘purchase real estate not exceeding £4,000 a year and they were required to have a quorum of 13 Governors for the election of a President and committee’.

 At this first meeting they duly elected 50 governors to manage the estate and effects of the hospital. In an account of the history of The Foundling Hospital, written 1799 it seems that its main focus was caring for poor children along with those of prostitutes and also to educate these women to change their ‘wretched ways’.  The first task of the governing body was to find out who had bequeathed monies to help with the building and running of such an establishment, then to set up accounts to monitor regular donations.

The Foundling Hospital a birds eye view, 1753. Engraving by T. Bowles after L.P. Boitard.

A meeting was held on Christmas day 1739, during which a proposal was made to take a 21 year lease on Montagu House, but due to some legal restrictions this could not take place, so some tenements in Hatton Garden were obtained on a temporary basis and the admission of children began shortly after.  Needless to say, the funds they had hoped for hit some snags due to government taxes. Eventually the governors managed to persuade Parliament that they should be free from parochial jurisdiction and interference i.e. to give it charity status.  In October 1740 land was purchased from The Earl of Salisbury at the north side of Ormond Street extending to Gray’s Inn Lane for the sum of £6,500.

One of the first problems they encountered even before building the hospital was how they were going to cater for such large numbers of babies who needed breast feeding and that there were insufficient wet nurses for all these children, so it was decided that many would be sent into the country until they were three years old, as the view was that wet nursing was best.  At sixteen girls usually became servants and the boys were placed into apprenticeships.

On the 16th September 1742 the foundation stone was laid for the new hospital and whilst building continued arrangements were being put in place for all other aspects of running the hospital including this meal plan:-

Sunday – Roast beef

Monday – Stewed beef with turnips and carrots

Tuesday – Roast mutton

Wednesday – Boiled beef with greens or roots

Thursday – Stewed beef with turnips and carrots

Friday – Roast mutton

Saturday – Boiled beef with greens or roots, or, pork with pease pudding in winter and shoulder of veal in summer.

October 1745 the west wing in Hatton Garden was opened, with girls and boys being house separately. The whole building was estimated to be capable of holding 400 children, it was to be plain and devoid of decoration, but artists became interested and in particular Mr Hogarth donated three of his works to them including a portrait, above of its founder, Mr Coram.

The Hospital received its first foundlings in 1741. The first two children to be baptized were named Thomas Coram and Eunice Coram. On entering the Hospital children were baptized and given a new name.  Up until the end of the eighteenth century mothers also left a token which could be used to identify the child if the parent made a request to claim him or her at a later date. These tokens are on display within the foundling hospital Collection

A token dated 1759 from the Foundling Hospital.
A token from the Foundling Hospital Collection.

The composer Handel also became a patron and even conducted a performance of his work ‘Messiah’ to raise funds for the hospital. He repeated this several times and raised the sum of £6,700 (about half a million in today’s money).

Courtesy of The Foundling Museum

29th March 1751 Mr Coram died, aged 84 and in keeping with his request, was interred beneath the altar of the hospital chapel. His funeral was extremely well attended and apart from dignitaries it also included children and their nurses. The choir service was performed by the gentlemen of St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. He died leaving virtually no money, hardly even enough to pay for his funeral, his later life and money having been invested in the building of the hospital.

The number of children received into the hospital before the end of 1752 was 1,040 of which 559 were maintained by the hospital at an expense of upwards of £5,000 a year.  Mothers took their children to the hospital in ever increasing numbers. When it was first opened children were taken in on a first come basis, but due to lack of space and financial constraints an alternative system was adopted, that of a ballot system, women had to draw a coloured ball from a bag, if they got a white ball the child, if healthy was admitted, a red one meant that they would be added to the waiting list; a black meant they would not be admitted.

Music and art formed a major part of life at the hospital and in July 1774 Dr Burney and Mr Giardini presented a plan for establishing a public music school at the hospital, which they anticipated by patronage would increase the hospitals donations fund.

The hospital itself survived until 1954, but the charity remains today helping vulnerable children and young people.

Harris’s List and Tom Weston

In our last article on the Drury Lane comedian Tom Weston we mentioned that, after his wife and he had parted, he lived with a young lady in St. James’s Street above a glass shop for a while, and put her onto the stage at the Haymarket as Cherry in  George Farquhars’ The Beaux’ Stratagem.

We can now add a little further information to this, and give the lady at least a surname, for whilst browsing through the 1773 edition of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (as you do . . . ), we stumbled upon her and can therefore state that this short-lived liaison of Tom’s had ended by the time this edition of the List was published.

Her entry is thus:

 Miss Lee. Glass Shop, St. James’s-street

“Doats upon the silliest things.”

This lady had a connexion with a comedian of Drury-lane, which has lately been broke off, for what cause we cannot say, and madam now depends upon the generous public for support; but she is not unacquainted with the business, she is only returned to her old calling. She is a pretty black girl, about the middle size, with remarkable find dark eyes and hair. Her skin is very good, a little pock-marked, and not a bad companion.

She has performed two or three little characters at Foote’s and came off decently; and ’tis said she intends to take up with the stage, and live honest:- Very honestly intended; but we are afraid it is not a school to cause such a happy reformation.

We have, however, yet to find a mention of her as Miss Lee upon the stage.

Tom Weston - Harris's List

Hannah Norsa, 18th century actress: the intricacies of relationships within her circle

To many people the life of Hannah Norsa, the first Jewish actress to take to the London stage, is unknown, but she was another of the stars performing at Drury Lane, so we simply had to tell her story, especially as it interweaves with the lives of other well known theatre folk of the period.  We are also delighted to have found some new information to add to what was already known about her.

Image supplied by National Portrait Gallery Hannah Norsa by R. Clamp, after Bernard Lens (III), stipple engraving, published 1794. Reference Collection NPG D9177.
Image supplied by National Portrait Gallery
Hannah Norsa by R. Clamp, after Bernard Lens (III), stipple engraving, published 1794. Reference Collection
NPG D9177.

Hannah Norsa appeared on the stage for the first time on 16th December 1732 in the part of Polly Peachum in the Beggar’s Opera, following in the footsteps of Lavinia Fenton who had bagged herself a Duke as a lover following her tenure in the role.

Miss Norsa was the daughter of Isaac (or Issachar) Norsa, an Italian Jew from Mantua in northern Italy who, in 1717, was living in Brydges Street in Covent Garden where he co-owned the Green Cannister tavern with his brother Abraham. Prior to that, from 1713, Isaac had owned the Cocoa Tree Chocolate House on the south side of Pall Mall. In 1722, the two brothers took over the Punch Bowl tavern in Drury Lane which they were still owners of in 1736 at Abraham’s death and so Hannah grew up around the Covent Garden theatres. Isaac also seems to have operated as a warehouseman in Covent Garden, possibly in the capacity of a tea merchant, in the 1730s and he died in 1748, being buried in a ‘handsome manner’ at the Jews Burial Ground at Mile End.

Hannah’s mother was most probably Esther de Aharon de Chaus who married Ishac de Jehosuah Norca (Isaac) at the Bevis St. Mark’s Synagogue in January 1714; she died in 1738 and was buried in the same cemetery that Isaac was to be laid to rest in a decade later.

Covent Garden Market (1726), Pieter Angillis from the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Covent Garden Market (1726), Pieter Angillis from the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Hannah, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen years of age when she took to the stage if her parents had married in 1714,  captivated just as much in the role of Polly Peachum as Lavinia Fenton had done, and in other roles for just over three years before she was taken off the stage by Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford from 1745 and son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, with whom she lived as his mistress until his death in 1751. He intended to marry her once his current wife would conveniently die and leave the way clear; unfortunately this lady outlived her husband, putting paid to that scheme but Hannah lived at Houghton Hall in Norfolk with him, in every way but one his wife.  Hannah also occupied a small house at Stanhoe near King’s Lynn owned by Walpole.

Hannah gave Robert one son, born illegitimately and who must have died young as no mention is found of him subsequently.  This son, named Robert for his father, was born on the 12th August 1740 and baptised a month later on the 11th September at St. Margaret’s in Westminster, the register recording Hannah’s surname incorrectly.

Robt s: to the Rt Honble Robt Ld Walpole by Hannah Horsah

In Memoirs of a Royal Chaplain, 1729-1763; the Correspondence of Edmund Pyle, D.D. is the following letter from Barbara Kerrich, wife of the Rev. Samuel Kerrich, to her spinster sister, dated 18th October 1749:

 To tell you ye truth I made Mrs Norsa a vissit first my Lord ask’d me several times very kindly, I believe it was taken well, for she soon return’d it, I wouldn’t tell you of my Vissit because I didn’t know what you wou’d think of it, for I don’t know but it might be cutting a bold stroke, She is a very agreeable Woman, & Nobody ever behav’d better in her Station, She have every body’s good word, and bear great Sway at Houghton, She is every thing but Lady, She came here in a Landau & Six horses & one Mr Paxton a young Clergyman with her.

 Barbara Kerrich’s sister Elizabeth Postlethwayt replied nine days later, saying:

 I think you cou’d not well avoid making a visit to Mrs Norsa without disobliging my Lord and ’tis a thousand pityes a Lady that can behave so well should fail in so great a point.

Horace Walpole wrote of being at Vauxhall Gardens in 1750 and inviting from the next box there ‘my brother Orford . . . with his Norsa’.  An encounter with Hannah’s father was also recounted by Horace Walpole; he had been present at the trial of the rebel Jacobite lords in 1746 as his brother, Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, auditor of the Exchequer, had a gallery which ran along the side of the court at Westminster. Walpole was amused by the sentence by the prisoners peers of ‘Guilty, upon my honour’ and wrote that he ‘was amused too, with old Norsa, the father of my brother’s concubine, and old Jew that kept a tavern . . . I said ‘I really felt for the prisoners!’ Old Issachar replied, ‘Feel for them! Pray if they had succeeded, what would become of all us?’

 Horace also wrote on the 26th June 1747 about the fashion for men of fortune to keep an actress as a mistress.

 This Lord [Lord Luxborough] keeps Mrs Horton the player; we keep Miss Norsa, the player; Rich, the harlequin, is an intimate of all, and to cement the harlequinity, somebody’s brother (excuse me if I am not perfect in such genealogy) is to marry the Jewess’s [Miss Norsa’s] sister.

Vauxhall Gardens by Canaletto (via Wikiart)
Vauxhall Gardens by Canaletto (via Wikiart)

Robert Walpole’s will, written less than two months before his death, is very short and to the point. He appoints Lord Walpole his son his sole executor and hopes he will take the advice of his uncles Edward and Horatio Walpole in the execution of it, he leaves £200 per year to a Robert Robertson for the term of his life, to his servants a years wage and asks that Lord Walpole will ‘take care that Mrs Norsa have her judgment well served to her.’ Walpole died in debt and some reports say he had squandered a £3000 legacy which Hannah had received from her father and which she had loaned to him.

Portrait of Robert Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1701-1751) by John Theodore Heins (via Wikimedia)
Portrait of Robert Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1701-1751) by John Theodore Heins (via Wikimedia)

Hannah, after Walpole’s death and pursued by his creditors, took refuge for a while in the house of John Rich. Rich (1692-1761), who invented the art of pantomime, was a former libertine, actor and manager of the Covent Garden Theatre. He had been reformed by his third wife, Priscilla Wilford, who had herself previously been on the London stage, performing under the name of Mrs Stevens, before that having worked as a barmaid and waitress at Brett’s Coffee-house in St. James’s Square; all three of Rich’s wives had been actresses.

Priscilla had lived with John Rich as his housekeeper and mistress for some years before he married her in 1744 whilst continuing to act for his company. She converted to methodism, shunned alcohol and any form of licentiousness and transformed her hard living husband. In 1747 the following was written about John Rich:

 Mr R__h, to be sure, has been a great Libertine in his Time, and much given to the Flesh; but now, Glory be to G_d for it, the manifestation of the Proverb is happily come to pass in him, viz.

Never too late to mend: And tho’ he has been to blame heretofore, yet Solomon and David were much addicted to Women. And if Mr R__h hath err’d and stray’d in that point, yet he is now like the lost Sheep that is found: He hath now turn’d the Brothel into a Temple, and he kneeleth to pray where he hath kneel’d heretofore to ____.

Photolithograph of the actor-manager John Rich as Harlequin, carrying his slapstick, from an etching of 1753. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Photolithograph of the actor-manager John Rich as Harlequin, carrying his slapstick, from an etching of 1753. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Rich, when he died, left his wife Priscilla as joint manager, while she remained a widow, of his Covent Garden theatre along with his son in law John Beard. If Priscilla was to remarry she was to be replaced by her brother, Edward Wilford.

The whole set was well known to the actress George Anne Bellamy, a contemporary of theirs. She says that Hannah Norsa (who she names as Miss Nassau) was the intimate friend of Priscilla during her time on the stage and that it was Priscilla who advised her friend to place herself under the protection of Walpole. 

Priscilla’s brother, Edward Wilford had a dual career, that of a clerk in the Exchequer office (under Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford) and also employed at the Covent Garden theatre both as a pit doorman and in the theatre treasury.  On the 23rd July 1746 he married Rachael Norsa, sister of Hannah, at Roehampton in Surrey. A newspaper article announcing the marriage stated that Rachael’s father was the Earl of Orford’s steward and that she was possessed of a considerable fortune coupled with great beauty (Horace Walpole’s letter of 1747 above indicates that his knowledge was a little out of date!)

Rachael might have been the ‘Little Miss Norsa’ who appeared with her brother ‘Master Norsa’ on the London stages in the mid 1730’s, both of these two appearing at a Covent Garden benefit performance for Hannah on the 29th April 1735 and also being part of the company of ‘Lilliputians’, comprised mainly of the children of London actors. Priscilla again was responsible for this union between her brother and the sister of her friend according to George Anne Bellamy, knowing that, as Walpole was Auditor of the Exchequer, she was insuring that her brother would gain a fortune from the places within his gift.

The marriage produced two sons, Richard Rich Wilford born c.1754 and George John Wilford and by 1756 the family was living in New Palace Yard in Westminster.   The back windows of their house looked out onto the back windows of a house on the neighbouring Bridge Street occupied by a Mr John Berkley, the two being very close together. This gentleman, who was a clerk in the Exchequer alongside Mr Wilford, had been introduced to Mrs Wilford by her husband and they began to visit one another when Edward Wilford was from home, often signalling to each other that the moment was an opportune one by means of a candle placed in their respective back garret windows. Mr Berkley had, on occasion, had to escape from the Wilford’s back garret window when the master of the house came home unexpectedly, from which he was able to climb to his own garret window.

Westminster Hall and New Palace Yard by Thomas Sandby (c) Palace of Westminster; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Westminster Hall and New Palace Yard
by Thomas Sandby
(c) Palace of Westminster; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

On another occasion he had to run down to the kitchen and hide himself in the coal hole. All this was testified to by Ann Hipkin, one of the Wilford’s house servants, at a hearing for a divorce bill which Edward Wilford brought against his wife. Ann Hipkin also told of hearing both the noise of the easy chair in the back parlour and some ‘expressions of her mistress’ emanating from the room whilst she was in there with Berkley which led to her belief that ‘her Mistress was then in the Act of Adultery with Mr. Berkley.’ Mary Nash, another of the servants, gave similar evidence.

Edward Wilford had at last become aware of his wife’s infidelities and turned her out of the house on the 10th March 1758. She never returned there. At a ‘criminal conversation’ trial Edward Wilford was awarded damages of £500 and John Berkley petitioned that this was an excessive amount as his salary only amounted to £50 a year, but the decision stood. Wilford petitioned the House of Lords for a divorce to be granted, which would enable him to marry again, and this was heard in 1759 although it does not seem to have been finalised.

John Berkley was living in Westminster in 1768 and still of His Majesty’s Exchequer, when he made his will, being weak in health, leaving all to his dear wife Ann Berkley, making no mention of Rachael. He died shortly after.

By the 1770s Edward Wilford was living in a house in Ranelagh, Chelsea with his widowed sister, Priscilla Rich. In September 1776 the two were out taking the air in their phaeton near their Chelsea home when an empty brick card drawn by four horses and with two men driving them at a furious rate collided with them, taking a wheel off the phaeton and overturning it, throwing out the two occupants. Priscilla Rich dislocated her arm and the cart passed over Edward Wilford’s body leaving him badly bruised and with blood pouring from his nose, mouth and ears. He was expected to die but managed to pull through. One of the men driving the brick cart was sentenced to a year in Newgate in an attempt to deter others from committing a similar offence.

Hannah Norsa, from the Lewis Walpole Library
Hannah Norsa, from the Lewis Walpole Library

Priscilla died in 1783, leaving £100 of bank stock to the Theatrical Fund established at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden; her brother Edward, her executor, when carrying out her wishes gave an equal donation from his own pocket. In her will, written in 1778, she also left ten guineas to her old friend Hannah Norsa (stated as of Brompton Road at that date) for her to buy a mourning ring to remember her by; Rachael was not mentioned but Priscilla was obviously still well disposed to Hannah.

In 1766 Hannah Norsa, describing herself as a spinster, was living in Rotterdam in Holland, by 1769 she was back in England, living on Bridge Street in St. Margaret’s Westminster (where John Berkley had lived) and she died in August 1784 at Brompton Row in Kensington. She left a considerable fortune in her will (proven 29th October 1784), giving rise to speculation that she had kept the £3000 she had received from her father safe from Walpole’s debts and from his creditors. Edward Wilford was called to her lodgings on the morning after her death and it was he who took possession of Hannah’s paperwork and testamentary documents, taking them back to his house at Chelsea. In Hannah’s will her sister is still described as the wife of Edward Wilford. Edward himself died in July 1789 at his Chelsea home. At the time of his death he was Chief Clerk to the Auditor of the Receipt of his Majesty’s Exchequer and Clerk of the Debentures.

Thomas Weston of Drury Lane Theatre

Alas! Poor Tom has tumbled off the perch,

And left his gay Thalia in the lurch;

Once high he stood upon the comic pinnacle,

But when he slipp’d fell – Scrub – Sneak – Last – and Binnacle

(Epitaph to Tom Weston)

Mr Weston Mr Garrick

Tom Weston (left) & David Garrick (Right), from The British Museum website

Whilst researching Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Steele and Robert Carpenter, whom you may have already read about in our previous blogs, we kept coming across the name Thomas Weston, so decided that in light of his close relationship with Elizabeth Steele’s brother, Richard Hughes, that he was worthy of his own entry on our blog. We hope you agree.

Thomas Weston was yet another actor/comedian who graced the Drury Lane stage at the same time as Sophia and Robert Baddeley and Robert Carpenter.  So much of Tom’s life seems to be told in tall tales, either by friends or the media of the day.  He seems to have, to a certain extent, remained a man of mystery, the name of his father may well be inaccurate, we can find no proof he ever had a wife (although there was a woman who professed to be his widow) and even the date of his death appears to have been misreported several times.  That he was a great comedic actor is unquestionable, as is the fact that he was a larger than life character.

It is common knowledge that Tom was born in 1737, and that he was the son of Thomas Weston, a cook to the court of George II.  Shortly after Tom’s death his Memoirs were published (much in the same way that Mrs Steele published those of her friend Sophia Baddeley), by an anonymous author.

In his Memoirs his father is given as Thomas Weston.  However, the only man with the surname Weston, who was cook to the King, and who appears on the lists of office holders at court, is a Charles Weston. There appear to be two possible baptisms in existence; the first took place on 31st August, 1737, at St Paul’s, Covent Garden with the parents named as Thomas and Elizabeth.

Thomas Weston 31 August 1737

The second, written as Thomas Westen, was on 16th October, 1737, at St James, Westminster, son of Charles and Elizabeth. There is no conclusive proof as to which is the right one, but it does bring into doubt that Tom’s father actually was named Thomas, especially in light of Tom’s burial at St James, Westminster.

If he was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth the parish records of  St Paul, Covent Garden show burials for both parents, Elizabeth on 22nd January, 1755, wife of Thomas, and then Thomas’s burial on the 24th September 1757 (though Tom’s own Memoirs suggest his father was alive after this date). We theorize that Tom Weston’s father was actually Charles Weston.

Charles Weston started off as a kitchen boy in the King’s kitchen in 1724, rising to the position of master cook to King George II in the same establishment thirty years later.  A tale about Mr Weston the master cook is told in The Table Book or Daily Recreation and Information: concerning remarkable men, manners, times, seasons, solemnities, merry-makings, antiquities and novelties, forming a complete history of the year, 1827.

The Royal Table

Origin of Making the King’s Dishes with the Cook’s Names

 King George II was accustomed every other year to visit his German dominions with the greater part of the officers of his household and especially those belonging to the kitchen.  Once on his passage at sea, his first cook was so ill with the sea-sickness, that he could not hold up his head to dress his majesty’s dinner; this being told to the king, he was exceedingly sorry for it, as he was famous for making a Rhenish soup, which his majesty was very fond of; he therefore ordered inquiry to be made among the assistant-cooks, if any of them could make the above soup.  One named Weston (father of Tom Weston, the player) undertook it, and so pleased the king, that he declared it was full as good as that made by the first cook.  Soon after the king’s return to England, the first cook died; when the king was informed of it, he said, that his steward of the household always appointed his cooks, but that he would now name one for himself, and therefore asking if one Weston was still in the kitchen, and being answered that he was, “That man,” said he, “shall be my first cook, for her makes the most excellent Rhenish soup.”  This favour begot envy among all the servants, so that, when any dish was found fault with, they used to say it was Weston’s dressing: the king took notice of this, and said to the servants, it was very extraordinary, that every dish he disliked should happen to be Weston’s; “in future,” said he, “let every dish be marked with the name of the cook that makes it.”  By this means the king detected their arts, and from that time Weston’s dishes pleased him most.  The custom has continued ever since, and is still practised at the king’s table.

In 1754 Mr Weston obtained a position for his son in the palace kitchen, that of turnbroach, intending for him to follow in his footsteps.  The job of a turnbroach was to turn the spit on which meat or poultry was roasting, a lowly position but one which was actually executed by a deputy, the position being worth £30 a year and,of this, the deputy was paid some £7 or £8.  Tom Weston seems to have retained this position until his death.  It is also reported that he was made under-clerk to the clerk of the kitchen and sailed, with his father, amongst the household of King George II aboard his yacht to Holland on the way to Hanover.  King George II made his last visit to Hanover in April 1755, returning in the September of that year, so if Tom did indeed travel with his household these must have been the dates of his trip.

Back home Tom spent most of his time frequenting either the local public houses or the theatres and was soon dismissed from his position of under-clerk for misbehaviour, and sent to sea as a midshipman aboard the Warspite instead, his father being determined to keep him away from the stage.

Samuel Foote, the actor, playwright and theatre manager, in his own Memoirs, said that Weston was placed aboard the Warspite under the command of Sir John Bentley and, as Bentley took command of this ship in 1759, so this must be the date of young Tom’s short-lived naval career.  Foote says that ‘Weston’s genius triumphed over his father’s determinations; as soon after he was stationed on board this ship he contrived to run away; and being afraid to meet his father after this conduct, he entered into one of the strolling companies of the north, where he experienced all those strange vicissitudes of life which are so peculiarly incident to that situation’.

 Tom had to engage a friend who worked in the war office to effect his escape from the Warspite.  This friend was persuaded to write to him whilst the ship was docked in Long Reach on the Suffolk coast and before it sailed for Portsmouth, sealing the letter with an official seal, telling Tom that there was an army commission waiting for him in London.  Sir John Bentley allowed Tom to go to London, telling him to return if he did not obtain the commission.  There was no commission and Tom did not bother to return to the Warspite.

Tom, now dependent upon his own successes or failures, began to travel with several acting troops, none of which paid very well.  He accordingly left these and set off for London where he found that the Covent Garden and Drury Lane actors Ned Shuter and Richard Yates had taken booths at the Bartholomew Fair, which began every year on the 24th August and ran for two weeks, and he engaged to play with them.

by and published by Philip Dawe, and William Darling, mezzotint, published 12 June 1773
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

From a new booth in the George Inn yard, Shuter put on, in 1759, the The French Flogg’d: or the English Sailors in America, a piece based on The Tempest.  Yates had his own booth that year in the Greyhound Inn Yard where he put on a similar piece, The Ship-Wreck’d Lovers; or, French Perfidy Punished, ‘Interspersed with the comical and diverting Humours and Adventures of Lieutenant Fireball, a true English Tar; Noddy Nestlecock, a distress’d Beau; Snivel Thimble, a Taylor; Split-farthing, an old Userer; and Glisterpipe, a Finical Surgeon.  Both seem eminently suitable for a former young midshipman to take to the stage in.  From this, a friend got Tom an engagement with Samuel Foote and he made his first appearance on the London stage on the 28th September, 1759, to the despair of his father, playing Sir Francis Gripe in Susannah Centilevre’s The Busy Body at the Haymarket.  His next appearance in London was on the 28th June. 1760, playing in Samuel Foote’s The Minor, and it is possible he returned to the strolling troop playing the provinces in the interim.

It is reported that at this time he met a young lady who was a milliner in the Haymarket and who he married but had no children with.  This unnamed lady was encouraged by her husband to take to the stage too, appearing as Lucy in the Minor, with talents in singing and sentimental comedy.

Mr and Mrs Weston next engaged to play at Norwich on a good salary before returning to London to play Jerry Sneak at the Haymarket.  A sojourn playing at Dublin (without great success) followed  and then he was hired at Drury Lane where he was paid £3 a week.

His wife, if indeed she was so for no proof of a marriage has yet been found, was now absent from Tom, they had argued whilst on tour in Wiltshire with Johnson’s Company, she complaining of Tom’s brutality and he of her extravagance and disobedience.  They did not live together again and she took up with another actor, a Mr Price with whom she had several children and died around 1774 in Sunderland whilst on tour.

Tom meanwhile, back in London, moved a young lady into his apartments in St. James’s Street above a glass shop for a short-lived liaison although he did put her on stage at the Haymarket as Cherry in The Stratagem. (See update here for more information about this lady).

Always short of cash, whether through generosity or just general incompetence, his £3 salary at Drury Lane did not satisfy the demands of his creditors and, to try to evade them, he was sometimes forced to miss rehearsals and even performances, behaviour which led to Garrick discharging him from his theatre.

Samuel Foote, portrait by Jean-François Gilles Colson.

Samuel Foote stepped in to help, starting a subscription amongst the nobility to pay Tom’s debts and taking Tom with him to Edinburgh at £5 a week.

At this time one of Tom’s favourite friends was Dick Hughes, brother to Mrs Elizabeth Steele, who herself was the bosom friend of the actress Sophia Baddeley.  Dick was, apparently, famed for being able to hop upon one leg for an hour without changing and able to scale a brick wall with ease, a trick which got him in and out of the King’s Bench prison where he was often held for debt.  When Tom was drunk he was inclined to be saucy and to get himself into trouble; Dick Hughes was the one to pacify the situation before it came to blows.

On one night Tom and Dick had been out at The Black Lion tavern and were returning home in the early hours of the morning, rolling drunk, when they met with two women in the street, described in Tom’s Memoirs as ‘a couple of Dulcineas, whose garb did not promise any great things.’  Tom feeling amorous, they allowed the two women to escort them back to their lodgings in Mutton Lane, Holborn, ‘a most desirable situation, being surrounded with dunghills, pig styes, slaughter houses, and many other equally as agreeable neighbours.’  Tom, when he awoke in the morning, was rather pleased with his conquest for, despite being coarse in her demeanour, she was pleasing in her face and person and in the full bloom of health, being aged about sixteen or seventeen years old.  This girl was named Martha and continued as his lover for the rest of his life, taking his surname (although we doubt that there was a marriage), Tom’s other woman, living above the glass shop in St. James’s Street, being put to one side.

Foote further managed things and a reconciliation took place between Tom and the managers of the Drury Lane Theatre and, on his return there, he continued to receive £5 a week, with a further twenty shillings for the lady who called herself Mrs Weston.  Tom was, by this time, an habitual drunkard, often appearing on-stage intoxicated but never forgetting his lines.  He continued to try to hide from his creditors, not being able to venture outside his house except on a Sunday, which led to various adventures in getting to the theatre for his performance.  For one whole season he entered the theatre by the upper dressing room window, which he was able to access via the Tennis Court in St. James, nobody watching out for him there.  Dick Hughes went ahead of him each time as an advance guard to make sure the coast was clear.

His drinking had led to his ill health and he was unwell for some time before his death.  The Public Advertiser on the 22nd December, 1775, reported that the comedy of The School for Wives, which had been deferred at the Drury Lane theatre on account of Mr Weston’s illness, would be performed soon after Christmas.

Reports of his death at his lodgings in Newington appeared in the newspapers soon after, but the Morning Chronicle stated on the 3rd January, 1776, that:

Mr. Weston, we hear, is not dead; but so dangerously ill, that he is given over by his physicians.

His death was generally acknowledged as having taken place on the 18th January, 1776, although the newspapers were giving reports of his passing from the 30th December, 1775.  Even in the matter of his death he continues to leave vague reports behind him!

Burial 20th Janaury 1776, St James, Piccadily

It was reported after his death that, in the days leading up to it, he had drawn up a facetious mock last will and testament.  This was vehemently denied by the lady named Martha Weston, (calling herself his widow), in the newspapers, and a document purported to be his genuine will was given.  This will was witnessed by his old friend Richard (Dick) Hughes.  Richard Hughes also sent in a letter to the papers in support of Martha Weston, affirming the truth of this.  If this second will was genuine we can however find no record of it being proved and it was, after the religious preamble, particularly short and sweet.

First I give and bequeath my all to Martha Weston; and lastly my Scrub’s wig to Ned Shuter.

Thomas Weston

Witness, D. Holdstock, Richard Hughes and Henry Kaylock

For those who are interested, the mock will (which still has people arguing over its authenticity) is given below.


One afternoon, a few weeks before Mr. WESTON died, seeing a pen and ink upon the table, he said to a friend who was sitting with him, “If you’ll write for me, I’ll make my will,” which his friend accordingly did, and Tom dictated in the following manner:

I Thomas Weston, comedian, hating all form and ceremony, shall use none to my will, but proceed immediately to the explaining my intentions.

Imprimis.  As from Mr. Foote I derived all my consequence in life, and as it is the best thing I am in possession of, I would, in gratitude at my decease, leave it to the said Mr. Foote, but I know he neither stands in need of it as a author, actor, or as a man; the public have fully proved it in the two first, and his good-nature and humanity have secured it to him in the last.

Item. I owe some obligations to Mr. Garrick, I therefore bequeath him all the money I die possessed of, as there is nothing on earth he is so very fond of.

Item. Though I own no obligations to Mr. Harris, yet his having shewn a sincere regard for the performers of his theatre, (by assisting them in their necessities, and yet taking no advantage thereof, by driving a Jew bargain at their signing fresh articles) demands from me, as an actor, some acknowledgement, I therefore leave him the entire possession of that satisfaction which must naturally result on reflecting, that during his management, he has never done any thing base or mean to sully his character as an honest man, or a gentleman.

Item.  I having played under the management of Mr. Jefferson, at Richmond, and received from him every politeness, I therefore leave him all my stock of prudence, it being the only good quality I think he stands in need of.

Item.  I give to Mr. Reddish a grain of honesty: ’tis indeed a small legacy, but being a rarity to him, I think he will not refuse to accept it.

Item.  I leave to Mr. Yates all my spirit.

Item.  I leave to Mrs. Yates all my humility.

Item.  Upon reflection, I think it wrong to give separate legacies to a man and his wife, therefore I revoke the above bequests, and leave to be enjoyed by them jointly, peace, harmony, and good nature.

Item.  Notwithstanding my illness, I think I shall outlive Ned Shuter; if I should not, I had thoughts of leaving him my example how to live, but that I am afraid would be of little use to him, I therefore leave him my example how to die.

Item.  I leave Mr. Brereton a small portion of modesty.  Too much of one thing is good for nothing.

Item.  As Mr. Jacobs has been a long while eagerly waiting for dead mens shoes, I leave him two or three pair, (the worst I have) they being good enough in all conscience for him.

Item.  Though the want of vanity be a proof of understanding, yet I would recommend to my old friend Baddeley to make use of a little of the first, though it cost him more than he would willingly pay for it. – It will encrease not only his consequence with the public, but his salary with the managers; but however, should his stomach turn against it, as nauseous, he may use for a succedaneum a small quantity of opinion, and it will answer the purpose as well.

Item.  Mr. Quick has long laboured to obtain the applause of the public – the method he has taken is a vague one; the surest method to obtain his end is to copy Nature. – Experientia docet.

Item.  Miss Young has had some disputes with the Managers, about dressing her tail, complaining of the want of fringe, as fringe seems to be an absolute requisite in the ornamenting ladies tails, and I always loved to see them as they ought to be; I leave her therefore the fringe about the flaps of my waistcoat, in which I usually played Jerry Sneak.

Item.  As I would not forget my friends, particularly old ones, I leave Charles Bannister my portrait, to be taken when I am dead, and to be worn about his neck as a memento to him, that regularity is among the most certain methods to procure health and long life.

Item.  Dibble Davis claims something at my hands from the length of our acquaintance, I therefore leave him my constitution; but I am afraid when I die, it will scarcely better than his own.

Item.  I leave to the ladies in general, on the stage, (if not the reality, yet) the appearance of modesty; ’twill serve them on more occasions than they are aware of.

Item.  To the gentlemen of the stage, some show of prudence.

Item.  To the authors of the present times, a smattering of humour.

Item.  To the public, a grateful heart.

Here his voice failing him, he told his friend he would finish it as the next day, and bade him put it into his pocket, which he did; but Tom left it, as he did all his promises of amendment, only just begun.

* * * * * * *

Apart from his Memoirs a short account of Tom’s life was included in the book ‘The Lives of The Players‘ written by John Galt in 1831.

List of official positions in the King’s Kitchens at court can be found here.