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.

205px-Samuel_Foote_by_Jean_François_Colson
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.

Mr. WESTON’s WILL

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.

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