Tom Weston of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

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)

Thomas Weston was an actor/comedian who graced the stage of the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane but so much of his life seems to be told in tall tales that he has, to a certain extent, remained a man of mystery. Two facts are certain, however. That he was a great comedic actor is unquestionable, as is the fact that he was a larger than life character.

Mr Weston and Mr Garrick in the characters of Scrub and Archer in The Stratagem, 1771. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Mr Weston and Mr Garrick in the characters of Scrub and Archer in The Stratagem, 1771. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tom was born in 1737, the son of a man who was a cook to the court of George II. Shortly after Tom’s death, his Memoir was published, by an anonymous author. In this Memoir, his father is named as Thomas Weston. However, the only man with the surname Weston who was the 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 and the second on 16th October 1737, at St James, Westminster, son of Charles and Elizabeth.

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 Memoirs suggest his father was alive after this date). We theorize that Tom Weston’s father was actually Charles Weston.

Covent Garden Market by Balthasar Nebot, 1737
Covent Garden Market by Balthasar Nebot, 1737; Tate

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 the position of turnbroach for his son in the palace kitchen, which entailed turning the spit on which meat or poultry was roasting, a lowly position but one which was actually executed by a deputy. The position paid £30 a year and, of this, the deputy was paid some £7 or £8. Tom Weston seems to have lucratively 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 and the royal household to Holland on the way to Hanover. 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 this must have been the date of his trip.

King George II (1683-1760) by John Shackleton, c.1750; Government Art Collection
King George II (1683-1760) by John Shackleton, c.1750; Government Art Collection

Back home Tom spent most of his time frequenting the local public houses and theatres. Soon he was dismissed from his position of under-clerk for misbehaviour and sent to sea as a midshipman instead (as his father was determined to keep him from the stage). Samuel Foote, the actor, playwright and theatre manager, recalled 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.

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 enlisted a friend in the war office to help him escape from the Warspite. This friend was persuaded to write to him whilst the ship was docked in Long Reach on the Suffolk coast 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, bidding him to return if he did not obtain the commission. There was no commission but Tom did not return. Instead, he travelled with several acting troops before setting off for London where 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. Tom engaged to play with them.

t Bartholomew's Fair, Smithfield, London; British School; 18th century; Museum of London
St Bartholomew’s Fair, Smithfield, London; Museum of London

From a booth in the George Inn yard, Shuter put on, in 1759, 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 were eminently suitable for a former young midshipman to take to the stage in. 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.

Samuel Foote and Thomas Weston in 'The Devil Upon Two Sticks' by Foote, Haymarket Theatre, 1768.
Samuel Foote and Thomas Weston in ‘The Devil Upon Two Sticks’ by Foote, Haymarket Theatre, 1768 (grisaille copy c.1769 after Johann Zoffany by John Finlayson); The Holburne Museum

Reputedly, he now met and married a young lady who was a milliner in the Haymarket. This unnamed lady was encouraged by Tom to take to the stage too, appearing as Lucy in The Minor. Mr and Mrs Weston travelled the provinces, returning to London to play Jerry Sneak at the Haymarket. A sojourn at Dublin (without great success) followed and then Tom was hired at Drury Lane where he was paid £3 a week.

His wife, if indeed she was so far no proof of a marriage has yet been found, had departed: she and Tom had argued whilst on tour in Wiltshire with Johnson’s Company and she took up with another actor, a Mr Price with whom she had several children, and she died around 1774 in Sunderland whilst on tour.

Tom, back in London, lived in St James’s Street above a glass shop with a lady named Miss Lee during a short-lived liaison which reputedly saw her debut on stage at the Haymarket as Cherry in The Beaux’ Stratagem. She was mentioned in the 1773 edition of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.

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.

Always short of cash, Tom was perpetually chased by creditors and, to evade them, often missed rehearsals and even performances, behaviour which led to his discharge from the theatre but Samuel Foote stepped in to help, starting a subscription among the nobility to pay Tom’s debts and taking Tom with him to Edinburgh at £5 a week.

The actor, playwright and theatre manager, Samuel Foote by Jean François Colson, 1769; National Portrait Gallery, London
Samuel Foote by Jean François Colson, 1769; National Portrait Gallery, London

At this time, Tom’s boon companion was Dick Hughes, brother to Mrs Elizabeth Steele (who was the confidante 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 two women, described in Tom’s Memoirs as ‘a couple of Dulcineas, whose garb did not promise any great things.’  Tom feeling amorous, they followed the women to their lodgings in Mutton Lane, Holborn, ‘a most desirable situation, being surrounded with dunghills, pig styes, slaughterhouses, and many other equally as agreeable neighbours.’  Tom, when he awoke in the morning, was rather pleased with his conquest for, although she was coarse in manner, she was young, pretty and in the full bloom of health. This girl was named Martha and continued as his lover for the rest of Tom’s life, taking his surname although we doubt there was a marriage.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, anonymous painting dating to c.1775.
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, anonymous painting dating to c.1775.
Victoria & Albert Museum.

Foote reconciled Tom and the managers of the Drury Lane Theatre and had his wage increased to £5 a week, with a further twenty shillings for the lady who called herself Mrs Weston. Tom was now a habitual drunkard, often appearing on-stage intoxicated but never forgetting his lines. He continued to evade his creditors which led to various adventures in getting to the theatre for his performance.  For one whole season, he entered by the upper dressing room window which he was able to access, unnoticed, via the Tennis Court in St. James. Dick Hughes went ahead of him each time as an advance guard to make sure the coast was clear.

Tom’s drinking took its toll. The Public Advertiser on the 22nd December 1775, reported that 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 is generally acknowledged to have occurred 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!

Mr Weston in the character of Dr Last in Samuel Foote's the Devil Upon Two Sticks. The Folger Library
Mr Weston in the character of Dr Last in Samuel Foote’s the Devil Upon Two Sticks. The Folger Library

It was said that, in the days leading up to his death, Tom had drawn up a facetious mock last will and testament. This was vehemently denied by Martha Weston, and a document purporting to be his genuine will was given, one witnessed by his old friend Richard (Dick) Hughes. Richard Hughes also sent 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.

Header image: An Audience at Drury Lane Theatre, undated, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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