Actor and Theatre Manager
Tate Wilkinson was the successful actor and circuit theatre manager, who in 1769 paid £500 for two Royal Patents which allowed the names to be changed to Theatre Royal, in York and Hull
He was born in Wandsworth, London on 27 October 1739 to the Revd Dr John Wilkinson and his mother Grace Wilkinson, née Tate. Grace was the daughter of a wealthy customs officer and, on her marriage, came with a substantial dowry of £2,000. John was educated at St Bees School in Cumberland before finishing his studies at Oxford University. From 1725 onwards he served as His Majesty’s Chaplain of the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy where couples could be married swiftly without the lengthy process of the reading of banns of marriage. This was a most profitable undertaking. As a result of his position as a Royal Chaplain, the family enjoyed a privileged position with access to the highest levels of London society and Tate regularly frequented the theatre from the age of eight.
As it was a royal chapel, John mistakenly believed that he had a Royal Prerogative and continued to solemnise marriages by virtue of his own license in spite of the Marriage Act of 1753 that prevented clandestine marriages. Eventually the law was enforced and, in July 1756, he was tried, found guilty and committed to Newgate prison and transportation to America for 14 years. Tragically, he died on the outward voyage.
Early interest in the stage
Tate was educated by a series of tutors before going to Harrow School at the age of 13 with his friend George Forbes, the son of Lord and Lady Forbes. He first set foot on the stage in a school play having rejected a commission in the Army which had been offered by Jonas Hanway, an acquaintance of his mother. He had long entertained an interest in the stage and, at the age of 17, resolved to indulge his passion. On 28 March 1757, he made his first appearance on the stage in a benefit performance for his actor friend Ned Shuter.
John Rich, the famous producer of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, had coached Tate in the art of acting and, finding no work in London, he joined Mr Wignall and his summer company at Maidstone in Kent as an under-actor. Here he performed the first line in a tragedy and received on his first benefit one shilling and sixpence and two pieces of candle. Although, for the winter season, he was engaged by David Garrick of the Drury Lane Theatre, he was given a very insignificant role and this caused him much distress. However, his talent was noticed by Samuel Foote of the Haymarket Theatre who obtained his leave of absence for six weeks from Garrick and engaged him for Ireland. Tate appeared in Foote’s Tea, with so much success that the then Irish manager, Richard Sheridan, engaged him on a salary of three guineas per week. Tate became well known as a brilliant mimic and very successful actor of plays, including those of Shakespeare, which he performed at many of the provincial theatres in England including Bath and Norwich as well as in Dublin and Edinburgh, as a result of which he earned substantial sums of money.
Yorkshire theatre circuit
The first York Theatre was built by Thomas Keregan on the site of the medieval St Leonard’s Hospital. It opened on 1 October 1734. On the death of Thomas in December 1741, his widow ran the theatre with mixed success. Joseph Baker took over the management when Mrs Keregan died in December 1744 and, by 1747, had established a highly organised and tightly knit circuit company, using York as its headquarters. From late December/early January until May, the company performed three nights – Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday – in York; from May to August they played Newcastle then returned to York for the Summer Assizes and Race Week; from August to October, they were resident in Beverley; and then proceeded on to Hull before returning to York in December. This Yorkshire circuit was later extended by Tate Wilkinson when he took over to include Hull, Leeds, Pontefract, Wakefield and Doncaster.
Joseph Baker first met Tate in London and invited him to appear for six nights in York in April 1758 where he was well received. Between 1747 and 1756, Wilkinson had mostly trained by working with the mimic and playwright Samuel Foote, manager of the Haymarket Theatre in London. Then in 1765, at the age of 26, he joined the newly opened York Theatre that had been rebuilt by Baker. The following year, due to Baker’s ill health, Tate agreed to lend him £1,400 and to receive interest on the loan. In addition Tate received a weekly salary of £1 11s 6d as well as benefit performances at York, Hull and Newcastle. He also set about improving the management and the discipline of the company and commissioned new theatres: in Finkle Street, Hull in 1768 and in Leeds in 1771.
The Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, concerned that political satire on the stage was undermining him and the authority of the government, instigated the Licensing Act of 1737 which introduced the censorship of drama. In future the Lord Chamberlain would vet all scripts before a performance was allowed. This had enormous consequences for theatres in Britain as it restricted the production of drama, known as legitimate theatre, to the two London Patent theatres of Drury Lane and Covent Garden and the only other patented theatres in Bath and Norwich. Non-patent theatres performed melodrama, pantomime, ballet, opera and music hall (burlesque). York and Hull theatres were not patented houses until 1769 when Tate Wilkinson paid £500 for two Royal Patents which allowed them to be renamed as the York and Hull Theatres Royal. Baker died in 1770, whereupon Tate became the sole proprietor.
During the Summer Races and Assize Weeks, Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres were closed and many famous actors came to York including John Philip Kemble, Mrs Sarah Siddons, as well as Mrs Jordan, mistress for 20 years to the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, York’s fortunes as a fashionable social centre were declining as the gentry over-wintered in London. Once the railway system was established, the city began to prosper again along with the theatre. Tate put on successful plays from London and brought in famous actors along with “novelties”, tightrope dancers, animal acts, bird imitators and tumblers, with spectacular scenery and machinery.
On 11 October 1768, Tate had married Jane Doughty, the daughter of a York draper, in St Martin’s Church, Coney Street, York. They had a number of children: Martha, William, John Joseph, Patty, Francis, Charles and Lovell. When he died on 25 August 1803, his son, John, who had acted in the company, succeeded to the management.
A white marble memorial plaque to commemorate his life was erected in All Saints Pavement Church:
In this aisle lieth the body of
TATE WILKINSON ESQ.
original Patentee and 34 years Manager
THEATRE ROYAL YORK,
which he conducted with credit to himself
and to the satisfaction of the Public.
He died on 25th August 1803 in the
63rd Year of his age.
He was an affectionate Husband,
an indulgent Father and an honest Man.
Also of JANE, his Wife who died
December 19th 1826 in the 80th Year of her life
Tate Wilkinson, Memoirs of His Own Life (York, 1790), in four volumes, available on the University of Oxford Text Archive
Ian Small, ‘The York Theatre and the Construction of Nationalism’, York Historian vol. 31 (York, 2014)
Linda Fitzsimmons, ‘The Theatre Royal, York’, York History no. 4 (York, n.d.)
www.oldbaileyonline.org, (version 702, 11 May 2016) July 1756. Trial of John Wilkinson
© Geoffrey Geddes