Robert “Romeo” Coates – A Bad Regency Actor

Robert “Romeo” Coates was a dashing figure from the Regency Era. He was born in Antigua in 1772 to a wealthy West Indies sugar plantation owner. When his father died, he inherited a considerable fortune, along with some very fine diamonds. With ample money, Coates eventually moved to England and settled in the fashionable watering-place of Bath. In Bath, he quickly developed a reputation for cutting a handsome figure, being a gallant lady-killer, and demonstrating gentlemanly manners (though often to the extreme).

Robert “Romeo” Coates. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While in Bath, Coates’s passion for the stage became known, and he was encouraged by locals to pursue acting. Because of their encouragement, he made his debut on 9 February 1810, in the Shakespearean play “Romeo” at Theatre Royal in Bath. Unfortunately, his performance was ludicrous and ridiculous. Still the first few acts went fine until some unhappy audience members started heckling him: They threw orange and apple peels onto the stage and cried “Off! Off!” Coates was unfazed and carried on. Later in the play, he carried a crowbar into Juliet’s tomb. That was too much even for the manager, and he lowered the curtain on Coates for good.

Robert "Romeo" Coates in Costume, Courtesy of the British Museum

Coates in costume. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Neither Coates’ failure on stage nor his amateur status as an actor, stopped him from acting. He continued to play Romeo roles. When he found managers unwilling to let him act, Coates was not above bribing them, which he did frequently. He also thought himself a superb and talented actor despite forgetting lines, creating dialogue on the spot, and repeating death scenes, or scenes that he liked, over and over — two, three, or even four times in a row. Fortunately for him, most audiences remained indulgent and tolerated his poor acting abilities.

Because of his penchant for playing the part of Romeo, he acquired the nickname “Romeo,” although sometimes he was also called “Diamond” Coates. When playing the part of Romeo, Coates wore a costume of his own design. It was out-of-date and over the top. It consisted of a “spangled cloak of sky-blue silk, crimson pantaloons, and a white hat trimmed with feathers.”[1] He was also practically encrusted with diamonds. They appeared on his hat, knees, and shoes. Besides the unsuitability of the diamonds, his costume was too small and made him move stiffly on stage. Further, he wore this same costume for years until his pants ripped open, which generated huge amounts of laughter from the audience.

Coates in Costume as Lothario in 1811. Courtesy of British Museum.

Coates was as much a character in real life as he was on stage. He traversed the streets in one of several of his outlandish and showy vehicles, one of which was a shell-shaped carriage with brown hammercloth trimming and gold bullion fringe drawn by milk-white horses. One description of this flashy carriage was published in a nineteenth-century newspaper and stated:

“Its shape was that of a scallop shell; the outside was painted a beautiful rich … colour, and bore its owner’s heraldic device – a cock, life size, with outspread wings, and over this the motto, ‘While I live I’ll crow.’ The step to enter the vehicle was also in the form of a cock. The interior was richly lined and upholstered and the whole mounted upon light springs with a pair of high wheels picked out in well-chose colours. The vehicle was drawn by two white horses of faultless figure and action, and which must have been matched and acquired at great cost. Their trappings were of the latest fashion and ornament with the crowing cock in silver. The horses were drive in pair, and the splinter bar was surmounted by a carved brass rod; on top of this stood a plated cock, crowing.”[2]

Beside that conspicuous carriage, he was also sometimes seen driving a curricle that had a bar of solid silver. In the middle of it was perched an effigy of the previously mentioned cock, but this one was silver gilted. Of his fanciful carriages, one newspaper reported:

“After one of his performances he dined with us to meet an old West Indian gentleman, a particular friend of his late father. This gentleman was very old and nearly blind, having visited England for an operation on his eyes. While they were taking wine Coates offered to take Mr A- for a drive in the park in his curricle. ‘No, no,’ answered the old gentleman. ‘I am told Robert, that your carriage is a very ridiculous turn out. Now, if I am to be laughed at, I should like to have an opportunity of seeing those who laugh at me, and as I, unfortunately, cannot do that, I shall leave you to take a drive by yourself, or seek some other companion more fond of notoriety than myself.”[3]

 Caricature of Robert "Romeo" Coates Driving a Grotesque Curricle Inscribed with 'Cock a Doodle Doo!', Courtesy of the British Museum

Caricature of Romeo Coates driving a curricle inscribed with ‘Cock a Doodle Doo!’ Courtesy of the British Museum.

Coates was eccentric in other ways. He seemed to have his head in the clouds and often came up with fantastical ideas. He also wore furs only during hot weather and only during the daytime. In the evening he switched to gaudy, colorful costumes. One newspaper reported on his fashion sense stating:

“[H]e appeared at London balls covered with as many diamonds as Count Esterhazy, who was popularly supposed to drop three hundred pounds worth of them every night he went out. His buttons, even his knee-buckles, glistened with diamonds.”[4]

Finances were also of little interest to him. He spent money as if he would never run out, and he also never kept track of his expenses, which resulted in him entertaining his friends lavishly and liberally. Unfortunately, over time he acquired substantial debt and did run out money. Things could have gotten much worse, but luck was on his side because he found and married a woman of fortune. She settled his debts and that allowed him to continue in the same “excellent style” as he was accustomed.

Robert "Romeo" Coates, The Gay Lothario

The Gay Lothario. The Great and Celebrated Amateur of Fashion. Public domain.

His wedding to the woman of fortune occurred on 6 September 1823. Her name was Miss Emma Anne Robinson, and she was the daughter of a navy lieutenant, William McDowell Robinson. Coates met her from a friend, and she was intrigued and happy to become the celebrated wife of the man referred to as the “Amateur of Fashion.” After their marriage, Coates settled down, and he and his wife had two children, both of who predeceased him.

Caricature of Robert "Romeo" Coates and his Rival, Public Domain

Caricature of Coates and his Rival. Public domain.

After his marriage, Coates settled for a time in Boulogne. Louis Philippe (the future King Louis Philippe I) and his wife arrived there, and Coates immediately surrendered his apartment at the Hotel du Nord to them. One newspaper wrote:

“As the Royal pair were ascending the stairs of the hotel they encountered Mr. Coates, and the King very graciously thanked him for his politeness. Mr. Coates, who is an enthusiastic old gentleman, answered by shouting in French, ‘Long live the King and Queen; prosperity to France and England and eternal peace between them.’ These sentiments were repeated by the many persons in attendance and all others were silent, the King himself exclaimed in a loud voice as if to enhance the compliment, in the English language, “Prosperity to England and to France, eternal peace between them and while I live there shall be.”[5]

Coates’ reputation always proceeded him, and after he returned London even though he had been retired from the stage for years, people were still intrigued and fascinated by him. Indicative of this is the following incident that happened as he was sauntering down St. James Street:

“In passing either Arthur’s or Brooks’s Club, the well-known figure – wearing well-creased Hessian boots a bygone fashion of at least three decades to which he still adhered – attracted the attention of a gentleman who was sitting at an open window. This person said to some friends in the back of the room ‘Well, to be sure, here’s Romeo Coates.’ The response was an immediate rush to the window to see the subject of this gentleman’s exclamation. Mr. Coate’s stride took him a few paces past, but having heard his well-worn stage name mentioned, he turned round, came to the window from which the voice proceeded, stood in front of it, and with great politeness raised his hat and said, ‘My name, gentlemen is Robert Coates.’ Then bowing again, he resumed his hat and walk with a calm and dignified air.”[6]

Coates’s death was a flashy as his life on the stage. On 16 February 1848, after attending Allcroft’s Grand Annual Concert at Drury Lane Theatre, he was crossing Catherine Street to retrieve his opera glasses. They were a gift from a friend, and he had unintentionally left them behind at the theatre. It was about one o’clock in the morning when a careless hansom cab driver crushed him between the hansom cab and his own carriage. In addition, Coates was also knocked down and ran over in the process.

The hansom cab driver made good his escape and Coates was taken to the hospital by a policeman. There it was discovered he was suffering several broken ribs, a lacerated breast, and bruises. Eventually, he was taken home and it was thought he might recover. But he died at his home in Montague Square of erysipelas (a bacterial infection) on 21 February 1848. As for the hansom cab driver, an inquest was held, and the culprit (whoever he was), received a guilty verdict of “manslaughter” despite never being caught.

References:

  • [1] Robinson, John R. and Hunter H., The Life of Robert Coates, 1891, p. 25.
  • [2] “Romeo Coates, in The Amateur of Fashion,” in Pall Mall Gazette, 10 October 1891, p. 3.
  • [3] “Romeo Coates,” in The Era, 29 January 1881, p. 14.
  • [4] “Romeo Coates,” in Glasgow Evening Citizen, 17 January 1868, p. 2.
  • [5] “Romeo Coates, in The Amateur of Fashion,” p. 3.
  • [6] Ibid.

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