Robert Coates (1772 – 1848)
If there is one pleasure to be gained from watching talent shows or enduring a karaoke session in a pub, it is the hope that you will find someone who is absolutely dreadful. These types seem impervious to criticism and are imbued with the notion that they are misunderstood geniuses. One such was Robert Coates who thought he was an outstanding actor and so made the role of Romeo his own that he earned the sobriquet, Romeo.
Alas, not everyone shared his opinion. He made his debut at the Theatre Royal in Bath on 8th February 1810. According to contemporary reports, the audience was confronted by “one of the most grotesque spectacles ever witnessed on the stage”. Coates wore “a spangled suit of sky blue silk and crimson pantaloons” as well as diamonds, a huge baroque wig and a white trimmed head with ostrich feathers. His acting style was unusual – forgetting lines, extemporising and improving upon the Bard’s plot. Coates even pulled out a box of snuff and took a slug during the famous balcony scene, proffering some to the front row, and enacted such a dramatic death scene that he did it again for good measure. Unfortunately, his costume was too tight and the seams of his breeches gave way revealing “a quantity of white linen sufficient to make a Bourbon flag”.
Despite Coates turning a tragedy into a farce, the audience lapped it up and Coates was emboldened to repeat his “success”. For the next six years, although the object of ridicule, he toured the country giving his extraordinary rendition of Romeo to packed houses, donating the profits to charity.
Born in Antigua to wealthy sugar plantation owners, Coates inherited a fortune when his father died and decamped to the fashionable watering hole of Bath. There he quickly earned a reputation for his extravagant spending, his good looks and eccentric clothing. He wore furs during the warm weather and gaudy, colourful costumes in the evening. He would entertain liberally and lavishly.
Coates had a number of carriages which he drove around Bath. One boasted a shell-shaped carriage, decorated with brown trimming and a gold bullion fringe which was drawn by four snowy-white horses. On the side was an embroidered, in gold (natch), cock bearing the motto, “While I live, I crow”. Another of his carriages was a curricle, a two-wheeled affair pulled by two nags, which had a silver bar in the middle of which was a silver gilt effigy of a cock. But this extravagant life style eventually caught up with him, even though he married a wealthy heiress, Emma Anne Robinson, in 1823. He began to be pursued by debt collectors and in the 1830s skipped over la Manche to Boulogne where he was often seen cutting a dash in his furs.
As a collector of unusual deaths, I take some interest in Coates’ death. On 16th February 1848 he attended Allcroft’s Grand Annual Concert at the Drury Lane Theatre. He left his opera glasses in the theatre and on returning there at around one o’clock in the morning to retrieve them, he was crushed between his carriage and a hansom cab and then knocked down and run over for good measure. Although it was thought Coates would survive his accident, he succumbed to an acute bacterial infection six days later. The hansom cab driver, who was never caught, was tried in absentia and convicted of manslaughter.
An ignominious end for one of Bath’s most colourful characters.