Soane’s Life & Times 1812-13; Part VIII: Tea and Other Diversions

2013 marks a significant date for Sir John Soane’s Museum, as it heralds the 200th anniversary since Sir John and his family took up residence at No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. This blog series has been celebrating this important milestone in the Museum’s history by exploring aspects of Soane’s life during 1812-13.  A fascinating and glittering period, the year that Soane established his now world famous house museum was also one of political, economic and social turmoil both in Britain and abroad. Over five days this week, we bring the series, and this remarkable anniversary, to a close. 

To read the previous blog posts in this series, please click here


Tea and Other Diversions

Tea was an important ritual in Soane’s household. In his notebook he recorded where, and with whom, he took it. On 28 October 1813 he dined with Mr Foxall and lamented that there was no tea. His office Day Book on 25 May 1811 noted the purchase, from Messrs Varnham & Co., of one chest (64 pounds) of Souchong Tea for £30.6.0.

The East India Company, in which Soane was an investor, had a monopoly over the tea trade with China until 1834. In March 1813 the Gentleman’s Magazine said: ‘the quantity of tea consumed in these kingdoms is astonishing. Every three months, the East India Company put up six million pounds weight for sale.’ Tea, coffee and cakes were the hospitality Soane offered 1,000 guests at a viewing by lamp and candlelight of the sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti I on 23, 26 and 30 March 1825. He had acquired it in 1824 for £2,000, the most expensive single purchase for his collection.


Hissing and hooting during the performance

London offered a wide range of entertainment for all sections of society, from pleasure gardens, such as at Vauxhall, to private assembly rooms, music halls, clubs and theatres.  In 1812-13 there were three leading theatres in London: Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the King’s Theatre on the Haymarket, which offered mainly Italian opera. An evening’s entertainment usually consisted of a play, followed by a pantomime — in which Joe Grimaldi, the celebrated clown, regularly appeared at Drury Lane Theatre and Covent Garden.

The 'Turkish Tent' at Vauxhall Gardens by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann's Microcosom of London, 1808-11
The 'Turkish Tent' at Vauxhall Gardens by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann's Microcosom of London, 1808-11


The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden had been destroyed by fire on 18 September 1808. It was rebuilt to a Greek Revival design by Robert Smirke and reopened a year later on 18 September 1809 with a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, featuring Mrs Sarah Siddons and her brother, the actor-manager John Philip Kemble. The first 67 nights were beset by the Old Price riots, caused by anger over increased admission prices and a new layout giving more private boxes and fewer cheap places. To Soane’s great distress, his younger son George, then 20, was amongst the rioters and arrested on ‘a charge of riot and disturbance by hissing and hooting during the performance’. However, the case was dropped.

Soane was frequently at the theatre, likely seeing Sarah Siddons’ farewell performance as Lady Macbeth on 29 June 1812.  He was also at Covent Garden in September 1812 and again on 21 October 1812 for a performance of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and La Perouse.

Mrs Siddons Reading in a Grotto, painting attributed to Richard Cosways c.1810
Mrs Siddons Reading in a Grotto, painting attributed to Richard Cosways c.1810


A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside

A few months before Covent Garden reopened, on 24 February 1809, Drury Lane Theatre went up in flames. Richard Brinsley Sheridan MP, its patent-holder and manager, was at the Commons on the night of the fire, when news came through that the theatre was ablaze. Lord Temple proposed that debate be adjourned ‘in consequence of the extent of the calamity which this event . . . would bring upon a Member of the House’. Sheridan, always a showman, replied that ‘whatever might be the extent of the individual calamity, he did not consider it of a nature worthy to interrupt their proceedings on so great a national question’. When he finally reached Drury Lane, he was observed calmly nursing a drink as he watched the spectacle of his financial ruin. Questioned about his composure in the face of disaster, he reportedly replied: ‘A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.’

Samuel Whitbread, the brewer and MP, raised the necessary finance for the rebuilding from backers who included Lord Byron and Soane. The new building was designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt and, except for alterations to its portico supervised by Soane in 1819, remains broadly the same. Water pipes were laid to all parts and a type of sprinkler system installed. Drury Lane reopened on 10 October 1812 with Hamlet. Lord Byron composed an address. Soane and his wife went over the building on the Sunday before the opening at the request of Wyatt.  His son George, who had become a writer and playwright, was briefly engaged by Drury Lane Theatre, which produced one of his plays in 1818. It was not successful.


Tomorrow, read Part IX: The Arts


This blog has been reproduced from "Soane's Life and Times 1812-1813" by Gisela Gledhill and edited by Philippa Stockley, which can be purchased from our online store or from the Soane Shop. We are grateful to Gisela and Philippa for allowing us to feature their work in this way.

Posted on 18 December 2013 in Soane's Life and Times: 1812-1813
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