Today in London theatrical history, 1805: tailors offended at anti-tailor play riot, Haymarket Theatre

One of the most unique riots in London history took place at the Haymarket Theatre London in 1805.

In 1767 playwright and impresario Samuel Foote wrote and staged a production of a play called The Tailors: A Tragedy for Warm Weather, a satire about Tailors. The revival of this play nearly four decades later sparked a furious response from the tailoring trade: the tailors of London vowed to oppose the performance by any means necessary.

Tailors in this era were often sneered at and satirised, their craft, highly skilled though it was, was regarded as ‘unmanly’.  Even in folk tales the tailor is often a fill Possibly because they worked inside, in a trade that require skill and patience, rather than brawn – was tailoring somehow seen as ‘women’s work’ ? It’s also worth noting that tailors were famous for political discussion and radical activity through the 18th and 19th centuries, so there may have been an element of class snobbery too – look at these plebs getting above their station…

Tailors were often also portrayed in political cartoons as mean and grasping for money.  A good part of this probably arose from the dependence that the well-off actually had on their tailors. Clothes were vitally important as a signifier of who you were in society and what your position was; ever-changing fashion required a constant supply of new clothes. But depending on the skill of low-class tailors for their image no doubt irked the wealthy… In addition, in certain periods, like the Regency, noble folk could in fact be heavily in debt, and relied on stiffing various creditors for payment as long as possible. Tailors regularly complained that they were owed large sums by the aristos they clothed; the well-to-do generally thought such questions beneath them, and sneered at those who had to chase what was owed to them.

Another reason for abusing tailors came from simple prejudice – the tailor might often be a foreigner – a Frenchie, or even a Jew!

However, messing with the tailors may have been unwise. London tailors had a long history of self-organisation – the trade’s journeymen fought battles to improve wages and conditions for centuries, dating back to the Middle Ages.

In the 18th century, the journeymen’s collectivity was so strong they were nicknamed ‘the tailors’ republic’.

The play itself (some of which is on google books) seems to be a satire on heroic theatre, but is also a clear dig at the journeymen tailors banding together to fight for better wages and conditions. This was very much a live issue in London. Several times in the eighteenth century the journeymen combined or went on strike – the latest wage battle had taken place only in 1763, a few years before Foote’s drama was composed. The play casts tailors’ self-organisation against their masters in the style of a Shakespearean war tragedy – with the clear aim of making the idea of those weedy tailors engaging in struggle appear ridiculous…

When actor William Dowton tried re-staging ‘The Tailors: a Tragedy for Warm Weather’ in 1805, the London tailors took umbrage. Not had their power to organise collective action diminished… Dowton received a series of threatening letters, warning him to abandon the plans to perform the offensive play, or else seventeen thousand tailors would attend to hiss and boo the piece; one letter signed “DEATH” added that ten thousand more tailors could be found if required.
Dowton laughed these threats off, and pressed on with the performance. However, when opening night came, it turned out that the tailors were deadly serious. They had managed to book almost every seat in the theatre, and a large crowd outside the Haymarket weren’t able to get in.

The moment Dowton appeared upon the stage, there was an uproar, and someone threw a pair of shears at him:

“At an early hour in the afternoon of August 15 about 700 persons mostly Tailors were waiting to gain admittance to the theatre at the opening of the doors. The greater portion went to the galleries while some took their station in the pit and the moment they got in commenced shouting and knocking their sticks in the most turbulent manner. The utmost noise and confusion prevailed in the house and when the curtain rose there was a general cry of ‘Dowton! Dowton!’  Mr Dowton, came forward but the tumult increased and there were loud shouts of ‘No Dowton!  No Dowton!’  He attempted to speak but could not be heard, the uproar now greatly increased.  A Tailor’s thimble and a pair of scissors were thrown from the shilling gallery on the stage; they passed very near to Mr Dowton and he took them up and coming to the front said “I would give twenty guineas to know who threw these scissors!”  This proceeding so alarmed some ladies in the stage box that at their request he left the stage.

The noise continuing with increased violence the managers despaired of obtaining a hearing in the usual way and had recourse to the exhibition of a large board whereon they asked to know the pleasure of the audience.  Papers were handed to the galleries and every possible intimation was given that offensive piece should be withdrawn and the farce of Village Lawyer substituted.  This however did not produce a cessation of hostilities and about nine o’clock managers finding it impossible to procure peace despatched a messenger to Mr. Graham the magistrate at Bow who soon arrived with some officers and having sworn several extra constables proceeded to the galleries and on the ring leaders took about a dozen of the rioters custody and lodged them in St Martin’s watch house.

After Catherine and Petruchio, the curtain being up discovered three Tailors seated upon a board.  The uproar then became universal; loud vociferations of every kind were made, and a very strong opposition was again formidably manifested.  The Bow Street Officers made their appearance after a time and eventually several of the most riotous were put out of the house.  The piece then proceeded but in consequence of these interruptions it was nearly one o’clock before the performance was over.  A party of the Horse patrolled up and down the Haymarket and remained until the crowd had dispersed.”
(from the Introduction to a later published version of ‘The Tailors, (or “Quadrupeds,”): a tragedy for warm weather, in three acts’)

The episode in which the theatre managers came on stage and tried to negotiate with the spectators is interesting. The objections being passed up to the stage and the attempt to get a different play put on reflect a very different attitude to theatre prevailing – almost an expectation of democracy, where the audience has a right to partially determine events on stage. As noted on this blog before, eighteenth century theatre audiences were drawn from a much wider spectrum of society than is generally true today – there was almost as moral economy, where cheap tickets and seats for different social sectors was expected (and attempts to restrict this ‘right’ caused riots). The right to view plays may have helped give birth to a sense that theatre belonged to all in a wider way – that audiences could take part in what was put on and how it was staged, even who could act. In 1773 the actor Charles Macklin’s role as Macbeth at Covert Garden caused so much controversy that a performance was halted when a large part of the audience demanded he be immediately sacked mid-play…

Partly this may have arisen from a peculiar lack of separation between performers and audience in many London theatres. There could be many factors that contributed to this. Street theatre and performance were so ever-present in London streets, that awe and distance when faced with a stage had evaporated somewhat? Trends in theatre production may also have helped – before naturalistic theatre in the 20th century, actor’s soliloquising and breaking the fourth wall was much more common, bringing the spectator into the play…

Theatre was also so accessible going to a performance was as routine for many as going to the pub, and some theatres became places to hang out and socialise – not necessarily to watch the play…

As late as 1844, in Sadlers Wells Theatre, the rowdy audience had become notorious for their refusal to behave like an audience. Respectable folk were increasingly staying away. Inside the theatre itself was even worse: the audiences mainly turned up to impose THEIR desires, and have a collective rowdy time, not to watch plays. The Sadlers Wells audience, “of the lowest possible class”, had, according to the Daily News, become “a sink of abomination, its plays a travesty, riots among its degraded audience a commonplace”. The performance was usually inaudible, drowned out by the shrieks, yells, lewd heckles and whistles, stamping and hails of thrown objects (including fruit and veg), and shouted demands for comic and popular songs. Charles Dickens disapprovingly described the “foul language, oaths, catcalls, shrieks, yells, blasphemy, obscenity – a truly diabolical clamour.”  This inversion of the spectacle sounds brilliant, in its total subversion of the ‘separate’ roles of performers and audience; more like a revival of the medieval carnival culture, where this separation was paper thin, and soon broken down. Theatre traditions like this helped evolve the great Music Hall scene onf the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The 1805 controversy over The Tailors also sparked a good old-fashioned pamphlet war. After the riot, a mock-heroic poem entitled ‘The Tailor’s Revolt’ was published under the pseudonym of ‘Jeremy Swell, Gent.’  Tailors issued a riposte in a tract called: ‘The Tailor’s Answer to the Late Attacks Upon their Profession from the Stage and Press With Critical Remarks on Jeremy Swell’s Mock Heroic Poem, by ‘a Flint’. (A ‘flint’ was a tailor working in a union shop):

“Does a man degenerate from his nature by becoming a Tailor?  Certainly not!  Why then do you laugh at us?  Is it because we sit cross legg’d at our work?  Fools who make themselves merry with this Circumstance do not know perhaps that this is the general posture of sitting adopted by all the Eastern nations as the most graceful and natural; nobody was ever seen to laugh at the Grand Signior and his Haram sitting cross legg’d at the Circus, but two Tailors in the same position at the Haymarket were deem’d a fit subject for mirth – 0 Tempore!  0 mores!  “But,” says some pert witling, “ a Tailor is only the ninth part of a man.””

Don’t mess with the Tailors’ Republic…

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