1785. The Talkative Playwright

By the 1780s Tunbridge Wells’ heyday as a popular spa is over and it seems that the town is in decline. Master of Ceremonies Beau Nash is long gone (his last visit was in the mid-1750s) and seaside resorts such as Brighton are proving more attractive to summer visitors. However, in 1785 a new resident arrives – a short, stout, red-faced and neatly dressed gentleman. Dramatist Richard Cumberland is a well-known public figure, and his presence will help attract visitors back to the town.

by George Romney, oil on canvas, circa 1771-1776

Richard Cumberland. Portrait by George Romney. National Portrait Gallery

Richard, the son of a clergyman, was born in Cambridge in 1732 and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge. A career as a government official took him to Nova Scotia, Ireland and Spain. However, when the Board of Trade and Plantations was abolished in 1782, Richard lost his job as its Secretary and he was unable to find an alternative. In 1785, 53 years old, on half pay and with a family to support (he had six children and numerous grandchildren), he decided to move to Tunbridge Wells as a way of retrenching. He rented a spacious house at the top of Mount Sion from the landlord of the Sussex Tavern. To the front of it was a fenced area which he cultivated as a flower garden, with a sand walk around it.

In his memoirs Richard said of Tunbridge Wells:

‘It is not altogether a public place, yet it is at no period of the year a solitude  a reading man may command his hours or study and a social man will find full gratification …..Its vicinity to the capital brings quick intelligence of all that passes there…..the country is on all sides beautiful, and the climate pre-eminently healthy, and in a most peculiar degree restorative to enfeebled constitutions.’

Richard had another career in addition to politics; by the time he came to Tunbridge Wells he was a well-known dramatist, whose plays had been performed at Covent Garden and Drury Lane.  His plays were sentimental, moral and sometimes gave unusually positive portrayals of people on the margins of society. An example of this was his play ‘The Jew,’ with its sympathetic lead character, which was performed for the first time at Sarah Baker’s theatre ‘The Temple of the Muses’ also on Mount Sion. Now he had the opportunity to do more writing.

Richard was generally considered to be kind and good natured. However he was acutely sensitive to any criticism of his plays – actor David Garrick described him as ‘a man without skin’ – and most people thought him a colossal bore. Friends’ hearts would sink as he embarked on yet another account of one of his titled acquaintances, or produced a manuscript and prepared to read aloud a play. On one occasion he promised two visitors a treat on the final evening of their stay. His servant brought in a large dish and they anticipated a delicious meal. But under its cover was the manuscript of Richard’s five act tragedy Tiberius. ‘I am not vain’ he said ‘but I do think it by far the best play I ever wrote.’ He began reading and continued for three acts, until he became aware that his visitors had fallen asleep, upon which he finally allowed them to have their supper.

cumberland-claret-plaque-jpgIn 1792, while Richard was living in Tunbridge Wells, England went to war with France. A few years later Richard recruited and trained local volunteer troops, to provide a defence against potential invading forces. He would drill his men, who were ‘artisans, mechanics or manufacturers of Tunbridge Ware,’ by moonlight or torchlight each evening after they had finished work. An overweight playwright made an unexpected commander, but Richard took on the role with great enthusiasm and it was observed that he ‘gave the word of command with all the ardour of an experienced veteran’. His men loved marching through the town in their smart uniforms and most of them refused to disband when they were told their services were no longer required.

Towards the end of his life. Richard lived mainly in London, which was where he died in 1811 at the age of 79. He was buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

In the late 18th century, Tunbridge Wells began to attract visitors once again (partly at least due to the presence of well known residents such as Richard Cumberland), although they tended to be rather less aristocratic than in the past. Many were military and naval men, who began settling permanently in the town. They needed homes, and as a results there was a building boom in the early nineteenth century. A new phase in the town’s history had begun.

Notes

  • Sarah Baker and her theatre were the subject of an earlier blog post.
  • The house Richard lived in was named Cumberland House in his honour, by a subsequent owner, but has since been knocked down.
  • Although Richard was a well-known dramatist in his life-time, his reputation has not survived and his plays are not performed today, unlike those of his contemporary Sheridan.

 

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