James Tate (1771 – 1843)

The seventeen-year-old James Tate was present on the opening night of Samuel Butler’s Theatre at Richmond, North Yorkshire in September 1788 and he recorded in his diary:

“The New Theatre opened. A prologue by Stanfield spoken by Butler. Inkle and Yarico and the midnight hour. Side scenes etc. by Cuit and Coatsworth. The Theatre very elegant. Earl Fitzwilliam, Sir Thos. Dundas, etc.”

This brief note provides a glimpse of the fashionable politeness on display in this northern provincial theatre that evening. Thomas Dundas was MP for Richmondshire. His father Lawrence Dundas, known as ‘the Nabob of the North’ had used wealth earned as a commissar during the Seven Year War to buy a majority of burgage houses in Richmond and thereby make the town his pocket borough. The Dundas family helped to develop the town into a centre of retirement and leisure. The scenery painter, George Cuit the Elder, had spent six years painting in Rome under the Dundas family’s patronage. Cuit then retired to Richmond, where he painted landscapes for the local gentry. Dundas’ brother-in-law, Earl Fitzwilliam, was one of the greatest landowners in the country and a leading Whig statesman.

Tate met James Field Stanfield and his friend the actor Fielding Wallis for the first time during the 1788 season in Richmond.  Tate married Wallis’ second daughter, Margaret in 1795, after he had become a Reverend and the Headmaster of Richmond School. He was a prolific letter writer and by marrying into an acting family, his correspondence provides a unique insight into provincial theatrical life in the period. His new sister-in-law Jane Wallis was then a star performer at the Covent Garden Theatre Royal.

Shortly after their meeting, Stanfield introduced Tate to a scholarly young man, George William Meadley from Bishopwearmouth, whom he had met after joining Cawdell’s Durham company in 1789. Stanfield, Tate and Meadley remained close friends and their letters reveal a mutual interest in reform and abolition.

From a young age Tate had been exposed to Anglican dissent as at the age of fourteen he had become the amanuensis of the radical Archdeacon Blackburne who was the Rector of Richmond. This introduced him to some of the leading Anglican dissenters of the period. Stanfield, Tate and Meadley formed a hub with links to a wide range of literary, ecclesiastical, academic and political figures. Geographically the three were well-positioned as Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland were home to many prominent Whig families whose influence would increase during the early decades of the 1800s, leading to the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Catholic Emancipation and The Great Reform Act.

Tate’s school became a trusted place for prominent Whig families to send their children. He taught the second Earl Grey’s son, for which he was rewarded with the Canonship of St. Paul’s when Grey became Prime Minister in the early 1830s. Letters survive in which Earl Grey asks Tate for his advice regarding Catholic Emancipation.


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