The John Palmer conundrum

Bath was a thriving social hub in the 18th century, entertaining the fashionable elite Londoners who came to take the waters and see plays at the original Theatre Royal. Vincent Baughan, tour guide at The Old Theatre Royal in Old Orchard Street,­­­­­ explores some key figures connected with that building, and how they all rejoiced under the same appellation, much to the confusion of present-day historians.

One day, while skimming through some books in the library at Bath’s Masonic hall, I stumbled across John Palmer. He was, it seems, the very personification of a ‘polymath’. He was a businessman, with a brewery, and a candle manufactory in Bath. In addition to this, he was a prolific architect. He was also a well-connected businessman in London and theatre proprietor in Bristol and Bath. And in his copious free time he was Mayor of Bath, Member of Parliament, and even an actor.

I asked myself how could one man do all these things? I paused, and remembered that a little learning is a dangerous thing. So I dug a little deeper. There were, I found out, four John Palmers. All with overlapping histories, and all connected with the Old Theatre Royal on Old Orchard Street in Bath.

The first was John Palmer, brewer and tallow chandler, two essential 18th-century trades. The drinking water was generally poisonous, and so everyone drank beer. Also, the electric light had not been invented, so everyone needed candles.

John Palmer took over the project to build a theatre in Bath. The originator of the idea, a retired actor called John Hippisley, died before the theatre could be built. 18th-century Bath was rapidly becoming a ‘go to’ place for London society. They came to take the waters, and play cards in the Assembly Rooms. But there was no London standard theatre to entertain them.

In 1705, George Trim had built a rather inadequate theatre near Trim Street. Defoe visited it in 1725, and said, “In the afternoon there is generally a play – though the decorations are mean, and the performance accordingly – but it answers, for the company here make the play, to say no more.”

In 1738, this theatre closed and was demolished to make way for the east wing of the Mineral Water Hospital. There was an impromptu theatre giving irregular performances in the cellars of Simpson’s Rooms near North Parade. But this was cramped and limited, and described by a visitor from France as “…quite a pretty little catacomb.” He went on to say, “When the curtain went up, and the stage began to vomit forth the actors, I was reminded of the band of robbers in Gil Blas’ cavern. Their manner of acting did not break the spell…”

So, it was clear that Bath needed a proper theatre. And on 27 October 1750, under John Palmer’s stewardship, the St. James’ Theatre opened on what is now Old Orchard Street. And Palmer ran the theatre until 1764, when he handed it down to his son… John Palmer!

John Palmer Junior was his father’s London agent, but as Bath became the main focal point for social activity outside London, Palmer Junior’s focus moved west. He was enthusiastic in his management of the theatre. In 1768 he obtained a Royal Warrant for it, an exalted privilege that was only enjoyed by two London theatres at that time – Drury Lane and Covent Garden. The theatre in Bath was the first provincial theatre to be given the honour.

This enabled Palmer Junior to attract top theatre companies and leading stars to his theatre. He also toured provincial theatres, recruiting promising new talent. This set the foundations for the theatre’s high reputation as a nursery for developing talent.

Palmer Junior’s most famous appointment was Sarah Siddons, whose time at the theatre is celebrated by a bronze plaque on the Old Orchard Street building, unveiled by The Corporation of Bath in 1937. She appeared at the theatre from 1778 to 1782, where she honed her skill as an actress eventually going up to London to become a superstar.

Palmer Junior also embarked on a series of improvements to the building, not all of which were successful. For this work he engaged the services of the third John Palmer in our story, John Palmer the architect of Bath.

Palmer the architect built many of the set-piece buildings of Bath. Lansdown Crescent, noted for the way it hugs the contours of the land; St. James’ Square, the only complete Georgian square in Bath; Kensington Place; St. Swithin’s Church, St. James’ Church and Christ Church; and the original manifestation of the ‘new’ Theatre Royal on Saw Close.

The third John Palmer is also reputed to have designed the Roman Catholic Chapel on Corn Street. The congregation of that chapel moved into the Original Theatre Royal, when it ceased to be a theatre in the early 19th century. The chapel they left is now The Mission Theatre. In an interesting twist, what was built as a theatre on Old Orchard Street became a chapel. And what was built as a chapel on Corn Street, became a theatre!

Palmer the architect began re-modelling the theatre in 1767. He added a much admired ‘decorous dome’ incorporating Apollo and the muses. One correspondent wrote that it was, “…esteemed, in fancy, elegance and construction, inferior to none in Europe.” However, the dome was a disaster. It destroyed the acoustics and provided no ventilation. The heat, and presumably the smell (bearing in mind the tallow candles and the 18th-century approach to personal hygiene) was a constant cause for complaint.

So, in 1774, the interior was re-modelled again. The dome was replaced with the ceiling we see today, with its displacement ventilation system. Seven boxes were added to the rear of the auditorium providing 200 extra seats.

In 1778, Palmer Junior acquired a theatre in Bristol, and obtained a Royal Warrant for this as well. He was therefore able to offer touring companies back-to-back performances in two high-status theatres within 15 miles of each other.

As part of the logistics for staging these back-to-back performances, Palmer established a coach service between Bath and Bristol to move stage-hands, props and actors back-and-forth. These coaches also enabled him to travel to London in less than a day.

In 1782, Palmer Junior convinced the authorities to use his coaches, in the face of opposition from established vested interests, to improve the postal system, and thus the mail coach was born. As a reward, he was made Comptroller of the Post Office in 1785, with a lucrative financial reward. However Palmer’s zeal for reform brought him into constant conflict with the establishment within the organisation and he was dismissed in 1792. Following his dismissal, Palmer entered politics. He became Mayor of Bath, twice, and Member of Parliament for the City in 1801.

He remained in dispute with the government over his pension from the Post Office for the rest of his life. To add to the John Palmer confusion, there were two other John Palmers, John ‘Gentleman’ Palmer and John ‘Plausible Jack’ Palmer. They appeared together briefly at Drury Lane, working for David Garrick – after whom the Garrick’s Head pub is named. They appeared on the bill as Gentleman Palmer and J. Palmer, to distinguish them. It was ‘Plausible Jack’ Palmer who played at Bath.

‘Plausible Jack’ Palmer was, by all accounts, a bit of a rogue. He is reputed to have ill-treated his wife, he was a notorious pleasure seeker and occasionally neglected his theatrical duties. But his ‘nice conduct’ endeared him to his public, and gained him his nickname from Sheridan.

In the 1780s and against advice, he attempted to build a theatre. This lost him his fortune and landed him in debtors’ prison.He died on stage in August 1798, playing the title role in The Stranger by German dramatist August von Kolzebue.

So it seems John Palmer was a popular name in the 18th century, so much so that four men can be melded into one multi-faceted personality. I am now cautious when I read of the achievements of historical figures, especially when they seem eclectic and cover such diverse fields.

So John Palmer was indeed a brewer and chandler, a theatre manager, the inventor of the mail coach, a comptroller of the Post Office, a Mayor of Bath, a Member of Parliament, an architect, and a roguish actor.

But equally, John Palmer was not one man, but four; or five, if you include ‘Gentleman’ Palmer.

Vincent Baughan is a tour guide at The Old Theatre Royal, Old Orchard Street, Bath, where there are regular tours, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 11am and 2.30pm, and on Saturdays at 2.30pm. Special tours can be booked via

Featured image: Interior of the Old Theatre Royal auditorium, which opened in 1750