The Theatrical Life of Tate Wilkinson

On the Secret Library this week we have a article from guest writer Dominique Trigg, the creator of Some Sources Say, who has written about the fascinating  life of Tate Wilkinson, an Eighteenth Century pioneer of Leeds Theatre. If you would like to read more excellent articles from Dominique then you should visit Some Sources Say.

Tate Wilkinson (1739-1803) had an important role to play in the history of Leeds.

Tate Wilkinson (1739-1803) had an important role to play in the history of Leeds.


In 1771 he opened the first theatre in the city, known as ‘The Theatre’ located on Hunslet Lane. This was the start of a theatrical movement in the city, with modern day Leeds now enjoying many wonderful venues including the City Varieties, Slung Low’s HUB and Leeds Playhouse.

Plan of the Theatre 1847 By kind permission of Leeds Libraries,


But who was Tate Wilkinson?

Well hold on to your hats as we explore this theatrical powerhouse!

Tate was born in London in 1739, the only child of Reverend John and Grace Wilkinson. He grew up very devout, writing later in his memoirs “my idle hours, however, were not bestowed on marbles, cricket, or mixing with intimates of my own age…for, lo a prayer-book was ever in my hand – the whole day was employed in reading exhortations, and every part of the church service“. Many may have assumed he would follow in the footsteps of his father, but then something happened that changed the course of his life. Aged eight, he was taken to the Covent Garden Theatre. The play he saw was nothing like Tate had experienced before. He though he had an aversion to the theatre after seeing a puppet show at the Bartholomew Fair, which he had hated, but this visit to Covent Garden showed him what theatre could be. He recalled this significant moment in his memoir, writing “scarcely had the first act finished before I imagined I was in the elysium I had been praying for, the charms of the church, which the day before were so attractive and sublime, were dissolved…The theatre from that time banished all my fervent piety“. From this moment on, he knew he wanted a stage career.

He discovered his talents lay in mimicry, so for years before playing in London he harnessed his craft. Yet things took a terrible turn in 1757 when Tate was 17. His father was convicted and sentenced to 14 years transportation to America for conducting illegal marriages, dying on the convict ship. Destitution was a breath away, but rather than take a commission in the army that had been arranged by a family friend, he committed himself to a career on the stage. After a rocky start, which involved accidentally making an enemy of a prominent actress at the Covent Garden Theatre who thought Tate had mimicked her, he eventually found some success. His mimicry made enemies though, and whilst he was performing at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1758 he was censored by the theatre manager David Garrick after complaints from an actor who had been impersonated. The audience felt very differently to the actors who were mimicked, and they complained heavily about the censorship until Garrick backtracked and allowed Tate to perform as normal.

After years of travelling England, Scotland and Ireland to perform, Tate’s life changed course again when he met Joseph Baker, the theatre manager of the York Theatre Royal. This relationship put Tate on a different track, as he became a joint manager with Baker in 1766 and took over the York Circuit on Baker’s death in 1770. The York Theatre Circuit was comprised of theatres across the region in Newcastle, York and Beverly.  Tate settled down to life in the North, marrying  Jane Doughty in St Martin’s Church, Coney Street, York in 1768. They went on to have seven children: Martha, William, John Joseph Tate, Patty, Francis, Charles and Lovel, the majority of whom were baptised at St Michael Belfrey in York (just opposite York Minster). Tate took the York Circuit to new heights, and throughout his tenure began operating in Hull, Leeds, Pontefract, Wakefield and Doncaster. He was also known for his fairness, in a sector that was filled with corruption, by making reforms to improve the treatment of those in the profession.

Tate travelled widely for the next few decades and still continued to act alongside his management responsibilities. However, he began to suffer with health issues in his later years, so during his periods of rest chose to write his memoirs and The Wandering Patentee. These memoirs provide a fascinating insight into the heart of British theatrical life in the 18th century, and are a wonderful resource for modern historians who want a contemporary account. Tate was manager of the circuit until his death in 1803 at the age of 63. There is a memorial plaque to him in All Saints Pavement Church which reads:

TATE WILKINSON ESQ. original Patentee and 34 years Manager of the THEATRE ROYAL YORK, which he conducted with credit to himself and to the satisfaction of the Public. He died on 25th August 1803 in the 63rd Year of his age. He was an affectionate Husband, an indulgent Father and an honest Man. Also of JANE, his Wife who died December 19th 1826 in the 80th Year of her life.

We owe a lot to Tate for introducing the first theatre in Leeds and although his theatre has not survived (it was bought by someone else and then burnt down in 1875) it started a process whereby more theatres began to be built in the city. Leeds now has a great theatrical offering for those who visit.


Memoirs of his own life: Volume 1 by Tate Wilkinson

Wilkinson, Tate (1739–1803) by Eric Prince, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Ancestry: Marriage License between Tate Wilkinson and Jane Doughty from Yorkshire, England, Church of England Parish Records, 1538-1873.

Ancestry: St Michael Belfrey Baptism Register from Yorkshire, England, Church of England Parish Records, 1538-1873.

Discovering Leeds: The Theatres: 


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