Wednesday, 01 June 2022

Theodosia Yates and the ‘Great Yates’

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The only known photograph of Nellie Stewart’s mother, taken by Talma, and published in the Sydney Bulletin in 1904 to mark her passing, prompting photo historian ALLISTER HARDIMAN to find out more about the family’s past and discover the truth about their famous ancestor, the actress Mary Ann Yates.

theodosia yates resizePortrait of Theodosia Guerin (Stewart) (née Yates) by Talma, Melbourne. This image was reproduced in the Bulletin (Sydney), 4 August 1904, p.7.

During my father’s long career in various uniforms, he was, at one time, a Military Policeman, and as such was the investigating agent at various crime scenes committed on the Air Force Bases which constitued his juristiction. Given TV drama, the crime scene is almost a cultural phenomenon nowadays, but several things about his professional approach remain with me. A crime scene begins with an event which requires an investigation to see if an actual crime has been committed; observations are made, initial impressions are taken, and the gathering of evidence commences. Evidence is too often mistaken for proof. Whereas as proof supports an assertion, evidence is simply a gathered item or documented occurrence which MAY or MAY NOT bear upon the assertion. I type out all this dry kibble because many an historian is nervous about bagging everything at a crime scene without waiting for relevance. Bag it, tag it, and stuff it in the knapsack is my philosophy.

I have a crime scene.

My crime scene—where a crime MAY or MAY NOT have taken place is the portrait of Theodosia Stewart published in 1904 as part of that press duty that accompanies the death of a local and valued celebrity. The photo in question is of Mrs. Stewart herself, dressed with an indoor cap, knitted shawl, and the now overused but effective trope of a brooch. This suite of markers of matronly gravitas caused a reaction in my head: it was too much; it smacked of costumery; it was closer to ham than the shave setting on my local delicatessen’s meat slicer. I began to suspect that a crime had taken place.

I know from examining nineteenth century photos on eBay—everyday since eBay began—that this level of impression-creation was almost unseen in the nineteenth century photo section. Oh, I have seen the indoor cap do duty on a few married women’s heads, but portrait photographs that push the point with a footlight like glare are almost nonexistent. Maybe I was mistaking the gardener’s boots for a robber’s shoe print, but I thought the matter was worth investigating, nonetheless.

Does the suspect have a criminal record? I asked myself. Well, not that I knew of, but I do remember Nellie Stewart (in her biography) making such a fuss of her mother’s connection to the great Mary Ann Yates (née Graham), that I was rather confused as to why the exercise of such a valuable ‘brag’ was not accompanied by any image of her mother herself in the book when pains had been taken to include others. An examination of the crime scene was in order, so as my father had done many times: I first gathered, recorded and put into order the evidence.

First stop was the parentage of Theodosia Yates: there was nothing. Of her grandparents: nothing. Witness protection program? nothing. Criminal record? Nada. What curious gaps. I do not like curious gaps. So I constructed a family tree on Mrs. Yates which took some time as the crime scene was all over the place, but worth it. I had to start at the great Yates herself and construct the family—rather like assembling a crashed aircraft. It was rather fun, and the fruits of which, follow.

Mrs Yates buttonMary Ann Yates as Electra in Voltaire's Orestes, 1769. Portrait miniature by Samuel Cotes. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.Mary Ann Yates was born around 1715, plus or minus a generous five to ten, and was the daughter of William Graham, the captain’s steward on the Ariel. Other sources have documented her career so I’ll not stomp around already consecrated ground. Mary Ann, hereafter called the Great Yates to differentiate her from the cast-of-thousands of Miss Yateses and Mrs Yateses that crowd the historical greenroom of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Great Yates was Richard Yates’ second wife. Having looked into the link of the Great Yates to Theodosia, I could find no biological connection, which explains the hide-and-seek language like ‘… the family of Mrs. Yates …’ or ‘… connected to the Mrs. Yates of Garrick’s time …’ which avoids committing to any claim of legal descendancy. That looks like another crime. Why the evasion? Very slippery.

Richard Yates and the Great Yates had no children (not that I know), so direct descendants are not available for love nor money. Now, outright alteration of truth, is a theatrical skill in itself, but seldom is the entire garment fabricated, except in emergencies, so there is usually truth somewhere. Richard Yates had two children at least from his first marriage, a George and an unnamed Miss Yates, but of them nothing much is heard after they stop performing. It is due to the unjust murder of Richard Yates that Theodosia’s mystery unravels —for our delight.

Mr. Yates has a brother who, for reasons of death or indisposition through absence, madness or spirits, left offspring without protection, and if some correspondent correctors of errors (writing to the papers of the day) are to be believed, this happened again. Richard Yates’ nephew in turn became absent through ‘reasons of death or indisposition’ to leave two children that came under the family aegis of Richard. Now, I do not know when this event occurred, nor where, nor, dare I say it, even if, for many a person of repute in past times had raised their own children under uncledom or auntitude who were born through illegitimate adventures. Thus, these two children, Thomas Yates and his sister, Miss Yates (another nameless one), were raised by family, and in some senses could well claim to call them parents.

The grand-niece (or great niece if you prefer the language of the day) married when she was of legal age to the Yate’s household coachman, Mr. Bowen, and was disinherited by Richard Yates. Thomas, her brother, went into the Royal Navy, and was a fine naval painter, a genre of art whose collectors—if they even manage to find him—lament the loss of so great a talent. Thomas had married an actress, Sarah. There is one single source on that names her as Sarah Taylor, and there is a Thomas Yates marriage to a Sarah Taylor in London of 1788 that may have been used to squeeze into the blank box of a desperate historian’s endeavors, a missing fact. Dates calculated give Thomas’ birthdate as about 1750-1760, and given that Richard married the Great Yates in 1756, the Great Yates became the ‘mother’ in the family algebra.

Richard Yates resizeRichard Yates by William Say, published by William Sams, after James Lonsdale mezzotint, published May 1826. National Portrait Gallery, London.The next crime scene, is actually a real crime scene: the Yates’ house in Pimlico where Miss Elisabeth Jones, the ‘housekeeper’ and one time aspiring actress smothered Richard Yates to death with a pillow in 1796, forged one of several testaments, and inherited the house upon the deception. With several very dodgy persons whom she hired for murderous purposes, and holding nosey claimants at bay: claimants like Lt. Thomas Yates R.N. who ended up being shot in the head as he tried to effect entry into what Richard told him would always be left to him. Miss Jones came out of the grizzly mess unscathed and unpunished, but slowly lost her gains after a long drawn out campaign of blackmail by those she had hired to assist her in the crime. She confessed upon her death bed, having been haunted by her acts and the unjust results that fell upon the family. Under the married name of Mrs. Yarwood she had tried to make a style of restitution to the descendants of Thomas and his sister, but failed in the attempt. The family, a combination of Naval and Stage people, had dispersed.

Thomas Yates, following his patrilineal pattern, became unable ‘by reasons of death, [but not in this case by indispositon]’ to provide for his family. His widow, Sarah had children by him before this death; some sources say five, others two, but it looks like only two survived to adulthood. Sarah Yates, as many widows did in those days, remarried, one supposes for financial provision if not the emotional provision that if found is happily welcomed. Her new husband, whom she married five years after Thomas was murdered, was Lt. Francis Hutchings Ansell of the 74th Regiment of Foot who avoided bullets, sabres and cannon balls and lived to an old age. He and Sarah had may children, family lore seems to exaggerate the number at eighteen, born at various places both in England and abroad. They both ended their days in Portobello, Scotland a place known for its Bathing tourism and Highlanders in military costume. She died in 1849, outliving her Lieutenant, who died in 1835 with an impressive career behind him.

But what of her children by Lt. Thomas Yates, Thomas and Mary Ann? So close to adulthood, they became the de facto step-children of Francis. Mary Ann married a sailing Scotsman, Captain William Walter Cargill and both left for New Zealand and it is that family that literally threw away—for landfill—the family silver (actual plate etc.) given to them by the haunted and murderous Mrs. Yarwood in a rejected penance. Thomas Yates, who seemed to have joined the Navy—family recollection has him as a gunner’s mate (though I must admit there being a little confusion on this point). It must have been while Thomas was staying with his mother and step-father in the North of England that he met and married in Garstang, Lancashire in 1802 (this has yet to be verified) Miss Mary Ann Croshaw, who became Mrs. Yates, and yes, she too was an actress. I lost track of them until their death in a suburb of Portsea, named Nursling, where they died in the 1850s as the census declares, paupers. Of interest to we image hunters is the portrait of Mrs. Yates as Lady Macbeth, a lithograph of which her grandson James Alfred Yates kept on his wall and forever knew it as his grandmother, Mary Ann Croshaw.

And this brings us to Theodosia. Thomas Yates Jnr. R.N. and wife Mary Ann Croshaw were the parents of three children: James Yates of the royal Navy (1818–1899) Theodosia Yates, actress (1815–1904) and another daughter, also an actress but about which I know next to little. James was born in Dublin, and became a Gunner in the Royal Navy, seeing service on various ships, seeing various places and seeing, one Amelia White (1821–1893) whom he married and with whom he settled down in the town in which he grew up, Portsmouth.

James and Amelia had several children, among whom was a son, James Alfred who was the grandfather of Dame Frances Amelia Yates (1899–1981), the Renaissance academic with a passion for Esoteric history upon which she wrote much. It is chiefly through the domestic documentation by Dame Frances and her sisters that we are able to examine the connective tissue of Theodosia Yates’s life. Theodosia was remembered by Dame France’s father who happily mentioned the family connection to Nellie Stewart, and of his great Aunt, Theodosia.

I wondered too about the name Theodosia, and by cross referencing to geographical frequency of use with the frequency of her family surnames, it seems that both Croshaw and Theodosia have their usage epicentre in Lancashire, where Yates married Croshaw. I am sure that Theodosia was a family name though I cannot find that connection—as yet. One Theodosia White died in Lambeth (where Theodosia had lived in 1838) aged 75 in 1835. Was she a benefactor of Theodosia through Amelia White, her sister-in-law?

Theodosia’s voyage into adulthood starts with her work at Covent Garden and her first marriage to book binder, Alexander Macintosh at Saint Annes, London on the 11th of September 1838. One daughter, Maria Macintosh (b. 1839) was born of that union at Pleasant Place, Lambeth. Not pleasant enough, I fear, for Theodosia fled the bookbinding life into which she had been stitched, sailing for Australia when Mrs. Clark dangled the operatic carrot in front of her. Did Alexander accompany her? Why adopt the name Stirling?

So there is the crime scene. Was there one at all? One could prosecute the case but the Judge would dismiss it. Was Theodosia keeping a low profile after abandoning Alexander Macintosh? Was she trying to keep away the repenting annoyance of Mrs. Yarwood and her thugs? Why the ‘Tweety Bird and Granny’ look in 1904? Was she looking to put behind her the penury of Navy and Stage? Did she feel unaccomplished? Who knows how these things swap the psychological wires within us? Theodosia was indeed a descendent in real terms though not by blood to the Great Yates, and she left a great tale in her wake that Nellie Stewart should have written about in her biography, or commissioned a play? Dreams perhaps, but stories definitely; Australia lacks the fondness for national myths, the kind of myths, that if this were America, would have been—by now—made into a film, the inevitable remake, a play perhaps, a book, scholarships, tacky TV shows, or perhaps even rides in a theme park.

I admire the adventurous, and particularly those who fight Kismet in the ring, rise from the canvas before the count expires, and thumps Kismet some more. Theodosia should have been celebrated with a photograph that had some of that natural majesty that shines on the face of the long lived survivor. Instead, we were left with a cartoon Granny, fit for Alf Vincent’s humorous linework in the Sydney Bulletin, and perhaps THAT is the crime that disturbed me the most. Perhaps.


Read 520 times Last modified on Wednesday, 29 June 2022
Allister Hardiman

Allister Hardiman is based in Melbourne, and has been in the design industry since 1983, working in portraiture, film & television, publishing, advertising, cartography and set design. In the 1990s he started reading about early theatrical life in Melbourne, and began researching on his own shortly after, focussing on the life of Robert Sparrow Smythe. His experience in the visual arts prompted the collecting of portraits and other photographs from the 1850–1900 period, many of whom are rare singers, actors, musicians, and platform speakers. He also writes short stories for kicks, giggles and whimsical colour.