Harriot Mellon (1777 - 1837)

The second Mrs Thomas Coutts then Harriot Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans,
actress and social climber, performing in Epsom 'for two nights only'.

Harriot Mellon, Duchess of St Albans, by Sir William Beechey
Harriot Mellon, Duchess of St Albans, by Sir William Beechey

Particulars of this lady's life may be read in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography accessible through the Surrey Libraries website.

Not mentioned there but of local interest is her appearance in a play performed in a makeshift auditorium at the George Inn, High Street, Epsom [demolished before Sainsbury's came to be built in the town]. An account is provided by Mrs Cornwell Baron- Wilson in Memoirs of Harriot, Duchess of St Albans, published in 1839: -
"Towards the close of this year [1800], some strolling players fitted up for a theatre a room at the George Inn, Epsom. Some one or more of these itinerants were known to Miss Mellon, and she promised to perform one night for a benefit; her name, however, was not to appear in the bills,* but was to be mentioned round the town. It may be questioned whether it was probable that she would prove attractive there; but the strollers, it appears, thought so; and Miss Mellon named, to a party in power at Drury Lane, her intention. He stated that he saw no great harm in it; but advised her not to ask the stage manager, but to go, and keep her own secret. To Epsom she accordingly went. The theatre was adorned with a large carpet for a curtain; two screens made the wings on each side; and there was no scenery whatever. The good people of Epsom, however, mustered in great force; and she was so much applauded, and so admired by the beaux of that racing town and its vicinity, that it was deemed very desirable to re-engage her services. As no ill had resulted from her first trip, impunity induced carelessness; and, a remuneration now tempting her, she again appeared at Epsom, was again applauded to the very echo, and, in fact, deemed a great feature 'for that night only'. She returned to town the next day, reaching her lodgings about five, and found that a 'call' had been left at her house, requiring her attendance for the rehearsal at eleven on that morning. This was the first time she had ever been absent from the theatre when her services were required; and she became alarmed. She immediately sought out Wewitzer, who treated the matter lightly; but said, he supposed she had been 'put down'; that is to say, marked in the prompter's list to be fined. This, of course, increased her uneasiness; and on reaching the theatre she hurried to the prompter to ascertain the fact . It was so. The amount of the fine was a mere trifle, fines being in proportion to the salary of the performers; but it was a serious evil to be suspected of inattention to her profession; and it was evident that she had incurred that danger. Nothing further was said upon the business, save the exaction of the fine; but Miss Mellon discovered that someone had been mean enough to write to the stage manager, informing him of the trip taken by the truant actress. Such was the strict discipline of Drury Lane at that period, that had not the manager been disgusted with the meanness of the anonymous writer, her freak would probably have cost Miss Mellon her engagement.

The George Inn demolished in 1937
The George Inn, demolished in 1937
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

* Those who are curious about the select few who formed the company at Epsom, will find their names recorded. The ladies were, Mrs. Askey and Mrs. Humphreys; the gentlemen, Messrs. Langdon, Murphy, Humphreys, and Seabrooke; and as a proof that the most humble aspirants to a niche in the temple of fame may at some time or other obtain it, it may be noticed, that a bill of their performances (and probably the only one) is yet extant, and carefully preserved in the library of the British Museum !"
This article was researched and written by Brian Bouchard © 2011

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