Jane Margaret Scott
Life beyond Elmbridge
Jane Margaret Scott was born in 1779, the same year that the great explorer James Cook was murdered in the Sandwich Islands, and the American Revolutionary War started. She was born into an affluent family. Her father John Scott sold materials for watercolour paintings and drawings. Elizabeth Scott gave birth to their youngest child Jane at 419, Strand in London. Jane was christened, like her two older brothers, John and George, at the nearby church of St Martin-in-The Fields.
In August 1787, the family moved to 417, Strand. Around this time John Scott expanded his company, selling widely in Britain and overseas and importing large quantities of very fine French drawing chalk. He sold painting materials to Queen Charlotte, the consort of George III, as well as other members of the royal household. He also supplied Thomas Gainsborough with Cremona White. Both Jane's brothers were employed in their father's business, however Jane's talent as a pianist was quickly recognised. By the age of 17 she was encouraged to teach piano, and soon gathered a school of pupils, where singing lessons were also introduced. Her father continued to expand his interests and encouraged by new ideas, he started to manufacture 'magic lanterns'. He also purchased the leases of eleven houses in Bailey's Alley behind 417, Strand. The alley no longer exists, but it was here that Jane's dream of running a theatrical company and a venue in which to perform her own musical compositions and dramatic reviews was realised.
By 1804, John Scott had demolished the eleven houses and built a small theatre at 409-412, Strand, which was named Sans Pareil. The translation of Sans Pareil into English means 'Without Compare'. Scott obtained a license for minor performances and on 17th November 1806 the box office opened. Billed as 'Miss Scott' for the opening night Jane was the only performer, and remained so for the rest of the season. She was to appear continually at the Sans Pareil for the next fourteen years, from 1806 until 1819. Performances where added to by a display of fireworks.
Under Jane's management the theatre flourished, and in 1808 her father bought the freehold and, in 1813, bought another plot behind 409, Strand. No architect is known for the expansion and development of the theatre, but after reconstruction the theatre could hold over 1800 people either sitting or standing, and take £200 per night at the box office. Over the next few years the theatre was known as The Strand rather than the Sans Pariel.
Jane Scott performed leading roles, but also wrote prolifically, singing her own compositions to her own piano accompaniment. However, she never appeared anywhere else other than in her own theatre, or published any of her compositions. Only one of her popular melodramas, The Old Oak Chest (1816), was printed, and was widely performed in the many unlicensed theatres.
Gradually she gathered and managed a successful theatrical company at Sans Pareil, and between 1806 -1809, the theatre obtained licenses for various forms of light entertainment, including: farces, French-style vaudeville, Gothic melodramas, comic operettas and burlettas, as well as popular annual pantomimes. As an artistic director, she was generous in her encouragement of other performers, some of whom went on to have important stage careers, including: George Davidge, Richard Flexmore, and Caroline Giroux.
Sans Pareil was hugely important in the history of the London stage because Jane Scott and her father came from outside the established theatrical hierarchy and challenged the existing ownership and forms of theatre to create a 'free' stage. Jane Scott's theatre was an astute response to developments in popular, dramatic tastes of her day. In particular, she promoted the Gothic and Romantic sensibility, pioneered and enjoyed among the upper echelons of society, and popularised them for a broad, new audience. Her promotion of new forms of light entertainment for all was pivotal in the formation London's West End. Her theatre work was radical alternative to the pomposity of the so-called 'legitimate' stage. Critics and historians have largely ignored her until recently, but her important contribution to the development of the British theatre has begun to be reassessed and more widely acknowledged.
Jane retired in April 1819 at the age of forty, and her father sold the Sans Pareil for a large profit. Sans Pareil was renamed The Adelphi Theatre by its new owners, who took the name from the nearby terrace of twenty-four neoclassical houses occupying the land between The Strand and the River Thames, which had been built by the Adam brothers. Adelphoi is the Greek for 'brothers'. The present Adelphi Theatre is the fourth on the site. It currently stages blockbuster musicals such as Evita and Chicago. In 1826, John Scott purchased the Olympic Pavillion Theatre near Drury Lane, installing gas lighting, which from 1830 was managed by Madame Vestri.
Life in Elmbridge
Little is known about Jane's life after 1819. On 11th April 1822, she married a half-pay Lieutenant in the Royal Navy called John Davies Middleton (1790-1867), who was eleven years her junior. They did not have any children. The marriage settlement enabled John and Jane Middleton to retire on a comfortable income to Mole House on the Esher Road in Hersham, a large house adjoining the banks of the River Mole. Her father died in 1838 leaving her Olympic Pavilion Theatre, as well as an inn in Hersham, of which no records survive.
Jane died, aged fifty-seven, of breast cancer on 6th December 1839, just one year after her father. Jane Margaret Scott was buried alongside her mother and father in the family vault in the parish church of St Mary with St John at Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, where a table monument bearing their names can still be viewed today. She left Mole House to her husband John Middleton who continued living there. In 1848, he had the house completely redesigned by the architect Thomas Bellamy. John Middleton died in 1867 aged seventy-seven. Mole House was demolished in the early 1960's to be replaced by a block of flats called Mole House, Kingfisher Close.
- Jacky Bratton, 'Scott, Jane Margaret (bap. 1779 - d. 1839)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Jacky Bratton, 'New Readings in Theatre History', (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- Zoe Wanamaker, 'London's Theatres', (New Holland Publishers Ltd, 2008).