Odd this day

21 April 1796

3 min readApr 21, 2024

Well, as of course you know, today is the 228th anniversary of comic actor Richard Yates ordering “eels for his supper” and promptly dying

of rage and disappointment because his housekeeper was unable to obtain them.

I am indebted to historian John Wyatt Greenlee — aka Surprised Eel Historian — for alerting me to this marvellous tale, which also involves a 90-year-old retired thespian taking a shine to a 27-year-old housekeeper, a disputed will, and a fatal shooting.

National Portrait Gallery lithograph, Richard Yates (‘Portraits of him in the various characters in his entertainment entitled “Yates’ Reminiscences”’), showing the same man in a tableau in various costumes, including an old woman in a hat and shawl, a woman with a basket on her head, a man waving a banner which reads ‘Vote for Lush’ (cut off so we can’t see what ‘lush’ was supposed to spell), a Jacobin, a man in uniform, a man in an apron sitting down, and what may be a vicar

Yates is not what you might call widely remembered (although the National Portrait Gallery owns that lithograph, above), but the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has a wealth of detail on him nonetheless. He was “a fine dancer”, played a harlequin in pantomimes, and became known for comedy — at Drury Lane, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Covent Garden and elsewhere. His first wife died in 1753, and in 1756 he married Mary Ann Graham, around 20 years his junior, who

emerged as a major tragic actress, and inevitably overshadowed her low-comedian husband.

This, however, did not diminish their domestic bliss, and their marriage lasted until her death in 1787, when she left him her house in Pimlico. It was there on the fateful day in his 90th(ish) year (his date of birth is uncertain — he may have been 86) that (according to 1850’s Handbook of London, Past and Present) he requested elongated, ray-finned fish for his evening meal and became apoplectic when none were available (no, not even for ready money).

It is after his death that things get less eel-related but arguably more exciting. ODNB says

There is a story of doubtful authenticity that he wished in vain to be buried under the stage of the new Drury Lane playhouse

…but that’s not it. No, because Yates

bequeathed the Pimlico house to his young housekeeper, Elizabeth Jones (b. c.1769), who acted once at Covent Garden in 1793. Yates’s brother’s son, Lieutenant Thomas Yates RN, disputed the will. Jones called in male reinforcements, one of whom shot and killed Thomas while he was attempting to enter the property through a back window. In the ensuing trial one … was convicted of manslaughter, but Elizabeth Jones and the other man were acquitted.

…which is pretty good, but Handbook of London author Peter Cunningham reckons it was a bit more interesting than that.

The actor’s great-nephew was, a few months after, Aug. 22nd, 1796, killed while endeavouring to effect an entrance into the house from the back garden. The great-nephew, whose name was Yates, claimed a right to the house, as did also a Miss Jones, and both lived in the house for some months after Yates’s death. Yates, while strolling in the garden, was bolted out after an early dinner, and, while forcing his way in, was wounded by a ball from a pistol which caused his death. The parties were acquitted.

I think we can agree that that has a pleasing element of dark farce to it. Wikipedia reckons

Many years later, Miss Jones (then Mrs Yarwood) confessed on her death bed that she had smothered Richard Yates with a pillow and forged the will and conspired with her accomplices to murder Thomas Yates

…which is better yet, but does not cite a source. It may be that all the stories are exaggerated, half-true, or just complete balls. Whatever the truth, though, the idea that someone would want eels for dinner and then expire when they couldn’t get them was clearly too entertaining for me to ignore.




Purveyor of niche drivel; marker of odd anniversaries