Representations of Margate in Early London Shows

Anthony Lee

The visitor entered a dark and narrow corridor leading to an equally dark staircase. Climbing the staircase he found himself on a circular platform flooded with light, in the middle of the Battle of the Nile, watching Nelson’s fleet destroy that of the French at Aboukir Bay. Up a few more stairs and he was looking out over the town and harbour of Margate. And all this without leaving Leicester Square; he was in Barker’s Panorama, in 1799.1

The idea for a Panorama was said to have come to the entrepreneur Robert Barker when he was walking on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh. He imagined a great circular painting that would reproduce the whole of the awe-inspiring landscape that surrounded him. The painting would show a complete 360o view and would be mounted on the walls of a circular building; the observer would stand on a platform in the centre of the building so that he could look around at the landscape as if he was standing on the top of a hill, or look out to sea as if he was on the deck of a ship. He would not be able to get too close to the painting as then the proper sense of perspective would be lost.  There would be no windows; light would enter the building only from the top. A roof over the central platform would prevent him from looking over the top of the painting and a screen under the platform would prevent him from seeing under it. He would enter from stairs directly onto the platform so that no door would spoil the illusion of reality.

Leicester Square Margate Shows
Figure 1. Section of Burford’s Panorama, Leicester Square. From Robert Mitchell’s Plans and Views in Perspective of Buildings Erected in England and Scotland, 1801.

The first building designed specifically to house a Panorama was built by Barker in Leicester Square in 1794. The illustration (Figure 1) shows the building as it was in 1801 when it was owned by John Burford. A short flight of steps led from the entrance corridor to the central raised platform, 30 feet in diameter and surrounded by a balustrade. Here the visitor could walk around and view the main painting,  mounted on the outer wall of the building, some thirty feet from the  edge of the platform. A central column supported a smaller platform, reached by three flights of stairs built onto one side of the building. Around this second platform was hung another, smaller painting. At the top of the building, in the centre of the roof, was a skylight which provided the only source of light for the two panoramas; drifting clouds and changing sunlight outside the building resulted in tonal changes in the pictures, as in the ‘real’ world.

Popular subjects for panoramas included great battles, both land and sea, and exotic locations such as Rome, Naples, Florence, Weymouth, Brighton, Margate and Ramsgate.1 Generally, the large panorama was devoted to a military subject, the smaller panorama, providing some light relief, often showing a popular holiday destination. In the days before photography, the cinema, television and the web, when newspapers contained no pictures, and when there were no public art galleries as we know them, the public had few chances of ‘seeing’ the news. With no holiday brochures, how were they going to decide where to go for their annual holidays?  The Panoramas provide an answer and were deservedly highly popular. As one visitor remarked ‘I am fond of panoramas, especially of battles. Their magnitude, the consequent distinctness of the objects, and the circular position of the canvass, corresponding with the real horizon, all tend to give one the strongest impression of the reality of the scene’.1 Thomas Malton in his London guidebook of 1792 described the panorama as ‘a mode of representation, when the scenery is correctly drawn, and coloured with proper aerial effect, superior to all others for displaying the beauties of a prospect, seen from a commanding situation; where the  spectator turns, and views the whole circle of the horizon’.2

Barker opened his new panorama of Nelson’s Battle of the Nile in May 1799, telling the public that the scene:3 ‘though seen by daylight, appears as in the action at 10 at night, the whole seeming lighted only by the fire from the ships, and those blown up and burning, producing an effect of destruction seldom seen by the oldest seaman. Seven ships of the line are close to the observer, and appear as large as reality. This painting, from the management of the light and colouring, has an effect equally good on dark days as it has in sun shine.’

panorama advert 1799 Margate
Figure 2. Guide to the 1799 panorama The Battle of the Nile showing Nelson’s defeat of the French, with the View of Margate appearing in the upper circle.

The smaller panorama was ‘a  beautiful view of Margate, taken from an elevated situation erected for the purpose, in Cecil square, which commands all the interesting parts of the Town, the Harbour, and surrounding country’.4 Both panoramas were open from 10 in the morning until dark, admission to either panorama costing 1s. The view of Margate was so realistic that it featured in an advertisement for land for sale in Margate: 5

To be let, land to build on, being in the centre of the town of Margate, yet commanding a beautiful view of the sea and surrounding country – Persons wishing to take this land, may have a distinct view of the prospect the houses, when built, will possess, by viewing the Panorama in Leicester square, as the erection for taking that view was made on the land adjoining, and the land to let is that in which the sheep appear; the situation within five minutes walk of the sea, the theatre, the libraries, and the assembly house, &c.

The panorama of Margate remained open until May 1800, when it was replaced ‘by a view of Ramsgate, taken on the Pier, by the Lighthouse, from when the spectators will be gratified by a faithful representation of an Embarkation, both horse and foot, with a view of Deal, and a fleet at the Downs; likewise, part of the coast of France; the whole forming a beautiful and interesting scene’.6 

The public also looked to the theatres to provide large-scale illustrations of current events and places, similar to those provided by the Panoramas. Indeed, some theatrical productions were so spectacular that the scenery was more impressive than the acting. The first theatrical production with Margate as its star was probably the comic opera, Summer Amusements, or an Adventure at Margate, which opened at the Haymarket theatre at the end of June 1779. It was described in the London Chronicle as ‘a slight vehicle, in order to introduce a very animated and humorous view of the summer watering places, which are now so much the fashionable resort; and the display of characters, many of which appear to be portraits drawn from the life, is the principal object’.7 The plot was based on the supposition that the summer season at Margate was yet one more opportunity for a middle-class family to marry off its daughters.7-9 Sir James Juniper, a London alderman and merchant, his wife and his daughter Emily have just arrived in Margate from Tunbridge. The villain of the piece is Shuffle, a swindler and highwayman. While in Tunbridge, Shuffle, pretending to be Lord Random, tried to win the affections of Emily, attracted, of course, by her large fortune. Sir James, a blunt man unimpressed by Peerages, will not hear of a match between his daughter and Lord Random, instead favouring a Captain Surat, an honest man who had made a sizeable fortune in the East India service. Sir James’s wife, ‘a lump of ignorance and affectation, eternally boasting of her knowledge of the French language, which she pronounces most illiterately’ has unfortunately been taken in by the supposed Lord Random, and thinks he will be a better match for her daughter than Captain Surat. Emily, of course, has her own ideas and has fallen for a young actor, Melville, who she first saw playing the part of Romeo. The opera now starts.

On arriving in Margate, Shuffle (Lord Random) meets an old acquaintance, Spruce, who, having become a hairdresser and set up shop in Margate for the summer season, has styled the hair of both Emily and her mother. Shuffle tells Spruce of his designs on Emily and Spruce agrees to help.  Shuffle sees Captain Surat as his main rival and decides to write him a letter, offering him £10,000 if he will give up his attempts to win Emily as his wife. Captain Surat, being an honourable man, shows this letter to Sir James, who shows it to his wife, but she refuses to believe that a Lord could be so dishonest. It is decided that Surat should meet Shuffle in some open fields, where Sir James and his wife can hide behind a hay-stack and overhear what is said. The meeting goes ahead; Shuffle is not very discreet, abusing ‘Juniper and his wife in very gross terms, insomuch, that her Ladyship's wrath is so far kindled, as to come forth and up­braid him with his perfidy.’ Trying to save the situation, Shuffle pretends that it is all a joke, ’very common among men of fashion.‘ Lady Juniper believes him, although Sir James is not so easily fooled.

At this high point of the drama, Emily hears that her Romeo, Melville, has arrived at Margate in the hoy. Emily, having first ‘warbled a soft sonnet, to get rid of the first emotions this intelligence created’ meets Melville and they agree to elope that night. The plan is overheard by Spruce, who tells Sir James and Lady Juniper. They, in turn, stop Melville and Emily just as they are about to leave Margate in a chaise and four. But now for the happy ending: Captain Surat appears, and recognizes Melville as his nephew, the son of a Baronet, and he is also able to tell Sir James and Lady Juniper that Lord Random is an impostor. The young couple then ‘avowing their passion,’  Captain Surat agrees to give up any pretensions he had to Emily’s hand, and promises, if Sir James will agree to the marriage, to settle a large sum of money on the couple. Sir James and Lady Juniper agree, and the Opera ends. 

The opera was obviously a popular success, running during the summer season at the Haymarket until 1793,10 even though the critics were a bit sniffy. One reported on the opening night that the opera was ‘on the whole received with great applause, and promises, agreeable to the title, to be a pleasing Summer Amusement’.11 Another reported ‘if we cannot pronounce it the most brilliant production of its species, we may say it is equal to any that has been of late years exhibited’.12 The libretto was the joint work of Miles Peter Andrews and Augustus Miles, with an overture and some songs specially composed by Samuel Arnold, but with other songs borrowed from a variety of composers including Charles Dibdin and Thomas Arne.13 

As important for success as the music was the quality of the staging. Large theatres such as the Haymarket, Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres had large stages to be filled.  Small-scale productions were no longer sufficient – what was required was spectacle. Probably the greatest of the theatrical innovators was Philippe de Loutherbourg, who was born in Germany, but established his reputation as an artist in France before coming to London aged thirty one, in 1771.14 Loutherbourg continued his career as a painter in London but also started a new career as a stage designer, at Drury Lane. The most fundamental of the changes he introduced were in scenery and lighting.1 Instead of a simple scenic backdrop he used movable painted flats that could be set at various angles, introducing a much more realistic sense of perspective into the scene. And instead of just lighting the stage from the wings and the front of the stage, he distributed his lights to give patterns of light and shadow that heightened the atmosphere of a scene.

The scenery for Summer Amusements was not, in fact, produced by Loutherbourg but by Michael Rooker, a painter much influenced by Loutherbourg. Rooker was born in London in 1746, the son of the engraver and actor Edward Rooker. 4 He lived all his life in London, except for tours he took each summer to sketch in England and Wales. After many years as an oil painter and water colourist, he was appointed in 1779 to the position of scene-painter at the Haymarket theatre, a job with the no small advantage of a large and steady income. The scenery for Summer Amusements must have been one of his first jobs at the Haymarket, but Rooker had obviously found his métier. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser reported:12

The Manager had evidently spared no pains or cost to decorate the opera, and gave proof of a laudable emulation to bring the great talents of Mr. Rooker to publick view in a new light. Mr. Rooker has already acquired a vast fund of reputation as one of the first designers and engravers of the age, and he seems now determined to shew his abilities as a scene painter, in which he promises to gain a decided superiority over most of his competitors.

The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser agreed:15

The scenery of the new comic opera of the Adventure at Margate which are painted by Mr. Rooker, do great credit to that artist, who has hitherto been principally known as a masterly engraver of architectural views. The scenes entitle him to equal eminence as a scene painter; he having united great correctness in the drawing with the most spirited and delicate execution; as the production of a native artist, they merit particular attention.

The opening scene, the bathing houses, and the fort, have great merit; and the view of the assembly room, with the adjacent buildings in the square, was a striking stage picture, from the strong resemblance and pleasing effect.

Mr. Rooker has very properly adopted M. de Loutherbourgh’s manner of detaching the objects, so as to give as natural and distinct a relief to the perspective as the stage will admit of, and also to the manner of dispersing the lamps in the intervals, which admits of an imitation even of the sun’s mid glare; both of which have great advantages of the old methods of painting every kind of object on flat scenes, and illuminating them from the wings and the front of the stage.

The next time Margate was represented on the London stage was probably in John O’Keeffe’s Omai, or A Trip Round the World at Covent Garden, for which Loutherbourg was the chief designer. This remarkable spectacle was both a pantomime and a travelogue, based on Captain Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific; it was to be the most popular production of the decade. Omai or Omiah was a real person, a native of Tahiti, brought to London in July 1774 by Captain Furneaux, who had sailed to the Pacific with Captain Cook two years earlier.16 After two years living in London, and having met many of the most famous figures of London society, he returned to Tahiti on Cook’s third voyage. Accounts of this third voyage had been published in London in 1785, and O’Keeffe, looking for a suitable subject for the pantomime season in London following two bad years, decided on the story of Omai and Cook.

Pantomimes at the time contained little or no spoken dialogue; mimed scenes were accompanied by continuous music interspersed with songs and choruses. They generally lasted about an hour and were an ‘after-piece’ presented after the serious play of the evening. They followed the standard plot of Harlequin, in love with Columbine, being chased by her father Pantaloon, the couple escaping by various magical devices. A suitable story was then imposed onto this standard plot, in the case of Omai by having  Harlequin as Omai’s servant and Columbine as the maid to Londina, the heroine of the piece.17-20 The pantomime starts in Tahiti with Omai’s father praying to his ancestors for their help in making Omai king. They tell him that this will only come about if Omai marries Londina, the beautiful daughter of Britannia. To escape the spells of an evil Spaniard, Don Struttolando, who also wants to marry Londina, Omai and Londina are forced to flee to England, landing at Plymouth. After a series of events, they escape from England, setting sail from Margate pursued by Struttolando, in a ‘balloon boat,’ better known to us as a hot-air balloon, a recent invention.  In the second Act, Omai and Loudina are whisked across all the islands and continents visited by Captain Cook. They finally return to Tahiti and get married, Omai thus becoming king. A great procession of all the nations discovered by Captain Cook come onto the stage, singing Cook’s praises, and a huge painting of Cook being crowned by Britannia and Fame descends to bring the pantomime to a rousing end.

O’Keeffe was clear about what would attract the public. His advertisement stressed ‘The whole of the Pantomime, Scenery, Machinery &c. invented and designed by Mr Loutherbourg, and executed under his superintendence. The scenes painted by Mr Richards, Mr Carver, Mr Hodgings, Mr Catton, jun. and assistants. The words written by Mr O’Keeffe, and the Music composed by Mr Shield’.18 On the opening night of the pantomime, 13 December 1785, the play put on first was the tragedy ‘Jane Shore.’ As reported by the Morning Chronicle and London Advertise:19    

Though the Play was upon the whole far from ill-performed, the audience during its representation expressed great impatience for the Panto­mime, of which vague report had said enough, to raise very great expectation. At length the curtain drew up, and before it dropped, all present were convinced, that not a syllable too much had been said in favour of Omai. A spectacle abounding with such a variety of uncommonly beautiful scenery never before was seen from the stage of a theatre.

The Daily Universal Register was also impressed:1

The scenery is infinitely beyond any designs or paintings the stage has ever displayed. To the rational mind what can be more entertaining than to contemplate prospects of countries in their natural colourings and tints – To bring into living action, the customs and manners of distant nations! To see exact representations of their buildings, marine vessels, arms, manufactures, sacrifices, and dresses? These are the materials which form the grand spectacle before us – a spectacle the most magnificent that modern times has produced, and which must fully satisfy not only the mind of the philosopher, but the curiosity of every spectator.

loutherbourgh storm off Margate
Figure 3. Storm off Margate by P. J. de Loutherbourg from his The Picturesque and Romantic Scenery of England and Wales (1805).
Loutherbourg Margate from Parade 1808
Figure 4. Margate from the Parade by P. J. de Loutherbourg (1808).
Loutherbourg Arrival of Hoy 1808 Margate
Figure 5. Margate with the Arrival of the Hoy by P. J. de Loutherbourg (1808).

Loutherbourg was familiar enough with Margate to produce the advertised ‘exact representation.’ From the 1770s up until his death in 1812 he produced a wide range of topographical studies and other paintings. In 1805 he published a collection of engravings, The Picturesque and Romantic Scenery of England and Wales that include Storm off Margate (Figure 3).  In 1808, he published two aquatints, Margate from the Parade (Figure 4) and Margate with the Arrival of the Hoy (Figure 5). The Margate scene in Omai, a view from behind the Pier, came at the end of the first act. As described in The Public Advertiser:20  

The last scene of the first part is a view of Margate, where hand-bills are distributed, advertising English and French balloons, and a new flying ship invented by Signor Migromega. Two ships also appear under sail. Here the fugitives enter, and find­ing the ships gone, hire a sailing cutter to overtake the vessels, which vessels appear instantaneously. The father, mother, and Struttolando then arrive; and seeing Omai's cutter a-far off,  they engage  the  flying ships but perceiving it is too small to con­vey them all, they leave the old lady behind, and the clown is furnished  with a flying dress, and the parties appear hover­ing over the vessel of Omai.

The pantomime gave Loutherbourg plenty of opportunity for showing off his special effects, many of which he had developed in a miniature theatre he called the Eidophusikon; this had a box stage about the size of that in a puppet theatre.1 Here he demonstrated to the paying public a series of moving scenes created with a combination of lighting effects and mechanical devices. Clouds, moon or sun were painted in semi-transparent colours on strips of linen that were wound at varying speeds across the back flat. Model ships, of deceasing sizes to give a sense of perspective, were moved by a crank mechanism, with the ships at the front moving faster than those at the back, again to give the impression of perspective. Stained-glass filters and coloured fabrics placed in front of the lights produced the effects of changing daylight moving across the scene. Omai include amongst its effects ‘a moon that was reddened by pivoting screens, moving ships, a violent storm…[and]  a flying machine in the form of a fantastic balloon’.1 The moonlight scene at Margate was described as being ‘excellent,’  and also included ‘some cutters….working out to sea, and at length the ship in which Omai takes his passage, gets underway and disappears’.21 There was even time for a comic song sung by the owner of a Margate toyshop:17


Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, customers pop will ye
Into my neat little, sweet little shop, will ye?
Walk about, Ma’am, or sit down and chat a bit;
Miss, here’s the dice box, what think you of that a bit?
I don’t mean to gamble, or each other fleece,
You shall only put in five and threepence apiece;
This enamell’d gold watch, tick, goes true to a minute;
Those lily white fingers Miss, surely must win it,

Then, Ma’am, will you walk in and tol de rol diddle?
[Mimicking throwing the dice]
And, Sir, will you step in, and tol de rol diddle?
And, Miss, will you pop in and tol de rol diddle?
And, Master, pray hop in, and tol de rol diddle?

When prudish, to help out your sies, and your hushes, Miss,
What if you throw for a bottle of blushes, Miss.
Sal-Volatile when your lover gets ranting,
You’ll find, that to tip him a faint may be wanting;
Ma’am, a twee that won’t leave a grey hair in your brow;
Sir, a wise-book to read in, that’s ------- if you know how; [Aside]
Hall’s, Benson’s, and Silver’s. not saunter like drones about,
But all come to Austin’s, and here knock the bones about.

Then Ma’am, &c.

Ye Londoners who would fling sorrow and cash away,
Welcome to Margate, in Salt-water dash away,
Clean as a penny we’ll souse, sop, and pickle ye;
Out of your gold, neat as Brighton we’ll tickle ye,
Says spousey to deary, to Margate we’ll trip,
In the dog days, and give little Jacky a dip;
Tho’ here in the Dilly,  gay pleasure attend ye,
Yet back in the Hoy, poor as Job we’ll soon send ye,

Then Ma’am, &c.

How fast the technology of the stage was developing over these years was made clear by Dibdin’s pantomime Harlequin’s Tour; or The Dominion of Fancy, performed at The Haymarket in December 1800.22 The plot was traditional; ‘Harlequin, having a rival in love, which after the usual difficulties, he triumphs over, and obtains the hand of Columbine’,23 but what the punters came to see were, of course, the special effects.   The Lady’s Monthly Magazine reported that:24

 An air-built Palace of Fancy in the first scene, by Hollogan, and a Pavilion of the same Goddess at the conclu­sion, by Whitmore, are not surpassed by any thing of the kind that we have ever witnessed. The most prominent of the mechanical metamorphoses are, a doctor's shop-window into his chariot; a pair of lighted lamps into two Chinese giants; a milliner's house into a caravan of wild beasts; a military target into an emblem of the Union; two spruce-beer bottles into a mop and a pistol; a signpost into a house; a washing-tab into an old woman; and a chest of tea into a pump.

The pantomime boasted many topographical scenes, including scenes of Tunbridge, Scarborough, Ullswater Lake, Bath, Weymouth, and Margate. Those of Margate included ‘portraits of places painted from views taken on the spot, by the several artists’: Margate Pier, by Richards; Dandelion by Hollogan; and The Road from Margate to Tunbridge, also by      Hollogan.25 There was also time for a song by a Margate Hoy-Man: 25

Now's the season for laughter and jollity,
Crowding together all stations and quality,
Margate-a-hoy! as I merrily hollo t'ye,
All come aboard while the sea breezes blow.
Swift as the arrow from bow flies to target,
Or packet from dear little Dublin to Parkgate,
I'll waft ye all safely from London to Margate,
And whittle a wind as we cheerily go. [etc]

The demand for motion in topographical pictures led to the ‘moving Panoramas’ that appeared after about 1815.1 The Royal Coburg Theatre advertised a ‘grand moving Panorama, representing a Voyage by Steam from London to Margate’ in 1828.26 The moving panorama was probably just a cut-out ship being dragged across the stage while a painted scene rolled in the opposite direction behind the vessel to represent the voyage.1 A pantomime based on a steam-ship voyage presented many opportunities for moving scenes that could be combined with ‘mechanical metamorphoses.’ An unpublished and undated manuscript presents a plan for a pantomime based on the battle between rival steamship companies for the Margate trade in the 1830s.27 Harlequin and Colombine, Clown and Pantaloon are turned off the Margate packet, and the enraged Clown decides to start an opposition steam-ship service. He tows on a large coal barge, and, from a cart loaded with assorted ironmongery, takes a kitchen range and slipper bath to build the engine. He uses a pile of band boxes to form the chimney, and cartwheels from an old truck to form the paddles. He takes a board painted The Royal Adelaide Steam Packet Co. from a passing boy and fixes the board at the stern of the barge, writing at the bottom ‘Fare One Shilling.’ Lighting the fire in the kitchen range, ‘The Chimney smokes – the paddles work and off they go at full speed’.27 During the late 1820's a steam packet company, The Margate & London Steam Packet Com­pany, was formed with headquarters at Margate to break the monopoly of the existing companies. The service commenced in 1830 with the companies first vessel, William IV, followed by the Royal George, Royal Adelaide and Royal William. There is no record of the pantomime actually being staged.

As the years went by, Margate gradually disappeared from the London stage – views of Margate had lost their novelty with the coming of illustrated guide books and newspapers, and Margate had lost whatever cachet it might once have had as a fashionable resort.



1  Richard D. Altick,  The shows of London,  Harvard University Press, 1978.  

2 Thomas Malton, A picturesque tour through the cities of London and Westminster, illustrated with the most interesting views, London, 1792.

3  The Times, May 16 1799.

4  The Times,  January 1 1799.

5  Morning Herald, June 17 1799.

6  Oracle and Daily Advertiser, May 5 1800.

7  London Chronicle, July 1 1779.

8  General Evening Post, July 1 1779.

9  The Manchester and Liverpool Museum, Volume 1, 1779.

10  The Times, July 26 1793.  

11  London Evening Post, July 1 1779.

12  Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, July 2 1779.

13 Songs, Trios, Duets and Choruses in the Comic Opera of Summer Amusement; or An Adventure at Margate. As  it is performed at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket. Fourth Edition. Printed for T. Cadell, London, 1784

14 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

15 Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, July 5 1779.

16 Joppien Rudiger, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg‘s Pantomime Omai, or, a Trip Round the World and the artists of Captain Cook’s voyages,  in Captain Cook and the South Pacific, ed. T. C. Mitchell, Canberra, Australian National University Press,  pp 81-136, 1979.

17 O’Keeffe, A short account of the new pantomime called Omai or, A Trip round the World. Performed at the Theatre Royal, 1785

18  Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, December 16 1785.

19  Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, December 21 1785.

20  Public Advertiser, December 21 1785.

21 Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, December 22 1785

22 The Times, December 23 1800.

23 Monthly Visitor and New Family Magazine, January 1801.

24 Lady’s Monthly Magazine, February 1801.

25 B. Dibdin,  Songs, Chorusses, &c. in the new pantomime of Harlequin’s Tour; . . . as performed at the Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden, Published by J. Barker, London, 1800.

26 The Times, November 3 1828.  

27 Undated manuscript, authors collection.