More Uproar: How the Caledonian Mercury Reported Mr Fennell’s Edinburgh Adventure in July 1788

As described in a previous post, Mr James Fennell was tormented by a mob of Edinburgh lawyers as he tried to work as an actor at the Theatre Royal during Mrs Siddon’s visit there in July 1788.

The events did not escape the notice of the Caledonian Mercury and its reports provide more details about Mr Fennell’s legal case and the conflicts that lead to him taking almost all of Edinburgh’s lawyers to court.

The newspaper was at first hesitant to report on the events that took place at the Theatre Royal when Mr Fennell took to the stage to perform. But on 17 July 1788, the paper could no longer ignore the scandal.


The unhappy disturbances which have taken place of Late at the Theatre, we purposely avoided taking any notice of, hoping they would have been amicably adjusted.

This was during the performance of Otway’s Venice Preserv’d where Fennell had been hissed and booed for taking the part that the audience thought should have been played by local favourite William Wood.

Monday night, when Mr Fennell came forward to speak the prologue to the tragedy of Julia, a more violent disturbance arose than before, several Gentlemen calling out, ‘Off! Off!’ while others cried Go on.’ …During the squabble, which was a very serious one, two or three Gentlemen in the pit were cut up on the head with sticks or bludgeons, and some others hurt.

On 19 July 1788, the paper offered some clarification about the letter that Fennell had received:

We are desired to inform the public from the best authority, that there was no letter sent to the Manager of the Theatre by the Dean and Faculty of Advocates, Writers to the Signet, &c. as mentioned in our last, by mistake. The letter referred to was subscribed by a very great number of Members of the College of Justice, along with other reputable individuals, requiring that Mr Fennel [sic] should either make a suitable apology to the public for the impropriety of his deportment, or be withdrawn.

The paper also printed Fennell’s resignation letter to the theatre’s manager, James Jackson on the 19th:

I now withdraw myself, regretting extremely that I am obliged to take a step so incompatible with your interest in this juncture, and so poignantly distressing to my own feelings…

But Fennell was not finished yet: he also revealed that he would publish his side of the story in ‘A Statement of fact.’ On 24 July 1788, the Caledonian Mercury printed an advertisement:

IN THE PRESS, An To-morrow will be published, price One shilling, A STATEMENT OF FACTS, Relative to, and occasional of the LATE DISTURBANCES AT THE THEATRE-ROYAL, EDINBURGH. By James Fennell. Printed and sold by John and James Anslies, booksellers, No. 4 St. Andrew’s Street, New Town, Edinburgh.

Fennell and his printers worked quickly. On 26 July 1788, Fennell’s ‘Statement’ was ready for purchase, ‘Just now published.’

With so many lawyers objecting it him, it was difficult Fennell to find someone to represent him in court. He took the unusual step of leaving a letter in the Lord President’s box in Parliament Hall requesting help. The Caledonian Mercury reported on 2 August 1788 that

…Mr Fennell having thought himself aggrieved by the proceedings of a number of Gentlemen of the Law meant to bring an action of damages against them; but having applied to several Gentlemen of that profession, they had all refused to accept his employment – He therefore craves the Court may appoint him counsel and an agent to carry on his suit.

Fennell was advised to apply by petition and the court, as the paper reported on 7 August 1788, agreed that he should have representation. Mr Alexander Abercrombie and Mr Charles Hope were appointed as counsel with Mr Robert Syme [sic], writer to the Signet, as his agent.

The Court of Session rose for the autumn vacation on 9 August 1788 so Fennell would have to wait to have his day in court. His continuing conflict with the lawyers will be continued in a future post.

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