Piracy in Paignton?

Allow me to introduce you to Arthur Dendy. No, not the towel-toting galactic traveller. That was Arthur Dent.  Arthur Hyde Dendy was the upright, uptight Birmingham barrister who transformed Paignton from a place famous for little more than growing cabbages into a flourishing seaside resort.  Arthur owned hotels, ran the local paper,  introduced a horse drawn bus service and built Paignton’s pier.

By 1879, Arthur would have been a contented man as he strolled along the pier he had built. It had opened in June and became an instant hit with tourists, many of whom took advantage of the boat trips Arthur operated or hired bathing machines from one of his other companies. Arthur’s pretty daughter Mary had married the son of a baronet in May, and they were already expecting his first grandchild.

Back in 1873, Arthur had built the town’s first theatre, the Royal Bijou. The theatre was small, no more than 50 seats but very luxurious and was said to be the venue for high class theatrical and other entertainments. No boisterousness or horseplay though. That was Torquay and Arthur would have none of it. His mantra was ‘Paignton prefers to be select, dignified and discreet’. Little did he know what was coming that December 1879.

Llewellyn Cadwaladr had little inkling that December either. He was just 22, a trained tenor and had been singing the role of Ralph Rackstraw in Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s Second Pinafore Company since August. They were a touring company and the current run in Torquay’s splendid Lyceum Theatre had been a success with both locals and visitors. It was while he was performing his duties in the second Pinafore company that a shocking message arrived from London. To his amazement, Llewellyn learned that he had been chosen to take the leading tenor role in the world premiere of a brand-new Gilbert and Sullivan production. One can easily imagine his delight at such a plum booking. A young and newly qualified singer getting the leading part in the latest blockbuster from the world’s most famous and successful theatrical writing duo.

There was, however, a snag. Well, several snags really. The world premiere of The Pirates of Penzance was to be in Paignton, not Torquay. Paignton had just one available theatre, Mr Dendy’s Royal Bijou. It held a mere 50 paying customers. There was to be only one performance. It was for no better reason than to establish the British copyright before the show was performed by the main company in glitzy, glamorous New York.  Poor Llewellyn would create the role of Frederic in front of fewer than 50 people on a December afternoon in the former cabbage town of Paignton. Llewellyn could be forgiven for feeling a bit crestfallen.

There was another problem. Mr D’Oyly Carte was most anxious that no one should be able to make pirate copies of the new opera. The cast were not to see the score or libretto until the very last minute. They could not rehearse the opera; they would take the scores onstage with them. Those scores would be hastily printed copies wired from London. There would be no scenery and they would wear their HMS Pinafore costumes. The show was set for Monday 29th December at 2pm.  By the morning of the 29th Llewellyn and the rest of the cast still had no word of what they were actually supposed to be performing. The wire service from London apparently finding the transmission of some 9,000 words and accompanying music score something of a challenge. The production was hastily re-scheduled for Tuesday 30th.


And they did it.  Dressed as sailors, sisters, cousins and aunts from HMS Pinafore with no scenery and holding the printed scores in their hands, the gallant crew of the second Pinafore company performed the first ever production of The Pirates of Penzance.  It has to be said that the theatre was not particularly full. That was hardly to be expected in Paignton in December, but those who attended were rather impressed. One unexpected member of the audience was Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister. He had been in Paignton visiting his long-time mistress who lived conveniently close in Roundham Road. By then “Dizzy” was an energetic 75 year old.

In those far off days, politicians used to tell parliament what they had been up to in their spare time and Disraeli accordingly reported his attendance – without of course mentioning Roundham Road. A back bencher, having not heard of Paignton, asked Dizzy where it was. There is nothing prime ministers like more than a soft question from a back bencher and Disraeli obliged with a fulsome answer in praise of the resort. In his detailed reply, the prime minister said he had won a penny and a coconut on the pier. He then announced an increase in income tax. An increase bringing the tax to nearly 2%…..

Arthur Dendy went on to build sports grounds in Paignton for archery, cycling and rugby.  He died in 1886 at the age of 65 leaving behind a splendid pier and much else still to be found in that town.

In 1880, his Paignton pier-head pavilion hosted a production of HMS Pinafore, re-titled ‘HMS Pinafore on the Water’, performed by the main D’Oyly Carte company.

Llewellyn never got to create a new role for Gilbert and Sullivan again though he went on to take leading roles in many revivals of their operas over the following 16 years.

He died in Chelsea in London at the age of 53. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Actors’ Acre in Brookwood Cemetery.