Philip Thicknesse: Making enemies out of friends

Clare Hawes as Ann Thicknesse, Richard Blaine as Philip Thicknesse Photo: John Temperton

Clare Hawes as Ann Thicknesse, Richard Blaine as Philip Thicknesse Photo: John Temperton - Credit: Archant

Philip Thicknesse was a soldier, traveller, writer and thinker. He was also a man who had a knack of making enemies. Arts editor Andrew Clarke speaks to writer Peppy Barlow about a new play about this unlikely East Anglian hero

Re-enacters will be part of the new site-specific drama Philip Thicknesse: Friend or Foe?

Re-enacters will be part of the new site-specific drama Philip Thicknesse: Friend or Foe? - Credit: Archant

Landguard Fort has stood guarding the Orwell estuary, protecting East Anglia, and the trade routes to the heart of England since the time of Henry VIII.

It has been rebuilt and refortified many times over the years and has seen its fair share of military service. But, it’s moment of glory came when it successfully stood firm against a Dutch invasion force on July 2 1667. The battle, the last fought on British soil, was designed to clear the way for an attack on the Royal Navy anchored in Harwich harbour but because the garrison under the command of the fort’s most famous commander Nathaniel Darrell managed to stop the Dutch force in its tracks the assault on the Britain and its navy was abandoned.

As a result of this historic victory Captain Darrell is by far the most famous commander of the historic coastal gun emplacement but playwrights Peppy Barlow and Sally Wilden are looking to introduce us to another officer at Landguard who arguably had a bigger impact upon the lives of those people charged with defending our coast.

Captain Philip Thicknesse was a larger-than-life character who was loved by his men but made an enemy of virtually everyone in authority. A close friend of the artist Thomas Gainsborough, he was something of a Renaissance man, enjoying travelling and writing for The Gentleman magazine. He also published a book exposing the workings of the chess-playing automaton The Turk which was all the rage at the time.

Steve Gallant as The Sergeant. He will also be playing the Jailor and a soldier in Act 2.

Steve Gallant as The Sergeant. He will also be playing the Jailor and a soldier in Act 2. - Credit: Archant

He was lieutenant governor of Landguard Fort from 1753-66 and won the absolute loyalty of his men by opposing the use of corporal punishment which he regarded as barbaric. Unfortunately, he also made a lot of high-powered enemies as he was no respecter of rank.

He was married three times and enjoyed a wild romantic life. In 1742 he eloped with Maria Lanove, a wealthy heiress, after he abducted her from a street in Southampton. The pair took up residence in Bath and buried themselves in the social whirl of the town. In 1749 Maria and his three children contracted diphtheria. She and two children died, leaving only a daughter, Anna. When Maria’s parents died (his mother-in-law committing suicide), he spent much time trying to claim their fortune.

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Thicknesse then married Lady Elizabeth Tuchet on May 10 1749. They had a son George, who later became 19th Baron Audley. Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1762 and Thicknesse, wasting no time, married his late wife’s companion, Anne Ford, before the year was out. Ann was a gifted musician with a beautiful voice, spoke five languages, and like her husband was headstrong, defying her father to become a professional actress. The couple spent a lot of time travelling in Europe.

Peppy Barlow and Sally Wilden, two experienced playwrights, have teamed up to create an outdoor theatrical performance at Landguard Fort to explore the life of this extraordinary man. The production, directed by Anna Birch, who specialises in site-specific productions, will combine the talents of four professionals actors, Felixstowe school children who have developed crowd scenes, Felixstowe Community Choir and Landguard’s own group of historical re-enactors.

“It’s very much a community project and arose out of a previous project I did at the fort for the Felixstowe Book Festival,” said Peppy. “Our aim is to provide a better perspective on a man who should be better known as an important figure in Felixstowe’s and Suffolk’s history.

“If you look at a lot of the written work on Thicknesse, he comes across as a terrible man because these accounts have been written by his enemies but if you look at his life and what he wrote, he is a fascinating man, with some thoughtful opinions. Unfortunately, for him, he tended to be very rude to anyone who thought they were his superior.”

She said that because he was a prolific, very opinionated pamphleteer, he quickly became a much vilified, public figure and satirists like James Gilray did cartoons of him. “He had this long running fight with Lord Orwell, who was commander of the troops in the fort and another set at Ipswich, and he refused to accept Lord Orwell’s authority when he wanted to replace the troops and it landed him in jail, which Thicknesse loved because it made him like the ordinary man.”

Philip Thicknesse: Friend or Foe, by Woven Theatre Company, is at Landguard Fort from September 28 to October 1. Tickets are available from or 01473 211492.

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