Samuel Johnson c1830- 1900 A life from the grave by Jennie Bisset

At Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, in Surrey, is a large plot known as the Actors’ Acre. Within this plot is the family grave of one of the stalwarts of Henry Irving’s Lyceum Company, Samuel Johnson, an actor who had known Irving from the time of HI’s first appearance at Sunderland in 1856. Some of the details of Sam Johnson’s career can be pieced together from his entries in The Dramatic List and in Frederic Boase’s Modern English Biography. Both Coleman and Sir John Martin-Harvey mention him in their autobiographies. Now it is possible to uncover more of his personal life because he is buried within a family plot at Brookwood and the memorial stones and his informative will show his connection to a number of other theatrical personalities.

Born into a theatrical family, Sam’s physical type suited him to low comedy roles and he had a career spanning fifty-five years during which he was seldom out of work. In his youth he became a manager but when he had the responsibilities of a wife and children to support, he no longer took risks and often worked for many seasons at one theatre. He was a ‘canny’ Scot, a practical man, and a prominent mason but liked a drink and this eventually led to cirrhosis of the liver, which was the cause of his death in February 1900 at the age of sixty-nine.

Said to have been born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1830 – but see later comment on this – he was the son of Samuel Johnson, a well-known actor who, by the time of Sam’s birth, was manager of a theatrical circuit in the west of Scotland and the north or England. This elder Samuel had married Isabella Elliott at Annan, Dumfries on 30th December 1816. Their son Sam was one of at least seven children, his brothers William and John also being actors and his sisters Barbara and Lizzie actresses. John, the youngest of the boys, also became well known as a scene painter.

Little is known about the elder Samuel Johnson but in 1818 he and his wife were with Corbet Ryder’s company, based on the Aberdeen circuit. Peter Baxter, author of The Drama in Perth, thought him to be the best Toni Lumpkin of that time. He played many leading roles with Ryder’s company and was probably the ‘Mr. Johnson’ who played at the Theatre Royal Dublin in the spring of 1821. 

With a growing family, Johnson senior returned to Scotland to manage the Ayr and Paisley circuit where he was known as ‘Honest Sam Johnson.’ His children were baptised in Wigtown, Inverary, Kilmarnock, Dalry and Campbeltown, which gives some indication of the extent of the circuit. In 1837 Johnson senior died, leaving his widow Isabella with at least five children to support. Sam was seven years old and the youngest, Lizzie, only three. The eldest son, William Munro Johnson, was already an actor.

Aged fourteen Sam made probably his first appearance on the stage, at Maryport, Cumberland, as Bartolo in The Wife and appeared at other theatres on this circuit with his elder sister Barbara. In 1845 he went to Belfast and joined Cunningham’s company at the Theatre Royal with his two sisters. This was an important season for him as he made at least two good contacts in this company, Sidney Davis, whose brother later ran the Newcastle and Sunderland theatres and John W. Anson, whose charitable work made him one of the best-known characters in nineteenth century theatrical circles. In the summer break of 1846 Sidney Davis took the theatre at Londonderry and the Johnson trio and Anson appeared with him. On 27th December 1846 Sam’s sister Barbara married Anson in Belfast. The family now formed the nucleus of a company and they only needed a leading man. Sidney Davis agreed to join them and together with Mr. Martin, another of the Belfast actors, they all returned to Scotland.

By May 1847, Anson teamed up with Mr. Mark and as joint managers, they took the theatres of the Perth circuit, arriving in the same week that the Perth to Dundee Railway was opened, an event that caused great local excitement. As they played for several weeks in each town, the little company had in their repertoire a minimum of twenty to thirty plays and farces so that they could change the programme every night in order to attract the small local audience to several performances in a week. They received good reviews from the local papers and Anson made sure that the best of these were sent to London for publication inThe Theatrical Times.

Barbara Anson appeared in all the leading female roles, while Anson and Sam shared the low comedy parts in an endless stream of farces. The veteran Charles Mackay, who had played in Rob Roy with Sam’s father almost thirty years before in Perth, joined them for some ‘farewell’ performances as the Baillie. There was a family connection to the real Rob Roy as Anson’s uncle, Thomas Wisdom, had married Rob’s great, great grand-daughter Margaret Brown in 1827.

The company stayed in Perth during June and July 1847, giving performances in Dundee and then moved on to St Andrews and Arbroath with Anson as sole manager. Their reviews refer to the good behaviour of the company and they gave Benefits for local charity. Two years later Sam was still with them and may have been managing half the company when they were needed in two towns on a circuit at the same time.

In summer 1850 Anson took over the Inverness circuit while Sam went south to theatres in Lancashire and Yorkshire. By Easter 1853 the Ansons, with a growing family moved to London and a more stable existence at Astley’s Amphitheatre, where they both played in the dramatic company, which shared the theatre with William Cooke’s circus.

In summer 1853, John Coleman, who was running the theatre at Stockport, wired to Sheffield for Sam to assist him. They became partners in management and Sam, age twenty-three, formulated a scheme for opening the theatre for just three nights a week. After replacing some of the company with actors from Manchester and Liverpool, they managed to clear nearly a hundred pounds within a month. Sam then proposed that they should take the theatre at Oldham. They advertised for actors and received over two thousand applications! Sydney Davis was engaged for second business but the season failed and they had to put up the notice. The company offered their services for a further month, content to take whatever they could earn. At the suggestion of Davis and Sam, Coleman quickly adapted a version of Speed the Plough that proved to be a success. In October they heard that Charles Dillon had quarreled with the proprietors of the Theatre Royal, Sheffield, so they applied for the lease of that theatre. With barely a fortnight to prepare for the opening, the theatre was entirely redecorated by their indefatigable scene-painters, Sam’s brother John Johnson and George Ball, the brother of Lewis and Meredith Ball. They painted a beautiful act drop and new scenery and appointments for The Hunchback and Money. With a company of more than thirty, they played Sardanapalus, a copy of Charles Kean’s production, which ran for a fortnight. Having to compete against the company at the rival theatre, the Adelphi, first under Charles Dillon then G. V. Brooke, they needed something unusual to attract the public. They decided to produce Slavery, a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Coleman, which proved to be a huge success and ran for forty nights, at that time considered an extraordinary ‘run’ for anything but a pantomime. Sam played the fighting Quaker who has to hurl the ruffian slave driver into the abyss.

Several of the leading players of the day joined their company for short starring engagements. On 15th May 1854 Charlotte Cushman was due to play her great part of Meg Merrilies. Coleman was in Bradford and missed the train back. Sam received a telegram telling him he must play Coleman’s part of Dandie Dinmont but Miss Cushman did not arrive and, after the farce and the first act of Guy Mannering had been played, Sam had to give everyone in the audience their money back. Miss Cushman turned up next day to play, having made a mistake in the date.

Their first season closed on 19th May and they took the Bolton theatre but it was not a success. They went to Cambridge in the autumn and opened their second season at Sheffield in October 1854. In December, Coleman and Johnson took Thomas Youdan, of the Music Hall, to court because he had produced The Battle of the Alma as a play, which his licence did not allow. They won their case and announced that their damages would be given to the Infirmary, whereupon Youdan promised a comparable amount plus a Benefit. The judge referred to the case as All’s Well That Ends Well!

At the end of this 1855 season, Sam was ‘dangerously ill’ according to Coleman and retired from their partnership and management. Perhaps the financial insecurity of management was too much for his Scottish nature. Regaining his health, he accepted an engagement at the Lyceum, Sunderland with E. D. Davis. The brother of his friend Sidney Davis, opening as Touchstone in As You Like It. In December 1855 the Sunderland theatre was destroyed by fire and the company moved to the Theatre Royal, Newcastle for the eight months necessary for rebuilding. The New Royal Lyceum, Sunderland re-opened on 29th September 1856. The eighteen-year-old Henry Irving made his first appearance on the professional stage in this company. Whilst Sam played the Governor in Richelieu and Achmet in The Enchanted Lake, a piece by John Forster Baird, who was later to become the father of HI‘s daughter-in-law, Dorothea Baird, HI played Gaston, Duke of Orleans in Richelieu and had the play’s opening line, ‘Here’s to our enterprise!’ which the Irving Society has adopted as its slogan. In The Enchanted Lake HI played a cook.

There is an impression that there was a considerable difference in the ages of Sam and HI. Laurence Irving writes in his biography that Sam Johnson and Tom Mead were ‘two old veterans’ and ‘gnarled old actors’ but Sam, at twenty-six was, in fact, only eight years older than Irving, although he had been on the stage for twelve years.    

When the inexperienced Irving had stage fright and was unable to speak during The Winter’s Tale he finally blurted out ‘Come to the market-place and I will tell you further!’ and was hissed off the stage. Sam, Tom Mead, the manager Davis and his son Alfred, who was the Stage Manager, tried to help with practical advice to restore Irving’s shattered confidence. He was deeply grateful to them all and twenty-eight years later gave Sam, Tom and Alfred constant work in his own Lyceum Company.

Sam stayed with Davis for the whole of 1857. On 13th December his sister Barbara Anson succumbed to tuberculosis and was one of the first to be buried in the Actors’ Acre at the London Necropolis Cemetery at Woking in Surrey. Her husband. J. W. Anson had started the successful Dramatic, Equestrian and Musical Sick Fund Association and the Actors’ Acre was to become the burial ground for the members of this Fund and their families.

There were happier times for the Johnsons the following year when both Sam and his younger sister were married – Lizzie to a musician, John Davies, in London and Sam on 10th July 1858 to Mary Ann Hornby at Marske-by-the-Sea, near Redcar in Yorkshire. It is not clear whether Mary Ann was an actress.

In 1859 Sam and Mary Ann moved to London and a son Samuel Forster Johnson was born on 27th April at 8, Bishop’s Walk, Lambeth. This was the Ansons’ old home and probably his brother-in-law, J. W. Anson, was still living there with his three young sons. Sam made his London stage debut at a Savage Club performance at the Lyceum as Cassim Baba in The Forty Thieves. He then joined the company at Astley’s Amphitheatre and appeared in plays and farces until William Cooke retired from management in February 1860. About this time, Sam became a publican at 15, Brydges Street. Covent Garden, managing the Sir John Falstaff. In the 1860 Kelly’s Directory the licensee is George Collins, so Sam may have run it for a few months only. Anson was now living a minute away in Tavistock Street and his Fund Office was in Bow Street. On 26th March 1860 Sam and Mary Ann’s baby son died of acute bronchitis aged eleven months and was buried in the family plot at Brookwood, near his aunt. Barbara Anson. On the baby’s death certificate Sam is described as a Licensed Victualler and Comedian.

In the following autumn Sam and Mary Ann went to Edinburgh where, for the next three seasons, he played low comedy and many Scotch roles such as Baillie Nicol Jarvie, Dumbiedikes and Jock Howieson in The King and the Miller. On 20th March 1861, to their great joy, their daughter Isabella Elizabeth was born. She was to remain their only child. In April 1862 Sam was running the New Theatre Royal at St Helen’ s and The Era reported that ‘… this pretty Theatre (under the management of Messrs. Johnson and Francis) has proved a decided success’.

On Boxing Day 1862 the family returned to London when Sam accepted a six-month engagement at the St James’s Theatre for Frank Mathews. He opened in The Carte de Visite and played Spilliken in Goldenhair The Good, H.J. Byron’s ‘fairy tale.’  In the last new play of the season Sam was Leontes in a burlesquePerdita by William Brough, the title role being played by the young Marie Wilton, later to become Lady Bancroft.

In 1864, there were further deaths in the family. In March Sam’s sister Lizzie died. In May, when he was playing a week in Dundee, he received news that his brother John’s wife Mary had died in London, leaving John with six small children. Both were buried at Brookwood in the Actors’ Acre.

Sam embarked on a ten-year engagement with John Harris in the stock company at the Theatre Royal, Dublin. In the 1860s Dublin had regular visitors like the Mathews, Sothern, Toole, Mr. and Mrs. Hermann Vezin and Buckstone’s Haymarket Company, together with Irish favourite including the Boucicaults, Barry Sullivan and John Collins. Sam played in scores of farces over his ten-year period here with, on occasion, as many as three a night being played besides the main piece. The seasons normally opened in August and continued until the end of May. He would then visit towns in the south of Ireland, adding more characters to his repertoire such as the Boucicault roles of Myles-na-Coppaleen, Shaun the Post and Conn the Shaughraun. During this time in Ireland he became a Mason.  For more than half his time in Dublin, William Rignold was also in the company and they became firm friends. Rignold was eventually an executor of Sam’s will.  In Downey’s  Twenty Years Ago (1905), there is a paragraph about the two friends;

‘I have a vivid memory of Johnson when he was a leading Member of the Royal Company.  In the late ‘Sixties and early ‘Seventies he used to bring a ‘carefully selected’ portion of it in the summer time to my native Wexford. William Rignold introduced me one day in the Strand to old Sam. After some desultory talk I happened to say “It’s rather an odd thing; the first time I ever went to a theatre you two men played the principal parts.” “Is that so?” said Rignold. “Where, or when was it?”  In Waterford,” said I. “I as probably about ten years of age at the time. It was in The Colleen Bawn. “You” – addressing myself to Rignold – “played Danny Mann, and you” – turning to Johnson,- “played Myles-na-Coppaleen”. “I assure you, sir,” said Johnson, “that I want none of your damned reminiscences!” He hurled me a dramatic scowl, turned on his heel, and, just like Box (or was it Cox?) walked off in the opposite direction. Rignold burst into a roar of laughter. “I quite forgot to warn you,” he said, “that Sam is fearfully touchy about his age. He will live in terror of your dragging up some further recollections of your childhood. Try him next time with something which will put your grandfather and him into direct collision, and watch how he will take it.”’

The records of the International Genealogical Index (I.G.I.) show the only Samuel Johnson born to Samuel Johnson and Isabella née Elliott to have been baptised a full ten years before Sam’s reputed birth. Is it possible that he was really ten years older than he ever admitted? The descriptions of him as ‘gnarled’ when he first joined HI at the Lyceum would make more sense if this were the case. The only possible alternative is that there has been a misreading of original sources for the I. G.I.. It is a mystery.

Sam was in Dublin at the time Bram Stoker became a student at Trinity College, so Stoker may have seen him play dozens of roles, such as Zekiel Homespun, Dr. Ollapod. Bob Acres, Touchstone, Dogberry and female roles in burlesques and pantomimes.

His first appearance in Dublin took place on 10th October 1864 as the Gravedigger in Hamlet with Walter Montgomery. The following month he created the role of M’Nally in Arrah na Pogue that had its world premiere on 7th November with the Boucicaults, John Brougham and Sam Emery in the cast. When the curtain rose on the first scene, ‘such a Niagara of applause’ was heard that first Mr. Lloyd the scene painter came on stage to take a bow and then Mr. Harris the manager reluctantly appeared after ‘a protracted tumult.’ to receive the plaudits of the house. The play then proceeded. It was a huge success and ran for a month with a further week after performances of The Colleen Bawn.

In 1866 when she was five, Sam’s daughter Isa played her first speaking part as the Duke of York in Richard III, and from that time on played all the children’s parts in the plays. Her parents would not let her go on tour with Mdlle. Beatrice when she successfully played the Dauphin in the production of Marie Antoinette, as ‘they would not be parted from their only child.’ Mdlle. Beatrice and her company were regular visitors to Dublin.

In May 1871 HI visited the Theatre Royal with Two Roses. Bram Stoker began writing theatrical reviews at the end of the year for The Dublin Mail so Sam would have become acquainted with him.

On 28th January 1873 Sam’s mother Isabella died at 9, Hanover Street, Newington and was buried at Brookwood. In the following year Harris retired as manager of the Theatre Royal, Dublin and Sam moved to Mr. Warden’s company in Belfast, where he was both actor and Stage Manager. He remained with this company for four years with visits to Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he appeared in a series of old comedies. He and Isa were mainstays of the annual Easter pantomimes.

5th August 1878 saw Sam back in London appearing at the Lyceum in Mary Warner, as Sergeant Tollit, a sergeant of police. This was billed as Sam’s first appearance at the Lyceum. Mrs. Bateman was about to relinquish the theatre to Henry Irving and this play, starring her daughter Kate Bateman (Mrs. Crowe), was one of the last under her management. The play had been written for Kate Bateman by Tom Taylor and had not been seen in London for eight years. Sam’s friends Alfred Davis and Edward Lyons (son of E. D. Lyons the late Dundee manager) were in the company, together with John Billington, James Fernandez and Arthur Pinero.

Sam was 48 years old when, in December he was invited by HI to join the new Lyceum Company. He stayed with HI for twenty-one years and went to America on five of the Lyceum tours. He played in twenty-three productions. Many of the parts were small but Martin Harvey describes him as the acknowledged Shakespearean clown of his day and his Launcelot Gobbo, Dogberry and Gravedigger in Hamlet reflect this. He played Mr. Wardle in Jingle, Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, Samson Rawbold in The Iron Chest, Farmer Flamborough in Olivia, when Hermann Vezin played Dr. Primrose, and was a memorable Jock Howieson inThe King and the Miller. He played Choppard in The Lyons Mail and Martin Harvey mentions the ‘miraculous’ James Pryde portrait of HI as Dubosc in which Sam is seen in the background kneeling over the iron chest that the robbers have stolen from the Lyons Mail. He still played in the farces High Life Below Stairs, Raising the Wind and Boarding School and had roles in The Corsican Brothers, Eugene Aram, Louis XI, Faust and The Bells. His daughter Isa played Annette in The Bells for a few performances and went on one of the Lyceum provincial tours.

After the first American tour Sam’s wife Mary Ann died and in February 1881 his brother-in-law John Anson, who had been instrumental in setting up the Royal Dramatic College as the first home for retired actors, also died. Both were buried in the family plot at Brookwood.

HI had set up the Lyceum Provident and Benevolent Fund within a few weeks of his becoming Manager of the Theatre. For the small sum of sixpence a week the Fund paid its members two pounds per week during sickness and provided funeral expenses. Pinero was the first Secretary of the Fund and both Sam and William Terriss were subsequent Secretaries. At the fourth Annual Supper in April 1881 HI was in the chair and Sam gave the financial statement. He took the opportunity to complain that, though a member of the Lyceum Company, he had not appeared since Christmas and it was about time that he did! In 1886 Sam joined the Masonic Lodge of Asaph and he later became Senior Warden and then Worshipful Master.

One-off matinee star benefits at a variety of London theatres occasionally provided an opportunity, eagerly seized by Sam, to appear in new roles.

After five tours of America, the last three plays that Sam was in for HI were Madame Sans-Gêne, Peter the Great, and Robespierre. His old friend John Coleman, having become manager of Drury Lane, invited Sam to play Hannibal Legendre in The Kiss of Delilah, which unfortunately was a disastrous flop and only ran for two performances in November 1896. On 16th February 1899 he played Mr. Stryver in The Only Way, once again at the Lyceum but this time with John Martin-Harvey making his debut as a manager. Martin-Harvey had been with HI playing small parts for fourteen years and followed his Chief’s example by employing actors with whom he had worked in the past.

Sam was not in the best of health and decided not to go to America on the sixth tour. He played instead at the Haymarket in his last role as Meester van Speenen in The Black Tulip, with Cyril Maude and Winifred Emery. This production had seventy-seven performances and closed on 6th January 1900. By this time Sam was ill and on 15th February he died at 29, Weltje Road, Hammersmith. He was buried at Brookwood in the family grave in the Actors’ Acre. His brother John and actors representing the following bodies attended his funeral – Asaph Lodge, Logic Club, Genesius Club, Actors’ Association, Lyceum Fund and the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. It was otherwise sparsely attended as HI and the company was all in America.

His daughter, Isa Johnson, had a long career in the theatre and died a few weeks after her eightieth birthday in April 1941. She too was buried in the family grave. There are twenty-four members of the Johnson and Anson families resting in this family plot and at least five hundred and fifty five others connected with the stage in the Actors’ Acre, including John Coleman and his wife, Alfred and Janet Davis and several other minor members of HI’ s company.

Thanks to the fact that so many of the family are buried together it has been possible to piece together to some extent the varied life and career of someone who to most of us has previously been only a name on a Lyceum programme – Mr. S. Johnson.   

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