Walking Gent in Cambridge Stock

by Brien Chitty.

FIRST KNIGHT – newsletter (subsequently Journal) of The Irving Society
Vol. 1 No 2 December 1997


The Theatre Royal, Cambridge(i) in the 19th century, akin to the theatre in the rival University town of Oxford, only opened in late summer through to the early autumn for professional entertainment. This was determined by the faculty to prevent students being corrupted by the influence of theatre. These summer seasons provided employment for actors working in Stock Company(ii) in the major cities, when their resident theatre closed for a recess in the summer. Such was the situation in 1862 at the Theatre Royal, Manchester* where Irving worked between 1860 and 1865. Much of what he did in the summer during his apprenticeship years between 1857 and 1865 has been identified.(iii). One exception was in 1862, by which time Irving was graduating from Utility to Walking Gentleman and sometimes Juvenile in the ranking of acting experience.(iv)

Lying unrecorded in the Local Studies at Cambridge Library(v) are playbills for the Theatre Royal, covering many years of the 19th century. Examination of these has revealed that Irving appeared in Cambridge in 1862 for four weeks, with other members of the Man-chester Stock Company. The practice was for the stock actors to support visiting stars. It was probably on the initiative of Clifford Cooper(vi) who had a nose for management, that the work was found and Irving could count on a camaraderie that included himself since not everyone from Manchester was invited to join them.

The Season opened with the first appearance in Cambridge of “the celebrated Irish comedian Mr. Dominick Murray(vii) and Miss Josephine Fiddes,” his wife. Both “engaged for a limited period.” They were supported by the following “favorite(sic) and established artistes from the Theatres Royal Manchester, Dublin and Drury Lane; Mr. G.F. Sinclair, Mr. Irving, Mr. Clifford Cooper, Mr. Henry Thompson, and Mrs Burkenshaw, together “with OLD FAVOURITES of this theatre”. The “old favourites” were not listed on the opening playbill, but some of them were listed in the press advertisement. These included “Mr. G. Fisher, Mr. Morelli, Miss Jane Fisher, Miss Stuart etc etc”. There was no mention of Nelly Moore, who appeared, and who was to be linked closely with Irving in the future.(viii)

The first piece was “Rory O’More”(ix), which introduced the two stars. They were supported by “the company of a first-class character, numerous and efficient….. Mr. Thompson, a very excellent low comedian, Mr. Morelli also a capital comedian. Mr. Henry Irving well sustained his character (De Lacy), as did Mr. Fisher.” This bill was replaced a week later by an adaptation by Miss Fiddes, of Wilkie Collins, “A Woman in White”, with the actress playing the title role. The critic was scathing of the dramatisation, “….. there were no link between events…..to those who had not read the novel it was unintelligible.” He was also critical of the casting, castigating Fiddes for playing a part for which she was quite unsuited. The rest of the cast were complimented, ” Mr Murray sustained Old Fairlie in a first rate style, while Mr. Irving did not make a bad Hartwright.(sic) The character most ably sustained , was that of Fosco, a scheming, cold blooded villain, by Mr. Sinclair. … At the conclusion Mr. Irving, Miss Steuart(sic), and Miss Fiddes were called before the curtain…”(x). The press were very careless with their spelling of actors’ names.

Mr. Murray and Miss Fiddes left after two weeks. The Manchester actors stayed to support the tragedian G.V. Brooke(xi) for a week, September 8th to 13th. He appeared on Monday night, ‘in his great character of Othello’…. ‘Mr. Sinclair was a most excellent Iago. Mr. Henry Irving did not make a bad Cassio’. On Tuesday was performed, A New Way To Pay Old Debts. ‘Mr. Brooke enacting Sir Giles Overreach. We have never seen this arduous character more admirably pourtrayed. (sic) Mr. Thompson was a true Justice Greedy and Mr. Fisher was excellent as Marall; Mr Henry Irving was not the Wellborn we like to see(xii) Mr. Sinclair as Lord Lovel was good………’ The critic went on to praise other members of the cast adding, ‘This has been a great week for the Cambridge Theatre. Mr. G.V. Brooke is one of the most accomplished actors of the day. Why the theatre has not been better attended is hardly worth while to dwell upon….‘

The final week for the stock actors was with “The Great American Sensation Actress”, – Miss Helen Western,(xiii) making her first appearance in England. Her repertoire included a new drama, Three Fast Men, in which ‘Miss Western will sustain nine different characters.’ By the end of the week she was acclaimed as being young and beautiful as well as a sensation!

After eulogising over the actress to great lengths the press added, ‘As to the other characters, the three fast men were admirably done by Mr. H Irving – a good actor, though his legs are inconveniently long – as Harry Jordan, Mr. Clifford Cooper as George Middleton, and the favourite, Mr. H. Thompson, as Jerry Blossom. …… when the curtain fell our Ameri-can cousin, came before the curtain in company with Mr. Irving’.

Western only appeared for 5 nights. On Saturday 20th September a member of the Manchester Stock, Henry Thompson, the low comedian, who must have made an impress-sion on the Cambridge audience, gave a Benefit performance.(xiv) Announcing, ‘with much regret’, that he must make his last appearance, ‘Being engaged to appear at the Theatre Royal Manchester(xv) next week.’ When he left Cambridge the rest of the actors from Manchester went along with him, no doubt also engaged to appear for another season in Manchester.

The plays performed at Cambridge(xvi) for the four weeks involving the Manchester players, identifies five parts that Irving did not perform elsewhere during the period of his provincial apprenticeship. These five original roles are in bold, and underlined.

Date/Play Part played by Irving
MURRAY AND FIDDES – 25th August – 6th September
Mon Aug 25
Rory O’More De LACY
Tue Aug 25(sic)
Rory O’More De LACY
Wed Aug 27
Thu  Aug 28
Fri Aug 29
Sat Aug 30
Rory O’More De LACY
The Maid with The Milking Pale ALGERNON
Mon Sep  1
Tue Sep  2
The Serious Family CHARLES TORRENS
Wed Sep  3
Thu Sep  4
Fri Sep  5
Sat Sep  6
The Gt Tragedian – G.V. BROOKE – 8th – 13th September
Mon Sep 8
Othello CASSIO
The Rendezvous CAPT. BOLDING
Tue Sep  9
A New Way To Pay Old Debts WELLBORN
Mr. & Mrs. White. FRANK BROWN
Wed Sep 10
Merchant of Venice BASSANIO
The Boots at the Lion FRANK FRISKLY
Thu Sep 11
The Honeymoon ROLAND
His Last Legs CHARLES
Fri Sep 12
Sat Sep 13 (Last Night of Brooke.)
The Irish Post GEORGE LANE
The Great American Sensation Actress MISS HELEN WESTERN  15th-19th September
Mon Sep 15
Flowers of the Forest ALFRED
Mr & Mrs White FRANK BROWN
Wed Sep 17
The Three Fast Men HARRY JORDAN
Thu Sep 18
The Three Fast Men HARRY JORDAN
Fri Sep 19 (Last night with Helen Western)
The Three Fast Men HARRY JORDAN
Sat Sep 20 Benefit for Harry Thompson


END NOTES. Reference sources in parenthesis

i) Cambridge Theatre Royal still stands today, a rare survival of Regency Theatre (Circa 1814.) By 1878 it had become a mission hall. In 1926 it had the proscenium removed in an effort to breath new life into the old building as an open stage theatre. Re-opening as the Festival Theatre the innovation was not entirely successful. The premises were owned by the Cambridge Arts Theatre Trust for many years until in 2000 it was purchased by the Windfall Trust a charitable arm of the Western Order of Buddhism. It is unlikely now to return to full time theatre use. A similar theatre restored in 1965 and in full use, is the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds circa1819. (Guide to British Theatre )

ii) Stock Company was a name given to a troupe of players in the nineteenth century, attached to a particular theatre and operating on a true repertory basis with a frequent change of attraction. Popular plays were regularly revived. It was the only training ground for actors then and was a pretty raw experience, not having the discipline of weekly rep. that provided so much work for actors of the early 20thC, before TV soaps came along. The stock players invariably supported visiting “star” actors. The demise of stock came about with improved railway transport, which by 1880 allowed London Companies to visit the provinces. It was the commercialism of these touring companies that lead to the birth of the Repertory Movement at the beginning of the 20th C creating the post of Artistic Director or Producer, to develop ensemble playing and encourage new writing. (Brewer’s Theatre Dictionary)

iii) Identified; 1863 Buxton Ball-Room Reading; The Lady of Lyons. Princess’s Theatre London; John Mildmay in Still Waters Run Deep. 1864 Oxford Theatre Royal Summer Season. 1865 Oxford and Bury. (Playbills).

iv) Ranking of acting experience; Tragedian, low comedian, juvenile lead, juvenile tragedian, old man, old woman, heavy father or heavy lead, heavy woman, walking lady, walking gentleman, general utility or utility, supernumerary or super. (Brewer’s Theatre a Phrase and Fable Dictionary)

v) Cambridge Library. I am extremely grateful to all the help I had from the staff, whilst researching, and for permission to quote from newspapers held there on micro-film.

vi) Clifford Cooper was one of several actors that helped Irving in his apprentice years. He joined the company at Manchester the same year as Irving and was to remain there for twelve years. He ventured into management, in particular running the summer theatre at Oxford. Irving never forgot anyone that helped him in those early years and Cooper as well as Mead, Johnson and Davies was employed at the Lyceum. (Pascoe’s Dramatic List/Playbills/programmes)

vii) Dominick Murray was well established by the time he visited Cambridge on his “Star” tour of the UK. He subsequently spent several years at the Princess’s Theatre London, originating parts in new plays by Boucicault. He went to the USA in 1867 and was so successful remained there. He eventually retired near Montreal. (Histrionic Montreal)The date of his death has not been identified but his wife, Josephine Fiddes, died in 1923 aged 85. (Obit. entry in Who’s Who In The Theatre.)

viii) Nelly Moore (1845-69) Her short life was linked to that of Irving’s from about 1863, when she joined the Manchester stock company, and became the “first romance” in the actor’s life. (Laurence Irving – Henry Irving The Actor & His World) It would appear that LI presume the relationship on false premise, from photographs found pasted back to back in Irving’s wallet after he died. See, “The Thalberg Mystery”, in First Knight. Vol. I No. 1.)

ix) Rory O’Moore – an adaptation by Samuel Lover of his novel, 1st perf. Adelphi, London 1837. (“The Stage” Cyclopaedia of plays 1909)

x) Quotations are taken from the local press; The Cambridge & University Journal and The Cambridge Independent.

xi) G.V. Brooke (1818-66) Died at an early age after a promising start as a boy actor. Tall and hand-some with an excellent voice he was hailed as the successor to Kean, after appearing in 1848 at the Olympic London as Othello. He was successful again at Drury Lane in 1853, when he appeared in a round of his famous roles. By the 1860s he was debilitated with loose living and heavy drinking, aggravated by ill advised excursions into theatre management. He drowned on his way to Australia, when the SS London sank in a storm. (Oxford Companion to the Theatre)

xii) After this poor notice for Wellborn, Irving was not mentioned again that week although he played Bassanio during Brooke’s engagement. (Playbills)

xiii) Helen Western – Together with her older sister Lucille, had conquered New York with an extensive repertoire of plays which included, Three Fast Men, Flower’s of the Forest and The French Spy, all of which she appeared in at Cambridge. Neither she nor her sister made old bones. Lucille died in 1877 aged 34 while Helen died in 1868 aged 24. (Annals of the New York Stage/Oxford Companion to American Theatre)

xiv) Benefit performances were a hang over from an 18th century custom, when all actor were expected, regardless of their popularity, to “take a Benefit”, which meant keeping the box-office takings for that performance, after paying all expenses! It still lingered at the end of the 19th century, but by then was very much associated with charity. Irving would have an annual “Benefit” performance at the Lyceum for the Actors Benevolent Fund, after it’s foundation in 1882. Both he and Ellen Terry took end of season Benefits. (playbills/programmes)

xv) Manchester Theatre Royal is the city’s oldest surviving theatre and has been internally rebuilt regularly to house new forms of entertainment. First built in 1845 and refashion in 1875 by 1921 it’s interior had been remodeled as a cinema. In the 1970s it was a bingo hall and in 1990 was converted yet again this time to a nightclub. The 1845 façade is virtually intact. An impressive building in Classical style with a full-length marble statue of Shakespeare, it still dominates Peter Street as it did in Irving’s time. Next door to it also still stands the Free Trade Hall where Irving enlightened a Victorian audience to the deceits of the Davenport Brothers. It was his refusal to repeat the success of this diversion at the Theatre Royal that gave Knowles, the manager an excuse to sack him. (Guide to British Theatres/L. Irving Biog.)

xvi) The plays performed provided a wide spectrum of entertainment, similar if you like to an evening of TV today. The main attraction would be framed with a curtain raiser to start the evening, usually a one-act comedy. An after piece – a short farce or burlesque – would follow the main attraction. Where ever possible dancing and singing by members of the company would be introduced and inevitably the whole company rendered the National Anthem to conclude about 4 hours of entertainment. (playbills of the period)

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