The Brunton’s of Norwich: Soap to Stage!

The head of this Norwich branch of the Brunton family was John Brunton who was born in 1741 and died in 1822. His birth was within the confines of this city, one of the largest by population in the country. John arrived the son of a prominent soap-maker in the City who saw to it that John was educated at the local grammar school, followed by an apprenticeship with a local wholesale grocer. Once John had completed his seven-year apprenticeship, he married a Miss Friend, the daughter of a Norwich mercer. Shortly after his marriage, John Brunton moved his family to London where he set up as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane.

18th Century Theatre Prompter

In London, John Brunton made friends with a Mr. J. Younger, who was at the time the prompter at the Covent Garden Theatre. This friendship helped nurture and encourage Brunton’s interested in acting. It was in April 1774 when Brunton was given the part of Cyrus in a benefit performance for Mr. Younger before he played the part of Hamlet in a similar benefit performance of the play for a Mr. Kniveton. Bitten now by the acting bug, Brunton gave up his tea and grocery shop and became a full time actor. He soon became considered as a talented actor of Shakespearean roles and as such returned to live in Norwich from where he travelled around a number of provincial theatres to perform. In time, John Brunton gave up acting and took the position as manager of the theatre in Bath for about three years before becoming manager of the theatre in Brighton where the Prince of Wales became his patron. Brunton eventually returned to Norwich to become the manager of the city’s theatre, acting from time to time when needed.

John Brunton and his wife were blessed with fourteen children but he did not, initially, intend that any of them should enter the acting profession. At the time when the family lived in Bath, Brunton’s wife had taken on the responsibility of educating their children with John also spending many hours reading stories to them. He also taught his eldest daughter Anne, (1769 – 1808) to read Shakespeare aloud as part of her preparation for becoming a governess. It was whilst doing this that he identified her talent for acting and arranged for her to go on stage at the tender age of fifteen years.

Anne Brunton (1769 – 1808) Actress

Anne Brunton made her debut in Bath, in February 1785. After seeing her performances in Bath that summer, Thomas Harris, manager of the Covent Garden theatre in London, engaged her to help his theatre compete with the Drury Lane theatre. Anne’s manager was her father, who also helped her perfect her acting skills. Then in August of 1791, Miss Anne Brunton, married the prominent playwright and poet, Robert Merry.

Robert Merry, (1755–1798)    Playwright & Poet

As Mrs. Merry, she was eventually pressured to retire from the stage by her husband’s family but soon afterwards, Robert Merry found that he had used up most of his substantial inheritance and considered it necessary for the couple to move to Paris; that is until the outbreak of the French Revolution when they were forced to return to London. Thereafter, the Merry’s began to live a very unsettled existence and, after three years, rumours began to circulate that Anne Merry would be returning to the stage in a private theatre in Scarborough. Nothing, in fact, came of this and a few months later there were reports that Anne Brunton Merry would soon appear at Covent Garden as the leading lady in a play written by her husband ; that too came to nothing!

Thomas Wignell (1753 – 1803) Actor & Theatre Manager

By the spring of 1796, Thomas Wignell, the manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia, was in London seeking talent for his new theatre. Between Merry’s liberal political leanings, his dwindling financial resources and his family’s objections regarding his wife’s work in the theatre, the Merry’s could see no secure position for themselves in London. Anne Merry, therefore, accepted Wignell’s offer to perform at the Chestnut Street Theatre and she and her husband sailed for America.

Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, USA

Anne Brunton Merry was a great success on the American stage and, in addition to Philadelphia, She played in all of the large cities in the United States. Then in 1798, Robert Merry died, and in January 1803, Anne married Thomas Wignell, only for him to die the following month due to an infection. As Mrs. Wignell, Anne performed in Baltimore in the April before going into seclusion to await the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth, that autumn. The following year, Anne Wignell returned to the stage performing in a number of Shakespearean roles.

By now, the actor, William Warren had taken over management of the Chestnut Street Theatre and, in August of 1806, Anne Wignell married him. She continued to act until May of 1808, when she again left the state to await the birth of a child. The Warrens then retired to a house in Alexandria, Virginia where Anne experienced a violent illness which left her delusional and reciting some of her favourite speeches from characters she had played over the years. On 24 June 1806, she gave birth to a stillborn son, and though she initially seemed to be recovering from her ordeal, she died on 28 June 1806.

John Brunton’s son, also named John (1775 – 1849), was intended for the law by his father, though he had had a few small acting roles, while a child, at his father’s theatre. Despite his parent’s hopes, the young man was bitten by the same acting bug as had bitten his father years previously. At the age of eighteen and unbeknown to his family, John Junior joined a theatre company in Lincoln. After experiencing some success, young John returned home to his family, who were then living in Norwich. Though his father was disappointed that his son had chosen not to follow the law, he Well understood his son’s love of the stage and hired him as an actor and assistant manager.

John Brunton Jr. (1775 – 1849)                Brunton in the role of Zadi, from a scene in ‘The Anaconda, the Terrific Serpent of Ceylon’ based on a tale by G. M. Lewis. Published December 4, 1822. Brunton portrays Zadi, “a Cingalese restored to freedom”.

John Brunton Junior. was to become a very successful actor in the Norwich theatre which was managed by his father, and in 1800, young John travelled to London where he made his debut in the same Covent Garden theatre as did his father more than twenty-five years before.

John Jr. played a number of Shakespearean roles over the course of the next five years, but he did not achieve the success of some of the other leading actors in London of that period. In 1804, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became the manager of the West London Theatre, though he did still perform character parts from time to time, when needed. Over the course of his career, John Brunton, Jr. would go on to manage theatres at Brighton, Birmingham, Plymouth, Lynn and Norwich.

Bruntons (Covent Garden)
Covent Garden Theatre, 18th century.

Another daughter of John Brunton, Senior was Elizabeth (c. 1772 – 1799); she would be introduced to the London stage by her successful older sister, Anne, before she departed for America. This Eliza, as she was known in the family, made her stage debut at the Covent Garden theatre in a benefit for her older sister, Anne, in 1788. It was Anne who personally introduced Eliza to the audience that night with an elegant and poetical address which was well-received by those in attendance. That first night, Eliza had such a case of stage fright that she could barely speak her lines. However, the audience showed her sympathy and encouragement by which she was able to collect herself and get through her first performance with increasing confidence. Eliza went on to develop her acting skills further and continued to act for several years, but she never achieved the success of Anne, her eldest sister or Louisa, her youngest. She eventually married a Mr. Colombine.

John Brunton, Senior’s youngest daughter, Louisa (c. 1780 – 1860), was considered a great beauty and a very talented actress, who made her debut in October of 1803, at the Covent Garden theatre, as leading lady to the famous actor John Kemble. Critics wrote of her beauty and her gifted performance, predicting a glowing future for her. Louisa Brunton played a variety of roles, from contemporary plays to Shakespeare over the next four years. She also had many gentlemen admirers. However, it was well-known that she came from a respectable and professional theatrical family. There was never any suggestion in society or in the newspapers that she was anything less that a very proper young lady. Certainly, she was never considered to be a courtesan or a loose woman as were some actresses.

Louisa Brunton (1780 – 1860)

Sometime in 1805, Major-General William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven (28 September 1770 – 30 July 1825), became one of Louisa’s most ardent admirers. Lord Craven had been the first patron of the notorious courtesan, Harriette Wilson, when Harriette was only fifteen. However, it does not appear he ever made any attempt to offer Louisa Brunton the carte blanche he had offered Harriette Wilson. Rather, he asked for Louisa’s hand and, on 12 December 1807, the couple was married in Lord Craven’s London townhouse in Berkeley Square. Though Louisa may have expected to have been welcomed into aristocratic society, such was not the case. Though she was not a loose woman, Louisa had been born into the middle class, and there were many high-sticklers among the beau monde who shunned her. Nevertheless, she and her husband did maintain a circle of friends whose company they enjoyed.

Major-General William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven (28 September 1770 – 30 July 1825)

After her marriage, Louisa gave up the stage and devoted much of her time to her family. She and Lord Craven took up their primary residence at the earl’s estate of Hamstead Marshall Park in Berkshire, where the earl had recently built a fine mansion. The earl never lost his wandering eye, and he is known to have had relationships with other women during their marriage. It seems his countess turned a blind eye to these extra-curricular activities in order to maintain peace in the marriage. Louisa took up garden design, a pursuit she would enjoy at Hamstead Marshall Park for most of her life. The Earl and Countess of Craven had four children, three boys, including the next earl, and a daughter.

In 1811, when her father, John Brunton, retired as the manager of the Norwich theatre, he and his wife, Louisa’s mother, moved to Berkshire to be near Louisa. When her husband died in July of 1825, Louisa remained at Hamstead Marshall, while her eldest son, the new earl, took up residence at Ashdown House, also situated in Berkshire. Louisa, Dowager Countess of Craven lived a quiet and retired life at Hamstead Marshall, her fame on the stage all but forgotten when she died there on 27 August 1860.

It transpired that Louisa was not the last of the Bruntons to take to the stage. Two of her older brother John’s daughters, the third generation of the Brunton family, both became actresses. In March of 1815, Elizabeth Brunton (1799 – 1860), made her debut at the theatre in Lynn, which was managed by her father. Elizabeth’s first role was that of Desdemona in Othello, opposite Charles Kemble, of the famous acting family. Though she did well enough, her father concluded that ‘Bess’ was more suited to comedy and it was in these roles that Miss Elizabeth Brunton was to perform at theatres in Birmingham, Worcester, Shrewsbury and Leicester over the next two years.

Bruntons (Eliza Yates 1799-1860)2
Elizabeth Brunton (1799 – 1860)

In 1817, Thomas Harris, the manager of London’s Covent Garden theatre, engaged Elizabeth Brunton, just as he had engaged her Aunt Anne many years before. It was in the September of that year when Miss Elizabeth Brunton made her London debut at Covent Garden as Letitia Hardy in the comedy, Belle’s Stratagem. She also was to perform in a number of other plays at Covent Garden that year; all of the to mixed reviews. The following year, Elizabeth Brunton appeared on stage in Edinburgh and at Drury Lane, but was back at Covent Garden for the 1818 – 1819 season taking a couple of years off from acting to spend some time in the country.

Shortly after her return to the stage, Elizabeth performed in Norwich, her ancestral home city; that was in 1820. On one particular evening of her tour, the performace did not run as it should due to a riot, a report of which found its way on to the pages of the 16th March edition of The Times:

“…. a theatrical riot took place at the Norwich Theatre. On the Monday Miss Brunton had appeared in the character of Rosalind without incident. On the Tuesday, she appeared as Maria Dorillon in Elizabeth Inchbald’s controversial play “Wives as they Were, and Maids as they Are”, which had been attacked as subversive for its portrayal of women. Notwithstanding the excellence of her performance, the house was very thinly attended. As if this was not enough for poor Miss Brunton on her final performance:…….much confusion arose in consequence of part of the audience calling for ‘God Save The King’, which was sung, while others vociferated ‘God Save The Queen’. At length, two regular battles took place……[but] at the commencement of the farce, on Miss Brunton’s appearance, loud applause superseded the tones displeasure.

But as the battle raged among the audience, Miss Brunton was led off the stage. The manager tried to reason with the audience but he and the remaining actors were driven from the stage, which was occupied by some of the rioters while ‘the respectable part of the audience immediately left the house'”.

In 1822, Elizabeth Brunton resumed her career on the London stage, at the West Theatre, where her father was manager. Unfortunately, the season did not go well, and Bess once again retired to the country. It was whilst she was there that she became reacquainted with Frederick Henry Yates, an actor with whom she had performed at Drury Lane. In November of 1823, the couple were married in Bath. Mrs. Yates, still billed as Miss Brunton, appeared in a number of plays in Bath that season. The following season, she played at Cheltenham and Drury Lane, often with her husband. The couple played several theatres, sometimes together, and sometimes separately, over the course of the next decade. About 1835, Frederick Yates became the manager of the Adelphi Theatre in London. When he retired from the Adelphi in 1842, Mr. and Mrs. Yates traveled to Ireland, with their son, to perform in Dublin. Sadly, Mr. Yates became ill during rehearsals and the family decided to return to England. Frederick Yates died not long after his return, in June of 1842.

In 1843, Mrs. Yates took over as co-manager of the Adelphi theatre for about a year, but found her health was not up to it. She came back to the stage as an actress at the Lyceum for the 1848 – 1849 season. However, her health continued to deteriorate and she was forced to retire permanently from the stage by 1850. After a long illness, Mrs. Elizabeth Yates died on 30 August 1860, just three days after the passing of her Aunt Louisa. Though both Mr. and Mrs. Yates had enjoyed long theatrical careers, they had always discouraged their son, Edmond Yates, from seeking a career in the theatre; instead, he became a novelist and playwright and never performed on stage.

Whilst today the Norwich branch of the Brunton family is largely unknown, that was not the case from the late eighteenth century and well into the middle of the nineteenth when they were very well-known throughout the theatrical world of Britain.


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