A Norfolk Lad’s Rise From Soap To Stage!

John Brunton was born in Norwich, Norfolk on the 10th Norwich 1741. He was the son of John Brunton, a soap maker said to have come from a Scottish family which claimed to have descended from James II of Scotland!

The baby joined 30,000 other inhabitants, the number of which contributed to making Norwich of that time England’s largest inland town and, after London, its second city. Some people in the City were prospering from the relatively new textile industry which was expanding, only to reach its zenith of prosperity before the end of the 18th century, at which point it increasingly declined. Before then, however, the vast majority of Norwich’s population continued to be housed inside Norwich’s medieval walls, despite this prosperity and that of other supporting industries and trades. This meant that a great deal of renovation of old properties was going on around John’s unfamiliar home, his father’s business and Norwich at large.

brunton (norwich market 1799)
Norwich Marketplace (Robert Dighton, 1799). Photo: Public Domain.

The number of wealthy merchants with the finances to do this, and particularly to build their grand homes, was continuing to grow in tandum with the ready money available; other industries emerged and developed on the back of this wealth. Examples were the well-established quarries in the areas of Ber Street, Rosary Road and Earlham prospered in support of the building boom. Several breweries were established to satisfy demand; one such name was to be the Anchor Brewery in Coslany Square. Norwich society also embarked upon a programme of civic building. This included the construction of everything from Bethel Hospital, founded in 1713, to pleasure gardens like ‘The Wilderness’ which was just inside the city walls east of Bracondale and overlooking King Street. The Gardens was said to have had a ‘grand piece of machinery’…….splendid clockwork sheep! As one local historian reported proudly about the textile industry:

“By their Industry and ready Invention, the Norwich Manufacturers have acquired prodigious Wealth in the Art of Weaving, by making such variety of Worsted Stuffs, in which they have excelled all other Parts of the Kingdom; which Trade is now in a flourishing Condition.”

But the Brunton family were only to be involved on the fringes of the textile industry, supplying soap. John (junior) less so, but he came from strong stock and was able to withstand the City’s smallpox plague of 1747. He was also fortunate enough to be born into a home supported by income from a soap-making business, making for at least a comfortable existence – thanks to the numerous wealthy families in and around Norwich who own the textile businesses and could afford to wash and bathe using Mr John Brunton’s product. In providing this valuable service to the rich it would be incumbent on him to be an ‘upright citizen’, one who would pay his taxes, taxes which probably had been legislated for or supported by Norfolk’s aristocracy and landed gentry – the very people served by Mr John Brunton!

brunton (soap making)
Mid 18th Century Soap Making: Photo: Public Domain.

John Brunton (senior), like all the other soap makers in Norwich, of which there were several, paid a very high tax levy on the soap they manufactured for the silk, woollen, linen, and cotton manufacturers, as well as for domestic purposes, and the way in which the law was worded effectively meant that soap production had to be in batches of no less than one ton. The annals say that the pans used to make soap had to be locked at night by the tax collector to ensure that no illegal production could take place ‘after hours’.  Soap was, apart from servicing other types of manufacturing, regarded as a luxury item and wasn’t in common use until the mid-1800’s, long after John Brunton junior had himself died!

Young Brunton’s formative years were not documented, but it is known that when he was ‘of age’ he attended a grammar school – which one, we can only guess! However, given the family’s apparent situation and its location within Norwich, it is reasonable to suppose that young John Brunton received his early schooling at the Norwich Grammar School ( as it was known at the time); this school was situated next to Norwich Cathedral. It was the one school, at that time, which offered free places to ‘Norwich citizens’. The only other schools which offered similar standards, some with boarding facilities, were outside the city walls, at Hingham and Wymondham; much further away were schools at Holt, Swaffam and North Walsham – all probably too far to travel to. Yet, the Norwich Grammar School had connections with the Cathedral and we are told that, as time went on and as part of his education, John was placed into the care of a Reverend James Wilton, Prebendary of Bristol Cathedral until his formal education was completed. Importantly, in the context of this story, nothing is known about Brunton’s personal interests outside of family and education, certainly nothing specific about any interest he may have had in acting. Well, it seems a safe bet that, given the path that he did take from the moment he completed an apprenticeship and set up a business in London’s Dury Lane thereafter, his thoughts and heart may well have been in the theatre whilst he was growing up in Norwich.

brunton (white swan)002
The White Swan Inn, Norwich, first home of the Norwich Company of Comedians and headquarters of all their circuit activities. Norfolk County Libraries.

The seeds of this interest could well have been planted during the course of his formal education and if so, would have been strengthen by him visiting whatever theatrical venues and events took place in Norwich at the time. Venues such as the White Swan Inn, known as the White Swan Playhouse since 1731 and refurbished in 1747 due to its popularity. There was the Norwich Company of Comedians who were based at the White Swan, but also toured other towns in East Anglia. The Assembly Rooms opened in 1755 and the City’s ‘New Theatre’, near Chapel Field in 1757/58. In the same year, the Norwich Company of Comedians moved into the New Theatre from The White Swan Playhouse and made it new headquarters from where they continued touring. The New Theatre’s opening play in 1758 was “The Way of the World” (by William Congreve) which young Brunton could well have seen. Surely, all that was on offer in Norwich at that time would have been enough to ‘wet the appetite’ of any aspiring actor?

sophia ann goddard (theatre royal)2
A Sketch of the Norwich New Theatre which opened in 1758. The Norwich Company of Comedians moved there from The White Swan Playhouse, making it their new headquarters from where they toured towns in the Eastern Counties. The theatre’s name changed to the Theatre Royal in 1768. Norfolk County Libraries.

As it was, no sooner had John Brunton completed his formal education at Norwich, than his father directed him into a seven-year apprenticeship with a wholesale grocer; some say this was in Norwich, others suggest that it was with a wholesale grocer based in Drury Lane, London! Whatever was the case, given the possiblity that he already held an interest in acting, then the lure of the theatre on his future London doorstep would have been the real turning point in his ambitions. Once his apprenticeship was finished, he did set himself up as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane, London.

” The Drama had long floated in his imagination, superior to the produce of the East and West Indies”
(Annonymous – ‘Green Room Book)

It was during his early years as a grocer in Drury Lane when he met and soon married a young lady by the name of Miss Elizabeth Friend. Whilst some have said that she was the daughter of a Norwich mercer, or cloth merchant another, by the name of William Dunlap, was quoted as saying that Miss Friend came from Bristol! No matter, this story is about young John Brunton who, after his marriage, continued nurturing his plan to enter the acting professtion; this ran alongside the arrival of his children, the first of whom was William, born in 1767 at his parent’s home in Dury Lane. 

The next arrival was daughter Anne in 1769, also at Drury Lane; a time when John was regulary visiting the London theatres with the aim, not only to enjoy the performances, but probably to promote his acting talents in the hope that eventually he would be given the opportunity to enter the profession. Certainly, within a very short time, he had made friends with a Mr. J. Younger who was the prompter at the Covent Garden Theatre. This friendship encouraged Brunton to present to Younger a ‘specimen of his skills’ which resulted in the prompter also encouraging him to grab the first opportunity. Brunton, undoubtedly took note and had to work hard but in April 1774, he was persuaded to appear in a performance of Cyrus for Younger’s ‘Benefit’, Brunton taking the title role for which he was announced only as “A Gentleman”. Several weeks later, on the 3rd May 1774, he played ‘Hamlet’ at the same theatre for a ‘Benefit’ performance for Mr and Mrs Kniverton; on that occasion, Brunton was announced as “the young gentleman who played Cyrus”. It was at this point in his life, when he had achieved his first taste of real success, that he gave up his business as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane.

brunton (drury lane)3
Old Drury Lane. Photo: Public Domain.

Further children came along at the time when Brunton was being considered as a talented actor of Shakespearean roles. They were Elizabeth in 1771, Sophia in 1773 and John Robert in 1775 – all born at the Brunton’s new address at St Martins-in-the- Fields, Westminster. But, no sooner had the most recent baby John arrived when, in 1775, father decided to return to to his home city of Norwich to live and to perform. Here, Harriet was born – on the 23rd December 1778. By 1780 John Brunton was the father of six children and established as one of Richard Griffith’s (the manager) leading actors; also, a popular man with his fellow actors. John Bernard said of him “our leading tragedian and one of the best Shylocks I have ever seen” . Then, at the pinacle of his Norwich acting career in 1780, Brunton and his family decided to pack their posessions and move to Bath for the next five years. It was at Bath where Louisa was born in the February of 1785.

It was also whilst the Brunton family was living in Bath that another story found its roots – the beginings to Anne Brunton’s own acting career. She, as the reader will remember, was John Brunton’s first daughter and made her 1785 stage debut at Bristol, at the tender age of 16 years. According to “The Secret History of the Green Room (1790)”, Anne Brunton was regarded “as a slutish, indolent girl” by members of the Bath Theatre who thought that she, at her stage debut in Bristol in Febuary 1785, would be “humbled“. Instead, she acted with “unqualified success”. Soon after, on the 17th February 1785, she made her Bath debut where John Brunton went on before her to speak. He expressed his “trepidation at offering his daughter to the stage” and promised:

“If your applause give sanction to my aim
And this night’s effort promise future fame,
She shall proceed – but if some bar you find,
And that my fondness made my judgement blind,
Discern no voice, no feeling, she possess,
Nor fire that can the passion well express;
Then, then for ever, shall she quit this scene,
Be the plain housewife, not the Tragic Queen.”

Anne Brunton must have been somewhat burdened with those words and the fact that ‘gossip’ had circulated beforehand regarding what some at Bath thought were Anne’s shortcomings. Her response was to perform with a show of “self-confidence and grace that one would expect from a more experienced performer”. Anne drew “thunderous applause” – and was to go on to greater things in both London and later in America.

brunton (anne)2
This depicts Anne Brunton in her role of Euphrasia in Murphy’s sentimental tragedy “The Grecian Daughter”. Photo: (c) British Museum.

The following year, the Brunton family returned to Norwich and in 1788, John Brunton took over the Norwich Company of Comedians, leading it through its most stable and profitable years. The reason for his appointment was that his predecessor, Giles Barrett, approached the Theatre Royal’s proprietors in 1788, asking for the remaining five years of the lease to be transferred to Brunton. Apparently, the formal hand-over of the Norwich, Colchester, Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Yarmouth theatre’s took place on the 1st November – on the road between Colchester and Ipswich. Brunton then returned to Norwich and when he addressed the audience, at the opening of his first season as the theatre’s manager on News Year’s day 1789, he received almost raptuous applause.

brunton (the pit door)2
The Pit Door. Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

This marked the start of the most succesful decade in the history of the East Anglian theatre, when Brunton’s personal standing was high. He was also fortunate in having good quality actors and he, in return, had their interests at heart. He instituted the Norwich Theatrical Fund in 1791 “for the relief of sick and decayed actors who have been members of the Norwich Company” and gave them an annual benefit. This scheme replaced a similar one which was set up by the previous manager, Richard Griffin, in 1772. By 1799, Brunton’s company, included Sophia Ann Goddard, Joseph Inchbald, Blanchard, Bennett, Beachem, Dwyer, Wordsworth, Taylor, Lindoe and Seymour. It was a prosperous time and benefits were paid out to his actors. It was also Brunton’s last year as manager; having decided not to renew his lease.

Brunton relinquished his position in 1800, the same year when the Theatre Royal was remodelled by William Wilkins, a local builder and architect who entirely rebuilt the theatre’s interior, leaving only the outer walls unchanged. The refurbished theatre reopened barely seven months before its Sophia Ann Goddard, an apparently charming lady and a most promising actress, died on 15th March 1801, at the age of 25 years. Her body was buried in a tomb in the St. Peter Mancroft graveyard. At the time of her death she was betrothed to a relative of the Bolingbrokes – John Harrison Yallop of Norwich. The inscription on the tomb still reads, “The former shone with superior lustre and effect in the Great School of Morals, the Theatre, while the latter inform’d the private circle of Life with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners that still live in the Memory of Friendship and Affection.” No mention was made of John Brunton being at her funeral, but his replacement manager John Clayton Hindes was, along with members of the Theatre Royal. It was in 1811, when John Brunton and his wife moved to Berkshire to be near Louisa their daughter. John Brunton died in July of 1825 at the age of eighty-four years.

brunton (portrait)002
John Brunton (1741-1822) Painted circa. 1780, apparently, by an artist of the Reynolds school. Norwich Theatre Royal.

FOOTNOTE:
So far, we have told as much as we know about the theatre actor and manager John Brunton. All that is now left to do is to round off his story by giving a particular mention to his wife, Elizabeth, who seems not to have acted and was blessed with fourteen children – her last child, Richard, was born on the 26th June 1789. Some of her children evidently died young. Certainly, William the first child died and was buried at St Pauls Church, Covent Garden on 17th November 1778. From those that did survive, six had stage careers of varying success and lengths. Initially, John Brunton did not intend for any of them to perform on the stage. Then, at the time when the family lived in Bath, his wife took 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.

Hopefully, more can be said later about the acting dynasty nurtured by John Burton, a dynasty which graced the stage in the 18th and 19th centuries in both England and also the United State of America.

TO BE CONTINUED

Sources so far:
http://www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/PDF’s/CorfieldPdf26_Norwich-on-the-Cusp.pdf
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5A4EHRa1dfcC&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq=%22john+Brunton%22++actor&source=bl&ots=IUhDIw474P&sig=SQz0zhxhk0MIgtyT080v9K1FRNw&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22john%20Brunton%22&f=false
http://www.oxforddnb.com/search?q=john+brunton&searchBtn=Search&isQuickSearch=true https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=cS6x-tsbNZEC&pg=PA376&lpg=PA376&dq=brunton+18th+century+soap+maker+norwich&source=bl&ots=6zpLr1ojgO&sig=ONW0yc7WtR4rBPWVBIPKMa7xSnU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi11PHy9ejfAhU6UxUIHaA_AaAQ6AEwC3oECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=brunton%2018th%20century%20soap%20maker%20norwich&f=false
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=zdpUAAAAcAAJ&pg=PT35&lpg=PT35&dq=brunton+18th+century+soap+maker+norwich&source=bl&ots=k5IqJ9hZOZ&sig=mJD3RfEdmOXfEDg5A1yL9i5Ftj8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi11PHy9ejfAhU6UxUIHaA_AaAQ6AEwDnoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=brunton%2018th%20century%20soap%20maker%20norwich&f=false
https://digital.library.illinois.edu/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=anne+brunton
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5F7qT1K38vHKSnYjTLr7kjn/sarah-siddons-visits-the-norwich-theatre-royal

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