The Norfolk writer, Bruce Robinson, died in 2016 at the age of 80 years. His wife, Cynthia, said in his obituary – published in The Guardian newspaper, on 14 July 2016 and modified on 28 November 2017 – that he was:
“Quietly spoken, unassuming, browns and beige on the outside but inside seething with ideas that tumbled over each other to reach the daylight; my husband, was a born writer; someone for whom the honing of a chapter was as natural as the squeezing of oranges he juiced each day for breakfast.”
Notable, after his retirement in 1993 Bruce Robinson wrote mainly for pleasure; focusing on local history, novels with a Norfolk connection, plus miscellanies. Included amongst these was his ‘flongster blogspot’, from which the following two extracts about the late James Stewart, famous film-actor, were taken – Enjoy!:
James Stewart’s visit to Tibenham in 1975:
“…….In early June, 1975, I took a phone call from a [Tibenham] gliding club member who told me that film star James Stewart was planning a private visit to the base – a members’ only job, apparently; very hush-hush; no fans; no Press! But if I didn’t let on how I knew, kept in the background, and didn’t wave a notebook about, then I might be able to pass muster as a club member.
However, Stewart’s visit was not a total surprise because during the Second World War he had been based at Tibenham (and elsewhere), from where he flew 20 bomber missions. He was a genuine war hero, and now, thirty years and many films later, he was appearing in the stage play ‘Harvey’ in London, and was simply taking advantage of a day off. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he had also planned to do a photoshoot with Terry Fincher for the Daily Express.
On the day in question I did my best to melt into the background and became a quiet bystander as James toured the base and the ruined control tower, and gazed at the runway. He clearly found it all very affecting. When they offered him a towed glider flight to RAF Coltishall and back, he jumped at the chance, and happily squeezed his lanky frame into the tiny cockpit. While he was away ….. I withdrew for a pub lunch.
Back at Tibenham again, Mr Stewart was ushered into the clubroom for sandwiches and coffee, where he looked at more memorabilia and chatted freely with everyone. Every so often his gentle drawl, ‘ahhh, well,’ and ‘kinda’ and ‘sorta’ could be heard across the crowded room. Relaxed and affable, he was in his element.
I was sitting in a corner munching sandwiches when Stewart’s agent came across. ‘He knows who you are,’ he said. ‘He knows you’re a local journalist.’ I envisaged a firing squad. ‘Would you like to meet him?’ Yes, please!
Then James Stewart came across and sat down beside me, balancing a cup and saucer on his knee, and we talked for ten minutes. Deliberately, I ignored my notebook and later on had to struggle to remember some of the quotes. But in a way I was glad. It was not an interview, it was a neighbourly chat, freely offered and entered into.
James Stewart was like that. Aimable, interested, and at ease. He talked about Tibenham and how tough he had found it to remember his way around the base. ‘The only thing I can really orientate on is the control tower,’ he said. He talked about his glider flight, and I asked if he had taken the controls. ‘Sure I flew it. Sure I did.’ And then he talked about Norfolk and Norwich and how he hoped one day to visit the city’s American Memorial Library. Then his agent came back, and Stewart rose, shook hands, and wandered back towards the sandwiches.
An Aside: In 2012, a Tibenham housing development was opened, and named “Stewart Close” in memory of James Stewart and his links with the village.
James Stewart visits Norwich and the Norwood Rooms:
“Having revisited his War-time Norfolk air base at Tibenham in 1975, Hollywood film star James Stewart kept his word and joined in with two or three of the subsequent 2nd Air Division reunions. But he did not come back to England as a visiting ‘celeb,’ but as an ordinary ex-flyer, one of the boys. He stayed with his mates in the same hotels, travelled with them by coach as they did the rounds of once-familiar locations, and remained as anonymous as possible within the group. They all liked him for that.
One of his more formal appearances was on the day he and his group went to see the former American Memorial Library – later severely damaged by fire, and replaced by a new Memorial tribute in the Forum – which at the time was housed at the old City library. Here he did pose for photographs, and behaved as a visiting dignitary would in a public role.
I have no doubt, however, that he had his ‘anonymous’ role firmly in mind when he and his colleagues, on another of their four-yearly visits, went to the former Norwood Rooms in Aylsham Road, Norwich – a popular dancing and dining venue at the time – for a veterans’ banquet. My wife and I were also invited, and we saw what happened.
First, he did not sit with the brass and bigwigs on the top table. He stayed at his table on the floor of the hall surrounded by his pals. And second, he was a very reluctant speaker.
When he was finally persuaded to clamber on to the band platform to say a few words, he thanked everyone, including the people of Norfolk, for the welcome they gave the Americans during the War, and he told the story of the powdered eggs. Apparently powdered eggs were the staple breakfast diet in the officers’ mess at Tibenham, and Stewart became heartily sick of them. On other days, however, they were fed fresh farm eggs straight from a local farm. Unfortunately, those were the days on which a bombing mission was scheduled. So that was how they knew what was happening. Dried eggs, and they had their feet on the ground a little longer. Fresh eggs, and it was bombs away!
Later the same evening there occurred one of those rare, unrehearsed and unexpected events that invariably stick in the memory. The band was playing some Glenn Miller favourites, which got the veterans whistling and cheering. It was particularly apt because the film, The Glenn Miller Story, starring Stewart as Miller, was still doing the rounds. The band leader beckoned to Stewart and invited him to take over the conducting role. Stewart shook his head. Then the audience started clapping and shouting, and he reluctantly clambered back on to the stage and led the band through an admittedly slowish version of Moonlight Serenade. It brought the house down.
Some years’ later, our local morning newspaper began a scheme promoting plaques to be fixed to buildings where famous people had appeared. Most of those erected, it seemed to me, related to 1960s and 1970s pop groups. There was nothing to remind passers-by, for example, that Count Basie and his band once appeared at the old Samson & Hercules dance hall in Tombland, Norwich. Or that at the old Norwood Rooms a famous Hollywood film star once clambered on to the stage, borrowed the resident band, and reprised a tiny piece of one of his best-known film roles.
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The first fact to reveal about Pablo Fanque is that he was born in Norwich in the County of Norfolk. The second, and probably the more important, is the fact that he not only became a brilliant equestrian performer, but famous as the first non-white British circus owner in Britain and the most popular circus proprietor in Victorian Britain during a 30-year golden period of circus entertainment. His life’s story starts in Norwich, and it is this beginning on which the City lays its own claim to this showman’s name and fame.
Norwich boasts the fact that Pablo Fanque, baptised William Darby, was born in the City; the date of his birth was 30th March 1810. He died on 4th May 1871 in Stockport, Lancashire, having left Norwich as a teenager; he only ever returned to Norwich as a performing act.
Fast forward to 2010; this was the year when Norwich first expressed its pride in being associated with the gentleman in the form of a commemorative blue plaque placed on the wall of the John Lewis department store on All Saints Green. Its position was the nearest the authorities could get to the house in Ber Street where Fanque lived his earlier years. Then, in 2018 a student accommodation block was opened in the Norwich, opposite the John Lewis Store and named ‘Pablo Fanque House’.
Much of Pablo Fanque’s early life in Norwich is unknown and speculative. What is known comes from the City’s church records which state, quite clearly, that he was born in 1810. He was one of at least five children born to John and Mary Darby (née Stamp) in Norwich. When Fanque married in 1848, he entered on his marriage certificate “butler” for his late father’s occupation. A Dr. John Turner, in a biography, speculated that Fanque’s father “was Indian-born and had been brought to Norwich and trained as a house servant.” Other accounts have also speculated that Fanque was orphaned at a young age, and even born in a workhouse to a family with seven children.
Over the years, biographers have also disputed Fanque’s date of birth and it was Dr John Turner, again, who popularised the belief that Fanque was born in 1796, presumably based on the 14 May 1871 ‘Era’ newspaper which recorded that Fanque’s coffin bore the inscription; “AGED 75 YEARS”. Dr Turner may also have been influenced by the detail on Fanque’s gravestone, located at the base of his late wife Susannah Darby’s grave in Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds (now St George’s Field) which reads; “Also the above named William Darby Pablo Fanque who died May 4th 1871 Aged 75 Years“.
But those who support the belief that Fanque was born earlier than 1810 should maybe take note of certain facts. Firstly, his age was recorded in the 1841, 1851 and 1871 Census’s of England as being born in 1810 – surely, not all three would be incorrect! Then, a birth register at St. Andrews Workhouse in Norwich also records the birth of a ‘William’ to John Darby and Mary Stamp at the workhouse on 1 April 1810. This is the same birth year as that on Norwich’s blue plaque (above).
It is particularly worth noting the marriage record of a John Darby to Mary Stamp on 29 March 1791 at St. Stephen’s, Norwich, and the records of their children; these include a John Richard on 4 Jul 1792, Robert on 27 Jul 1794, William on 28 Feb 1796, Mary Elizabeth on 18 Mar 1798, and William (again!) on 30 March 1810. Crucially, the family also had two burial records, a William on 30 April 1797 and Mary Elizabeth on 10 Feb 1801. Now, Genealogists worth their salt would know that it was quite common in families that suffered infant mortalities in the past for a later child to be given the same name as a sibling who had previously died. This was particularly true where parents wished to maintain a family name in perpetuity. These facts strongly indicate that our subject, William, (Pablo Fanque) was indeed born in 1810 – following the earlier William who had died in 1797.
After the death of his father, William Darby became apprenticed to the circus proprietor, William Batty, around 1820, when he was about ten years old and in circumstances that biographers can only dream up. He learned to be proficient at rope-dancing and tumbling and became a talented equestrian performer. Certainly, Darby first picked up the ‘bug’ of being a circus entertainer in Norwich and made his first known appearance in a sawdust ring in the city on December 26, 1821; he was billed as “Young Darby”. Then, as soon as he had grown and developed into a young adult, with the full range of skills that he was to became famous for, William Darby left Norwich and began to tour extensively. It was in 1828 when he first took the name of Pablo Fanque, appearing on the local billboards as ‘Young Pablo’ in a troupe which performed at the Norwich Pantheon that year. In the spring of 1840 William Batty’s Circus again performed in Norwich, the bill boards making reference to ‘Pablo Fanque’ amongst the performers. An article in the Norfolk Chronicle on 21 March 1840 stated:
‘Pablo Fanque Darby commenced the representations with his
extraordinary leaps and other gymnastic feats’.
The following year Pablo decided to set up his own circus while on tour with Batty’s circus. He started with just two horses and an assortment of acts provided by one family: a clown, “Mr. R. Hemmings and his dog, Hector,” together with “Master H Hemmings on the tightrope and Mr. E. Hemmings’ feats of balancing.” These were assembled at his establishment at Wigan, in Lancashire…. “in which county Mr. Pablo is well known, and a great favourite.” Thus started the 30 year period when Fanque ran his own successful circus, only sometimes involving partnerships with others where these were necessary. During this time he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland, but performed mostly in the Midlands and the Northern England counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and what is now “Greater Manchester.”
Throughout the 1840s Pablo’s circus performed primarily in Yorkshire and Lancaster with occasional trips back to Norwich. However, in 1848, Pablo returned to Norwich for a more sustained period, with his ‘Circus Royal’ performing in Victoria/Ranelagh Gardens for the winter season. Pablo performed with William Batty’s Black Mare, Beda and newspaper reports of the time heavily emphasised his return to his native city:
CIRCUS, VICTORIA GARDENS. –On Saturday, the 23rd inst,. Mr Wm. Darby, professionally called Pablo Fanque, a native of Norwich, entered this city with a fine stud of horses, preceded by an excellent brass band. We hear that the performances during the week have been well attended, large numbers having gone away unable to obtain admission.
The Norfolk News, Eastern Counties Journal, and Norwich, Yarmouth and Lynn Commercial Gazette. Saturday 30 December 1848.
Families flocked to his shows in their thousands, lured by exciting poster and newspaper advertisements, street parades and the stories told by those who had been held spellbound by what they had experienced. Fanque was extremely adept at conjuring together new ‘exotic’ names, acts and historical extravaganzas, which could transport poor people out of what many experienced as drab, hardworking lives into a world of imagination, colour, dangerous feats of courage, expertise and sheer fun! His shows appealed equally to those of the higher classes.
One reason for Fanque’s success, one that often goes unremarked in circus histories, was his keen appreciation of the importance of advertising. Among the advantages that his circus enjoyed over its numerous rivals was that it enjoyed the services of Edward Sheldon, a pioneer in the art of billposting whose family would go on to build the biggest advertising business in Britain by 1900. Fanque seems to have been among the first to recognise Sheldon’s genius, hiring him when he was just 17. Sheldon spent the next three years as Fanque’s advance man, advertising the imminent arrival of the circus as it moved from town to town.
In addition to such advertising, Fanque would organise a spectacular parade to announce his arrival in town. In some towns he would drive ‘Twelve of his most beautiful Hanoverian and Arabian Steeds’ through the principal streets, accompanied by his ‘celebrated Brass Band’. He was also known to drive fourteen horses in hand through the streets in some places. When Pablo performed in Norwich he drew heavily on the fact that he was born in the city in order to draw the crowds to his performances. On Saturday 30 December 1848, the Norwich Mercury published the following article:
The Christmas pleasure seekers have been gratified by the appearance in Norwich of Mr. Wm. Darby’s stud of horses and equestrian company. Their location is at the Victoria Gardens, where they arrived on Saturday. Mr. Darby’s professional pantomimic is “Pablo Fanque,” but being a native of this city he has withdrawn the veil from his travelling title, and introduced himself in propria persona in terms that reach the poetic! He states that “it is with those pleasing emotions that dwell in the breast of every Englishman which, when returning to his Native City, (after years of absence) he must delight to indulge, that have induced me to issue this circular and offer these prefatory remarks. No man can appreciate the blessings of home like him who has long been absent. To grasp once more the hands of the playmates of his boyhood: to hear once more the music of the rippling brook upon whose banks he has played in childhood’s innocence: to look once more with solemn reverence upon that hallowed ground where repose the remains of his parents. It is with these impressions indelibly engraved upon my mind that I am brought back to my native city, and to solicit your and my other fellow-citizens kind support, and the amusements I have selected I hope will meet with the same approval that has rewarded my perseverance and study in other parts of the country!” Hitherto, we believe, Mr. Darby and his troupe have given the usual satisfaction which such amusements afford, and as a native of the city, if deserving, we wish him success.
Reviews of the circus performances throughout January and February 1849 praised their high character, with Pablo Fanque and his troupe continuing to draw good audiences. There is a mention to the graceful and daring equestrians, the elegant rope dancing of Mrs Mackintosh, the flexibility and agile movement of The American Brothers and excellent humour of the clowns. Pablo Fanque jun. also performed as an equestrian but is it Pablo Fanque and the ease and skill with which he rode the mare Beda in bold and daring performances which drew the greatest praise.
Even serious churchgoers sought enjoyment from a Fanque circus, whilst risking chastisement from some quarters. It was earlier in 1843, when clergy in Burnley were criticised in the Blackburn Mercury for attending performances of Fanque’s circus. This prompted one reader to respond thus:
“Ministers of religion, of all denominations, in other towns, have attended Mr. Pablo Fanque’s circus. Such is his character for probity and respectability, that wherever he has been once he can go again; aye and receive the countenance and support of the wise and virtuous of all classes of society. I am sure that the friends of temperance and morality are deeply indebted to him for the perfectly innocent recreation which he has afforded to our population, by which I am sure hundreds have been prevented from spending their money in revelling and drunkenness.”
Prior to Pablo’s appearance in Norwich in 1848, he made his highly successful London debut in 1847, under his professional name “Pablo Fanque”.
Describing Fanque and his performance at that debut, The Illustrated London News wrote:
“Mr. Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour, and his steed … we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled … Mr. Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. The steed in question was Beda, the black mare that Fanque had bought from Batty. That the horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque’s extraordinary horse training skills.”
This same edition of The Illustrated London News also provided an example of how contemporaries regarded Fanque’s performance:
“This extraordinary feat of the manège has proved very attractive, as we anticipated in our Journal of last week; and we have judged the success worthy of graphic commemoration. As we have already described, the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind. The grace and facility in shifting time and paces with change of the air, is truly surprising.” –
Fanque was also described as a “skilful rider” and “a very good equestrian. It was the same newspaper, reporting on another performance at London’s Astleys Amphitheater, that filled in many more biographical details of Fanque:
“… Mr. William Darby, or, as he is professionally known, Mr. Pablo Fanque, is a native of Norwich, and is about 35 years of age. He was apprenticed to Mr. Batty, the present proprietor of “Astleys Amphitheater” and remained in his company several years. He is proficient in rope-dancing, posturing, tumbling etc; and is also considered a very good equestrian. After leaving Mr. Batty, he joined the establishment of the late Mr. Ducrow, and remained with him for some time before rejoining Mr. Batty.”
The Beneficial Nature of Mr Fanque: The “Benefit for Mr. Kite”, a title later to be immortalised by the 20th century’s musical Group ‘The Beatles’, was one of many benefit shows that Pablo Fanque held for performers in his own circus, for others in the profession who had no regular retirement or health benefits, and for community organisations. Fanque was, in fact, a member of the Order of Ancient Shepherds, a fraternal organisation affiliated with the Freemasons. The Order assisted families in times of illness or death with burial costs and other expenses. For example, an 1845 show in Blackburn benefitted the Blackburn Mechanics Institution and the Independent Order of Odd-fellows, offering a bonus to the Widows and Orphans Fund. Fanque held a similar benefit in Bury the following year.
Then in 1857 and 1858, Fanque was again active, holding at least two benefits among other performances. In 1857, in Bradford, he held a benefit for the family of the late Tom Barry, a clown. Brenda Assael, in The Circus and Victorian Society, writes that in March 1857:
“Pablo Fanque extended the hand of friendship to Barry’s widow and held a benefit in her husband’s name at his Allied Circus in Bradford. Using the Era offices to transmit the money he earned from this event, Fanque enclosed 10 pounds worth of ‘post office orders…being the profits of the benefit. I should have been better pleased had it been more, but this was the close of a very dull season.” On 24 October 1858, The Herald of Scotland reported: “IN GLASGOW, ‘Pablo Fanque’s Cirrque Nationale’ offered ‘A Masonic Benefit.”
An 1846 a Bolton newspaper story epitomised the public’s high regard for Fanque in the communities he visited on account of his beneficence:
“Several of the members of the “Widows and Orphans Fund” presented to Mr. Pablo Fanque a written testimonial, mounted in an elegant gilt frame……..Mr. Pablo on entering the room was received with due respect. Mr. Fletcher presented an address……..which concluded:……..’and when the hoary hand of age should cease to wave over your head, at a good old age, may you sink into the grave regretted, and your name and acts of benevolence be remembered by future generations.”
Fanque’s Partnership with W. F. Wallett: During the 1840s and 1850s, Fanque was close friends with the clown W. F. Wallett, who performed in his circus. Wallett also managed Fanque’s circus for a time. Wallett frequently promoted himself as “the Queen’s Jester”, having performed once before Queen Victoria in 1844 at Windsor Castle. He appeared regularly with Fanque’s circus and many towns throughout the north. It was during a ‘benefit’ being held for Wallett in the amphitheatre, Leeds when a balcony collapsed, killing Fanque’s wife; see below.
Throughout his 1870 autobiography, Wallett shares several amusing anecdotes about his work and friendship with Fanque, including the following about their 1859 engagement in Glasgow:
“ The season was a succession of triumphs. One of the principal attractions was a little Irishman whom I engaged in Dublin, who rejoiced in the name of Vilderini, one of the best posture masters the theatrical world ever produced. I engaged him for three months at a liberal salary, on the express understanding that I should shave his head, and convert him into a Chinaman. For which nationality his small eyes, pug nose, high cheek bones, and heavy mouth admirably adapted him. So his head was shaved, all but a small tuft on the top, to which a saddler with waxed twine firmly attached his celestial pig-tail. His eyebrows were shaved off, and his face, neck, and head dyed after the most admired Chinese complexion. Thus metamorphosed, he was announced on the walls as KI HI CHIN FAN FOO (Man-Spider-leg mortal).”
We had about twenty supernumeraries and the whole equestrian company in Chinese costume. Variegated lanterns, gongs, drums, and cymbals ushered the distinguished Chinaman into the ring, to give his wonderful entertainment. The effect was astonishing, and its success extraordinary. In fact the entire get-up was so well carried out that it occasioned us some annoyance. For there were two rival tea merchants in Glasgow at the time, and each of them had engaged a genuine Chinaman as touter at his door. Every night, as soon as they could escape from their groceries, they came to the circus to solicit an interview with their compatriot. After being denied many nights in succession, they peremptorily demanded to see him. Being again refused, they determined to move for the writ of habeas corpus. That is to say, they applied to the magistrate stating they believed their countryman to be deprived of his liberty except during the time of his performance. We were then compelled to produce our celestial actor, who proved to the satisfaction of the worthy magistrate that he was a free Irishman from Tipperary.”
Marriage and Family: Fanque married Susannah Marlaw, the daughter of a Birmingham buttonmaker. They had two sons, one of whom was named Lionel. It was on 18th March 1848 when his wife died in Leeds at a ‘Benefit’ performance for Fanque’s friend, W F Wallett, clown. Their son was performing a tightrope act before a large crowd at the Amphitheatre at King Charles Croft. The 600 people seated in the gallery fell with its collapse, but Susannah Darby was the only fatality when heavy planks hit her on the back of the head. Reportedly, Fanque sought medical attention for his wife at the King Charles Hotel, but a surgeon pronounced her dead. Years later a 4 March 1854 edition of the Leeds Intelligencer recalled the incident, while announcing the return of Pablo Fanque’s Circus to the town:
“His last visit, preceding the present one, was unfortunately attended by a very melancholy accident. On that occasion he occupied a circus in King Charles’s Croft and part of the building gave way during the time it was occupied by a crowded audience. Several persons were more or less injured by the fall of the timbers composing the part that proved too weak, and Mrs Darby, the wife of the proprietor, was killed. This event, which occurred on Saturday the 18th March 1848, excited much sympathy throughout the borough. A neat monument with an impressive inscription is placed above the grave of Mrs Darby, in the Woodhouse Lane Cemetery.”
It is clear that widower Fanque did not waste any time in finding another wife for in June 1848, he married an Elizabeth Corker, a circus rider and daughter of George Corker of Bradford. Elizabeth was 22 years old and was to deliver two more sons to Fanque, George (1854) and Edward Charles “Ted” (1855). Both sons were to join the circus with Ted Pablo achieving acclaim as a boxer, and would tour Australia in that profession. A daughter, Caroline died at the age of 1 year and 4 months and was buried in the same plot as was for Susannah and William.
In Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh there also stands a tombstone dedicated to the memory of two others of Elizabeth and Fanque’s children —William Batty Patrick Darby (13 months) and Elizabeth Darby (3 years). Both died in 1852 but Elizabeth, the younger, died in Tuam, Ireland. This was at a time, in the early 1850’s, when Fanque was performing regularly in Edinburgh. The inscription on the children’s tombstone is thus:
“Sacred to the Memory of
William Batty Patrick Darby son of
William and Elizabeth Darby
Professionally known as Pablo Fanque
who died 1st February 1852, Aged 13 Months
Also of Elizabeth, their Daughter
who died at Tuam Ireland 30th Oct. 1852,
Aged 3 years and 4 months”
It is left to the 1861 census records to reveal that Fanque was living with a woman named Sarah, aged 25, who was described as his wife! But there again, the 1871 census records show him living again with his wife Elizabeth and his two sons, in Stockport.
The successful performance years and the money enjoyed by Fanque were destined not to last beyond the 1860’s. Certainly within a couple of years of his death, Fanque was ‘insolvent’, living in a room in the Britannia Inn, 22 Churchgate, Stockport, with his wife and two sons – George and Ted Pablo. There Fanque died of bronchitis on 4 May 1871. It was a sad end for such an extraordinary man, who rose from humble beginnings in Norwich to reach the top of his profession and in a career that lasted fifty years.
Despite the apparent poor financial circumstances of his last few years, Pablo Fanque’s funeral was a spectacular occasion. One may think that, having been a member of a charitable ‘Order’ and someone who often raised money for others, help came forward to see him on his way. Certainly, his body was brought from Stockport by train and a great procession accompanied him to his resting place, watched by several thousand people. The hearse was preceded by a band playing the ‘Dead March’ from Saul and was followed by Pablo’s favourite horse, ‘Wallett, – partially draped in mourning trappings and led by a groom’, four mourning coaches, and several cabs and private vehicles. Pablo was buried with his first wife in Woodhouse Lane Cemetery, Leeds. Ahead of the funeral procession to the cemetery was a band playing the “Dead March”. Fanque’s favourite horse followed, along with four coaches and mourners. Fanque was buried next to his first wife Susannah Darby. The Cemetery is now named St. George’s Field and part of the University of Leeds campus. While the remains of many of the 100,000 graves and monuments have been relocated, the monument that Fanque erected in his wife’s memory, and a smaller modest monument in his memory still stands.
While some contemporary reports did not refer to Fanque’s African ancestry, other reports noted that he was “a man of colour“, or “a coloured gentleman”, or “an artiste of colour.” These suggest he was of mixed race with partial European ancestry as well. Thirty years after Fanque’s death, the chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, Reverend Thomas Horne, wrote:
“In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test – ability.”
Thomas Horne was commenting on Fanque’s success in Victorian England despite being of mixed race.
For all the charitable qualities possessed by Fanque, he was far from perfect. Apart from the apparent eye he seemed to have for the ladies, there was a less savoury side to him that should not be forgotten if a sense of balance is to be maintained.
Fanque, at best, seemed to have also been an irritable man, if not violent. In 1847, he attacked a James Henderson, not the J. Henderson on the playbill by the way! James Henderson was an employee who, although taking Fanque to court, the matter was settled without full legal recourse. – “He [Henderson] was unable to keep the horse quiet, and thereupon the defendant, after one or two somewhat uncivil expressions of disapprobation, threw the comb and brush at him (complainant), and then (probably from the force of association) began ‘kicking’ at his legs. — John Leach and James Geary confirmed the complainant’s account …” – (Blackburn Standard – 13 October 1847 p.3.).
Another assault took place in 1849. – “CHESTERFIELD PETTY SESSIONS, SATURDAY, JULY 28. Pablo Fanque Darby, the proprietor of a travelling equestrian establishment, was charged with assaulting John Wright, of Walton, at Baslow, on the proceeding day.” – (Derbyshire Courier – 04 August 1849 p.2.)
However, a chronic problem with Fanque was that he was not good at keeping the finances straight. Nelson had a financial dispute over wages with him in April 1858 which went to court but by October 1858 Fanque had been made bankrupt and in June 1859 was refused protection from bankruptcy, owing £2765 with assets of £165. It turned out that Fanque had fooled everyone into thinking he was “the owner of a large equestrian establishment”, but had in fact sold his business to William Batty some years before and hired it back. A creditor claimed that this sale was fraudulent and although the commissioner found that
“the transactions with Battye……..were of a singular character, and calculated to arouse suspicion………nothing fraudulent had been proved before him”. Even the fact that he had kept no books did not in law “call for punishment”.
However, a charge of perjury was more serious for it was claimed that Fanque had sworn an affidavit that the circus was worth £1000 when it had been previously purchased by Batty for £500. “Unfortunately for the bankrupt’s character, it was too clear that the the affidavit was intended to deceive. The statement that the establishment was worth £1000, and was his property, was entirely untrue … the bankrupt had shown that no reliance could be placed on his word”. – (Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser – 4 June 1859)
Even after his death in May 1871, his propensity not to be honest with regard to the way he handled his debts caused problems for others. John Walker, a juggler in his circus had lent him £5, which he required to be repaid, but Pablo had died suddenly. As a result he sued Elizabeth Darby, his widow and administratrix of the estate. As a result, Elizabeth’s barrister in the case, “asserted that the defendant had not a rag, her husband having died hopelessly insolvent. Sometime before his death, the deceased assigned every particle of his property, in consideration of a sum of £150 lent to him by a Mr. Knight, of Manchester, who had now taken possession of everything”. – (Huddersfield Chronicle – 13 May 1871 p.8.) In order to settle the case, her barrister paid the £5 out of his own pocket.
There you have it! – the ‘not so complete tale’ of Pablo Fanque’s life. However, like with most lives and events legacies remain. In Pablo Fanque’s case, his name was almost forgotten, that is until it became immortalised in the mid part of the 20th century, on the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – in the song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’. The words of that song had been lifted by John Lennon from an advertising poster for Fanque’s Royal Circus in Rochdale, in 1843, which Lennon had spotted in an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent:
“For the benefit of Mr. Kite/There will be a show tonight on trampoline/ The Hendersons will all be there/ Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair – what a scene/ Over men and horses, hoops and garters/ Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!/ In this way Mr. K will challenge the world!”
Lennon bought the poster while shooting a promotional film for the song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, in Knole Park. Tony Bramwell, a former Apple Records employee, recalled:
“There was an antique shop close to the hotel we were using in Sevenoaks. John and I wandered in and John spotted this Victorian circus poster and bought it.” The poster advertises a performance in Rochdale and announces the appearance of “Mr. J. Henderson, the celebrated somerset thrower” and “Mr. Kite” who is described as “late of Wells’s Circus.” Lennon modifies the language, singing instead, “The Hendersons will all be there/Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair/What a scene!”
The title “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is taken verbatim from the poster. The Mr. Kite referenced in the poster was William Kite, who is believed to have performed in Fanque’s circus from 1843 to 1845. As for “Mr. J. Henderson”, he was John Henderson, a wire-walker, equestrian, trampoline artist, and clown. While the poster made no mention of “Hendersons” plural, as Lennon sings, John Henderson did perform with his wife Agnes, the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler. The Hendersons performed throughout Europe and Russia during the 1840s and 1850s.
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We are in the centre of Norwich, in that part of St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard that sits on the north side the Church. This half the whole churchyard, which extends on both sides of the church, is the larger and does not seem to suffer the unfavourable associations that the northern side of church graveyards usually have to put up with. It is the side which is the nearest to the market place and divided by a path which allows visitors to enter the church through the northern side door.
Here is an ‘altar’ styled tomb – in fact the only tomb in the whole of the Church’s churchyard still standing upright and proud; most other headstones have long been laid flat at ground level. This particular tomb is a finely carved family sort of tomb, one of those big box-shaped ones now, in the present-day, being slowly destroyed by moss and the constant weathering from the trees that overhang it. At one end, facing full on to the path that takes visitors into the church, is an inscription which refers to the main family member, that of John Harrison Yallop. At the other end of the tomb, facing the Forum, is an oval cartouche, within which is the following inscription:
is dedicated to the
Talents and Virtues of
Sophia Ann Goddard
15th March 1801 aged 25
The Former shone with superior
Lustre and Effect
in the great School of Morals,
while the Latter
inform’d the private Circle of Life
with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners
that still live in the memory
Of Friendship and
(Photos above: Haydn Brown 2019.)
This inscription is intriguing, it suggests that there is a real story hereabouts; maybe there are several stories, all interlinked one would assume. In the absence of any facts to the contrary, it must be assumed that Miss Goddard’s remains found their way into this Yallop family tomb shortly after her funeral in 1801; John Yallop followed thirty-four years later when it might have been previously arranged that he would rejoin Sophia there. As to answering the question as to why she, a Goddard, would join these family members; well, at the time of her death she had been betrothed to John Harrison Yallop.
One thing needs to be agreed between writers on the subject of whether this is a Yallop or Bolingbroke tomb! This article favours it being a Yallop family tomb, despite references to the Bolingbroke name. Mary Yallop, John’s sister married Nathaniel Bolingbroke and both are there – John does speak of ‘his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ at some later date. The other references to the Bolingbroke name are two older members – so, the matter is debateable! The other point is, that with the exception of John Yallop, nowhere does it say that the others are ‘buried’ in the tomb; the inscriptions are headed simply ‘In Memory’; the exception to this heading is, of course, the notable inscription dedicated to the young actress with whom John Harrison Yallop fell in love.
Strange therefore that there is no reference on the tomb to John Yallop’s wife of some fourteen years, Mary Ann Yallop (nee’ Watts) who died in 1833 – two years before her husband. Not so strange when we discover that, their marriage, in 1819, became an empty relationship. In 1820 John completed building his fine house at Eaton Grange but he did not live much there. More oddly still, his wife did not live there either. In the words of R.H. Mottram, in his book The Speaking Likeness:
“He bought a neighbouring property and installed her in it, either from some deep emptiness that she, good if ordinary woman as she must have been – or why did he marry her? – could never fill. She died while he was in his sixties, so that her separate establishment cannot have been a mere provision made for her widowhood. He himself migrated to Brighton where he died in June 1835……”
From this, we could reach the understandable assumption that the information detailed on her husband’s grave, in St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard, shows that John Harrison Yallop never lost the love he had for Sophia Ann Goddard. Also, it would seem to indicate that he preferred to be accompanied in the afterlife with those he felt the most closest to on earth. Sophia Ann Goddard was the strongest contender for this distinction since the inscription dedicated to her is an affectionate reminder of his love for this actress – the wording would clearly suggest so!
Sophia Ann Goddard was born in 1776, her parents were Florimond and Sophia Goddard, of whom nothing more is known. It may not be safe to suggest that Miss Goddard was educated and brought up in south eastern area of England but she did make her first stage appearance at Margate, Kent in July 1797 at twenty-one years of age. Within a month of her debut, the Monthly Mirror reported from Margate that:
“A Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, has played several characters with some promise; but her friends have certainly over-rated here talents”
By the 10th November 1797 it had been announced from Margate that Miss Goddard had made her first appearance in London as Laetitia Hardy in Mrs Centlivre’s ‘The Belle’s Stratagem’ at Dury Lane Theatre, a role which she was to repeat with much success in Norwich in a later year. London was enthusiastic, the critics less so according to the Monthly Mirror of November of that year, declaring:
“This young lady has fallen sacrifice to the art of puffing. She has been placed at the head of the school before she has imbibed the rudiments of knowledge………….[her talents were] “not of a primary nature”
Evidently, the Dury Lane Theatre management agreed with the newspaper, for her next performance of Letitia Hardy, on the 14th November 1797, was her last appearance in a London theatre. Undaunted, according to a much later provincial newspaper, Sophia Ann returned to Margate to continue her desire for success with determination. She appeared to be nothing, if not, a trier and was soon making progress – all be it the hard way:
“Puppy teeth were cut, experience gained while her talents pointed for the first tune, with certainty, at a capability that extended far beyond mere good looks and a pleasing personality”.
Within the year, the Monthly Mirror itself was forced to admit that “Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, played several characters with promise”. By December 1798 she had chosen Norwich where she first secured lodgings with a Mrs Curtis of St Gregory’s parish; the same lodgings which had been used by another famous actress, Mrs Sarah Siddons (nee’ Kemble) in 1788. Sophia Ann then joined the ‘stock company’ of actors and actresses at the Theatre Royal; and it was here where she soon became a popular and favourite actress, particulary amongst the County’s gentry. It was also said at the time that she was ‘a particularly graceful dancer’ as well. But it was for her acting that Miss Goddard received most admiration. Her acting of Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ was particularly well received, whilst it was reported of her performance in Jane Shore by the Norwich Mercury on 12th January, 1799:
“Miss Goddard to greater advantage that we ever remember to have seen her. The last scene was given to such effect that she loses nothing by comparison with Mrs Siddons, whom we recollect in the same character.”
For the next sixteen months, or so, life appeared to be full for Sophia Ann. She the leading feminine ‘box-office draw’ and playing all the stock leads of the day, often opposite John Brunton, the celebrated actor-manager who, incidently, was a Norwich born man who was to create a family acting dynasty of his own. Sophia Ann also combined her career at the Norwich Theatre Royal with other theatres included on the East Anglia Circuit; all this along with socialising with her many friends and admirers, one of whom was the 38 year-old John Harrison Yallop.
It could well be assumed, from the inscription that ultimately appeared on John Yallop’s grave, that he became besotted with Miss Goddard. One can imagine him rushing round to the stage door after one particular and early performance by Sophia Ann, in an attempt to persuade the person in charge of the Stage Door to allow him admission so that he could ‘introduce’ himself. The ploy must have worked because the two were soon engaged with plans to marry. Unfortunately, time would reveal all too soon that Miss Goddard was not only ill, but her health was deteriorating fast. She died of consumption on the 15th March 1801 at the age of only 25 years. This brought an abrupt end to the couple’s relationship and she would miss out on a marriage to someone who was an ‘up and coming’ man of distinction in Norwich; someone who would become rich and, in some ways, a powerful influence in local and national politics.
Unlike Miss Goddard, John Harrison Yallop had been born in the City of Norwich, the son of William Yallop who was a ‘Glover’. It is unclear, whether it was before or after Miss Goddard’s death, when John Yallop became a partner in the firm of Dunham & Yallop, goldsmiths which was situated on the corner of Davey Place and The Walk. Sir John had a house in Willow Lane, just off St Giles and a short walk from the shop opposite the market place where the business traded in jewellery, precious metals and stones. Having been appointed an agent for the Government Lottery of that day, the shop also sold its tickets to subscribers. On one occasion, so the story goes, John Yallop had two tickets left, one he returned, the other he bought – and won! With the proceeds, which was considerable, he built himself the fine country house, Eaton Grange, on the Newmaket Road in 1820 – the same house mentioned above and where he seldom lived. It is now a Girl’s High School.
John Yallop and his partner were to branch out into selling tea, coffee and cocoa and advertised these and every other commodity which they held on their premises – they called them ‘comestibles’. From their well positioned shop, on the Gentleman’s Walk, they formed a good connection with the public that purchased for the household. It was also on the ‘Walk’ where the gentlemen would rather pass up and down on the shop side so as to avoid the clamour and soiled pavements of the market stalls. JohnYallop also became an important money lender in Norwich; one of his debtors included his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke, the very one who married Mary, his sister. It is interesting to note that when debtors were imprisoned at the suit of a money lender, that creditor was responsible for paying for the upkeep of the debtor. Records show that John Yallop paid for the upkeep of an unnamed imprisoned debtor. One wonders who that was?
Four years after Miss Goddard’s death, John Yallop was elected to the position of Sheriff of Norwich in 1805 and again in 1809, so he was on his way up both socially and professionally and politically. Then in 1815 he attained the public office of Mayor; it was also around this time that he met a Mary Ann Watts and married her in 1819 before he was again elected as Mayor in 1831. While he was Mayor, back in 1815, he travelled to London with his ‘brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ to present the City’s petition in favour of Parliamentary Reform to King William IV; this resulted in John Yallop being awarded a Knighthood. At the time it was said to have been quite an event which resulted in an amusing ditty being written which began:
“To the King, the Blues wished to present an address
By the Mayor – and their sense of reform to express”
The ditty goes on to describe how the Mayor and “Old Natty” coached to London, each hoping for a knighthood – but only one received it!
As for Sophia Ann Goddard, she died on the 15th March 1801 and was buried on 20th in the churchyard of St Peter Mancroft Church, which was very close to the theatre. in Norwich. The burial register identified her as a single woman from the Parish of St Stephens. Her Obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine of March 1801 reported that:
“15th March: Died in St Stephen’s Parish, Norwich, Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, who came forward with so much success at Dury Lane Theatre a few years ago. This lady obtained a considerable reputation on the Norwich stage, and was so much improved in theatrical merit that her talents would doubless have soon made their way to a secure establishment on the London boards. Her figure was elegant, her understanding excellent, her manners were amiable and her character in all respects was highly meritorious. She was in the prime of life, and promised more than any other performer now on the stage to suceed to that line of character which was so admirably sustained by the present Countess of Derby [Elizabeth Farren]“. “
The officiating Vicar of Miss Goddard’s funeral was the Reverend Peele who, pronounced the last sad but dignified sentences of her burial service before the slow, muted procession emerged on its short journey to the chosen plot on the northern edge of the church where she would be put to rest. There doesn’t appear to have been any definite mention of John Harrison Yallop being present at the time, but surely, as the main mourner it would have been inconceivable that he would be absent. It could also be imagined that he would have walked in procession alongside Mr Hindes, the theatre manager now that John Brunton was no longer in charge. They would have been joined by the actors of the day, such as Mr and Mrs Chestnut, Mrs Rivett, Mr George Bennett and his wife Harriet Morland, the daughter of an ancient family in Westmorland (parents: Jacob Morland of Killington, Dorothy Brisco of Kendal, and sister, Lady Shackerley of Somerford Hall). Both were actors in the Norwich Company of Comedians. Then there may have been Mr Lindoe.
On 20 March 1801 the Norfolk Chronicle brought the spectacle to and end when it reported:
“The remains of Miss Sophia Goddard, of the Theatre Royal, Norwich, were interred at St. Peter Mancroft. Mr. Hindes, the manager, and the principal actors attended on the melancholy occasion. This young lady had obtained considerable reputation on the Norwich boards, and was making rapid advance to eminence in her profession when death prematurely deprived the theatrical world of an actress whose talents would have ensured her success on any stage. She supported with great fortitude and resignation a long and painful illness, brought on by exertions that her constitution was unequal to, and died on Sunday last (March 15), in her 26th year, sincerely beloved and lamented by her family and friends.”
The final words are left to R H Mottram, a great nephew of John Harrison Yallop. He wrote in his book ‘The Speaking Likeness’:
“But there is something else which has made me want to tell this true story, with such filling-in of the gaps that local history does not scruple to leave in a local record. The story of John Harrison Yallop and his Sophia might well be dismissed as an ordinary, pretty tragedy making its limited appeal, too usual in its features to be noteworthy. But, it is not like that at all, and Sophia’s very pathetic demise happens to make all the difference”.
What was it that took place, once the brief [burial] ceremony just outside the porch of the Church of St Peter Mancroft was concluded? John Harrison Yallop turned away, sorrowful enough, heartbroken one may well believe, when one gazes at the miniature of a beautiful young woman, her appearance enhanced by the training in presentation she had received. Some friend, or member of the family that surrounded him, one hopes took his arm and led him home”.
1.The small portrait of Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, said to be by John Thirtle, was reproduced in a St Peter Mancroft publication in the 1950’s, namely the St Peter Mancroft Celebratory Programme for 1455 to 1955. The present location of that portrait, which perhaps at one time belonged John Harrison Yallop, and the Bolingbroke family, is unknown.
When next you are near St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, go to that tomb on the northern side of the church. Pause, look and imagine as to what really transpired during the all too brief relationship between a provincial businessman come politician and a young, beautiful actress.
2. Following the first publication of this blog in 2019 a brief but complimentary note was received from Mrs B. Miller, a member of St Peter Mancroft Church and someone who clearly cares for the tomb and the area in which it sits:
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John Brunton was born in Norwich, Norfolk on the 10th November 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.
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 – maybe using Mr John Brunton’s own 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!
As an overall observation, it is worth noting that within the Norwich Excise District, there were several soap makers of which a Mr. Andrews, of Fishgate Street was said to be one of the larger manufacturers. Collectively, the industry produced an immense quantity of soap for use by the silk, woollen, linen, and cotton manufacturers; and this is quite apart from the amount used for domestic purposes. It has been estimated that about 300,000,000 lbs. were produced yearly in Norwich in the 18th century. John Brunton (senior), like all the other soap makers in Norwich, paid a very high tax levy on the soap they manufactured 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! The repeal of the duty upon this product greatly increased the consumption.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Rebecca Nurse was the oldest child of William and Joanna Blessing Towne from Great Yarmouth and one of three sisters who, in time, would be accused of witchcraft at the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Out of these three sisters Rebecca would be the second of them to be hanged.
Her father, William Towne was baptised on 18 Mar 1598/99 in St. Nicholas Parish Church, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England and his parents were said to be John TOWNE and Elizabeth CLARKE – although, others say that his parents were Richard TOWNE and Ann DENTON. Her mother, Joanna Blessing was born in 1594 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England but there again, others have said that she was born in 1595 in Somerleyton, Suffolk, England to John BLYSSYNGE and Joan PREASTE .
Whatever the true antecedents of these two, William Towne married Joanna BLESSING on 25 Apr 1620 in St. Nicholas Church, Great Yarmouth England. He and his wife remained at Yarmouth long enough to have six children before emigrating to America aboard the ‘Rose of Yarmouth’ with 32 other parishioners; this was sometime around 1640. Among Rebecca’s siblings were Mary Easty (or Eastey, to be arrested 21 April 1692 and hanged on 22 September 1692) and Sarah Cloyce (or Cloyse) to be arrested on 4 April 1692 but the case was dismissed January 1693). The Towne family finally settled in America around 1640 to live on a farm in Salem where two more children were born to William and Joanna Blessing.
Four years later, Rebecca met nineteen year old Francis Nurse who was a “tray maker” by trade but more than likely also made many other wooden household items. Due to the rarity of such household goods, artisans of that medium would have been highly regarded. Rebecca married Francis Nurse on 24 August 1644, after which they went on to live for the next 30 years in the more thickly settled part of Salem, “near Skerry’s” not far from where the bridge crosses to Beverley. During this time they had four sons and four daughters, all but one of them married by the fateful year of 1692. As for Rebecca, she had “acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community” and became a long standing member of the Salem church; but she was also known for occasionally losing her temper. In 1672, Francis served as Salem’s Constable and was regularly asked to act as unofficial judge to help settle disputes in the village.
Rebecca and the Salem Witch Trials
The public accusations of witchcraft in Salem Village began on February 29, 1692. The first accusations were levelled against three women who were not considered very respectable: the Indian slave Tituba, a homeless mother Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne who had a somewhat scandalous history.Then on March 12, Martha Corey was accused, and on March 19, Rebecca Nurse found herself accused, despite both being church members and respected community members.
A warrant was issued on March 23 by John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin for the arrest of Rebecca Nurse. In the warrant were complaints of attacks on Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams and others. Rebecca Nurse was arrested and examined the next day. She was accused by Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis and Elizabeth Hubbard as well as by Ann Putnam Sr., who “cried out” during the proceedings to accuse Nurse of trying to get her to “tempt God and dye.” When she held her head to one side, those claiming afflictions moved their heads to the side as well “set in that posture.” Rebecca Nurse was then indicted for witchcraft. “I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely what sin hath God found out in me unrepentant of, that he should lay such an affliction on me in my old age,” she said.
That Sunday was Easter Sunday, which was no particular special Sunday in the Puritan calendar, but with Rebecca Nurse in prison, as were Tituba, Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good and Martha Corey, the Reverend Parris preached on witchcraft. He emphasised that the devil could not take the form of anyone innocent. During the sermon, Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca’s sister, left the meetinghouse and slammed the door.
The sequence of events thereafter was that on April 3, Rebecca’s younger sister, Sarah Cloyce, came to Rebecca’s defence…..but was then accused and arrested on April 8. Then on April 21, another of her sisters, Mary Easty, was arrested after defending Rebecca’s innocence. John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin then ordered the Boston jail to take custody of Rebecca Nurse and others for acts of witchcraft committed on Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard – and others.
In a deposition, written by Thomas Putnam and signed on May 31, he detailed accusations of torment of his wife, Ann Putnam by the spectres of Rebecca Nurse and Martha. Another deposition detailed accusations of afflictions inflicted by Rebecca Nurse’s spectre.
A Mary Warren testified on June 1, that when she was in prison, George Burroughs, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, and several others said they were going to a feast at the Parris house, and that when she refused to eat some bread and wine with them, they “dreadfully afflicted her” — and that Rebecca Nurse “appeared in the roome” during the taking of the deposition and afflicted Mary, Deliverance and Abigail Hobbs, and that Philip English appeared and injured Mary’s hand with a pin.
On June 2, at 10 in the morning, the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in its first session. Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Elizabeth Proctor, Alice Parker, Susannah Martin and Sarah Good were forced to undergo a physical examination of their bodies by a doctor with a number of women present. A “preternatural excrescence of flesh” was reported on the first three. Nine women signed the document attesting to the examination. A second exam that day at 4 in the afternoon stated that several of the physical abnormalities they saw in the morning had changed; they attested that on Rebecca Nurse, the “excrescence …… appears only as a dry skin without sense” at this second examination. Again, nine women’s marks are on the document. A grand jury indicted Rebecca Nurse for witchcraft on June 3.
On July 3, the Salem church excommunicated Rebecca Nurse.
Rebecca’s trial started on June 30 1692. Banned from having a lawyer, she represented herself and 39 villagers appeared on her behalf as character witnesses; her accusers broke into fits as they spoke about their claims and the so-called “spectral evidence” was deemed to be relevant. Regardless of this, Rebecca was found not guilty and there was an immediate outcry – the girls fell into prolonged fits and spasms, the public bayed for blood and the judges asked the jury to reconsider. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the verdict was changed and Nurse was sentenced to death on July 19 1692. However, another twist came into play; in light of urgent pleas from Rebecca’s family and abundant evidence of her good character, Sir William Phips, the Governor of Massachusetts granted Nurse a reprieve – then he withdrew it despite Rebecca filing a petition protesting the verdict, pointing out she was “something hard of hearing, and full of grief.”! On July 12, William Stoughton signed the death warrant for Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How and Sarah Wilds and they were all hanged on July 19, followed by her sister who was tried and hanged on September 22 1692. Sarah Good cursed the presiding clergyman, Nicholas Noyes, from the gallows, saying “if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” – Years later, Noyes died unexpectedly, haemorrhaging from the mouth!
By October, with 20 people executed and 150 more men, women and children accused, the hysteria began to die down and the tide of public opinion turned against the trials. Sarah was released and later given nine gold sovereigns in compensation for her imprisonment and her sisters’ deaths.
Francis Nurse was to die on 22 November 1695, after the witch trials had been ended (in 1693) but before Rev. Parris finally left Salem Village and before the 1711 reversal of attainder bill that also gave some compensation to Rebecca Nurse’s heirs. In 1697, 12 members of the jury made a public apology, admitting they had been “sadly deluded and mistaken”. On August 25, 1706, Ann Putnam Jr., in formally joining the Salem Village church, publicly apologized “for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons…” She named Rebecca Nurse specifically and publicly confessed her contrition for her part in the trials. Her excuse – That Satan made her do it! In 1712, Salem church reversed its excommunication of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.
“If there is one character in “The Crucible” that everyone can love and sympathise with, it is Rebecca Nurse. She could be anyone’s grandmother, the woman you would never speak foul of or intend to hurt in any way. And yet, in Arthur Miller‘s tragic play, sweet Rebecca Nurse is one of the last victims of the Salem Witch Trials.
Nurse’s unfortunate end coincides with the curtain that closes this play, even though we never see it happen. The scene in which she and John Proctor head to the gallows is heartbreaking. It is the punctuation mark on Miller’s commentary on ‘witch hunts’ whether they be in 1690s Salem or the 1960s round up of alleged communists in America which prompted his writing this play.
Rebecca Nurse puts a face to the accusations and it is one that you cannot ignore. Can you imagine your grandmother being called out as a witch or a communist? If John Proctor is the tragic hero, Rebecca Nurse is the tragic victim of “The Crucible.” She is the saintly character of the play. Whereas John Proctor has many flaws, Rebecca seems angelic. She is a nurturing soul, as seen when she tries to comfort the sick and the fearful in Act One. She is a grandmother who exhibits compassion throughout the play.
Wife of Francis Nurse.
A sensible and pious older woman held in the highest regard in Salem.
Self-confident and compassionate and as the last act demonstrates, the humblest of all the characters.
When convicted of witchcraft, a humble Rebecca Nurse refuses to bear false witness against herself and others. She would rather hang than lie. She comforts John Proctor as they are both led to the gallows. “Let you fear nothing! Another judgment waits us all!”
Nurse also utters one of the more subtle and realistic lines of the play. As the prisoners are led to the gallows, Rebecca stumbles. This provides a dramatically tender moment when John Proctor catches her and helps her to her feet. She is a bit embarrassed and says, “I’ve had no breakfast.” This line is so unlike any of the turbulent speeches of the male characters, or the vehement replies of the younger female characters.
Rebecca Nurse has much she could complain about. Anyone else in her situation would be consumed with fear, sorrow, confusion, and rage against the evils of society. Yet, Rebecca Nurse merely blames her faltering on a lack of breakfast. Even at the brink of execution, she exhibits not a trace of bitterness, but only the sincerest humility. Of all the characters from “The Crucible,” Rebecca Nurse is the most benevolent. Her death increases the tragedy of the play.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
St Peter’s Church in Ketteringham, Norfolk contains a number of memorials, but perhaps the most curious of them all is the one which is the most westerly of a group of memorials. It is a 1907 memorial to Charlotte Atkyns, who died in Paris in 1836 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, once found herself caught up in the events of the French Revolution and her memorial inscription further recalls that she was the friend of Marie Antoinette. It was said the she made several brave attempts to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison; and after that Queen’s death strove to rescue the Dauphin of France. She bankrupted the family fortunes in this quest, mortgaging the Ketteringham Hall Estate and claiming to have spent an extraordinary eighty thousand pounds, about fifteen million in today’s money.
On her death, she requested that her body be returned to Ketteringham and a marble slab be placed on the chancel walls. Her relatives of the time, left destitute by her apparent eccentric enthusiasms, understandably failed to carry out either request. With the passage of time, it might also be thought that Charlotte’s Francophile adventures, together with the French name of Boileaus, might indicate a connection between the two families; on this point there remains today in St Peters an ‘Atkyns/Boileaus’ pew in situ. The Boileaus were an old Huguenot family who came to Norfolk by way of Dublin and already owned Tacolneston Hall. They were the ones who bought the bankrupt Ketteringham Hall Estate after Charlotte’s death.
Charlotte Atkyns, née Walpole, was considered by some to be an 18th-century Norfolk eccentric; that is being Norfolk by marriage and residency, not by birth. This, of course, did not stop her from suggesting that she was related to the well-known Walpole family of Norfolk, descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, our first prime minister – she was not!
Charlotte was born in County Westmeath & Roscommon in Ireland around 1758, her father was a William Walpole of Athlone. She became an actress and made her debut in Dublin in January 1776, continuing to perform at various other theatres in the city throughout the remainder of that year. Charlotte made her London stage debut as Leonora in The Padlock by Isaac Bickerstaff at the Crow Street Theatre in London before her Drury Lane debut in October 1777. There she had some modest success before then appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in which she displayed, it seems, a versatility as a singer as well as an actress. The theatre management announced her in such terms via the local newspapers:
In 1778 – 79, and after spending a summer in Bath, Charlotte returned to Drury Lane where “as pretty as an angel” she added dancing to her repertoire of skills. However, after that season she completely gave up the stage – for marriage. The story goes that she captured the attention of Sir Edward Atkyns, of Ketteringham Hall, Norfolk and the grandson of a Lord Chief Justice. Edward and Charlotte married on the 18 June 1779 at St James, Piccadilly, London and were to have two sons, Edward and Wright Edward. Unfortunately, Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, was never to be accepted by a Norfolk society which considered her to be ‘a common actress’. This situation was compounded by the fact that her husband was beginning to suffer under heavy debts. The couple’s future time abroad was to be put down to financial difficulties, at least by those who doubted her husband’s wisdom in marrying Charlotte. No sooner had Edward and Charlotte moved to France in November 1784, to get away from their ‘insufferable situation’, when Lady Jerningham wrote in a letter from Lille:
“A great many people have taken refuge here, to fly from their creditors in England; among the rest a Norwich family and a Mrs Atkins of Ketteringham. She was a player, a friend of Miss Younger. You may remember to have heard of her, and he was always a great simpleton or else he would not have married her.”
Others were more complimentary. A note preserved in the Folger Library and dated 1790, reads:
“Mrs Atkins, late Miss Walpole of Drury Lane Theatre, is perhaps the most…….female Equestrian. This Lady, whose residence is at Lille in Flanders, frequently rides for an airing….. to Calais, which is 74 miles and returns the following Day with the greatest ease.”
Charlotte personality and facial features were never in doubt, but despite being described as “pretty, witty, impressionable, and good,” she was thought of as an eccentric. This, however, did not stop the wedded couple from being welcomed in France where they made friendships with influential people at the French court. Among these friends was Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, better known as the Duchess of Polignac – she was a close friend to Marie Antoinette. Apparently, from the moment that the Duchess of Polignac introduced Charlotte to Marie Antoinette, Charlotte was enchanted and thereafter was, reputedly, an intense admirer of the Queen. According to one source:
“Atkyns shared first in the Queen’s amusements, then in her griefs, for she was still at Versailles when the Dauphin Louis Joseph died, and [she was still there] when 1789 began the cycle of years so terrible for French Royalty.”
When the French Revolution broke out, in 1789, Charlotte and her husband moved from Versailles to Lille, a city in northern France. Her relationship with the royal family was claimed to have been somewhat close because after the Atkyns began residing in Lille, Charlotte was to become known locally “as a pensioner on the Royal Treasury.” Then, in 1791, the Atkyns began to flit between France and Ketteringham and Charlotte extended her contacts with French émigrés. It was at this time when she was reputed to have been recruited as a spy and agent by her lover, the Royalist Louis de Frotté, a position that she purportedly fulfilled until 1794.
Once Louis XVI was guillotined in January of 1793, it was enough to make any Royalist lose hope of saving the Queen. However, the King’s death is said to have emboldened Charlotte. Apparently, it was then that she came up with an idea to save the Queen because, “Why should she not go in person to Paris and try her chance?” she would claim. Charlotte believed that the same level of surveillance applied to the King would not be applied to Marie Antoinette and this prompted her to think that she might be able to gain access to the Queen at the Temple. She had a plan!
There were several drawbacks to whatever plan that Charlotte’s concocted. Firstly, she was a foreigner and barely spoke French. There was also little support from her close friend Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Peltier had been a blazing revolutionary who suddenly did an about face and became an intense Royalist. He founded a newspaper with the title of “The Acts of the Apostles”, then violently attacked everyone who disagreed with his ideas.
The day after the insurrection of 10 August, Peltier left France and sought refuge in England where he, supposedly, developed a friendship with Charlotte and would do everything in his power to dissuade her from becoming involved in any plot to save Marie Antoinette. Thus, he wrote to her in the following tone, stating:
“You will hardly have arrived before innumerable embarrassments will crop up; if you leave your hotel three times in the day, or if you see the same person thrice, you will become a suspect.”
But, Charlotte was persistent, and her persistence eventually convinced Peltier about her plot to save the Queen, because even “he admitted that the moment was relatively favourable.” However, events were moving quickly in Paris. Before Charlotte could implement her plan, she too began to doubt it’s feasibility, particularly after word reached her that another plot to free Marie Antoinette had recently failed. This resulted in Peltier trying again to dissuade Charlotte from making any attempt to save the Queen:
“If you wish to be useful to that family, you can only be so by directing operations from here (instead of going there to get guillotined), and by making those sacrifices which you have already resolved to make.”
Charlotte, it seems, was not put off by any of Peltier’s words. Instead, it was claimed that she reached Marie Antoinette anyway. For her story to match other facts, it appears that her meeting with Marie Antoinette would have had to occur after Marie Antoinette had been moved from the Temple to “the Conciergerie; that is to say, after August 2, 1793.” Moreover, this meeting occurred because apparently Charlotte “won over a municipal official, who consented to open the doors of the Conciergerie for her, on the condition that no word should be exchanged between her and the Royal prisoner … [and to] wear the uniform of a National Guard.”
Charlotte, supposedly, agreed to these conditions and on the proposed day of her meeting, she appeared carrying a bouquet, which she offered to the Marie Antoinette. However, because of the stress of the event, Charlotte accidentally dropped a note that was to be presented with the bouquet to Marie Antoinette. As the municipal guard rushed forward to pick it up, Charlotte bent down, grabbed, it and swallowed it. Unsurprisingly, she was immediately ordered out. However, despite this failure, she did not give up. Through friends and persistence, she was able to obtain another meeting. This one was said to be a private interview with Marie Antoinette, and it was reported that Charlotte “had to pay a thousand louis for that single hour.” This time she planned to change clothes with Marie Antoinette so that the Queen would leave the Conciergerie undetected while Charlotte remained behind. If she thought her plan would ever work, she misjudged an obstinate Marie Antoinette:
“[Marie Antoinette] would not, under any pretext, sacrifice the life of another, and to abandon her imprisoned children was equally impossible to her. But what emotion she must have felt at the sight of such a love … She could but thank her friend with tearful eyes and commend her son, the Dauphin, to that friend’s tender solicitude.”
All this, and much else, was done at the expense of her large fortune which enabled her to bribe officials, pay messengers to travel between London and Paris and charter a ship to hover near the coast for months waiting to transport possible fugitives. Charlotte, apparently, would take no rest until she had expended all her energy and her wealth trying to free Marie Antoinette and those close to her. This quest of hers, however, failed and her ‘friend’ the Queen was executed by the guillotine at 12.15pm on 16th October in 1793, famously apologising to the executioner for stepping on his foot while climbing the scaffold. After Charlotte’s husband, Edward, died in 1794 she may again have gone to France to attempt further rescues of the remaining family, but if there were any attempts they were unsuccessful. But, she continued to promote the émigré cause and mortgaged Ketteringham in 1799 to raise funds for this purpose.
Hers remain a wonderful and somewhat dramatic story – given her past background as an actress, – but unfortunately it is one with more than a few holes in it. Many people, in fact, have claimed that Charlotte’s story, about attempting to rescue Marie Antoinette, was false and that the story came from a “cracked old woman who dreamed that she had been the friend of Marie Antoinette.” Ultimately, it seems, that all the source material for Charlotte’s ‘adventures’ come from Charlotte herself. Backing up all this are indications that Charlotte wasn’t even in Paris in 1793 as she claimed. Also, there is no independent evidence of her ever having been at Versailles, or even meeting Marie Antoinette; the only reference to their friendship appear in letters, apparently from eminent people but which Charlotte actually wrote to herself. As it was, papers from Frotté show that he believed her story and there was also, supposedly, a mysterious Countess McNamara, who had spoken of Charlotte’s plot; but, both Frotté and McNamara had, apparently, obtained their information from Charlotte herself! Since then, one 20th century investigation of her story also came to the conclusion that the book written by Frédéric Barbey about Charlotte’s plot relied on faulty evidence:
“There is no other evidence of her [Atkyns] ever having been at Versailles, or ever having seen the Queen, except a few allusions to their friendship in some letter addressed to Mrs. Atkyns, of which M. Barbey has found a large collection in the office of an unnamed Paris lawyer ….., assuming their existence and authenticity. His quotations from these letters suggest that Mrs. Atkyns was in the habit of writing letters from eminent persons to herself.”
As for being the “daughter of Robert Walpole” – as her 1907 memorial in Ketteringham’s church of St Peters has it – it seems to be an assumption by subsequent generations that Charlotte was related to the man who became Britain’s first Prime Minister. It is an assumption without any basis in fact; not only did Walpole never have a daughter called Charlotte, he died 13 years before Charlotte was born. His son was also named Robert, but he had no daughter either. All one can say is that the ‘real’ Charlotte and her husband certainly spent time in France from November 1784, shortly before the Revolution, but they were more concerned with getting out of financial difficulties than political intrigue.
After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814 Charlotte petitioned unsuccessfully for reimbursement of more than £30,000 which she claimed to have expended in the Bourbon cause.
Charlotte’s petitioning took place around 1823 and it was in that year when she gave Ketteringham Hall to her sister-in-law, Mary Atkyns, in return for an annuity, such were Charlotte’s reduced circumstances. Then, about 1830, Charlotte moved permanently to Paris, where she died on 2 February 1836 with her loyal German maid by her side. Charlotte was buried somewhere in Paris in an unmarked grave, knowing that her fortune had all but gone having remortgaged Ketteringham and spent the modern-day equivalent of £15 million during her, supposing, reign as a female Scarlet Pimpernel. Charlotte Atkyns Will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 26 July 1838.
The marble plaque inside St Peter’s at Ketteringham reads:
“In memory of Charlotte, daughter of Robert Walpole and wife of Edward Atkyns esq of Ketteringham. She was born 18 and died at Paris 1836 where she lies in an unknown grave. This tablet was erected in 1907 by a few who sympathised with her wish to rest in this church. She was the friend of Marie Antoinette and made several brave attempts to rescue her from prison and after that Queen’s death, strove to save the Dauphin of France.”
The “few” mentioned above were Lucy Lady Boileau and her husband, Sir Maurice Boileau BT (of Ketteringham Hall, 3rd Baronet of Tacolneston); Lady Dorothy Nevill (an English writer, hostess, horticulturist and plant collector and the daughter of the third Earl of Orford); Prince Frederick Duleep Singh (of Elvedon Hall, the son of the deposed and exiled Maharaja Duleep Singh of the Punjab); the Earl of Orford (Robert Horace Walpole, 5th Earl of Orford); Sir Spencer Walpole (English historian and civil servant) and James Nevill.
FOOTNOTE: During the French Revolution, various tales circulated about Charlotte and her activities. Some claimed she acted as a spy for counter-revolutionaries; others that her heart was set on freeing Marie Antoinette from imprisonment and spiriting her and her son out of the country to safety. Unfortunately, the sources for most of these tales date from long after the Charlotte’s death and are heavily laced with romanticism. All that matters now is for readers to note that Lady Charlotte Walpole Atkyns did gain something of a reputation for being an enthusiastic supporter of causes close to her heart; all be it in an eccentric and ‘fanciful’ manner. She did so in comfort and until she had spent most, if not all, of her husband’s money!
‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.