Monday, 17 October 2011

John Henry Alexander

Actor, laterally owner and manager of the Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street, Glasgow was born in the
seaside town of Dunbar in East Lothian, Scotland.

The IGI (www.familysearch) lists his birth as 30th July 1796 (christening on 7th August 1796)
The same source lists his parents, John Alexander and Margaret  Pitcaithley
as having an additional 3 sons:
William Alexander, born 17th June 1791, christened 19th June 1791 at Perth
William Stewart Alexander, born 18th August 1794, christened 24th August 1794 at Dunbar
Charles Alexander, born 19th October 1798, christened 28th October 1798 at Dunbar

(His obituary states that he was one of five sons)

John married Elizabeth Riddell, daughter of George Riddell, Coach Builder and Mary Learmonth
at Edinburgh in May 1817 and went on to have 5 (known) children:
George Russell Alexander, born 11th December 1820 at Edinburgh
(Died 17th June 1901)
Elizabeth Alexander, born ?, christened 29th October 1826, at Dumfries
Margaret Alexander, born 3rd January 1829, Glasgow
Janet Eliza Alexander, born 4th August 1833, Glasgow
Elizabeth Riddell Alexander, born ?, christened 19th October 1836, Glasgow.

My sincere thanks to Matthew Lloyd, great, great grandson of Horatio Lloyd
for the above excepts from original posters from the Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street.

Images of the complete posters, plus many others, can be seen here:

Some of John Henry Alexander’s ‘antics’ have been mentioned in Chapter 11
in the autobiography of H. F. Lloyd ‘The Life of an actor‘, see:

The Glasgow Herald of Tuesday, February 19th 1849 carries a lengthy article headed as
“Frightful Accident at the Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street,
sixty-five lives lost.”
The article contains a list of persons killed and injured, listing their age, places of residence and where they died if not at the theatre (the fire had been on the night of Saturday 17th February).

On the 1851 Scottish Census, John is living at 198 Pitt Street, Glasgow.
His occupation is listed as Manager & Proprietor of Theatre Royal, Glasgow.
Also living there were wife Margaret, age 44
and daughters Margaret age 21 and Jessie age 16

(Jessie would most likely have been daughter Janet, born 1833)

John Henry Alexander died later the same year on 15th December 1851 aged 55 years and his monument in the Glasgow Necropolis must be one of the most ornate there.

The monument was designed by James Hamilton and sculpted by Alexander Handyside Ritchie.

John Henry Alexander’s Monument is located on Section ‘Omega’ of the Necropolis.

The Glasgow Herald of Friday morning, December 19th, 1851
printed the following on their front page:

On page 5 of the same issue, followed a lengthy obituary

The following is a transcription of the article:

Death of Mr. Alexander, of the Theatre Royal

The public will learn with much regret, of the death of Mr. John Henry Alexander, the proprietor of the Glasgow Theatre Royal. Mr. Alexander only retired from active life as Manager of the Theatre at the beginning of the present season, when Mr. Simpson became the leasee of the establishment. Freed from the pressure of his managerial duties, he proceeded on a visit to London about two months ago. Here he was suddenly taken ill, and as his malady, which at the out-set was jaundice, did not yield to medical treatment, he became anxious for removal to his own home, and was accordingly brought to Glasgow about three weeks ago. He gradually became worse, however, and finally sank under his ailments on the morning of Monday last at the comparatively early age of fifty-five. We say “comparatively early,” for Mr. Alexander has occupied a most prominent position before the Glasgow public for more than a quarter of a century; and while retiring in full mental and physical vigour, he might fondly look forward to a lengthened period of ease and contentment. But he has been summoned to his account almost without tasting the sweets of retirement which he had earned by a long life of industry and anxiety.

Mr. Alexander’s public character will be variously estimated. But we believe every one will readily concede to him the character of an honest and industrious man, and an able member of his profession. Doubtless he had certain eccentricities, which were sometimes exhibited to the amusement of his audience, but these did not in any degree mar his general merits as an excellent performer. It may be said by some that Mr. Alexander did little to elevate the character of the Glasgow stage, and that his company might have possessed a wider range of talent than it could usually boast of. Before we can speculate on this point, we would require to be in possession of information generally only known to the manager himself; and it must not be forgotten that theatricals, to be managed profitably, must be conducted like any other mercantile undertaking. Mr. Alexander afforded the Glasgow public the opportunity of seeing, at convenient seasons, the best talent which London could produce; and it is a matter of fact that his establishment was at all times conducted with the strictest regard to purity and decorum. His exertions were rewarded with complete success in a pecuniary point of view; and his name will long be remembered in Glasgow, as having erected in it the finest theatre in the British dominions, London only excepted.

Mr. Alexander commenced his theatrical career in Glasgow about 1822, when he became leasee of part of the old building which stood on the site of the present magnificent house. At the period to which we refer, the Theatre Royal, under the management of Mr. Seymour, occupied the upper floor of these premises. Mr. Alexander, in the then state of the patent laws, could not style his establishment a theatre, he therefore called it the “Dominion of Fancy”. He continued to conduct dramatic entertainments there until the opening of the Theatre Royal in Queen Street, when he became tenant or proprietor of the whole tenement in Dunlop Street.
His house was then known as the Minor Theatre. During this time he was leasee of the Caledonian Theatre in Edinburgh, the theatres of Dumfries, Carlisle and others. At the Minor Theatre in this city he gave melo-dramas, farces and operas; and we have to state that during this period he gave a set of musical performances, which, we believe, may be placed amongst the first operas ever represented in Glasgow. We do not clearly remember whether the French Operatic Company which performed in Queen Street were immediately before or after this period; but we distinctly remember that amongst other pieces “Der Freischutz” and “Oberon” were put on the stage. The principal vocalists were Messrs. Horncastle, Edmonds and Reynoldson, and Miss Horncastle. Following them came a rapid succession of English singers, who appeared in such pieces as “Rosina”, “Love in a Village”, “The Maid of the Mill”, and “The Quaker”. The singers who sustained the principal parts were Horn, Binge, Williamson, Shirvall, Miss Paton, Miss Eliza Paton, and the Misses Smith.

Amongst the characters in which Mr. Alexander appeared to great advantage, and in which we feel inclined to believe he had few equals and no superiors, we may mention “Jemmy Mammoth” in Douglas Jerrold’s farce of “Law and Lions”, “Adam Brock” in “Charles the XII”, which the late Mr. R. Hardy, one of his most constant castigators admitted was many degrees better than the same part as performed by Mr. Liston of London; “Demetrius” in “The Evil Eye”, “Colonel Dumas” in “The Lady of Lyons, “John Thornberry” in “John Bull”, besides many others which the old playgoers of Glasgow may remember, but which we need not particularize. His performance of “Dandie Dinmont” in “Guy Mannering” more than once received commendations from Sir Walter Scott, and in many of his other Scottish parts we are not sure that a considerable portion of the praise which has been bestowed on Mr. McKay would not, twenty years ago, have been as well applied to the subject of our memoir. In late years the multiplicity of characters, and the very different nature of the talent necessary properly to represent them, very materially altered the style of his acting. His low comedy had become broad rather than humorous, and the short time he had for study forced him sometimes to interpolate words of his own fault of those written by the author.
John Henry Alexander was born in the town of Dunbar in East Lothian, in the year 1796. His father was a respectable watchmaker in that town, and for some time conducted the establishment of a Mr. Davidson, and on that gentleman’s retiring to Dunse he succeeded to the whole of his business, which he prosecuted with success for some years; but circumstances of an adverse nature, occasioned by the pressure of the times, having overcome his efforts, he resigned his prospects in that town and came to Edinburgh, in which city he remained for some years, and from thence retired to Glasgow.

The subject of this memoir is the second son of five. Having received the principal part of his education in Edinburgh, he commenced and was intended to pursue his father’s profession; but on arrival in Glasgow he was placed in the shop of his uncle, Mr. Hugh Proudfoot, then an extensive hosier and glover at the foot of the Candleriggs, where he continued for some time as assistant shopman, to the satisfaction of his relative. But having considerable time upon his hands in the situation which he filled, he here imbibed a predilection for the stage by reading the memoirs of Garrick, Macklin, Barry, Mossop, and other eminent members of the historic art; and last, not least, his afterwards manager, Mr. Henry Johnston, whose biography met his eye in the Monthly Mirror, and, being a Scotchman, national feeling and enthusiasm at once determined him in making the stage his profession, and now busied his thoughts on the means of accomplishing his design – the fruit of which was an appearance with a party of theatrical heroes, who sallied from Glasgow to an adjoining country town, and here he made his debut as “Frederick” in the play of “Lovers’ Vows”, and “Scout” in the farce of the “Village Lawyer”. In these his success was such as to realise all the expectations he had formed of being an actor.

He afterwards, in a similar exhibition, enacted “Lady Randolph” and “Williams” in the farce of the “Register Office”, for his clear enunciation of which, and his general perfectness in the text, he was particularly noticed, and his juvenile mind was sufficiently buoyed up with applause, to confirm his choice of profession. At this period he was not more than fourteen years of age, and being in the habit of frequenting the office of the late John Tate, then printer in Glasgow, for the purpose of superintending the printing of the bills, for the above exhibitions, he there attracted the notice of that gentleman, who afterwards introduced him to Messrs. Bartley and Trueman, then managers of the Queen Street Theatre, who, perceiving something of the ‘vis comica’ in his composition, allowed him an appearance on the same evening that the son of Mr. Bartley made a similar debut – Mr. Alexander singing the comic song of ‘London is the Devil’, and Mr. B. ‘Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled’: the juvenility of the heroes being such, as created a powerful sensation amongst the inmates of the theatre; the wings and stage doors were crowded to hear the result of their efforts, which were highly relished by the audience, and Mr. Alexander being encored in his song, he repeated it with similar success for several evenings. After this he continued to visit behind the scenes, and to prepare himself in characters, when a maturer age might fit him for their representation. On the retirement of Messrs. Bartley and Trueman from the Glasgow Theatre, he procured an engagement from their successor, and here began to distinguish himself by giving out the performances at the end of the play, and addressing the audiences in cases of emergency. Adverse circumstances having obliged Mr. Montgomery to relinquish the theatre, he at last met with the object of his early adoration, Mr. Henry Johnston, who immediately engaged him; and he made his first appearance in the town of Ayr as Laertes in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Johnston playing the part of Hamlet. On the second night, Dan in ‘John Bull’, and throughout the season, an extensive range of business of equal consequence – versatility of talent, which has since distinguished his efforts, appearing even at those early years. He now returned to the Queen Street Theatre under the auspices of Mr. Macready, who had then become leasee of the theatre. His entrĂ©e into that establishment was as Frank Rochdale, in ‘John Bull’, and continued till the end of the season playing a variety of business, and finished as Colonel Lambton in the ‘Royal Oak’, to Master Betty, the ‘Young Rosciue, Charles the Second’, when he was despatched with a party to open the Newcastle Theatre, where he continued several seasons, gradually working himself into favour with the audience.

He then visited Carlisle with the same company, where he became an established favourite, and has since continued to retain the favour and good opinion of that audience. While in Carlisle he received a favourable offer from Messrs. Anderson and Falconer, then managers of the Scarborough Theatre, which he accepted; but, in the interim, having been recommended by some private friend, he received a flattering invitation from Mr. William Murray to join him at the commencement of his management of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh; having always entertained a high opinion of the respectability and excellence of this establishment, he experienced some regret at not being able to accept the offer at this time, but, in his reply, requested that the gentleman to honour him with a communication at the end of the Scarborough season, which, being complied with, after an excellent benefit in Scarborough, with equal professional success, he joined the Edinburgh company, where he continued about ten years, occupying a vast multiplicity of characters, tragic and comic; in many of which he was eminently successful, such as Dandie Dinmont, Ralph Hempseed, Jem Ratcliff etc., combining with them such characters as Pizarro. Moustache (Henri Quatre), Bertrand (Foundling of the Forest), Timour the Tartar, Zembuco etc, in all of which, the kindness of the audience was always proverbial. He took much pains and pleasure in his dressing, and discharge of his duties before the public; and the kind and continued favours bestowed upon him by an Edinburgh audience has left a strong impression upon his mind, even to this hour.

He was married in the year 1817, to the present Mrs. Alexander, who is a native of Edinburgh, when only twenty years of age; and became so extensively connected and favoured with the public, that his benefits annually produced £147. On these occasions he assumed the following important characters, - Othello, Alexander the Great, Fitzharding (Curfew), Robert Tyke, etc., etc., in all of which he raised himself still higher in the general important situation he held in the theatre; and by his industry, contrived to amass a considerable sum, such as might be termed to so young a person, and in a precarious public profession, a tolerable independency. Keeping in view his future endeavours, upon the capital of which he commenced his management, and invested his family in some property of importance on that city.

Although ten years in the Edinburgh Theatre, he quitted it for a short period, to accept of an invitation to be the stage manager of the Aberdeen Theatre, then under the auspices of Mr. Ryder, and made his first appearance in that town as Othello. Mr Alexander’s time of joining this establishment being near the close of the season, he finished that campaign, and proceeded to Perth with the company, where he again received an invitation from Mr. Murray, and once more joined that gentleman’s establishment, then in Glasgow, and re-appeared on the Glasgow stage in Rashleigh Osbaldiston in ‘Rob Roy’. During the whole of the season in that theatre he continued to sustain his former routine of business, such as Timour the Tartar, Zembuco, Pizarro, etc., with a large portion of the low comedy.  He then returned with the company to Edinburgh, where he continued, until invited to the management of the  Theatre Royal, Newcastle, in the absence of Mr. Decamp, then engaged at the Haymarket Theatre, and made his first appearance  to the late Stephen Kemble’s Falstaff, in the character of Hotspur, in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry the Fourth’; on the following night, Lancelot Gobbo to his Shylock; afterwards, Sir David Daw to his Penruddock; Dennis Brulgruddery to his Job Thornberry; and throughout the season, besides the management of the theatre, combined the singular versatility of sustaining the first tragedy and low comedy, which was appointed to him by Mr. Duncan, without solicitation, having only viewed his versatile powers while on a visit to Edinburgh.
Previous to this period, after an absence of a number of years, during one of the Edinburgh vacations, he had visited the old and favoured scene of his youth, the city of Carlisle, where, in a temporary engagement for a fortnight, he met with so hearty a welcome from his old friends (having made considerable progress in his profession), as induced the manager to re-engage him for a further limited period; and the theatre being then to let, the inhabitants considered him the most competent person to become the tenant, for the assiduity he had displayed for the interest of his then employer. He at once accepted the invitation, and, amidst a host of competitors, he became the tenant; and at the close of the Newcastle season, he opened the Carlisle Theatre, in 1821, with Mr. Decamp’s company and terminated a most successful season in that city; and which he has since continued to govern with equal success, for a period of twelve years.

During his sojurn in Carlisle, he received an invitation from the proprietors of the Dumfries Theatre to become their tenant. He proceeded to that town, and though he had many difficulties to encounter, from previous bad tenants, yet, by perseverance and attention, he continued to govern it for ten years, and to gain the good opinion of the inhabitants of that town. After the first season in Dumfries, not having towns of equal respectability with that and Carlisle, he broke up his company and retired to Edinburgh, where he lay upon his oars for a few weeks, and then made his first managerial essay in Glasgow in the summer of 1822; in an after season at the old Minor Theatre, which had been occupied several seasons by a Mr. Kinloch, and which stood on the site of the present Theatre Royal, but on a smaller scale. Here his success was equal to his previous managerial career in other towns, and he resolved to continue it, but found great obstruction and difficulty from the rights of the patent of the Queen Street Theatre; and not being thoroughly acquainted with dramatic laws, and several persons having occupied the premises before him, he considered, as minor theatres were allowed in L0ondon, he had a right to pursue the same system in Scotland, not knowing at that period that the London minor theatres were licensed by Act of Parliament. After defending himself through hosts of enemies of the opposite party, and resisting various prosecutions, at an enormous expense, in the Supreme Court, he at last grew weary of this life of jeopardy, and at the burning of the Queen Street Theatre he resolved (Having already expended several hundred pounds on the property he then occupied, and which he was conscious would have been devoted to the service of his enemies) t embark the earnings of his laborious life in taking some interest in the present Theatre Royal and it’s patent. The circumstances which took place during these painful and almost incredible proceedings would occupy volumes to detail, and hereafter may furnish materials for a continuation of the history of the Scottish Stage.

Since the possession of the Patent Theatre, Mr. Alexander has fully realized his previous exertions, and has evinced a degree of professional knowledge which fully proves that he has been nursed and cradled in the bosom of the drama. He is the only man who, for thirty years, has been enabled to place the theatricals of Glasgow in a paying or lucrative condition, and it is now said, that money is to be made in Glasgow by such speculations. Let those who do not possess the same resources and versatility try the scheme (even were they to obtain a license), and then speak of the result. We fear it would be in unison with those who, when they got rid of a theatrical property, would not venture it a second time. The great secret of Mr. Alexander’s success in this – he goes through the work of six men daily – he employs no stage manager – no amanuensis – he constructs and lays out his own scenery – puts into the hands of his painter the whole of the work which has appeared in this theatre for years – selects a great portion of his melo-dramatic music – superintends and directs the business from the commencement of his rehearsals day, and takes an equal active part in two and three dramatic pieces each night. Now, all this paid by deputy would soon convince theatrical speculators of their error in theatrical profits.

Mr. Alexander’s parents are respectable, and have conducted themselves through life, in a manner which reflects credit on themselves, and the present subject of this memoir. He has also many highly respectable relations: his uncle, Capt. Charles Alexander, who was present at the battle of Alexandria, and several successful campaigns, is now enjoying the winter of his life on full pay, in the town of Perth, of which place his father and mother are natives.

The Monument is located in 'Omega' Section.

John Henry Alexander’s widow Elizabeth outlived him by just over twenty years.
She died on the 8th April 1872 aged 71 at 8 Shaftesbury Terrace, Glasgow.

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