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Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904.

 

The Life of an Actor

An Autobiography by H. F. Lloyd, Comedian

Late of the Theatre Royal Edinburgh and Glasgow

Index

CHAPTER THREE

ENTERING THE PROFESSION

A dishonest theatrical agent

Finding that his son "would be an actor, my father, though much opposed to the notion, at last consented that I should give the stage a trial, hoping however, that I should tire of it. Having obtained his permission, I lost no time in making inquiries as to how an engagement was to be procured. As a result, I learned that this was only to be arranged through a medium called a "theatrical agent." Upon one of these gentry, named Pym, whose office was in the neighborhood of Bow Street, I was recommended to call, which I did accordingly. After having stated my wishes, he asked me what line of business I professed. I told him low comedy. He had the very thing to suit me, he said. The salary was ten shillings a week, and I could have the situation at once, on payment of his fee of one guinea. I said I would go home at once and bring the money directly. Having done so, he gave me the name of the manager and the place-namely, "Mr Smith, Theatre Royal, Thaxted, by Dunmow, Essex." It was about 20 miles from London, he said. That same evening I packed up my full rig-out of stage dresses that I had been collecting for many months past, sufficient to provide for a small company. On the following afternoon, having said goodbye to all at home, with a promise to keep a diary and write them occasionally, I left by coach from Bishopsgate Street, and arrived at Dunmow in the evening.

You may like to visit the Thaxted Website here.

ADVENTURE WITH A CORPSE

It was too late for a conveyance to Thaxted, so I ordered tea, after partaking of which I set out for a stroll. I felt lonely, but pictured to myself the fine theatre that I should soon appear at, and thought of the kindness I had experienced at the hands of the agent in giving me the engagement, which he said he would not have done had he not liked my appearance, as it was a first-rate theatre, and he was sure I should succeed. (More about this anon. Suffice it here to say that the agent was a fraud). After a long walk I returned to the inn, took off my boots, asked for a light, and also where I should find my bed-room. The landlord said he had placed the candle on the dressing-table ready for me, and my room was the first on the top of the stairs, to the right. I thanked him, bade him good-night, and shortly after left the parlour, taking my portmanteau in my hand.

At the end of the lobby I found there were two staircases, one on the right and the other on the left. On chance, I mounted the latter, found the first door on the right there, which was locked, with the key left in it. I opened it, and there was the lighted candle on the table sure enough. "All right," said I to myself, as I entered, and, shutting the door, locked it, according to my invariable custom at home or abroad. I then unstrapped my portmanteau, put on my nightshirt and cap and prepared to turn in. The room was one of these large old-fashioned ones lined with dark-oak wainscotting; the bed, a four-poster, placed close to the wall, at the far end of it from the door. Taking my bearings for the bed, I extinguished the light, and walked straight up to it. Putting forth my hand to turn down the bedclothes lower before getting in, I found that there was neither bolster, pillows, nor even a bed; nothing but a mattress - and a sort of loose covering, which I had pulled away. I groped about in the dark, until suddenly my outstretched hand came in contact with something that sent an icy chillness through my blood.

A sickly feeling came over me. I had a horrible suspicion of what I dreaded to think about. I staggered to the window, drew open the curtains, and the light of a beautiful full moon streamed into the room. I returned to the bedside, and - horror! - there, on the mattress, lay a female corpse, the winding sheet nearly torn off, and the cap and bindings half drawn over her face - through my having taken them in the dark for part of the bed-clothes. The moonlight shining in on this object gave it a ghastly and frightful appearance. It had been too much for my nerves, it appeared. I had fallen to the ground insensible; and what followed was told me afterwards by the landlord. The family and himself, he said, had heard a heavy fall in a room just overhead of the bar, in which they were sitting. As this room was that in which the body of the barmaid, who had died this morning, was laid out, they were much astonished and alarmed. Having heard of people supposed to have died, but who were only in a trance, they came to the conclusion that this might be such a case; and that the supposed deceased, having come out of the trance and endeavouring to rise, had fallen off the bed.

You may like to visit the Thaxted Website here.

RESURRECTION OR NOT?

At last they all took courage and went upstairs together; when finding the door locked on the inside, they made the more sure that the girl must have come to life again, and, having locked the door, was too weak to get back into bed again, and had dropped on the floor. It was then resolved to break open the door, which was done; and, discovering me lying on the ground with my long white night-shirt, and night-cap, they took me for the corpse. The women screamed and rushed downstairs, the landlord following as quickly as possible, all being certain now, from seeing the body on the floor, that the poor girl had been up. Downstairs again, they wondered how I could sleep with such a noise going on in the house. It was resolved to go to my room and, if necessary, explain the case. The landlord accordingly went up the right-hand staircase - as I should have done - and into the first room on the right hand, where, to his no small surprise, he found the bed empty and no traces of me.

This was another mystery. Where could I be - and who or what could I be? A thought struck him; he didn't like the look of me - I must be some London thief. Count the plate - it was counted, and found all right. Very strange! Well, let us first go up to poor Jane's room again, and place her in bed, and look for the fellow afterwards. Only the landlord and ostler would venture, and up they went once more. Looking at the body on the floor with his stable lantern, the ostler cried out "Here be that chap, and here be's portmanter!" They shook me, and found me as cold as ice, and looking nearly as like a corpse as the harmless cause of all this disturbance. "D--n the fellow," said the landlord; "shove him into his own bunk. What's he doing here!" "I have it," said the ostler, "he's a body-snatcher fra Lunnou, come down here to take poor Jane away in his portmanter." They tried to put me on my legs, but, finding me thoroughly helpless, they carried me downstairs, put me in a chair before the kitchen fire, gave me hot brandy and water, and gradually revived me.

As may be guessed, after such a night of excitement, sleep was out of the question; we all got wide awake. First I told my story, and then the landlord told his, of what happened after I had fallen down insensible; and then we sat talking of ghosts, and haunted rooms, and mysterious knockings until breakfast-time. After that, feeling anything but well, I went up to my room - the right one this time - and got into bed. I slept for a couple of hours or so, but very uncomfortably, I must say; for within that time I had, amongst other agreeables, been buried alive, hanged, and drowned, and at last awoke in a violent struggle with a skeleton. I then got up, had a cup of tea, and paid my bill, and learning that no such thing as a coach ever went to Thaxted, I had to hire a taxed cart to carry myself and luggage to my destination. At six o'clock on a fine Saturday evening we took the road, my friend Joe the ostler, who had pronounced me to be a body-snatcher, driving. The landlord's last words to me at the door were, "Mum about last night, you know." "All right" said I, "drive on."

You may like to visit the Thaxted Website here.

JOE, OSTLER AND AMATEUR

As we jugged along it occurred to me that possibly I might be able to learn through Joe something as to the character of the theatre of which I was about to become a member. I had said nothing about it in Dunmow, nor did I care just at present to make anyone acquainted with the nature of my business here, so I commenced to tackle him in an artfully unconcerned sort of way, by asking him if there were any places of amusement in the neighbourhood.

He said, "No; only sometimes Wombwell's wild beasts or Cooke's sirens comes for a night and away the next morning. To be sure there were a notin' show come now and then for two or three weeks - and they fixed up all the painted things in a big room or a barn." I asked what they charged for admission. "Well, last time as they com'd here, the prices were too 'sorbitant and nobody went. But when they lowered them to tuppence the gallery, fourpence the pit, and sixpence the boxes, they done capital well. They got I to act one night." "O, I acted wi' a red sojer's coat on, and a gun on my shoulder." "Did you have much to say?" "No, nothink." "Did they pay you for it?" "In course - least-ways they promised me sixpence a week." "And did you get it?" "No; but I got summat else - and more than I ex-pected." "I am glad of that." "Eh? thank you. D'rectly I showed my face and said as I'd com'd for my money the chaps burst out a-laughin', and said 'Hiloo! It's old Joe Watkins- How be you Joe? - Shoulder arms! - Eyes right' - that's cause I squints with one eye, sir. So I shook my list at 'em and said I'd give 'em a d---d good lickin' afore I'd done with 'em. And then one fellow he cries out 'pot him,' and another he shies a pewter pint pot at me - see this 'ere scar on my head sir. Well-that's all as I got for my actin' - so I thought I'd had enough of it."

After sympathising with Joe on this result of his stage experience, I asked if the performers were clever. He said he didn't know, he warn't no judge; "how-somever they made the people laugh a good bit. But," he added, "poor devils - I did pity some on 'em." "Why?" "Lord love you, sir, I don't believe as they'd hardly anything to eat at time. I knows this as how I let two on 'em sleep in our hay-loft unbeknown to master, and I used often to steal the turnips after they was biled for the cows, and hand 'em up to 'em, wi' a handful o'salt, at night when they'd done wi' the show. Ah, and many's a time I've giv'd 'em my own supper o' bread and bacon and a drink o' beer. I 'members once being away wi' our wagon and team at Hartford for three days - master lent it to a farmer there - and when I com'd back I took summat up to the loft the same night for 'em, and the youngest burst out a-cryin, and said, 'Joe,' says he, 'we're a starvin'. D----d if it didn't set me a-blubberin' too; and when I told my old woman it put her in such a pickle. She used to make 'em a bowl o' furmenty always of a Sunday and hand it up to 'em in the loft. And yet, sir - this young chap were the one as used to act the comics and make the people laugh so."

" Where are they now?" - I asked.

"Well - I don't 'zactly know; but I shouldn't wonder if they be over at Thaxted."

"What's the manager's name?" said I - half afraid to put the question.

"Smith" - said he.

"What!" - I exclaimed - "Smith?"

"Ay - Smith - d'ye know him?"

"No - oh no-no."

"Well here we are, sir," said Joe, as we turned a corner into the village; "This house on the right 'ere be the best house in Thaxted - and very decent people."

"All right," I replied, "that will do"; I felt so sick at heart that I did not care where I went. I gave the ostler his fee and a pint of home-brewed, and off he went, back again to Dunmow. I wished I had been going there with him - for then I should have been seven miles nearer home.

You may like to visit the Thaxted Website here.

GETTING DISENCHATED

I was standing at the inn door after Joe had gone, lost in thought, and, I confess, getting home-sick, when the landlord, a civil-spoken man, asked me to step into the bar-parlour. It was market-day, he explained, and all the other rooms were full. I followed him in, and this appeared to me to be also crowded. However, at the landlord's request, room was made for me between the cobbler and the barber of the place - at least I judged them to be so, from the fact that one had on a dirty leather apron, and the other a clean white one. The company seemed to be a motley lot, but the majority, as I learned afterwards, were a band of stone-masons from London, employed in renovating the old church in the village. I called for half-a-pint of beer, and, while sipping it, had to listen to a rather (to me) interesting conversation.

"Hallo, Bill! You ain't been long away" (this to a man entering the room). "No," was the reply; "I couldn't stand the d-----d rot any longer - a regular penny gaff." "What are they acting?" another asks of him. "Well, they're a-trying to hact 'King Dick.' "

This caused a general "Oh!" and a loud laugh from the masons. One of the latter, whom I rightly guessed to be the foreman of the gang, then took up the subject in true Sir Oracle style. "I heard one of you chaps say as you'd been to see King Dick next door, and as how it was all bosh. I could have told you that afore ye went in. They can't do it, gintlemen - can't do it - I says so hemphatical."

After telling us that he had seen Kean do it, and what a "himpression" it had made on him, he went on to say that these wandering vagabonds - such as the party presently put up in the big room adjoining - shouldn't be encouraged - it was a regular case of obtaining money on false pretences - they should be "took up," and if he were a "beak" he'd give them three months - and so forth.

THE THEATRE ROYAL, THAXTED

This was getting quite too hot for me as you may guess, so under cover of a roar of laughter at some understood-to-be witty stroke of the foreman mason I quietly finished my beer, and having got outside, my next step was to ask to see the manager of the company whose demerits I had just heard so freely commented upon. My desire having been conveyed to that potentate, within a few minutes he came out in his Richard's robes. I told him my name and business - Mr Locke I called myself.

"Sir, I am proud to see you," said his Majesty, "and will speak with you after we finish. Will you go into the front, or come behind the scenes!" I told him I should prefer the front. "One moment, then," he said; and popping into the bar amongst the masons, he disposed of a pint of beer in one draught, and then, returning to me, opened the door on the opposite side of the lobby, called to some one inside, in a most authoritative of voice: "Pass one to the dress circle."

Entering at the door, I found that I had to make my way between a blanket and the wall until I got about half-way down the room; and, son suddenly emerging from it (the blanket), I found myself in the dress circle of the Theatre Royal, Thaxted. One of the first things that caught my eye here was a big black board leaning against the wall in as conspicuous a place as possible of the "auditorium;" and on which , written with white-size paint, was an announcement which as it may afford some idea of the respectability of the patrons of the drama in Thaxted, I shall give without abridgment. It ran thus:-

Reward.-Mr Smith having suffered a good deal of annoyance from some ill-bred fellows visiting this establishment begs to state in plain terms that if anyone is found playing Aunt Sally during the performance by throwing the shanks of tobacco-pipes at the lighted candles, thereby cutting them in half, and causing them to fall over and burn wick downwards, the tallow therefrom destroying the silk dresses of the ladies-he (Mr Smith) will give a large reward for the apprehension of the offender. - And if anyone continues the old practice of throwing orange-peel, nuts, apples, or pewter pots at the actors, particularly at their heads, they (the actors) have Mr S.'s permission to take the law into their own hands, for they cannot stand such fun any longer,-Anyone informing will get from Mr S. as large a reward as he has promise above. "Vivat Rex."

You may like to visit the Thaxted Website here.

ROMANCE AND REALITY IN INTERIORS

But Mr S. was evidently well up in the way of wording announcements. He had opened here - the "New Theatre-Royal," he termed it - about a fortnight before my arrival, and a portion of the notice advertising the event may be worth giving. After referring to the great expense incurred in making the place comfortable for those honouring him with their patronage, it went on:-

"The actors and actresses are superior to any out of London. The scenery painted by a popular Artist. The Dresses entirely new, and pleasing to the eye. Leader of the Band and Composer to the Theatre, Signor Bakori. The Audience Department painted and decorated in the most chaste and elegant style. Two Private Boxes added. The old-fashioned forum in boxes discarded, and comfortable chairs, made expressly. The elegant chandeliers made by Mr White, of this town. [A Village of 1500 inhabitants!] The joiner work by Mr Wilton of this town, &c, N.B. -Mr Smith will not be answerable for any bills run up by the actors or actresses."

So much for Mr Smith's description of the interior of the Theatre-Royal, Thaxted. Now for a bona-fide description as I saw it. It was a good-sized hall, whitewashed, the only ornamentation being the Royal Arms and a star, each cut out of brown paper, and stuck up on the wall on either side. The "chandeliers," a row of which ran down the centre of the hall, consisted of barrel hoops with little tin sockets for holding candles stuck round them, and were suspended from the ceiling by common hempen string. The hall was divided across into three compartments. That nearest to the stage was the boxes, the centre one was the pit, and the furthest back was the gallery. A plank, covered with old red baize, separated the compartments from each other, all being on a level on the same floor. The seats in the pit and gallery were unplaned planks; but the boxes - or box, for it was all in one - were furnished with chairs offering a pleasing variety in form and construction, including hair-bottomed, cane-bottomed, rush-bottomed, and wooden kitchen chairs. The two private boxes were constructed out of two big old chests, covered, the one with a worn-out Othello's robe, and the other with a thread-bare barrister's gown, and placed one on each side of the Orchestra. That important element, by the way, was represented by a single fiddler, who had the supreme assurance to tap his own fiddle with his own fiddlestick to prepare the Band (himself) for commencing the overture. A row of candles formed the footlights, and these, from time to time, the Orchestra would snuff with his fingers.

You may imagine my surprise and disgust at taking stock of all this. The last theatre I had been inside of was Drury Lane; but I had seen a better one than that I now looked around, even at Bartlemy Fair. "And is this the place I am to act in?" said I to myself, and the answer was "Not if I know it." The Box audience on this occasion consisted of the constable of the parish (as I was told), his wife and daughter. He was seated at a little round table, placed there for his accommodation, with a glass of brandy-and-water before him, and a long clay pipe in his mouth from which he puffed his tobacco with the air of a Sultan. There might be a dozen persons in the pit, whilst the gallery was nearly full; most of the occupants of the latter solacing themselves with the weed according to the example set them by his constable-ship. I sat on a chair at the back of the boxes, solus, lost in wonder and admiration until the curtain fell at the termination of the tragedy. Then one of the performers came forward to announce the entertainments for the Monday, which he did as follows:-

"Ladies and Gentlemen, - On Monday evening will be performed the comedy, in five acts, entitled "She Stoops to Conquer," the part of Tony Lumpkin by Mr Locke, the celebrated comedian from the Theatre Royal, Birmingham; his first appearance at this theatre."

I was simply dumbfounded. In the first place, I had never seen the part of Tony; in the second place, calling me a "celebrated comedian," and in the third place, announcing me as "from the Theatre Royal, Birmingham"! It was such a string of barefaced falsehoods that - being then altogether innocent of the unconquerable propensity of managers in that direction - it almost took my breath away. To this, succeeded such a feeling of contempt for the whole affair that I determined on following the fiend's advice to Launcelot Cobbs - "Use your legs, take the start, run away."

You may like to visit the Thaxted Website here.

I LODGE WITH THE CONSTABLE

When the audience had dispersed, the manager jumped off the stage, still in Richard's robes, joined the round table afore-mentioned, and, beckoning me forward, he introduced me to the constable and his family, upon which that official ordered brandy and water for three and beer for one. Mr Smith then asked me if I had procured a bed yet. I told him I had not. The landlord having informed us that all his beds were taken up by the masons from London, Mr Smith, in a very condescending style, as I thought, offered me a share of his own. I told him I was much obliged by the offer, but that I preferred sleeping alone - a reply which he did not seem to take with good grace.

The constable then offered me a bed at his public-house, at the other end of the village which I gladly accepted; and he, with his family and myself, took our departure. I found my publican-constable host a remarkably nice fellow, while his family seemed distinctly superior to the majority of this clan of the country people. They had supper laid when we got home, at which everything was scrupulously clean, and I for one did ample justice to an excellent repast.

Then the bottle was brought out; and, while the master did his brandy and water and pipe, I kept him company with a glass of beer and a cigar. By and by, I was shown to my room by the landlord, who told me he had given me "their bed," "hoped I should sleep well, and bade me "goodnight."

When he had gone, I took stock of the apartment. I found everything to be as clean as a new pin. I looked into the cupboard - all right; and, be sure - after my experiences of the night before at Dunmow - I did not forget to look into and under the bed! The latter, I must explain, was placed close to a wooden partition, which appeared to have been erected for the purpose of making a room out of what had been a large square lobby. This partition went up to about rather more than a foot from the ceiling, the remaining space up to the latter being filled in with spars, some six inches apart, on purpose, to show a light into a narrow passage on the other side. I undressed, first putting the candlestick into the wash-hand basin, blew out the light, crossed over to the bed in the dark as usual, and tumbled in, determined to have a good night's rest this time. I must have fallen asleep immediately - and - "thereby hangs a tale."

You may like to visit the Thaxted Website here.

...Chapter Two - Chapter Four...

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