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About John Reilly Newcombe

Introduction - Obituary from The ERA - Obituary from The Stage

Arthur Lloyd commenced his professional career with J. R. Newcombe at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, in 1856, and so had a lot to thank him for. I have reproduced J. R. Newcombe's obituaries from the ERA and the Stage Newspaper here as they give an interesting incite into the career of this influential man of the theatre, the history of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth itself, and Newcombe's time there.

DEATH OF MR. J. R. NEWCOMBE

From his obituary in the ERA, 23rd July 1887

Not perhaps with surprise, but certainly with regret, was received on Monday the news of the death of the above-named estimable gentleman, who for forty-two years has been lessee of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, and who had reached a great age. He is well described as one of the most remarkable and best known of the public men of Plymouth - a man of wonderful vigour, spirit, and energy. He had an attack of paralysis some three or four years since, but, with a fine constitution, he seemed to have thrown off completely the effects of the seizure, and until a few weeks ago, when he took cold at a theatrical cricket match, had enjoyed unbroken health. This was on Saturday, June 25th. On the Sunday he saw his treasurer, Mr Frank Kilpack, who handed over to him the books and accounts for the season just ended. When Monday came he was obliged to keep to his room, and Dr. Meeres, on being called in, found that he was suffering from an attack of erysipelas of the head and face. Under Dr. Meeres' skillful treatment the erysipelas subsided, but it left the patient extremely weak and disinclined to take nourishment. His condition fluctuated somewhat, showing occasional promise of improvement, but he failed to rally, and death occurred at four o'clock on Monday morning, deceased passing away as in a peaceful slumber after several hours of unconsciousness.

Deceased, who was eighty-four years of age last birthday, came to Plymouth to reside in 1845. He had then been married several years to Mrs Newcombe, who is her late husband's junior by three or four years. There were four children by the marriage, two sons and two daughters, Both sons are dead. Albert, the elder, who had been for many years his father's treasurer and acting-manager, died on the 28th January, 1881, at the age of forty-eight; the second son, Arthur, died in August, 1883. Both were married, and their widows still survive. One of Mr Newcombe's daughters is the wife of Mr Henry Reed, who for several years past has been the conductor of the orchestra at Plymouth Theatre. The other married Mr Mead, a coal merchant, who died some time ago. Mrs Mead is residing in London. The funeral, which was largely attended, took place on Thursday morning.

A postcard depicting the Theatre Royal, PlymouthThe late Mr J. R. Newcombe's connection with Plymouth began in the year 1845, when he took his first lease of the Theatre Royal from the Corporation. From that time to the day of his decease he remained the tenant of the Corporation, never for a moment forfeiting the respect which his spirited and high-principled management of the house won for him from the very first, and commanding universal admiration by the courageous manner in which he fought against the discouragements of his early career and faced disasters that might have completely borne down a less masterful mind.

Right - An early postcard depicting the Theatre Royal, Plymouth.

The story of Mr Newcombe's professional life for the greater part of the past half-century is the story of the drama in Plymouth. Mr Newcombe at the time of his death was the oldest theatrical lessee and manager in England. He was, we believe, a native of Bath, having been born there in March, 1803. He came of a family in good social position; and on the death of his father, who was highly respected by the citizens of Bath, he inherited a considerable property, chiefly houses. As a young man he developed a passionate fondness for hunting and other out-of-door sports - a fondness which only ceased with his life. In fact, Mr Newcombe's figure was as well known and as welcome in the field as on the stage; and if he could be said to have been more warmly attached to one pursuit than to the other, we are not sure that the hunt would not have carried the clay. He always kept good horses, and scarcely a season passed during a period of sixty years in which he did not regularly ride to hounds. When in his prime Mr J, R. Newcombe, in his red swallow-tail and leather breeches, well mounted as he always was, generally managed to keep among the leaders of the field and be "in at the death," and even with the weight of seventy years and more upon him he sat his horse as firmly, rode as pluckily, and negotiated his fences as successfully as most of the "youngsters." He was one of the best known figures at the meets of the Trelawny hounds for thirty or forty years, and when Admiral Parker succeeded Mr Trelawny in the office of M.F.H. he still followed the pack with his old enthusiasm, if with somewhat declining vigour. A year or two since he was medically advised to discontinue riding, but the old love proved too strong to be wholly restrained, and he was in the saddle as lately as last season, though verging on eighty-four.

Plymouth Theatre has been twice partially destroyed by fire during Mr Newcombe's lesseeship - viz., in 1863 and in 1878. On each occasion it was improved, and in 1878 it was considerably enlarged; but, as far as the main structure itself is concerned, it is practically the same as that originally designed for the corporation by Mr Foulston.

The circumstances under which Mr Newcombe made his entry into theatrical life on a professional footing were somewhat peculiar and rather interesting. Strolling one day into an auction-room at Bath with some young men who like himself had been hunting, and bad not yet divested themselves of their scarlet, Mr Newcombe found that the lease of the Swansea Theatre was being brought to the hammer. Half in joke the young sportsman began to bid; and eventually, somewhat to his surprise, Mr Newcombe found the " lot " knocked down to him. He had frequently taken part it amateur theatrical performances in Bath, but had never seriously thought of adopting the stage as a profession. Now, however, he found himself with a theatre on his hands; and, yielding to the persuasions of several actors to whom he was known, and with whom he was a great favourite, he resolved to carry it on. The actors, it is said, crowded around Mr Newcombe and pressed him to try the experiment, offering to play a week for nothing if he would open the theatre, Mr Newcombe determined to make a start, and thus commenced his regular theatrical career.

Soon afterwards the Plymouth Theatre came to be let, and, as already stated, he became a successful competitor for it, his term commencing at Midsummer, 1845. He continued to hold the lesseeship of Swansea Theatre for a time. He also had some connection with the Bath Theatre. Devonport Theatre, which then stood on the site now occupied by the ornamental green at the south-east entrance to the town, came into Mr Newcombe's hands. For some years he worked it in conjunction with the Plymouth Theatre, but it was never a financial success, and eventually he closed the house, though retaining possession of it. Mr Newcombe also carried on the theatre at Barnstaple for a considerable time, and there is a tradition that he had some interest in the theatre at Weymouth, but of this we are not certain. On coming to Plymouth Mr Newcombe shared the management at Swansea with Mr Woulds, who at one period had the Bath Theatre in partnership with Macready. Mr Woulds came to Plymouth and took part in the performances of the opening night, 16th April, 1845. In the playbill, which is still preserved among the archives of the theatre, Mr Newcombe addresses himself to the "nobility, gentry, masonic brethren, and public generally of Plymouth, Stonehouse, Devon-port, and their vicinities," and "begs most respectfully to state that he has taken upon himself the lesseeship and management of the establishment for a term of seven years." The plays announced were Time Works Wonders and The Double-Bedded Boors, The cast included (besides the lessee himself) Mr Woulds, Mr Davidge, Mr and Mrs Wood, and Mr R. H. Wyndham, who eighteen years afterwards - when the first fire occurred - was lessee and manager of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, and wrote from thence one of those sympathising letters which came to Mr Newcombe in shoals from professional and private friends in all parts of the United Kingdom.

The opening night cannot have been a very encouraging one. There were fairly good pit and gallery audiences, but the better paying parts of the house were literally empty. For six weeks the total receipts of the Dress circle were 2s. 6d - one admission at half-price. Nothing daunted, however, the "enterprising" lessee - who ever deserved the epithet if J. R. Newcombe did not? - determined to make the house popular among people of position and culture by the employment of good stock companies capable of performing the "legitimate drama" with credit and also by bringing down West the brightest metropolitan "stars." This policy he faithfully carried out for many years, though season, after season he did so at a dead loss of many hundreds of pounds.

Before the year 1845 had expired he engaged Taglioni at the fabulous sum for that time of £100 a night. A special ballet corps was employed to support the great dancer. Mr Newcombe got good houses, but lost heavily every night, for the takings were never enough to pay Taglioni alone. Then followed Macready, the greatest tragedian of the day, and in the following year Buckstone, the comedian, was appearing in Lend Me Five Shillings and other of his well-known pieces.

It was in September, 1849, that Macready gave his farewell performances in Plymouth, previous to finally retiring from the stage. The cholera was then raging in the Three Towns, and Macready performed on the first night to absolutely empty benches. One of the proprietors of a local paper, Mr George Eastlake, and others went to the famous actor and begged him to forego his engagement and come down at some future period, when the visitation had disappeared. Macready, however, was obdurate. He insisted on playing, audience or no audience; and, with equal pertinacity, stuck out for a fee of fifty guineas instead of pounds. It was one of Mr New-combo's rules through life not to pay guineas for either fees or subscriptions; he preferred the straightforward sovereign as the recognised coin of the realm, but Macready proved too much for him, and carried his point.

Mr and Mrs Charles Kean were engaged in August of the same year, and they appeared on one or or two subsequent occasions, viz., in 1861 and 1862. Mr Newcombe's stock companies in the old days were generally of good average merit, and year after year he supplied his patrons with creditable performances of Shakespearian plays and other forms of the legitimate drama. The sensational melodramas were also produced at considerable cost. Mr Newcombe himself on one occasion came out as an adaptor, producing a version of "Kenilworth," which seems to have been pretty effective as a spectacular piece. It was first performed on Boxing Night, 1849. The worthy lessee created a sensation by appearing as a mailed knight on horseback, riding from the dress circle to the stage proper over a platform which he had caused to be built across the pit.

During the first ten years of his lesseeship Mr Newcombe sank large sums of money, hoping almost against hope that a "better day would dawn." To provide the treasury with funds he gradually disposed of the whole of his household property in Bath. It has been stated that he lost £10,000 in this way. At last it seemed to him that he saw signs of a turn of the tide in the shape of growing receipts; and eventually, when he came to ask for a second renewal of his lease, rather than risk the chance of the property being handed over to other parties, he undertook to carry out a series of costly alterations. Upon these works he spent a considerable sum of money - upwards of £3.000. The renovated theatre was opened on August 19th, 1861.

On the night of January 5th, 1863, the "pretty little theatre," as it was fondly spoken of, was seriously damaged by fire. The flames were first seen in the property room, the outbreak taking place an hour or so after the finish of the pantomime then running. The fire spread to the auditorium, and almost gutted that part of the building, and the Assembly Room was also partly destroyed. Fortunately, the stage escaped material injury, and the iron roof remained intact. Mr Newcombe's loss was very heavy, having so recently laid out such a large sum of money on the building, and being unfortunately not insured against fire. Such a calamity occurring just at the beginning of the pantomime season might well have disheartened any man in his position. With wonderful pluck, however, he at once set to work (with the co-operation of the Town Council) to repair the damages, and with such marvellous vigour that he was enabled to reopen in a week to the astonishment of every body. The fire occurred on a Monday night, and the following Monday night saw the reopening. Mr Newcombe received scores from professional and private friends in all parts of the country expressing sympathy, and offering pecuniary and other help. Mr Newcombe, however, with a manly independence that did him infinite credit, returned all cheques, and declined all help of a pecuniary kind, though he treasured the letters themselves as among his most valued possessions. One of the cheques was sent to Mr Newcombe three times, but he firmly refused to allow his friends to bear any part of the loss. What is, perhaps, still more to his credit - he did not allow a single member of his company to lose a day's pay in consequence of the fire. The treasury was open on the Saturday as usual. Every man, woman and boy was paid in full, and trades men's bills were discharged with the punctuality that marked Mr Newcombe's business transactions all through his career.

The second fire, which occurred on the night of June 13th, 1878, was of a far more destructive character than that of 1863. It broke out shortly after eleven o'clock, after a performance of Mr Joseph Eldred and his comedy company, and in the course of a few hours the handsome theatre was practically ruined, the massive iron roof having collapsed and buried everything that was not previously burnt. Mr Newcombe was only partially insured, viz., to the extent of about £1,500; but his total loss in wardrobe, properties, &c., was estimated at not less than £4,000. As on the former occasion the sympathy of the profession and the general public was expressed in generous word and deed, and this time Mr Newcombe did not feel justified in refusing the material help offered him. The duty of rebuilding the theatre, of course, fell on the Town Council, who were insured on that portion of the block to the extent of £2,000 or £3,000. The restored theatre was a great advance on its predecessor.

In the November prior to the reopening Mr Newcombe's friends made him a complimentary presentation, after a banquet at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel. The testimonial consisted of £700 in bank-notes, handed to him on a silver salver, inscribed as follows - "Presented to John Reilly Newcombe, Esq., with £700, subscribed by 237 friends, to record their sympathy with him on the occasion of the recent destruction by fire of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, and as an acknowledgment of the zeal he has displayed in catering for the amusement of the public as lessee of the theatre for the last thirty-four years. Plymouth, November 6th, 1878." The history of the theatre since that time has been, on the whole, a satisfactory one.

Mr Newcombe's forte as an actor was that of low comedy. Three of his favourite characters were the Widow Twankey, Bob Handy, and Jeremy Diddler. He almost invariably played in the Christmas pantomime. Occasionally he would essay a more important part, but his succeses were, as a rule, obtained in impersonations requiring broad and rough humour. Mr James Doel, of the Prince George Inn, Stonehouse, was for many years the principal comedian of his stock companies. In his prime Mr Doel was a favourite with Plymouth people, and generally drew a good house when he was on the bill for anything specially good. Mr Doel and Mr Newcombe were on terms of great friendship, and the survivor of the two octogenarian actors will doubtless feel very acutely the blow dealt him in the death of his old employer and fellow artist. Mr Doel took his farewell of the stage on April 10th, 1876, when he appeared as Captain Copp in Charles II, and as Farmer Ashfield in Speed the Plough, Mr Newcombe playing the Earl of Rochester and Bob Handy.

Mr Newcombe stands immortalised in the pages of Punch as the "Manager without guile." In December, 1856, he engaged two ladies named Knowles and Ambrose as "stars " for the impersonation of Shakespearian characters. Their acting disappointed him so much that he felt compelled, as they insisted on playing out the week, to print the following notice on the bill for December 17th :-

Mr J. R. Newcombe begs to inform his patrons that, having entered into an engagement, he feels himself bound to carry it out; but at the same time feels himself equally bound to state to those patrons who may inclined to visit the theatre during such engagement that they will be deceived, as he has been, if they expect to see anything beyond the acting of two ladies who have a great deal to learn before they are competent to sustain, with any credit, the characters they are attempting."

Punch, of January 3d, 1857, printed this notice verbatim, with humorous comments on the ingenuousness of the man "who, compelled to cry his fish, nevertheless cries it with his nose between his fingers."

The above article on J. R. Newcombe was first published in the ERA, 23 July 1887 - Kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

The Death of Mr. J. R. Newcombe

From his obituary in the Stage Newspaper, July 22nd, 1887

Mr. J. R. Newcombe, who for forty-two years has been the lessee of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, died early on Monday morning after a short illness. Mr. Newcombe was born in 1803, and was consequently eight-four years old, but his sprightly manner and juvenile appearance made it a matter of impossibility to suppose that he was that age. Up to within a month of his death he was daily in attendance at the theatre, and when he was not taking long walks over the Devonshire hills and moors he was in the hunting-field, or shooting, fishing, or engaged in some other diversion; in fact, he mixed so thoroughly in all circles of society in Plymouth and the neighbourhood, and took part in so many outdoor pursuits, that apart from his position as lessee of one of the prettiest theatres in the provinces, and as making frequent appearances on the boards, he was one of the best known men in the neighbourhood, and his loss will be widely felt and lamented. During his short illness his popularity has been illustrated by the crowds of people of all sorts and conditions who have called at his residence to inquire for him, and his funeral, which was announced to take place at Plymouth cemetery yesterday (Thursday), will probably have been one of the most notable in the town for some years.

Mr. Newcombe was not a native of Plymouth, being born at Bath, but he became the lessee of the theatre in 1845, and he has held it ever since. The fortunes of the house have been fluctuating: at first it was a melancholy speculation, and some thousands of pounds were "dropped" on it before the turn of the tide came. It has also been burnt down twice, but on each occasion it has risen like the fabled Phoenix, all the more prosperous for the misfortune. It is now, after thirty to forty years of able, energetic, and trustworthy management, one of the beat paying houses in the kingdom, and very few companies that visit it fail to meet with a good reception. In the entire history of the theatre under Mr. Newcombe's rule many of the great theatrical and musical stars appeared and shed their glory on the house, but yet helped to diminish the exchequer of the venturesome lessee.

The opening night under Mr. Newcombe's management, April 16, 1845, cannot have been a very encouraging one. There were fairly good pit and gallery audiences, but the better paying parts of the house were literally empty. For six weeks the total receipts of the dress circle were 2s. 6d - one admission at half-pay! Nothing daunted, however, the lessee determined to make the house popular among people of position and culture by the employment of good stock companies capable of performing the legitimate drama and by bringing down "stars." This policy he faithfully carried out for many years, though season after season he did so at a dead loss of many hundreds of pounds. Before the year 1845 had expired be engaged Taglioni at the fabulous sum for that time of £100 a night! A special ballet corps was employed to support the great dancer. Mr. Newcombe got good houses, but lost heavily every night. Then followed Macready, and in the following year Buckstone, the comedian, was appearing in Lend Me Five Shillings, and other of his well known pieces. It was in September, 1849, that Macready gave his farewell performances in Plymouth, previous to finally retiring from the stage. The tragedian appeared in Macbeth, Werner, and Richelieu, and for his benefit played Cassius in Julius Caesar, Macready took his benefit on Thursday, Sept. 20. The previous Friday had been observed as a day of humiliation, fearful ravages having been made by the cholera.

A Carte de Visite depicting T. C. King - Kindly donated by Jennie Bisset Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean were engaged in August of the same year, and they appeared on one or two subsequent occasions, in 1861 and 1862. Ira Aldridge, the "African Rosoius' also made his debut before a Plymouth audience in the year of Macready's visit. Sims Reeves appears among the "stars" for 1850. He was there twice, playing in Lucia di Lammermoor, La Sonnambia, Ernani, Il Puritani, and The Waterman. Mrs. Nisbett, Miss Louisa Pyne, and Captain Disney Roebuck were also engaged. In the spring of 1852 the children Kate and Ellen Bateman created a sensation by their Shakespearian impersonations. One of them reappeared on Plymouth stage many years afterwards as Miss Bateman, the celebrated tragedienne, having more than fulfilled the promise of her infancy. T. C. King, (Shown Right) T. Mead, and T. Swinbonrne were here several times in the "fifties."

Right - A Carte de Visite depicting T. C. King - Kindly donated by Jennie Bisset.

They were great favourites, and were spoken of familiarly as the "Three Toms." Madame nester, and her Lyceum company were the chief figures of the 1853 season. She was here again in 1855, and March of that year saw Miss Cushman on our boards. Piccolomini (1856), Sam Cowell, Mrs. Charles Young, afterwards Mrs. Herman Vezin and Madame Celeste (1859); Sothern, and Levey the violinist, in "Paganini Redivivus (1865); Miss Siddons and the Keans (1866); Charles Matthews (1868); Sothern again (1870); and J. L. Toole (1871), are names and dates of special interest. Grisi's engagement in October, 1861, was one long to be remembered. The great prima donna here for four nights, appearing in Don Giovanni, Lucretia Borgia, Il Trovatore, and Norma. Adelaide Ristori performed in September, 1873, as Elizabeth Mary Stuart and Mary Antoinette. Many other names of less distinction, but still well known in the theatrical world, appear on the playbills for the Period thus hastily gone over. Among them may be mentioned Mr. and Mrs. Wybert Rousby. Mr. James Bennett, Sir William and Lady Don, S. Branson, J. H. Nicholls (Shakespearean reader), Barry Aylmer, Mr. Henry Vandenboff, Miss Julia Daly, Miss Julia Seaman, Master Percy Roselle, the Gunniss Sisters (dancers), Carrie and Sara Nelson, Miss Marriott, and Miss Wallace, Mr. and Mrs. Billington, Miss Ada Cavendish, and Lulu (1874). Mr. Newcombe's stock companies in the old days were generally of good average merit, and year after year he supplied his patrons with creditable performances of Shakespearean plays and other forms of the legitimate drama. The sensational melodramas were also produced at considerable cost. Mr. Newcombe himself on one occasion came out as an adapter, producing a version of Kenilworth, which seems to have been pretty effective as a spectacular piece. It was first performed on Boxing Night, 1849.

During the first ten years of his lesseeship Mr. Newcombe sank large sums of money, hoping almost against hope that a "better day would dawn." To provide the treasury with funds he gradually disposed of the whole of his household property in Bath. It has been stated that be lost £10,000 in this way. At last it seemed to him that he saw signs of a turn of the tide in the shape of growing receipts, and, eventually, when he came to ask for a second renewal of his lease, rather than risk the chance of the property being handed over to other parties, he undertook to carry out a series of costly alterations. Upon these works he spent a considerable sum of money - upwards of .£3,000.

On the night of January 5, 1863, the theatre was seriously damaged by fire. The fire occurred on a Monday, and the following Monday night saw the reopening! The second fire, which occurred on the night of June 13, 1878, was of a far more destructive character. It broke out shortly after eleven o'clock, after a performance by Mr. Joseph Eldred and his Comedy Company, and in the course of a few hours the handsome house was practically ruined. The restored theatre was a great advance on its predecessor. In the November prior to the reopening Mr. Newcombe's friends made him a complimentary presentation, after a banquet at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel. The testimonial consisted of £700 in bank notes, handed to him on a silver salver, inscribed as follows - "Presented to John Reilly Newcombe, Esq., with £700, subscribed by 237 friends, to record their sympathy with him on the occasion of the recent destruction by fire of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, and as an acknowledgment of the zeal he has displayed in catering for the amusement of the public as lessee of the theatre for the last thirty-four years. Plymouth, November 6, 1878. "The recent history of the theatre has been on the whole, a satisfactory one. The custom of filling the season mainly with engagements of special companies had become pretty well established, and during the nine years that have since elapsed Mr. Newcombe has given the people of Plymouth opportunities of seeing most of the best opera and comedy companies touring the provinces. These engagements do not call for enumeration here.

Of late years Mr. Newcombe had been in the habit of taking a part in his burlesques; and he played Johnny Stout in the cast - Little Red Riding Hood - to the last night. This was his last appearance. He always appeared for his annual benefit, and played a broad comedy part, or such a part as John Mildmay in Still Waters Run Deep, exceedingly well. He was immensely popular, and the audience would laugh good humouredly at any little shortcommings of memory or hearing from the "governor," as he was called. Mr. Newcombe leaves behind a widow, who devotedly nursed him during his illness, and two daughters; one Mrs. Harry Reed, wife of Mr. Henry Reed, and the director of the orchestra, who (assisted by Mr. Frank Kilback, the acting manager) will succeed his father-in-law in the management of the theatre during the remainder of the lease. Mr. Newcombe had two sons, Mr. Albert and Mr. Arthur Newcombe, but are both dead; and though he felt their loss severely, he bore bravely the slings and arrows of misfortune, and it may be truly said of him that he lived his life to the end. In closing this record, we must acknowledge our indebtedness for the greater part of the materials of this history to an excellent article which appeared in the Western Daily Mercury on Monday.

The above article on J. R. Newcombe was first published in the Stage Newspaper, 22nd July 1887.