A theatre heckler makes a pantomime of himself

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The Grecian Theatre, Shoreditch (1875) – (Islington Public Library)

Reginald H. Burkett of 1 Field Court, Gray’s Inn Road was that most ‘pooterish’ of nineteenth-century characters, a lower middle-class clerk. In mid January 1878 he and some friends had taken a box near the stage at the Grecian Theatre (a music hall on the City Road) to enjoy the festive pantomime.

However, it would seem they had enjoyed plenty of drink as well, as they were in a very boisterous mood, Burkett especially so.

The stage manager (a Mr Gillet) had his eye on them because of the noise and disorderly behaviour coming from their seats and when he observed that Burkett was smoking he moved in to tell him it was not allowed.

For a while there was calm and the pantomime continued but when the ballet dancers took the stage Burkett started to interrupt the performance. According to Mr Gillet, Burkett ‘behaved in a disgusting way, making motions to the dancers’ and, when they came in range, ‘he leaned out of his box and with his stick tried to hook the legs of one of the ballet women’. She burst into tears and ran from the stage.

When Mr Nicholls, one of the actors the show, began to sing Burkett started to abuse him, ‘using some nasty expressions’. Nicholls wasn’t having this and approached Burkett demanding to know exactly what he was insinuating.

Burkett swore at him and then leapt out of his box, onto the stage! Nichols aimed a punch at him and suddenly there was a full-blown fist-fight on stage. This almost brought the house down and the stage manager was quick to lower the curtain, ending the performance prematurely.

Burkett was held until the police could come and take him away and a few days later he appeared at the Worship Street Police Court. Here Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate considered the case. He could see that Burkett had been disorderly but technically Mr Nicholls (the actor) had assaulted him first. In the end he decided to bind the clerk over and find sureties against his good behaviour in the future. A friend of his, a Bloomsbury-based solicitor named Warren stepped up to stand surety for him.

One imagines the Grecian took note of his name and appearance and barred him from all future performances.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 21, 1878]

A heckler gets ejected from the Old Vic

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The Coburg Theatre c.1820 (renamed  the Victoria after 1832)

In modern times actors have had to deal with noises and interruptions from their audience, some accidental (like the SatNav that started giving directions during a performance I saw in Kilburn), others more deliberate (such as the heckling that provoked Lawrence Fox to react with a  string of expletives). It would seem that heckling in the theatre is nothing new however, as this case from 1847 shows.

In August Robert Dixon appeared in the dock at the Southwark Police Court charged with  ‘making a disturbance in the Victoria Theatre’ and assaulting the constable  on duty. The magistrate heard that during the evening performance ‘a noise was heard from the gallery, which rendered it impossible for the audience to hear what was going forward’.

Murray, the constable, (whether an official Metropolitan police constable or the name given to what we might term ushers is not clear) made his may up in the direction of the disturbance and found Dixon who was:

‘standing up on one of the benches hissing the performance, and doing everything in his power to excite a disturbance , and to prevent the play from going on’.

The constable told him to be quite several times but he was ignored. Eventually he moved in to try and remove him from the auditorium. Dixon wasn’t happy about being ejected and resisted; in fact he resisted so much that it constituted an assault and he was arrested.

In court Robert Dixon was asked to explain himself. He told the justice that he was perfectly justified in expressing his displeasure at the performance he had paid to see. He felt it entirely improper that ‘the constable had dragged him out’.

Constable Murray added that this sort of disturbance was quite common in the theatre. There were ‘a number of young fellows like the defendant [who] were in the habit of frequenting the gallery, and out of mere wantonness interrupting the performance’.

The magistrate agreed that it was outrageous behaviour and had to be ‘repressed’ as he put it. He decided to send Dixon for a jury trial at the next sessions and asked him to find bail. If he was unable to do so he would have to go to gaol in the meantime. This didn’t go down well with the young man. He complained that he had already been ‘locked up since ten o’clock the night before, and he thought that was punishment enough for hissing an actor’.

The magistrate ignored his plea and Dixon’s father came forward to post bail for his son. I imagine the outcome would have been that Dixon would have had to promise to keep the peace, and possibly avoid the theatre for a period of time; entering into a personal recognisance (or one supplied by his family) to enforce it.

The Victoria Theatre (called the Coburg until it was acquired by Egerton in 1832) was on the New Cut and we know it as the ‘Old Vic’. According to an advert in Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper the entertainment that Dixon was objecting to might have been part of variety show that included the Tremont American Serenaders (who sang ‘Ethiopian melodies’) , a magician named King, and a demonstration of a chromatrope. It would only have cost him 3d (75p) to sit in the gallery.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, August 11, 1847; Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper , Sunday, August 8, 1847]

A fake surgeon tries (and fails) to con Ellen Terry’s father

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Today is of course the first of April, the day when japes and merry pranks fill the pages of the newspapers and the content of TV and radio news shows. This year there seems to be something of a paucity of ‘April fools’ perhaps because the world is quite mad enough without making stuff up.

The Victorians were just as gullible as ourselves it seems and the nineteenth-century press were quite happy to try and trick their readerships with ‘fake news’ stories. I doubt however, whether this extended to the reporters at the Police Courts, who were tasked with entertaining readers with the day-to-day ‘doings’ of this lower level of the criminal justice system.

Alongside the drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters there were those who tried, in a  variety of ways, to trick the more susceptible members of society. These included fraudsters who sold things that didn’t work, or bought goods on ‘tick’ with no intention of paying, and others who persuaded people to part with money under false pretences.

One such person was Frederick Walter Ventris, a bookseller, who was charged at Wandsworth Police Court with ‘obtaining money by false representations’.

Ventris had knocked at the door of a Mr Terry (an actor) and his wife. He told the lady of the house ‘a pitiable tale of having been a surgeon, but could not follow his profession as he was paralysed, and had just been discharged from the Fulham infirmary’. Mrs Terry said she would speak to her husband, gave him some money to allow him to pay for his lodgings and invited him to call again soon.

Ventris returned a day or so later and this time managed to speak to Mr Terry. This was probably Benjamin Terry, a well-known actor and the head of what was to be a renowned acting family. Terry was married to Sarah Ballard, who also trod the boards, and then had several children. One of these was Ellen who went on to achieve international fame as a Shakespearean actress, appearing often alongside Henry Irving. Her great nephew was John Gielgud, demonstrating perhaps that great genes do run in the family.

Benjamin Terry was sympathetic to Frederick Ventris’ plight who wrote to the Charity Organisation Society on his behalf. Ventris explained that he had been given permission to deliver a series of lectures on chemistry by the vicar of Chiswick and in this way managed to persuade several other persons to give him money so he could buy the ‘chemical equipment’ he needed for the talks.

However, when the case came to court Ventris’ ruse began to unravel. The vicar, the Reverend Dale said he given no such permission to the supposed surgeon. He said the story he had been told was that the man was one of his parishioners and was applying for the job of caretaker at the local board school.

Ventris protested to the magistrate that all this was hearsay and false rumour but Mr Paget was having nothing of it. He saw through the attempt to hoodwink and actor and a man of the cloth, both potentially more open to believing a ‘hard luck’ story, and found Ventris guilty as charged. He told him he ‘had taken advantage of a superior education to commit a systematic course of fraud on charitably disposed persons’. He then sent him to prison at hard labour for three months.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 01, 1879]