Making It On The Victorian Stage – Managers, Agents, Theatres, and Roles

“A dog of mine,” says the celebrated Mathews, “should not go upon the stage,” and he says wisely, for the profession is fraught with toil, anxiety, and misery, beyond any other; but if that dog cannot be happy out of this hotbed of misery, in Heaven’s name let him be a miserable puppy in it.”  — from the preface of Leman Thomas Tertius Rede’s 1827 book The Road To The Stage, Or, The Performer’s Preceptor: Containing Clear And Ample Instructions For Obtaining Theatrical Engagements, With A List Of All The Provincial Theatres … And A Complete Explanation Of All The Technicalities Of The Histrionic Art

While watching “Stitch In Time”, a BBC series about the history of clothes, I was intrigued when a  costume historian stated that she used old theater photos to study historic clothes because, back in the Victorian day, actors and actresses had to supply their own costumes and, thus, most bought used clothes off the streets.

I have come across numerous theater photos through the years, so, naturally, when I went to look for some, they seemed scattered away. That’s how it works for me—I can’t find what I’m looking for, and I find plenty of other fun things.  In this case, I dug up this wonderful volume that began its long bookly journey first published in 1827 under the title The Road to the Stage. Sadly, the book’s sage author, Leman Thomas Rede, would die a few years after its initial publication, yet his book would live on, being updated and revised through the years, including altering its title and adding tips for the American actors and actresses. I was able to find several versions of the book between the years 1827 and 1872.

For this series of four blog posts on Victorian Theatre, I will use the 1836 edition because it’s in the early Victorian era but still useful to the Regency enthusiast.

This edition contains a kind, short memoir about its late author.

LEMAN THOMAS TERTIUS REDE (the author of the following pages) was the son of Mr. L. T. Rede, of the Inner Temple, author of ” An Essay on the Laws of England,” ” Anecdotes and Biography,” &c. &c., who died at Hamburgh, December, 1806, when the writer of the little work to which this notice is· affixed was only seven years of age, he having been born on the 14th of October, 1799, in Clerkenwell Close, London. At an early age, Mr. Rede chose the law for his profession; but his design of treading in the steps of his father and that father’s father, was frustrated by a dramatic bias, which induced him to leave and attempt the stage. He made his first appearance as Wilford, in the town of Stafford, in 1819; and in the year 1821 appeared at the Adelphi Theatre, London, in a farce called ” Capers at Canterbury.” An accident, which befell him at Margate shortly afterwards, induced him to resign the idea of making the stage permanently his profession; he became connected with the press, and devoted his attention to literary pursuits.

As a companion, he was much sought; his powers were less dazzling than engaging; and, perhaps, few men had a more extensive circle of convivial acquaintances. In 1829, he returned to the stage, and conducted the Queen’s Theatre for a short period; and from that period to the time of his death, he occasionally (though seldom) acted. In November, 1832, he performed The Gentleman in Black in his brother’s drama of ” The Loves of the Devils,” at Sadler’s Wells, for the benefit of Miss Forde. On the 12th of December following, he expired (after a short but severe illness) of a disorder of the heart.

His remains were interred in Clerkenwell Churchyard. Of one, whose social qualities, talents, and disposition, made him the delight of every circle in which he mingled, much more might justly be said, but the subject can only involve the obtrusion of private sorrows on the public ear. Mr. Rede’s enemies (if he had any) will declare that he was in heart and mind a man, in manners a gentleman, in acquirement a scholar, of unquestioned courage, gentle, charitable, and unassuming; formed to adorn any station, from his personal as well as mental advantages. He met death as a certain visitor, who came sooner than he had hoped, but whose approaches he encountered with an unchanged mind. He left a widow, but no child, to deplore him; and is survived by his mother, by three sisters, and a brother, who feels his irreparable loss too much to add one word more to this brief notice.

The illustrations and actress mini-bios in this post are excerpted from a rather dubious 1844 publication titled Our Actresses: Or, Glances at Stage Favourites, Past and Present, Vol. II. ( *Vol. I contains biographies of Regency actresses)

Let’s dive into the world of the Victorian stage!

THAT a general prejudice exists in the breasts of parents and preceptors against the stage, is as undeniable, as that a love of it is common to the young and inexperienced. That the oft reiterated complaints of the uncertainty attending this ill-fated profession are true, I shall not attempt to deny, but it must be remembered that its rewards are also considerable. If we are to be told that numbers have existed in barns, and expired in workhouses, we should also recollect that many have rolled in carriages, that could never, but for the stage, have emerged from behind a counter.

John Reeve quitted a banking-house contrary to the advice of all his relatives, yet he has cause to rejoice in a resolution that has raised him at once to an income he could never have hoped to have gained in his original station-indeed, be blesses the day when he left off being a cheque-taker to turn comedian.

Perhaps that father would most truly study the welfare of his child who should, on discovering his dramatic bias, send him at once to some country company, instead of driving him, by his opposition, to duplicity when at home, and to seek his favourite amusement in private theatres abroad;-as long as acting affords entertainment to the performer, he must like it–make it his business-his duty-and, in nine cases out of ten, a cure will be effected.

The practice that a private theatre affords is usually pernicious, and mistaken are those parents who consent to their children performing at those establishments, to learn the rudiments of the profession. At private theatres, no man studies rudiments–every one grasps at first-rate characters, which are awarded, not to strength of intellect, but of pocket-­ for the merest booby that ever carried a banner, who could command two pounds, would be cast Richard, in preference to a Kean, if he could only afford ten shillings.

I do not wish to join in the common-place censure levelled at private theatres, though I have reason to fear there is too much truth in the character generally given of these places. There are indeed exceptions, but their number is limited.

*Susanna’s Note: The original 1827 edition mentions Mr. Pym’s theatre on Wilson Street and Mr. Durrant’s on Gloucester Street exceptions.

To any person whose mind is so far engaged with the dramatic mania, as to be unsettled with regard to other professions-to one to whom all other modes of existence appear “flat, stale, and unprofitable”­- I should say enter it at once-and now the how becomes the question.

I shall reserve the mention of the things necessary for any performer on his outset for another part of the work, and proceed at once to explain the method of procuring a situation. At the Harp (a public­ house in Russell-street, immediately opposite the pit-door of Drury), resides Mr. Sims, the theatrical agent, and his hours of business are from eleven o’clock until three. On the payment of an introductory fee of seven shillings, he enters the name of the applicant in his books, together with the line of the drama he may wish to fill-and, on the procuration of a situation, he proportions his demand to the amount of the salary obtained; but it seldom exceeds the total of one week’s stipend.

Mr. Sims holds the situation held for so many years by his father; to the manners and acquirements of a gentleman, he adds an intimate knowledge of the profession, and his promptitude in business is only equalled by his urbanity and good­nature. It has been matter of regret in the profession, that Mr. Sims has not chosen some other place for his house of business, as it is peculiarly unpleasant, especially to ladies, to make calls at a house of public entertainment.

Mr. Tumour (of Covent Garden Theatre) has an office in Bow-street, and is also a dramatic agent­ his mode of transacting business is similar to that of Mr. Sims.

Mr. Kenneth, at the corner of the same street, also procures engagements for aspirants, and Mr. Miller, of Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, is in constant communication with all provincial managers (as agent to the Dramatic Author’s Society) though he does not act as an agent between actors and managers except indeed such as meditate a transatlantic trip.

Though every creature that places a foot upon the boards does so in expectation of becoming a favourite in the metropolis, it is ascertained that only one in one hundred, on an average, comes to the royal theatres in any capacity at all–nor do I mention this as matter of regret. Many provincial situations are preferable to London ones; the favourite of the Bath, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Glasgow Theatres, may, with reasonable prudence, realize from four to five hundred pounds per annum; and an income equal to that has been amassed in the York circuit. An engagement of twelve guineas per week at a royal theatre amounts, with the deductions made during Lent, Passion week, and the usual vacation to something less than five hundred pounds a year.

The book then lists the managers, towns and circuits, and salaries of provincial theaters and sharing companies. The later version will include lists of American theaters, as well as American agents. I will insert a snippet of the list of English provincial theaters. 

All mentions of travelling troops, such as Richardson’s, Scouton and Holloway’s, Ryan’s, Adams’s, &c. would be here out of place, as these persons its is presumed do even style themselves theatrical managers.

Sharing Companies

The system of sharing companies being nearly exploded, it is only necessary to briefly explain the principles on which they are conducted. If there were eight actors and four actresses, besides the manager, the receipts would be divided into seventeen parts or shares: One to each actor and actress; One to the manager, as an actor; One to him for dresses ; One for scenery; One for properties ; One also as manager. Thus if the receipts any one night amounted to 17l., the manager took 5l., and the company ll. a piece. In addition to this, as some little outlay must occur, the manager advancing this called it a stock debt, for which whenever they had a tolerable house, he made a large deduction.

London Theatres

On a rough calculation the United Kingdom is supposed to contain about 3000 performers; that is to say, individuals of both sexes who really understand their business–the amount of persons connived at by their friends and the public as actors and actresses must be about seven times that number.

As music is becoming daily more popular in this country, first singers are proportionably in request. At Liverpool the leading vocalist has a salary of five pounds per week; and such is the dearth of male singers, that that is now considered the most profitable and safe line, and one for which an engagement can always be obtained.

Tragedy is, it has been justly observed, going out of fashion. Whether England will ever become so completely fashionable as to dislike Shakespeare it is difficult to say, but certainly he has been latterly played to houses, that would indicate that the immortal bard’s attraction was declining ; but as improvements generally originate in the metropolis, so also do innovations, and tragedy, though unattractive in London, is not yet scouted in the provinces. As nearly all aspirants commence as tragedians, this line has always numerous professors; it is now, from the arrangements of modern managers, become imperative that a leading man should provide his own wardrobe. A tragedian always commands the best salary in the theatre, and in large establishments his situation is easy and profitable; in small ones he is expected to blend the light comedy with the serious business, and thus his labour, though not his profit is marvelously increased.

Genteel Comedy has been long called the most profitable line upon the stage–it requires a good modern wardrobe. In small theatres the light comedian must play the seconds in tragedy (Macduff, Richmond, &c.)–the salary is generally first-rate ­- at all events next to that of the leading man.

 Low Comedy is supposed to be the best line, with reference to the benefits it ensures, but this is trusting to a very precarious chance–the salary is generally on a par with the light comedians.

First Old Men obtain somewhat similar terms.

Walking Gentlemen (Charles Stanley, Henry, Moreland, Harry Thunder, &c.) is a line that also requires an extensive wardrobe; this business is usually assigned to persons learning the rudiments of the profession-the salary is generally low ; in Dublin even, not exceeding two guineas per week, and in many respectable companies not more than one.

The observations already made, apply to the other sex equally with regard to the First Tragedy–Fine Ladies–Singing Chambermaids–Old Women–and Walking Ladies.

First Singing Ladies are much more numerous than male vocalists, a circumstance which the system of modern education accounts for–and, perhaps, for a Lady, the Old Women may be considered the most profitable and safe line. Any young lady embracing this line, and possessed of even a moderate share of talent, could seldom lack a provincial engagement, and would stand an excellent chance of metropolitan distinction.

Having premised thus much, it is now necessary to place before my readers the regulations of provincial establishments.

Rede then lists the general rules governing the country theatres including rehearsal and performance and the fines accrued for infractions on these rules. For example, “Every performer is expected to go on the stage and assist in all the processions and choruses, where it has been customary in London for principals to be engaged, as in Macbeth, Pizarro, Juliet’s dirge, Alexander’s entry, &c.-non-compliance with this regulation subjects the party to a fine of ten shillings” and “Saturday is considered the first day of the week, as in the London theatres.”

For rehearsals, “Notice of pieces to be rehearsed to be posted in the green-room, and the time of beginning, before the end of the play on the previous night of performance; and it is the call-boy’s duty to give notice to every performer who does not perform that evening” and “For not being reasonably perfect at the last rehearsal (sufficient time having been given for study), five shillings.”

An actor was fined a guinea for being intoxicated during a performance and five shillings for “omitting or introducing a scene or song without the consent of the manager.”

In the coming post, we will look at the skills required of men and women entering the acting profession.  In the meantime, here is a little 1899 theatrical gem.

The Contents and Usage of an American Family Medicine Chest in 1818

Is that an exciting blog post title or what? Total clickbait 🙂 I’m at home today, sick on the sofa. Perhaps I need a bit of bark or snakeroot from Jonathan Webb’s medicine chest.  

Jonathan Webb, a chemist and apothecary in Salem, Massachusetts, sold family medicine chests to his customers in the early 1800s. A medicine chest was typically a wooden cabinet specifically designed to house medicine bottles and containers that were filled and labeled and/or numbered by the chemist. The preface of Mr. Webb’s 1818 volume, Particular Directions for a Family Medicine Chest is quite self-explanatory as to the purpose of his medicine chest.

Families would use the medicines in this chest and what grew in their gardens and surrounding lands to make popular remedies for their ailments. There are numerous old books containing recipes for these remedies that were composed of ingredients that were common to people then but sound rather exotic to the modern reader… or maybe just to me. What interests me about this little volume is that it’s essentially directions about how to use the medicines in Mr. Webb’s chest. The information is a little more contained that what I’ve found in other books.

Sadly, I don’t have an image of Mr. Webb’s actual medicine chest, but I found this image in the Library of Congress. This is a medicine chest that was stolen from the White House during the War of 1812 by a sailor but later returned to the White House by the sailor’s descendants during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.


Harris & Ewing, photographer. White House Secretary and medicine cabinet taken from White House. District of Columbia United States Washington D.C.. Washington D.C, 1939. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016878157/.

Below is an image of a fancier medicine chest from London.  


Mahogany medicine chest, England, 1801-1900. Credit: Science Museum, LondonCC BY

Let’s focus on Mr. Webb’s humble chest and its contents.  The box has over 50 items, but I’m going to highlight a few here.

No. 3. TINCTURE OF GUAIACUM.     Good for weakness, or pain, faintness at the stomach, and for sudden cramp-like and rheumatic pains. Dose, 25   drops, once or twice a day, on sugar.       

No. 5. OPODELDOC.     This is a very good application for strains, bruises, &c.   A little of it should be poured on a warm hand, and rubbed on the part affected; when rubbed in dry, more must be used, and the rubbing continued for some time, and the part immediately after should be covered with warm flannel.    

No. 6. LAUDANUM— BE careful ! !    Good to ease pain, and procure sleep; to check the excessive operation of pukes or purges. It is given in doses from 15 to 30 drops, in tea, wine, or water. The above dose is for an adult; more may be given if the case is an extreme one. It should never be given in large doses, unless by direction of the physician. In all cases, caution is necessary.    

No. 7.  SPIRITS OF LAVENDER.     This may be given oil sugar, or in a little wine. Dose, from 30 to 80 drops, in cases of languor, lowness of spirits, and faintness.    

No. 10. BALSAM DROPS.     Good in a bad cold, or in a high burning fever. Shake the phial, and give 20 or 30 drops in a little herb tea, and if necessary, repeat it two or three times a day. Keep the person warm in bed, and they will produce a free and gentle sweat.    

No. 11. ELIXIR VITRIOL.     Dose, from 15 to 25 drops, in a glass of water. It is good for weakness at the stomach, checks night sweats, attendant on hectic fevers, and makes an excellent gargle for inflammatory sore throats. It may be given to advantage with a decoction of any kind of Bark. It will often answer as a tonic medicine where bark fails.

No. 19. RHUBARB POWDERS.     This is a gentle purge, operating without violence. In diarrhea, or in any bad purging, where gentle physic is necessary, one of these powders, (No. 19) may be given in molasses or syrup in the morning, and worked off with water gruel.       

No. 23. SUGAR OF LEAD.     Sugar of Lead, dissolved in equal parts of vinegar and water, makes a good wash for inflammatory swellings, caused by bruises and sprains and broken bones — one moderate spoonfull of the powder (or one of these powders) to a pint of liquid. Apply a rag dipped in it to the part, and repeat it often enough to keep it moist. When the skin is broken, omit the vinegar.   

No. 25. HEALING SALVE.— (“Turner’s Cerate,)     This salve, spread on a linen rag, is proper to be applied to sores, burns, scalds, or any slight disorder of the skin.   It is also proper to skin over wounds, after they have been filled with flesh by No. 24, and to dress blisters.    

No. 26. POWDER FOR PROUD FLESH.    (Red Precipitate.)     A most excellent remedy for spongy or proud flesh.   Sprinkle on enough to cover the proud flesh, then lay on a piece of dry lint just large enough to cover the sore, and a pledget of Basilicon over the whole.    

No. 27. DIACHYLON PLASTER.     This plaster answers very well for slight wounds or sores, and to be spread on a rag, to be applied over other dressings, to keep them on the wounds.       

No. 29. BARK, (Yellow.)     Bark is an excellent tonic medicine, in convalescence from Typhus fevers; also in intermittent fevers and chronic rheumatism. It is much more effectual in the form of powder, where the stomach will hear it. Dose, one teaspoonfull every two or three hours, in a little wine or pure water. In extreme cases, it has been taken to the extent of one or two ounces in twenty-four hours. In cases of extreme debility, where putrid symptoms are threatened, it maybe taken to any extent the stomach will bear. When it is used in the form of decoction, pour one quart of boiling water upon an ounce of the bark, and boil away to a   pint. Dose, from’ one to three table spoonfulls, every three or four hours.    

No. 31. FLOWERS OF SULPHUR.     Dose, one drachm in molasses; it is a good opening medicine in piles, and eruptions of the skin. In chronic Rheumatism and Gouty complaints, a teaspoonfull of this medicine, with half the quantity of Ginger powder, in a glass of milk every morning, is an excellent remedy. Mixed with hog’s fat, it makes a very good Ointment for Itch,    

No. 33. BLISTERING SALVE.     To be spread on soft leather, and applied to any part of the body, first rubbing the part with warm vinegar till it looks red; let the plaster remain on about twelve hours, or longer if not well drawn. After the plaster is removed, slit the raised skin, and dry up the water with a linen rag,  and dress it with salve, (No. 25) twice a day. Blisters are proper in nervous fevers. When the patient is delirious, apply one to the back of the neck. They are likewise proper in convulsions and inflammation of the eyes. A Blister applied to the back of the neck, will sometimes remove a violent headache.    

No. 36. SNAKEROOT.     Virginia Snakeroot makes an excellent stimulant infusion, and determines to the skin. It is given in low fevers, either by itself, or decocted with Bark. One ounce will make one quart of tea. Dose, half a gill — when it is steeped with bark, add a quarter of an ounce of the root to an ounce of Bark.    

No. 37. CALOMEL. (Mercury.)     This is a very useful and efficacious medicine, but requires caution and judgment in its administration; it is a   preparation of Mercury; and strict attention to the directions should be adhered to, or mischief may be produced by it. After bleeding, blistering, &c. one or two grains of this medicine may be given in molasses every six or eight hours, till the disease abates, unless the looseness or weakness of the patient, (both of which it increases) forbids its longer use. It is also very good in bad pleurisies. Calomel has been used for worms by a celebrated empiric, in doses of five grains each, and in some instances it has proved efficacious.   

No. 41 ARROW ROOT.     This is a very delicate and nutritious article, and may be taken in every complaint where nourishment is wanted.   First wet a tablespoonful of the powder with a little cold water, that it may be reduced to a paste; then pour on half a pint of boiling water, stirring it at the same time, and it is done. It may be given in milk, coffee, or chocolate.    

No. 43. SQUILL PILLS.     From two to three of these Pills may be considered a Dose — taken at bed time, or twice a day. This is a powerful medicine in promoting expectoration, and increasing the secretion of urine; hence it is a valuable medicine in chronic Coughs and Asthmatic affections, attended with viscid phlegm, and in dropsical complaints.        

No. 44. ASSAFOETIDA PILLS.     This is a most valuable remedy. Its action is quick and penetrating, and it affords great and speedy relief in spasmodic, flatulent, hysteric, and hypochondriacal complaints, especially when they arise from obstructions in the bowels, Assafoetida promotes digestion, and enlivens the animal spirits, &c. From one to three of these pills may be given for a dose.    

Aside from bottles of substances, there are other useful items in this chest. Okay, I admit, I added these screenshots purely because of the gorgeous period handwriting in the margins.