After more than a month of extending and vamping, I am going to return to what was supposed to have been the second half of a two-part blog on tragedienne Mary Warner, her husband Robert, and their connection to the Watts scandal. I delayed this long in hopes that with the aid of independent researcher, Elizabeth Rye, I could clear up a few about mysteries about the Warners before discussing the events of the spring and summer of 1850. However, for the moment, it seems that for every question for which we find an answer, half a dozen more perplexing ones emerge.
Before I do, though, allow me to take a moment, lift the hood, and talk a little about the primary source research I’m doing. I don’t do this very often because I realize that even though for me this can really be rather enjoyable activity, it’s not very exciting to hear about. In fact, prima facie experience tells me tells me this is exactly the sort of conversational topic the average person calls “deadly boring.” At any rate, if I were a scholar researching Charles Dickens or Edgar Allan Poe, all the sort of pawing through old newspaper clippings I’m doing now would already have been done around a century ago. Dickens scholars don’t worry about what his wife looked like in the sort of way I puzzle over the appearance of Anna Cora Mowatt’s and Mary Warner’s husbands. Hives of grad students would have long since suckled all nectar from each pearl of information available and molded all the sweetest bits into delicate master’s theses and intricately structured dissertations.
Mowatt and Warner are under-researched celebrities. There is more information available on them in newspapers, magazines, memoirs, and books and other kinds of public records of their day than is typical of the average Victorian. There is a lot of data that has simply not been extracted, brought to light, and critically examined by scholars.
Walter Watts, until he was in his early twenties, lived the life of an average Victorian. He left normalcy behind, though, and gained notoriety for a very limited window at the end of his life. For around a decade prior to this, he was engaged in criminal activity. Living a double life meant that he took pains not to leave the sort of standard paper trail that a London resident typical of his income bracket would tend to leave behind. However, on the other side of his double life, he joined a profession that actively courted publicity. Note that I said “publicity” here. Never confuse publicity with verifiable, plain, cold, unadorned information about a person. Therefore, for the last six years of his life, we have an unusual number of mentions of Walter Watts. Some of the things that we can find in print about Watts can be verified as factual. Other items are probably the product of self-promotion. Many are unverifiable and impossible to trace to a source. Researching his life poses unusual challenges because he was leading a life that involved purposive misdirection, active re-shaping, and concealment of information about himself.
Robert William Warner was an average Victorian who lived a good portion of his adult life adjacent to fame and wealth without ever quite being able to become famous or wealthy. In addition to mentions in connection to his wife and her career, Elizabeth Rye and I have found the kind of records on Mr. Warner that you might find on an early Victorian ancestor if you were doing genealogical research. Unlike the elusive Walter Watts, Robert Warner shows up in voter rolls at addresses where we expect him and on the London census for years that we can locate that record.
Since I last spoke to you about him, we were able to secure some additional information about Mr. Warner. A 1844 publication titled Our Actresses, or Glances at Stage Favorites, Past and Present, by Mrs. C. Baron Wilson, finally provided a solid piece of information about Robert Warner’s appearance in the kind of fluffy, breathless publicity story we usually did not get about serious tragic actress Mary Warner;
While her fond mother lived , brilliant-eyed Mary Huddart remained single; but no sooner had death deprived her of her only remaining parent, than she felt very like her jolly country-woman, “The Widow Malone,” of the old Irish song, and therefore Mary Huddart very soon had herself legally converted into Mrs. Warner.
We had hitherto been rather skeptical as to fate assigned husbands, and “Cupid’s bill at sight,” but the following little “romance of real life” has made us more of a true believer. When a mere girl, little Mary Huddart, with her father, mother, and a few friends, was enjoying a sweet autumnal evening’s wanderings “in Norwood’s shady groves, where Sybils meet.” This little health and pleasure seeking party were induced to have “their fortunes told,” and when it came to little Mary’s turn, the ancient and rather ragged Egyptian then and there assured the little embryo-tragedian, that the stars had decreed that she should marry a “gentleman of the Bar;” and that she might know him when she saw him, he would have “dark and extensive whiskers.” This prediction made an indelible impression on the mind of the girl. Time rolled on (a quarter of a century;) Miss Huddart had wasted more than twenty years of womanhood in anxiously waiting for the appearance of the promised gentleman of the Bar: Westminster Hall, the Dublin Four-Courts —even the Bankruptcy and Insolvent Courts during those tedious years were thought upon, but no gentleman of the Bar with whiskers (or even without whiskers), had ever hinted at Doctors Commons and the saffron-robed god. At last the ripe and blooming votary of Melpomene very naturally began to think that the Norwood Egyptian had deceived her; when, one auspicious day, it happened that she walked away from a London theatrical rehearsal, where her sense to the misery of “single blessedness” had been most cruelly forced on her imagination, by the more than ordinary exhibition of petty spleen vented on all around (but on unprotected females in particular), by his haughtiness the soi-disant autocrat of the English drama. As she was passing through Broad Court, towards her domicile in Bloomsbury, when opposite the Wrekin Tavern, her eye accidentally, as we should say, (but preordainedly , as the Norwood Sybil would assert), encountered a pair of enormous dark whiskers. She immediately ventured second glance, and saw a dark man behind the dark whiskers, and beyond the dark man and dark whiskers, there was a BAR! The heart so justly tired of single blessedness, forced itself to believe that its time was come, and the prediction about to be verified. Daily in passing did she see the predicted “gentleman of the Bar,” and an introduction (planned no doubt by Fate) took place. About this time “mine host” fell into embarrassed circumstances. On this, the lady felt pity, and pity, as it has been said and sung, is akin to love:
— “ he told his soft tale,
and was a thriving wooer . ”
‘Tis true that pride whispered something in her ear, but love gave pride an answer; and pride was seen no more. So the handsome and generous Mary Huddart became the wife of the GENTLEMAN OF THE BAR, as predicted by the Sybil; and destiny kept her word of promise “ to the ear ” at least, if she broke it “to the hope ; ” though, perhaps, an honest and industrious publican may, in life’s struggles, prove as useful, if not as agreeable, a companion to an actress as a proud and briefless barrister “Chacun à son goût.” Happiness to their union say we! and may they be qualified to claim the DUN MOW FLITCH.1
Despite the author’s militantly upbeat tone, Mrs. Bacon seems to be guiding us to regard Mary Huddart’s marriage to Robert Warner as a mistake that despite her best efforts, Fate itself drove the actress to commit. First she tells us that the young Mary thought she was being promised a lawyer by prophesy of the fortune-teller. In England’s still-class-based society, a barrister would rank higher on the social scale than a tavern keeper. Next we see Mary is walking home from a rehearsal, depressed and alone, where we are told she and the rest of the company have been dressed down by William Macready, the “his haughtiness” the so-called “aristocrat of the English drama” who was infamous for his temper tantrums that the author is obviously referring to here. So with no lawyer in sight and feeling rejected by the nobility of the theatre world, Mrs. Bacon tells us that Mary Huddart steps into a bar and decides to settle for Robert Warner… However, she does have enough tact to try to make it sound a little more funny and romantic than that.
Let me say parenthetically also that although I am sure Mary Warner was proud of her Irish heritage, Mrs. Baron is making rather much of the “auld Ireland” angle in her telling of this story and the rest of this biographical sketch. Although the actress did grow up in Dublin, some biographical material asserts that Warner, child of itinerant players, frequently on tour, was born in Manchester, England. She spent the majority of her adult life in London. One might assume from reading this chapter that Mary Warner came to fame playing kerchiefed colleens opposite James Hudson instead of playing Lady Macbeth opposite William Macready.
Even less romantic is a second, earlier, newspaper article located by Elizabeth Rye. In 1827, Robert Warner appeared in court. He had been in a disagreement in circumstances that a court reporter found interesting enough to turn in to their editor. The incident found its way into the London papers in the following form;
MR. ADOLPHUS rose to exhibit articles of the peace on behalf of Robert William Warner, Esq. of Margaret Buildings, Lambeth, against Mr. Thomas Watson, gentleman residing in Drury-lane. The Learned Council stated, that Mr. Warner, having been insulted by Mr. Watson, in Surrey, an indictment had been preferred against him in that county, to which he was bound over to appear; but in the meanwhile Mr. Watson had gone to the house of a Lady named Browne, and declared that he would provoke Mr. Warner into some violent breach of the peace, and finally murder him.
THE CHAIRMAN, after perusing the articles, said it appeared to him that the Lady alluded to, Mrs. Browne, (a beautiful young female, fashionably dressed, who was seated near Mr. Adolphus), was the cause of the dispute between the two Gentlemen.
MR. ADOLPHUS acknowledged that that was the case.
The Chairman said that the articles were not sufficiently specific in stating who Mrs. Browne was, and what occupation her husband followed.
MR. ADOLPHUS (after conferring with the Lady) said there were reasons which made Mrs. Browne reluctant to disclose the profession and residence of her husband, from whom she was living apart; but she was perfectly willing to be sworn to what was stated in the articles.
THE CHAIRMAN thought that both parties, under these circumstances, ought to be bound over. He was always reluctant to lend himself to quarrels about Ladies, and did not wish to know the particulars of this squabble.
THE CHAIRMAN ordered the case to stand over until tomorrow, when the parties might attend again in Court.2
The lady mentioned here seems to be the same woman referred to as “the blithesome widow Browne” who was Robert Warner’s partner at the Wrekin Inn. I may be completely out of line, but I think that rather than being Robert Warner’s girlfriend, Mrs. Browne may have been a business partner in 1827 as well.
I, like the adjudicator in the case, am a bit skeptical about this lady’s reluctance to produce a full name, residence, or occupation for her ex-husband or quickly providing some alternate manner of establishing who she was and where she resided. She knew she would be testifying. Surely she had to anticipate she would have to establish some credentials. Victorian ladies were usually quite careful not to let themselves get into situations where their identity and residence were ambiguous because people might jump to the conclusion that they were prostitutes. And, sure enough, here I am, 193 years later making just that leap. Furthermore, I’m thinking that perhaps Robert Warner may have been her business manager and continued in that role until he married Mary Huddart.
If Mrs. Browne, the Wrekin Inn’s “blithesome widow” was a prostitute, this could help solve two mysteries. First, this could be the skeleton in Robert Warner’s closet that John Forster discovered that so horrified him that he wanted William Macready to prevent Mary Huddart from marrying the tavernkeeper. Second, if Robert Warner did have a business relationship with Mrs. Browne and broke it off before his marriage, that could explain why he suddenly had a serious personal cash flow problem that drove him into bankruptcy while the tavern – and perhaps his erstwhile partner — continued to prosper.
However, Mrs. Browne’s occupation is difficult to verify. She’s not even been good enough to give us a full name or residence to work with. If she and Robert Warner were quietly running an escort service at the Wrekin Inn, I’m hoping that out of the many literary figures who frequented the establishment, some diarist will allude to the fact. No luck so far… Or to state it from the converse perspective – Mrs. Browne continues to maintain her unbesmirched reputation even though I persist in entertaining certain unseemly doubts about her.
Not exactly the sort of subject that makes into a fluffy puff piece for a celebrity profile, is it?
The next thing that we’ve discovered is that Mary Warner had one more child than is usually accounted for in her brief biographies. Lucy Ann Warner was born April 26th, 1838. The night before, her mother had performed the lead female role in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” On the 24th, Mary Warner had appeared as Lady Macbeth. The Theatrical Observer asserted that this child was born prematurely — at seven months.3 This had to be near the edge of what was survivable at the time. A poem written by one of her peers voicing concern for the safety of mother and child appeared in Actors by Daylight.
We’re glad we’ve not to mourn her,
Or that Death has not torn her
From her dear Mr. Warner,
And her warm fireside corner;
But that this very morn, her
Infant child, Miss Warner,
As her mother did adorn her.4
Lucy did not live with the rest of the Warner’s in their home in London. She resided with a private governess in a village called Henley on Avon. Lucy died at age 12 on June 3, 1850, near the time of the last of Walter Watts’ court appearances. There’s a lot that’s unclear from publicly available records of the circumstances of this little girl’s life and death and the impact each had on her family.
The final loose end still dangling for the blog this week is the open-ended story of Robert Warner’s job prospects. On Tuesday, May 21, 1848, The Weekly Chronicle carried a quiet notification that along with parting pairings of grocers, milliners, druggists, and drapers, Warner and Watts were giving official notice that they had dissolved their partnership as lessees and mangers of the Royal Marylebone Theater.5 The break-up seemed to have been an amicable one. Mary Warner had a contract lined up with the Surrey Theater before she completed her last show at the Marylebone. Her well-reviewed tenure as manager and lead actress had upped her profile and rejuvenated her marketability. Although the season ended with financial losses, Warner’s move did not seem like something done in haste, acrimony, or desperation. There were no angry curtain speeches, admonishing notes at the ends of reviews from critics, or indignant letters to the editor from fans as there had been in 1846 at the time of her abrupt dismissal from Sadler’s Wells.
Less certain is how clean and complete was the Warners’ separation from Watts. Robert and Mary also had shares in the Marylebone. Did they completely divest or did they retain the option to speculate on future seasons? What about the debt that was incurred at the end of the 1848 season? Rumor states that it was around £5000. How much of this – if any – was shouldered by the Warners? Did they pay off this debt right away? Did Walter Watts lend them money for this purpose or any other? This question is important because in 1850 with a guilty verdict against Watts for embezzlement it might have turned into “Were the Warners knowingly or unknowingly in receipt of stolen funds?”
Lastly, as I said, I wonder about Robert Warner’s employment status. Did he leave the Marylebone staff at the same time as his wife? How active was his participation in the day-to-day running of affairs at the theater when he was being paid by Watts? If he was serving as Watts’ bookkeeper, how much did he know about where Watts’ money came from? How much did the theatrical community assume that he knew about Watts’ finances after the scandal broke? How much did the police and the Globe Insurance Company assume Warner knew?
Robert William Warner, from as far as we can ascertain from the records available, never held another job again in his life after being employed by Walter Watts. Warner lived to be 92. His family often desperately needed money. He acted as his wife’s business manager for as long as she lived. He had some investments, but not enough to comfortably sustain his family.
Did association with Watts irretrievably tarnish Warner’s already shaky reputation in the theatrical community to the point where he became unemployable? Did the setbacks and tragedies experienced by Warner during this time send him into a depression from which he never recovered? Did he, possibly like his old friend Mrs. Browne, have avenues of income we haven’t yet discovered? At this point, we do not seem to have collected enough pieces of the Robert Warner jigsaw puzzle to present a picture that makes sense.
Well, at least I was right about his having dark hair…
Even with all these loose ends still flying, next week I will attempt wrangle them into enough order to present the conclusion of my much delayed, intended-to-be two-part but stretching into two-month blog on tragedienne Mary Warner.
1. Wilson, Mrs. C. Baron. Our Actresses; or Glances at Stage Favourites, Past and Present. Vol. 2. (Smith, Elder and Co., London: 1844) Pages 165-168.
2. “Middlesex Sessions,” Star: London. June 4, 1827. Page 4, col 2-3.
3. “Covent Garden Theatre.” The Theatrical Observer; and Bills of the Play, No. 5110. Monday, May 7, 1838. Page 1.
4. “Our Miscellany.” Actors by Daylight, and Pencilings in the Pit, No. 10. Saturday, May, 5, 1838. Page 79.
5. “The London Gazettes.” The Weekly Chronicle: London. May 21, 1848. Page 7, col. 4.