The Unsinkable Mrs. Warner

The Unsinkable Mrs. Warner

The year 1850 began so well for Mary Warner and Walter Watts. Their careers seemed to be right on track and going full steam ahead. January held no clues to the coming chaos.
The dissolution of their partnership at the Marylebone Theater in the Spring of 1849 seemed amicable. Reviews stressed continuity. Although Watts initially went with lighter, more comedic, and popular type fare in the style of the Lyceum Theatre instead of Warner’s steady diet of Shakespeare and the classics, critics applauded him for upholding the same high production values that had characterized the tragedienne’s reign as manager. When the arrival of G.V. Brooke and Anna Cora Mowatt marked the return of Shakespearean productions to the Marylebone, reviewers were highly complementary, lauding Watts as a worthy inheritor of Warner’s mantle.

Of the many possibilities for a business relationship between Mary Warner and Walter Watts extending beyond April of 1849, I think it is not altogether unlikely that there was at least an informal arrangement that the tragedienne might sometime return to play another season at the Marylebone. Tragedian G.V. Brooke seemed to have a contract that allowed him to use the theater as his London “homebase” for a season and then accept lucrative offers for short-term engagements at other theaters and in the provinces as best suited him.

In the summer of 1849, though, Mary Warner did not need the little Marylebone for “security” engagements. By July 1st , Warner was on tour in Birmingham starring opposite William Macready. She was once more being billed as a member of the company of Theatre Royal Drury Lane. That summer, she had the honor of being chosen to participate in an all-star command performance assembled at the request of Queen Victoria to honor William Macready as he left for his U.S. tour. It is rumored that Mary Warner accepted a part that Helene Faucit turned down. Be that as it may, Mary Warner was hand-selected by the Queen for two additional Windsor Castle Theatricals in November of 1849 and January of 1850. Helene Faucit was not a member of any of these casts.

Windsor Castle Theatricals, Julius Caesar, 1850
Windsor Castle Theatricals, Julius Caesar, 1850

Warner partnered with Macready for the first leg of his U.S. tour, but returned to England to take part in the Queen’s Command performance in November of that year. She therefore ended up missing out on the part of Macready’s American visit that would culminate in the infamous Astor Place Riot. During the months she waited for Macready’s return, Warner partnered with tragedian James Anderson for a tour of the provinces. Anderson is not a name that rings any bell now, but was not, as one theatrical journal had termed one of her former leading men, “a stick from the sticks.” Anderson had been a well-regarded member of Macready’s company. In spring of 1850, he would take over as lessee of the Drury Lane Theater. He was, therefore, an excellent contact to cultivate. Critics also found him a good match for the tragedienne. Warner and Anderson’s two weeks at London’s Surrey Theater received glowing reviews.

These plaudits were nothing, though, in comparison to the showers of praise that Warner would receive when Macready would return from the U.S. For the first time in a long time, the British press found reason to champion and defend the actor that they had nicknamed “The Eminence.” Macready returned from America, not only having escaped near bodily harm in the Astor Place Riot, but surviving months of harassment and humiliation at the hands of followers of aggrieved actor, Edwin Forrest. The long-time reigning monarch of the London stage found himself in the unaccustomed role of the maligned underdog as a result of the American mob’s abuse.

Mary Warner as Hermione, 1850
Mary Warner as Hermione, 1850

Audience and critics also looked at these performances with new and sympathetic eyes because Macready announced that this would be the beginning of his retirement from the stage. There was not, however, any need to worry that Macready, ever the thorough perfectionist, would make retirement a quick and slipshod affair. The actor began his series of farewell performances in September of 1849 and did not conclude them until February of 1851. In between that time, he meticulously went through the entire catalogue of all his best loved roles, touring each and every one of the major theaters of England, Scotland, and Ireland to say a loving adieu to all his adoring fans in beautifully staged productions.

Detail from "Play Scene from Hamlet" by Daniel Maclise
Detail from “Play Scene from Hamlet” by Daniel Maclise

For each of leg of these triumphal tours, Mary Warner was by his side. She too, was celebrated and praised by the critics. Despite the recent craze for Miss Faucit, there were no longing sighs in reviews of “But where is Helen?” Instead, they talked of seeing an actress at the very height of her powers. The Gertrude they saw alongside Macready’s Hamlet, they declared the definitive portrayal of that role for their generation. They agreed there was no better Hermione than Warner’s interpretation of that role. Her Lady Macbeth ranked next to their memory of Siddon’s. Macready and Warner in “Werner” were perfection.

Macready and Warner in "Werner" painting by Maclise
Maclise, Daniel; Macready as Werner; Paintings Collection;

The only dark cloud on the horizon seemed to be that from the start some reviewers worried a bit about what would happen to Mary Warner after Macready retired. After seeing the two together, they could not imagine that she would ever find another tragedian as beautifully matched to her strengths as “The Eminence.” As it turned out, this point was moot. Macready’s farewell tour, unbeknownst to the British press and public, was also the beginning of their goodbye to Mary Warner as well.

Things began to go terribly wrong for the Warners in the spring of 1850. Their former business partner, Walter Watts, was arrested for embezzling funds from the Globe Insurance Company. It is unclear if they retained any financial ties to Watts, however, their finances seemed to tighten dating from this time. In June, Mary Warner’s eldest daughter, Lucy Ann, aged 12, died. In July, after a guilty verdict, Walter Watts committed suicide in prison.

Sometime in 1851, Mary Warner discovered she had breast cancer.

While you let this information sink in – thinking about how devastating that prognosis is even today, what the state of Victorian medicine was in 1850’s, how primitive anesthesia was, and how bleak her prospects were – there’s more bad news. Either through mounting medical bills expenses, old bad debts, or the horrible financial mismanagement that people later would lay at the feet of her husband, the Warner family began to hemorrhage money. Despite the fact that she continued to tour as long as she was able to stand, Mary Warner’s savings were completely wiped out. Robert Warner declared bankruptcy for the family on her behalf in 1853.

Robert Warner was, for some reason, not only unemployed, but unemployable. Actually, it is unfair to call him unemployed. He was working at jobs that Victorians would not recognize as being legitimate career choices. He was at this time his wife’s business manager and caretaker. Neither of these very necessary occupations carried an independent salary, though, and at this time when his family desperately needed a source of income other than Mary Warner’s salary as an actress, he could not seem to get a job, despite the fact that before their marriage he had been the landlord of a popular tavern, in 1844 had been deemed trustworthy enough to keep the books of the Saddler Wells theater, and had been co-manager of the Marylebone in 1848-49.

Whatever was keeping him from getting a job, Robert Warner was still able to raise funds for his wife. Charles Dickens reports in a letter written to philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts “Her husband brings me accounts of her illness, so exquisitely painful that I ache afterwards from head to foot.”1

In 1853, the Warners raised enough money for Mary to go to the U.S. to undergo an operation with noted surgeon Valentine Mott and perform a tour designed to help defray costs. Anna Cora Mowatt, who was at this time very ill herself, describes taking part the Boston leg of this tour:

At this period Mrs. Warner was about to leave America, where she had encountered a series of most heartbreaking trials. The autumn previous I had promised her my services for a benefit, at any time when she chose to call upon me. I thus hoped to make amends, in a slight degree, for the losses and discomfitures which had waylaid her whole path in a foreign land. She was now just recovering from a dangerous illness or rather, was supposed to be recovering. Late tidings bring the sad intelligence of a relapse, which it is feared may prove fatal. She was to receive a complimentary benefit at the Howard Athenaeum, in Boston, and requested the fulfilment of my promise. I consented to enact Desdernona to her Emelia, and went to Boston for that purpose about the middle of May. On the morning of the benefit Mrs. Warner was still unable to leave her apartment. The benefit, however, took place, and a thronged attendance proved the high estimation in which she was held by an American public. Mrs. M. Jones filled the role of Emelia in Mrs. Warner’s stead.2

Although Mott was one of the most brilliant surgeons of his day, the operation left Warner weaker than before. She returned to England to find that creditors had descended mercilessly on her family in her absence. In December of 1853, Robert Warner was forced to declare himself insolvent and apply for legal relief. Newspapers carried accounts of the hearing because of Mary Warner’s fame and because of a surprising moment in the trial. When the prosecution tried to show that the Warners were spending money extravagantly instead of paying down on their debt, an unexpected name turned up in the list of friends helping the family;

Mr. Cooke said he believed it was necessary that Mrs. Warner should have carriage airing? The insolvent said it was.
Mr. Cooke: And who provides it? The insolvent said Her Majesty.3

It turned out that Queen Victoria herself had not only donated money to benefit performances held to raise money for the Warners, but was providing a carriage to take Mary Warner on daily rides to promote her good health. Needless to say, the case was decided in favor of the Warners.

Windsor Castle Theatricals, Nov. 1849
Windsor Castle Theatricals, Nov. 1849

The Queen was not the only celebrity who rallied to support Mary Warner. All of London’s literati rose in support. Even Sam Phelps repented of his former bad behavior and sought to bury the hatchet with his long-time rival William Macready as he wrote this heart-felt letter:

I have within these few days been inexpressibly shocked by hearing from her husband the sad recital of Mrs. Warner’s sufferings in America, and her present melancholy condition. During the period of, and since, my business connection with her, I have held in the highest respect and esteem her fine womanly character; indeed, before her departure for the United States I had regarded her with almost the affection of a brother. Not until yesterday could I nerve myself to see her; the interview I shall never forget; she looks death in the face with the meekness of a Christian and the courage of a hero—as beautiful in face as ever; talked of her approaching end without a tremor; told me what a load of parental care you had generously eased her of (God bless you for it !); then hoped that our future meetings would be regarded as preparatory of her return to America, and kept me listening more than an hour while she related anecdotes of her late experiences there.
Although she said but little on the subject, I am certain that a necessity exists for increasing her pecuniary means. A benefit night at Drury Lane instantly suggested itself to me, and I lose no time in asking your opinion on the subject, and begging also the assistance of your advice. How should it be announced to the public, &c.4

Bear in mind as you read Macready’s reply that, despite the congenial tone, the tragedian had despised Phelps as an unworthy rival for years and that the disrespect Phelps had shown in his dismissal of Warner from Sadler’s Wells in 1846 was just icing on the cake. Therefore their coming together for this occasion and putting aside personal and professional grievances was actually rather significant.

I thank you most earnestly and cordially for your kind letter, for your truly friendly expressions of feeling towards myself, and for affording me the opportunity of lending my weak co-operation to your benevolent intentions in the case of poor dear Mrs. Warner. I was not aware that there was any immediate pressure of pecuniary necessity, and again I thank you for apprising me of it, and most happy am I to offer such suggestions as may arise to me, and to do my little in furthering any plan you may adopt. A benefit seems the only effectual mode of collecting such an amount as would be of real service; but the time of the year is against it, as was urged by Mr. Forster in a letter to me some days ago. Still a great attraction, supporting the interest of the occasion, may—might— fill the theatre. If it could be delayed to the return of people to London, I should look to the result with greater confidence; but then there is the question, to which I could not even allude in my letters, of the probability of her life’s duration. Mr. Dickens and Mr. Forster are both out of town—Mr. Forster himself ill; and in these two the most active and influential promoters of such a measure are lost to the cause. It seems to me, therefore, that in an immediate appeal (and every day lost now is a subtraction from the chances of success) the ground of hope is in the amount of attraction. If you could combine in a bill all the available names (as was done for the Shakespeare House), a short Lyceum piece, a short Adelphi piece, a Shakespearean selection, with yourself, backed by the élite of the Haymarket and some from the Princess’s—in short, an omnium gatherum of theatrical talent, and what vocal aid you may be able to win over—the season of the year would not signify. But to manage this requires time, or such energy as may supply its want. Is it practicable Actors used to be difficult of combination. I should be thankful you might find it otherwise. Would you object to form a committee of the managers of the theatres — Mr. Webster, Mr. Buckstone, Mr. C. Kean. I should question Mr. C. Matthews—or Mr. Farren. But if the three above-named would unite with you in the attempt, there would be no doubt, I should suppose, of your success. I will write by this day’s post to Mr. Webster in general terms upon the subject, and endeavour to awaken his interest in it. If you and he were to address the other two, I do not think they would refuse co-operation. But pray understand that I offer these suggestions with sincere deference to your better judgment, acquainted as you must be so much better than myself with the probabilities and objections to my views. There would be no false delicacy, I am sure, on the part of Mrs. Warner to a proper appeal at the head of such an announcement, and it would be greatly to the credit of the theatrical character to find unanimity in such a Cause. My best interest I am reserving to try to make it bear upon the arrangements for the children’s education: but when you have decided on any step respecting this benefit you will not fail to apprise me, that I may stir the one or two friends, who may be likely to respond to my call, in its favour.
I cannot close my letter without repeating to you, my dear Sir, the satisfaction, sad as the occasion is, that I have had in hearing from you. Your feelings do you honour, and their expression gratifies me more than words can convey, in proving to me that I have not been mistaken in my estimate of your character. I hope you may find, if it should seem advisable to urge on the benefit, coadjutors worthy of you.5

Despite this over-flowing of good-will, even the benefit performances turned into mini-disasters. For one thing, there were too many egos involved. The détente between Macready and Phelps was destined to only last so long. At one benefit performance, organizers took a large portion of the proceeds to defray the costs of mounting the show. At another, creditors seized the entire proceeds. Tempers frayed. Some donors and performers refused to participate further.

Heiress, famed philanthropist, and patron of Charles Dickens, Angela Burdett-Coutts adopted Warner’s daughter Ellen. Macready took in the son, John Lawrence. These adoptions appear to have been legal fictions designed to prevent creditors from seizing donations intended to go towards the children’s education and welfare. A friend of Macready tells of going with the actor to visit Ellen Warner at her school after her mother’s death;

On our way home we stopped at West Croydon, in order that Macready might visit, at her school there, the daughter of Mrs.Warner, the tragic actress, then recently dead, after much suffering. He remained there for a quarter of an hour, and when he rejoined me I saw signs of perturbation in his countenance. The poor child had not seen him for a whole year, and she had been quite overcome with joy at the sight of him. She had become to him an object of affectionate solicitude, because of the virtues of her dead mother.6

Elizabeth Rye, through interviews with descendants of Mary Warner, has discovered a variety of information on the fates of Warner children after the death of their mother. Ellen Warner grew up to marry the Vicar of Widdington in Essex and had ten children. John Lawrence Warner had a short career as an actor before dying at a young age of tuberculosis. Until recently, memory of their ties to the famous tragedienne had faded from the family and was preserved only in the form of a signed poster of William Macready stored in a dusty attic.

Currently the Wikepedia page for the Marylebone Theater , features Mary Warner’s picture. I feel this is as it should be. Although the true record of her achievements was marred and muddled by the mistakes of men, she was the undisputed grand dame of the Marylebone. No one can take that from her.

Marylebone Theater Marker
Green Marker for site of Marylebone Theater

Mary Warner was generally recognized by her contemporaries as one of the preeminent actresses of her day. She had a career that spanned over a quarter century. She specialized in tragedy, but won plaudits for her turns in comic roles as well. She held the stage with William Charles Macready, generally regarded as the best actor of his generation, performing at the very peak of his abilities, winning applause equally from reviewers and audiences. In addition, she spear-headed major renovations of two theaters and founded two theatrical companies as an actor/manager – Sadler’s Wells with Samuel Phelps in 1843 and the Marylebone with Walter Watts in 1848, bringing the Shakespearean and Classical theatre to suburban London. She, along with Phelps, also played an important part in the Syncretic’s ground-breaking production of “Martinuzzi” in 1841 that in part helped lead to the Patent Act of 1844. She was an artistically and culturally significant figure in Theatre History whose achievements deserve to be remembered and celebrated.

Mary Warner, 1850
Mary Warner, 1850

Although I’ve made my feelings about Sam Phelps clear, he tried to do right by Warner in the end, so I suppose, in fairness; I’ll have to cancel my cancellation order on him. However, dear reader, the next time you see a sentence in a theatre history book that claims Warner “retired” or “gave up” Sadler’s Wells or anything else, mark that through with a big red tip marker and unashamedly call out that error to the world.

Mary Warner retired when the coffin lid closed. Anything else is a lie.

The Unsinkable Mrs. Warner
Images of the life of tragedienne Mary Warner

1. Dickens, Charles. “Letter from Charles Dickens, London, to Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1854 February 16: autograph manuscript signed.”
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) Page 421.
3. The Northern Daily Times. December 5, 1853. Page 3, col 3.
4. Phelps, Samuel, “Letter to William Macready.” July 21, 1853. The Life and Life-Work of Samuel Phelps. W. May Phelps and John Forbes-Robertson. (Thompson, Low, Marston: London, 1886.) Page 362.
5. Macready, William, “letter to Samuel Phelps.” July 22, 1853. The Life and Life-Work of Samuel Phelps. W. May Phelps and John Forbes-Robertson. (Thompson, Low, Marston: London, 1886.) Page 362-63.
6. Creed, Julia, Lady Pollock. Macready As I Knew Him. (Remington and Co: London, 1885.) Page 88.