Last week, I ended with a bit of a cliffhanger. I informed you that Robert Warner, husband of tragedienne, Mary Warner, was friends with Walter Watts. My duty, I know, is now to let you know how this alliance came about. I have to admit that I’m not 100% sure, although there are a lot of good possibilities…
From the data on the 1841 census, I know that twenty-three year old Walter Watts was no longer living with his father and mother, Walter Mascall and Sophia Watts, his younger sister, Emma, and his teenage brothers, Harold and Alfred, in their house in Cornhill, convenient to where he and his father worked at the Globe Insurance Company. In that same year, Walter also went to the trouble and expense of having a play he had written, a burletta, or comic opera, titled “Which is the Uncle?” licensed through the Lord Chamberlain’s office. There’s no record that this play was ever produced, but it is almost certain that Watts was seeking to get the script into production and mingling in theatrical circles by this time.
The failure of Watts to show up in official records like the census and voter rolls may indicate that he was already leading his double life as insurance clerk during the week and millionaire on the weekends.
In 1841, the Warners were also in the midst of some adventurous times. They were involved with a group called the Syncretics who were trying to force the repeal of the patent monopoly in London’s theaters by starting a renegade theatre group of their own. Some of the movers and shakers in this group had been former members of the literary clubs at Robert Warner’s tavern, the Wrekin, such as Bayle Bernard and George Stephens. They hired Sam Phelps and Mary Warner to perform Martinuzzi, an unlicensed verse drama of their own devising as a challenge to the establishment. This play was a critical failure, but London’s minor theaters and their investors were emboldened by the venture. More groups openly defied the patent restrictions until the law was officially overturned in 1843.
After the defeat of this restriction, there was a boom of actor/mangers with ambitions to upgrade minor theaters. Walter Watts gained a reputation, not, as he might have wished, as a playwright, but rather as a wealthy young man who liked to invest in theaters. Somewhere along the line, he met Robert Warner. Perhaps they had known each other from as far back as Warner’s days at the Wrekin. By 1846, though, they were definitely in league with one another and looking for a theater. They found what they liked in the Marylebone. Thomas Marshall tells the story,
Mr. E. Stirling, late stage-manager at the Surrey, paid, some few days since, a deposit for the Marylebone Theatre, but hung back at completing the necessary repairs, &c., of the house, which it appears is to fall upon the new lessee. The husband of Mrs. Warner and his friends, hearing of Mr. Stirling’s pig-in-a-poke, sought an immediate interview with Mr. Douglas, who was still open to let the theatre on a short repairing lease. The offer of Mr. W. was accepted, and Douglas put a third 50l. deposit into his purse, agreeing at the same time to take a share in Mr. Warner’s speculation, until the former questioned the latter as to the amount of his nightly expenses. “About 35l.,” says Mr. Warner. “What!” says Mr. Douglas, “35l. expenses at the Marylebone Theatre! Humph, I beg to decline any hand in the sharing business; I wish you every success, Mr. Warner, but must state that I think your expenses are a leetle too high.”
Thus, the business was settled; Mr. Warner and friends are to have the theatre for the remainder of Mr. Douglas’s term, and 25l. per week is secured for the services of Mrs. Warner. Some good offers have been made, and already five or six good artists have been engaged. Mr. Douglas has some thoughts of the Brighton Theatre.1
Here we have good old Edward Stirling, who will later return to sub-lease the Marylebone from Watts in 1849, wanting to become the lessee in 1846 and going so far as to put down a deposit. He is distressed to find, however, that the playhouse is in poor condition. As a requirement of his taking over as manager, Stirling discovers that Douglas, the previous manager has made it a condition that he must also pay for those repairs before he can re-open the theater and commence his season. Watts and Warner may have simply heard about Stirling’s predicament through the theatrical grapevine, but they may have heard about it from Stirling himself.
Edward Stirling, who was also an accomplished playwright and actor, had been appearing in plays alongside Mary Warner since the early 1830’s. In his profile of her in “Old Drury Lane Recollections,” he calls her “Polly” instead of Mary. The piece reveals that he knows her father’s name, where her first paid acting job was, and that she made her first appearance onstage as a baby in her mother’s arms.2 In short, Mary Warner and Ned Stirling had some history. It seems like more than enough connection to merit a heads up to her husband on a business deal Stirling was anxious to exit.
Robert Warner, unlike Mr. Stirling, was undaunted by the potential expense of re-vamping the Marylebone. In fact, Warner and his backer proposed an overhaul to the little theater so pricey that Douglas, the current lease-holder, decided to abandon the project instead of gambling on their success. Thomas Marshall, the writer of this report, is also very leery of the proposed renovation’s prospects:
THE Marylebone Theatre opened on Monday, August 30th, as advertised; the house has undergone some repairs and alterations. A friend of Mr. Warner’s has advanced 2,000l. to carry on the speculation, 600l. of which was paid to Mr. Douglass for his short lease and goodwill. That sum is very small ; Mr. Douglass, may, however, consider himself very fortunate in getting rid of a bad bargain, and we very much doubt the efficacy of Mr. Warner in changing the aspect of affairs in that quarter. The attempt is a good one, and, for the sake of the company engaged, we hope the scheme will prove successful; still we cannot banish from our thoughts the three reasons for our suspicions. FIRST, Mrs. Warner is to receive 25l. per week, and a share in the house, pay or not pay ; her husband, without experience in theatrical matters, and totally unfitted to manage in any department, receives pay, and also shares in the speculation This is done in a small third-rate theatre, with a sixpenny gallery, and with a bad name, in a bad locality. SECONDLY, the house holding but 70l., a sum that, if received every night, will return but too small an interest upon the labour and outlay ; that sum has never been taken, and the only gentleman that has ever approached that sum on his benefit night is Mr. Joseph Rayner, who had upwards of 60l. in the house: Mr. Douglass himself could never do this. THIRDLY, the management have engaged a company entirely strange to the neighbourhood, and many unknown in the metropolis. Now, succeed or not, they must be paid for the time specified in the engagement; and this obligation, fettered on a so young and dangerous a speculation, is something serious. Mr. Graham leads the heavy business with Mrs. Warner, assisted by Mr. James Johnstone, John Neville (from the Surrey), G. J. Vining (a son of J. Vining), the Mr. Wharton of the provinces, and formerly one of the histrionics ; Mr. Harvey (late manager of the Exeter and Weyrnouth theatres), for the old men; H. Webb (a splendid card from the Surrey, and with whom success is certain), low comedian ; J. B. Clifford, F. Villiers, Miss Huddart (Mrs. Warner’s niece), and a Miss Angel ; opening with ” The Winter’s Tale” and ” The Windmill” Now, reader, this company will be opposed to the nearest theatre to them a first class one having in its company Mr. Macready, F. Conway (son of the tragedian), J. Howard (from the Haymarket), in place of J. Webster, who, as we prophesied, goes to a saloon the Eagle; Miss C. Cushman, Miss E. Montague, Mrs. R. Gordon, and Mrs. C. Selby, in place of Mrs. Fosbrooke, and the rest of the Princess’s company, which needs no comment from us ; the public are the judges ; however, we sincerely hope the Marylebone will succeed, even against these seeming impossibilities.3
In addition to the usual list of gloom and doom predictions about the Marylebone Theater – it was in a lower class neighborhood, accustomed to seeing melodramas and sensationalistic fare – this report is remarkable for the amount of specific financial information it contains. I tend to take these figures a little more seriously than I do other reports that surfaced after the Watts scandal broke – although I can’t evaluate the source — because the report is very close to the time in which this event occurred and has not been filtered through as much intense gossip and rumor.
Mary Warner, as lead actress and manager, is to be paid the generous sum of £25 per week and get a share of the profits. Robert Warner is also to get an undisclosed salary and to be cut in for a share of the house. Repairs to the facilities will cost an estimated £2000 minus £600 to buy out the previous lessee, Mr. Douglas. The writer pessimistically points out that to his knowledge the most the Marylebone could possibly bring in would be £70 per night. He knows of no one who had ever managed that much except for a few extraordinary benefit nights.
Although Marshall does not name Watts as the contributor of the £2000, other authors writing later do. An official publication of the St. Marylebone Society states,
Business at the Marylebone continued to be discouraging and, when the season ended on June 23, Douglas was glad to dispose of the remainder of his lease to Walter Watts, an enthusiast who had contributed funds to several theatrical ventures.4
Writing in 1925 in “London’s Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century,” Erroll Sherson makes it clear that the £2000 came from Watts,
[Mary Warner] took over the Marylebone under Watts, who found money for the start..5
In a 1970 thesis on numerous 19th century productions of “Cymbeline,” Russell Bennett Jackson gives this formulation of the Marylebone’s management hierarchy,
The first manager under the act of 1843 was John Douglass, who after five continuous unprofitable seasons, made over his lease in 1846 to the wealthy enthusiast Walter Watts. Watts engaged as manager Mrs. Warner, formerly Miss Huddart, who had recently acted at Sadler’s Wells with Samuel Phelps. Mrs. Warner was to produce the plays and to act in them, and the licensee was nominally her husband.6
Remarkably enough, independent researcher Elizabeth Rye was even able to track down a copy of the license to produce plays at the Marylebone given to Robert Warner that was signed by Lord Spencer, who was Lord Chamberlain at that time (and an ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer.)
I have complained that I could find no physical descriptions of Robert Warner. I’m going to go out on a limb make a few educated guesses about his appearance, though. His son, John Lawrence, was described as tall, dark, with a high forehead. There’s a 50/50 chance that same description could be applied to Robert Warner. There is an anecdote that in an early Sadler’s Wells performance, Warner was pressed into service to play the ghost of King Hamlet. I’m going to guess this meant that he had a loud, deep voice. Hamlet’s ghost, although it usually makes quite an impression on audiences, is an extremely small part, but does require a performer with a booming voice to carry it off. In 1846, Warner would have been forty-seven years old.
Unlike Robert Warner, I have many descriptions of Walter Watts. He was a sharp dresser. Many described him as a dandy. Watts was a little below average height. He was blue-eyed and had light colored, curly hair and an immaculately groomed mustache. Watts always seemed to be smiling and was easy to get along with. In 1846, he would have been twenty-eight.
In past blogs I have marveled at how Watts, who, lest we forget, was actually holding down a full-time job as a clerk in the auditor’s offices of the Globe Insurance Company, could simultaneously and without any prior experience instantly step into the position of executive director of the Marylebone Theater without immediately plunging the operation into utter chaos. It wasn’t a position where one could just chase actresses around a casting couch and expect everything to turn out fine. Hundreds of logistical decisions needed to be made daily. The lessee had to know how to balance the flow of funds from everyone from the crews who kept the gaslights lit to the seamstresses who made the costumes to the wine merchants who contracted for concessions to musicians who supplied incidental music and ticket-sellers who worked front of house and everyone else in between. Keeping cash directed in the right amounts in the right directions was a challenge that defeated many more much experienced lessees.
Despite the dismissive attitude of Thomas Marshall and others like him, and whatever miscalculations had led to his bankruptcy in 1837, Robert Warner had been the landlord of the Wrekin Tavern, Broad Court, Bow Street, a favored watering-hole of actors and the London literati, which grew ever more popular under his management. After his marriage to Mary Huddart, he became treasurer for Sadler Wells which flourished during the time he was there. Between Robert and his wife, the Warners had a quarter century’s worth of the best connections in English and Irish theatrical circles possible.
When Robert Warner entered into partnership with Walter Watts, Mary Warner’s financial and professional situations stabilized significantly. She was now the leading actor of her own company with the power to pick and choose her roles. Her household had two sources of income. In exchange, Watts had an experienced office manager with all the deep connections to the London theater world that he lacked, sitting in the front office of the Marylebone all day while Watts was in the City doing the 9 to 5 job he could not give up in order to keep the unwitting corporate underwriting that the Globe Insurance Company was providing for his theater.
I’ve been telling you for months now that Walter Watts couldn’t buy the knowledge and experience that it took to successfully manage a West End theater. I’m going to walk that back a little. After I’ve taken a good look at Robert Warner, it looks like Watts had the kind of money it took to hire that kind of expertise.
As I said in the beginning of this text, before 1846, I can’t tell you a story of how Robert Warner and Walter Watts came to like each other. I don’t know when or even if that happened. However during that particular August, I am certain that each had exactly what the other needed most.
1. Marshall, Thomas. Lives of the Most Celebrated Actors and Actresses. (E. Appleyard, London: 1848.) Page 220.
2. Stirling, Edward. Old Drury Lane; Fifty Years Recollections of Author, Actor, and Manager: Volume 2. London: Chatto and Windus, 1881. Page 193
3. Marshall, Thomas. Lives of the Most Celebrated Actors and Actresses. (E. Appleyard, London: 1848.) Page 187.
4. Morley, Malcom, The Old Marylebone Theatre. St. Marylebone Society, London: 1960. Page 21.
5. Sherson, Erroll, London’s Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century with Notes on the Plays and Players Seen There. (John Lane, London: 1925.) Page 278.
6. Jackson, Russell Bennett, “Cymbeline” in the Nineteenth Century. Thesis, University of Birmingham, 1970. Page 130