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As far back as the 1400s there is written evidence of provincial towns being visited by "strollers"; groups of players/actors who travelled around the counties, usually on foot, carrying props and scenery with them in covered wagons or simple carts. Some of the travelling companies developed a reputation for bad behaviour and were viewed with distrust- they lived off the land and were often treated as thieves and vagabonds. Any display of loose morals and drunkenness might easily result in an individual (and sometimes the entire troupe) being thrown into jail or run out of town. More professional companies evolved and rose above the stigma, often playing the same towns year after year and timing their visits to coincide with race week, the assizes, local fairs, markets and pageants, any event that would lead to a town full of visitors. Some of these evolved "stroller" companies in time became legitimised and carried with them a licence to perform from The Lord Chamberlain, others would have letters of recommendation and be licensed by local magistrates who would demand a fee in return. The money would then be passed on to a local cause or go towards relief for the poor, (in theory at least). This civic tax on strolling players itself evolved into an unwritten agreement whereby certain nights during a season would be given over to a local cause, described as a benefit night. What started off as a bribe for permission to perform, almost an unofficial "performance tax" on the players, was turned into marketing triumph by the theatres. The benefit night for what ever local cause was selected, was often one of the fullest houses of the season. It is probable our Crisp family had their roots in the "strollers" of the 17th century but wherever they came from, it contributed in making them (and us) what we are.
Like the Horn and the Ray families, the Crisp family had a strong theatrical tradition running through two, possibly three generations. Our starting point is with three brothers, John, Charles and George. Charles was born Charles Sherwin Crisp about 1785, but where he and his brothers were born and to whom is something of a mystery. Because of this, the respective ages of the brothers is still not clear. George is recorded in three national censuses, 1841, 51 and 61. In 1841 his age is 54 years and his occupation or trade is a Tea Dealer. In 1851 he is a Tracing Paper Maker living off the City Road in Islington, his age is 62 years, and in 1861 he is 76 years with a former occupation in Theatricals. The 1841 census has no facility for recording a place of birth, but the 1851 entry reads Bocking, Essex. The 1861 however, makes more sense - it simply reads Herefordshire. Of John, much more is known even though he only appears on the census of 1841 as he died in November of the same year, age 60. Of the fourth brother, thought to be named William, nothing is known. Some biographical articles written about the family have also recorded a sister but have not named her.
A Biographical Dictionary of Actors1 has listed John and Charles but not George, only referring to him as a brother. In birth order they have John as the first born followed by Charles then George. There is no mention of William but again they do refer to an unnamed sister. What is undoubtedly the most interesting piece of information contained in their listings is the suggestion that the parents of the brothers were the actors Samuel and Henrietta (neé Tollett) Crisp.
In his biographies, Samuel Crisp is said to have been born in 1707, but his birthplace is not known. The Biographical Dictionary1 has his first known acting role at Norwich in the 1734-5 season and also claims he was related in some way to William Giffard, the son of Henry Giffard of the Goodman's Fields Theatre, Whitechapel. Of his wife, the dictionary goes on to say that Henrietta was born in 1709 to a family "with theatrical connections". However, as her Christening record (right) shows her date of birth recorded alongside the date of her Christening, (unusually for this period). Henrietta was born 28th March, 1713, the daughter of Henry and Dorothea Tollet. Henry was a bookbinder by trade, so the "theatrical connections" referred to earlier do not appear to come through him, at least not at this moment in 1713. An early stage appearance for Henrietta was at the Haymarket theatre in a benefit concert for an actor known as Huddy during 1726 season.
Samuel and Henrietta were married at the Holy Trinity Church, Kingston Upon Hull in 1741, and in the February of 1743 a son, Samuel, was christened in the same Church. Remaining in the North East, the couple became an institution on the York theatre circuit of which the Hull theatre was a part. Despite his rather curious gait and reputedly loud, booming voice Crisp soon became the leading actor of the company - a fellow actor, Robertson, christened him King Crisp in a non-too-complementary verse:
Lo! nature's direst foe, King Crisp appears,
And with discordance vile torments our ears;
The signal cue when gin'n, the machine moves,
It strikes the same whether it chides or loves;
An octave higher always than the rest;
Sweet harmony ne'er touched that callous breast
A wooden poor Automaton at best;
With toes turn'd in, thumbs cock'd, and bellman's cant,
It scolds, nay whispers always in a rant:
Ended the speech, fix'd to the spot it stands,
Till cue-struck, once again it lifts its hands.
Samuel and Henrietta stayed with the York circuit until Samuel died in 1768 and Henrietta in 1780. Clearly these were not the parents of John, Charles or George, but they may well have been their grandparents or great-grandparents.Close
The London Stage covers the period from 1660 to 1800 but has only two references to the Crisp family. The first is for Mrs Crisp in September of the year 1786 at the Haymarket theatre. The theatre opened during the official closed season from 18th December through to 30th April for a series of five popular plays complete with afterpieces. The actors named for this run included Messrs Baker, Cooper, Daniel, Decastro Kean, Kelly, Follett junior and senior with Mrs Brent, Clark, Crisp, Rivers and Shelburne and more. If Mr. Crisp was also working in London at this time the venue he was engaged at was either overlooked or did not warrant a mention. The other reference in The London Stage was for the 1798-99 season and relates to Master Crisp, mentioned later on this page.Close
Continuing the tenuous but plausible link with Samuel Crisp and his wife Henrietta, the Biographical Dictionary of Actors suggests John Crisp may have been related to the Crisps who performed at Exeter and York. The links are tenuous indeed but in 1797 the Leeds Intelligencer carried the advertisement pictured right for the Leeds theatre. The advertisement describes Mr Crisp from the Theatre Exeter. The simple wording implies Mr Crisp was a seasoned actor, a favourite of the Exeter theatre and he would be gracing the stage at Leeds. The date of the advertisement in the Leeds newspaper is 1797 which rules out Samuel Crisp (b.1707- d.1768). However, his son Samuel was born around 1743 (and of course there may have been other children and grandchildren after that date) so this Mr Crisp could easily have been Samuel and Henrietta's son, or perhaps more likely, grandson, and the father of John, Charles and George etc.
In the following year the same newspaper carries another advertisement for the theatre, dated 2nd July, but this time it is benefit season and the advertisement is for the benefit concert of Mr and Mrs Crisp. As is usual for benefit concerts, the address for the beneficiary is printed at the bottom of the advertisement and this one was no different- Mr and Mrs Crisp, at Mr Cross's, Sykes' yard, Hunslet lane.
The Theatre at Leeds was also part of the York circuit which included Doncaster, Wakefield, Pontefract and Hull, as referred to earlier5, and at this time was managed by Tate Wilkinson (the saviour of Mrs Jordan's respectability6). Wilkinson took control of the circuit in 1770 after the death of his long-time partner Joseph Baker, and he himself died in 1803 after a seizure on stage at the Leeds theatre.
As part of the 1797/8 company Mr and Mrs Crisp would have travelled the circuit playing each of the five north-eastern towns. This period for provincial theatricals has been described as poor, with attendances falling and the audiences made up of the less respectable elements of society who wanted less drama, more spectacle7. Nonetheless benefits were still popular and were often viewed as a measure of the public's pleasure or displeasure with seasons offerings. In November 1801, the Hull Advertiser and Gazette published a table of earnings for all the benefit concerts held from the 1794/5 up to the 1800/1 season at the theatre in Hull. Mr. and Mrs. Crisp feature as one of Twenty three benefit concerts held in the 1797/8 season alone, and from what was presumably a single concert they earned £51 and 2 shillings, a tidy sum in 1798. Topping the 1797/8 list (naturally) was the manager, Mr Wilkinson, with £100 and 2 shillings, a handsome sum indeed. The interesting, additional piece information was Mr. and Mrs. Crisp Now at Portsmouth.Close
I believe it is the practice for benefits to take place at the end of an engagement or the end of the season which suggests Mr. and Mrs. Crisp's tenure as part of the York Theatre company was at an end. If so, from Leeds in July 1798 did they head south to Portsmouth as the Hull Advertiser's Benefit Statement suggests? As yet we can find no evidence of any appearances or even a reference to the family in the south for the latter part of 1798. The name next appears at Stafford where on December 1st 1798, the company, (which included Mrs Crisp), appeared "By desire of Lady Harriet Chichester" in the tragedy Isabella, or, The Fatal Marriage. There is no proof this is the same family that left the York Theatre company in July 1798 but the dates match very conveniently. July to December leaves four clear months during which a short season at Portsmouth would have fitted in quite nicely. In 1799 the family were on the outskirts of London where, in what might have been a single one-off performance, we have the first reference to masters and miss Crisp. The London Stage has an entry for a production of Douglas at the Old Crown Inn at Highgate on the 15th May. Master Crisp, Master Charles Crisp and Miss Crisp played alongside Messrs Dunant, Hayden, Watkinson and Cooper with Mr and Mrs Frimbley, the afterpiece was The Poor Soldier. The inn, still standing today is at the junction of Highgate Hill and Hornsey Lane, on the edge of Waterlow Park. Master Crisp must surely be John, and as of this moment in 2018, we have found no other reference to Miss Crisp which we assume to be John and Charles' sister.Close
With the arrival of mid-December the benefit season was back with Miss Smith and Miss Palmer taking theirs with a performance of The Tempest on Tuesday 18th and Mr and Mrs Crisp two days later with a performance of The Young Quaker. We cannot be sure if this was the last night of Stafford's season or whether Mr and Mrs Crisp remained at Stafford the following year. Every now and again little snippets of information we stumble across sometimes serve to reinforce what is already known and at the same time provide a new source to explore. A few lines in the Staffordshire Advertiser from November 1801 did precisely that: The newspaper announced the opening of the Theatre Royal in Liverpool for the 1801-2 winter season ...under the management of Mr Ryley who has engaged a very respectable company-- Mr Crisp, formerly of the theatre in this town, fills the comic department... The link between the Crisp family at Stafford and the Crisp family appearing for Samuel Ryley at the Liverpool theatre in 1801 is confirmed there in print.Close
Ryley took over the theatre at Liverpool in 1798 but never really made his mark or the fortune he had hoped for. On page 165 of his memoirs2 Ryley recalls meeting up with Mr Crisp for lunch in London to the delight of both himself and his wife Ann (neé Kenworthy) in 1809. Also dining was another old friend Ryley named only as Egerton3. Ryley described Crisp as: "... formerly a member of my company at Liverpool, but now the manager at Worcester, Hereford, &co...". In 1801, his third season as manager, Ryley listed amongst his company "...Messrs. Chalmers, Crisp, Bannerman, Hurst, Vandeleur, Knox, Fothergill, Ratclife, Leonard, Skerrit, Fowler, and Kelly; Mesdames Kennedy, Crisp, Vandeleur, Barry, Ratclife, Skerritt, and Miss Brown". In the following year of 1802 the company changed and did not include Mr. or Mrs. Crisp.
This is a puzzle. The wonderfully polite and proper manners of the age make it difficult to distinguish one Mr and Mrs Crisp from another Mr and Mrs Crisp. Without full names or even initials identification becomes impossible. There is no doubt in this instance that Mr Crisp is Mr John Crisp, the actor who goes on to manage the theatres at Hereford and elsewhere, Ryley made that clear, but in 1801 he would have been a very young man of 19 or so years. Nineteen is, arguably, somewhat young to have been married but we know he married again at St Andrew's Church in Leek, in 1804 and was described as a widow. So was the Mrs Crisp from the Leads theatre and Ryley's 1801 company John's wife? Is it possible she could have been John's mother? A possible explanation might be that Mrs. Crisp was indeed John's mother and that Mr Crisp in the 1801 company was actually John's father. John, as a juvenile, was not included in the theatre company listing even though he may have played a part during the course of the 1801 season. A weak argument and, I believe, very unlikely.
The supposition and conjecture ends here; new information is becoming available all the time and one day, hopefully in the not too distant future something will surface that will help us to fill in some of the gaps, and/or correct the errors-but until then this is all we have.
1] A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Volume 4. By Philip H. Highfill, Kalman A. Burnim, Edward A. Langhans.
2] The Itinerant, Or, Memoirs of an Actor, Volume 4. By Samuel William Ryley.
3] Probably Daniel Egerton (1772-1835) Actor and Theatre Manager.
4] Assize Week. The courts of assize - commonly known as the assizes - were courts held in the main county towns and presided over by visiting judges from the higher courts based in London. Since the 12th century England and Wales had been divided into six judicial circuits which were the geographical areas covered by visiting judges. This system of holding local assizes at the principal towns of each county remained the chief feature of the English system of justice until it was radically reformed in 1971.
5] Provincial theatrical circuits, see A History of English Drama 1660-1900 by Allardyce Nicoll, page 239.
6] Mrs. Jordan, born Dorothy Bland in Ireland 1761. Granddaughter of an Irish Judge she was seduced and threatened with imprisonment by the Dublin theatre manager Richard Daly. A potted history of Mrs Jordan and her link with Tate Wilkinson can be read here.
7] See: The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone. Edited by A.L Beier, David Cannadine, and James M. Rosenheim: Cultural life in the Provinces, page 504.
8] Memoirs Of His Own Life: In Four Volumes. Volume 4, By Tate Wilkinson.