The early career of William Meadows

William James Meadows was born in London in c.1753. His father was Thomas William Meadows, a market gardener from Cheslea, who later became an inn-keeper in Rottingdean, and may have owned a coffee house by St James' Palace in London. A 19th century history of Westminster mentions, "The St James' Coffee House, pulled down in 1806, stood on the south-west corner [of St James' Street]. Steele and Addison, Goldsmith and Garrick, Swift and Dr Joseph Warton, were among the frequenters of this tavern, which was considered to be the 'Whig House'." William also had an elder brother, Thomas, born c.1748. Thomas was reputed to have sailed with Captain Cook on his final voyage, and William may also have sailed with them. William was a larger-than-life character, a fine sportsman from an early age, daring and innovative in all manner of ways.

The details of his early life off-stage were later recounted by his grandson Edwin Lewis Meadows. Edwin's great-grandsons, Roger and Jeff Meadows, have recently created an excellent new website where you can read Edwin's original text and full details of William's early life. The link below will take you straight to their site.

According to his obituary (source unknown), William made his stage debut in the role of Young Meadows in the popular 18th century comic opera, 'Love in a Village', in Brighton in about 1773. Subsequently he appeared in Richmond (upon Thames).

Dublin and Cork

A large part of William's stage career was played out on the stages of Dublin. From c.1782-1784, and again from c.1793-c.1799, he appeared at both of the city's theatres, in Smock Alley (the original Theatre Royal Dublin) and Crow Street. Amongst the operas he performed in were, 'Thomas and Sally', 'The Divorce', 'The Waterman', 'Castle of Andalusia', 'No Song No Supper', and 'The Flitch of Bacon'. He also appeared in the more general 'entertainments' popular at the time, and in the new and fashionable pantomimes such as 'Children in the Wood' (based on the tale of the 'Babes in the Wood').

A letter from Dublin dated June 4th, 1794, in the memoirs of the actor Charles Mathews the elder (published in 1860), records: "The play this evening is "He would be a soldier", and the farce of "All the world's a stage", by command of the Lord-Lieutenant. At present they have no professed low comedian. Meadows, a singer (who performs Caleb tonight), is the only actor or any consequence in this line." A month later, a benefit for William was also announced in the 'Anthologica Hibernia' ("monthly collections of science, belles-lettres and history") for July 8th 1794, with performances in the second half of the programme of 'Children in the wood', and 'The Purse'. William also appeared in 1796 at Crow Street when he played the comic role of Amalekite Grabowski in a production by Thomas Morton

As the Crow Street Theatre was linked to the Theatre Royal in Cork, and the Crow Street troupe regularly appeared in Cork, William is known to have performed at the Theatre Royal Cork in 1783. The following information, from Michael C.Green's book published in 2000, 'Theatre in Belfast 1736-1800', (pages 33-34) describes the background and conditions of employment that William would have known.

"In its purest form the touring company is typified by the troupes that the Dublin-based managers ... sent on annual circuits to theatres that they owned or leased in Cork, Waterford, Limerick and elsewhere. Normally, they spent the bulk of the summer and the autumn in the larger city of Cork, paying visits of a few weeks to the other cities, usually at the time of the annual horse races or assizes, when the towns could reasonably expected to be full. Touring companies were usually composed of actors who were regular employees of the Dublin Theatre Royal. These "stock" actors were regularly augmented by visiting "stars" from the London or provincial British theatres. In general, touring companies were larger than strolling companies, comprising about 25 actors or one half of the regular Dublin company. ... In Dublin and London, ... Principal actors generally received one or two benefits each season, secondary actors one benefit, to be taken shortly before Easter (the recipient to pay his own advertising costs), and tertiary actors took one benefit shared with one or two others of their status. Principal actors generally chose their own benefit plays, while lesser personnel were assigned theirs by the manager."

William was not the only member of his family who appeared on the Dublin stage at this time. In 1783, Mrs Meadows appeared at Smock Alley in 'Vauxhall Champêtre'. In 1794 there was also a benefit for "Mr and Misses Meadows" at the Crow Street Theatre, and at the same theatre again for the "Misses Meadows" in 1797. According to William's obituary, "His daughter it is remembered by many performed in 'The Tempest' for thirty consecutive nights with wondeful applause, and it may be a matter of doubt whether her impersonation of that was not as perfect as was ever represented." (See the following page on Margaret Meadows). Her career, which culminated at Covent Garden, thus appears to have begun at Crow Street.

In 1784, a benefit performance of 'Macbeth' was given for William Meadows at the Smock Alley Theatre. At the time, he gave his address as 4, Essex Quay in Dublin, on the banks of the River Liffey by the Courthouse.

Haymarket and Covent Garden

According to William's obituary, his big break on the London stage came when he was appearing at Richmond and was spotted by the manager of the Haymarket Theatre, George Colman the Elder: "He received an unsolicited offer from the elder Colman to join his company at the Haymarket: very good comic parts were assigned to him, he was so great a favourite of the manager as to draw from him that he should never want in engagement whilst he had a theatre."

William made his debut at the Haymarket in February 1785 in the comic opera 'The Quaker', with the renowned actor-manager John Bannister. In June of the same year, the Haymarket playbill announced William's appearance as Young Meadows in 'Love in a Village', "being his first appearance in London". In the same season, he also appeared in the comic opera 'Rosina', as Filch in 'The Beggar's Opera', in the chorus of 'The Sons of Anacreon', and as the Birdcatcher in 'Here, There and Everywhere', "an entertainment of pantomime, singing, dancing and dialogue".

Whatever William's previous successes may have been, at least one rather acidic and anonymous critic brought him to down to earth with a bump after his first London appearance in 'Rosina'. 'The New Spectator, with the sage opinions of John Bull', devoted rather more unflattering attention to William's performance than he would have liked. The critic wrote,

"Mr Meadows came forward as Thomas, and gardener's habit was so well adapted that we only thought him disguised when he entered as a gentleman. His merit, as an actor, is beneath all criticism; vulgarity and ignorance shine forth in every sentence, which added to the pantomimical display of a white handkerchief, too often displayed, rendered the whole ludicrous and laughable. There was much labour and preparation in the whole of his singing, which was tolerable and frequently excellent. When has more feeling and comprehension his acting may prove a support to his voice, and render him worthy of an engagement at a theatre royal - a little more of the country would have done him no harm." This sneering and snobby critique in the capital must have come as something of a shock to William after his previous successes in Dublin and the provinces.

Officially the Haymarket season ran from May until September each year. On the 19th September 1785, William made his début at Covent Garden in the role of Carlos in the Sheridan's comic opera 'The Duena'. He also appeared as Damatas in 'Midas', and as Apollo in 'Poor Vulcan', both of which were light operas in the Italian style known as Burletta. In addition, William also appeared in 'Comus', and in the choruses of other productions at both theatres in 1785.

Image: William Meadows Double Bill

A unique Meadows Double Bill from The Times in September 1785, announcing William's debut at Covent Garden, and and a busy night at The Haymarket.

From February until May 1786, William continued to appear at Covent Garden, playing Apollo once again 'Poor Vulcan', and appearing with the famous Mrs Billington in 'The Peruvian'. On May 24th 1786, he played the role of Lubin in 'The Quaker' in the second half of the programme. The first half of the programme was a performance of 'The Comdedy of Errors', and on the playbill it was noted that at the end of Act II there was to be "a variety of imitations of birds by Mr Meadows." William Meadows may therefore be the only bird-warbler to have ever appeared at Covent Garden!

When the Haymarket reopened in May 1786, William returned to the theatre to appear once again as Young Meadows in 'Love in a Village', then as Filch in 'The Beggar's Opera', William in 'Rosina', Watt Cockney in the comic opera 'The Romp', Loader in the comic opera 'The Minor', in the opera 'The Siege of Curzola', and as Sprightly in 'The Devil in the wine cellar', a benefit for Bannister Junior. William also appeared once again as the Birdcatcher, and in 1786 he performed regularly in the Haymarket pantomimes with a certain Mr Grimaldi, most probably the father of the 'father of British clowns', Joseph Grimaldi.

Image: William Meadows double billing at the Haymarket

The 1787 season at the Haymarket opened with a "comic opera never performed" (according to the playbill), called 'Harvest Home', in which William played the lead. In the same season, he also sang the lead in 'The Siege of Curzola', and appeared as Watt Cockney in 'The Romp', Young Meadows in 'Love in a Village', Captain Wilson in the musical farce 'The Flitch of Bacon', Damatas in 'Midas', Eugene in 'The Agreable Surprise', Osric in 'Hamlet', and as Mercury in the Burletta 'The Golden Pippin'. According to a review of this last performance held in the Theatre Museum archives in London, "Meadows, in Mercury, acquitted himself with merit." He also sang in 'The Day', "an entertainment of singing and dancing", including a trio with the actress wife of his friend of John Bannister.

Image: William Meadows in Hamlet

Above and below: notices from The Times, May 1787, announcing performances by William Meadows.

Image: William Meadows in Agreable Surprise

The sensation of the 1787 season at the Haymarket was the comic opera 'Inkle and Yarico' by George Colman the Younger, which raised issues relating to the role of women in society and in favour of the abolition of slavery. Throughout the 1787 season, Charles Kemble and his French actress wife appeared at the Haymarket, and it was Mrs Kemble (the mother of Fanny Kemble), who sang the lead in the début season of 'Inkle and Yarico' in which William also appeared as Mate. For his final performance at the Haymarket on September 15th 1787, William appeared in 'Inkle and Yarico' in the first half, and in 'The Romp' in the second half of the programme.

Image: Playbill for the opening night of 'Inkle and Yarico', mentioning William Meadows

There are no records of Haymarket performances by William Meadows in 1788. This appears to be due to the demise of his patron, George Colman the Elder of the Haymarket. In 1789, the management of the theatre passed to George Colman the Younger. According to William's obituary, "Mr Coleman dying, the management fell to his son with whom Meadows had a slight altercation. The management ... wishing to impose the task on him of giving out the play to which the others objected and they parted by mutual consent".

A season at Sadler's Wells

Records of William's appearances become more scarce after his departure from the Haymarket company in 1787. Given that the same principal characters appeared at both Covent Garden and the Haymarket, it is not surprising that in 1788 there is no sign of William at Covent Garden either. So far there is no evidence that William ever appeared at the other great London theatre in Drury Lane. However there was a fourth venue of repute, whose reputation and tradition lives on, at the Theatre Royal Sadler's Wells.

Contemporary notices in The Times from approxiamtely this period frequently mention that Sadler's Wells was under the patronage of The Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV who was also the long-term lover of the actress Mrs Jordan. There is a reference to William Meadows performing in a musical production entitled 'April Fool', but the best indication of William's world in 1788 comes from the announcement in The Times for the show which ran in July and August 1788. William was one of three singers who appeared as officers of the king's party in 'Les Quatre Fils Hermand, or The Four Valiant Brothers'.

Image: William Meadows at Sadler's Wells

With a Spanish contortionist heading the bill (he was later billed as 'The Infant Hercules'), sword and axe throwers, a tight-rope walker, and three short musical plays, it would appear that William Meadows had moved from Opera at Covent Garden to what would now be termed 'Variety' performances at Sadler's Wells. The same cast appeared in various productions at Sadler's Wells in 1788, including 'Saint Monday, or Cure for a Cold', and a grand celebration of the centenary of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

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