Despite the circumstances of his departure from the Haymarket, William was certainly not without friends within the company. According to his obituary once again, after the Haymarket : "He [William] spent much of his time in Essex, and when dining with some friends at Brentwood a note from the manager of the Edinburgh Theatre reached him, offering him an engagement which he accepted. He set out on his journey the next morning to the Scottish capital and rode the whole distance four hundred miles on horseback. He played there with equal success and afterwards went to Dumfries where he equally enjoyed the society of the Ayrshire Bard" [Robbie Burns].
The key figure in William's Scottish adventures was his Haymarket contemporary, James Brown Williamson, who appears on the Haymarkey playbill and notices on the previous page. The following information is taken from the websites mentioned at the end of each paragraph.
According to www.robertburns.org, Williamson was, "The leading actor in the dramatic company which occasionally played behind the George Inn in Dumfries. The Burns Chronicle for 1948 alleges that the man's name was John Brown (not James as Chambers says), 'that he married Louisa Fontenelle (d. 1800)..., and that both emigrated to America. Like Burns, he had been admitted to the Riddell social circle at Woodley Park. When the company was playing at Whitehaven, the 'bad Earl of Lonsdale' imprisoned the entire company as vagrants. Burns if the author of the piece was indeed Burns took the opportunity of hitting back at Maria Riddell, who had broken off her friendship with him, and at the Earl, whom he disliked, by writing his 'Epistle from Esopus to Maria'.
More detailed information can also be found on www.theatreroyaldumfries.co.uk : "In 1790, actor manager George Stephen Sutherland, who had been playing with a company at the Old Assembly Room in the George Hotel, at that time the only venue for theatrical performance in Dumfries, approached interested people in the area with the intention of raising subscriptions for a purpose-built theatre. Among those involved was Robert Burns, then resident at Ellisland Farm, just north of Dumfries. Completed in time to take advantage of this prosperous season, at a cost of some £800, what was then known simply as The Theatre or the New Theatre, opened on Saturday 29th September 1792, under the management of Sutherland's partner, John Brown Williamson, from the Theatre Royal Haymarket. With a design by Thomas Boyd of Dumfries, based on that of the Theatres Royal in Bristol and Edinburgh, it seated between five and six hundred. Among those who appeared at the theatre in the early years were Mrs Kemble, Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready (whose father was the lessee for four years), Miss Jarman from Covent Garden, Samuel Phelps and Ellen Tree. Burns continued his association with the theatre until his death in 1796, writing the prologue "The Rights of Woman" for Miss Louise Fontanelle's Benefit Night and, in 1794, a tribute to Mrs Kemble as "Yarico" in the opera "lnkle and Yarico"
Exactly when William Meadows appeared in Edinburgh and Dumfries is not clear, so he may have appeared at either the Old Assembly Room or the new Theatre Royal. It is interesting to note the tribute to Mrs Kemble as "Yarico" in 1794 in Dumfries, as William also made a return to the Haymarket in London in a new run of "Inkle and Yarico" in 1793.
The account of William's life written by his grandson, Edwin Lewis Meadows, mentions that William Meadows was belived to have been a member of the volunteer defence force raised to repel the French attack at Bantry Bay in Ireland in 1798. Edwin went on to say that a combination of the threat of French invasion, and a theatrical engagement in England, led the family back to London via Liverpool. In an early record of the Liverpool theatres ('The annals of the Liverpool stage,' published in 1908), it is recorded that in December 1798, the Theatre Royal Liverpool was under the new management of the actor-manager Samuel William Ryley. Amongst the cast who opened in Ryley's initial five week run at the theatre on December 17th, 1798, were William Meadows, his wife, and one of his daughters (possibly Margaret, who went on to brief London stage fame). Contemporary descriptions of the Theatre Royal Liverpool suggest that it was an undistinguished venue in need of renovation, and with a signficiant number of rowdy sailors in the audience who occasionnally threw bottles at the stage during performances! Ryley continued to manage the theatre, but for the Meadows family, Liverpool was only a convenient stop-over en route for London and its more refined audiences.
When recounting William's career at the Haymarket, the author of his obituary wrote, with a certain theatrical embellishment, "When on these boards he had the honour of singing the naval victories before the immortal Nelson, and the last verse (written especially for the occasion) ending with the wonders that Nelson performed on the Nile drew tears from that great hero."
The Battle of the Nile was fought in 1798, but Nelson and his fleet did not return to England until the end of 1799. It fell to William's old Haymarket friend and contemporary John Bannister to organise the benefit in aid of the widows and orphans of the fleet at the Haymarket in 1800, in the presence of Nelson. This was the occasion when William returned to his favourite London stage. Apparently William appears to have conquered the returning hero that night, as Nelson is said to have presented him with a tortoise-shell box which can be viewed on The Meadows Story website (see the previous page on William's early career for the link to this site). 'The Monthly Mirror' of 1800 recorded the occasion in the following terms: "Nov 17th - The elder Bannister had a benefit this evening which Lord Nelson and Sir William and Lady Hamilton honoured with their first appearance at a place of public entertainment. ... Mr Meadows, from Dublin, a gentleman who belonged to the Haymarket company many seasons back, sang 'Rule Britannia' with great effect."
It is possible that William's return performance at The Haymarket may well have ensured his next known appearance in 1801 at a very different venue. The Royal Circus was opened by the composer and playwright Charles Dibden in in Southwark in 1782. In 1788,the opera singer Delphini, who had appeared with William Meadows at The Haymarket in 1785, took over the management of the theatre for a season.
The Royal Circus was known for staging not only serious drama and opera, but also extravagant spectacles including live stag-hunts, for instance. In style and content, the programmes were nearer to William's Sadler's Wells season in 1788, although the Royal Circus offered a much more exotic selection of entertainments.
In 1801, a lengthy notice in The Times announced, "the new splendid comic pantomime called The Eclipse, or Harlequin in China" would follow on from "equestrian exercises by the celebrated Master Saunders. In the course of the evening Mr Meadows will sing 'The Anchor's Smith'." Later in the season, an Egyptian-themed pantomime replaced the Chinese pantomime, as the patriotic fervour surrounding Nelson's victory on the Nile lived on. William's appearance at the Royal Circus is not without interest, or at least coincidence, for the stories of his immediate family. The Royal Circus later became known as The Surrey Theatre, and William's son James became scenic artist at the theatre. James' son Edwin also recorded that his uncle, William's son-in-law John Massey Wright, sang 'The Anchor's Smith' on grand occasions. Wright was a friend of Dibden.
John Bannister was not the only former Haymarket contemporary to call upon William. According to the obituary once again, "He also performed three seasons in Dublin and several tours of the provinces, and at last settled in business in London relinquishing the stage altogether except taking one or two of Edwins parts during that actors illness." There were two John Edwins who appeared at the Haymarket in the late 18th century, father (d.1790) and son, both of whom were successful. Presumably William must have replaced the younger Edwin, who died in Dublin in 1805.
The younger Edwin appeared alongside Mrs Kemble and William Meadows, under the direction of George Colman the Younger, at the Haymarket on 22nd August 1804. Almost twenty years on, the company was reunited on their original stage for the opening of a new comic opera by Colman called 'The Gay Deceivers; or More Laugh than Love", based on an earlier French opera, "Les evénéments imprévus". The show ran for a month, and was judged by some to be a light-hearted success, and by others to be a flimsy failure. Interestingly the music was composed by the noted Irish actor-manager, tenor and composer, Michael Kelly. A renowned figure in the late 18th and early 19th century theatre notably at Drury Lane, Kelly was a friend of Mozart, and notorious for sharing his mistress, Mrs Crouch, with the Prince Regent. (Coincidentally, one of Mrs Crouch's pupils appeared with William Meadows in the 1800 Haymarket Benefit before Nelson).
What precisely was the business into which William settled is unknown, nor where exactly in London he lived. At least two of his children lived in the new suburb of Pentonville from c.1815 until c.1824, so it is possible that William may also have lived with them. The area between Clerkenwell and Islington was developed at the end of the 18th century, and was home to a number of artists, and also William's former fellow-performer, Joe Grimaldi.
William's final days were spent in Essex, living largely alone at Baker's Farm in Sible Hedingham, one of the family homes of his son-in-law, Richard Johnson, who married William's daughter, Mary Meadows. Sible Hedingham is a rural village which was the scene of one of the last witchcraft trials in Britain in 1863. Despite William's great age, his grandson Edwin later recalled a visit by his grandfather to James' family home in Hope Place in Mile End. This was no doubt facilitated by the fact that Sible Hedingham was a staging post only two hours from London, on a regular coach link.
Image: Baker's Farm
Baker's Farm, Sible Hedingham
The writer of William's obituary, (prepared for 'The Times', but seemingly never published), noted that : " alas, for the vicissitudes that often accompany the possession of bright gifts and attainments in this world, he existed solely on the bounty of his friends, and whilst he possessed barely enough of this worlds goods to satisfy the common wants of nature, such was the extreme generosity of his disposition, this little was rendered less by his frequently responding to calls of charity, for whilst a shilling was his to give no needy applicant ever left his door unrelieved, and there without a wish pertaining to earth, save for the welfare of friends who survived him, he quitted this existence ... without a sigh or struggle ...". Given that William was already living on the bounty of his daughter and son-in-law, this account may be a somewhat 'slanted' version of events. The chances are that given William's sometimes impetuous nature, as revealed in the family's off-stage anecdotes, he may simply have retired to the cheaper countryside because his mysterious business venture in London had failed. However that does not detract from his apparent generosity and kind spirit. It should also be noted that, unfortunately for William, his final years weres similar to many of his other former stage contemporaries who also died in poverty.
William Meadows died at Baker's Farm at the age of 94 on January 31st, 1847. His funeral took place there in the parish church of St Peter on 6th February, 1847.
Image: William Meadows, by his son James Meadows
William Meadows, by his son James Meadows.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Arthur Meadows).
Image: William Meadows
In 1897, William's grandson Edwin Lewis Meadows, produced this sketch from memory of his grandfather's portrait.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Roger and Jeff Meadows).
The Meadows family strong connection with Baker's Farm and Sible Hedingham endured throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th century. Although William died alone, it is unlikely that he lay forgotten his quiet corner of Essex. William's Johnson grandchildren returned to Baker's Farm following their grandfather's death, and several of William's great-grandchildren came into the world in the house where William left it.
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