The Bruntons:   A Theatrical Family

Most aficionados of the Regency are familiar with at least some of the leading actors and actresses of that era, but they were only the major stars. However, a play could not be put on with only the stars. There were a great many people involved in the world of the theatre during our favorite period about whom most of us know very little. In some cases, many members of a family had careers in the theatre. The Bruntons were one such family. Three generations of that family found some success on the stage, or behind it, in both England and America, from the eighteenth century well into the nineteenth.

The Bruntons, from soap to the stage . . .

The patriarch of the Brunton family was John Brunton, (1741 – 1822). Brunton was born in Norwich, the county town of Norfolk. Though the Industrial Revolution made few inroads into Norfolk until the nineteenth century, Norwich was one of the largest cities by population right through the Regency. John was the son of a prominent Norwich soap-maker whose father saw to it that he was educated at the local grammar school. The young man was then apprenticed to a local wholesale grocer. Once he had completed his seven-year apprenticeship, John married the daughter of a Norwich mercer, a Miss Friend. Not long after his marriage, John Brunton moved to London, where he set up as a tea-dealer and grocer with premises in Drury Lane.

In London, John Brunton became friendly with a Mr. J. Younger, who was at the time the prompter at the Covent Garden Theatre. Brunton became interested in acting, and in April of 1774, Brunton played the part of Cyrus in a benefit for Mr. Younger. Later in that same season, Brunton played the part of Hamlet in a benefit performance of the play for a Mr. Kniveton. Bitten by the acting bug, Brunton gave up his tea and grocery shop and became a full time actor. He moved with his family back to Norwich, where he was considered to be a talented actor, particularly in Shakespearean roles. He also traveled to a number of provincial theatres to perform over the years. In time, John Brunton gave up acting and took the position as manager of the theatre in Bath for about three years. Next he became manager of the theatre in Brighton, where the Prince of Wales became his patron. He eventually returned to Norwich to become the manager of the theatre there, also playing parts from time to time, when needed.

John Brunton and his wife were blessed with fourteen children. Four of the six children who survived to adulthood went on to careers on the stage. Despite the fact that he enjoyed working in the theatre, Brunton did not initially intend that any of his children should enter the profession. While they lived in Bath, Brunton’s wife took on the responsibility of educating their children, though he also spent many hours reading stories to them. He also taught his eldest daughter Anne, (1769 – 1808) to read Shakespeare aloud as part of her preparation for becoming a governess. However, it is said he saw such talent in her that he arranged for her to go on stage at the age of fifteen. Anne Brunton made her debut in Bath, in February of 1785. After seeing her performances in Bath that summer, Thomas Harris, manager of the Covent Garden theatre in London, engaged her to help his theatre compete with Mrs. Siddons, who was acting at the Drury Lane theatre. Many considered Anne’s talent nearly equal to that of Mrs. Siddons, though others thought she needed more experience. Anne’s manager was her father, who helped her perfect her acting skills. In August of 1791, the successful actress, Miss Anne Brunton, married the prominent playwright and poet, Robert Merry.

Mrs. Merry continued to act for over a year, but was eventually pressured to retire from the stage by her husband’s family. Soon thereafter, Merry had run through much of his substantial inheritance and the couple moved to Paris. But within a year, they were forced to return to London due to the outbreak of the French Revolution. The Merrys lived a very unsettled existence for the next three years, after which rumors began to circulate that Mrs. Merry would be returning to the stage in a private theatre in Scarborough, though nothing came of it. A few months later, there were reports in the newspapers that Anne Brunton Merry would soon appear at Covent Garden as the leading lady in a play written by her husband, but that also never came to pass. By the spring of 1796, Thomas Wignell, the manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia, was in London, seeking talent for his new theatre. Between Merry’s liberal political leanings, his dwindling financial resources and his family’s objections regarding his wife’s work in the theatre, the Merrys could see no secure position for themselves in London. Anne Merry, therefore, accepted Wignell’s offer to perform at the Chestnut Street Theatre and she and her husband sailed for America.

Anne Brunton Merry was a great success on the American stage, where she debuted in December of 1796 in the role of Juliet. In addition to Philadelphia, Mrs. Merry played in all of the large cities in the United States. In 1798, Robert Merry died, and Anne then married Thomas Wignell in January of 1803. Sadly, he died the following month, due to an infection caused by an injury. Mrs. Wignell performed in a play in Baltimore that April, then went into seclusion to await the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth, that fall. The following year, Anne Wignell returned to the stage performing in a number of Shakespearean roles. The actor, William Warren had taken over management of the Chestnut Street Theatre and, in August of 1806, Anne Wignell married him. She continued to act until May of 1808, when she again left the state to await the birth of a child. The Warrens retired to a house in Alexandria, Virginia at the end of the month. In mid-June, Anne experienced a violent illness which left her delusional and reciting some of her favorite speeches from characters she had played over the years. On 24 June 1806, she gave birth to a stillborn son, and though she initially seemed to be recovering from her ordeal, she died on 28 June 1806.

John Brunton’s son, also named John (1775 – 1849), was intended for the law by his father, though he had had a few small acting roles, while a child, at his father’s theatre. Despite his parent’s hopes, the young man was bitten by the acting bug, as had been his father, but at a much earlier age. John Junior, at the age of eighteen, and unbeknownst to his family, joined the theatre company of Lincoln. After experiencing some success, young John returned home to his family, who were living in Norwich by that time. Though his father was disappointed that his son had chosen not to follow the law, after his own experiences, he was understanding of his son’s love of the stage and hired him as an actor and assistant manager. John, Jr. became a successful actor in the Norwich theatre managed by his father, and in 1800, he traveled to London where he made his debut in the Covent Garden theatre, as had his father more than twenty-five years before. John Jr. played a number of Shakespearean roles over the course of the next five years, but he did not achieve the success of some of the other leading actors in London of that period. In 1804, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became the manager of the West London Theatre, though he did still perform character parts from time to time, when needed. Over the course of his career, John Brunton, Jr. would go on to manage theatres at Brighton, Birmingham, Plymouth, Lynn and Norwich.

Another of the daughters of John Brunton, Sr., Elizabeth (c. 1772 – 1799), was actually introduced to the London stage by her successful older sister, Anne, before Anne departed for America. Eliza, as she was known in the family, debuted on stage at the Covent Garden theatre in a benefit for her eldest sister in 1788. Anne personally introduced Eliza to the audience that night with an elegant and poetical address which was well-received by those in attendance. That first night, Eliza had such a case of stage fright that she could barely speak her lines. However, the audience showed her such encouragement that she was able to collect herself and get through her first performance with increasing vivacity. Eliza did develop her acting skills and continued to act for several years, but she never achieved the success of either her eldest or her youngest sister. She eventually married a Mr. Colombine.

John Brunton, Sr.’s youngest daughter, Louisa (c. 1780 – 1860), was accounted a great beauty. She was also a very talented actress, who made her debut in October of 1803, at the Covent Garden theatre, as leading lady to the famous actor John Kemble. Critics wrote of her beauty and her gifted performance, predicting a glowing future for her. Louisa Brunton played a variety of roles, from contemporary plays to Shakespeare over the next four years. She also had many gentlemen admirers. However, it was well-known that she came from a respectable and professional theatrical family. There was never any suggestion in society or in the newspapers that she was anything less that a very proper young lady. Certainly, she was never considered to be a courtesan or a loose woman as were some actresses.

Sometime in 1805, William, the First Earl of Craven became one of Louisa’s most ardent admirers. Lord Craven have been the first patron of the notorious courtesan, Harriette Wilson, when Harriette was only fifteen. However, it does not appear he ever made any attempt to offer Louisa Brunton the carte blanche he had offered Wilson. Rather, he asked for Louisa’s hand and, on 12 December 1807, the couple was married in Lord Craven’s London townhouse in Berkeley Square. Though Louisa may have expected to have been welcomed into aristocratic society, such was not the case. Though she was not a loose woman, Louisa had been born into the middle class, and there were many high-sticklers among the beau monde who shunned her. Nevertheless, she and her husband did maintain a circle of friends whose company they enjoyed.

After her marriage, Louisa gave up the stage and devoted much of her time to her family. She and Lord Craven took up their primary residence at the earl’s estate of Hamstead Marshall Park in Berkshire, where the earl had recently built a fine mansion. The earl never lost his wandering eye, and he is known to have had relationships with other women during their marriage. It seems his countess turned a blind eye to these extra-curricular activities in order to maintain peace in the marriage. Louisa took up garden design, a pursuit she would enjoy at Hamstead Marshall Park for most of her life. The Earl and Countess of Craven had four children, three boys, including the next earl, and a daughter. In 1811, when her father retired as the manager of the Norwich theatre, her parents moved to Berkshire, so Louisa also had her parents near her. When her husband died in July of 1825, Louisa remained at Hamstead Marshall, while her eldest son, the new earl, took up residence at Ashdown House, also situated in Berkshire. Louisa, Dowager Countess of Craven lived a quiet and retired life at Hamstead Marshall, her fame on the stage all but forgotten when she died there on 27 August 1860.

It transpired that Louisa was not the last of the Bruntons to take to the stage. Two of her older brother John’s daughters, the third generation of the Brunton family, both became actresses. In March of 1815, Elizabeth Brunton (1799 – 1860), made her debut at the theatre in Lynn, which was managed by her father. Elizabeth’s first role was that of Desdemona in Othello, opposite Charles Kemble, of the famous acting family. Though she did well enough, her father concluded that she was more suited to comedy roles, which she played at Lynn, then at other theatres around the country for the next couple of years. Miss Elizabeth Brunton, known to her family as Bess, played a wide range of comedy roles at theatres in Birmingham, Worcester, Shrewsbury and Leicester. In 1817, Thomas Harris, the manager of the Covent Garden theatre, engaged Elizabeth Brunton to perform in London, just as has he had engaged her Aunt Anne many years before. That September, following a long family tradition, Miss Elizabeth Brunton made her London debut at Covent Garden as Letitia Hardy in the comedy, Belle’s Stratagem. She performed in a number of other plays at Covent Garden that year, to mixed reviews. The following year, Elizabeth Brunton appeared on stage in Edinburgh and at Drury Lane. However, she was back at Covent Garden for the 1818 – 1819 season and continued to perform there though 1820. Elizabeth then seems to have taken a couple of years off from acting and spent some time in the country.

In 1822, Elizabeth Brunton resumed her career on the London stage, at the West Theatre, where her father was manager. Unfortunately, the season did not go well, and Bess once again retired to the country. While there, she became reacquainted with Frederick Henry Yates, the son of a tobacconist and an actor with whom she had performed at Drury Lane. In November of 1823, the couple were married in Bath. Mrs. Yates, still billed as Miss Brunton, appeared in a number of plays in Bath that season. The following season, she played at Cheltenham and Drury Lane, often with her husband. The couple played several theatres, sometimes together, and sometimes separately, over the course of the next decade. About 1835, Frederick Yates became the manager of the Adelphi Theatre in London. When he retired from the Adelphi in 1842, Mr. and Mrs. Yates traveled to Ireland, with their son, to perform in Dublin. Sadly, Mr. Yates became ill during rehearsals and the family decided to return to England. Frederick Yates died not long after his return, in June of 1842.

In 1843, Mrs. Yates took over as co-manager of the Adelphi theatre for about a year, but found her health was not up to it. She came back to the stage as an actress at the Lyceum for the 1848 – 1849 season. However, her health continued to deteriorate and she was forced to retire permanently from the stage by 1850. After a long illness, Mrs. Elizabeth Yates died on 30 August 1860, just three days after the passing of her Aunt Louisa. Though both Mr. and Mrs. Yates had enjoyed long theatrical careers, they strongly discouraged their son from seeking a career in the theatre. They were mostly successful in that endeavour since their son, Edmund, became a novelist and playwright, but he never performed on stage.

Elizabeth Brunton was the most well-known of the two daughters of John Brunton, Jr. who became actresses. In fact, though we know that Elizabeth had a younger sister who also became an actress, and enjoyed some success on the stage, we know practically nothing else about her, even her name. The only mention of this third-generation Brunton family actress is that she followed her elder sister as an actress in a history of the county of Norfolk, the ancestral home of the Brunton family, which was published in 1829. In time, perhaps more information will come to light about this mysterious younger Brunton sister.

Two of the daughters of John Brunton, Sr., Anne and Elizabeth, had both passed away before the Regency began. However, the other members of the Brunton family were all still living during the Regency. John Sr. retired as a theatre manager in the first year of the Regency, but his son was still active as a theatre manager though that decade. John Sr.’s daughter, Louisa, had become Countess of Craven before the Regency began, though she was still remembered by many who had attended her performances earlier in the century. John Jr.’s daughters, Elizabeth, and more than likely, the mysterious younger sister, were both acting during the second half of the Regency. Elizabeth did not marry until a few years after the Prince of Wales became King George IV, so during the Regency she was performing under her venerable family’s name. Despite the fact that the Brunton family is little known today, they were very well-known in the theatrical world of Britain from the late eighteenth century well into the middle of the nineteenth.

Though quite a number of members of the Regency theatrical world, particularly actresses, were considered to be people of loose morals and the lower classes, such was not the case with any of the members of the Brunton family. They were all considered to be respectable theatrical professionals, and they were certainly members of the middle class, with the exception of Louisa, after her marriage to the Earl of Craven. Dear Regency Authors, if you are planning to set an upcoming novel in the theatrical world of that period, and you need respected and respectable characters for your tale, might the Brunton family serve as a model for at least some those characters? Or, might you even allow one or more of the members of the real Brunton family to make an appearance in your story?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to The Bruntons:   A Theatrical Family

  1. helenajust says:

    Thank you for this wealth of detail!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure! I found the Brunton family quite fascinating, since they were just as much a professional theatrical family as were the Kembles, but far less known today. And in their lifetimes, they were considered very respectable people, despite their profession, which is not often shown in Regency novels. Too often, anyone who is involved with the theatre in a Regency story is depicted as being somehow dishonorable. I thought this would make a nice change of pace.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. elfahearn says:

    My great grandmother was a Craven and a direct descendant of the first earl. She and her husband, Henry Yeager, lived in Brooklyn where they had three daughters including my grandmother, Edith, who worked in vaudeville, and her younger sibling, Louise, who followed in her footsteps. In fact, they had an act together that involved reciting Shakespeare. These two spitfires raised my father, a theatrical man himself. He acted in and produced many seasons of summerstock, making sure I got bitten by the acting bug along the way. Now, I don’t touch the stuff except to watch someone else trod the boards, but it’s a revelation to learn the theatre goes so far back in my family history. Thanks Kat! I’m going to share this post with my sisters.

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