THIS handbill, kindly loaned by John Taylor of Kidderminster, is 188 years old and dates to the reign of George IV. It advertises a performance by the Infant Roscius, the acting child prodigy, who was supported by the “Gentlemen of the Stourbridge New Military Band.”
Can readers tell us anything about this band?
Their performance was at the New Theatre, Bridgnorth, on 6th August, 1825. The theatre opened on 11th December, 1824, in West Castle Street and it was demolished in 1850 to make way for the Newmarket Buildings.
In Georgian times there were at least three child actors known as the “Infant Roscius”. They were named after the celebrated Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus (126-62BC).
The earliest, and perhaps the most celebrated, was William Henry West Betty, born in Shrewsbury in 1791. He first appeared on stage in Belfast in 1803 and performed in Dublin before touring Scotland and England in 1804. In London he was a sensation and such was the clamour for seats at the Covent Garden Theatre that constables were needed to keep order.
Betty retired from the stage in 1808 to attend Cambridge University but his comeback in 1812 was a failure as critics derided his performance. He tried to revive his career again in 1821 with no success and then attempted suicide. He lived out his days on the fortune he had earned during his brief success, carrying out charitable works, and died in August 1874.
Betty had a son, Henry Betty, who launched himself as an actor in 1839 as the English Roscius. He made his London debut in 1844 as Hamlet but was a conspicuous failure and Charles Dickens based the character of Wopsle, the failed Shakespearean of Great Expectations, upon him.
Dickens also lampooned child actors in Nicholas Nickleby with his comic character the Infant Phenomenon who “though of short stature, had a comparatively aged countenance, and had moreover been precisely the same age – not perhaps to the full extent of the memory of the oldest inhabitant, but certainly for five good years.”
Another Infant Roscius was Henry Herbert who, according to his biography published in 1830, was born in Wisbech in 1822. He was inspired to take the stage after he saw another Infant Roscius, the one that played in Bridgnorth, perform in Reading.
Our handbill refers him as “Master G” but his name was William Robert Grossmith. Details of his early career can be found in the pamphlet The Life of the Celebrated Infant Roscius Master Grossmith of Reading, Berks, Only Seven Years and a Quarter Old. The pamphlet was written by “E.C.B. His Preceptor” and was dated Wolverhampton, 9th June, 1825.
Master Grossmith was born in Reading in 1818, the son of a picture framer and he made his debut at the Royal Coburg Theatre, London, aged only six, in 1824.
The pamphlet gives details of the tour that brought the precocious talent to the Black Country. He began in his native Reading then performed at Newbury, Henley on Thames, Marlow, Maidenhead and Windsor, where he gave a private performance for Princess Augusta, daughter of George III. From there he toured Egham, Chertsey, Kingston, Wokingham, Wallingford, Abingdon, Cirencester, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Stroud, Tewkesbury, Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
His performance was reviewed in the Wolverhampton Chronicle, 8th June, 1825:
“On Friday evening, Master Grossmith, a very young gentleman, who, from the extent and versatility of his histrionic talent, bears most appropriately the appellation of the ‘Infant Roscius’, commenced his performance at our Theatre. After an entertaining introduction, in which, a la Matthews, he displayed his mimic powers to perfection, he completely astonished the audience by his admirable delineation of seven various and opposite characters, in the laughable piece of Pecks of Troubles, which drew forth the most rapturous applause; nor was there less delight evinced by his comic singing, particularly in the whimsical ditty ‘Betsey Baker’, which set gravity at defiance, and put all risible muscles in motion. He afterwards took a bolder aim, and by his just personification of the exalted feelings of the heroic and self-devoted Rolla, and the terrible agitations of the ambitious but conscience-stricken Richard, in the tent scene, proved that he was equally the favourite child of Melpmene [sic], as of her sister Muse, the laughter-loving Thalia. He concluded his pleasing entertainments by playing a piece on the musical glasses, which he executed with much taste. Endowed as Master Grossmith is by nature with handsome features, and an open and intelligent countenance, a powerful voice, and most retentive memory, he cannot but be considered as a prodigy; and, should the maturity of years confirm the precocity of his youth, he must at a future day shine as a star of the first magnitude in the theatrical hemisphere. On Monday he again appeared before a fashionable audience, and this evening he repeats his performance, with an entire change in the second part of it.”
A later pamphlet, The Life and Theatrical Excursions of William Robert Grossmith the Juvenile Actor Not Yet Nine Years of Age, published in 1827, gives details of what followed:
“From Wolverhampton he proceeded to Dudley, Staffordshire [sic]. Here his young mind was penetrated with those sentiments which the ruins of Dudley Castle can scarcely fail to excite. The whole of his leisure hours were spent in collecting fossils, etc. from this ancient and beautiful place. The Assembly-room was crowded every night of his performing in this town, the Clergy of which warmly interested themselves in his success. Stourbridge, the town he next visited, for its size, recompensed his efforts better than any other had in the course of this tour. But, at Kidderminster (Worcestershire), and Bridgnorth (Salop), the route that he took on quitting Stourbridge, there being very few people of fortune and distinction in these towns and their environs, by performing three nights at each, he netted only 11/. Shrewsbury, however, the county town of Shropshire, where he next exhibited, amply compensated him for the disappointment.”
Young Grossmith’s tour then continued to Oswestry, Ludlow, Warwick and Stratford-on-Avon, where he visited Shakespeare’s tomb. The boy and his father then returned home to Reading but soon departed on a tour of Wales and north England, followed by a tour of the west country.
Master Grossmith appears to have carried on performing until 1830, when he would have been around 12 years old, but we have been unable to uncover details of his later life.
However, in The Idler magazine of February 1893, the comic actor and writer George Grossmith, remembered today as the author of The Diary of a Nobody, claimed to be nephew of Master Grossmith the Infant Roscius.
Can readers provide any more information on the William Grossmith, the Infant Roscius, or the Stourbridge New Military Band? Please contact email@example.com or write to Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL