Due to the great popularity of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas, Frank Thornton is best remembered for his work with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, having been associated with the company from its inception in 1877.
Born Frank Thornton Tubbs in London on 16 May 1845, he was a son of Richard Thomas Tubbs and Elizabeth Charlotte Astley. As a youngster he enjoyed singing comic songs and entertaining his friends, and while working in a merchant’s office in the city during the day, he performed in amateur theatricals in the evening reciting humorous monologues and singing popular songs.
Attracting the attention of Richard D’Oyly Carte, he was given the role of Foreman of the Jury in a production of Trial by Jury at the Westminster Aquarium in 1877. In November of that year Carte founded the Comedy Opera Company which was launched with The Sorcerer, the first full length opera to be written by the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership.
In securing artists for the first production of The Sorcerer, D’Oyly Carte invited Frank Thornton to audition for the role of John Wellington Wells. Thornton impressed with his singing and dancing, but was pipped at the post by another newcomer to the comic opera stage, George Grossmith, who like Thornton had commenced his stage career singing comic songs and performing in drawing-room entertainments.
Thornton was offered the position of understudy to George Grossmith and roles in the various curtain raisers and afterpieces that formed part of the bill. He also played a walk-on part in The Sorcerer, that of the Oldest Inhabitant.
For the next three years he continued to lead a double life, working in the city by day and performing at the Opera Comique in the evening. Finally, in 1881, he was given the opportunity to create a leading role in a new opera. As Major Murgatroyd, one of the three Officers of the Dragoon Guards in Patience, he scored a great success, personally and professionally - and was finally able to give up his day job!
From August 1879, the company became known as Mr D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Company, later shortened to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company … and the rest, as they say, is history!
Over the following years, Thornton continued to ‘go on’ for George Grossmith when required, notably in April 1880 when he played Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance and in March 1882 when he performed Bunthorne in Patience (with Arthur Law taking on Thornton’s role of Major Murgatroyd). He also replaced Richard Temple as Dick Dead Eye in HMS Pinafore during 1879 and as Samuel in The Pirates of Penzance in 1880.
In 1883, Thornton played the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe on tour throughout the provinces, and also acted as stage manager for the production. Prior to the commencement of the tour, he was given a special matinee benefit at the Savoy Theatre, when, on 14 February 1882, Broken Hearts by W.S. Gilbert was performed with Thornton as Mousta.
In early 1884, D’Oyly Carte sent him to New York to stage manage the first production of Princess Ida in America.
At the end of the American tour, Thornton felt he needed a change and accepted the position of understudy to W.S. Penley at the Princes Theatre, where Penley had been engaged to create the role of the Reverend Spalding in the first London production of Charles Hawtrey’s farcical comedy The Private Secretary. The play had had its first production at Cambridge in November 1883 with Herbert Beerbohm Tree as the cleric.
In London, The Private Secretary opened on 29 March 1884, moving to the Globe Theatre on 19 May, where it played for over 500 performances.
Thornton’s familiarity with the role led to him being engaged by A.M. Palmer to perform the lead in the first American production.
The Private Secretary was largely a vehicle for displaying the comic skill of the actor playing Spalding, relying upon a series of improbable situations and pratfalls for laughs, with the central character suffering all sorts of indignities, being “pushed around, tripped up, shoved under tables, tied to a chair, hit by an umbrella, sat on, and stuffed into a chest”.
In New York, The Private Secretary opened at the Madison Square Theatre on 29 September 1884. It ran for 200 nights – something of a record at the time – attracting the attention of Williamson, Garner & Musgrove who promptly engaged Thornton to bring the play to Australia.
Thornton made his Australian debut at the Gaiety Theatre in Sydney on 18 July 1885, the first of six tours of Australia and New Zealand he would make between 1885 and 1909.
During his 15-month stay in Australia, Thornton also appeared as John Wellington Wells in the first Australian production of The Sorcerer at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, and played the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury. But these performances were incidental to touring The Private Secretary throughout Australasia.
He returned to Australia again in November 1888 remaining for some 22 months. During this time he revived The Private Secretary and starred in the first Australian productions of Sweet Lavender and Mamma, the first-named a domestic drama by A.W. Pinero and the second a farce by Sydney Grundy. Sweet Lavender was by far the more successful of the two, and as Dick Phenyl, a warm-hearted old barrister with a propensity to drink, Thornton was able to demonstrate his versatility as a performer. In London, the role of Phenyl had been created by Edward Terry.
Thornton was back in Australia in 1893-1894 (his third tour) with Charley’s Aunt, a three-act farce by Brandon Thomas, which Thornton produced in association with Charles Arnold. The story goes that W.S. Penley, who held the rights to the play refused to negotiate with Thornton (was Penley jealous of Thornton’s success with The Private Secretary?), preferring to deal with Charles Arnold.
Charley’s Aunt was a phenomenal success wherever it went. On its first London production it broke existing records by running for 1,466 performances – and has remained popular ever since, being the basis for numerous films and musicals.
Thornton returned to Australia for his fourth tour in December 1896 and during the following 19 months produced in addition to revivals of his previous successes, another cross-dressing play, The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown, and a sporting farce, The Bookmaker; the first by Robert Buchanan and “Charles Marlowe” (Harriette Jay) and the second by J.W. Pigott.
His fifth tour commenced in May 1902, when he opened at the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne in Facing the Music, a farcical comedy by J.H. Darnley. This play was also the only one he produced in England, performing the lead himself in the provinces and with James Welch at the Strand Theatre in London in February 1900.
Thornton’s fifth tour also saw the first Australian production of A Little Ray of Sunshine by Mark Ambient and Wilton Heriot, his only “failure”. In an interview, Thornton said that along with Dick Phenyl in Sweet Lavender, the role of Lord Markham in Sunshine was his favourite. This play has a curious plot – reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol - in which a benevolent old peer returns unexpectedly one Christmas eve after a long absence and although mistaken by family and friends for a village pauper, a money-lender, a housemaid’s uncle, a baker’s man, a Cambridge don and a trainer of racehorses, appears to each of them in turn as a ‘little ray of sunshine’ dispelling any worries or concerns they might have. In London, Thornton’s former nemesis, W.S. Penley played the role.
Thornton’s sixth and final tour saw him open at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, on 21 December 1907, with When Knights Were Bold by Charles Marlowe, a play that had been performed in London by James Welch.
Thornton made his final Australian appearance in Melbourne on 15 January 1909, when he played Charley’s Aunt for the last time.
From each of his Australian tours, Thornton made a packet, and for the most part rested back in England between visits. However, he made a few notable appearances during these times, joining the London Gaiety Company for the burlesques Miss Esmeralda and Frankenstein in 1886/1887, and creating the role of Pyjama in The Nautch Girl for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1892.
Frank Thornton died in London on 18 December 1918, London, England, aged 73. He was survived by his wife and three children.
Michael Ainger, Gilbert and Sullivan: A duel biography (2002)
Cyril Rollins and R John Witts, The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas: A record of productions, 1875-1961 (1962)
The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, https://gsarchive.net/whowaswho/T/ThorntonFrank.htm
The New York Clipper, 15 March 1884
The Era, 16 March 1895
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 21 November 1891
Mercury, 17 June 1908
Sydney Mail, 1 May 1886
Table Talk, 29 November 1889
This is the first in a series of biographical pieces focusing on the performers highlighted in a recent talk given by THA members Elisabeth and Mimi at the State Library of Victoria. The talk was on the Troedel Collection of theatre posters, continuing THA’s quest to unearth theatrical gems within the library’s collection and reveal the stories behind the objects.
English actress Jennie Lee (1846-1930) is best remembered for playing the role of Jo, the pathetic crossing sweeper in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – a role she is said to have played more than 9000 times – performing it throughout the United Kingdom, America and Australia, as well as South Africa and India.
Born Emily Lee in London on 1 July 1846, she was a daughter of watercolour artist and wood engraver Edwin George Lee and his Irish wife Mary Anne Ryan. (1) Raised in a large household in Marylebone in London (Charles Dickens lived just around the corner in Fitzroy Square and along with Millais was a regular visitor), Jennie displayed an aptitude for dancing and singing at an early age. (2)
In 1869, following the death of her father, she decided to try her luck on the stage, and with a letter of introduction to Messrs Richard and William Mansell sought an opening at the Lyceum Theatre. (3) She made her stage debut as one of the twelve pages in the opera bouffe Chilperic in January 1870. The following year, she scored her first ‘hit’ as the Street Arab in Herve’s Little Faust. From the Lyceum, she moved to the Strand, where she enjoyed further successes in the burlesques The Pilgrim of Love, The Idle ‘Prentice and Coeur de Lion. Two of her sisters, Ada and Katie followed her on to the stage and at various times the three of them acted together.
By late 1871, Jennie was in New York earning rave reviews for her performance of Mary Meredith in a revival of Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin, with starring roles in burlesque and comedy to follow, in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
It was in America that she married JP Burnett (1946-1917), an Edinburgh-born actor and playwright. (4) They first met in 1870 while performing at the Strand Theatre, and were reunited again in August 1872 when he joined the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia where she was performing with the Vokes Family. It is not clear if their meeting was by arrangement or circumstance, but from this time on they became inseparable, but were not free to marry until late 1873.
It seems that in 1867, Jennie had wedded a certain William Parker Scott, with whom she “lived very happily” until the time of her American engagement. (5) In 1873, Jennie’s husband filed for dissolution of their marriage on the grounds of his wife’s misconduct, with JP Burnett cited as co-respondent. Jennie and Burnett returned briefly to London, but were back the USA by September 1873. In November, Jennie received her decree nisi and was free to marry Burnett. (6)
From September 1873 to August 1875, the Burnetts remained in San Francisco, performing initially at the Alhambra and Opera House and later at the California Theatre.
It was at the California Theatre that Burnett’s dramatization of Bleak House had its genesis, when in June 1875, they were supporting visiting tragedienne Fanny Janauschek. One of the plays being performed was Chesney Wold, a dramatization of Bleak House by Henry A Rendle. For this production, Jennie Lee played Jo, the crossing sweeper, with Janauschek in the double-role of Lady Deadlock and Hortense. With her emotional and heart-wrenching performance, Jennie stole the show, a performance reportedly witnessed by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault.
It was apparently at Boucicault’s suggestion that Burnett devised his own adaptation of Bleak House as a starring vehicle for his wife. (7) On their return to England, the play had its premiere at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool on 8 November 1875, where it proved something of a sensation. The Era (13 November 1875) for example wrote:
Miss Lee’s conception and embodiment of the part could not easily be excelled, and it may rightly take rank as one of the best of modern impersonations. Her make up alone stamped the impersonation as one of the most realistic nature, faithful in every detail; and her realisation of Joe’s utter wretchedness was most artistic, natural and touching. The affecting death scene was specially good, and Miss Jennie Lee fairly secured the genuine triumph the true artist deserves.
After a season of pantomime at London’s Surrey Theatre playing Jack in Jack the Giant Killer and Tom Thumb, Jennie Lee introduced Jo to London audiences. It opened at the Globe Theatre on 21 February 1876, where it was even more successful.
Burnett’s play is a loose paraphrase of Dickens’s novel with some of the dialogue copied directly from the original text. It roughly follows the chronology of the novel but leaves out many characters and situations. Plotlines involving Lady Dedlock, Hortense and Tulkinghorn have been preserved, but revolve around their interactions with Jo. The play culminates with Jo’s death at Tom-all-alone. (8)
An interesting story surrounds Jo’s last words. In the novel, Dickens has him say the Lord’s Prayer, ending with “Hallowed be thy …” - whereas in the play, he ends with “I’m movin on” – recalling words used by Inspector Bucket. It seems that in the original manuscript that Burnett sent to the Lord Chamberlain, the correct words were crossed out, as it was forbidden at that time to quote sacred text on the stage. (9)
Though some critics found issue with the pacing and construction of the play, audiences embraced it whole heartedly, and after touring throughout the British Isles, Jennie Lee took the play to America (appearing at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in August 1881) and then on to Melbourne, where it had its Australian premiere at the Princess’s Theatre on 29 April 1882.
In reviewing the play, the critic in the Argus (1 May 1882) echoed similar sentiments to reviewers in the UK and USA.
It is impossible to make Jo the leading personage in the drama but he is brought on the stage very frequently, and the part is sustained with such consummate art by Miss Jennie Lee that the interest centres in the fortunes of the poor crossing-sweeper. It is evident that Miss Lee has studied this character from the life, when she is on the stage the illusion is complete. It is difficult to believe that she has ever been anything else than the ragged London street boy. The action of the broom, the facial expression, and the little bits of bye-play, which are sparingly used, are important aids in the filling in of a very complete picture. Miss Lee has the personal advantages for this part of the petite figure and boy-like voice, without which much of the art displayed would fail of some of the intended effect. But there is also a great deal of real feeling in the impersonation, and her acting is often charged with a natural pathos which is very touching. The poor lad’s remonstrances with the police inspector for always “chivvying him on”, comic enough in the first scenes, become tragic in the last, when the victim of starvation and want, wasted with disease, knows that he is “moving on” out of this world. The death scene is artistically managed, without any objectionable prolongation. The reputation Miss Lee has gained elsewhere in this character was fully endorsed by the audience. The applause she received was of the heartiest, and she often extracted the highest tribute of moistened eyes.
The play was a huge success in Melbourne, playing for 5 weeks (not 5 months as Wikipedia states), before touring throughout Australia and New Zealand. Jennie Lee remained in Australia until 1885. Though she performed in other plays, such as The Grasshopper and Where’s the Cat?, that showed off her abilities as a singer and dancer, her portrayal of Jo was the one everyone wanted to see, so it remained at the forefront of her repertoire.
Jennie Lee made two subsequent trips to Australia, in 1889-1894 under engagement to Williamson, Garner & Musgrove, and in 1908 with her daughter, Joan Burnett, who had been engaged by JC Williamson Ltd to perform in Peter Pan. Sadly, a few weeks after arriving in Melbourne, Joan succumbed to tuberculosis, somewhat reminiscent of the death of Jennie’s sister Ada, who had died in Sydney in 1902 from the plague. (10) In February 1916, her sister Kate died in London, just five months before her only son, John Burnett was killed fighting with the Canadian forces in Belgium. (11) JP Burnett died in London on 17 April 1917, aged 71. (12)
Though Jennie had retired from full-time acting by 1906, the last full-length version of Bleak House being given at Drury Lane in 1896, she performed Jo on two notable occasions: on 30 March 1908 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne when a benefit was held following the death of her daughter, and for the last time at the Lyric Theatre in London on 7 February 1921 to commemorate Charles Dickens’ birthday. Jennie Lee died on 3 May 1930 at her home in London after a brief illness, aged 83. (13)
ELISABETH KUMM © 2018
(1) UK BMD, Births, Sep 1846, Marylebone, vol. 1, p. 143; Mainly About People, 1 October 1904, p. 380
(2) Mainly About People, 1 October 1904, p. 380
(4) JP Burnett is said to have been born John Pringle Dodds in Scotland in 1846, the son of an Edinburgh barrister.
(5) UK BMD, Marriages, Mar 1867, Marylebone, vol. 1a, p. 782; Divorce Court File 2699, The National Archives, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk
(6) “An actress’s divorce case”, Lloyds Weekly London Newspaper, 30 November 1873, p. 4.
(7) “Bleak House Scene” by Malcolm Morley, The Dickensian, vol. 49, 1 January 1953, p. 177: “After seeing her performance he [Boucicault] said to her " Tell that man of yours," meaning Jennie's husband JP Burnett, "to take the book of Bleak House and write a play making Jo the part, and you'll never want a penny and you can play Jo until you're seventy, if you don't get too fat".
(8) “JP Burnett’s Bleak House: A Drama in Three Acts” by Carrie Sickmann Han, Streaky Bacon: A Guide to Victorian Adaptations, https://www.streakybacon.net/tag/jennie-lee/
(10) NSW Deaths, 3503/1902 (Ada Lee); Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 1902, p. 7; VIC Deaths, 2911/1908 (Joan Burnett); Bendigo Advertiser, 11 March 1908, p. 3.
(11) Era, 16 February 1916, p. 11 (Katie Lee); Era, 16 August 1916, p. 10 (John Burnett); Canadian Virtual War Memorial, https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/485842
(12) UK BMD, Deaths, Jun 1917, Hampstead, vol. 1a, p. 738; Era, 25 April 1917, p. 5.
(13) UK BMD, Deaths, Jun 1930, Marylebone, vol. 1a, o. 591; Era, 7 May 1930, p. 6; Stage, 8 May 1930, p. 18.
British Newspaper Archive
Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection
Austro-Hungarian conductor. Born 1832, Trieste, Italy. Died 28 December 1907, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Married Emily Hodgkinson, 1873, VIC, Australia. Father of Alberto Zelman (conductor) and Victor Zelman (landscape painter).
In India with GBW Lewis's company in 1868. Conducted at the opening of the Academy of Music in Melbourne on 6 November 1876.
Australian actress & vocalist. Née Florence Maude Young. Born 2 October 1870, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Daughter of Henry Henrard Young (jeweller) and Elizabeth Tonkin. Sister of Millie Young (actress), Gladys Young (actress), Harry Young (actor), Fred Young (stage manager). Married Robert Campbell Rivington, 8 February 1897, Melbourne, VIC, Australia (div. 1912), (2) Reginald Roberts (de facto). Died 11 November 1920, Melbourne, VIC, Australia.
On stage from 1890, performing in musical comedy and pantomime, having studied singing with Madame Lucy Chambers.
English actor. Ne Charles Horace Frisbee Young. Born 5 April 1819, Doncaster, Yorkshire, England. Son of Charles Young (actor) and Isabella Frisby. Married (1) Jane Thomson [Mrs Herman Vezin] (actress), 6 June 1845, Launceston, TAS, Australia (div. 1862), (2) Ellen Kirby, 1868, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Died 29 January 1874, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
On stage in Australia and England from 1840s. Performed comedy and Shakespearean roles supporting GV Brooke, Barry Sullivan and Walter Montgomery.
Australian operatic vocalist (contralto). Née Alice Leah Mattinson, aka Allie Mattinson. Daughter of Thomas Mattinson and Mary Jane Carey. Married James Gregor Wood (vocalist), 27 December 1902, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Died 10 September 1951, Melbourne, VIC, Australia.
Oratorio and concert singer on stage in Australia from 1890s, often as soloist with Scots Church choir and with husband performing Scottish songs.
English church organist and conductor. Né Ernest Harry Edward Wood. Born c.1861, Sheffield, England. Son of William Wood and Maria Smith. Married Castalie Alexandrine Coblyn (French-born linguist & musician), 9 April 1901, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Died 9 May 1914, Melbourne, VIC, Australia.
Organist and director of the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral and conductor of the Royal Metropolitan Liedertafel in Melbourne.
English-born actress & writer. Née Eliza Winstanley. Born 1818, London, England. Daughter of William Winstanley (scene painter). Married Henry Charles O'Flaherty (musician), Sydney, NSW, Australia. Died 1882, Sydney, NSW, Australia
On stage in Australia from 1834-1846. Returned to England, acted with Charles Kean to 1859. Acted in USA 1848-1849. Wrote novels. Returned to Sydney 1880.
Australian actress & vocalist. Née Catherine Eleanor Wilson.
Member of Pollard’s Liliputian Opera Company and JC Williamson Ltd.