John Townsend. MP. Actor. Auctioneer. Radical. Emigrant
While the snow has been falling and I’ve not wanted to venture out for more than a pint of milk, I’ve been amusing myself with the shamefully-out-of-print Greenwich and Blackheath Past by Felix Barker, and found myself fascinated by a chameleon-like character of the sort you just don’t get to see these days. John Major famously ran away from the circus to join another one but he was such a grey character that he was probably a changeling anyway. John Townsend, on the other hand, ran away from the theatre to become an MP but was a character so full of life and colour that the House was never going to keep him completely amused.
Townsend may not have been born in a trunk in 1819 but I’ll wager his dad sold a few. If my experiences down at Greenwich Auctions are anything to go by, you need to be a bit of an actor to do that kind of work and although barking out prices on secondhand furniture wasn’t for Townsend Jr, he would have learned projection from his old dad, if nothing else.
The lure of the greasepaint touched him even as a lad, and he appeared on stage from a very early age. He went on to lease the Theatre Royal Richmond straight after Edmund Kean had vacated the premises, then went on the road with his own company. His forte was Shakespearean tragedies, which somehow makes his brush with politics even more surreal.
Perhaps seeing Britain with a jobbing actor’s eye gave him his compassion because when his father died and the 33 year-old had to give up acting to take over the family business, Townsend became a Poor Law Guardian and the next thing he knew he was fighting for dockers’ rights. I get the feeling that he was elected MP for Greenwich almost by accident.
But once the limelight is in your blood, it’s hard to give it up, and John Towsnend MP, even whilst sitting at Westminster, couldn’t resist treading the boards. He played Shylock at Marylebone Theatre “to deafening applause” and received “long and prolonged cheers” when he gave his Richard III at Rochester. Ever the showman, he went one better at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre by being the last actor ever to play the doomed king on horseback (presumably not whilst speaking the line about being willing to part with his kingdom for a steed…)
Can you even imagine Nick Raynsford as a Shakespearean character? I’ll look forward to hearing your suggestions for parts he might be suitable for. I guess today we’re not completely without parliamentary clowns appearing on inappropriate media vehicles – witness George Galloway making an arse of himself on Celebrity Big Brother for that one – but actors?
Trouble was, poor old Townsend was a dreadful businessman and I can’t imagine he’d made himself very popular with the local businesses he wanted to make pay their workers decent wages. He was forced into bankruptcy and had to give up his seat. He went back to acting full time and seems to have been much better loved as an actor than an MP, which, I suppose, is hardly surprising.
When he was 40, his health started to deteriorate, and he decided to emigrate. In order to get enough cash to make the crossing, he announced that he would give one last performance, at the Royal Hill Lecture Hall in 1866.
All 900 seats for the evening of “Dramatic Entertainment” had been snapped up faster than a Julie Andrews night at the O2, landing Townsend the princely sum of £200. He, along with his wife and fourteen year-old son (‘unanimously pronounced the most accomplished junior swordsman of the day’), performed for his ex-constituents one last time, then boarded a boat for Canada.
Of course, once he was there, he couldn’t resist acting any more than he could here. He continued until he retired in 1877, and I’m sure he stayed performing for family friends until his death in 1892. If it’s in your blood…