Lost Greenwich (4) John Townsend

If there’s one thing I love, it’s receiving, months after I wrote about a subject, something which sheds a new light on what we were discussing.

A few days ago, I got an email from Bonnie Buxton in Canada, who is the great, great granddaughter of the actor-MP, John Townsend, one of Greenwich’s most colourful Victorians. Townsend, if you recall, started out as an auctioneer, became an MP, stood up for docker’s rights, then ran away to the theatre. Bonnie tells me her grandmother, one Gertrude Townsend, who was born in 1881, was sent away to Hamilton, Ontario, to be Townsend’s housekeeper - at the age of eight.

Townsend sounds like one of those entertainingly eccentric old people that populate children’s books, who used to stride around town in a big cloak, ‘with a flowing beard and hair.’ Gertrude hadn’t gone to school, of course, but her grandfather constantly quoted Shakespeare at her (I’m sure he had one of those resonant ‘actor’ voices…) which ‘gave her a lifelong love for the English Language.’ 
When Bonnie herself was eight years old (clearly a magical age in the Townsend family) she discovered a trunk in her grandmother’s basement (see what I mean about this being straight out of a children’s novel?) full of old photos of people in old-fashioned clothes striking dramatic postures.  Bonnie’s  grandmother told her the story of her grandfather and said she could have the photographs when she grew up. 

At this point I got very excited, but sadly, this is where the kiddie-story ends. She says “Unfortunately, Granny developed dementia and, when I was away at university, her house was sold and some cousins, far less appreciative than I was, pitched out the old trunk and its contents” - a collection of photos from Victorian theatrical history, no doubt including Greenwich images.

If a Phantom could weep, I’m sure it’s nothing to what Bonnie feels about her relations’ attitude to history. But she did send me an extract from Thomas Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, published by Chatto and Windus in 1881, which quotes one C.W. Montague, speaking in 1860.

I repeat it in full, because it goes so well with Townsend’s story, which I wrote about before here (sorry – the links never seem to come out very clearly). If you find yourself curious about Ginnett’s terrible Circus, find them here - I assume they’re a bit better these days…

“In the following winter, I joined Ginnett’s circus at Greenwich, and found the business in a wretched condition. The principal reason for this state of things was, that the circus had only a tin roof and wooden boarding around, and the weather being very severe, the place could not be kept warm. I was at my wits’ ends to improve the receipts when, being one day in a barber’s shop, getting shaved, the barber remarked, “There goes poor Townsend.”

“On inquiring I found that the gentleman referred to had been M.P. for Greenwich, but in consequence of great pecuniary difficulties had had to resign. My informant told me that he was a most excellent actor, having seen him, on more than one occasion, perform Richard III with great success; and what was more, he was an immense favorite in Greenwich and Deptford, he having been the means, when in the House of Commons, of getting the dockyard labourers’ wages considerably advanced.

“It immediately struck me that, if I could get the ex-M.P. to perform in our circus, it would be a great draw. With this object in my mind, I waited on Mr. Townsend the next morning, and explained to him my views. ‘Heaven knows,’ he said in reply, ‘I want money bad enough, but to do this in Greenwich would be impossible.’ I did not give it up, however, but pressed him on several occasions, until at last he consented to appear as Richard III for a fortnight, on sharing terms.

“The next difficulty was as to who should sustain the other characters in the play, there being no one in the company, except Mr. Ginnett and myself, capable of taking a part. We got over the difficulty by cutting the piece down, and Mr. Ginnett and myself doubling for Richmond, Catesby, Norfolk, Ratcliffe, Stanley, and the Ghosts. The business, notwithstanding
these drawbacks, turned out a great success; so much so, that Mr. Townsend insisted on treating the whole of the company to supper. Shortly afterwards, he went to America.”

Don’t you just wish you’d been there? About a hundred years before the Reduced Shakespeare Company did that cutting-down thing, there were two guys doing Richard III in front of a load of dockers with one chap as the king; and the other playing everyone else. National Theatre of Brent eat your heart out.

Thanks, Bonnie, for your memories. The pictures may be gone, but the images remain quite clear in my head…

the attachments to this post:

John Townsend low
John Townsend low

5 Comments to “Lost Greenwich (4) John Townsend”

  1. OldChina says:

    Brilliant story! Now, if only there was one surviving photo of Townsend and the Circus that would make my day. With all the actors in costume please!

    I guess Gertrudes photos might still be in existence, but where they might be by now is anyones guess.

  2. Yes – the pics without the story would just be nice pics. That’s how we lose history. What a shame, eh. But maybe there’s a little detective work to be found. Perhaps a Canadian history-loving dustman is in posession of them and is even now trying to work out who they’re of – he’ll read this post and put two and two together.

  3. Benedict says:

    I’ll keep a look out while rummaging at yard sales…..

  4. Faulkner says:

    As a touring member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, I have to say I wish there were photos of Mr. Townsend. Although, if I read the excerpt correctly, the “other” roles were shared between two actors – making the total actors three in number. That’s *exactly* how we do it!

    Unfortunately, without pictures, we’ll never know what Victorian Chuck Taylor shoes looked like.

    Thanks for a great read!

  5. Bonnie Buxton says:

    Your quick addition to your original story was greatly appreciated and inspired my brother Bill and me to do more research. I’ve now discovered that JT arrived in Canada in May, 1862, travelling by steamship from England to Quebec City, and from there to Kingston, Ontario by steamboat, with his wife and 3 daughters, 4 sons. He had $1,000 — a lot of money at that time, and purchased 50 acres near Kingston, planning to farm. But the stage was in his blood and he and his family began acting, first in Kingston, and then in Ottawa, about 75 (?) miles away. His wife Sarah also performed and daughters Florence and Constance “from the Theatre Royal Kingston” used the surname “Grosvenor.”
    His son Harry was decribed as being from the “Theatre Royal, Leicester.” I also learned that his wife Sarah died in a mental asylum in 1889, which would have been the year my grandmother, Gertrude, went to live with him at age 8, to work as his housekeeper. I’m hoping that in archives somewhere I will find a photo…!

    I have a great ad in the Ottawa Citizen of June 26, 1865, advertising the Townsend company’s upcoming performances at Her Majesty’s Theatre, which he had leased for the following year.

    My brother Bill found some good info in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

    Thanks for your interest in this continuing mystery!