GeneaBloggers

Monday, 17 February 2014

A Rich French Actor



A lengthy non-technical post this week: On entering genealogy, one of my earliest pieces of research was to find about my grandmother’s grandmother. This enigmatic lady never married but was rumoured to have had a liaison with a “rich French actor” resulting in my great-grandfather.

At that early stage of my genealogy, I was busy visiting all my known relatives and recording everything they could remember about past events and family relationships. I was writing everything down, even if vague or contradictory, and dating each item for when I would need the material later.

While talking to my aunt, Beryl, and her daughter Julie, I was told that the grandmother of my paternal grandmother worked at the Nottingham Theatre Royal. This was a total surprise to me, and even to my father. Her name was Mary Jesson and she worked as a costume maker. Julie used to listen to our grandmother (Annie Elizabeth Jesson) recount stories of her own grandmother, Mary Jesson, and luckily she still remembered much of it.

Between my cousin and my aunt, I was told that:

  • Mary worked in the Nottingham Theatre Royal as a costume maker.
  • Mary never married but she had a liaison with a “rich French actor” resulting in her only son, Frederick.
  • Mary lived for a time in Jessamine Cottages[1], possibly in the early 1900s.
  • Mary played a large part in raising my grandmother because her daughter-in-law had a drink problem.
  • Mary may have also worked in Leicester or Hull for a while – This was rather vague as I couldn’t think of much that connected these two English towns.
I was very sceptical because such stories can often grow from some quite small rumour. My scepticism evaporated, though, when my aunt pulled out a 20-volume book of Nottingham and showed Mary’s name in the credits of several theatre playbills[2]. The suggested dates of these playbills placed her at the Nottingham Theatre Royal between 1882 and 1888. Unfortunately, this theatre has changed hands a lot over time, and much invaluable material that could have formed a theatre archive was lost or destroyed.

Mary was quite easy to find up until 1881. She was born on 30 Apr 1849 at York Place, Nottingham, to James Jesson, a framework knitter, and Keziah Chandler[3]. In the 1851 census the family were living at 4 York Place[4]. She was baptised on 8 Apr 1860 at Nottingham St. Mark[5], but her father had died earlier that same year aged only 36. In the 1861 census, Keziah was a widow living at 3 York Place, and Mary was a lace dresser[6]. In the 1871 census, Mary was lodging at Beckett's Place, Bridlesmith Gate, and was a lace clipper[7]. In the 1881 census, Mary was living at 1 Castle Court with her married sister, Ann Humber. At that time she was a dress maker and was using the name Polly (a derivative of Mary)[8].

Despite all my best attempts, including all combinations of misspellings, age, occupation, etc., I cannot locate Mary in the 1891 or 1901 census. To be missing from one census is not uncommon but to be missing from two consecutive ones must be deliberate. I was convinced she was living under an assumed name but I couldn’t even be sure she was still in Nottingham at that time.

Looking towards her latter years, in the 1911 census, Mary was living at 2 Princes Square, Moodey Street, with her brother, Thomas, and granddaughter Mary Emma Jesson[9]. By then she was a lace hand. Mary died on 27 Jan 1926 at 8 Middle Av, Carlton Road, with her occupation being recorded as a lace clipper[10]. She was buried on 1 Feb 1926 at Cavendish Road, Carlton, in the same grave as her brother, Thomas.

This left over twenty years (1888 until 1911) unaccounted for, and during which I had no idea where she was or what she did.

Her immediate family tree can be summarised as follows:



Switching to her son, he was born in 1872 and was given the very interesting name of Frederick Thomas Major Horace Jesson. Frederick and Thomas were common names, and Thomas was also the name of Mary’s brother, but Major and Horace were strange additions in an unusually long name. I still believe there’s a clue to the father in his name but I’m still trying to figure it out.

Frederick was born 26 Aug 1872 at 6 Malt Mill Lane, and his birth certificate confirmed that Mary was unmarried but no father’s name was recorded[11]. However, his baptism record gave the father's name as "James Jesson" (i.e. Mary's own father who died in 1860), in a desire to fill the column[12]. Frederick’s marriage certificate gave his father's name as "Frederick Jesson (deceased)" (i.e. apparently his own name) and his father's occupation as "actor"[13]. The "actor" reference substantiated the family story to some extent. It was interesting that he knew this actor was deceased so they must have followed his name in the papers. Finally, Mary was not a witness at her only son's wedding in 1894. This could have been due to some falling out but was more likely due to her living too far away from Nottingham.

I was actually stuck at this point for quite some time. Then, one weekend, I was visiting my parents in Nottingham when I had an epiphany. I remembered that Frederick was in the army in the 1891 census. If I could get access to his service record then Mary might be listed as next-of-kin together with an address. Very spookily, findmypast had just made their Chelsea Pensioner Service Records available the week before – I swear I didn’t know this since the pressures of work hadn’t allowed me to research for a few months. Anyway, on that Saturday morning I pulled out my laptop and found his service record. Sure enough, Mary was listed as next-of-kin but the address was ‘c/o Prince of Wales Theatre, Greenwich’, in London. A reasonable guess was that she left Nottingham after Frederick was old enough to join the army.

Fig 1 - Morton's Theatre, Greenwich[14]

The Prince of Wales Theatre in Greenwich was more commonly known as Morton’s Theatre since it was managed for a while by a William Morton. An Internet search on the man suggested that he not only ran this theatre but also the Hull Theatre Royal and several other entertainment venues in Hull. This was getting exciting now as my aunt had previously mentioned Hull. I managed to find an old copy of his autobiography entitled I Remember (A feat of Memory) and began learning all about his accidental entry into theatre-land.

Newspaper archives turned out to be my biggest resource, and I regularly used the British Newspaper Archive, the Gale database of 19th Century British Newspapers, The Times Digital Archive, and the London Gazette. In particular, two specialist papers covering the theatre and other entertainments: The Stage (a subscription-only archive) and The Era, were a revelation since I found many more references to Mary Jesson than I had expected.

I found multiple references placing her at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, between Dec 1881 and Jan 1887[15]. There was a rather confusing one dated Dec 1882 that placed her at the Glasgow Grand[16], but according to my timeline Mary should have been in Nottingham. A bit of library research revealed that the Nottingham Theatre Royal was run by a Thomas W. Charles (1843–1895) during 1877–1890 and he had also acquired the Glasgow Grand Theatre in 1881. The Grand Theatre, at the corner of Stewart Street and Cowcaddens Street, in Cowcaddens, opened in Sep 1881 with a capacity of 2030. It had previously been the Prince of Wales Theatre but was completely refurbished for its change of name. It sounded like Mary had been sent up there to help get a production of Robinson Crusoe off the ground.

I also found multiple newspaper references placing her in Greenwich between Feb 1891 and Dec 1896[17], and a non-newspaper reference for Christmas 1893[18]. One of the newspaper sources also placed her in Bromley, Kent, in Feb 1891[19] but the explanation was simple. As well as the Greenwich Theatre Royal, Morton also owned the Grand Hall at Bromley.

The next reference to her was at the Hull Theatre Royal in Jan 1897[20]. This gave a pretty good estimate of when she moved from Greenwich to Hull (i.e. between the Dec and the Jan), presumably because Morton wanted to concentrate on Hull to avoid the competition in Greenwich.

The very last newspaper reference I found to Mary was in Oct 1897 and had her working with a touring company[21]. My research could have finished here but I was still curious. Why a touring company? What happened between 1897 and 1911 when she was back in Nottingham? I decided to research the man who organised the touring company, and again started trawling all the newspapers for references.

He was Ernest Richard Jones, a scenic artist born in Wolverhampton in 1862. He was the resident artist at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, until 1897. In May-Jun of 1897 he was advertising for a theatre to lease "close to Oxford". I can only imagine that he’d come into some money somehow. In Oct 1897, he was preparing to go on tour as the Ernest Jones Sardanapalus Company with a very grand production based on Lord Byron's play of the same name. By the Nov they were scheduled to play the Theatre Royal Preston on 6 Dec, and the Princes Theatre Manchester on 13 Dec — which they did — and then Birmingham at Christmas. Nottingham, Newcastle, and Liverpool were also booked. However, by 1 Jan 1898, production had halted. By 24 Jan, the tour was cancelled and Her Majesty's Theatre Dundee was advertising for a replacement. From the London Gazette, I found that by 27 May, Ernest was in debt. By 15 Oct, Ernest was bankrupt and the scenery and costumes were being auctioned off. This may have ended Mary's career in the theatre as she must have given up her resident position with William Morton.

It would be easy to assume that the play was a flop. However, it featured a famous actor of the time called Norman V. Norman. I found an interview with him where he declared his title role in the Sardanapalus play to be “…the finest thing I have ever taken part in, both from an artistic as well as a spectacular effect...”.[22]

So why did Mary take this risky plunge with an unproven touring company? A possible answer lies in an article from Dec 1897[23] which suggested that the play was a special favourite of T. W Charles; Mary’s previous boss from the Theatre Royal in Nottingham who had died just two years before.

Lord Byron’s dramatic works are not frequently played upon the stage, though "Marius Faliero,” "Manfred,” and "Sardanapalus” all present attractions likely to be fully appreciated by cultivated audiences. Sardanapalus” was a special favourite with the late Thomas W. Charles, and more than once during the period when he was managing director of the Prince’s Theatre he contemplated an elaborate revival of the play. For one week only the performance of this play is announced. ‘The company retained to represent it is pioneered by Mr. Ernest R. Jones. Mr. Norman V. Norman will appear in the title role, Mr. H. Moxon as Salimenes, and Miss Alice Arden as Myrrha. A full chorus and corps de ballet have been engaged to render the performance additionally effective.


Some time later, a friend mentioned that she had noticed a headline in an old Nottingham paper about a “rich French actor” dying in 1876. I was intrigued since very few actors were rich at that time. The actor in question was Frédérick Lemaître (28 Jul 1800 26 Jan 1876), born Antoine Louis Prosper Lemaître, and arguably one of the most famous French actors of the time. I knew this was going to be a long-shot but I just had to follow it through.

Fig 2 - Frédérick Lemaître, c1880[24]

This date fitted with the known fact that the actor I was after was deceased by 1894. In fact, there were two relevant newspaper articles[25]: one in 1870 reporting that a Parisian paper had complained about Lemaître’s salary increasing from £40 to £600 per month, and one in 1876 announcing his death. Mary would certainly have been aware of these, and her son’s conception was in late 1871 – in between the two events. Further coincidences included the fact that Lemaître went under the stage name of Frederick, which Mary chose as her son’s forename, and maître usually translates as “master” but can also be a synonym of “major” in French.

I studied an old biography of Frédérick Lemaître in order to learn about French Theatre. Unfortunately, I couldn’t place Lemaître anywhere in England at the time of Frederick Jesson’s conception. In fact, France had been involved in the Franco-Prussian war between Jul 1870 and May 1871. Prussian and German armies had defeated French armies in a series of battles fought across northern France. Although Napoleon III surrendered in Sep 1870, there was a long siege of Paris that didn’t end until 28 Jan 1871. The terms of the peace treaty caused a further uprising, and a siege of Paris known as the Paris Commune, during Mar 1871 to May 1871. The last barricades were in theatre-land but when the Communards were overrun, there were thousands of summary executions.[26] Interestingly, Lemaître tried to take advantage of a law allowing a rebate on his rent during the siege, and he had to prove that he was no longer “very rich”, as alleged by his landlord. The next references to Lemaître are from Mar 1872 so the timeline is incomplete.

Future Work

A lot of documented evidence here, but a lot of conjecture too. I have thought about DNA testing but, even if I could locate a descendant of Lemaître, there is no direct patrilineal or matrilineal line since Mary’s only child was a son, and so I would be relying on autosomal testing. At best, it might suggest a French connection.

There is a chance that a descendant of William Morton retained some old paperwork that might make reference to Mary, or donated potential evidence to a theatre archive, but I haven’t explored this.

One particular avenue I’m currently exploring is to find my grandmother’s older sister, Mary Emma Jesson (b. 1895 at 39 Newcastle St), in the 1901 census. Mary Emma would have been about six in 1901 but she is missing in that census. It struck me that she may have been staying with her grandmother, Mary, who is also missing, just as the family recollections would later say of my grandmother. The fact that Mary Emma is living with Mary in the 1911 census lends weight to this idea. If I could find one of them in 1901 then I might find both of them. 

Greenwich Theatres

I am using abbreviated inline newspaper citations in this section because of the sheer number and their occasional tabulated nature.

There were two theatres in Greenwich, SE London, at that time: one on Croom's Hill, close to Stockwell St, and one on nearby London St (now High Rd). The Croom's Hilll theatre was originally a music hall, created in 1855 as part of the Rose and Crown pub next door. At the time of writing, the Wikipedia article, linked above, contains unsourced dates for its name changes which are demonstrably wrong. A brief check in the newspaper archives yields the following names and date ranges:

Crowder’s Music Hall and Theatre of Varieties
South London Chronicle, 12 Feb 1874, p.4
South London Chronicle, 17 Mar 1874, p.4
Crowder’s Music Hall
The Era, 12 Apr 1874, p.4
The Era, 19 Jan 1879, p.4
Royal Borough Theatre of Varieties
The Era, 2 May 1880, p.4
(only one instance found)
Crowder's Music Hall and Temple of Varieties
The Era, 11 Jul 1880, p.10
The Era, 30 Sep 1882, p.12
Crowder’s Music Hall
Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, 8 Jul 1883, p.12
The Era, 22 Aug 1885, p.15 [Renovation necessary]
Parthenon Theatre of Varieties (or just Parthenon)
The Era, 17 Oct 1885, p.12, col.4
The Era, 9 Dec 1899, p.16, col.5

Although that theatre is now called ‘The Greenwich Theatre’, it never had this name when the London Street theatre existed, and so the other theatre was known informally as the ‘Greenwich Theatre’.

This other theatre was on the SE side of London Street at no. 75.

Fig 3 - London St, Greenwich, c1905[27]

Using Kelly’s Directory[28] to picture left-to-right from the Royal Hill to South St junctions, the Bath House is first. Although the directory does not give it a number, the 1891 census has it as no. 69, and the 1901 census as nos. 67-69. The theatre is at no. 75 and can be seen behind the tram in the image. The name on the roof puts the date in the range 1902–1910. The 1901 census has the theatre office at no. 73. The Portland public house is at no. 77 but only the facade can be seen in this image. Further to the right, just out of the picture, was a Wesleyan Chapel, just before South St.

The Greenwich ‘Theatre Royal’, as it was originally known, was acquired by William Morton (1838–1938) in May 1884 from Sefton Parry (1832–1887)[29], and opened on August 18 under the name of The New Prince of Wales Theatre (The Morning Post, 21 Jul 1884, p.2). This was his first venture into theatre management so it was initially rented and the licence transferred the following year. The “New” prefix was also dropped the following year and it was then known as the Prince of Wales Theatre until about 1889 (The Era, 23 Mar 1889, p.14, col.3).

It was generally called Morton’s Theatre, thereafter, although there was a period where it was Morton’s Model Theatre. The use of the word ‘model’ can be found as early as 1888 when the theatre is described as “This model theatre” (The Era, 14 Jan 1888, p.12, col.3), and “…being managed on model principles” (The Era, 4 Aug 1888, p.10, col.2). The earliest reference in a name, using both Prince of Wales Theatre and Model Theatre, was in 1889 (The Era, 19 Mar 1889, p.14, col.2), but its usage as a sole name was between 1895 (The Hull Daily Mail, 26 Feb 1895, p.1) and 1897 (The Era, 3 Sep 1898, p.16).

Following the resurrection of the Broadway Theatre in Deptford in Dec 1897, Morton’s Theatre was running at a loss due to the increased competition so he wanted to sell up[30]. Morton was already the manager of the Theatre Royal in Hull since 4 Mar 1895 (until 4 Mar 1909) and it must have been difficult to manage both locations.

William Morton sold the theatre to Arthur Carlton in 1900 (The Era, 7 Apr 1900, p.16, dated 6 Apr). In the March, there was a farewell benefit where a performance of "Royal Divorce" had been selected by Morton to commemorate the last week of his 16-year tenure (The Era, 24 Mar 1900, p.14, col.4), and Arthur Carlton asked permission, at the end of the show, to retain the name of Morton's Theatre. Carlton did not find the continuance easy, though. In the following October, he was presented with a list of 41 suggestions for improvement to the theatre to meet modern standards (The Era, 27 Oct 1900, p.9, col. 3). In 1902, Carlton's application for a licence to sell intoxicating liquor in the now-named Carlton Theatre was refused as the previous proprietor had conducted it as a temperance house (The Worcestershire Chronicle, 5 Nov 1902, p.2, col.3).



[1] Jessamine Cottages was a lovely muse of about 8 cottages on a small hill between Castle Terrace and Castle Road, overlooking Nottingham Castle. It was only accessible via a’ twitchell’, as we used to call small alleyways back in Nottingham. An image and brief history can be found at http://www.picturethepast.org.uk/frontend.php?keywords=Ref_No_increment;EQUALS;NTGM016057&pos=2&action=zoom (accessed 9 Feb 2014).
[2] Richard Iliffe & Wilfred Baguely, Victorian Nottingham – A Story in Pictures (1971; reprint, Nottingham Historical Film Unit, 1977), vol. 7, pp.93-98.
[3] England, birth certificate for Mary Jesson, born 30 Apr 1849; citing 15/643/288, registered Nottingham 1849/Jun [Q2]; General Register Office (GRO), Southport.
[4] "1851 England, Wales & Scotland Census", database, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.org.uk : accessed 10 Feb 2014), household of James Jesson (age 27); citing HO 107/2132, folio 254, page 6; The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
[5] Nottinghamshire Family History Society (NottsFHS), Parish Register Baptism Transcriptions, CD-ROM, database (Nottingham, 1 Jan 2013), database version 6.0, entry for Mary Jesson, 8 Apr 1860.
[6] "1861 England, Wales & Scotland Census", database, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.org.uk : accessed 10 Feb 2014), household of Kezier [Keziah] Jesson (age 34); citing RG 9/2458, folio 93, page 25; TNA.
[7] "1871 England, Wales & Scotland Census", database, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.org.uk : accessed 10 Feb 2014), household of Mary Pearson (age 34); citing RG 10/3523, folio 19, page 7; TNA.
[8] "1881 England, Wales & Scotland Census", database, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.org.uk : accessed 10 Feb 2014), household of Thomas Humber (age 29); citing RG 11/3357, folio 73, page 2; TNA.
[9] "1911 Census for England and Wales”, database, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.org.uk : accessed 7 Feb 2014), household of Thomas Jesson (age 64); citing RG 14/20581, RD430, SD3, ED41, SN114; TNA.
[10] England, death certificate for Mary Jesson, died 27 Jan 1926; citing 7b/392/496, registered Nottingham 1926/Mar [Q1]; GRO.
[11] England, birth certificate for Frederick Thomas Major Horace Jesson, born 26 Aug 1872; citing 7b/281/245, registered Nottingham 1872/Dec [Q4]; GRO.
[12] NottsFHS, Parish Register Baptism Transcriptions, CD-ROM, database, entry for Frederick Jesson, 6 Dec 1860.
[13] England, marriage certificate for Frederick Jesson and Rebecca Watts, married 25 Feb 1894; citing 7b/348/28, registered Nottingham 1894/Mar [Q1]; GRO.
[14] Image displayed by kind permission of Vivyan Ellacott of the Over The Footlights encyclopaedia of London theatres (http://www.overthefootlights.co.uk/London_Theatres.html : accessed 14 Feb 2014). Report of specimen in London Daily News (Monday 9 Sep 1889): p.2, col.2. The “ornamenting” of Morton’s playbills with a map of his theatre exits was criticised in The Graphic (Saturday 14 Sep 1889): p.20 (BNA index) or p.335 (page corner), col.2, since they believed no one would consult it in the event of a real fire.
[15] "Theatre Royal, Nottingham", Nottingham Evening Post (Wednesday 28 Dec 1881): p.1, col.6. "Boxing Day Amusements, Theatre Royal", Nottinghamshire Guardian (Friday 30 Dec 1881): p.3, cols.3-4. "Amusements. 'Cinderella' at the Theatre Royal", Nottinghamshire Guardian (Friday 29 Dec 1882): p.2, cols.4-5. "Nottingham. Theatre Royal", The Era (Saturday 13 Jan 1883): p.12, col.4. "Nottingham. Theatre Royal", The Era (Saturday 29 Dec 1883): p.11, col.2. "Nottingham", The Era (Saturday 2 Jan 1886): p. 18, cols.2-3. "Nottingham", The Era (Saturday 1 Jan 1887): p.18, col.4. "Nottingham - Royal", The Stage (14 Jan 1887): p.3.
[16] "Glasgow - Grand", The Stage (29 Dec 1882): p.3.
[17] "Morton's Theatre Greenwich", The Era (Saturday 21 Feb 1891): p.9, col.5. "Morton's, Greenwich", The Era (Saturday 31 Dec 1892): p.10, cols.1-2. "Morton's Theatre, Greenwich", The Era (Saturday 19 Jan 1895): p.9, col.3. "The Forty Thieves at Greenwich”, The Era (Saturday 26 Dec 1896): p.12, col.1.
[18] Russell A. Peck, “Pantomime, Burlesque, and Children's Drama”, University of Rochester: The Cinderella Bibliography (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cinder/cin8.htm : accessed 17 Feb 2014), “Pantomime of Cinderella by Fred Locke.
[19] "The Babes at Bromley", The Era (Saturday 21 Feb 1891): p.11, col.4.
[20] "Amusements in Hull", The Era (Saturday 2 Jan 1897): p.25, col.1.
[21] "Sardanapalus", The Era (Saturday 23 Oct 1897): p.2, col.3.
[22] "Theatrical Celebrities", The Bury and Norwich Post (Tuesday 27 Dec 1898): p.6, col.1.
[23] The Theatres", Manchester Evening News (Saturday 11 Dec 1897): p.4, col.5.
[24] Etienne Carjat & Co. (France, 18281906) Frédérick Lemaître, 18761884 Photograph, Woodburytype, 9 x 7 1/2 in. (22.86 x 19.05 cm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9rick_Lema%C3%AEtre_circa_1880.jpg : accessed 14 Feb 2014).
[25] Nottinghamshire Guardian (Friday 12 Aug 1870): p. 2. Nottinghamshire Guardian (Friday 28 Jan 1876): p.8.
[26] Robert Baldick, The Life and Times of Frédérick Lemaître (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959), pp.234-237.
[27] Image displayed by kind permission of Thomas Webb of the Greenwich Photo History Wiki (https://greenwich.wiki.zoho.com/Greenwich-High-Road.html : accessed 11 Feb 2014).
[28] Kelly's London Suburban Directory, 1896. [Part 4. Southern: Localities], p.211 (image 232 of 487), online PDF, University of Leicester, compiler, Historical Directories (http://www.historicaldirectories.org/hd/index.asp : accessed 11 Feb 2014), entry for London Street EAST SIDE.
[29] William Morton, I Remember (A Feat of Memory) (Hull: Goddard, Walker, & Brown Ltd., 1934), pp.65-66, 95.
[30] Morton, I Remember, p.71.