Wednesday 14 December 2011

William Henry West Betty, 1791-1874


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(The Young Roscius).

From "Ireland and Her Staple Manufactures," 1870, 
by Hugh M'Call.

W. H. W. Betty was son of a linen bleacher, and passed the early part of his boyhood amid the bustle of business at his father's house in Chapel Hill, Lisburn. His grandfather, Doctor Betty, was a celebrated physician in that town, and who, besides attending to the duties of a large and lucrative practice, was owner of an extensive bleachfield situate a few miles out in the County of Down. The old gentleman in his day had been an active member of the Presbyterian Church, and when the house of worship, still owned by the first congregation, was being erected he was himself a liberal contributor to the funds and a most successful collector from others.

The house in which the family resided is situated in Chapel Hill, and nearly opposite the property then owned by Mr. Luke Teeling. After the doctor's death his only son, William Henry, succeeded him in the bleaching concern, and in 1790 married Miss West, a lady belonging to Shrewsbury, where, in September of the following year, the subject of this brief notice first saw the light. At the end of autumn Mrs. Betty and her son returned to Lisburn, and continued there for many years. Mr. Betty in the meantime pursuing his business in the purchase and finish of linens. The embryo Roscius received the rudiments of his education in the school of Mr. Goyer, and he also attended the classical institution conducted by the Rev. Mr. Dubourdieu. It appears that during his scholastic studies he never exhibited any special evidence of that precocious talent which afterwards took the world by storm.

From the time of the Insurrection the handsome town of Lisburn had been the station for a troop of horse and a numerous company of foot soldiers. A splendid band accompanied them, and what with the daily parades, inspection of troops and periodical bugle calls, the inhabitants were bidding fair to imbibe much more of the military spirit than is usually found to exist in provincial towns. Besides these sources of excitement, a respectable company of theatricals, under the management of Mr. Robert Owenson, father of the future Lady Morgan and Lady Clarke, added largely to the intellectual amusement of the citizens. Mr. Owenson's theatre was situate in the rere of Mr. Stewart's house opposite the road since made to Hillsborough, and the lessee himself and his two daughters resided next door.

Miss O'Neill, afterwards Lady Beecher -- then a young and rapidly rising performer, took the leading parts in the cast of characters, and rejoiced in the moderate salary of thirty shillings a week. This lady, as well as the Owenson family, were frequent visitors to Mr. Betty, when the hostess, who was famed for her "love of the lamp," occasionally entertained her friends with readings and recitations from celebrated dramatic authors.

Brought up in a home-school where the military and dramatic element formed the largest share of fireside education, young Betty became strongly impressed with a desire for the stage. This feeling was still further strengthened by his having witnessed the performance of Mrs. Siddons in the character of Lady Macbeth, at the Belfast theatre, and he felt so struck with the peculiar beauty of her elocution that he came home determined to try his fortune as a player.

At that time he was under eleven years of age, yet he seemed to have had conceptions of his future career, settled and ambitious as if he had seen thirty summers. The linen bleacher entertained very different views respecting the after pursuits of his son, and when he first learned of his leanings towards the theatrical profession he expressed himself strongly against that course of life. Mrs. Betty, however, had opposite ideas on the subject -- the "green room" to her was the land of promise, and, as is usual in most cases of domestic policy, the "weaker vessel" stood out for the rights of the sex, and ultimately had it all her own way. But not only did she exult over her boy's predilection for the stage, she also undertook the charge of his dramatic education, and for a considerable period she spent some hours each day in that labour of love.

Theatre Royal, Belfast, 1803.

Under this course of study, added to his own natural taste for the art, Betty speedily became a local celebrity, but his fame did not long remain bounded by the environs of Lisburn. Mr. Atkins, who was lessee of the Belfast theatre from its opening in 1791, had heard some reports about the precocious genius of the young tragedian, and after obtaining further information on the subject from his brother manager Mr. Owenson, he was so much interested by the report that he went up to Lisburn and concluded an engagement with the elder Mr. Betty for five nights performances. In course of the following week the blank walls and fronts of untenanted houses in Belfast were nearly covered with large posters, announcing, in flaming capitals, that a wonderful performer, only eleven years of age, would appear on the local boards in the character of Osman, in Voltaire's celebrated tragedy of Zara.

The Theatre Royal on that occasion was crowded to excess. All the open space at the end of Arthur Street and Castle Lane with blocked up with anxious play goers, and so great was the struggle to secure places in the different parts of the house that before six o'clock in the evening every seat in the gallery was crammed, the upper and lower boxes had not a vacant spot, and two noblemen, then members of Parliament, were glad to get a small-area of standing-room in the pit. Master Betty had not then attained his twelfth year, but, as he was well grown, he appeared at last two years above that age. The theatrical critics of the Northern Athens were perfectly astounded at the correctness of enunciation, judicious delivery, and thorough conception of character displayed by the young gentleman. His performance was a triumphant success, the occupants of the boxes lustily applauded, those of the pit were enthusiastically delighted, and the gods sent forth peal after peal of vociferous acclamation. At the conclusion of the piece Mr. Atkins was called before the curtain, and having returned thanks to the audience for their hearty response to his notice that he had an "extraordinary novelty" to produce for their gratification, he announced that Master Betty would appear next evening (Saturday) in the same character, and that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of the succeeding week he would have the honour of coming out respectively in the characters of Romeo, Rolla, and Norval. On each of these occasions the popularity of the young actor had so much increased that vast numbers of persons were disappointed in their attempts to obtain seats, and only left the doors of the theatre after all chances of getting standing places had been given up.

The marvellous success of his son and the tempting proposals which poured in on him for engagements in the theatre changed the entire current of Mr. Betty's ideas as to the lad's future pursuits. He therefore sold off all his stock of linens, as well as the farm and bleachfield, that he might be at perfect liberty to accompany his son as the keeper of his purse and the guardian of his person in a proposed tour through the kingdom.

Dublin, 1803.

In course of the autumn which succeeded Betty's debut as a public performer, many overtures were made him for engagements. Among others, the lessee of the Dublin Theatre Royal offered two hundred pounds for twenty nights' performance. This was considered liberal in the extreme; but the dread of appearing before an audience famed as the most fastidious, as well as the most accomplished, critics in Europe, and in a city where, as has been rightly said, "the wit of the gods in the gallery is usually keener than that of the author on the stage," kept negotiations in abeyance for some weeks.

At length, in November, 1803, the young Roscius went to Dublin, where he appeared in the character of Hamlet, and was received with a perfect ovation. Previous to his engagement there the local patrons of the drama had fallen into one of those periodical fits of dulness to which public communities as well as private individuals are occasionally subject. But almost immediately after the appearance of the young star the wild excitement cut of doors and the crowds that assembled in the theatre every night told that the theatrical taste which exists in such greatness on the border of the Liffey had been aroused in all its strength. This engagement proved most successful, and he left the city with a new wreath of laurels on his brow. In the early part of 1804 he visited the West of Scotland, and while performing in Edinburgh he was invited to dine with Lord Meadowbank and Mr. Home. The author of Douglass paid him the high compliment of stating that his admirable personation of young Norval proved him to be the genuine offspring of the Douglass. It should here be stated that while performing in Dublin Mr. Macready, father of the great tragedian and joint lessee of the Birmingham theatre, was present, and felt no less astonished than any of the outsiders at the remarkable genius of young Betty, and some time afterwards an arrangement was made for the introduction of the young gentleman to a Birmingham audience. He appeared there in August, 1804, and marvellous was the excitement which that event caused in the great depot of mosaic jewellery and brass buttons.

In a notice of the Birmingham performance the writer, said:-- "The theatrical annals of the town furnish nothing equal to the commotion which Betty's appearance excited. The hotels and inns were completely occupied during his stay by persons who came from every part of the adjacent country to witness the novelty. Nine characters were sustained by him in Birmingham."

Birmingham, 1804.

An amusing incident connected with this engagement is related by one of the biographers of the young Roscius. Mr. Jackson, who shared the management of the Birmingham theatre with Mr. Macready, had been requested to secure the services of this "prodigy" for twelve nights, at a salary of ten pounds a night; but as the appearance of the lad off the stage was not calculated to impress beholders with the idea of great excellence in the histrionic art, he had no sooner been introduced to him than he begged to be released from what he considered "a ruinous engagement." Betty's relatives expressed their willingness to cancel the affair, provided they were paid their travelling expenses from Edinburgh. During the discussion Mr. Macready proposed that the arrangement might be made in another form, "Suppose," said he, "that for general expenses sixty pounds be taken from the gross receipts of each night's performance, and the balance divided between the 'star' and the lessees." This proposal was agreed to but so immensely did the receipts exceed Macready's calculation that his colleague the over-cautious manager, found he had to pay the "star" fifty pounds a night instead of ten. From Birmingham Master Betty proceeded to Sheffield, where he was no less attractive. Doncaster races were going on at the time, and carriages labelled "Theatrical coach to carry six insides to see the Young Roscius" were stationed near the course to convey passengers from the sports of the turf to more intellectual amusements of the stage.

His next appearance was in Liverpool and there the struggle to get places in the theatre exceeded all previous excitement. On the morning that preceded his first performance, when the box-office was opened, some gentlemen had their cloth torn to tatters, others had their hats and shoes carried away in the crowd, and a third party sometimes severely bruised and almost suffocated in the attempt to obtain tickets for themselves and their friends. During the first twelve nights of his performance in that maritime capital the total receipts of the house amounted to about twenty-seven hundred pounds. Of this sum he received on an average ninety pounds a night; and, including the profits of his benefit, he realised by that engagement about fifteen hundred guines. Before he left Liverpool he was presented with two very valuable silver cups, and at the conclusion of the engagement the managers of the theatre offered to give him one hundred pounds a night for a further series of performances, but, having made other arrangements, he could not accept those very liberal terms. On Monday, the 12th of November, 1804, young Betty appeared in the Manchester theatre.

(To be Continued.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 14 December 1917 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917 and into 1918. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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