Wilson Barrett (1846-1904)
Actor, Theatre Manager, Playwright

Wilson BarrettOn 18th November 1878 the Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House opened its doors for the first time. Almost three thousand people stepped from the dark, cold November evening into the warmth and splendour of its glittering auditorium, richly glowing in crimson and gold, its stunning gilded plasterwork lit by a massive crystal chandelier with over 400 gas jets. The cream of Leeds society was there. After the official speeches the charismatic young manager, the actor Wilson Barrett, stepped forward to welcome the packed audience.

Wilson Barrett was already well-known in Leeds. Born William Henry Barrett, the son of an Essex farmer, he had begun his stage career in Halifax in 1864, aged 18, then had tramped over to Leeds to apply to join the company at the Princess Theatre, where he got his first lead roles. The company toured the northern theatres, and in Aberdeen he met and married the well-known actress Caroline Heath, ten years his senior. In the 1870s they acted together in several London productions, while he set up his own touring company. He specialised in popular melodrama – ‘villainy vanquished by virtue’. When he and Caroline played in ‘East Lynne’ in Leeds it brought the house down, drawing ‘floods of tears and piles of money’! An entrepreneur at heart, he moved into theatre management, first in Halifax and Hull and then in Leeds, where in 1874 he leased the old Amphitheatre in Lands Lane and reopened it with an ambitious programme. Two years later he lost everything in a disastrous fire, and Leeds was left without a theatre. When a company was formed to finance a new theatre for the town he was brought in as consultant.

On that first night at the Grand, he was able to reassure the audience about the building’s safety in the dreaded event of fire. He also promised a programme that would not ‘bring a blush to the youngest girl’s cheek’. Many still viewed the theatre as immoral and unsavoury, and he wanted to attract all levels of society. He kept his promise, bringing the best of contemporary drama and actors to Leeds – Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt – and opera companies like the Carl Rosa Opera. He instituted a spectacular Christmas pantomime, a dazzling show which was eagerly anticipated each year. He always provided one performance free of charge for the workhouse inmates, with gifts of tobacco for the men (he got into trouble by providing beer the first year!), oranges for the women and sweets for the children.

 During the 1870s he and Caroline lived in Leeds, in a house in Beech Grove Terrace, Woodhouse, which became a focus for writers, artists and lovers of drama – W.S.Gilbert, George Grossmith, the playwright W.G.Wills, the painter Atkinson Grimshaw. But in the 1880s, after taking on the management of the Princess’s Theatre in London, they moved to London. This was a period of great professional success for him, notably in the immensely popular melodrama ‘The Silver King’. The power and pathos of his performance in the lead role was much admired, even by the stern critic Matthew Arnold. He starred in other popular hits too, but some of his ventures were less successful and he ran into financial problems. He undertook a number of money-spinning tours in the USA, Canada and Australia, mostly to great acclaim. But he had to face family tragedies too: Caroline’s death after a long illness in 1887, and the later death of two of his five children.

He frequently returned to Leeds, where he remained a great favourite. Whenever he arrived he was greeted by huge crowds at the railway station, and played to packed houses. Leeds, he said, was his ‘staunchest friend’. However in 1894, against his wishes, he lost the lease of the Grand Theatre, as the directors wanted someone Leeds-based. Over the following years he often came back on tour, and his most successful play, ‘The Sign of the Cross’, which he wrote himself, had its first British performance at the Grand in 1895. For a time it revived his fortunes. After further periods in London and on tour he was about to take on a further London theatre when he was taken ill with cancer and died in 1904, aged 58.

He was a celebrity in his day – a fine actor with a commanding stage presence, an astute theatrical manager, the author or contributor to over thirty plays, and a generous mentor to his fellow actors. He attracted new audiences to the theatre and helped to establish the Grand as one of the foremost provincial theatres in the country.

Eveleigh Bradford
December 2012