Wells, Mary (DNB00)
|←Wells, John (1623-1676)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 60
WELLS, Mrs. MARY, afterwards Mrs. Sumbel (fl. 1781–1812), actress, daughter of Thomas Davies, a carver and gilder in Birmingham, was born at Birmingham about 1759. Her father died in a madhouse while she was a small child. Her mother kept a tavern frequented by actors, and among others by Richard Yates [q. v.], under whose management Mary appeared at the Birmingham Theatre as the Duke of York in ‘Richard III,’ playing subsequently Cupid in Whitehead's ‘Trip to Scotland,’ and Arthur in ‘King John.’ After visiting Bath and York she went to Gloucester, where she played Juliet to the Romeo of an actor named Wells, to whom she was married in St. Chad's Church, Shrewsbury. Wells shortly afterwards deserted her. On 1 June 1781, as Madge in Bickerstaffe's ‘Love in a Village’ and Mrs. Cadwallader in Foote's ‘Author,’ she made her first appearance at the Haymarket. Genest says that she was excellent in both characters. Jenny in ‘Lionel and Clarissa’ followed, and on 3 Sept. in O'Keeffe's ‘Agreeable Surprise’ she was the first Cowslip, a name that thenceforward stuck to her (though she is occasionally spoken of as ‘Becky’ Wells). Genest says that nothing could be superior to her acting as Cowslip and that of Edwin as Linge.
On 25 Sept., as Nancy in the ‘Camp,’ she made her first appearance at Drury Lane, where also she played on 29 Oct. Jenny in the ‘Gentle Shepherd,’ adapted from Allan Ramsay by Tickell. Harriet in the ‘Jealous Wife,’ Widow O'Grady in the ‘Irish Widow,’ Flora in ‘She would and She would not,’ and Jacintha in the ‘Suspicious Husband’ followed. At the Haymarket in 1782 her name appears to Molly in the ‘English Merchant,’ and Bridget in the ‘Chapter of Accidents.’ She also, as she says, replaced Mrs. Cargill, after that lady's elopement, as Macheath in the ‘Beggar's Opera,’ with the male characters played by women and vice versa. She made from the first a distinguished success, and was received with great enthusiasm. Her characters have never been collected. She played, however, at Drury Lane Kitty Pry in the ‘Lying Valet,’ and Jane Shore on 30 April 1783, her first appearance in tragedy. At the Haymarket she was on 6 July 1784 the original Fanny in Mrs. Inchbald's ‘Mogul's Tale,’ on 6 Sept. the first Maud in O'Keeffe's ‘Peeping Tom,’ and was Isabella in the piece so named, and Lady Randolph in ‘Douglas.’
Nancy Buttercup, an original part in O'Keeffe's ‘Beggar on Horseback,’ was seen at the Haymarket on 16 June 1785. On 14 Dec. she made her first appearance at Covent Garden as Jane Shore (which was, in her own opinion, her best performance), playing also Laura in Edward Topham's farce ‘The Fool,’ which her acting commended to the public. After repeating Lady Randolph and Isabella, she was on 5 Jan. 1786 Imogen in ‘Cymbeline.’ Woodfall in the ‘Chronicle’ awarded her much praise for the performance. Andromache in the ‘Distressed Mother’ followed, and was succeeded by Rosalind, Portia, and Fidelia in the ‘Plain Dealer,’ and she was on 24 April the first Eugenia in ‘The Bird in a Cage, or Money works Wonders,’ altered from Shirley. At the Haymarket in 1786 she played some unimportant original parts. When John Palmer (1742?–1798) [q. v.] made in 1787 his ill-starred experiment at the Royalty Theatre, Wellclose Square, she gave her imitations of Mrs. Siddons and other actresses, which, though poor, were highly popular, being paid the almost incredible sum of fifty pounds a night. She came back to Covent Garden, where she was on 17 Sept. 1787 Mrs. Page in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ and played Lady Percy, Lady in ‘Comus,’ Rosina, Anne Lovely, and Fatima in ‘Cymon.’ Here she remained some time, acting in the summer at Cheltenham, Brighton, Weymouth, where she was favoured by royalty, and visiting Dublin without, as it appears, acting there.
Meanwhile her domestic affairs had be- come complicated. She had entered into close relations with Edward Topham [q. v.], a captain in the guards, who was concerned in a daily newspaper called the ‘World,’ in the production of which she assisted. She had, moreover, backed bills for a considerable amount for her brother-in-law, the husband of a Miss Davies who appeared at the Haymarket on 28 July 1786 as Amelia in the ‘English Merchant.’ This last indiscretion involved her in endless trouble. More than once she was a prisoner in the Fleet and in other places of detention in England and Ireland. In the Fleet she met Joseph Sumbel, her second husband, who was confined there for contempt of court. Sumbel was a Moorish Jew, secretary to the ambassador from Morocco, and the wedding was performed in the Fleet. A year later he sought unsuccessfully to have the marriage annulled or dissolved, declaring that on account of informality she was not his wife. A man of morbid temperament, he seems to have been alternately making passionate love to her and disowning her or leaving her to starve. She meanwhile embraced his religion and took the name of Leah. She subsequently reverted to Christianity, and became either a Romanist or a Wesleyan. The three volumes of the rambling autobiography which she published are occupied principally with details of travels in search of her children, who refused to know her, or of friends. On one occasion she started from Portobello to walk to London, arriving in Newcastle (whence she took ship for London) in four and a half days—if true, a remarkable feat. Drunkenness seems to have supervened on madness, and such record as is preserved of her later years is equally sad and unedifying. She does not seem to have acted much later than 1790, though she gave her imitations at private houses, and attempted to give them publicly during Lent, but was prevented by the bishop of London. O'Keeffe speaks of her as dead in 1826.
She published in 1811 ‘Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Sumbel, late Wells, of the Theatres Royal Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket, written by herself,’ one of the scarcest of theatrical works (London, 3 vols. 8vo; the British Museum Library has three copies). The remainder seems to have received a new title-page in 1828, when it appeared as ‘Anecdotes and Correspondence of Celebrated Actors and Actresses, including Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Kemble, Mr. Colman, Mrs. Siddons, &c. Also an Account of the Awful Death of Lord Lyttelton.’
Mrs. Sumbel was a beautiful woman, a good actress in comedy and respectable in tragedy. Frederick Reynolds, who was intimate with her at Topham's seat, Cowslip Hall, speaks of her as the most beautiful actress on the stage, though not the best. Her portrait, in the character of Cowslip in the ‘Agreeable Surprise,’ was engraved by Downman (Bromley, p. 447). She was much praised in the press, and enjoyed during some years a large amount of popularity. Her salary at Covent Garden was at one period as much as ten pounds a week, but the chances of a brilliant career were neutralised by her irregularities. An attempt to pit her against Mrs. Siddons (of whom she was evidently jealous) was naturally doomed to failure.
A portrait of her by Dewilde, as Anne Lovely in ‘A Bold Stroke for a Wife,’ is in the Mathews collection in the Garrick Club. An engraving by J. R. Smith from his own picture of her as Cowslip was published by Ackerman in 1802.[Mrs. Sumbel's life is told very incoherently in her Memoirs. Other facts have been extracted from Genest's Account of the English Stage; Boaden's Life of J. P. Kemble; O'Keeffe's Recollections; Life and Times of Frederick Reynolds; Hazlewood's Secret History of the Green Room; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; Thespian Dictionary; Young's Memoirs of Mrs. Crouch.]