Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dibdin, Thomas John
DIBDIN, THOMAS JOHN (1771–1841), actor and dramatist, illegitimate son of Charles Dibdin the elder [q. v.], and younger brother of Charles Isaac Mungo Dibdin, by the same mother, who had taken the name of Mrs. Davenet at Covent Garden Theatre, but was the unmarried sister of Cecil Pitt, was born in Peter Street, London (now Museum Street, Bloomsbury), on 21 March 1771. One of his godfathers was David Garrick, the other Frank Aiken, one of Garrick's company. Garrick warmly befriended the family, and showed resentment when they were deserted. Mrs. Siddons led the boy, when four years old, before the audience at Drury Lane, as Cupid in a revival of Shakespeare's ‘Jubilee’ in 1775, she representing Venus. His maternal grandmother, Mrs. A. Pitt, had been for half a century a popular actress at Covent Garden. In 1779 he entered the choir of St. Paul's, under the tuition of Mr. Hudson. He was then removed, at his mother's expense, for a year to Mr. Tempest of Half-farthing Lane Academy, Wandsworth; next to Mr. Galland, a Cumberland man, classical scholar and disciplinarian, who taught Virgil—‘Arma virumque cano,’ which a pupil translated feelingly into ‘With a strong arm and a thick stick.’ He remained three years in the north country, at Durham, was recalled to London, and apprenticed in the city to his maternal uncle, Cecil Pitt of Dalston, upholsterer, but turned over to William Rawlins, afterwards Sir William and sheriff of London, who during four years declared him to be ‘the stupidest hound on earth;’ but who in later years always echoed the newspaper praise of the successful farce-writer by saying, ‘That's a boy of my own, and I always said he was clever!’ Thomas had seen many plays acted at Durham, and had constructed a toy theatre. An acquaintanceship with Jack Palmer, who built the Royalty in 1786, developed his inherited dramatic instincts, and for rough treatment he summoned his master before John Wilkes, who acted with thorough justice and impartiality, sending him back to business. Forbidden to witness any plays he abstained for two months, when he went to the Royalty sixpenny gallery and was nearly detected by his master, who sat beside him. At eighteen he fled to Margate, soon obtained an engagement with the Dover company at Eastbourne, assumed the name of S. Merchant, and made his first appearance as Valentine in O'Keeffe's ‘Farmer,’ singing ‘Poor Jack,’ his father's ditty, which was quite new, and was repeated nearly every night in the season. Here he wrote the first of his ‘two thousand ditties’ (sic), a hunting song, and his first burletta, ‘Something New,’ also prospering in scene-painting with ‘Tilbury Fort’ and the ‘Spanish Armada’ of 1588 for ‘The Critic,’ including unlimited smoke. He had adventures with smugglers, and got a better engagement from Gardner of the Canterbury and Rochester circuit, parting on friendly terms with Russell; they afterwards exchanged compliments by playing for each other's benefits. Dibdin acted at Deal, Sandwich, Canterbury, Beverley, Rochester, Maidstone, and Tunbridge Wells. At Beverley he first met Miss Nancy Hilliar, a young actress, whom, three years later, he met again at Manchester, and married 23 May 1793. He got a Theatre Royal engagement at Liverpool in 1791, and appeared as Mungo in the ‘Padlock’ at the opening of a new theatre at Manchester, the old one having been burnt. Here he again met his Scotch godfather Aiken, and was able to gain for his half-brother Cecil Pitt the leadership of the orchestra, in requital for hospitality at Eastbourne. He was scene-painter in chief, and produced ‘Sunshine after Rain.’ Small provincial engagements, including some in Wales, followed. In 1794 an opening at Sadler's Wells, Islington, presented itself, with a salary of five guineas a week, immediately after the birth of his daughter Maria.
A farce called the ‘Mad Guardian’ was published under the name of Merchant in 1795. In 1796 he wrote for Sadler's Wells, of which his brother Charles T. M. Pitt was now manager, many dramatic trifles. He had a fatal facility. More important were these: ‘Sadak and Kalasrade, or the Waters of Oblivion,’ and ‘John of Calais,’ in 1798, and an opera, ‘Il Bondocani,’ from the ‘Arabian Tales,’ or Florian's ‘New Tales,’ accepted by Harris, but not represented for five years. ‘Blindman's Buff, or Who pays the Reckoning?’ with ‘The Pirates,’ and two others, he sold to Philip Astley for fourteen guineas. Assured by Rawlins against prosecution, he now dropped the name of S. Merchant, and assumed that of Dibdin (against the wish of Charles, his father), instead of resuming that of Pitt. Unlike his father, he was faithful in friendships, and at this time had such genial spirits that he was a favourite everywhere. In later life he became soured and more exacting. He became prompter and joint stage-manager at Sadler's Wells. Without being a brilliant he was always a conscientious actor, of close study, letter-perfect, and paying attention to costume. On the Kent circuit he never lost ground, and when the mayor of Canterbury visited him in town (at Easter 1804), Dibdin was able to take him round the chief theatres; when at Covent Garden three of his pieces were being acted the same night. At Canterbury he wrote ‘The British Raft,’ ridiculing the threatened French invasion, and its one song, ‘The Snug Little Island,’ attained astonishing popularity. It was first sung by ‘Jew’ Davis at Sadler's Wells, on Easter Monday, 1797, while Dibdin was acting at Maidstone, where he himself sang it before Lord Romney, and it gained him the friendship of the Duke of Leeds. For Dowton he wrote a farce, ‘The Jew and the Doctor,’ but it was not produced until 1798, except for Dibdin's benefit, at the time of the state trials of O'Coigley and Arthur O'Conner. Harris wanted the ‘Jew and the Doctor’ for Covent Garden. Rumour arising of Nelson's victory at the Nile, June 1798, Richard Cumberland [q. v.] advised Dibdin to write a piece on it, with songs, and this was done with wonderful speed and success, as ‘The Mouth of the Nile.’ He was a most devoted son to his mother, allowing her an increased income of 100l., besides another allowance to her aged mother. He was proud of his father's abilities, but resented his cruel neglect of his family, and, from sympathy with his mother, avoided mention of his name. His engagement at Covent Garden lasted seven years, and his wife also joined him there, at a smaller salary. George III honoured Dibdin's ‘Birthday’ several times with a bespeak, as well as attending the performance of ‘The Mouth of the Nile.’ Tom paid fifty guineas, instead of the penalty, 50l., to Sir W. Rawlins to cancel his indenture and make him free. He wrote ‘Tag in Tribulation’ for Knight's benefit. On 16 Sept. 1799 his wife made her first appearance as Aura in ‘The Farm House,’ at the re-opening of Covent Garden. Among other merits she was an excellent under-study, and her versatility was displayed in becoming a substitute for Miss Pope as Clementina Allspice, for Mrs. Litchfield as Millwood, and for Mrs. Jordan as Nell in ‘The Devil to Pay.’ On 7 Oct. 1799 Dibdin produced his musical ‘Naval Pillar,’ in honour of victories at sea, Munden acting a quaker. In December old Mrs. Pitt died, in her seventy-ninth year, at Pentonville. On 19 Feb. one of his farces, ‘True Friends,’ failed, but crawled through five nights. He worked hard at a ballad-farce (two acts), ‘St. David's Day,’ and gained by it a lasting success. ‘Hermione’ followed, and ‘Liberal Opinions,’ a three-act comedy, which brought him 200l., which Harris prevailed on him to enlarge to five acts as ‘The School for Prejudice;’ he also wrote ‘Of Age To-morrow,’ and successful pantomimes each Christmas. ‘Harlequin's Tour,’ two nights before Christmas, pleased the public. His ‘Alonzo and Imogine’ was revived for his wife's benefit. They usually spent summer-time at Richmond, professionally. At Colchester he joined Townsend in a musical entertainment, ‘Something New,’ followed next night by ‘Nothing New,’ with additions. He adapted the story of the old garland, ‘The Golden Bull,’ changing the bull into a wardrobe, and within three weeks composed his first and best opera, ‘The Cabinet;’ it was delayed by Harris, but ran thirty nights at the end of the season 1801–2. ‘Il Bondocani, or the Caliph Robber,’ opened the season September 1802, and brought him 60l. His Jew's song, ‘I courted Miss Levi,’ &c., as sung by Fawcett (which was misunderstood by the Israelites as an attack on Jewesses), raised a riot, but the sale of the song-books brought him in 630l., and it triumphed over opposition. He himself wrote good-humouredly the parody on ‘Norval’—
My name 's Tom Dibdin: far o'er Ludgate Hill
My master kept his shop, a frugal cit, &c.
On 13 Dec. 1803 his opera of ‘The English Fleet in 1342’ appeared, running thirty-five nights, and repaying him with 550l. A comedy, ‘The Will for the Deed,’ brought him 320l., and on Easter Monday 1804 came his ‘Valentine and Orson,’ performed with it, and his ‘Horse and Widow;’ he had the whole playbill to himself. In this year he made 1,515l., of which 200l. was for ‘Guilty or Not Guilty.’ He then began to traffic in risky investments, theatre shares, joining Colman and David Morris in the Haymarket. This fell through, and he recalled his 4,000l. to lose it elsewhere. His opera ‘Thirty Thousand’ brought him 360 guineas in 1805, soon followed by ‘Nelson's Glory,’ an unsuccessful farce, ‘The White Plume,’ and ‘Five Miles Off,’ on 9 July 1806, which last gave him 375l. By evil speculation in a Dublin circus he and his brother Charles lost nearly 2,000l., but this loss inspired the wish to have Grimaldi at Covent Garden in his new pantomime ‘Mother Goose,’ 1807, which brought to the management close on 20,000l. ‘Two Faces under a Hood,’ opera, gave him 360l. On 20 Sept. 1808 Covent Garden Theatre was burnt to the ground; twenty-three lives were lost; but the proprietors opened the opera house with Dibdin's ‘Princess or no Princess,’ and his ‘Mother Goose’ had a third run. On 24 Feb. 1809 Drury Lane Theatre was burnt, while Dibdin was at a ball close by with his wife. The latter now retired from the stage and went to Cheltenham. Dibdin's ‘Lady of the Lake’ came out at the Surrey, which he now managed at 15l. a week and two benefits; he stayed with Elliston for a year, till the autumn, 1812, at which time he adapted, as a pantomime for the Royal Amphitheatre of Davis and Parker, his own father's ‘High-mettled Racer,’ by which they cleared 10,000l., and he himself got 50l. When new Drury Lane was almost finished he was engaged by Arnold on the annual salary of 520l. as prompter and writer of the pantomimes. The first of these was ‘Harlequin and Humpo.’ His ‘Orange Bower’ was announced for 8 Dec. 1813, but could not get licensed and appear till the 10th. In August 1814 came his ‘Harlequin Hoax.’ He lost his daughter, his father, and his mother respectively in March, August, and on 10 Oct. the same year. Among his numerous remaining dramas are ‘The Ninth Statue,’ 1814, ‘Zuma,’ ‘The Lily of St. Leonards,’ January 1819, ‘The Ruffian Boy,’ dramatised from Mrs. Opie, and ‘The Fate of Calas,’ 1820.
After the death of Samuel Whitbread, Dibdin was appointed manager at his prompter salary, but saddled with a colleague, Mr. Rae, and there were discomforts with the committee. In 1816 he rashly took the Royal Circus, renamed the Surrey, of which his father had been first manager. This was disastrous. He opened it on 1 July, depending chiefly on his melodramas. The death of the Duke of Kent and of George III stopped the success of the theatre. On 19 March 1822 he closed the theatre, and gave the remainder of his lease to Watkyns Burroughs; but all went wrong. Morris offered him the management of the Haymarket at 200l. per season. Dibdin became insolvent. By the Surrey and Dublin ventures he had lost 18,000l. He scarcely succeeded at the Haymarket; his temper was soured, and he had not his old command of resources. He entered into a lawsuit with Elliston, who had dismissed him from Drury Lane, and he quarrelled with D. E. Morris, was arrested and put in prison. The two lawsuits he gained; but his career was over, the remaining years passing in petty squabbles, inferior work, and discontent. He tried to be cheerful, and his retrospect was that of nearly two hundred plays ten only were failures, and sixteen had attained extraordinary success. Nearly fifty were printed, besides thirty books of songs.
His ‘Reminiscences’ in 1827 were illustrated with an excellent portrait by Wageman, engraved by H. Meyer. In these volumes he far surpasses the ‘Professional Life’ of his father; Thomas's being, though necessarily egotistical and devoted to theatrical recollections, lively and amusing, full of interesting anecdotes of old companions: on the whole generous to all in the earlier portions, not embittered and abusive like his father's. Among his versatile literary employments were ‘A Metrical History of England,’ 2 vols., 1813 (published at 18s.), begun at Cheltenham in 1809, anticipating G. A. à Beckett's ‘Comic History;’ ‘Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress metrically condensed,’ 1834; and ‘Tom Dibdin's Penny Trumpet,’ a prematurely stifled rival to ‘Figaro in London,’ four penny numbers, October and November 1832, the least viperous of the many satires in the reform excitement. He claimed to have written nearly two thousand songs, of which a dozen or more were excellent, such as ‘The Oak Table,’ ‘Snug Little Island,’ the duet of ‘All's Well,’ and most of those sung in ‘The Cabinet,’ ‘The British Fleet,’ &c. It was ‘feared that he died in indigence’ (Annual Register), but he had been fairly prudent, was of steady domestic habits, and had made money constantly until near his closing years, when his toilsome life had enfeebled him and made him querulous. He wrote his own epitaph in the Ad Libitum Club:
Longing while living for laurel and bays,
Under this willow a poor poet ‘lays;’
With little to censure, and less to praise,
He wrote twelve dozen and three score plays:
He finish'd his ‘Life,’ and he went his ways.
He died at his house in Myddleton Place, Pentonville, in his seventieth year, 16 Sept. 1841, and was buried on the 21st in the burial-ground of St. James's, Pentonville, close by the grave of his old friend, Joseph Grimaldi [q. v.], and of his grandmother, Anne Pitt.
[Reminiscences of Thomas Dibdin, of the Theatres Royal Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Haymarket, &c., and Author of The Cabinet, &c., 2 vols. 8vo, H. Colburn, 1827; Athenæum, September 1841, p. 749; Tom Dibdin's Penny Trumpet, 20 Oct. to 10 Nov. 1832; Annual Biography, 1841; Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors, 1816; Last Lays of the Three Dibdins, 1833; Cumberland's edition of Operas and Farces, The Cabinet, &c., with Remarks by D. G.; works mentioned above, with anecdotes from family knowledge of personal acquaintance.]