Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dibdin, Charles

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DIBDIN, CHARLES (1745–1814), dramatist and song-writer, was born at Southampton on or before 4 March 1745. The date 1748 is commonly but inaccurately given; his baptismal register shows that he was privately baptised, being no doubt sickly at birth, on 4 March, and christened on the 26th at Holyrood Church, Southampton, where his father, Thomas Dibdin, was parish clerk. It is most improbable that Charles was, as he asserted, the eighteenth child of his father, ‘a silversmith, a man of considerable credit.’ Charles had been intended for the church, but music alone delighted him; his good voice in boyhood won him the position of chorister at Winchester Cathedral, under Fussell the organist, and soon the Winchester concert-rooms at the races and assizes ‘echoed with his vocal fame’ (Professional Life, i. 14). When he was ‘twelve’ (or fifteen?) years old he was kindly treated by Archdeacon Eden and John Hoadly (1711–1776) [q. v.], chancellor of the diocese. He became the principal singer at the Subscription Concerts; but his popularity with the clergy and officers left him little leisure even for musical study. He was rejected on account of his youth when he applied for the post of organist at Waltham, Hampshire. Invited to London, at free quarters, by his elder brother Thomas the seaman, he visited the theatres, made a position for himself by playing voluntaries at the churches, and often ‘played out the congregation of St. Bride's’ before he was sixteen. He was employed by Old Johnson, who kept a music-shop in Cheapside, but his sole employment was to tune harpsichords. His brother Tom had started in the Hope, West-Indiaman, and had been captured by a French seventy-four, so that no help could be expected from him. The Thompsons of St. Paul's Churchyard gave him his first three guineas for the copyright of six ballads, published at three halfpence each, after they had been sung by Kear at Finch's Grotto. He had not learnt music scientifically until he was sixteen, when he put in score Corelli's harmonies. He was introduced by Berenger to John Beard [q. v.], who accepted and produced for him a pastoral operetta, ‘The Shepherd's Artifice,’ 21 May 1764, and twice repeated it next season. In the summer of 1762 he had performed with Shuter, Weston, and Miss Pope at the Richmond Theatre, then called the Histrionic Academy. Next summer he went to Birmingham with Younger's company, and took some extra work at Vauxhall there; visited Coventry to see the Lady Godiva pageant, and 31 Jan. 1765 at Covent Garden played the part of Ralph in Isaac Bickerstaffe's ‘The Maid of the Mill,’ on Dunstall's incapacity becoming evident. He was encored in all the songs, and set the fashion of wearing ‘Ralph handkerchiefs.’ His salary was raised ten shillings a time in each of three successive weeks. He signed articles for three years, at 3l., 4l., and 5l. per week. Bickerstaffe's ‘The Maid of the Mill’ ran fifty nights. Dibdin condemns the envy and opposition of brother actors, which gradually drove him away from the profession in disgust. His taste was for operatic music, not for acting. After a second season at Birmingham he performed at Love's new theatre at Richmond. In 1767 he was the original Watty Cockney in ‘Love in the City,’ afterwards altered into ‘The Romp,’ for which he composed choruses and songs, including the popular ‘Dear me! how I long to be married!’ Dr. T. A. Arne [q. v.] generously saved him from the malignity of Simpson the hautboy player, but the piece lasted one week only. He next composed two-thirds of the music for ‘Lionel and Clarissa,’ by Bickerstaffe [q. v.], which was given in 1770 the sub-title of ‘The School for Fathers,’ of which nearly all the music was Dibdin's. For this he got no more than 48l. According to a current report he had already married the daughter of a respectable tradesman, a woman without beauty, but a handsome portion, and had deserted her when her fortune was dissipated, with the result that she lived on a scanty pittance till 1793 or later; no imputation was thrown on her character (Crosby, p. 103). In 1767 he had formed an illicit connection with Harriet Pitt, a dancer at Covent Garden, who played small parts. Her children by Dibdin included Charles Isaac Mungo Dibdin (1768–1833) (see below), and Thomas John Dibdin (1771–1841) [q. v.] Dibdin deserted Harriet Pitt about 1774, and she then returned to the stage under the name of Mrs. Davenet.

George Colman, succeeding Beard in the last year of Dibdin's articles, treated him harshly and with meanness. His benefit night was spoilt by the compulsory closing of the theatre on the death of Princess Matilda. On 30 Oct. 1768 Bickerstaffe's ‘Padlock,’ produced at Drury Lane theatre, enabled Dibdin to make his ‘greatest hit’ as Mungo, after Moody had rehearsed and resigned the part. Twenty-eight thousand copies of the ‘Padlock’ were sold; whereby Bickerstaffe, as author of the words, realised fully 1,700l. by 1779 (G. Hogarth); but Dibdin received only 43l. for having composed the music. His brother Thomas had been released from imprisonment, and got an appointment for India through Sir William Young; Charles having crippled himself to pay his brother's debts and assist his outfit. He secured good terms at Ranelagh Gardens, 100l., each season, for the music of ‘The Maid and Mistress,’ ‘Recruiting Sergeant,’ and ‘Ephesian Matron.’ In September 1769 Garrick's Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford gave him employment in setting and resetting music to the songs. Before the celebration came off Dibdin and Garrick had quarrelled; Garrick, quoting Othello, threatened the composer, ‘I can take down the pegs that make this music!’ Dibdin capped the Othello verse by the happy rejoinder, ‘Yes, as honest as you are!’ The breach was widened when Dibdin praised as Garrick's best work the rondeau ‘Sisters of the Tuneful Strain,’ which proved to have been borrowed from Jerningham. The quarrel wellnigh interrupted the Stratford music, but Dibdin repented, composed ‘Let Beauty with the Sun arise!’ hastened after Garrick, and caused the performers to serenade him with the piece, when all was considered hopeless. A reconciliation followed, Dibdin receiving a reward of twenty guineas, having expended twenty-six in travelling. This is Dibdin's unsupported account.

Dibdin got 50l. for music to ‘Dr. Ballardo,’ but no more than 15l. for copyright from the Thompsons for resetting ‘Damon and Phillida.’ When Bickerstaffe absconded in 1772, Dibdin publicly rebuked Dr. Kenrick, author of the scurrilous libel on Garrick, ‘Roscius's Lamentation.’ He now composed an opera, ‘The Wedding Ring,’ 1773, but concealed the authorship. This led to a legal squabble with Newbery, publisher of the ‘Public Ledger,’ Dibdin having avowed himself the writer, to the anger of Garrick, after surmises that it was a work of Bickerstaffe. For King, purchaser of the Sadler's Wells, Dibdin had composed two interludes, ‘The Palace of Mirth’ and ‘The Brickdust Man,’ and ‘The Ladle’ and ‘The Mischance’ among other pieces of 1772. A pantomime, ‘The Pigmy Revels’ (26 Oct. 1772), and a trifle on the installation of new Garter knights (26 Oct. 1771), were produced at Drury Lane. He wrote songs for ‘The Deserter,’ 1773, and was ordered to set music to Garrick's ‘Christmas Tale,’ 1774; but met increased animosity from him, chiefly on account of Dibdin's ill-usage of Miss Pitt, whom, with the three children he had by her, he deserted about this time. Garrick felt so indignant that he discharged him. He had transferred himself and his truant affections to a Miss Anne Maria Wylde, of Portsea, probably a relation of James Wild, the prompter, but was unable to marry her until long afterwards, when his neglected first wife died. Garrick rejected contemptuously Dibdin's ‘Waterman,’ and Foote accepted it for the Haymarket, where it became instantly and lastingly popular. ‘The Cobler’ followed, memorable for the song of ‘'Twas in a Village near Castlebury,’ but a clique secured its removal on the tenth night. ‘The Quaker’ was sold to Brereton for 70l. for his benefit; and ultimately Garrick purchased it, but kept it back. Dibdin then spitefully wrote a pamphlet against him as ‘David Little,’ advertised it, but withdrew it from publication in time. He satirised Garrick, nevertheless, in a puppet-play, ‘The Comic Mirror,’ at Exeter Change (Prof. Life, i. 153). Entangled in debt, and with angry creditors threatening imprisonment, he sought flight to France, to stay two years, ‘to expand my ideas and store myself with theatrical materials,’ as he himself declared. Sheridan avowed the impossibility of Dibdin's reinstatement at Drury Lane, where Linley now ruled, but affected to have prevailed on T. Harris to engage him at Covent Garden. Harris declined, saying, ‘Surely Mr. Sheridan is mad.’ Harris produced Dibdin's ‘Seraglio’ in November 1776, which was favourably received, after Dibdin had left England. In it was sung ‘Blow high, blow low,’ an early example of Dibdin's sea songs. It was written in a gale of wind, during a thirteen-hours' passage from Calais. ‘Poor Vulcan’ was altered beyond recognition, and produced successfully 4 Feb. 1778, yielding the author above 200l. He disparaged Calais, but confessed that he ‘muddled away five months there,’ before moving with his irregular family to Nancy, the journey taking ten days. He felt happier at Nancy, often visiting Le Chartreux, two miles distant. He remained in France twenty-two months, but disliked the French with stubborn prejudice. Impending war caused Englishmen to be ordered out of the country. Early in June 1778 he returned from Calais to Dover, narrowly escaping an American frigate. Harris engaged him at 10l.. a week. To his after-piece, ‘The Gipsies,’ written while in France, Thomas Arnold had set the music. Of six interludes which he had prepared abroad, his ‘Rose and Colin’ and ‘The Wives Revenged’ were injudiciously but successfully produced together, 18 Sept. 1778, at Covent Garden. ‘Annette and Lubin’ followed, and on 3 Jan. 1779 ‘The Touchstone.’ But Fred. Pilon, Mrs. Cowley, Cumberland, and even Lee Lewis had been allowed to interlineate and spoil it. In a fit of disgust Dibdin threatened to go to India and join his brother Tom at Nagore, but first wrote ‘The Chelsea Pensioners.’ He had wished his ‘Mirror’ to be entitled ‘Hell broke Loose;’ it was a mythological burlesque of Tartarus. He at last prevailed on Harris to produce his ‘Shepherdess of the Alps’ in 1780. His brother died at the Cape of Good Hope, when voyaging homeward, after having been struck by lightning and been partially paralysed. Seeing India thus closed to him, Dibdin became reconciled to Harris, who produced for him ‘Harlequin Freemason’ at Covent Garden 1780, but ‘The Islanders’ came out before it. His ‘Amphitryon,’ a musical adaptation of Dryden's, was a failure, and it probably deserved to be, but he had secured himself as to profits, and got 285l. for it. ‘Pretty well for an unsuccessful piece,’ Dibdin said. This brought a fresh rupture with Harris.

Dibdin now commenced giving musical entertainments at the Royal Circus, on the site of the present Surrey Theatre. He found enemies in Hughes and the elder Grimaldi, father of ‘Joey,’ the future clown [q. v.] But he was continually finding enemies, according to his own account. His numerous interludes were sandwiched between equestrian feats in the circle. ‘The Cestus,’ ‘Tom Thumb,’ and ‘The Benevolent Tar,’ were brought out in 1783, 1784, and 1785. Troubles were incessant. His ‘Liberty Hall,’ full of songs, was produced at Drury Lane in 1785. By the destruction of another place of entertainment, named Helicon, he lost 290l., and 460l. by failure of a Dublin manager to pay him for musical work done, soon after the death of his mother at Southampton. He removed with one of his families to a village five miles off, and began his novel of ‘The Younger Brother,’ published in 1793. He began a weekly satire called ‘The Devil,’ which died within the half year. His ‘Harvest Home’ was produced on 21 May 1787 after he started to give entertainments in various towns for fourteen months. He was the sole performer. Of this ‘Musical Tour’ he published at Sheffield, in 4to, an account in 1788. He was continually embroiled with managers, and again quarrelled with Harris in March that year. Even as his own master and servant he was dissatisfied, and he once more resolved to go to India, being again in danger of arrest. He left the Thames for Madeira, expecting to be ‘picked up’ there. He sold all that he could, obtaining merely two guineas for his ‘Poll and my Partner Joe,’ which brought 200l. to the publisher, and ‘Nothing like Grog’ for half a guinea. He got to Dunkirk with his family, but he had quarrelled with the captain, the crew were mutinous, and by stress of weather they were driven to Torbay, and never got nearer to India. Threatened by creditors he returned to London, took lodgings near the Old Bailey, and made a fresh start with one of his best entertainments, ‘The Whim of the Moment,’ in which he introduced his favourite song of ‘Poor Jack.’ This was parodied ruthlessly by John Collins, but held its ground. After this the entire interest of his life centres in his sea songs and various ‘entertainments sans souci.’ He amused the public with anecdotes and gossip, interspersed with his ditties. He resided at St. George's Fields, and engaged the Lyceum for his ‘Oddities,’ 1789–90, seventy-nine nights, and ‘The Wags,’ 1790, for 108 nights: ‘Private Theatricals’ and ‘The Quizzes’ were the names of entertainments given at the Royal Polygraphic Rooms, Strand, 1791–2, followed by ‘Coalition,’ 1792, and ‘Castles in the Air,’ 1793. It was at this, his most successful time, that warm-hearted John O'Keeffe saw him, and without any professional jealousy praised him generously: ‘Dibdin's manner of coming on the stage was in happy style; he ran on sprightly, and with nearly a laughing face, like a friend who enters hastily to impart to you some good news. Nor did he disappoint his audience; he sang, and accompanied himself on an instrument, which was a concert in itself; he was, in fact, his own band. A few lines of speaking happily introduced his admirable songs, full of wit and character, and his peculiar mode of singing them surpassed all I had ever heard.’

Other sketches that followed were ‘Nature in Nubibus’ and ‘Great News,’ 1794. ‘Will of the Wisp’ and ‘Christmas Gambols,’ 1795. ‘Datchet Mead,’ ‘General Election’ (in which came ‘Meg of Wapping’ and ‘Nongtongpaw’), 1796, and ‘The Sphinx,’ 1797, were performed at Leicester Place, and he also produced there ‘The Goose and Gridiron’ and ‘Tour to the Land's End,’ 1798, founded on his own adventures; ‘King and Queen’ and ‘Tom Wilkins,’ 1799, with his song of ‘The Last Shilling.’ He went to Bath and Bristol with success, and soon after to Scotland, making sketches with pen and pencil, and composing new sketches (‘The Cake House,’ 1800; ‘A Frisk,’ 1801; ‘Most Votes,’ 1802; ‘Britons Strike Home!’ 1803; ‘Valentine's Day,’ ‘The Election,’ ‘The Frolic,’ and ‘A Trip to the Coast,’ 1804; ‘Heads or Tails’ and ‘Cecilia,’ 1805). He now wished to retire into private life, for he knew that he had lost power of voice and popularity. Government had granted him a pension of 200l., June 1803. In 1805, being more than sixty, he retired from the theatre in Leicester Place, and sold his stock and copyright of three hundred songs to Bland and Weller, the music-sellers of Oxford Street, for 1,800l., and three years' annuities of 100l. a year for such songs as he might compose in that time. He removed to a quiet home at Cranford. His pension was withdrawn by the Grenville government, 1806–7. After this loss of income he returned to the Lyceum, adding other singers, and produced in 1808 ‘Professional Volunteers’ and ‘The Rent Day,’ followed finally by ‘A Thanksgiving’ and ‘Commodore Pennant.’ He also opened a music-shop opposite the theatre, but failure and bankruptcy followed. Mr. Oakley, of Tavistock Place, advocated in the ‘Morning Chronicle’ of 16 March 1810 the opening a subscription for Dibdin. At a public dinner on 12 April the musicians of the day generously gave their valuable help, and 640l. was raised. Of this 80l. was paid to him at once, and the remainder invested in long annuities, to benefit his second wife and their daughter Anne thereafter. He removed to Arlington Street, Camden Town, where he remained until he died. He tried one more play, ‘The Round Robin,’ at the Haymarket, in 1811, but the public, caring nothing for a worn-out favourite, rejected it, and he composed a dozen songs for ‘La Belle Assemblée’ of his friend, Dr. Kitchener, afterwards his biographer, obtaining 60l. for them. Struck by paralysis in 1813, he lingered at Arlington Street until 25 July 1814, dying about the age of sixty-nine. A stanza from one of his most beautiful and unaffected songs, ‘Tom Bowling’ (from the ‘Oddities,’ and said to have been intended as a description of his own brother Tom), was carved on his tombstone at St. Martin's burial-ground in Camden Town. His widow, Anne, and her daughter, also Ann (b. 1787), enjoyed a pension of 100l. besides the annuity of 30l.; three other children by the union with Miss Wylde died in infancy; a son, John, was drowned. Ann married an officer in the army. Her daughter appears to have been the last legitimate descendant of Charles Dibdin. Dibdin left no provision for his illegitimate offspring.

Of these the eldest son was Charles Isaac Mungo (so named after his father, Bickerstaffe, and the character in the ‘Padlock,’ which Dibdin performed in early life, and had set music for). The son's real surname was Pitt, but he is known generally as ‘Charles Dibdin the younger;’ he was born in 1768 and became a proprietor and acting manager of Sadler's Wells Theatre, for which he wrote many plays and songs. Among the plays printed were: ‘Claudine,’ a burlesque, 1801; ‘Goody Two-Shooes’ (sic), a pantomime, n.d.; ‘Barbara Allen,’ spectacle, n.d.; ‘The Great Devil,’ comic spectacle, 1801; ‘Old Man of the Mountains,’ spectacle, n.d.; and, one of his best, ‘The Farmer's Wife,’ comic opera, after 1814. He also wrote a ‘History of the London Theatres,’ 1826. He was popular and fairly successful. He died in 1833. His son, Henry Edward Dibdin, is separately noticed.

Besides ‘The Younger Brother,’ 1793, the elder Charles Dibdin published in 1796 a novel entitled ‘Hannah Hewit; or the Female Crusoe,’ introducing the loss of the Grosvenor, of which a dramatised version was acted for a benefit in 1797; ‘The Devil,’ 2 vols., circa 1785; ‘The Bystander,’ in which he published one song and an essay each week, 1787; his ‘Musical Tour’ in the year 1788; his ‘History of the Stage,’ 5 vols., 1800, hurriedly written in scraps while travelling; ‘Observations of a Tour through Scotland and England,’ with views by himself, 1803; and his ‘Professional Life,’ with the words of six hundred songs, 4 vols., 1803 (vide infra); besides many previous smaller selections, 12mo, such as one in 1790. His irritating letter to Benjamin Crosby ought to be remembered as a proof of his cross-grained disposition. Crosby having courteously requested biographical information from him, as from others, in 1796, Dibdin replied: ‘Mr. Dibdin is astonished at Mr. Crosby's extraordinary request; he not only refuses it, but forbids Mr. Crosby to introduce anything concerning his life in his production. If he should, Mr. Dibdin may be under the necessity of publicly contradicting what, according to Mr. Crosby's own confession, cannot be authentic’ (Crosby, p. 100). But the great merit of Dibdin's best songs, his sea-songs especially, words and music, is undeniable. His autobiography is dreary and egotistical in the extreme, and he is loose and inaccurate, whether by defect of memory or by intentional distortion of truth. His sea-songs are full of generous sentiment and manly honesty. Somehow he cared less for a practical fulfilment of the ethics that he preached so well. He invented his own tunes, for the most part spirited and melodious, and in this surpassed Henry Carey [q. v.] beyond all comparison. They were admirably suited to his words. He boasted truly: ‘My songs have been the solace of sailors in long voyages, in storms, in battle; and they have been quoted in mutinies to the restoration of order and discipline’ (Life, i. 8). He brought more men into the navy in war time than all the press-gangs could. Exclusive of the ‘entertainments sans souci,’ commenced in 1797, with their 360 songs, he wrote more than seventy dramatic pieces, and set to music productions of other writers. He claimed nine hundred songs as his own, of which two hundred were repeatedly encored, ninety of them being sea-songs, and undoubtedly his master-work. He was a rapid worker. No one of his entertainments cost him more than a month; his best single songs generally half an hour, e.g. his ‘Sailor's Journal.’ Music and words came together. His portrait was painted by Devis, showing his handsome face, his hearty boisterousness. It has been several times engraved.

[Professional Life of Mr. Dibdin, written by Himself, with the Words of Six Hundred Songs, 4 vols., 1803; Benjamin Crosby's Pocket Companion to the Playhouses, pp. 99–105, 1796; Dibdin's own Royal Circus Epitomised, 1784, a full account of his difficulties and imprisonments in the Fleet and the Bench; A Brief Memoir of Charles Dibdin, by (the late) Dr. William Kitchener, with some Documents supplied by his (Dibdin's) Granddaughter, Mrs. Lovat Ashe, London, n.d. (1823), a very slight work, 24 pp.; Recollections of John O'Keeffe, written by himself, ii. 322, 323, 1826; Biographia Dramatica, ed. 1812, i. 187; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 415, 4th ser. v. 155, &c.; The London Stage, 1826–7, 4 vols.; Bell's British Theatre; Cumberland's Plays; G. H. Davidson's Songs of Charles Dibdin, with Memoir by George Hogarth, 2 vols. 1842 and 1848, very inaccurate and ill-edited throughout, many songs being given that were written by Colley Cibber, long before Dibdin touched ‘Damon and Phillida,’ and by other older and well-known writers; Annual Register, lvi. 137; Dibdin's own books, above mentioned; N. S. F. Hervey's Celebrated Musicians, Appendix, p. 32, 1883–5; Musical Times, March 1886; Gent. Mag. lxxxv. 285 (1815); European Mag. July 1810.]

J. W. E.