Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harris, Thomas

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HARRIS, THOMAS (d. 1820), proprietor and manager of Covent Garden Theatre, came of a respectable family, and was brought up in trade. In the autumn of 1767, in connection with George Colman the elder [q. v.], Rutherford, and William Powell, he purchased from John Beard [q. v.] the patent of Covent Garden Theatre, which that actor had held since the death of his father-in-law, Rich. The theatre opened 14 Sept. 1767, with the ‘Rehearsal,’ in which Powell spoke an occasional prologue by Whitehead, containing the lines:

For Brentford's state two kings could once suffice,
In ours behold four kings of Brentford rise.

Colman undertook the management; a violent quarrel between Harris and Colman arose during the first season in consequence of the pretensions of Mrs. Lessingham, an actress with whom Harris lived. Colman, with whom Powell sided, barricaded the theatre, and Harris, supported by Rutherford, broke it forcibly open. Legal proceedings and a pamphlet warfare [for which see Colman, George] followed. On 23 July 1770 a legal decision of the commissioners of the great seal reinstated Colman as acting manager, subject to the advice and inspection, but not the control, of his fellows. Powell meanwhile had died 3 July 1769. On the resignation, 26 May 1774, by Colman of his post, Harris undertook the duties of stage-manager, which he discharged until his death. He was accused of sacrificing to spectacle the best interests of the drama. He behaved liberally to actors, however, and maintained a good reputation and some personal popularity. A daughter died in 1802, aged 15, and a son, George, lived to be a captain in the royal navy. A sister of Harris married into the family of the Longmans, the well-known publishers, and in the present possession of the Longman family is a portrait of Harris by Opie, showing him a fresh-complexioned, cultivated-looking man. A large number of documents—mortgages to his brother-in-law Longman of Harris's share in Covent Garden and the like—are also in the hands of the Longmans, and, while throwing little light on the life of Harris, are curious as regards the history of Covent Garden. Harris died on 1 Oct. 1820 at his cottage near Wimbledon, and was buried in his family vault at Hillingdon, near Uxbridge.

[Victor's History of the Theatres of London; Genest's Account of the English Stage; Thespian Dict.; Theatrical Inquisitor; London Mag. for 1820; Garrick Correspondence; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Birkbeck Hill.]

J. K.