Parsons, William (1736-1795) (DNB00)

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PARSONS, WILLIAM (1736–1795), actor, the son of William Parsons, a carpenter in Bow Lane, was born on 9 Feb. 1736. His mother is stated to have been a native of Maidstone, where, according to several accounts, the actor was born. He was admitted to St. Paul's School on 7 April 1749, and at the age of fifteen became a pupil under Sir Henry Cheere or Cheke, a surveyor. He took part with William Powell [q. v.] and Charles Holland (1733–1769) [q. v.] in amateur entertainments; and in 1756, as an amateur, played, at the Haymarket, Kent in ‘King Lear.’ Trusting partly to some skill which he possessed as a painter of fruit and of landscapes, he quitted his employment. His début as a professional actor is said to have been made in York, as Southampton in Jones's ‘Earl of Essex.’ His performances here were in tragedy or high comedy. In 1757–8 he was at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, under West Digges [q. v.], and played in the first representation there of Home's ‘Agis.’ No account is traceable of the characters assigned him, but he took part on 5 Feb. 1761 in the ‘Way to keep him.’ He also played the Miser. He married, in Edinburgh, Mrs. Price, an actress, who, on 29 May 1762, as Mrs. Parsons, played Lucy in the ‘Beggar's Opera,’ Parsons presumably playing Filch. In that part he made, on 21 Sept. 1762, his first appearance at Drury Lane, Mrs. Parsons playing Mrs. Peachum, a part she did not long retain. Their engagement by Garrick was due to Jackson, the Edinburgh manager. On 19 Oct. Parsons played Don Felix in the ‘Wonder,’ on the 28th Charino in ‘Love makes a Man,’ on 24 Feb. 1763 Grigg in the ‘Beggar's Wedding.’ The following season he was the Countryman in ‘Philaster,’ Robert in ‘All in the Wrong,’ Starveling in ‘Midsummer Night's Dream,’ Periwinkle in ‘A Bold Stroke for a Wife,’ a recruit in the ‘Recruiting Officer,’ and Argus in ‘Contrivances.’ On 24 Jan. 1765 he was the original Nicodemus in the ‘Platonick Wife’ of Mrs. Griffiths, and on 26 April Harcourt in a version in two acts of the ‘Country Wife.’ Gratiano in ‘Othello’ and Douglas in the ‘First Part of King Henry IV’ followed. In June 1765 he made his first recorded appearance at the Haymarket as Dr. Catgut in Foote's ‘Commissary,’ caricaturing Dr. Arne. With this part he doubled that of the Hackney Coachman. From this time more important characters were assigned him, and he appeared at Drury Lane, with which he was all his life associated, as Blunt in the ‘London Merchant,’ Lord Plausible in the ‘Plain Dealer,’ Shallow in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ and in the ‘Second Part of King Henry IV,’ Ananias in Jonson's ‘Alchemist,’ Dogberry, Sir Hugh Evans, Gripus in ‘Amphitryon,’ Razor in the ‘Provoked Wife,’ the First Gravedigger in ‘Hamlet,’ Lord Froth in the ‘Double Dealer,’ Gobbo in the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ Vellum in the ‘Drummer,’ Philario in ‘Cymbeline,’ Foresight in ‘Love for Love,’ Scrub in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem,’ Obadiah in the ‘Committee,’ Sir Harry Sycamore in ‘Maid of the Mill,’ Sir William Meadows in ‘Love in a Village,’ and innumerable other characters followed. His original parts included Shallow in Kenrick's ‘Falstaff's Wedding,’ 12 April 1766; Sir Harry Harlowe in ‘Neck or Nothing,’ attributed to Garrick, 18 Nov. 1766; Dorus, a character in which he distinguished himself, in Garrick's ‘Cymon,’ 2 Jan. 1767; Linger in King's ‘Wit's Last Stake,’ 14 April 1768; Ostler in the ‘Jubilee,’ 14 Oct. 1769; Justice Clack in ‘Ladies' Frolick,’ taken by Love from Brome's ‘Jovial Crew,’ 7 May 1770; Don Guzman in Bickerstaffe's ‘'Tis well it's no worse,’ 24 Nov. 1770; and Varland in the ‘West Indian,’ 19 Jan. 1771. At the Haymarket he was, 10 or 12 June 1772, the first Martin (an old cooper) in Dr. Arne's ‘Cooper,’ and 29 June the First Mayor in Foote's ‘Nabob.’ Once more, at Drury Lane, he was Whittle in Garrick's ‘Irish Widow,’ 23 Oct. 1772.

Parsons played Pandolfo in a revival of ‘Albumazar’ and Antonio in the ‘Chances;’ was, 2 Nov. 1773, the original Skirmish in Dibdin's ‘Deserter,’ and 27 Dec. the original Faladel in the ‘Christmas Tale,’ assigned to Garrick. On 1 Feb. 1775 he was the first General Worry in Bate's ‘Rival Candidates,’ on 18 March Clown in ‘Measure for Measure,’ and the first Davy in Garrick's ‘Bon Ton.’ He was, 15 Feb. 1776, the original Justice in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Runaway,’ and on 7 March the original D'Oyley in Colman's ‘Spleen.’ He also played Mawworm. At the Haymarket, on 12 June 1776, he ‘created’ the character of Colonel Lovemore in the ‘Contract,’ attributed to Dr. Franklin. Prig in Foote's ‘Cozeners’ and Sir Harry Hamper in his ‘Capuchin’ followed.

The season of 1776–7 was prolific of novelty, since, besides smaller parts, he originated at Drury Lane, 21 Nov. 1776, Sir Jacob Thrift in Vaughan's ‘Hotel, or Double Valet;’ Probe in Sheridan's ‘Trip to Scarborough,’ 24 Feb. 1777; Diggery in Jackman's ‘All the World's a Stage,’ 7 April, and Crabtree in the ‘School for Scandal,’ 8 May; and, at the Haymarket, Dr. Bartholo in Colman's adaptation, ‘The Spanish Barber.’ On 10 March 1778 he was, at Drury Lane, the first Justice Solemn in ‘Belphegor,’ and on 2 July, at the Haymarket, Tony Lumpkin in O'Keeffe's ‘Tony Lumpkin in Town.’ At Drury Lane he was the first Old Valence in Fielding's ‘Fathers, or the Good-natured Man,’ 10 April 1779; D'Oyley in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Who's the Dupe?’ and 14 Aug., at the Haymarket, Crankey in O'Keeffe's ‘Son-in-Law.’ In Sheridan's ‘Critic’ Parsons was, 29 Oct. 1779, the original Sir Fretful Plagiary; on 27 Dec. 1780 was Sir John Contrast in Burgoyne's ‘Lord of the Manor;’ and, 9 March, Alderman Uniform in Andrews's ‘Dissipation;’ Qui Tam, an attorney, in ‘Divorce,’ 10 Nov. 1780; Sir Pater Pagoda in the ‘Carnival of Venice,’ 13 Dec.; Sir Timothy Valerian in Tickell's ‘Variety,’ 25 Feb. 1782; Bale in Pilon's ‘Fair American,’ 18 May, followed; and he played at the Haymarket the Clown in ‘Twelfth Night.’ He also added to his repertory Sir Francis Gripe in the ‘Busy Body,’ Holdfast in Massinger's ‘City Madam,’ Justice Woodcock in ‘Love in a Village,’ Justice Greedy in ‘A New Way to pay Old Debts;’ and, at the Haymarket, Twitch in the ‘Good-natured Man,’ Lord Ogleby in the ‘Clandestine Marriage,’ and Corbaccio in ‘Volpone.’

To these parts may be added at a later date Old Hardcastle in ‘She stoops to conquer,’ and Elbow in ‘Measure for Measure.’ The only original characters of his later years which have a claim upon attention are Johnny Atkins in Mrs. Inchbald's ‘Mogul Tale, or the Descent of the Balloon,’ Haymarket, 6 July 1784; Dumps in Cumberland's ‘Natural Son,’ Drury Lane, 22 Dec. 1784; Codger in O'Keeffe's ‘Beggar on Horseback,’ Haymarket, 16 June 1785; and, 4 Aug., at the same house, Mr. Euston in Mrs. Inchbald's ‘I'll tell you what;’ Alscrip in Burgoyne's ‘Heiress,’ Drury Lane, 14 Jan. 1786; Rohf in the ‘Disbanded Officer,’ translated by Johnstone from Lessing, Haymarket, 23 July 1786; Don Gaspar in Mrs. Cowley's ‘School for Greybeards,’ Drury Lane, 25 Nov. 1786; Sir Christopher Curry in Colman's ‘Inkle and Yarico,’ Haymarket, 4 Aug. 1787; Thomaso in Cobb's ‘Doctor and Apothecary,’ Drury Lane, 23 Oct. 1788; First Carpenter in the younger Colman's ‘Siege of Calais,’ Haymarket, 30 July 1791.

With the Drury Lane Company, at the Haymarket Opera House, he played in Cobb's ‘Poor Old Drury,’ and Old Manly in Richardson's ‘Fugitives,’ 20 Aug. 1792. At the smaller Haymarket Theatre he was, 23 June 1793, Toby Thatch in O'Keeffe's ‘London Hermit,’ and, 3 Aug. 1793, Lope Tocho in the younger Colman's ‘Mountaineers.’ This proved to be his last original part. On 15 Jan. 1795 he played Moneytrap in the ‘Confederacy,’ his last part recorded by Genest. On the 19th, according to Bellamy, he appeared for the last time, playing Sir Fretful Plagiary. On 3 Feb. he died at his house in Mead's Row, Lambeth. A rhymed epitaph is over his tomb in the churchyard of Lee, Kent.

In his ‘New Hay at the Old Market,’ produced on 9 June 1795 (a few months after Parsons's death), George Colman the younger [q. v.] gives the following dialogue between the carpenter and the prompter—Carpenter: ‘We want a new scaffold for the “Surrender of Calais.”’ Prompter: ‘Ah! but where shall we get such another hangman? Poor fellow! Poor Parsons! The old cause of our mirth is now the cause of our melancholy. He, who so often made us forget our cares, may well claim a sigh to his memory.’ Carpenter: ‘He was one of the comicalest fellows I ever see!’ Prompter: ‘Aye, and one of the honestest, Master Carpenter. When an individual has combined private worth with public talent, he quits the bustling scene of life with twofold applause, and we doubly deplore his exit.’ In the piece mentioned Parsons had had to erect the scaffold on which the patriotic burghers of Calais were condemned to be hanged by order of King Edward.

Parsons was a modest and an estimable man, to whose merits frequent testimony is borne. He suffered much from ague. Popularly he was known as the Comic Roscius. In a list which does not pretend to completeness, even as regards original characters, Genest supplies 162 parts in which he appeared. This number could be very largely increased, probably almost doubled. His great parts included Sir Hugh Evans, Moneytrap, Foresight, Sir Solomon Sadlife, Crabtree, Major Benbow, D'Oyley, Sir Fretful Plagiary, Alscrip, Don Manuel, and Obadiah in the ‘Committee.’ He himself declared Corbaccio to be his best part, and asserted that he owed it all to Shuter. Davies compares him with Quick in the First Gravedigger, and asks who can be grave when Parsons looks or speaks. The ‘Theatrical Biography’ (1772) praises very highly his Foresight, and says of his old men that he by a happy attention to minutiæ shows a finished picture of dotage, avarice, or any other infirmity he may represent. ‘The tottering knee, the sudden stare, the plodding look, nay, the taking out the handkerchief, all proclaim him a finished actor in this walk.’ Boaden, who praises his rich and singular power of telling a story, says he can hardly convince himself that the place of Parsons has been filled. Reynolds and Dibdin both bear testimony to his ability. Davies chronicles a rather dangerous habit of Parsons's of provoking by whispered words a laugh from the actors with whom he was playing.

Parsons displayed ability as a painter and was a judge of painting. Between 1753 and 1773 he contributed one picture of fruit to the Society of Artists, and two to the Free Society of Artists. Redgrave says he painted also architectural subjects and landscapes. Mr. Robert Walters of Ware Priory, Hertfordshire, possesses a view by Parsons, the details of which are admirable, of the City and St. Paul's from the Spaniards Inn, Hampstead, formerly in the possession of John Bannister. Frog Hall, in St. George's Fields, a quaint and quaintly named retreat of Parsons, was, according to Michael Kelly, full of beautiful landscapes, the handiwork of the actor.

Parsons's first wife died in 1787, and he then married Dorothy, or Dorothea, a daughter of the Hon. James Stewart, brother of the Earl of Galloway, who had run away from a convent at Lille. Four days after his death she is said to have espoused his son's tutor, a clergyman; and it is added that she had a living and a dead husband in the house at the same time. By his will, proved by his widow on 5 Feb. 1795, he left to his surviving son, Stewart Parsons, his leasehold estate, called Stangate, near Westminster Bridge, and his small freehold at Bearsted, near Maidstone. To his wife he left 59l. per annum and her leasehold houses in London Road, and for her life his leasehold estate in Mead's Place and Mead's Row. The will, signed 19 Dec. 1792, describes him as late of the parish of St. Mary, Lambeth, in Surrey.

The Mathews collection of portraits in the Garrick Club has pictures of Parsons as Foresight by De Wilde; as Old Man in ‘Lethe’ and as Sheepface in the ‘Village Lawyer,’ with Bannister as Scout, and as Dumps in the ‘Natural Son,’ by Zoffany; by Vandergucht as Obadiah in the ‘Committee,’ with Moody as Teague. The club also possesses a portrait of the actor in private dress. To these Smith's ‘Catalogue’ adds a portrait by De Wilde; a picture, by J. Mortimer, of Parsons as Varland in the ‘West Indian,’ with Moody as Major O'Flaherty; one by Zoffany with Garrick and others in the ‘Provoked Wife;’ one by Robert Laurie; another as Sheepface in the ‘Village Lawyer,’ with Bannister, jun., as Scout, by De Wilde, engraved by J. R. Smith; and another as Old Man in ‘Lethe,’ with Bransby and Watkins, by Zoffany. A portrait by Hayter, engraved by J. Wright in 1792, is mentioned by Evans. An engraved portrait, by Harding, accompanies a memoir in the ‘European Magazine;’ a head, engraved by Ridley, appears in the ‘Thespian Dictionary;’ a portrait, by De Wilde, engraved by Ridley, accompanies Bellamy's ‘Life.’

[The chief authority for the life of Parsons consists of the memoir by his friend Thomas Bellamy, which forms the greater portion of the latter's Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, London, 8vo, 1794. Estimates of Parsons or anecdotes concerning him are contributed to this by Charles Dibdin and John Litchfield. Other sources of information are: Notes and Queries, 6th ser. viii. 111, 8th ser. v. 130; European Mag. vol. xxvii.; Gent. Mag. 1795, pt. i.; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; Georgian Era; Davies's Life of Garrick and Dramatic Miscellanies; Graves's Dictionary of Artists; Doran's Annals of the English Stage, ed. Lowe; Theatrical Biography, 1772; Genest's English Stage; and Clark Russell's Representative Actors.]

J. K.