Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Compton, Henry (1805-1877)

COMPTON, HENRY (1805–1877), comedian, whose real name was Charles Mackenzie, was born 22 March 1805 at Huntingdon. He was the sixth child of John and Elizabeth Mackenzie, the former a member of a family which has contributed to medicine one or two well-known professors, and the latter a Mrs. Symonds of Worcester. After an education at Huntingdon, and at a boarding-school at Little Baddow in Essex, he was placed in a house of business in Aldermanbury, belonging to his uncle Symonds, from which he twice ran away. His earliest histrionic attempts consisted of imitations of the 'At Homes' of Charles Mathews, with which, as with the acting of Listen, he was impressed. His first engagement, obtained through an agent, was at Lewes. He then played at Leicester as Richmond and Macduff, and after appearing at Cromer was for twelve months, under the name of Compton, which was that of a wife of his grandfather, a member of the Bedford circuit . In 1828 he is heard of in Daventry, and shortly afterwards he appeared at Hammersmith, where he sang a not very brilliant 'local song' of his own composition. Three years' experience on the Lincoln circuit was followed by a long and successful engagement on the York circuit. In Leeds he was a special favourite. His first appearance in London was at the English Opera House (Lyceum), under Bunn's management, on 24 July 1837, as Robin in the 'Waterman.' After playing successfully several parts of no great importance, he was transferred on 7 Oct. 1837 to Drury Lane, where his Master Slender gave full promise of the reputation he was subsequently to earn in Shakespeare. Tony Lumpkin, Gnatbrain in 'Black-eyed Susan,' Silky in the 'Road to Ruin,' Bailie Nicol Jarvie, and the First Gravedigger in 'Hamlet' followed. The chief successes of this period of his life at the Lyceum or at Drury Lane were, however, Mawworm in the 'Hypocrite,' Marrall in 'A New Way to pay Old Debts,' and Dr. Ollapod in the 'Poor Gentleman.' After the disastrous termination of Hammond's season at Drury Lane, Compton went in 1840 to the Theatre Royal, Dublin, whence he returned on 10 Dec. 1841 with the reputation, subsequently maintained, of the best Shakespearean clown of his epoch. Engaged by Macready he appeared at Drury Lane in 18434, and after visiting Manchester, Liverpool, and Dublin he transferred his services to the Princess's, where he appeared as Touchstone on 11 Nov. 1844. Here he remained three years. In 1847 he was at the Olympic, where also he remained three years. Polonius, Sir Peter Teazle, Launcelot Gobbo, Foresight in 'Love for Love,' were among the parts taken at Drury Lane; at the Princess's and Olympic he played a round of 'legitimate' characters. When the Olympic was burnt Compton migrated to the Strand. In 1853 he began at the Haymarket with Buckstone his longest and best remembered engagement. During his stay at this house, besides repeating many favourite characters, he 'created,' among many other parts, Blenkinsop in Tom Taylor's 'Unequal Match,' and Sir Solomon Frazer in the same author's 'Overland Route,' De Vaudray in Dr. Westland Marston's 'Hero of Romance,' and Captain Mountraffe in Robertson's 'Home.' In 1848 Compton married Miss Emmeline Montague, a pleasing actress who, after her union to him, retired from the stage. His first residence after marriage was at 16 Charing Cross, where most of his numerous family were born. He quitted the Haymarket to play at the Princess's Theatre, Manchester, on 15 Aug. 1870, and afterwards at the Olympic on 3 Sept. 1870, in Tom Taylor's 'Handsome is that Handsome does,' and on 7 Oct. 1871 made a great success as Muggles in Byron's 'Partners for Life,' with which Montague opened the Globe Theatre. In the noteworthy revival of 'Hamlet' at the Lyceum on 30 Oct. 1874 he resumed his old character of the Gravedigger. This, with the exception of some performances at so-called 'matinées,' was his last appearance in London. With the 'Vezin-Chippendale' company he played in the country many of his old characters. His last appearance on the stage was at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, Liverpool, on 14 July 1877, as Mawworm in the 'Hypocrite,' and Pangloss in two acts of the 'Heir-at-Law.' After a long illness, in which he received many marks of public estimation, including very productive benefits at Drury Lane and in Manchester, he died of cancer on 15 Sept. 1877, in a house built by himself in Kensington, and named Seaforth House, after the head of the Mackenzie family, which he regarded as his clan.

Within certain limits Compton was an admirable actor. In pathos and in unction he was alike deficient. He had, however, a dry quaint humour, the effect of which was not to be resisted. His reputation as a Shakespearean clown was well earned, and whenever a prosy, dogmatic, or phlegmatic character had to be presented, he was at home. His range was wider than might have been supposed from the special nature of his gifts, and within that range he was unsurpassed. In life as in art he was temperate, little given to social pleasures, and fond almost to the end of athletic exercise. He was greatly respected in London, and, except to a circle narrow for an actor, little known.

[Memoir of Henry Compton, edit. by Charles and Edward Compton, 1879; Tallis's Dramatic Magazine; Theatrical Times; Era Almanack; Athenæum; The Players, London, 1860; personal recollections.]

J. K.