Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dowton, William

DOWTON, WILLIAM (1764–1851), actor, the son of an innkeeper and grocer at Exeter, was born in that city on 25 April 1764. At an early age he worked with a marble cutter, but in 1780 was articled to an architect. During his apprenticeship he occasionally performed at a private theatre in Exeter, when the applause which he obtained prompted him to run away from home and join a company of strolling players at Ashburton, where, in 1781, he made his appearance in a barn as Carlos in the ‘Revenge.’ After enduring many hardships he was engaged by Hughes, manager of the Weymouth theatre, and thence returned to Exeter, where he played Macbeth and Romeo; he then (September 1791) joined Mrs. Baker's company in Kent. Here he changed his line of acting, and took the characters of La Gloire, Jemmy Jumps, Billy Bristle, Sir David Dunder, and Peeping Tom, in all of which he was well received by a Canterbury audience. He made his first appearance in London at Drury Lane under Wroughton's management as Sheva in Cumberland's comedy of the ‘Jew,’ on 11 Oct. 1796, and was received with much applause. No man on the stage was more versatile at this period of his career. His personation of Sir Hugh Evans in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ was excellent. He was considered the best representative of Malvolio on the English stage. He played with great success Mr. Hardcastle in ‘She stoops to conquer,’ Clod in the ‘Young Quaker,’ Rupert in the ‘Jealous Wife,’ Sir Anthony Absolute in the ‘Rivals,’ Major Sturgeon in the ‘Mayor of Garrett,’ Governor Heartall in the ‘Soldier's Daughter,’ and Dr. Cantwell in the ‘Hypocrite’ at the Lyceum on 23 Jan. 1810. He continued at Drury Lane for many years, playing at the Haymarket in the summer months. At one of his benefits at the latter house, 15 Aug. 1805, he revived the burlesque of ‘The Tailors,’ at which the fraternity took umbrage, and created a memorable riot (Morning Chronicle, 16 Aug. 1805, p. 4). On 5 Oct. 1815 he played Shylock at Drury Lane at the desire, as it was stated, of Lord Byron, when, although his conception of the character was excellent, the public, long accustomed to his comic personation, did not give him a very cordial greeting. He appeared at Drury Lane on 1 June 1830 as Falstaff, for the benefit of Miss Catherine Stephens. He was afterwards manager of theatres at Canterbury and Maidstone, but these he finally transferred to his son, and confined himself to acting. He gave evidence before the committee on dramatic literature in August 1832 (Report 1832, No. 679, pp. 89–92 in Parliamentary Papers, vol. vii. 1831–2).

In 1836 he went to America, and made his first appearance in New York at the Park Theatre on 2 June in his favourite character of Falstaff. During this engagement his representations were confined exclusively to elderly characters. His quiet and natural style of acting was not at first understood by his audiences, and just as they were beginning to appreciate his talent and abilities he resolved on returning home, and took his farewell benefit on 23 Nov. 1836. His salary at Drury Lane, where he played for thirty-six years, in 1801–2 was 8l. a week, and it never exceeded 20l. at the height of his fame.

In his old age, having neglected the advantages offered by the Theatrical Fund, he became destitute, and would have been in absolute want but for a benefit at Her Majesty's Theatre 8 June 1840, when Colman's ‘Poor Gentleman’ was played with an excellent cast, in which he himself took the part of Sir Robert Bramble. With the proceeds of this benefit an annuity was purchased, which amply provided for his declining days. He enjoyed good health to the last, and died at Brixton Terrace, Brixton, Surrey, 19 April 1851, in his eighty-eighth year. He married about 1793 Miss S. Baker, an actress and singer on the Canterbury circuit.

Dowton's eldest son, William Dowton, was manager of the Kent circuit 1815–35; made his appearance in London at Drury Lane 3 Dec. 1832 as Tangent; was afterwards a brother of the Charterhouse for thirty-seven years; died there 19 Sept. 1883, when nearly ninety years of age, and was buried at Bow 24 Sept. Another son, Henry Dowton, born in 1798, performed Liston's line of parts inimitably, but died young. He married Miss Whitaker, an actress, who after his decease became the wife of John Sloman, an actor. She died at Charleston, South Carolina, 7 Feb. 1858.

[Gent. Mag. July 1851, p. 96; Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, iv. 253–62 (1826), with portrait; Tallis's Dramatic Mag. June 1851, pp. 235–6, with portrait; Cumberland's British Theatre, xxvii. 7–8, with portrait; Genest's English Stage, vii. 283 et seq.; British Stage, November 1819, pp. 25–6, with portrait; Ireland's New York Stage (1867), i. 547, ii. 140–1, 180, 269; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 30 Oct. 1880, pp. 160, 162, with portrait; Bentley's Miscellany, March 1857, pp. 318–30.]

G. C. B.