Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harley, John Pritt

HARLEY, JOHN PRITT (1786–1858), actor and singer, son of John Harley, draper and silk mercer, by Elizabeth his wife, was born in February 1786 and baptised in the parish church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 5 March. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a linendraper in Ludgate Hill, and while there contracted an intimacy with William Oxberry, afterwards a well-known actor, and in conjunction with him appeared in 1802 in amateur theatricals at the Berwick Street private theatre. His next employment was as a clerk to Windus & Holloway, attorneys, Chancery Lane. In 1806 and following years he acted at Cranbrook, Southend, Canterbury, Brighton, and Rochester. At Southend, where he remained some time, he acquired a complete knowledge of his profession. His comic singing rendered him a favourite, and being extremely thin he was satirically known as ‘Fat Jack.’ From 1812 to 1814 he was in the north of England, but obtaining an engagement from Samuel John Arnold, he came to London and made his first public appearance in the metropolis on 15 July 1815 at the English Opera House as Marcelli in the ‘Devil's Bridge.’ His reception was favourable, and in Mingle, Leatherhead, Rattle, and Pedrillo he increased his reputation as an actor and singer. On 16 Sept. 1815 he was first seen in Drury Lane Theatre, and acted Lissardo in the ‘Wonder.’ As John Bannister had retired from the stage, Harley not only succeeded to his parts, but had also to take the characters which would have fallen to him in the new pieces; he consequently was continually before the public and played the comic heroes of all the operas. His voice was a counter-tenor, he had a considerable knowledge of music with a correct ear, and he executed cadenzas with grace and effect. Bannister, with whom he was on the most intimate terms, when dying in 1836 gave him his Garrick mourning ring and his Shakespearean jubilee medal. At Drury Lane, with occasional summer excursions to the provinces and engagements at the Lyceum, where he for some time was stage-manager, Harley remained until Braham opened the St. James's Theatre, 14 Dec. 1835, when he joined the company at that house. He soon returned to his old quarters at Drury Lane; he was with W. C. Macready at Covent Garden in 1838, and afterwards with Madame Vestris and Charles Mathews when they opened the same establishment two years later. He was with Alfred Bunn at Drury Lane from 1841 to 1848, and finally, when Charles Kean attempted to restore the fortunes of the legitimate drama at the Princess's Theatre in 1850, Harley became a permanent member of the company. He was master and treasurer of the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund after the retirement of Edmund Kean in 1833. In humour and versatility he almost equalled Bannister. In 1816, when ‘Every Man in his Humour’ was revived in order that Edmund Kean might play Kitely, Harley sustained the part of Bobadil, and was thought the best exponent of the character that had appeared since Woodward. In the Shakespearean clowns he had a rich natural humour peculiar to himself. Not even Munden or Liston excited more general merriment. On Friday, 20 Aug. 1858, he acted Lancelot Gobbo at the Princess's Theatre; as he reached the wings on going off the stage he was seized with paralysis, and being removed to his residence, 14 Upper Gower Street, London, died there on 22 Aug. His last words were a quotation from the ‘Midsummer Night's Dream,’ ‘I have an exposition of sleep come upon me.’ He was buried at Kensal Green cemetery on 28 Aug. Eccentric and thrifty to all outward appearance, he died penniless. He had a passion for collecting walking-sticks, canes, &c., and after his death more than three hundred varieties were included in the sale of his personal effects.

[Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, 1825, i. 69–77, with portrait; Theatrical Inquisitor, September 1815, pp. 163–4, with portrait; British Stage, July 1821, pp. 201–2, with portrait; Cumberland's British Theatre, 1828, xiv. 7–8, with portrait, and xviii. 6–7, with portrait; Actors by Daylight, 5 May 1838, pp. 73–5, with portrait; Metropolitan Mag. October 1836, pp. 126–31; Dramatic Mirror, 14 April 1847, p. 5, with portrait; Theatrical Times, 4 Dec. 1847, p. 377, with portrait; Valentine's Behind the Curtain, 1848, pp. 38–42; Tallis's Drawing-Room Table Book, part xiv. June 1852, with portrait; Illustrated London News, 27 March 1858, p. 321, with portrait; Era, 29 Aug. 1858, pp. 9, 10; Illustrated News of the World, 4 Sept. 1858, pp. 145, 147, with portrait; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 13 Sept. 1879, pp. 629–30, with portrait; Planché's Extravaganzas, 1879, ii. 63, with portrait; Stirling's Old Drury Lane, 1881, ii. 115; Cole's Life of Charles Kean, 1860, ii. 12, 307–12; Pollock's Macready's Reminiscences, 1876, pp. 254, 282, 376, 377.]

G. C. B.