Suppose that you had been a Londoner—or a visitor to London—in about the year 1896. And suppose that you were strolling down Tottenham Court Road, which in late Victorian times was far from fashionable. Only twenty years before, that eminent collector of Londiniana, Edward Walford, had described it as a world of lodgings and garrets and attics, a world of wretched poverty which
knows more of the interior of the pawnbroker’s shop and the gin palace than of a club or a church.
Suppose also that you had reason to wander down Whitfield Street, which runs parallel to and west of Tottenham Court Road. Passing no. 111 you might have heard the sound of a piano floating from the window of a room on the third floor. And in all likelihood it would have been the stop-start mechanical playing of a learner, for the occupant of the apartment was an old music teacher. Her name was Louisa Marshall, she was about seventy years of age, and this is her rather sad story.
OFF TO THE THEATRE
Louisa had been born in the autumn of 1825 to a Joseph Marshall, a gold engraver, and his wife Frances Jane. The family lived in Dove Court, off Leather Lane in Holborn. Louisa had an older brother and sister, Joseph and Mary, and two younger brothers, Henry and Alfred. The four eldest children were close in age—only four years separated them—but Alfred had come along a lot later. He was ten years younger than Henry, and in 1842, when he was only three years old, he died. By then the Marshalls were living in Clerkenwell, and it is a reasonable assumption that Joseph, the father, had connections with the clockmaking and watchmaking that the area was known for. He must have been good at his work, for he was able to employ a servant, Emma Johnson, who was the same age as Mary.
We may also be right in guessing that the engraver and his wife enjoyed visits to Sadler’s Wells, which was not even a mile from their home in Dove Court. The reason is that all four children—poor little Alfred did not survive long enough to be included here—went into the theatre. And although our story chiefly concerns Louisa, it concerns her brothers and sister too, and it is to her three siblings that we must first turn.
Joseph and Henry were renowned for their clownish performances, and Mary, assuming the stage name Miss “Polly” Marshall, danced and acted in farces and burlesques. All three were praised by the critics. Mary, for example, “came strongly to the front” as Cupid in a Theseus and Ariadne of 1848, and Joseph and Henry “admirably rendered” their roles in a Voyage Round the Globe of 1854, which whisked the audience of the Haymarket off on a tour of distant lands.
ALL THAT GLITTERS
Alas, it could not last. Polly’s early zest seems to have dwindled once she was out of her twenties, and when she died in 1878 one of her obituarists commented with unintended cruelty that only “old playgoers” would mourn her passing. She had become something of a recluse, although the fact that she shuffled off her mortal coil as “Madame Zerman” suggests that at one time there had been a man in her life. By then Joseph had already been in his grave for five years. At some point in his career he had reinvented himself as a ballet master—theatrical jargon for a trainer of stage choruses—and no doubt he heaved many a sigh of regret for his zany pantalooned performances.
Sadder still was the fate of poor Henry. In his heyday he had been a Drury Lane clown. In 1840 he had appeared in the Midsummer Night’s Dream at Covent Garden in which Madame Vestris started a seventy-five-year fashion for a female Oberon. He had danced at the Princess’s Theatre in Oxford Street. But he could not keep his grip on the icy upper slopes of fame, and he died at the age of sixty-five in a state of abject poverty.
At the time he was living in the St Giles’s Mission House, a refuge for discharged prisoners near Drury Lane in Little Wild Street. One wonders what sort of trouble he had got into, although there can be little doubt that drink featured alongside his other problems, for the cause of his death was a haemorrhage from a diseased liver. The inquest discovered a stash of letters from the leading stage managers, in one of which Drury Lane offered Henry five pounds a week for his services as a pantomime clown, and really one could not have invented a more moving final scene than that of the broken old actor clinging on to the yellowing memories of happier days. The final curtain falls, and there is hardly a dry eye in the house.
The letters also shed a little light on Louisa’s early life, for they show that she was engaged to appear with Henry at Drury Lane, she as a Columbine and he as a Clown. Indeed, more often than not she was a satellite of one of her more luminous siblings. In particular she tagged along with her sister, an unequal relationship that was reflected with a sort of tragic irony in the nature of Mary’s death. She had been ill for some time with a heart condition. All the while Louisa cared for her, and at the funeral in Putney Vale Cemetery she walked behind the coffin as her sister made her final exit. The coffin was strewn with beautiful flowers, little clusters of colour beneath a grey November sky. With Louisa were brother Henry and an unnamed cousin, and two close friends. Loyal to Mary they may well have been, but the house was not exactly full.
Louisa too had a life of ups and downs. When she was about thirty, and was working at Drury Lane, she was robbed. The robber, a charwoman by the name of Ann Kirby, stole a dress worth two shillings from the dressing-room, and was sentenced to six weeks with hard labour for her pains. However, Louise fared better the following year, when she received an invitation to perform in America. Naturally she played second fiddle to Mary in this adventure, and in the late summer of 1856 the sisters sailed from Liverpool on the SS Atlantic, a steamer belonging to the Collins Line. This must have been a thoroughly unnerving experience, for the Atlantic’s sister ship the Pacific had disappeared without trace on the same crossing and in the same year. But their reward for enduring the notoriously uncomfortable crossing was employment in the company of William Evans Burton—“Billy” to his friends—an expatriate Londoner who had established a theatre in New York. They made a successful debut in December 1856, although inevitably it was Mary who took the city by storm.
The fifties really were Louisa’s best years, both professionally and personally. While in New York she fell in with an actor, and, although the details are far from clear, she agreed to marry him. At any rate, when she and Mary returned to England she called herself Madame Angelo, offstage at least. As she does not appear as a married woman in any reliable documented source, the natural conclusion is that her other half had died.
MEMBERS OF THE CAST
In the years that followed the American interlude Louisa got her name into the newspapers now and then. In 1864 she was a member of the professional company, owned by a George Vining, which teamed up with a troop of histrionic amateurs from the St George’s Rifle Corps to stage a burlesque at The Princess’s Theatre in Oxford Street. The piece was called Boots at the Swan, and it is hard to imagine what it must have been like, although the Era critic was gallant enough to observe that the performance “gained immeasurably” from the participation of the professionals. The ubiquitous Mary was given a decent review—her Pippo brought “utmost credit” to her and bestowed “undoubted benefit” on her fellow actors—whereas poor Louisa was merely a member of the cast.
In 1866 she was at the Theatre Royal in Portsmouth, again with Mary, and it was only really Mary’s final bow that allowed Louisa a share of the limelight. A late mention in the Surrey Advertiser in 1879, when she would have been in her fifties, had her playing in a one-act farce at a Shrove Tuesday evening of entertainment at what was then the Brookwood Asylum in Woking. The entertainment was well received, and it was not without its sad irony, as will become clear at the end of our story.
LAST OF THE MARSHALLS
And so we return to the point where we started, for Louisa, getting on in years, retired to lodgings off the Tottenham Court Road. She lived at 111 Whitfield Street from about 1892, when she was in her late sixties. Like Henry, she became a recluse.
Her landlord was a man by the name of Henry John Livens. He was a sign writer by trade, in his mid-fifties, and married to a woman called Emily. He had many a conversation with the ageing actress over the four years he knew her. She told him often about the Marshalls, lacing her account with anecdotes of the smell-of-the-greasepaint variety. “I am the last of the Marshalls” she would say.
And so Louisa eked out the final years of her life, wrapping round her the warm memories of her glory days. She had an old-fashioned piano in her room, and she gave lessons, drawing on familiar skills. She had a quantity of theatrical costumes, which, designed for the dressing-room with all its air of fantasy and laughter, must have seemed oddly out of place in the sadness of a lodging house. She kept them in the same way that she kept her past. But she had no real use for them now.
THE END OF THE LINE
And so the lonely weeks and months passed and one year became the next. Louisa seemed to be keeping pace with the century as it neared its end. One Wednesday morning in the late summer of 1896, soon after rising, she felt suddenly unwell. She slumped down across the bed, suffering the effects of a cerebral haemorrhage. How long it took her to die cannot possibly be known, but as she faded away, as the limelight grew dim for the last time, she might have been aware of sounds outside her door. Mr Livens, concerned not to have seen or heard her since the day before, was knocking at the door, and calling her name.
There was an inquest. As she had no known relatives, the coroner ruled that her few possessions should be sold, and the proceeds handed over to the parish to pay for her burial. But her old piano and her costumes were worth very little. Her worldly goods amounted to fifty shillings at most.
She was buried in the London Necropolis, the great cemetery at Brookwood in Woking, where she had acted in the Shrove Tuesday entertainment so many years before. Near the entrance from the railway station—the end of the line that had its terminus at Waterloo—was an area reserved for members of the acting profession. Poor Louisa’s burial might have been paid for by the Dramatic and Musical Sick Fund had she ever subscribed. In the end, though, the Fund covered the costs, a generous gesture that was, if you like, a tribute paid to a once much-loved star of the stage as the curtain finally fell.
© london-overlooked 2020
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