Singers and Musical Personalities ~ Thomas John Dibdin 1771 - 1841

1.  dibden

Thomas John Dibdin 1771 - 1841

1.    Thomas John Dibdin (1771-1841), Actor and dramatist; illegitimate son of Charles Dibdin. Copper engraving with stipple by Henry Meyer, after Samuel Drummond from The European Magazine and London Review. [Image in the public domain.]

Thomas John Dibdin 1771 - 1841 was English dramatist and song-writer, son. of Charles Dibdin, the song-writer, and of Mrs Davenet, an actress whose real name was Harriet Pitt.

He was apprenticed to his maternal uncle, a London upholsterer, and later to William Rawlins, later sheriff of London. He summoned his second master unsuccessfully for rough treatment; and after a few years of service he ran away to join a company of country players. From 1789 to 1795 he played a variety of parts; he acted as scene painter at Liverpool in 1791.

At the start of the 19th century, Dibdin contributed a very large number of comedies, operas, farces, etc., to the public entertainment. Some of these brought immense popularity to the writer and immense profits to the theatres. It is stated that the pantomime of Mother Goose (1807) produced more than £20,000 for the management at Covent Garden theatre, and the High-mettled Racer, adapted as a pantomime from his fathers play, £18,000 at Astleys.

Dibdin was prompter and pantomime writer at Drury Lane until 1816, when he took the Surrey theatre. This venture proved disastrous and he became bankrupt. After this he was manager of the Haymarket, but without his old success, and his last years were passed in comparative poverty.

In 1827 he published two volumes of Reminiscences; and at the time of his death he was preparing an edition of his father's sea songs. Of his own songs The Oak Table and The Snug Little Island are well-known examples.

He died in London on the 16th of September 1841.

Note:  The European Magazine and London Review contained portraits, views, biography, anecdotes and literature; it was published and edited by James Asperne (1757 - 1820) .It was in direct competition with the Gentleman's Magazine. Its founding editor, James Perry soon passed proprietorship to the Shakespearean scholar Isaac Reed and his partners John Sewell and Daniel Braithwaite, who guided the European Magazine during its first two decades .

[Text based on an entry in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.]


2.  Leporello

Thomas John Dibdin 1771 - 1841

2.    Mr. Fitzwilliam 1788-1852 as Leporello in Dibdin's Don Giovanni, 1829. stipple vignette by Thomas Woolnoth b. 1785, printmaker after Wageman. 4 x 3 in. Published by John Cumberland, London.  Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection.  [Image in the public domain.]

Thomas John Dibdin (1771-1841), actor and dramatist, illegitimate son of Charles Dibdin the elder, and younger brother of Charles Isaac Mungo Dibdin, by the same mother, who had taken the name of Mrs. Davenet at Covent Garden Theatre. was born in Peter Street, London in March 1771. One of his godfathers was David Garrick, the other Frank Aiken, one of Garrick's company. His mother was the unmarried sister of Cecil Pitt,

Garrick befriended the family, and showed resentment when they were deserted. Mrs. Siddons led the boy, when four years old, before the audience at Drury Lane, as Cupid in a revival of Shakespeare's ‘Jubilee’ in 1775, she representing Venus. His maternal grandmother, Mrs. A. Pitt, had been a popular actress at Covent Garden. In 1779 he entered the choir of St. Paul's, under the tuition of Mr. Hudson. He was then removed, at his mother's expense, for a year to Mr. Tempest of Half-farthing Lane Academy, Wandsworth; next to Mr. Galland, a Cumberland man, classical scholar and disciplinarian, who taught Virgil - ‘Arma virumque cano,’ which a pupil translated feelingly into ‘With a strong arm and a thick stick.’

He remained three years in the north country, at Durham, was recalled to London, and apprenticed in the city to his maternal uncle, Cecil Pitt of Dalston, upholsterer, but turned over to William Rawlins, afterwards Sir William and sheriff of London, who during four years declared him to be ‘the stupidest hound on earth;’ but who in later years always echoed the newspaper praise of the successful farce-writer by saying, ‘That's a boy of my own, and I always said he was clever!

Thomas had seen many plays acted at Durham, and an acquaintanceship with Jack Palmer, who built the Royalty in 1786, developed his inherited dramatic instinct.  At eighteen he fled to Margate, soon obtaining an engagement with the Dover company at Eastbourne, where he assumed the name of S. Merchant, and made his first appearance as Valentine in O'Keeffe's Farmer, singing ‘Poor Jack,’ his father's ditty. Here he wrote the first of his ‘two thousand ditties’, a hunting song, and his first burletta, Something New, also prospering in scene-painting with Tilbury Fort and the Spanish Armada of 1588 for The Critic. [These expereinces are paralleled by Dicken's Nicholas Nickleby.]

He had adventures with smugglers, and got a better engagement from Gardner of the Canterbury and Rochester circuit. Dibdin acted at Deal, Sandwich, Canterbury, Beverley, Rochester, Maidstone, and Tunbridge Wells. At Beverley he first met Miss Nancy Hillier, a young actress, whom, three years later, he met again at Manchester, and married 23 May 1793. He got a Theatre Royal engagement at Liverpool in 1791, and appeared as Mungo in the Padlock at the opening of a new theatre at Manchester.

[Text based on the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 15; Dibdin, Thomas John by Joseph Woodfall Ebsworth]


3.  Dibdin

4. Mother Goose

Thomas John Dibdin 1771 - 1841

3.    Thomas John Dibdin 1771 - 1841.  Engraving by an unknown artist.  [Image in the public domain.]

4.    Joseph Grimaldi 1778 – 1837 as Mother Goose in the Pantomime Harlequin and Mother Goose by Thomas Dibdin 1806.  Hhand-coloured engraving by George Cruikshank 1792-1878 for Fairburn's Description of the Popular and Comic New Pantomime called Harlequin and Mother Goose, 190 x 117mm.  Published by J. Fairburn, London c.1806 [Image in the public domain.]

Dibdin, as a means of avoiding prosecution following his abandonment of his apprenticeship to Rawlins, acted and wrote his early works under the name of S. Merchant.  However, assured by Rawlins against prosecution, he assumed the name of Dibdin (against the wish of Charles, his father), instead of resuming that of Pitt. He became prompter and joint stage-manager at Sadler's Wells.

Rumour arising of Nelson's victory at the Nile, June 1798, Richard Cumberland advised Dibdin to write a piece on it, with songs, and this was done with wonderful speed and success, as The Mouth of the Nile.

Without being brilliant he was always a conscientious actor, of close study, letter-perfect, and paying attention to costume. On the Kent circuit he never lost ground, and when the mayor of Canterbury visited him in town (at Easter 1804), Dibdin was able to take him round the chief theatres; when at Covent Garden three of his pieces were being acted the same night. An engagement at Covent Garden lasted seven years, and his wife also joined him there, at a smaller salary. George III honoured Dibdin's ‘Birthday’ several times with a bespeak, as well as attending the performance of The Mouth of the Nile.

Dibdin began to traffic in risky investments, theatre shares, joining Colman and David Morris in the Haymarket. This fell through, and he recalled his £4,000 to lose it elsewhere. His opera Thirty Thousand brought him 360 guineas in 1805, soon followed by Nelson's Glory, an unsuccessful farce, The White Plume, and Five Miles Off, on 9 July 1806, which last gave him £375. By evil speculation in a Dublin circus he and his brother Charles lost nearly £2,000, but this loss inspired the wish to have Grimaldi at Covent Garden in his new pantomime Mother Goose, 1807, which brought to the management close on £20,000.

On 20 Sept. 1808 Covent Garden Theatre was burnt to the ground; twenty-three lives were lost; but the proprietors re-opened the opera house with Dibdin's Princess or no Princess, and his Mother Goose had a third run. On 24 Febrruary. 1809 Drury Lane Theatre was burnt, while Dibdin was at a ball close by with his wife. The latter now retired from the stage and went to Cheltenham.

When new Drury Lane was almost finished he was engaged by Arnold on the annual salary of £520 as prompter and writer of the pantomimes. The first of these was Harlequin and Humpo. After the death of Samuel Whitbread, Dibdin was appointed manager at his prompter salary, but saddled with a colleague, Mr. Rae. In 1816 he rashly took the Royal Circus, renamed the Surrey, of which his father had been first manager.

In 1822, Morris offered him the management of the Haymarket at £200. per season.  He scarcely succeeded at the Haymarket; his temper was soured, and he had not his old command of resources. The Surrey and Dublin ventures he had lost over £18,000 and Dibdin became insolvent. He entered into a lawsuit with Elliston, who had dismissed him from Drury Lane, and he quarrelled with D. E. Morris, was arrested and put in prison. Although successful at law, his career was over, the remaining years passing in petty squabbles, inferior work, and discontent.

His ‘Reminiscences’ in 1827 were illustrated with an excellent portrait by Wageman, engraved by H. Meyer. In these volumes he far surpasses the ‘Professional Life’ of his father; Thomas's being, though necessarily egotistical and devoted to theatrical recollections, lively and amusing, full of interesting anecdotes of old companions: on the whole generous to all in the earlier portions, not embittered and abusive like his father's. 

Among his versatile literary employments were A Metrical History of England, 2 vols., 1813 (published at 18s.), begun at Cheltenham in 1809, anticipating G. A. à Beckett's Comic History; Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress metrically condensed, 1834; and Tom Dibdin's Penny Trumpet, a prematurely stifled rival to Figaro in London, four penny numbers, October and November 1832, the least viperous of the many satires in the reform excitement.

[Text based on the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 15; Dibdin, Thomas John by Joseph Woodfall Ebsworth]


Dibdin Anecdotes

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