19th Century Dramatists and Composers

Sir Walter Scott 1st Baronet, FRSE 1771 – 1832

Walter Scott was born in 1771 at College Wynd, Edinburgh. He was the ninth child of Walter Scott, Writer to the Signet, and Anne Rutherford.  Scott's father was heir to a junior branch of the Scotts, a bellicose and litigious clan who since the tenth century had played a prominent role in the warfare and internecine strife of the Border region. On his mother's side, he descended from the Haliburtons of Newmains who brought to the Scott family the hereditary right of burial in Dryburgh Abbey.

Walter senior was the first of his family to move to Edinburgh and to follow a profession. His own father, Robert, had directed him toward the Law, calculating that a Border lawyer should make a healthy living out of his countrymen's interminable private feuds. He enjoyed considerable success, rising to the position of senior partner in the firm in which he served his apprenticeship.

As a Writer to the Signet, he was at the pinnacle of the sollicitor's calling in Scotland with the privilege of appearing before the Court of Session. Scott's father was a strict Calvinist, scrupulously honest in his professional life, and rigid in his educational principles. In April 1758, he had married Anne Rutherford, eldest daughter of John Rutherford, Professor of Medicine in the University of Edinburgh. On her father's side, Anne Rutherford descended from a clan of Border warriors and reivers, celebrated in many a family legend. Her mother's family, the Swintons, was one of the oldest in Scotland and claimed descent from the Earls of Douglas.

In his early months, the young Walter proved a robust, lively child but at the age of eighteen months he contracted polio, which would leave him lame for the rest of his life. He was sent to his grandfather's home at Sandyknowe in the Borders to see whether fresh air and exertion would mend his health.  Located 30 miles southeast of Edinburgh in Roxburghshire, Sandyknowe belonged to Walter Scott's grandparents Robert and Barbara Scott. Here his grandmother would entertain him with tales of Border warfare between the Scots and the English and stories of his own family's struggles during the civil and religious turmoil of 17th- and 18th-century Scotland.

In January 1775 his grandfather died, and Scott returned to Edinburgh. His stay in the Borders had improved his health, and he was now able to walk with the aid of a small staff. Nonetheless, in the summer of 1775 he was sent, accompanied by Aunt Jenny, to Bath, where it was hoped that the waters might aid his lameness. He spent a year in the spa town, returning to Edinburgh the following summer with a marked English accent. Although Scott had continued to grow stronger in Bath, there had been no improvement in his leg.  A further unsuccessful water cure was attempted at Prestonpans in summer 1777 until, after a final winter at Sandyknowe, his father was persuaded that Scott's lameness was irremediable but his health sufficiently strong to permit him to begin school in Edinburgh.

On his return from Sandyknowe, Scott was privately educated in preparation for the High School of Edinburgh, which he entered in October 1779. Scott initially felt at something of a disadvantage, for although he was a year older than most of his classmates, his knowledge of Latin, the staple of the school's curriculum, was markedly inferior. Soon, however, he had bridged the gap and became a competent if never brilliant scholar.

Scott thought his first-year tutor Luke Fraser something of a pedant. He took much greater pleasure in learning when in 1780 he entered the class of the rector, Dr Alexander Adam (1741-1809). With Adam's encouragement, the young Scott translated Horace and Virgil into English verse and made his first attempts at original composition.  His father had also engaged a private tutor, James Mitchell, to teach him arithmetic and writing (not part of the High School's curriculum). Mitchell, a fiery defender of the Kirk, found time to verse Scott in church history and in the travails of the Covenanters.

Before sending him to college, his parents decided that he should spend half-a-year with his Aunt Jenny in Kelso building up his constitution. He was to keep up his Latin while at Kelso by attending the local Grammar School,   Here he made one of the most significant friendships of his life, meeting James Ballantyne, his future business-partner and printer of his major works.

In November 1783, Scott was called home to study classics at Edinburgh University. At only twelve years old, he was a year or so younger than most of his classmates. An initial sense of inferiority was heightened by his ignorance of Greek. With overpopulated lecture-rooms, no tutorials, and uninspiring teaching, there was little hope of him catching up with his peers. Scott initially spent two years at the College, interrupted by an illness necessitating a further stay at Kelso. Then in March 1786, he began his apprenticeship to the profession of Writer to the Signet in his father's office.

[Text based on biographical information in The Walter Scott Digital Archive, University of Edinburgh and other published sources.]


Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), 1822 by Sir Henry Raeburn(1756-1823).  oil on canvas, 762x635 mm.  Original in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.  magnify  [Image in the public domain.]    

Portrait of Sir Walter Scott and his dogs 1820s by Henry Raeburn (1756–1823), Oil on canvas.   Private collection   magnify  [This version of the image in the public domain.]


Michael William Balfe 1808 - 70

Born in Dublin in 1808, Michael William Balfe is remembered today as one of the most successful composers of English operas in the 19th century.

His father was a dancing master, and the younger Balfe began his musical studies at an early age. A polonaise that he composed and scored for full orchestra was performed in Dublin when he was just 7 years old, and he played the violin in public for the first time at the age of 10. After his father died, he moved to England, where he played at concerts and in the Drury Lane orchestra while he continued his studies under various masters.

With the help of wealthy patrons, he moved to Italy for further study, and later to Milan, where his first dramatic composition had its début. It was in Europe that he began to develop his fine baritone voice, which was good enough to impress Rossini. The famous composer secured for Balfe an engagement at the Théatre des Italiens in Paris, where he sang Figaro and other leading roles.

Later he travelled again to Italy, where he continued to compose and sang in a variety of productions. Returning to London in 1833, he found fame with the success of his opera, The Siege of Rochelle, which opened at the Drury Lane Theatre Royal on October 29, 1835. Balfe's musical celebrity was assured with the nearly equal success of his next drama, The Maid of Artois. In 1838 the Italian Opera honoured him with a commission; the work he produced, Falstaff, was considered by many at the time to be his masterpiece.

However, Balfe's greatest triumph came in 1843 with The Bohemian Girl at Drury Lane, where it played for over 100 nights. Translated into French, German, and Italian (La Zingara), Swedish, Croat, and Russian, the opera drew huge audiences throughout Europe and the Americas. Several of the arias from this work, including the ballads 'When Other Lips' and 'I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls,' soon became popular concert pieces.

Balfe also wrote non-dramatic ballads (By Killarney's Lakes was one of the most popular) as well as several ;art songs; and musical settings for poems by Tennyson and Longfellow. Come into the Garden, Maud, in particular, became a famous tenor show song. In the centre of the entrance foyer of the Drury Lane Theatre Royal there stands a large statue of Michael Balfe. The Victorian Web features a comprehensive overview of Balfe and his work.

Retiring in 1864, Balfe continued to compose music to the end of his life. He died at his country estate in Hertfordshire in 1870.

[Text based on the James Joyce website and other sources in the public domain.]


Michael William Balfe (1808-70), composer and singer. by Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870). Graphite and wash on paper, 190 x 162 mm. Purchased, Dublin, Mrs. A. Catterson Smith, 1912. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.  magnify    [Image in the public domain.]

Isaac Pocock 1782 – 1835

Isaac Pocock 1782 – 1835 was an English dramatist and painter of portraits and historical subjects.  He wrote melodramas, farces and light operatic comedies, many of his works being adapted for stage from existing novels.

Born in Bristol in 1782, the eldest son of Nicholas Pocock, a marine painter, and Ann Evans (daughter of John Evans of Bristol). Around 1798, Isaac became a pupil of George Romney, and, after Romney's death in 1802, studied under Sir William Beechey.

Between 1800 and 1805 Pocock exhibited subject-pictures and portraits at the Royal Academy, London, and occasionally showed portraits there during the next fifteen years. In 1807 his ‘Murder of St. Thomas à Becket’ was awarded a prize of £100 by the British Institution. In 1812 Pocock became a member of the Liverpool Academy, and exhibited both oils and water-colours there. His last historical painting was an altar-piece for a new chapel at Maidenhead.

In 1818 Pocock inherited some property at Maidenhead, and after this time devoted himself to writing dramas. For some time he lived in London, and served in the Royal Westminster Volunteers, rising to the rank of Major. Afterwards, he became a Justice of the Peace (JP) and Deputy Lieutenant (DL) for Berkshire, and was an active magistrate.

Pocock died at Ray Lodge, Maidenhead, in August 1835, and was buried in the family vault at Cookham.

[Text based on Dictionary of National Biography and other sources in the public domain.]


Rob Roy
Rob Roy MacGregor : or, Auld Lang Syne
; an operatic play, in three acts, by Pocock, I. (Isaac), 1782-1835,Davy, John, 1763-1824, Scott, Walter, Sir, 1771-1832. Rob Roy, is a replication of a book originally published before 1810.  Link  {Image in the public domain.]

Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM 1860 – 1937

James Matthew Barrie was born in May, 1860 in Kirriemuir, the son of weaver David Barrie and his wife Margaret Ogilvy.

Barrie attended school in Kirriemuir, going on to attend the Academies in Glasgow Forfar and Dumfries before entering Edinburgh University, where he gained his degree of Master of Arts in 1882. While a student he had articles published in newspapers, encouraging him to take up a job as a writer with the Nottingham Journal; in 1885 he moved to London.

Barrie was successful as a freelance writer and was soon bringing in a modest income. Auld Licht Idyls, stories based on life in Kirriemuir, fictionalised as `Thrums’, and partly about his mother's religious observance, was first printed in 1888 and soon became popular. Other titles in the `Thrums’ series are A Window in Thrums (1889) and The Little Minister (1891); Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900) followed.

In 1894 Barrie married actress Mary Ansell, and they honeymooned in Switzerland where they acquired a St. Bernard puppy, which would later inspire the character Nana in Peter Pan. They had no children of their own, but a few years later, while out strolling in Kensington Gardens, Barrie met and became good friends with the Llewelyn Davies family. He entertained their five sons with stories, basing his characters, including Peter Pan, on them. He would later become guardian to the children when they were orphaned.

Other plays by Barrie are his parody Ibsen’s Ghosts (1891); Quality Street and The Admirable Crichton, both of which were first performed in 1902; What Every Woman Knows (1908); Dear Brutus (1917), a play in 3 acts; and The Boy David (1936).

Barrie was knighted in 1913 and the same year he became Rector of St. Andrews University where he delivered his famous address on 'courage’. In 1922 he received the Order of Merit, and in 1928 became President of the Society of Authors.

Barrie died on 19 June, 1937 and was interred in the Kirriemuir cemetery alongside his parents, sisters, and brother David.

[Text based on biographical material prepared by C.D. Merriman and other published sources.]

Links with Ayrshire:

In Ayr, the Compass Club performed The Admirable Crichton at the Civic Theatre in 1960 and Mary Rose at the Civic Theatre in 1981. 


Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM (1860 – 1937, (1902)
by George Charles Beresford 1864-1938. vintage print, 151 mm x 108 mm Original in The National Portrait Gallery, London. Given by Miss G. Toplis, 1939). Magnify   [Image in the Public Domain]

Note:  Auld Licht  -  the conservative party in the Church of Scotland in the latter part of the 18th century.  The more Calvinistic 'Auld Lichts' held to the obligations of the Solemn League and Covenant

'Or I see him setting off to church, for he was a great 'stoop' of the Auld Licht kirk, and his mouth is very firm now as if there were a case of discipline to face, but on his way home he is bowed with pity.'

[From Margaret Ogilvy by Barrie]

George Colman 1762 – 1836, known as "the Younger

George Colman 1762 – 1836, known as "the Younger", was an English dramatist, writer and, latterly, examiner of plays, the son of George Colman "the Elder".

When he was eight years old, young George entered London's Marylebone Seminary, where like all the other pupils he could expect to pass his time pleasantly until he was ready to go on to one of the finer public schools. Educated at Westminster School he went up to Christ Church, Oxford then King's College, Aberdeen before he was entered as a student of law at Lincoln's Inn, London. While in Aberdeen he published a poem satirizing Charles James Fox, called The Man of the People; and in 1782 he produced, at his father's playhouse in the Haymarket, his first play, The Female Dramatist.

In 1784 he contracted a runaway marriage with an actress, Clara Morris, to whose brother David Morris, he eventually disposed of his share in the Haymarket theatre. 

When the failing health of the elder Colman obliged him to relinquish the management of the Haymarket theatre in 1789, young George succeeded him, at a yearly salary of £600. On the death of the father the patent was continued to the son; but difficulties arose when he was involved in litigation with Thomas Harris, and was unable to pay the expenses of the performances at the Haymarket. He was forced to take sanctuary within the Rules of the King's Bench. Here he resided for many years continuing to direct the affairs of his theatre.

Released through the kindness of George IV, who appointed him to the Yeomen of the Guard, a dignity disposed of by Colman to the highest bidder.  He was made examiner of plays by the Duke of Montrose, then Lord Chamberlain. This office, to the disgust of all contemporary dramatists, to whose manuscripts he was as illiberal as he was severe, he held till his death. Although his own productions were open to charges of indecency and profanity, he was so severe a censor of others that he would not pass even such words as 'heaven,' 'providence' or 'angel.'

Colman's comedies are a curious mixture of genuine comic force and sentimentality.  A collection of them was published (1827) in Paris, with a life of the author, by JW Lake.  Many of the leading parts in his plays were written especially for Mrs Gibbs (née Logan), whom he was said to have secretly married after the death of his first wife.

He died in October 1836 in Brompton, London, at the age of 73.

[Text based, in part, on material in the Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) and other sources in the public domain.]


George Coleman the younger esq. 1762 – 1836, engraved by William Ridley 1764-1838 from an original by Samuel Drummond 1766 - 1844. Published by J. Asperne, London, 1809. Original in the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Magnify    [This image in the public domain.]

Scott in the Theatre

There were at least five adaptations of Sir Walter Scott's novel, Rob Roy. in the 1800's.

Baillie Nicol Jarvie

Mr Mackay, alluded in feeling terms to all the kindnesses shown to him by Sir Walter Scott: 'Had he never written, I never should have been noticed as an actor . . . .

Letter from Sir Walter Scott to Daniel Terry (January, 1818).

You have by this time the continuation of the drama, down to the commencement of the third act, as I have your letter on the subject of the first. You will understand that I only mean them as sketches . . .

Letter from Sir Walter Scott to Daniel Terry (September, 1813).

“I have lacked your assistance, my dear sir, for twenty whimsicalities this autumn. Abbotsford, as you will readily conceive, has considerably changed its face  .  .   .

Letter from Sir Walter Scott to Daniel Terry (January, 1816).

I have been shockingly negligent in acknowledging your repeated favours; but it so happened, that I have had very little to say, with a great deal to do .   .   .;

Fanny Kemble takes Breakfast with Sir Walter Scott

Among the delightful occurrences of last week, I must record our breakfasting with Walter Scott.

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