Actors and Theatre personalities with Scottish Links ~ Henry Erskine Johnson 1777 - 1845

Henry Erskine Johnston was a key figure in the development of theatre in Ayr and elsewhere in Scotland. This series of pages review his role in the early theatres in the Burgh, the subsequent opening of the Theatre Royal, appearances furth of Scotland and in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth.

Henry Erskine Johnston, 1777 - 1845  ~ Timeline

1777 - 1794

Born in May 1977 at Edinburgh, son of a High Street barber.    Reputedly, named after the advocate Henry Erskine, who was a regular patron of Robert Johnston, Henry's father.   (Note:  Kay, in his biographical sketches gives the year of birth as 1774.)

After leaving school, Johnston worked in the office of a Writer to the Signet.  Subsequently, for three years, Johnston worked in the shop of a linen draper.   (Some sources question the reliability of this information.)

Johnston recited Collins' 'Ode on the Passions' for the benefit of a friend.  The performance was noticed by Stephen Kemble who immediately offered an engagement at the Edinburgh Theatre Royal.  

9th July 1794, Johnston appeared at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh under the management of Kemble in the roles of Hamlet and Harlequin.   Gained the soubriquet 'The Edinburgh Roscius' to distinguish him from the Irish actor, John Henry Johnstone.  (Note some sources confuse the two actors; both appeared at patent theatres throughout the British Isles.)


Stephen Kemble gave Johnston his first professional engagement at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, July, 1794.

1794 - 1802

Johnston appeared at various theatres in the Northern Circuit and was a regular player in Edinburgh.  In 1796, he met Miss Nanette Parker, the daughter of the equestrian producer, William Parker.  She became Mrs. Johnston in June, at the age of 15.  The couple had six children. 

Johnstone played twelve nights in Dublin, including seven appearances in Home's Douglas.  Mrs. Johnston made her stage debut in Wedding Day and The Children in the Wood.  Johnston also appears in the English Provinces . 

Engaged to play Young Norval in Douglas at Covent Garden.  First appearance 23rd October 1797.  Praised in the 'European Review' for figure, countenance, and voice, but was said to lack the art to conceal art.

Johnston remained at Covent Garden until the season of 1802, with summer engagements at the Haymarket.  Mrs Johnston plays the roles of Ophelia and Rozullana at Drury Lane, with considerable success.  The couple also appear in Dublin.

With Holman, Johnstone, Fawcett, Pope, Knight, Munden, and Incledon, Johnston signed the famous statement of grievances against the management of Covent Garden, and after the sacrifice of J. G. Holman is said to have owed his re-engagement to the loyalty of Fawcett, who refused to renew his contract without the reinstatement of Johnston.


Portrait of Henry Erskine Johnston (1777–1845), Scottish actor, in the titkle role of Douglas in the play by John Home.  Stipple and line engraving by Edward Mitchell, after Henry Singleton, published 1806.  Orinal in the collection of National Portrait Gallery, London.  [Copyright expired on the original image.]    Johnston played young Norval in Dublin and London in 1796-7.

1803 - 1810

On 15th September, 1803, he made his first appearance at Drury Lane, as Norval in 'Douglas', playing Anhalt in 'Lovers' Vows' on 22nd to the Amelia of his wife. Here he remained two years, playing among other characters Petruchio and Duke Aranza, and returned to Covent Garden 18th October. 1805 as the original Rugantamo, the Bravo of Venice, in Monk Lewis's play of that name.

Johnston was in Edinburgh during the summer of 1805, when he resided at number 9 St James Square. In 1807 and 1808 he acted at Crow Street Theatre Royal in Dublin.

On 4th October, 1808 he wrote to Robert Dundas to apply for the position of manager of the Edinburgh Theatre (letter in the National Library of Scotland.)


The interior of Covent Gatrden Theatre, 1804

1811 - 1816

During this period Johnston managed various theatres: Astley’s Amphitheatre in Dublin, 1811-12, and at Aberdeen, Greenock and Glasgow.  

In May 1812, Johnston appears in Ayr with Mrs Fulton and Miss Treby.

In 1814 Harriet Siddons and William Murray had the lease of the theatre in Perth.  The Siddons sub-let the theatre to Henry Johnston on March 11th, 1814, when that actor gave recitals from Cato, Henry IV., and Collin's 'Ode to the Passions.' The Siddons' lease ran an uneventful course, and there is no mention of other entertainments until October 17th, when the comic opera, The Soldier's Return, was presented.

Theatre Royal in Ayr opens on 30th October 1815.  Johnston is manager and lessee of the Theatre.  He appears with a large company, for a six week season of nightly performances.  Performers include Mason, Tyrie, Lacy, Tayleure, Mackay, Scott, Shaw, Arkin, Andrews, McCann, Bromby and Mrs Bromby, Mrs. Macnamara, Mrs. Tyrie Miss Wallack, Miss O'Keefe, Mrs. Atkins, Miss Atkins.  Meggett, Mrs. Clarke.  Mrs. Garrick, and Mrs Tayleure, are engaged for a few nights. 

As Sir Archy Macsarcasm in 'Love a la Mode' he was seen again at Covent Garden 10th Dececember 1816, 'first appearance there for twelve years.' Sir Pertinax Macsycophant followed, 27th December.


Theatre Royal
Johnston was manager of the company that opened the Theatre Royal, Ayr in October 1815.

1817 - 1823

He was at Drury Lane from 1817-18 through 1820-21, acting such roles as Pierre in Venice Preserv’d and the original Rob Roy in an adaptation from Scott. 

On 10th June 1817 he was the original Baltimore at the English Opera House (the Lyceum) in an operatic version of the 'Election' of Joanna Baillie. At Drury Lane, 9th October 1817, he was Pierre in 'Venice Preserved,' and 25th March 1818 the original Rob Roy Macgregor in Soane's adaptation from Scott.

Divorced in 1820.   He then married Magdalen Johnson.

He subsequently, 3rd July 1821, played at Drury Lane Dougal in Pocork's version of 'Rob Roy Macgregor.' On 24th November 1821 he was at the Olympic the Solitary in 'Le Solitaire, or the Recluse of the Alps.' This seems to have been his last appearance in London. 'The Drama,' ii. 98, commending his performance, speaks of him as almost a recluse from London.

At the beginning of 1823 he became manager of the Caledonian Theatre (as he rechristened a building in Edinburgh previously known as the Circus). He opened on 11th Jananuary 1823 with 'Gilderoy, in which he played the hero, and with an address written by himself. He played Jerry Hawthorn in 'Tom and Jerry, and other parts, but resigned his management 7th April 1823.


Caledonian Theatre, (latterly the Theatre Royal) in Broughton Street, Edinburgh during demolition in 1859.  Henry Erskine Johnston was briefly manager of this theatre in 1823.

1824 - 1845

On 20th October 1830 he played a four nights' engagement at the Caledonian, Edinburgh, after which time he disappears from the Scottish stage.

In 1835, prior to leaving for America, he is in Manchester.

Though his application for an engagement at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia was rejected, Johnston went to America.  He obtained a position at the National Theatre in New York, where he made his American debut on 7th November 1837 as Sir Archy Macsarcasm in Love-à-la Mode. After a few more appearances he returned to London.

Died on 9th February 1845 at his residence in Gillingham Street, Vauxhall Road, London, and was buried in the Lambeth Parish Church.

His widow presented the portrait by Allan of Johnston as Young Norval to the Garrick Club.


[Timeline text based on various sources including Kay, From Old and New Edinburgh by James Grant, The Story of the Scots Stage, by Robb Lawson, Oxberry's 'Dramatic Biography and the National Dictionary of Biography.]

Walnut Street
Drawing of Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia 1830 by Charles Burton. (Original in the Library of Congress.) Johnston sought an engagement here in 1835, without success.

Henry Erksine Johnston at the Theatre Royal Glasgow.

After being closed one month, this theatre was reopened, August 26th, with the tragedy of Douglas . . .

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