Actors, Musicians and Theatre Personalities with Scottish Links ~ William Henry Wood Murray 1790 - 1852


William Henry Wood Murray, 1790 - 1852

William Henry Murray as George Heriot, 1823. Engraving by W. H. Lizars. 3 1/8 x 4 inches. Publisher James L. Huie.  Description Whole-length portrait, wearing ruff, cape, cap, striped breeches and doublet. Architectural background.  {Image in the public domain.]

When Sir Walter Scott was preparing for the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 he drew on Murray's expertise for the management of events. Murray created the settings at various venues, contrived the 'revived ancient dresses' and arranged the 'traditional' pageants. He was particularly acclaimed for his success in transforming the Assembly Rooms in George Street into a theatrical palace for the Peers' Grand Ball, an event that was pivotal in making the tartan kilt which had been thought of as the primitive dress of mountain thieves into the national dress of the whole of Scotland.

William Henry Wood Murray and Sir Walter Scott

Scott was a patron and outspoken friend of the drama (as a young advocate, in 1794, he fought in a riot at the Theatre Royal sparked off when some members of the audience refused to stand for the National Anthem). More importantly, Scott's historical novels offered new possibilities for adaptation to the theatre. A play that was unambiguously about the modern political situation in Scotland would have been heavily censored, but a play based on a novel about the Jacobite risings could escape censorship on the grounds that it was just based on fiction. This allowed for the possibility of a national drama that could reflect on Scotland through the medium of literature.

The Edinburgh Theatre Royal benefited in this period from having good managers. The actors Henry Siddons and Hariet Siddons led the theatre from 1809 until Henry's death in 1815, and thereafter it was run by his wife and her brother William Murray, Murray remaining in charge until 1851.

It was under Murray, in 1819, that the astonishing success of the stage adaptation of Scott's Rob Roy made the theatre relatively rich. With Charles ('the real') Mackay playing Bailie Nicol Jarvie, this good-humoured adaptation saw Scotland starting to come to terms with its history of civil war and social division.

When George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, he ordered a performance of Rob Roy at the Theatre Royal, which took place on August 27, 1822. It was a triumphant success and placed the Theatre Royal at the centre of the Scottish cultural revival.

After Murray's retirement in 1851, the theatre fell on harder times, and the railway network encouraged a drain of talent to London. Scott was not followed by a host of keen new Scottish writers, and the theatre had to rely on endless revivals of the Waverley novels. In 1859, the government purchased the old Theatre Royal building to make way for the Post Office. Although several new Theatre Royals were to be built in Edinburgh, its golden age ended with the closure of the old premises on May 25, 1859.

The National Library of Scotland has a very good collection of playbills advertising performances and events at the Theatre Royal, from 1807 to 1851, bound in chronological order. The collector – currently not identified – frequently writes on the playbills which shows he/she saw, who else was there and how much he/she paid for entry.

Playbills were printed on one side of a sheet of paper so they could easily be stuck up on a wall. Normally, they carried details of the main performance, the names of the star actors, and the title of any sub-performances or songs to follow the main show.

The National Library of Scotland has digitised a selection of their early playbills, starting from 1807, omitting only damaged and near-duplicate copies, to give a picture of the activities of Scotland's leading theatre in the early 19th century.

Based on Findlay, Bill (ed.), A History of Scottish Theatre, 1998. and Dibdin, James C. Annals of the Edinburgh Stage, Edinburgh, 1888



William Henry Wood Murray, 1790 - 1852

William Henry Murray as Christiern in "Gustavus Vasa"(1806).   Dimensions 2 7/8 x 4 1/4 inches. Etching by Howard Pye.  Published by Longmans.  Description Battle scene with swords drawn, horses, armour. With text: Christiern -- "Vengeance' he cried, and with one eager hand grip'd fast my diadem."   From Collection Portraits of Actors, 1720-1920, University of Illinois Library.  [This image in the public domain.]

The Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Square, Edinburgh

For Scott the remainder of the Waverley dramas followed upon the heels of the success of Rob Roy, with excellent pecuniary results, financial troubles having now ceased.  As an instance of the popularity of Rob Roy, it is worthy of mention that, up till 1851, it had been acted about four hundred times at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, and there is a record of its having had a fifty nights' run with Ryder's company at Perth in 1829.

It was Rob Roy which George the Fourth chose for interpretation on his visit to Edinburgh in 1822, when it was played by command at the Theatre Royal on 27th August. The occasion was a memorable one and spoke volumes for the loyalty of the Edinburgh citizens. In the early morning, the audience commenced to assemble at the doors, and at the opening hour it was feared the tremendous crush might end in a serious loss of life. But the good sense of the crowd asserted itself, and everyone managed to enter the theatre in safety. As a record of the period says:—'All the wealth, rank, and beauty of Scotland filled the boxes, and the waving of tartan plaids and plumed bonnets produced hurricanes of acclamation long before the arrival of the King, who occupied a species of throne in the centre box, and behind him stood the Marquis of Montrose, the Earl of Fife, and other nobles. At his entrance the entire audience joined the orchestra in the ' National Anthem.' '

Many leading actors came to the old Theatre Royal in Shakespeare Square while under the management of Harriet Siddons and her brother William Murray. Here Vandenhoff the elder (circa 1825) appeared as Sir Giles Overreach, and as Sir William Wallace in The Baffle of Falkirk; Denham, who played James VI. to Murray's "Jingling Geordie"; Mrs. Renaud, tragedienne; Mrs. Nicol as leading old lady; Miss Paton; and Miss Noel. The scene painter was David Roberts, and the leader of orchestra, T. Fraser.

The twenty-one year lease taken by Mrs. Henry Siddons expired in 1830, when she gave a farewell performance as Lady Townley in The Provoked Husband. After this, she retired into private life, carrying with her "the good wishes of all in Edinburgh, for many had recognised in her not merely the accomplished actress, but the good mother, the refined lady, and the irreproachable member of society."

Her brother, William Murray, leased the house for another twenty-one years, retiring in 1851 after a period of indifferent success. Lloyd, the comedian, Robinson, and Leslie had a spell of management, but, failing to make the theatre a paying concern, it fell into the hands of R. H. Wyndham. The last-named, a gentleman by birth and education, came to Edinburgh in 1845 in support of Helen Faucit. He had previously managed the Adelphi, until its destruction in 1853, when he assumed the reins at the Theatre Royal, and under his able conduct it speedily became one of the best known houses in the three kingdoms. As an actor, he was at his best in light comedy. Mrs. Wyndham played with distinction such parts as Peg Woffington, Mrs. Haller, and Lady Macbeth.

Under Wyndham's regime, all the leading members of the profession appeared, including also the Italian operatic stars.  Here are some names picked at random from a long and interesting list. Kean, Helen Faucit, Paul Bedford, Wright, J. L. Toole, Gustavus Brooke, Madame Celeste, Alf Wigan, Mrs. Stirling, Sothern, Mesdames Ristori, Titiens, Mario, and Guiglini.

The first dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical fund, instituted for the relief of decayed actors, took place in February, 1827. It is rendered all the more memorable from the fact that it is asserted that there Sir Walter Scott avowed himself the author of the Waverley Novels.



William Henry Wood Murray, 1790 - 1852

William Henry Wood Murray, Edinburgh 1848. Artist Unknown.

Murray retired from the stage in 1851.  He was in poor health, and, as he said thoroughly tired of the profession and everything connected with it. His private theatrical wardrobe he gave away; and, it is believed that he had burnt every document reminding him of his long connection with the boards, including a beautifully-kept and interesting diary, extending over twenty-one years.

Murray left Edinburgh, and, with his wife and family, went to reside at St Andrews, a favourite resort of his, where he used frequently to spend his holidays when he did not go to London. There he died, very suddenly, on the 5th of May, 1852, not a year from the date of his retiral.

Major Sir Hugh Playfair spoke of Murray's time in St Andrews:

"From the time he came to settle in St Andrews we had become very intimate; and that night he died, he and Mrs Murray were at a small party here. We had some music, and then to supper, after which I ventured to ask him if he would kindly sing us his old song - which no one could sing like him! -'The Fine old Country Gentleman.' - I never saw him in such excellent spirits before; and he consented at once. He got on as usual, until the verse:-

'But time, though old, is strong in flight,
And years went swiftly by:
And autumn's falling leaf foretold
The old man he must die;
He laid him down, and tranquilly
Gave up life's latest sigh, &c'

Just at the words - 'He laid him down,' poor Murray seemed all at once to be choking with emotion. He burst into tears, put his handkerchief to his eyes, and buried his face in it. We never spoke and, after a little, he turned to Mrs Murray and said, "Let us go home, my dear." She at once left the room to prepare for going, and returned quickly, saying, "I'm ready, dear."

We shook hands, and they left. About half an hour later I had a message from Mrs Murray, asking me to come to her immediately. I took my hat and started at once, but when I arrived poor Murray was no more! I asked for an explanation of the melancholy case. Mrs Murray told me that after leaving our house they walked on very slowly, Mr Murray being unusually silent, until getting within about twenty yards of their own door. Then he let go of her arm, hurriedly walked on by himself, got up to the door, took out his key, and let himself in. Leaving his hat on the lobby table, he staggered into the dining-room, sank into his easy chair, leaned back, and expired without uttering one word.

And so, said Sir Hugh, I found him. Mr Murray had often expressed a desire to be buried in the old Abbey Churchyard of St Andrews, with his head to the sea. The latter was a passion with him, and he had once said, "After I am gone - and could such a thing be permitted by my Maker - I should like to hear the sea breaking against the rocks away down below my grave."

With these ideas, he had almost immediately, after settling in St Andrews, acquired a piece of ground in just the site he desired, close to the south wall of the churchyard overlooking the broad bay of St Andrews, which he loved so well to gaze upon. There we laid him, and soon afterwards the spot was marked by a tombstone.

[Recollections of Horatio Lloyd]



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