Henry Erskine Johnston (1777-1845)   ~  Incidents and Events in a Professional Life

Henry Erskine Johnston and others challenge the Covent Garden Management

Actors' 'rebellions' against what they regarded as tyrannical management were an occasional but notable feature of London theatre in the eighteenth century.

After the 1747 dispute, the fourth in the 18th century, both patent theatres paid their performers in full the salaries they were owed by contract. During the second half of the century actors sometimes grumbled, but mostly accepted their lot. The alternative was Dublin, the provinces, or strolling--none of which had much appeal for anyone who could get work in London. During the season of 1799-1800, however, the imposition of some new rules by the Covent Garden management generated a drawn-out effort to force their abandonment.

To the Theatre historian, the importance of this episode in London theatre history lies more in the evidence of company rules and operational norms than in results. The actors publicly challenged policies laid down by management, appealed to the Lord Chamberlain for redress, and lost their case. At issue were such matters as the amount of the house charge deducted from benefit receipts, rights to roles (and to refuse roles), the 'sick clause' under which management held the power to withhold salary from a performer who claimed to be too ill to perform, and the alleged right of actors to issue free 'orders' of admission to the theatre. All of these are important parts of the working conditions for late eighteenth-century actors.

In February 1800, a seventy-seven page pamphlet, A Statement of the Differences subsisting between the Proprietors and Performers of the Theatre-Royal, Covent-Garden was published. One of the subscribers was Henry Erskine Johnston who was under contract to the theatre that season: he was engaged jointly with his wife.  One issue was the amount that the theatre deducted from benefit income to cover running costs of the theatre.  The actors published details of their income for that years to support their arguments.  Details of Johnston's Earnings are shown below.

Henry Erskine Johnston and Mrs Johnston: Remuneration for the season at Covent Garden in 1798-99.
Reported Performer joint Salary:
Mr H. Johnston and Mrs H Johnston
Reported Performer Benefit Receipt:
Mr H. Johnston
£334 3s 6d gross      £190 10s 0d net
Mrs H. Johnston £401 15s Od gross   £258 1s 6d net
Performer Charges deducted by management
from benefit receipts:
£143 13s 6d

Apparent Total of Performer Benefit Net and Salary:
Mr H. Johnston and Mrs H. Johnston

£828 11s 6d

The earnings of Mr and Mrs johnston for the season would equate to a figure between £75,000 and £100,000 at today's value.

Thomas Harris, as majority shareholder and holder of the patents responded to the actors rebellion in a quiet and measured manner.  He appears to have widespread support in the press and his views were largely upheld by the Lord Chamberlain who adjudicated in the dispute.

[Text based on research published by Judith Milhous, City University of New York and Robert D. Hume, Pennsylvania State University.  Theatrical custom versus rights: the performers' dispute with the proprietors of Covent Garden in 1800.   Publication: Theatre Notebook June 1, 2009.]


In the autumn of 1767 Thomas Harris with George Colman the elder, John Rutherford, and William Powell purchased the patent of Covent Garden Theatre from the widow of John Rich.    They acquired the two letters patent and the theatre for £60,000. Harris appears to have been the originator of this partnership. From 1774 until his death in 1820, Harris was the stage manager and represented the proprietors at the time of this dispute.

In September 1768 Rutherford sold two-thirds of his quarter share to Henry Dagge and the remaining one third to James Leake for £18,500

Meanwhile Powell had died suddenly at Bristol in July 1769, and for the next five years Colman remained in effective command of the theatre. He appears to have become reconciled with Harris, but ill health and the death of his wife gradually impaired his vitality, and on 1 July 1774 he sold his quarter share to James Leake, for £20,000.

The management of the theatre now passed to Harris, who retained it, at first absolutely and later in partnership with J. P. Kemble, until his partial retirement in 1809.

Meanwhile Harris was consolidating his holding in Covent Garden, and by 1785 had acquired 46/60 of both the leasehold of the theatre and the two patents, plus a twenty-one-year lease of the remaining 14/60 of the patents.

With possession of a majority holding in the theatre Harris began in 1782 to improve the auditorium, which had hitherto apparently 'not undergone any material alteration, except in the decorations'.    By about 1790, however, a complete renovation had become essential for the preservation of the theatre's competitive position against that of its rivals.

In 1803 Harris, who had by this time been associated with Covent Garden for some thirty six years, sold for £22,000 a one-sixth share of the theatre and the Davenant patent to John Philip Kemble, the actor.
Covent Garden
A picture of the first theatre (drawn shortly before it burned down in 1808) by Thomas Rowlandson 1756–1827 and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819). This engraving was published as Plate 27 of Microcosm of London (1808)

Henry Erskine Johnston in Ayr, October 1812

This notice in the Air Advertiser informs the public of performances at the theatre in Content Street.  This theatre does not have a royal patent and was not affected by the complex rules applicable to patent Theatres.

Morris refers to various premises in Ayr that served as theatres or performances spaces between 1795 and the opening of the New Theatre in 1815.  In 1796, a company gave performances in Ayr in a school-room at the Wallace Tower. Beaumont's company played there in 1802. This company included a very young Edmund Kean.

Beaumont moved in 1809 to the empty Gibb's soapworks beside the main gate of the former Dallbair House.  The next company who occupied the soap-work was managed by Montgomerie and Lacy. The well-known Alexander, of Glasgow Theatre, acted here about this time, as a lad, under the name of Master Middleton.

Henry Erskine Johnston (1777-1845) ran drama there before moving to Content Street, to a building which later became a brass foundry.   The great tragedian, Edmund Kean, appeared at these premises in 1811 and 1812, returning to Ayr for further engagements in later years.  By 1812, there were plans for a new theatre and the Content Street premises were abandoned.

[From the Air Advertiser and West Coast Journal, October 1812, Carnegie Library, Ayr.]


October 1812

Magnify Enlarge this image.

Johnston at Theatre Royal, Glasgow

In 1814, the management of the Queen Street house came into the hands of the ever-popular Harry Johnston.

It was in 1828 that the new star, Charles Kean, came to Glasgow, but he did not meet with an altogether gratifying reception. Coming to personal matters, Charles did not .approve of his father's selection of a disreputable companion, who was living with Kean at Bute.  Meantime, the manager (Johnston), in his desire for good business, hit upon a plan to draw the crowd. He persuaded the elder Kean to accept a one night's engagement, studiously avoiding to tell him that it was for his son's benefit, or that they were playing together. Lee tells the story:

'Kean got into a terrible passion upon making the discovery, and wanted to leave the house; but he was urged not to show spite against his own son, and persuaded to go on. The tragedy was Brutus, Kean playing the title role, and his son, Titus, when the Theatre Royal held the largest audience it had ever seen. In the wings and on the stage itself there were 250 persons. Only when the father was passing out on his way home did he speak. 'I hope to see you, Charles, at Bute to-morrow There will be it crust of bread and cheese for you there.' To which Charles politely replied, 'Thank you, Father,' but never went, going to Belfast instead.'

Five years afterwards, they met on the boards of Covent Garden, Kean appearing as Othello to Charles' Iago. The elder made some friendly advances, and everything went well till the third act, when he came to the celebrated speech, 'Villain,' at which words Kean's voice broke down, and, falling upon his son's shoulder, he whispered, 'Get me off, Charles, I'm dying. Speak for me.' He died two months afterwards at Richmond, 13th May, 1833. Springing out of bed, with the old fire upon him, lie cried, 'A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!' and his last words were taken from the dying speech of Octavia in The Foundling of the Forest. 'Farewell, Flo-Floranthe.'

[From The Story of the Scots Stage.  Chapter VIII - The Glasgow Stage


Edmund Kean as Othello

Charles Kean as Iago in Shakespeare's Othello.   Published by J. Redington, sold by J. Webb, London.

Memorandum Dramatica - Drury Lance

October 1805

October 1 - The non-performance of the Soldier's Return, as advertised (owing to the indisposition of Mr. Johnston) occasioned a violent tumult in the theatre, aggravated, no doubt , by the injudicious hand-bill announcing that Miss Fisher would perform the Spoil'd Child in its stead!!! It was too much to imagine that the performance of a confident little girl like this, would be accepted as a compensation for the absence of Mr. Johnston, Miss De Camp, Mrs Bland, and Mrs Mountain, and the audience expressed their anger and discontent in incessant yells and groans, till the dropping of the curtain. Not a syllable of the farce was heard.

Mr and Mrs Johnston had an overflowing house to their benefit when John Bull, with the original and only genuine Dennis Bulgruddery, was performed for the first time at Drury lane, by special permission of the Covent Garden proprietors. Mr Johnston delivered an address (written by Mr Lewis) in consequence of them leaving Drury-lane at the end of the season.

November 1804

[Text from the Monthly Mirror, London]

Mrs H Johnston, who for the first time, performed Cora, exhibited the delicacy and maternal sensibility, which are the criteria of the part, in a most impressive manner.


de Camp
Maria Theresa Kemble, stipple engraving by Richard Morton Paye, after Eliza Anne Paye published 1805. Original in the National Portrait Gallery, London. [This version of the image out of copyright.]

Johnston Anecdotes

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