TOWNSEND, JOHN, farmer, actor, theatre manager, and teacher; b. 2 April 1819 in Deptford (London), England, only son of John Townsend, auctioneer and land agent, and Mary —; m. 5 May 1841, in London, Sarah Mitchell, an amateur actress who was eight years his senior, and they had at least five sons and two daughters, all of whom were trained for the stage; d. 22 Dec. 1892 in Hamilton, Ont.
John Townsend began his career in the theatre at age 12 by playing children’s parts with Edmund Kean’s company, probably in London. Remaining in the vicinity, he made his formal début four years later as an amateur in Woolwich, and by 1842 had leased the Theatre Royal in Richmond under the pseudonym Tamworth. There he began to gain a reputation for playing Shakespearian roles. With the death of his father in 1852 he was obliged to leave the theatre and manage the family’s auction business in Greenwich. Election to Parliament in 1857 was followed by bankruptcy, likely late in 1858. He was given 12 months to pay off his debts and returned to the stage as John Townsend, mp. To satisfy his creditors he played leading roles in seven London playhouses and is reported to have been the last to perform Richard III on horseback at Astley’s Theatre. In February 1859 he resigned his seat, using the time-honoured political device of the Chiltern Hundreds, and managed the Theatre Royal in Leicester for a 32-week season.
Although Townsend was successful in discharging debts that he was not obligated to repay, the pressures had affected his health. Advised to emigrate and take up farming, he arrived in Upper Canada in May 1862 and purchased 50 acres on the outskirts of Kingston. Within 18 months Townsend’s wife and eldest daughter, Florence, both using the surname Grosvenor, were performing with the amateur theatre company of the 47th Foot. His strength restored, Townsend returned to the stage on 26 May 1864 playing Richard III and appearing in John Tobin’s farcical afterpiece The honey moon. The occasion was hailed and, with the patronage of the garrison assured, Townsend was encouraged to eschew farm life and establish a resident stock company in Kingston. Beginning that month, the family performed every week for a year in a salon of the city hall which he dubbed the Theatre Royal. From June 1865 to September 1867 Townsend was the lessee of Her Majesty’s Theatre in Ottawa, and in 1868 moved the family to Hamilton, playing in the mechanics’ institute hall. For another decade “The World Renowned Townsend Family Star Dramatic Troupe” toured southern Ontario and dipped into the northern United States. Over the years their basic Shakespearian repertoire shifted towards more musical and melodramatic fare.
Townsend was remembered for his sonorous voice and robust, old-style acting. Kingston’s Daily British Whig in 1864 criticized his “studied and laborious” performance as Macbeth and commented that he was “a trifle too old and a little too stout” to essay Romeo. Although not a great artist, Townsend was a leading player and he deserves a place in Canadian theatre history for pioneering one of the earliest of the dozen or so Canadian-based theatre companies that dared to swim in the sea of American touring.
While playing in Indiana in November 1877 Townsend was taken seriously ill and was constrained to leave his company after managing it for 13 years. He continued to appear occasionally in Hamilton and became a respected, if somewhat down-and-out, teacher of acting and elocution. His most famous pupil was Ida Lewis (later known as Julia Arthur), who studied with him until she was nearly 16, when Townsend helped launch her professional career. In 1888 Townsend’s wife ended her days tragically in a mental asylum. Only his son Harry continued to act and, ironically, was again playing in Indiana when Townsend died in 1892 of cancer of the liver.
[A calendar of John Townsend’s performances in Kingston from 24 Dec. 1863 to 11 May 1865 and from 23 to 28 Sept. 1867, drawn from the Daily News and the Daily British Whig, was compiled by J. W . Spurr and communicated to me in his letter of 27 Oct. 1977. d.g.]
GRO (London), Reg. of marriages in the registration district of St James Westminster ([London]), no.473 (5 May 1841). Daily British Whig, 7 Sept., 20 Oct., 24 Nov. 1864. Daily News, 28 Dec. 1863; 21, 23, 27 May 1864; 23 Sept. 1867. Hamilton Evening Times (Hamilton, Ont.), 23 Dec. 1892. Hamilton Herald, 23, 27 Dec. 1892. Hamilton Spectator, 8 April 1884, 23 Dec. 1892. DHB. Ottawa directory, 1866–67: xxx, 152. Who’s who of British members of parliament, ed. Michael Stenton and Stephen Lees (4v., Brighton, Eng., and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1976–81), 1: 381. T. M. Bailey and C. A. Carter, Hamilton, famous and fascinating; two centuries of a colourful city (Hamilton, 1972). Carolyn Hetherington, “An olio of oddities,” Kingston 300: a social snapshot, by Kingstonians (Kingston, 1973), 184–88. M. M. Brown and Natalie Rewa, “Ottawa calendar of performance in the 1870s,” Theatre Hist. in Canada (Toronto and Kingston), 4 (1983): 134–91. Freda Crisp, “The grassroots days of Hamilton theatre” and “When Hamilton was host to the prince of players,” Spectator, 17 Oct. 1970: 23; 24 Oct. 1970: 23. Jacques [Joseph Tinsley], “Reminiscences of early days in the world of Thespis,” Hamilton Herald, 8 June 1901. C. R. McCullough, “An old-time actor: John Townsend, actor, auctioneer and member of parliament,” Hamilton Spectator, 5 Sept. 1942: 9; 19 Sept. 1942: 20. Denis Salter, “At home and abroad: the acting career of Julia Arthur (1869–1950),” Theatre Hist. in Canada, 5 (1984): 1–35. J. W. Spurr, “Theatre in Kingston, 1816–1870,” Historic Kingston, no.22 (1974): 50–52.