Victorian Bournemouth (140)

Victorian Bournemouth (140): amateur dramatics

Artistic green shoots


Victorian Bournemouth (140) reports on how the Shelley family initiated amateur dramatics in the resort during the 1870s. It profiles the Shelley amateur dramatic company and the plays they performed. In addition, it provides a social analysis of the town’s amateur dramatic group, established around 1877.

Victorian Bournemouth (140): Shelley’s initiative

Shelley Hall, 1871

His father as a poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his mother as the author of Frankenstein, Mary Godwin Shelley, Sir Percy Florence Shelley sprang from artistic origins. He had an interest in drama that took shape in amateur productions put on by his family and friends. The 1871 census reports him and his wife present at Shelley Hall, Boscombe, together with several others, related either to him or each other. The birth of both Shelley and his nephew in Italy and that of another member in France lent a cosmopolitan flavour to the assembly. Both Shelley Hall and his London house had rooms set up as theatres. In 1872, the same people performed several plays in Shelley Hall. The press described the actors as ‘old favourites on the Boscombe boards’. More performances followed in the 1870s, open to the public. His initiative stimulated the formation of Bournemouth’s amateur dramatic group.

Horace Wigan

Amongst Shelley’s house party featured Horace Wigan, there, as in previous listings, described as a comedian. Wigan made his living as an actor and theatrical manager during the Victorian period. Shelley may have invited him as a friend or a contractor, for Wigan played a central role in the productions reported for 1872. His involvement brought professional acting standards to Shelley’s group. ‘Mr Horace Wigan being the stage-manager is sufficient to account for the dramatic incidents being carefully and thoroughly studied.’ Wigan appeared in several plays written by established playwrights working in the professional theatre. His experience in both drama and farce helped him guide Shelley’s group through Caste, an example of the former, and Poor Pillicoddy, the latter. In addition, they performed under his guidance the taut drama The Lighthouse, written by Wilkie Collins, the play performed earlier by Dickens in his home theatre.

Victorian Bournemouth (140): amateur dramatic society


Shelley’s example appears to have attracted the attention of Bournemouth’s artistic and creative people. They formed an amateur dramatic group, of which he served as president. The group met at the studio of George Nesbitt, a professional photographer. He became the stage manager. William Warren, a landscape painter then in residence at Bournemouth, created the scenic backgrounds. Music featured in several performances, the resort’s Italian Band playing under the guidance of Dr Linter, then involved with the local Philharmonic Society. The names of some actors have survived. These included Richard Aldworth, a picture dealer, and Coningsby Colbran, owner of a millinery, son of a successful newspaper owner. Other actors worked as clerks. An early promoter ran a stationery business. The group performed melodramas and farces similar to those provided by Shelley’s group. According to the press reports, the performances ran at a high standard of scenery and acting.

Social profile

Genealogical exploration shows that the two groups differed along social lines. Shelley’s company belonged to his privileged level. Some lived off investments. Two had served in the army, reaching a captain’s rank. Shelley and his nephew had international touchpoints by having Italy as their birthplace. Another guest came from France. Amateur dramatics perhaps formed part of their wealthy lifestyles. In contrast, those involved in the resort’s amateur group did so in addition to their occupations. They worked as retailers, an activity indicating middling social status. In some cases, their fathers’ occupations suggest a similar background, but others had artisans for fathers: a baker, a licensed victualler, a mason. The group’s promoter, Henry Nash, had worked in a stationery shop owned by the family of Coningsby Colbran. Thus, they had transferred a connection from Tunbridge Wells to Bournemouth. Other than an interest in dramatic performance, however, no other linkages have appeared.

Victorian Bournemouth (140): plays and purpose

Plays and playwrights

The press recorded the names of twenty plays performed during the 1870s by both groups. Bournemouth audiences had the opportunity to watch both melodramas and farces. Some plays ran over several acts, others consisted of one. John Madison Morton (1811-1891) and Thomas John Williams (1824-1874) wrote several of the farces performed. Tom Taylor (1817-1880) wrote two of the melodramas produced: The Ticket-of-Leave Man and Henry Dunbar. Where recorded, the names of other playwrights indicate that either group selected plays which had appeared on London stages. On occasion, they selected works which provided social commentary and or explored new formats of story. Caste addressed marriage between social classes. The Ticket-of-Leave Man featured a story about crime, a prison sentence, and a detective.  Thus, audiences at Bournemouth had the opportunity to experience plays that came from the professional world of contemporary theatre, despite presented by amateurs.

Charity money raising

On several occasions, the amateur dramatics group put on performances which sought to raise funds for charitable purposes. As such, they played a similar role to the bazaars and teas which had occurred with some frequency at Bournemouth for a while. Funds from these activities had supported the Sanatorium and the Dispensary, both institutions established for poorer people. Plays also benefitted the Invalid Women’s Home. This purpose provides clues to the audiences which attended the plays. People able to donate money to charities would have come from middling people at least, but those of elite status would perhaps have also watched the performances. Thus, the amateur dramatics group benefitted Bournemouth in two ways. In the first place, by attracting audiences having disposable income, it supported charitable institutions. In addition, it provided a focal point for people having a range of artistic talents. It therefore stimulated the town’s cultural life.


Victorian Bournemouth (140) has explored the world of dramatic performances produced in the resort by amateurs during the 1870s. The groups involved brought works from the established, professional stage which might not otherwise have reached Bournemouth audiences. This activity promoted not only charitable institutions through donations but also the resort’s cultural life by harnessing together people having a wide range of artistic talent and social background.


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