“One of the most genuine and unexaggerated examples of pure humour the modern stage has witnessed”
“Highly finished from first to last”
“… delivered his words with a quaintness that quite took the audience by surprise. Such a success as he achieved last night is enough to make an epoch in an actor's career”
“An English comedian of great repute”
The reviews above are the sort that most theatrical performers would give their eyeteeth to receive and the recipient in this case was George Honey, an actor and singer buried in Highgate Cemetery East. George was gifted with not only a beautiful singing voice but great comedic timing and was one of the most popular comedic stage actors of the latter part of the 19th Century.
Born on 22 May 1822, George found a job as a call-boy at the Adelphi Theatre in 1843, aged 21, and was soon given the part of the singing mouse as part of a comedy duet in Harlequin Blue Beard. Five years later he debuted as Pan in Midas at the Princess’s Theatre and a review of his later performance in G.A. MacFarren’s Robin Hood noted that George had “rendered valuable assistance both by his comic acting and excellent singing”.
Incidentally, a number of the abovementioned operas that George performed in were under the direction of Louisa Pyne and William Harrison of the Pyne & Harrison English Opera Company, which was the most successful English travelling opera troupe in the United States in the 1850s. The company later returned to London and Louisa Pyne appears to have been instrumental in the formation of the Royal English Opera Company. She was also the second woman to ever win the Royal Philharmonic Society's Beethoven Gold Medal for her contribution towards opera and was hugely respected and admired both in the UK and across the pond.
As for the Adelphi Theatre, it was noted by the London Times as being "the most popular theatre of the metropolis" with the "best company in London for its purpose” in the summer of 1851. It’s also said that The Adelphi had the honour of being one of the first, if not the first, theatres to stage adaptations of the works of Charles Dickens. So not only was George rubbing shoulders with some of the most well respected directors and performers within the industry, he was also performing in one of the most popular theatres in London at the time!
The Old Adelphi Theatre
Success in the UK
Quite a number of later characters that George took to portraying were drunken, eccentric and slightly damaged, including a less-than-honest lawyer in Miriam’s Crime (1863), Turco the Terrible in William’s Brough’s Prince Amabel (1865) and Annibal Locust, a boozy sergeant, in Huguenot Captain (1866).
George as Biles in Miriam's Crime
His acting was described by Peter Fitzgerald as being “of the old broad, boisterous, exaggerated style” and Tom Robertson was initially reluctant to cast George as Eccles in Caste (1867) because he felt that George’s over-the-top style would clash with the subtler performances he’d established at the Prince of Wales theatre. As it turned out, George’s overstated ‘old school’ style was just the tonic required to bring Eccles to life, and George’s very funny portrayal was a thunderous success that ensured the character was only ever associated with his name thereafter.
George as Eccles
George’s later portrayal of Major Buncombe in Andrew Halliday's For Love or Money (1870) at the Globe also won him great acclaim and he went on to receive even more praise and recognition playing Cheviot Hill in W. S. Gilbert's Engaged (1877) at the Haymarket.
(Incidentally, George’s professional reputation had soared by the 1870s and as a result, his financial situation had improved dramatically: when he first played Eccles back in 1867, he was receiving £18 per week. Four years later, when Caste was revived, he was earning £60 a week. According to the VictorianWeb currency convertor, this amounts to £3,900 a week - A WEEK - in today’s currency!)
Success in the US
George travelled to New York in 1875, where his portrayal of Eccles at Wallack’s Theatre was “admired and praised on all hands”. In fact, George’s obituary in the New York Times described his portrayal of Eccles as “inimitable” and noted that George had produced “a remarkable and lasting effect”. The Era (14 May 1876 edition) reported that his tour of the US had been a “brilliant success” and, in playing Major Buncombe in "For Love or Money" (the first time the play had ever been seen in the United States), the Cambridge Chronicle (11 September edition) reported that he remained at the Boston Globe for a “series of star performances” for the rest of his stay in America.
George’s naturally quick wit occasionally presented itself in unscripted moments on stage, much to the delight of the audience. The following recollection comes from Lady Marie Bancroft (nee Wilton) in which she recalled one such incident during a performance of Orpheus. A horse race had taken place earlier on in the day, with the winning horse called Black Deer:
“In the evening, George Honey, who was playing Black King Pluto introduced an unexpected joke in my scene with him: “Saucy boy! You’ve been to the races, it is clear.” I was taken by surprise but soon recovered, and replied, “Yes, and was a winner, too, you Black Dear.” The audience at once recognised the introduction, and received it with much laughter and applause. Mr Honey, seeing that I had the best of it, added, “Oh, so I thought: well, long may you reign, dear.” This, being done on the spur of the moment, was more successful than if it had been pre-arranged.”
Lady Marie Bancroft
I attempted to locate George’s birth certificate and any other associated documentation that pertained to his parents and/or family, but was unable to source anything due to the fact that birth registrations in the UK only became necessary in 1837 (unfortunately for me, George was born in 1822 so 15 years too early to be registered).
However, I did come across an intriguing clue about George’s early life on the biography of another Victorian actress called Laura Agnes Stevenson. Her mother was the celebrated actress and singer Laura Honey (one of many aliases that daughter Laura used) although neither appear to have been related to George. However, Laura Honey (daughter) and George performed together in a number of plays at the Adelphi (The Married Bachelor, Jessie Gray, The Disowned, Giralda and Good Night, Signor Pantalon).
This same biography claimed that George was actually born George Alfred Dryland and on the Adelphi Theatre’s calendar for 1850/1851, George’s name is shown as being George A. Honey. Also, in the Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries (Volume 38), George is referred to as George Alfred Honey. So I followed this up and, courtesy of Ancestry.com, found one George Alfred Dryland who was baptised in Lambeth on 17 September 1823. If this is indeed the very same George, it would’ve made him 16-months old at the time of the baptism.
Intriguingly, I came across an excerpt from a book called Avowals by George Moore (described by Google Books as being “a volume of conversational memoirs by Moore, who was a significant member of the Irish Literary Revival in the early 1900s”). On page 50, Moore reminisces about seeing Money at the Prince of Wales Theatre (1869):
“Another great event of my youth, and of yours too, Gosse, I'm sure, was Money, at the Old Prince of Wales' Theatre, when the Bancrofts owned it. Do you remember Coghlan and Miss Foote in the act in which the will is read, as good an act of comedy as ever was written if it resembles my memory of it. If you have forgotten it I never have, nor a certain short front scene, played by George Honey and his wife.”
Could George have been married? Or could Mr Moore have possibly been referring to George's character's wife, perhaps? I was intrigued by this statement because while researching George, I hadn't come across one solitary suggestion or confirmation about his marital status anywhere at the time of posting. That's not to say that George never married and it's certainly worthy of investigation (I shall post any discoveries made in this regard as/if they present themselves).
Regarding George's interests outside the theatre, I stumbled across the following article in the 17 February 1875 edition of the Worcestershire Chronicle that suggests George might’ve had some involvement with the Freemasons:
BROTHER GEORGE HONEY
Takes this opportunity of THANKING the
FREEMASONS of WORCESTOR for their
PATRONAGE and PRESENCE upon the occasion of
His (RETURN) VISIT to the THEATRE ROYAL, on
FRIDAY LAST, FEB 12th
I wanted to confirm this so contacted Diane Clements, the Director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. Diane advised that while the Freemasons occasionally sponsored events and performances for their members, this didn’t necessarily mean that the performer was a member of the organisation themselves. I then subsequently came across an article from The Freemasons' Quarterly Magazine and Review (26th February 1870) that appeared to confirm George's involvement within the Masons and commends George and one of his fellow brothers on their excellent singing following their initiation. However, one of Diane's colleagues contacted me a short while later to advise that while George had certainly performed for the organisation, they have absolutely no record confirming him as being a member.
Ill Health and Death
There was something almost Tommy Cooper-esque about the stroke that George suffered during his final entrance of the 1879 revival of Caste at the Prince of Wales.
Marie Bancroft, who played the part of Polly, was present as George collapsed backstage. The scene at the end of Act 1 centred on Eccles’ inebriated return to the stage and Miss Bancroft supported George (literally and figuratively) after his collapse by rattling a door and impersonating Eccles cursing, while physically holding the stricken actor up in the doorway (all while the audience applauded and laughed as the act-drop fell). The good news was that, unlike Tommy Cooper, George didn’t die from this stroke. The bad news was that the incident pretty much ended George’s career and the only theatrical appearances he made thereafter were minor parts for benefits. George died on 28 May 1880 following an aneurism of the heart.
George is buried on the East side of Highgate Cemetery on a small pathway to the right of the main pathway, near Chester Gate (look out for Ann Jewson Crisp's monument featuring her dog Emporer).
The right of burial was granted to Emily Honey of 127 Camden Road on 29 May 1880 at a cost of £6.6.0 and ownership was never transferred. George is the only person buried there and was interred on 01 June 1880. Interestingly, the location of the plot was chosen by Highgate Cemetery on behalf of George's family and the monument is on the right as you walk down the pathway. It's an upright rectangular pinkish stone with a white oval medallion featuring a (very accurate) relief of George’s face. The inscription reads:
IN MEMORY OF GEORGE HONEY
DIED MAY 28 1880
AGED 58 YEARS
ERECTED BY HIS FRIENDS
AND FELLOW WORKERS
In just about every one of his obituaries and reviews I’ve come across, George was described as being a very popular and talented performer and his professional career lasted for a very successful 32 years.
Copyright © Sam Perrin June 2013
Justin Bickersteth, Registrar, Highgate Cemetery
The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre, edited by Kerry Powell
Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825-60 By Katherine K. Preston
The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume 6: 1850-1852 by Charles Dickens
Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre by George Taylor
Annals of the Liverpool Stage, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time by R. J. Broadbent
Victoria Magazine, Volume 9 by Emily Faithfull
Diane Clements, Director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry
The Freemasons' Quarterly Magazine and Review, 26th February 1870
The National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery
The Freeman’s Journal, 10th July 1858
The Worcestershire Chronicle, 17th Feb 1875
Cambridge Chronicle, 11th September 1875
The Glasgow Herald, 29th May 1880
The New York Times, 30th May 1880