Robert Carpenter, Drury Lane actor

Robert Carpenter was another actor who was in regular employment at Drury Lane Theatre and who had close links with Sophia and Robert Baddeley and we thought his story was worth recording here.  Although virtually nothing is known of his early life it seems likely he was born somewhere close to Monkton Farleigh, Wiltshire. There is an entry for Robert Carpenter in J.P. Wearing’s American and British Theatrical Biography which states that he was an actor and singer, born in 1748 and died in 1785; quite where the information regarding his year of birth came from we cannot say as yet as we have not been able to find any record of it.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, anonymous painting dating to c.1775.
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, anonymous painting dating to c.1775.
Victoria & Albert Museum.

On the 21st of November 1768, Robert married Praxty (or possibly Praxey, we have seen it written in a variety of ways) Wyatt at Monkton Farleigh, Wiltshire. The marriage record says that Praxty was from Inglescomb, Somerset (as with Robert, if she was born there, we haven’t managed to find a record of her baptism as yet).

It appears that the couple moved to London, presumably for Robert to pursue a career in the theatre and three years after their wedding the couple had a son, Robert (1771);  records show that his wife Praxty gave birth at the British Lying in Hospital at Holborn, London. There were four such hospitals in London at that time and were intended for the wives of poor industrious tradesmen or distressed housekeepers and the wives of soldiers and sailors, so clearly at that time, Robert was not earning much money. The record shows that she was admitted on the 12th November 1771, Robert’s occupation being that of a gentleman’s servant, aged 30 from Monkton Farleigh, a village in Wiltshire not far from Bath. She delivered a boy on the same day, two days later he was baptized, Robert, after his father; mother and son left the hospital on the 4th December 1771; the recommenders name was Michael Adolphus, a beneficiary of the hospital according to his will.

The British Lying-in Hospital, Holborn: the facade and an allegorical scene of charity. Engraving by J. S. Miller after himself. Wellcome Library.
The British Lying-in Hospital, Holborn: the facade and an allegorical scene of charity. Engraving by J. S. Miller after himself. Wellcome Library.

Robert managed to make the transition from servant to actor and for the next few years seemed to be gainfully employed at Drury Lane theatre taking on a variety of roles including that of Filch in Beggar’s Opera at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on Monday 11th, 1778. This was a benefit performance for Mr Carpenter, Mr Butler and Mr Wright. This cast list included Locket played by Mr Baddeley, with the role of Polly being played by his wife Mrs Sophia Baddeley both of whom we have written about previously. Tickets for this performance could be obtained from Mr Carpenter at Mr Sutton’s house, 11 Little Russell Street, Covent Garden, Mr Sutton also being well known within theatrical circles of the day. Carpenter and Sutton also appeared in a newspaper article a few months later pertaining to a boating incident on the Thames where two of their friends died.

Covent Garden Piazza and Market, London by Samuel Scott (showing St Paul's Church), 1749-1758 out of copyright; (c) Museum of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Covent Garden Piazza and Market, London by Samuel Scott (showing St Paul’s Church), 1749-1758
out of copyright; (c) Museum of London

For Robert Carpenter, his seemingly flourishing career came to an abrupt end. Allegations were made that he was dismissed from the theatre in December 1778 for forgery, a ‘skill’ which would, in the future cost him his life, but newspaper reports show that he was still performing into early January of 1779.  From this point onward his life began a downward spiral and shortly after this in 1779 he was arrested for an alleged rape – the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Robert performed for many years at Drury Lane but unlike many in his profession, he seemed to have been able to acquire a reasonable amount of money, whether this was honestly gained or not we can only speculate upon. However, after leaving Drury Lane he moved to Gosport near Portsmouth where he and his wife purchased an elegant house and he began to work as navy agent; this proved to be a lucrative business allowing him to acquire considerable wealth.

It does, however, appear that rather than working hard Robert grew so impatient to become rich that he took to forging seamen’s wills and powers, a skill he had managed to cultivate during his time in the theatre according to a report in The Public Advertiser 8th March 1785. This robbery of widows and orphans continued for some considerable time without him being caught until eventually his luck ran out.  He was surprised by court officials in his own house, which was spacious, and elegantly furnished whilst busy entertaining some friends. He was arrested and placed in prison in Winchester to await trial.  He was tried and his fate sealed – his crime warranted the death sentence! 

The Hampshire Chronicle reported that there was to be a further respite for Robert until Saturday 2nd April 1785. This article was then followed by:

Following the Lent Assizes Robert Carpenter had been convicted and would be hanged at twelve noon at Winchester. His crime was that of forging seamen’s will and powers in order to defraud them of their wages. He was then conveyed from the goal in Winchester to the place of execution where after he was launched into eternity in the presence of a vast multitude of pitying beholders. He was said to have left a fortune of upwards of £7,000 [approx half a million in today’s money] and a house in Portsmouth, a wife described as very genteel and three children; they were all left un-provided for as all his effects were forfeited to the Crown.

His execution attracted a vast number of spectators, by whom, from his penitence and resignation to his unhappy fate, he was generally much pitied. This man had been for long a public character on the dramatic boards, and he made his final exit on a stage erected for the purpose under the gallows.

The European Magazine and London Review Containing the Literature History also provided its own version of the events of 2nd April 1785.

Was executed at Winchester, Mr. Robert Carpenter, for some time part a navy agent at Portsmouth, and who was convicted at the last assizes of forging seamen’s wills and powers, in order to defraud them of their wages. He was, in conformity to his sentence, conveyed from the gaol to the place of execution; where, after spending some time in acts of devotion, he was launched into eternity, in the presence of a vast multitude of pitying beholders, a great part of whom shed tears upon tho melancholy occasion.

He was dressed very genteelly, in a new suit of mourning, and was conveyed to the place of execution in a mourning coach. He did not deny the crime for which he was to suffer; but said that Mr.Miller, one of the principal evidences, never saw him in this life. This was all he said, though exhorted by the gaoler to unburden his mind to the public. He died very penitently, and struggled hard and long in the agonies of death. Carpenter formerly belonged to Drury-lane Theatre, and was the Clown in the pantomimes.

The sentence was carried out as all were at that time at a place known as Gallows Hill and it was commonplace for the people of Winchester to turn out in their thousands – apparently, they enjoyed nothing more than a good hanging and this one was as popular as any!

Robert wrote his will on the 17th March 1784 in which he left all his worldly goods in Gosport, near Portsmouth, Hampshire to his wife Praxty and two children Robert junior (born 1771) and Carolina (born 1775 back in Praxty’s home town of Inglescomb, Somerset ), so whether there was a third child as reported in the newspapers we’re not sure, but there doesn’t seem to be a baptism for the child.

His will was proven within a month of his death, although whether there actually was any money left for his wife and children who knows, but Praxty returned to London where she finally died and was buried on the 5th April 1807 at St George’s church, Hanover Square, the Bishop’s transcript records erroneously recorded her burial as that of a male rather than a female. So far we have not been able to find out anything about what happened to their children, although there was a possible mention of their daughter Carolina working in the theatre in Bristol.

 

Header image: View from Portsdown Hill Overlooking Portsmouth Harbour; Dominic Serres; Hampshire County Council’s Fine Art Collection

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