To many people the life of Hannah Norsa, the first Jewish actress to take to the London stage, is unknown, but she was another of the stars performing at Drury Lane, so we simply had to tell her story, especially as it interweaves with the lives of other well known theatre folk of the period. We are also delighted to have found some new information to add to what was already known about her.
Hannah Norsa appeared on the stage for the first time on 16th December 1732 in the part of Polly Peachum in the Beggar’s Opera, replacing Lavinia Fenton who had bagged herself a Duke as a lover following her tenure in the role.
Miss Norsa was the daughter of Isaac (or Issachar) Norsa, an Italian Jew from Mantua in northern Italy who, in 1717, was living in Brydges Street in Covent Garden where he co-owned the Green Cannister tavern with his brother Abraham. Prior to that, from 1713, Isaac had owned the Cocoa Tree Chocolate House on the south side of Pall Mall. In 1722, the two brothers took over the Punch Bowl tavern in Drury Lane which they were still owners of in 1736 at Abraham’s death and so Hannah grew up around the Covent Garden theatres. Isaac also seems to have operated as a warehouseman in Covent Garden, possibly in the capacity of a tea merchant, in the 1730’s and he died in 1748, being buried in a ‘handsome manner’ at the Jews Burial Ground at Mile End.
Hannah’s mother was most probably Esther de Aharon de Chaus who married Ishac de Jehosuah Norca (Isaac) at the Bevis St. Mark’s Synagogue in January 1714; she died in 1738 and was buried in the same cemetery that Isaac was to be laid to rest in a decade later.
Hannah, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen years of age when she took to the stage if her parents had married in 1714, captivated just as much in the role of Polly Peachum as Lavinia Fenton had done, and in other roles for just over three years before she was taken off the stage by Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford from 1745 and son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, with whom she lived as his mistress until his death in 1751. He intended to marry her once his current wife would conveniently die and leave the way clear; unfortunately this lady outlived her husband, putting paid to that scheme but Hannah lived at Houghton Hall in Norfolk with him, in every way but one his wife. Hannah also occupied a small house at Stanhoe near King’s Lynn owned by Walpole.
Hannah gave Robert one son, born illegitimately and who must have died young as no mention is found of him subsequently. This son, named Robert for his father, was born on the 12th August 1740 and baptised a month later on the 11th September at St. Margaret’s in Westminster, the register recording Hannah’s surname incorrectly.
Robt s: to the Rt Honble Robt Ld Walpole by Hannah Horsah
In Memoirs of a Royal Chaplain, 1729-1763; the Correspondence of Edmund Pyle, D.D. is the following letter from Barbara Kerrich, wife of the Rev. Samuel Kerrich, to her spinster sister, dated 18th October 1749:
To tell you ye truth I made Mrs Norsa a vissit first my Lord ask’d me several times very kindly, I believe it was taken well, for she soon return’d it, I wouldn’t tell you of my Vissit because I didn’t know what you wou’d think of it, for I don’t know but it might be cutting a bold stroke, She is a very agreeable Woman, & Nobody ever behav’d better in her Station, She have every body’s good word, and bear great Sway at Houghton, She is every thing but Lady, She came here in a Landau & Six horses & one Mr Paxton a young Clergyman with her.
Barbara Kerrich’s sister Elizabeth Postlethwayt replied nine days later, saying:
I think you cou’d not well avoid making a visit to Mrs Norsa without disobliging my Lord and ’tis a thousand pityes a Lady that can behave so well should fail in so great a point.
Horace Walpole wrote of being at Vauxhall Gardens in 1750 and inviting from the next box there ‘my brother Orford . . . with his Norsa’. An encounter with Hannah’s father was also recounted by Horace Walpole; he had been present at the trial of the rebel Jacobite lords in 1746 as his brother, Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, auditor of the Exchequer, had a gallery which ran along the side of the court at Westminster. Walpole was amused by the sentence by the prisoners peers of ‘Guilty, upon my honour’ and wrote that he ‘was amused too, with old Norsa, the father of my brother’s concubine, and old Jew that kept a tavern . . . I said ‘I really felt for the prisoners!’ Old Issachar replied, ‘Feel for them! Pray if they had succeeded, what would become of all us?’
Horace also wrote on the 26th June 1747 about the fashion for men of fortune to keep an actress as a mistress.
This Lord [Lord Luxborough] keeps Mrs Horton the player; we keep Miss Norsa, the player; Rich, the harlequin, is an intimate of all, and to cement the harlequinity, somebody’s brother (excuse me if I am not perfect in such genealogy) is to marry the Jewess’s [Miss Norsa’s] sister.
Robert Walpole’s will, written less than two months before his death, is very short and to the point. He appoints Lord Walpole his son his sole executor and hopes he will take the advice of his uncles Edward and Horatio Walpole in the execution of it, he leaves £200 per year to a Robert Robertson for the term of his life, to his servants a years wage and asks that Lord Walpole will ‘take care that Mrs Norsa have her judgment well served to her.’ Walpole died in debt and some reports say he had squandered a £3000 legacy which Hannah had received from her father and which she had loaned to him.
Hannah, after Walpole’s death and pursued by his creditors, took refuge for a while in the house of John Rich. Rich (1692-1761), who invented the art of pantomime, was a former libertine, actor and manager of the Covent Garden Theatre. He had been reformed by his third wife, Priscilla Wilford, who had herself previously been on the London stage, performing under the name of Mrs Stevens, before that having worked as a barmaid and waitress at Brett’s Coffee-house in St. James’s Square; all three of Rich’s wives had been actresses.
Priscilla had lived with John Rich as his housekeeper and mistress for some years before he married her in 1744 whilst continuing to act for his company. She converted to methodism, shunned alcohol and any form of licentiousness and transformed her hard living husband. In 1747 the following was written about John Rich:
Mr R__h, to be sure, has been a great Libertine in his Time, and much given to the Flesh; but now, Glory be to G_d for it, the manifestation of the Proverb is happily come to pass in him, viz.
Never too late to mend: And tho’ he has been to blame heretofore, yet Solomon and David were much addicted to Women. And if Mr R__h hath err’d and stray’d in that point, yet he is now like the lost Sheep that is found: He hath now turn’d the Brothel into a Temple, and he kneeleth to pray where he hath kneel’d heretofore to ____.
John Rich, when he died, left his wife Priscilla as joint manager, while she remained a widow, of his Covent Garden theatre along with his son in law John Beard. If Priscilla was to remarry she was to be replaced by her brother, Edward Wilford.
The whole set was well known to the actress George Anne Bellamy, a contemporary of theirs. She says that Hannah Norsa (who she names as Miss Nassau) was the intimate friend of Priscilla during her time on the stage and that it was Priscilla who advised her friend to place herself under the protection of Walpole.
Priscilla’s brother, Edward Wilford had a dual career, that of a clerk in the Exchequer office (under Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford) and also employed at the Covent Garden theatre both as a pit doorman and in the theatre treasury. On the 23rd July 1746 he married Rachael Norsa, sister of Hannah, at Roehampton in Surrey. A newspaper article announcing the marriage stated that Rachael’s father was the Earl of Orford’s steward and that she was possessed of a considerable fortune coupled with great beauty (Horace Walpole’s letter of 1747 above indicates that his knowledge was a little out of date!)
Rachael might have been the ‘Little Miss Norsa’ who appeared with her brother ‘Master Norsa’ on the London stages in the mid 1730’s, both of these two appearing at a Covent Garden benefit performance for Hannah on the 29th April 1735 and also being part of the company of ‘Lilliputians’, comprised mainly of the children of London actors. Priscilla again was responsible for this union between her brother and the sister of her friend according to George Anne Bellamy, knowing that, as Walpole was Auditor of the Exchequer, she was insuring that her brother would gain a fortune from the places within his gift.
The marriage produced two sons, Richard Rich Wilford born c.1754 and George John Wilford and by 1756 the family was living in New Palace Yard in Westminster. The back windows of their house looked out onto the back windows of a house on the neighbouring Bridge Street occupied by a Mr John Berkley, the two being very close together. This gentleman, who was a clerk in the Exchequer alongside Mr Wilford, had been introduced to Mrs Wilford by her husband and they began to visit one another when Edward Wilford was from home, often signalling to each other that the moment was an opportune one by means of a candle placed in their respective back garret windows. Mr Berkley had, on occasion, had to escape from the Wilford’s back garret window when the master of the house came home unexpectedly, from which he was able to climb to his own garret window.
On another occasion he had to run down to the kitchen and hide himself in the coal hole. All this was testified to by Ann Hipkin, one of the Wilford’s house servants, at a hearing for a divorce bill which Edward Wilford brought against his wife. Ann Hipkin also told of hearing both the noise of the easy chair in the back parlour and some ‘expressions of her mistress’ emanating from the room whilst she was in there with Berkley which led to her belief that ‘her Mistress was then in the Act of Adultery with Mr. Berkley.’ Mary Nash, another of the servants, gave similar evidence.
Edward Wilford had at last become aware of his wife’s infidelities and turned her out of the house on the 10th March 1758. She never returned there. At a ‘criminal conversation’ trial Edward Wilford was awarded damages of £500 and John Berkley petitioned that this was an excessive amount as his salary only amounted to £50 a year, but the decision stood. Wilford petitioned the House of Lords for a divorce to be granted, which would enable him to marry again, and this was heard in 1759 although it does not seem to have been finalised.
John Berkley was living in Westminster in 1768 and still of His Majesty’s Exchequer, when he made his will, being weak in health, leaving all to his dear wife Ann Berkley, making no mention of Rachael. He died shortly after.
By the 1770s Edward Wilford was living in a house in Ranelagh, Chelsea with his widowed sister, Priscilla Rich. In September 1776 the two were out taking the air in their phaeton near their Chelsea home when an empty brick card drawn by four horses and with two men driving them at a furious rate collided with them, taking a wheel off the phaeton and overturning it, throwing out the two occupants. Priscilla Rich dislocated her arm and the cart passed over Edward Wilford’s body leaving him badly bruised and with blood pouring from his nose, mouth and ears. He was expected to die but managed to pull through. One of the men driving the brick cart was sentenced to a year in Newgate in an attempt to deter others from committing a similar offence.
Priscilla died in 1783, leaving £100 of bank stock to the Theatrical Fund established at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden; her brother Edward, her executor, when carrying out her wishes gave an equal donation from his own pocket. In her will, written in 1778, she also left ten guineas to her old friend Hannah Norsa (stated as of Brompton Road at that date) for her to buy a mourning ring to remember her by; Rachael was not mentioned but Priscilla was obviously still well disposed to Hannah.
In 1766 Hannah Norsa, describing herself as a spinster, was living in Rotterdam in Holland, by 1769 she was back in England, living on Bridge Street in St. Margaret’s Westminster (where John Berkley had lived) and she died in August 1784 at Brompton Row in Kensington. She left a considerable fortune in her will (proven 29th October 1784), giving rise to speculation that she had kept the £3000 she had received from her father safe from Walpole’s debts and from his creditors. Edward Wilford was called to her lodgings on the morning after her death and it was he who took possession of Hannah’s paperwork and testamentary documents, taking them back to his house at Chelsea. In Hannah’s will her sister is still described as the wife of Edward Wilford. Edward himself died in July 1789 at his Chelsea home. At the time of his death he was Chief Clerk to the Auditor of the Receipt of his Majesty’s Exchequer and Clerk of the Debentures.