Richard Wroughton (1749-1822): Actor

In a previous blog post ‘Miss Jenny Davis as a bride’ we briefly mentioned Richard Wroughton, so thought we would take a closer look at him to see if we could find out anything more about his life.

Richard Wroughton as Barnwell. courtesy of V&A Museum
Richard Wroughton as Barnwell. courtesy of V&A Museum

Little is known of Richard’s early life. He was born in Bath, Somerset the son of Charles Rotton, or Rotten as recorded in the baptism register of St James’s church, Bath, 22nd October 1749. A small entry for a man who was to become one of the leading players of the London theatre circuit.  Quite why he changed his name we can only speculate, perhaps Wroughton appeared more suitable for the theatre than Rotten!

It is reputed that whilst Richard was ill he fell in love with his nurse, Joanna Townley, and later married her. We know he was under 21 as the parish registers of 1769 tell us that his father needed to give his consent. There was no such entry for his bride to be, however, implying that she was older than him.

Richard Wroughton as Essex in "The Earl of Essex". Courtesy of University of Illinois
Richard Wroughton as Essex in “The Earl of Essex”. Courtesy of University of Illinois

Richard and Joanna left the confines of Bath so that Richard could pursue his passion for the theatre, and so they set off for the glamorous life in London. Reading about him, Richard was clearly never short of work taking on a wide variety of predominantly Shakespearian roles at both Covent Garden and Drury Lane from the late 1760s until his retirement from the stage in 1798. He also performed in Liverpool and was the manager of Sadler’s Wells.

Ipswich Journal 22 July 1786
Ipswich Journal 22 July 1786

However, his ‘exit stage left’ was a little premature as he returned to acting a year or so later and remained an actor until 1815 when he finally retired, exhausted.

We tracked down his will, in which he left everything to his ‘beloved wife Elizabeth’ – who? He had remarried, so we began to search for the death of his nurse, later to be his wife, Joanna and found a curious burial entry in the parish register of Speenhamland, Berkshire for the 14th November 1810, the burial of a Joanna Wroughton, her residence given as Bath, Somerset. Her age at the time of her death was given as 71, making her birth 1739. Was this Richard’s wife? It would certainly appear to have been, so she was a good ten years his senior.

A theatrical candidate for manager of Drury Lane including Wroughton
A theatrical candidate for manager of Drury Lane including Wroughton

This entry makes sense when you check the newspapers for February 1811. A mere three months later Richard married for a second time, his new bride being Miss Elizabeth Thomas, daughter of Reverend Dr Thomas. He didn’t exactly waste any time finding a replacement which when you read Michael Kelly’s description of him, doesn’t exactly make him a great ‘catch’ –

a sterling person, sound and sensible. His person was bad, he was knock-kneed, his face was round and inexpressive, and his voice was not good. He had, however, an easy and embarrassed carriage and deportment, was never offensive’.

Richard was clearly a popular man as he was named as a beneficiary in several wills we have come across, most notable being that of the renowned actor Robert Baddeley.

Richard was buried 22nd February 1822 at St George, Bloomsbury, Camden.

Featured Image

Richard Wroughton, by Robert Laurie, published by William Richardson, after Robert Dighton mezzotint, published 10 July 1779. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery


5 thoughts on “Richard Wroughton (1749-1822): Actor

  1. Pingback: Richard Wroughton (1749-1822): Actor – All Things Georgian | Rogues & Vagabonds

  2. Re: Charles Rotten (presumably pronounced “Rowten”, given his actor son’s respelling of the surname as “Richard Wroghton” is named as one of the Deed holders for the Orchard Street Theatre Royal in 1767, signing together with Bristol Actor Roger Watts. Watts is named in John Wood’s Essay on Bath (1749) together with the great Theatre Royal Covent Garden actor John Hippisley (died 1748) as the founders of the Regulated Theatre in Orchard Street Bath. Research of maps and Wood’s description suggests this new Regulated Theatre (40ft wide x 60ft long) appears to have been copied from Hippisley’s & Watts’ successful “Regulated Theatre at Jacob’s Well,” which Hippisley built on land leased from the Society of Merchant Venturers in 1729. (Hippisley appears to have funded this construction from the massive Benefits he earned from playing Peachum in the first production of the massive hit musical The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay – still performed today and the model for Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.) Roger Watts is commonly overlooked as historians prefer focussing on the better known Hippisley. But Watts was a hugely successful Bristol Wine Merchant (named partner Griffith Maskelyn) and celebrity actor. Watts’ career included: 1748 extending the Regulated Theatre in Jacob’s Well, Bristo on Hippisley’s deathl; Founding, together with Hippisley, Orchard Street’s Theatre Royal in 1750; one of four Founding Proprietors who signed the 1767 Deed for building “a Theatre or Room for Amusements” at King Street Bristol (which opened as the New Theatre, King Street and became, from 1778 the Theatre Royal, Bristol, but today is known as Bristol’s Old Vic); extending the Theatre to a Theatre Royal size in 1767; opening this Theatre Royal with the Prologue – a job that was normally given to the Actor Manager (which Watts might have been, albeit temporarily); 1772 – being nominated to take the first Application for a Royal Patent for the Theatre Royal Bristol (now known as Bristol’s Old Vic) to Parliament and the Lord Chamberlain (Minutes of Meetings of Proprietors, Bristol’s City Archives and Bristol’s Theatre Collection transcription by Dr Kathleen Barker) See: Chapter from M.Litt Diss. Mark A. Howell “Long, Regular and Royal Rooms: Three Eighteenth-Century Theatres.” 1992, University of Bristol Theatre Collection copied and deposited by me at Bath Ref. Library.


    1. Sarah Murden

      How fascinating, so you could say that the theatre was in his blood. Thank you so very much for sharing all this additional information 🙂


      1. Mark Anthony Howell

        Dear Sarah, you are most welcome. I’ve only just picked up your 2018 reply, and thank you very much for your comments. Yes, with his father being a part owner of the first Theatre Royal outside Westminster, professional theatre appears to have been very much in Richard Wroughten’s blood. By the way, I don’t think Charles “changed” his surname at all. In the 18th century, it was
        not uncommon for theatre professionals to alter their surnames. Charles Macklin (the enormously popular comic and tragedian actor who spent many of his 1740s summers at Bristol and Bath Theatres) was born Charles MacLaughlin, for example. (Striking he didn’t take advantage of the word “laugh” implicit to his Irish birth name.) And that remains common amongst theatre professionals (especially performers) today. Anna Maxwell Martin’s birth name was Anna Martin, for example. Good wishes, as always, Mark A. Howell


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