Mary Stephens Davies was baptised on 14th December 1761 in the village of Little Haywood near Colwich, Staffordshire, the daughter of Thomas Davies and his wife, Anna. At the tender age of just six, Mary had visited the theatre for the first time and the following day, much to the annoyance of everyone in the household, she kept singing one of the songs she had heard the night before. Her potential future in the theatre was secured.
Thomas Davies was a skilled gilder and woodcarver who operated with a partner, a Mr Griffith; Davies was employed to make a box from the wood of the mulberry tree which had reputedly been planted by William Shakespeare himself in his garden at nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. This casket was presented to the Shakespearian actor – and theatre manager – David Garrick, an act which initiated Garrick’s three-day Shakespeare Jubilee extravaganza in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769 (the mulberry wood casket is now in the care of the British Museum).
A short time later, Mr Griffith, who had his eye on Mrs Davies, contrived to have Thomas Davies sent to prison and then judged to be insane and committed to the asylum in Birmingham, where he died. Mrs Davies spurned Griffiths’ advances and, to support Mary and her siblings, one brother and sister ran a tavern frequented by the acting fraternity and then embarked on a modest stage career, playing provincial towns. According to Mary’s memoirs, her mother arranged for the children go to London with their servant, Sally. So, off they went to Warwick Street, London but Mary led an unhappy existence as she was ill-treated by Sally.
At the age of fourteen, Mary followed her mother on to the stage and was playing the role of Juliet in a theatre in Gloucester when she met her Romeo, Ezra Wells. After a whirlwind romance, the couple married by licence in 1778 at St Chads, Shrewsbury, apparently against her mother’s better judgment although Anna Davies did give her consent to the union.
Her mother clearly knew best in this instance and she should have listened to her, for Ezra soon deserted his young bride and wrote the following letter to her mother.
Madame, – As your daughter is too young and childish, I beg you will for the present take her again under your protection; and be assured I shall return to her soon, as I am now going on a short journey.
As you may have anticipated, Ezra never returned for his bride but instead ran away with one of the bridesmaids.
Mary continued with her acting career, touring around the country until finally, in 1781, making it onto the London stage where she gained fame playing a wide variety of roles, both male and female. She acted under her married name (perhaps in the hope that Ezra would return) and was sometimes billed as Becky instead of Mary Wells. The nickname Cowslip, her role in The Agreeable Surprise, persisted for many years.
Toward the end of the 1780s, Mary met a fashionable young gentleman named Captain Edward Topham, (the tip-top adjutant), an Eton educated bewhiskered officer in the lifeguards who would become a playwright and journalist: he started The World and Fashionable Advisor newspaper in 1787, primarily to print puff pieces about his Cowslip (or Pud, as he also affectionately called her; she termed him Whiskerandos). Mary was captivated by the beauty of his mind but, as she could not legally be married to him, the relationship eventually fizzled out but not before Mary had given Topham four daughters, Juliet, Harriet, Maria Cowslip and the last who was born two months prematurely ‘in consequence of a fright’ and did not survive. In his book, Retrospections of the Stage, John Bernard later wrote that:
Of all Becky’s peculiarities, perhaps the greatest was her imagining that every man she saw or spoke to, fell in love with her… Becky’s malady reached its climax in her supposing that our late beloved and most virtuous monarch was among the number of her victims.
At Weymouth in 1789, Mary spectacularly embarrassed herself on the esplanade in her efforts to attract the attention of George III and his queen and then chartered a yacht on which she sat astride a gun mounted on the deck and sang God Save the King as she chased the royal party to Plymouth. Public opinion was divided as to whether Mary had inherited her father’s insanity or if her eccentric behaviour was because she was too fond of a drink.
As the century drew to its conclusion so did her wealth, despite still performing on the stage and we arrive a point when Mary ran out of money and men to support her, partly due to the fact she had bailed her brother-in-law Emmanuel Samuel out of his own money woes. Mary now found herself in the confines of the Fleet debtors’ prison, and said of her sorry circumstance that,
I came to London to see one of Mr Reynolds plays, How to Grow Rich, struck by the name, I determined to learn a lesson; but, notwithstanding the attention I paid, I benefitted nothing by it.
Whilst in the Fleet her life made a dramatic change, for she met a wealthy Jewish gentleman, Joseph Haim Sumbel, ‘rich, young and handsome; but haughty, irascible, and jealous, to the greatest degree’. Formerly the secretary to the Moroccan ambassador, Sumbel was in prison for contempt of court. They fell in love but once again there was the obstacle of her first husband who she claimed not to have seen for over 20 years.
Desperately seeking the security of a marriage (Sumbel was reputed to be a millionaire), she was brushed off any worries about committing bigamy and converted to Judaism so that she could marry Sumbel in a traditional Jewish ceremony in October 1797. As part of her conversion to Judaism, Mary, aka Becky Wells, took a new name, Leah Sumbel. The newspapers wrote of the marriage that they followed the full Jewish wedding ceremony in the presence of ten witnesses.
Any happiness was short lived. A year after the wedding, Mary applied to the magistrate for her husband’s arrest on the grounds of his attempted murder of her, saying that he was ‘tainted by the green-eyed monster’. Joseph retaliated and put a notice in the newspaper advising people not to give his ‘wife’ credit as she was using his name unlawfully to which Mary responded with another advert stating that she was seeking a divorce and maintenance. So began a lengthy game of both Sumbel and Mary hurling insults at each other in the press. Mary claimed that Sumbel had tried to strangle her and, on another occasion, the owner of the house they were living in took them both to court for destruction of his property after Joseph threw a chamber pot (hopefully empty!) at Mary, breaking it in the process. Sumbel made a futile attempt to shut Mary up in a madhouse, and when that failed he sought to annul his ill-fated marriage. Despairing of legal redress in the matter, Sumbel chose to end the matter simply, with a hand-written slip of paper:
When a man hath taken a wife and married her and it comes to pass that she hath no favour in his eyes because he hath found some uncleanness in her, then let him write her a bill of divorcement and give it in her hand and send her out of his house.
Eventually, Sumbel slipped out of the country on a passport acquired by his friend, the Duke of Portland, and Mary, who renounced Judaism, saw no more of him although she continued to use his surname.
As a way of making some money, Mary published her memoirs: there’s nothing like selling your soul but even this was not sufficient to pay off her creditors. She spent her remaining days in lodgings with her elderly mother, living on little more than the £55 a year she received from the charitable Covent Garden Theatrical Fund: The Wells’ landlady, a Mrs Bellini, became a great friend. Mary’s three daughters by Topham grew up in Doncaster and were reckoned ‘the best horsewomen in Yorkshire’.
They all made good marriages, and this was perhaps some comfort to Mary, who died on 23 January 1829 aged 67, and was buried at St Pancras church. She is remembered as a great actress whose eccentricity and misfortunes prevented her from reaching her full potential.
Dallas, Eneas Sweetland. Once a Week, Volume 11
Highfill, Philip H. Burnim, Kalman A. Langhans, Edward A. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers
St Chads Shrewsbury, Marriage Register
Morning Star, Tuesday, June 2, 1789;
Oracle and Daily Advertiser, Monday, December 31, 1798
Oracle and Daily Advertiser, Wednesday, December 5, 1798
Craftsman or Say’s Weekly Journal, Sunday, October 22, 1797
True Briton (1793), Wednesday, December 5, 1798
Morning Post and Gazetteer, Monday, December 17, 1798
London Packet or New Lloyd’s Evening Post, December 24, 1798 – December 26, 1798
Morning Post and Gazetteer, Wednesday, December 26, 1798
True Briton (1793), Thursday, August 29, 1799
Featured Image – Microcosm of London