By all reports, William James Meadows, born in 1753, (or 1751 according to 1841 census), was surely the most colourful of all our ancestors. From a very young age, he seems to have demonstrated his penchant for the unconventional. His grandson’s notes recount an incident when, caught by his mother after having swum across the Thames to avoid a toll, he was frog-marched home in his birthday suit.
William James lived for a while at his father’s inn at Rottingdean nr. Brighton. At one point, he had a share in lugger and was involved (as many others at that time) in contraband. It seems that it was customary for the the local excise man to be entertained in the Inn by Thomas, whilst William ferried his booty. A change in customs men led to William leaving the area at some haste – perhaps it was then he first went to Dublin?
The notes suggest that William – like his older brother Thomas – sailed with Cook; but left the ship due to a falling out with the boatswain. It’s difficult to fit this account into the context of his stage career, perhaps there was confusion between the two brothers? What does seem clear is that he made his stage debut, aged about 20, in Brighton as ‘Young Meadows’ in the popular 18th century comic opera, ‘Love in a Village’.
William James was probably married in his early twenties, given reports of his daughters acting alongside him as early as 1794. His wife, Margaret Syddle, had the misfortune to lose her mother in a sad accident. She was shot by her own husband, an armourer at the Tower of London. She was evidently a spirited lady as Edwin Lewis’ anecdote about her bold handling of a highwayman illustrates.
Edwin Lewis lists Willam James’ children as:
- William: died young.
- Mary [1784-1832]: married Mr. Richard Johnson and had 8 children.
- Ann [1785-1827]: married the water colourist, Mr John Masey Wright [1777-1866] and also had 8 children. See: John Masey Wright – The Return of Olivia
- Margaret [-1809]: a celebrated actor who died in her prime whilst out riding.
- James [1799-1863]: actor, scenic and marine artist, and Edwin Lewis’ father.
It appears that William James was a man of many skills and Edwin Lewis’ diary reports his prowess as a swimmer and runner. The diary claimes he was known as ‘the best runner of his day’. Apparently, a number of contests were undertaken – no doubt with money changing hands on the outcome. Under a pseudonym, he is described as racing from London to Brighton in competition with a famous trotting horse, and against another famed runner – a barber. The race took place somewhere around Epping Forest. The diary reports that William James mocked his opponent by competing in ‘a bad wig’. It seems that William James won convincingly and that the barber disappeared for a while in order to avoid his backers.
William’s career as actor seems to have blossomed in Dublin in the early 1780s when he was a regular at the Crow Street Theatre and at Smock Alley. He is also reported appearing at the Theatre Royal in Cork in 1783 and, in 1794, a benefit performance of Macbeth was staged on his behalf at Smock Alley. At the time, he gave his address as 4, Essex Quay in Dublin, on the banks of the River Liffey by the Courthouse.
The benefit may have been to mark his return to London where, on stage in Richmond, he was approached by the manager of the Haymarket Theatre, George Colman. The Times later reported: “He received an unsolicited offer from the elder Colman to join his company at the Haymarket: very good comic parts were assigned to him, he was so great a favourite of the manager as to draw from him the declaration that he should never want in engagement whilst he had a theatre.” Evidently, William enjoyed great success at the Haymarket and at the Theatre Royal. Alan Hart has unearthed a number of playbills from this period.
Back in Dublin, Charles Mathews the elder in a letter dated June 4th, 1794, reports on William’s performance in a double bill: “The play this evening is “He would be a soldier”, and the farce of “All the world’s a stage”, by command of the Lord-Lieutenant. At present they have no professed low comedian. Meadows, a singer (who performs Caleb tonight), is the only actor or any consequence in this line.” William’s daughters were also acting by this time; in 1794 there was a benefit for “Mr and Misses Meadows” at the Crow Street Theatre, and at the same theatre again for the “Misses Meadows” in 1797.
According to Edwin Lewis, William James was part of a band that went to repel the French at Bantry Bay in 1796 (in the end, the weather was so bad that they could not land) and witnessed the rebellions of 1798. After that, he may have decided it best to leave and return to London, with his wife and five children – in part also due an engagement that his daughter had there. This may have been the performance of which the Times wrote in William’s obituary: “His daughter it is remembered by many performed in ‘The Tempest’ for thirty consecutive nights with wondeful applause, and it may be a matter of doubt whether her impersonation of that was not as perfect as was ever represented.”
One of the highlights of his stage career, following Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Nile, was a benefit in aid of the widows and orphans of the fleet at the Haymarket in 1800. It is claimed that the great man was reduced to tears and gave William James a small tortoise-shell box as a token of his appreciation.
William James certainly enjoyed a long and successful career on stage where he was noted for his acting, singing … and whistling! Alan Hart’s excellent website gives much more evidence of this part of his life and reproduces several more of his playbills.
The Times on 31st January 1847, in a piece entitled ‘Death of the Veteran Meadows’, celebrated his popularity and the fact that, at 94, he was England’s oldest actor. Their correspondent wrote that he ’settled at Sible Hedingham, where, alas, for the vicissitudes that often accompany the possession of bright gifts and attainments in this world, he existed solely on the bounty of his friends, and whilst he possessed barely enough of this world’s goods to satisfy the common wants of nature, such was the extreme generosity of his disposition, this little was rendered less by his frequently responding to calls of charity, for whilst a shilling was his to give no needy applicant ever left his door unrelieved, and there without a wish pertaining to earth, save for the welfare of friends who survived him, he quitted this existence on Sunday last without a sigh or struggle in the 94th year of his age.’