Finding Sampson Penley

Alan Stockwell
Vesper Hawk

Finding Sampson Penley

This dedicated piece of literary detection is presented in a rather deceptive form. Alan Stockwell, who appears to have published Finding Sampson Penley himself, has chosen a cover illustration and quotes which strongly suggest a rather racy historical novel.

In fact, Mr Stockwell has intricately researched the lives and milieu of a theatre troupe of the Napoleonic era when their type were as likely to be regarded as rogues and vagabonds as talented artists.

While the world probably knows a fair amount about their contemporaries such as Goldsmith, Kean, Sarah Siddons, the Kembles and now Samuel Foote, travelling players and their lives are still almost complete mysteries.

The starting point for this book was a chance discovery of dozens of playbills from the early 19th century, primarily advertising the performances of the Jonas and Penley Company at Tenterden in Kent.

This led the author of a series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches to begin a detailed exploration that eventually resulted in a well-written and at times fascinating account of theatrical life 200 years ago.

The Jonases and the Penleys not only worked together but intermarried on a regular basis. At times, anything up to about a dozen of them would appear onstage together.

From an acting point of view, the leading lights were William and his nephew Sampson Jr, both of whom were regulars at Drury Lane, though if contemporary reviews are anything to go by, neither was particularly good.

As well as acting with leading lights of the day such as Kean, members of the family toured not only the south east of England but also far more widely.

Mainland Europe seemed an obvious place for lengthy jaunts, especially when finances had become tight and performing in England was a struggle. Indeed, Sampson spent a few days in debtors’ prison, so bad had economics become.

Even though the Napoleonic wars had only just ended when they visited, the company did its best to succeed in France and Belgium, although the audience response in Paris could best be described as riotous. This was not a response to the company's choice of plays or their acting but a negative reaction to visitors from a country that had so recently been at war with France.

Alan Stockwell not only finds Sampson Penley but goes into great detail about the careers of his extended family, most of whom acted, ran theatres and went bust.

At the very end, he also points out that by far the most distinguished member of the family was WS Penley who created the part of Lord Fancourt Babberley, the name character in Charley's Aunt, and then played it for years.

This well-produced volume contains not only the story of the Penleys but also detailed notes of sources, appendices summarising the playbills together with conjectures on the location of the theatre at Tenterden and a sizeable family tree for the Penleys.

It has to be said that, at times, Mr Stockwell does not wear his learning lightly and his desire to set down on the page everything that he has discovered can become a litany of forgotten plays and cast lists.

However, his picture of theatrical life 200 years ago, together with extracts from some of the incredibly critical reviewing, is a real eye-opener and as such makes the book a desirable purchase for anybody with an interest in stage history.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher