Bransby Williams, Actor Manager

Actor Bransby Williams was often in Glasgow to take to the stage in pantomine or perform his popular impersonations of characters from Dickens. On at least one of these visits he joined the Arlington Baths.

Head and shoulders partial profile photo in black and white
Bransby Williams around 1909

Bransby Williams became a member of the Arlington Baths in Jan 1907. Although his name is not well-known today, in his day he was a very successful actor. 

On his death in 1961, aged 91, a plaque was unveiled to his memory in the actor’s church, St Paul’s in Covent Garden, by Sir Michael Redgrave.

His life and work are well recorded in his entry in Wikipedia.

But it doesn’t explain what he was doing in Glasgow in 1907. However, editions of the Scottish Referee of 19 February and 22 February inform us that he had just completed a successful run as Alderman Fitzwarren in Dick Whittington and was that week topping the bill at the Glasgow Empire Theatre where he performed his portrayals of characters from Dickens and other vignettes to great acclaim. 

In 1907 Williams was 37 years old and married with five children.

He had taken up the stage after his plan to become a missionary had been thwarted by ill-health which had dogged him since childhood. He started work at a tea-tasting business but was bitten by the theatre bug after attending a ‘Penny Show’ and being inspired by a mummer advertising the show to create his character sketch The Penny Showman. He first appeared in Music Hall in 1896 and by 1903 was being summoned by Edward VII to Sandringham for a Royal Command Performance.

Kelly’s directory of 1908 gives the family’s address as 25 Rodenhurst Road, Clapham. So Glasgow was not his permanent residence although he seems to have performed here at least twice a year for many years as well as at other venues in Scotland.

He was usually to be seen at the Glasgow Empire Theatre which had opened in 1897 as part of the extensive Moss Empires Consortium which included the Edinburgh Empire and the London Hippodrome. Designed by the renowned theatre designer Frank Matcham, it could accommodate 2,150 patrons (250 standing). It was located on the corner of Sauchiehall Street and West Nile Street.

He also acted in films, like this 1918 version of Adam Bede on the British Film Institute website.

In 1922 as well as performing in Glasgow he gave a lecture to the inmates of Duke Street Prison on the life and works of Charles Dickens which was the subject of a short article in the Sunday Post on 29 October 1922 . He was very complimentary about the governors and warders at the Prison praising their “wonderful humanity”.

Bransby Williams seen in profile at a dressing table waeing a false beard and applying stage make-up.
Williams preparing to play the role of Fagan from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

In 1924 the Sunday Post interviewed him again when he was just back from a tour of Canada where he had given 88 lectures and travelled 18,000 miles. He explained that he had also discovered that 90% of Canadian “charwomen” owned cars as a result of cheap loans. He was going to address the Rotarians on his forthcoming trip to Glasgow. 

In 1927, he was involved in a controversy with a threatre impressario over a BBC broadcast. On 15 April 1927,The Scotsman reported that he was forced to cancel a planned radio show when the promoter Charles Gulliver, who owned a theatre where the show The Padre was scheduled to run, apparently complained that his planned broadcast would make the material stale. Williams responded, “It will be longer than Mr Gulliver will live before Dickens becomes stale.” The Padre was duly performed in Edinburgh and Glasgow in June with Williams in the title role. 

Despite this controversy he was to be heard regularly on the radio and he continued to appear in films. You can see a performance by him in this 1932 film on the British Pathe website.

His career included regular tours overseas to Canada, USA, South Africa and Australia. He continued to tour to Scotland into the 1950s.

In November 1957 he was on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs and in 1958 he was the subject of an edition of This is Your Life.

Many years before then, in his autobiography An Actor’s Story, which was published in 1909, he remarked that in Glasgow “the people have always been kind to me”.

He also recalled the difficulties of the life of a touring actor especially when “Being a Dickensian, I naturally have a love and reference for Christmas.”

A coloured drawing of Bransby William in costume on a card promoting Cope's Cigarettes
Bransby Williams as Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“…. by this time I had become successful, and was starring in pantomime in Glasgow. In that town the theatre is open on Christmas Day, and matinee and evening shows are played. My little boy had been operated upon, and was just pulling though, and an uncle lay dead at home in London. There was I playing in Glasgow whilst this uncle lay dead at my house in town, and my wife grief-stricken there, while at my house in Selsey Bill my boy was struggling towards recovery.”  

An Actor’s Story, pg 109

For the full Dickens’ Christmas spirit listen to Bransby Williams playing Scrooge awakening on Christmas Day in a 1911 wax recording on the Internet Archive.

Perhaps while working these long months away from home in Glasgow, the Arlington Baths helped to provide a place to shed his characters and relax.

See our blog about Captain Bernard Leslie for more about the Glasgow Empire Theatre.

Researcher: Eunice Crook


Sources

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