The stage career of Rowland Hill Atcherley: Act 1

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Rowland Hill Atcherley was born in the Essex parish of Theydon Bois in 1870. His father and grandfather were both doctors, of science and medicine respectively, so I was somewhat surprised to find that Rowland, according to the 1901 census, was an actor!

Cottage at Theydon Bois, Essex, the parish where Rowland Hill Atcherley was born.

The census of 1901 shows Rowland Atcherley living with his wife, Florence, an actress born in Australia, the couple’s daughter, Phyllis, age 2, also born in Australia, plus members of Florence’s family: her mother Meta Pelham (another actress, born in Ireland), her sister Lala Pelham (yet another actress, born in Australia), and her brother Jack Pelham (born in Australia, no occupation given).

At first I thought that the information on the census was wrong. Surely Rowland was a doctor, but this had been written as ‘actor’ in error by the enumerator, most likely because everyone else of working age in the household was in the acting profession. Yet, when the 1911 census became available, this too showed that Rowland Atcherley was an actor. (It also showed that his mother-in-law was still living with Rowland, Florence and Phyllis, but was now known as Minnie Poole rather than Meta Pelham).

My attempts to find out more about Rowland Atcherley’s acting career initially drew a blank. I could find nothing at all relating to this aspect of his life. I did however, quite by chance, find details of his marriage to Florence Bertha Rose Poole – in New Zealand in 1898. This information, in conjunction with the 1901 and 1911 census records, suggested that the Poole family had adopted the surname Pelham as a ‘stage name.’

It was my discovery of Rowland Atcherley’s own stage name that finally provided the key which gave me access to more than two decades’ worth of information about Rowland’s career in the theatre. This information came to light thanks to the National Library of Australia’s wonderful online archive of digitised historic newspapers Australian Newspapers Online (part of the Trove website). An entry in the Marriages column of the Melbourne Argus, published on 26 May 1898, reads as follows:

ATCHERLEY—POOLE.—On the 14th May, at Auckland, N.Z., Rowland Hill (George Rowlands), eldest son of Dr. Atcherley, of Richmond, Surrey, Eng., to Florence, eldest surviving daughter of Charles and Minnie Poole (Meta Pelham), of Melbourne.

Armed with this information, further searches of the Australian Newspapers Online site, along with New Zealand’s Papers Past, the archives of The Stage magazine, and a few other online sources, have enabled me to piece together the story of Rowland Hill Atcherley’s stage career.

The earliest stage performance I know of which may have featured Rowland Hill Atcherley was a smoking concert at the Minor Lyric Hall, Hammersmith, on 6 April 1889. The list of contributors to the programme listed in The Primrose League Gazette included a Mr R M Atcherley – this could very well have been in error for R H Atcherley. Rowland, although he was then 18, was far from being the youngest actor that evening – that title went Hilda Trevelyan, who was said to be 9 years old (pictured right, when older). She became best known for playing the role of Wendy in the original production of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan.

As for Rowland, the next stage production which I can say with certainty he took part in was reviewed in The Era of 11 May 1895:

An original Opera-Burlesque, in Two Acts,
Written by Messrs Leo and Harry Trevor,
Composed by Messrs Burnham Horner and Harry Trevor,
Produced at the Theatre Royal, Richmond,
on Wednesday, May 1st, 1895

The Lord Chamberlain .  .  .  .  .  Mr A. Brownlie
The Lord Privy Seal .  .  .  .  .  .  . Mr R. H. Atcherley
Sir Francis Drake .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Mr Leo Trevor
Hon. Horatio Muckit .  .  .  .  .  .  Mr Harry Trevor
The Mayor of Plymouth .  .  .  .  Captain Philip Trevor …

After listing the cast, The Era’s correspondent wrote: “This burlesque, if at times uneven, possesses some smart lines and certainly some clever songs satirising the principal topics of the day.” One of the best musical numbers was said to be “a taking song of the Lord Privy Seal, capitally sung by Mr. R. H. Atcherley”.

Although I have not found Rowland on the 1891 census, his family were living in Richmond at that time, so the Theatre Royal was quite possibly Rowland’s local playhouse. He returned there in August 1895, appearing in The Story of a Sin, a drama written by Courtenay Thorpe. According to The Era, the first performance was “a decided success” with “the small part of the footman being done full justice to by Mr Rowland Atcherley.”

Moving onwards and upwards, in September 1895 Rowland became part of Mr Stanley Hope’s company of actors and began touring with them for 8 months or more, appearing in the comedy drama Sowing the Wind. Reviews in The Stage along with newspaper advertisements and reports show that Sowing the Wind was performed, after a long and successful run at the Comedy Theatre in London, at various provincial theatres.

Rowland was now using his stage name, and the first performance of Sowing the Wind which included George Rowlands on the bill was at the Opera House in Northampton. Thereafter he appeared in the play at venues including Torquay (Royal), Cheltenham (Theatre and Opera House), Great Yarmouth (Royal Aquarium), Stratford (Theatre Royal), London (The Parkhurst), Sheffield (City), Ealing (The Lyric), Swansea (New Theatre and Star Opera House), Blackpool (Opera House), Northampton (Opera House; a return visit) and finally South Shields (Royal) in May 1896.

The first role taken by Rowland in Sowing the Wind was that of ‘fashionable attorney’ Mr Deakin, although at Great Yarmouth he played Annersley and was named in The Stage’s review not as George Rowlands but as Mr Atcherley. Later he switched to the part of Sir Richard Cursitor (the image, right, shows another actor in that role, with the characters Maud Fretwell and the Hon. Mrs Fretwell, in 1893). Rowland received favourable reviews throughout the play’s run, and I am sure he would have been pleased to read the likes of those which opined that he was “excellent,” “capital,” and deserved “great praise.”

After his success in Sowing the Wind, Rowland moved from a comedy drama to a “farcical and musical comedy”: he was listed among the cast appearing in Skipped by the Light of the Moon at the County Theatre, Reading, during August and September 1896. By a strange coincidence which would soon become apparent to him, Rowland played the character Frank Pelham. In all probability this was the last role he played in England for a while, for within weeks of his appearance at Reading he had embarked on a journey to the other side of the world, where his talent for farce and comedy would be further developed with the renowned Frank Thornton and his English Comedy Company.

Frank Thornton, an actor, comedian, singer and producer, had toured Australia and New Zealand before and this return visit was no doubt eagerly anticipated by theatre-goers. In New Zealand, the Auckland Star newspaper reported on 31 Nov 1896 that: “Mr Frank Thornton sails again for Australia, per Orizaba, on Oct. 30, taking with him a repertoire consisting of ‘Charley’s Aunt,’ ‘Mamma,’ ‘The Private Secretary,’ ‘The Bookmaker,’ ‘The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown,’ and ‘Sweet Lavender.’”

Sure enough, the passenger list for the Orizaba (pictured below), which actually departed from London on 29 Oct 1896, included the following, who were all contracted to land at Melbourne: Mr F Thornton, Mr F Shepherd, Mr H Terry, Mr Heath, Mrs Heath, Miss N Seabrooke, Miss E Carew, and of course Mr G Rowlands, a.k.a. Rowland Hill Atcherley. Rowland was setting off on a voyage at the end of which he would win not only praise from theatre critics, but also the heart of one of his fellow actors.

Image credits. Old thatched cottage at Theydon Bois: © copyright Robert Edwards, taken from Geograph, cropped, used and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Hilda Trevelyan (Hilda Marie Antoinette Anna Tucker): photo by Bassano Ltd, National Portrait Gallery image NPG x101482, used under a Creative Commons licence. Actors playing the roles of Maud Fretwell, the Hon. Mrs Fretwell and Sir Richard Cursitor in Sowing the Wind: image from The Sketch, 25 Oct 1893; out of copyright. Orizaba (steamer) and Racer (tugboat): photo by Allan C Green, taken from State Library of Australia; out of copyright according to Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Birth of Rowland Hill Atcherly registered at Epping, December quarter 1870; volume 4a, page 95.
[2] London Daily News, 20 Oct 1870, page 1. Births.
[3] 1901 census of England and Wales. Piece 424, folio 35, page 10.
[4] 1911 census of England and Wales. Piece 3624, Schedule 174.
[5] New Zealand marriage registration 1898/2405. Found at Births, Deaths & Marriages Online.
[6] The Argus (Melbourne), 26 May 1898, page 1. Copy viewed at Australian Newspapers Online (Trove).
[7] The Primrose League Gazette, 6 Apr 1889. Transcript viewed at Stage Beauty (website, accessed 4 Jan 2015).
[8] The Era, 11 May 1895, page 12. “Good Queen Bess.”
[9] 1891 census of England Wales. Piece 619, folio 84, page 13.
[10] The Era, 3 Aug 1895, page 9. “The Story of a Sin.”
[11] The Stage, 5 Sep 1895. Opera House, Northampton.
[12] The Stage, 19 Sep 1895. Royal, Torquay.
[13] The Stage, 10 Oct 1895. Theatre and Opera House, Cheltenham.
[14] The Stage, 24 Oct 1895. Royal Aquarium, Great Yarmouth.
[15] The Era, 2 Nov 1895. Stratford Theatre Royal.
[16] The Stage, 7 Nov 1895. The Parkhurst, London.
[17] The Stage, 21 Nov 1895. City, Sheffield.
[18] The Stage, 5 Dec 1895. The Lyric, Ealing.
[19] The Stage, 20 Feb 1896. New Theatre and Star Opera House, Swansea.
[20] The Stage, 2 Apr 1896. Opera House, Blackpool.
[21] The Stage, 16 Apr 1896. Opera House, Northampton.
[22] The Stage, 7 May 1896. Royal, South Shields.
[23] The Stage, 24 Sep 1896. County, Reading.
[24] Auckland Star, 31 Oct 1896, page 2. Song, Stage and Story. Copy viewed at Papers Past.
[25] Outwards Passenger Lists (series BT27/219, The National Archives, Kew). Copy viewed at Ancestry. Orizaba, departure date 29 Oct 1896.

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Sarah and John Atcherley: From Waters Upton to the Workhouse

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Siblings Sarah and John Atcherley were the first of six children born to John Atcherley senior of Waters Upton, Shropshire, and his wife Elizabeth. They were also the only two of John and Elizabeth’s children who did not marry. Though they led separate and very different lives, ultimately they shared the same fate. Sarah Atcherley and her brother John both spent their last days in the Wellington Union Workhouse, dying there within a year of each other.

Sarah Atcherley was baptised at Waters Upton St Michael on 17 January 1809. As she does not (to my knowledge) appear in any other records until the census of 1841, the first thirty years or so of her journey to the workhouse are a mystery. Even the 1841 census record was not easy to find, as Sarah’s surname was written as Hatcherley and her age as 25!

The spelling of Sarah’s surname perhaps reflects the way it was pronounced (or heard). As for her age, Sarah was then 32 but she may (deliberately or otherwise) have misled her employer regarding her true age. She would only have needed to say that she was 29 to end up being listed as a 25-year-old. The instructions issued to census enumerators in 1841 stated that when copying information from householders’ schedules onto their own,

For persons aged 15 and upwards it is sufficient to state within what period of five years their age is, writing down the lowest number of that period: thus, for persons aged 15 and under 20, write 15 _ for 20 and under 25 write 25 _ for 25 and under 30 write 25 _ for 30 and under 35 write 30, and so on up to the greatest ages; but the exact age may be stated if the Person prefers it.

The census enumerators’ instructions for 1841 also stated, with regard to a person’s profession, trade or employment, that “Domestic Servants may be inserted as ‘Male Servant’ or ‘Female Servant’ without further statement of their duties.” So it was that Sarah was recorded as one of two female servants living at Child’s Ercall, in the household of farmers Elizabeth and William Woodhouse (who, from their ages, were likely mother and son), along with four agricultural labourers.

Sarah did not remain at Childs Ercall. By 1851 she was residing at Atcham in the household of another farmer, Edwin Cotterell, where she worked as one of two general servants. (Edwin also employed three agricultural labourers, and his sister worked as his housekeeper.) Although on this occasion Sarah’s name was written correctly, her age as recorded on the census schedule was still seven years adrift from reality. Any doubts that this might be another Sarah Atcherley are allayed by the fact that from the 1851 census onwards more specific birthplaces were asked for, and Sarah’s was said to be Waters Upton.

Downton Cottage, in Upton Magna, was Sarah Atcherley’s home by 1861. Living with 33-year-old cowman Thomas Chalenger, his wife and their three children, Sarah was described as a former dairy maid. We will probably never know how long she had been out of work at that point, nor how long it took her to find the dairy maid’s job she had in 1871. By that time she was once more part of a farming household, headed by George Hooper and his wife Emma, at Kinnersley. Her work would have involved not just milking the cows, but also making butter and cheese on the farm. It seems unlikely that she was chatted up by a character like “Doctor Syntax” in the illustration below, but the picture is probably not an entirely inaccurate representation of a farmer’s dairy chamber in the 1860s.

In both 1861 and 1871, Sarah had knocked six years off her age when the census enumerator came calling. At the end of her life however, in 1875, the official records of her age were closer to the mark. When her death was registered, and when her burial was recorded, Sarah was said to be 63 years old, which wasn’t too far from the truth (she was 66).

The burial register of Wellington All Saints also showed that Sarah’s interment took place on 19 June 1875, and that her abode had been the “Poor House”. Workhouse deaths, such as Sarah’s, were not uncommon. In 1870, the deaths of 5564 people were recorded by the registration districts lying wholly or mainly in Shropshire. 274 of those people (just under 5%) passed away in the county’s 17 workhouses.

Sarah might have lost her employment at Kinnersley and, with no means of supporting herself, had no choice but to apply to the Relieving Officer for the Wellington Union for admission to the workhouse, wherein she fell ill and died (Wellington and Kinnersley were two of the 11 parishes which made up the Union). Alternatively, Sarah may have succumbed to illness or debility for which she needed treatment; again, given her situation, the workhouse was probably her only option. Whatever the circumstances in which Sarah entered that institution, when she left it she almost certainly did so in the most basic of coffins, for a pauper’s funeral in a communal grave.

It seems likely that until she was finally laid to rest, Sarah Atcherley was regularly on the move, from one job to another and one parish to another. Census records only enable us to check on Sarah’s whereabouts on one day in every ten years, so we can only guess how many other Shropshire settlements Sarah lived in besides those we know about (shown on the map below).

What a contrast between the census records for Sarah and for her brother John Atcherley. While Sarah can be found in four different places on the four censuses which took place during her lifetime from 1841, for John the 1841 census is the first and last on which he appeared. Unlike Sarah, he had remained in the parish of Waters Upton, the parish in which he was most likely brought up, though possibly not the place where he was born.

John was baptised on 29 April 1810 at Priors Lee, a chapelry within the parish of Shifnal. The registers of Priors Lee were kept with those of the mother church, and the baptismal entry for John states that he was “born Apl. 5”. The abode of John’s family is not noted, leaving us to assume that they were at that time living in Priors Lee or close by, but that is not certain. Personally, I think it would have been odd for John to have been born there, when all of his siblings came into the world at Waters Upton – odd, but by no means impossible.

The 1841 census confirms that John was born in Shropshire. His age, like that of his sister, was recorded as being 25, whereas in truth he was rather older (31 to be precise). And we have an occupation for him: John Atcherley was a tailor. I imagine he made and repaired clothes for his fellow villagers.

I have searched for John on later censuses without success. Recently, I expanded my Waters Upton One Place Study and pored over the census schedules covering that parish from 1841 to 1911 to create abstracts. Still no sign of John after 1841. There is however some evidence to suggest that John remained in Waters Upton, or at the very least returned there for a while. He may have managed to evade the census enumerator, but did he escape service as a juror when a Coroner’s Inquisition was held at Waters Upton in the first quarter of 1865?

The Coroner’s Inquisition concerned the death of Andrew Lawley. He was most likely the Andrew Lawley who was born at Muckleton in the parish of Shawbury around 1834, and who by 1861 was lodging in Wolverhampton and working as a railway employee. His job may well have brought him back to the Waters Upton area, which became home to a number of men who worked at or from the railway station at Crudgington (just south of Waters Upton, but lying in the parish of High Ercall or Ercall Magna). Andrew was buried at High Ercall on 12 October 1864, the burial register showing that his abode was Crudgington and his age 29.

Of the ten jurors at the inquisition in 1865, five appear to have been Waters Upton residents at the time of the 1861 census: shoemaker Thomas Bennett, agricultural labourer Thomas Fletcher, tailor or agricultural labourer William Lloyd, innkeeper John Owen, and one of the two men named William Tudor (the one from Waters Upton was a wheelwright). Of the others, it appears that at least two were residents of Ercall Magna parish: William Humphreys (of Crudgington Green) and John Jenkinson (of Sleap). On this evidence I think it highly likely that the remaining three – including John Atcherley – were also resident in or near to Waters Upton. It is possible that the John Atcherley in question was the farmer living at Moortown (see Lunacy and an Atcherley), but if I were a betting man my money would be on John the tailor.

One thing we can be sure of is that John Atcherley, the tailor of Waters Upton who seems to have been quite determined to keep his name out of official records, could not maintain his anonymity at the end of  his life. When I purchased the death certificate for a mysterious John Atcherley whose passing was registered in 1874, I was surprised to find that he was the mysterious John Atcherley. The copy of his entry in the register of deaths (see extract below) showed that John, age given as 63 (close to the truth, he was 64), a tailor, had died at the Union Workhouse in Wellington on 31 July. The cause of death was certified as debility and exhaustion.

As John ended up in the Wellington Union Workhouse we can assume that he, like his sister Sarah, had previously been living in one of that Union’s 11 constituent parishes. Those parishes were, in addition to Wellington itself and the above-mentioned Kinnersley, Bolas Magna (or Great Bolas), Ercall Magna (or High Ercall), Eyton on the Wild Moors, Longdon upon Tern, Preston on the Wild Moors, Rodington, Wombridge, Wrockwardine – or Waters Upton.

A check of Shropshire Archives’ copies of the Wellington All Saints burial registers confirmed that John Atcherley was buried at that church on 3 August 1874. It seems likely to me that his final resting place was the same communal paupers’ grave in which Sarah Atcherley was interred the following year: brother and sister reunited at the end of their separate journeys from Waters Upton to the Workhouse.

Image credits. Dr. Syntax and the Dairy Maid: picture, by Thomas Rowlandson,  from Doctor Syntax’s Three Tours by William Combe, published 1868; no known copyright restrictions (via British Library Flickr photostream). Map showing known residences of Sarah Atcherley from 1809 to 1875: based on map in Antiquities of Shropshire, volume IX, by R W Eyton, published 1859 and therefore out of copyright (via Internet Archive website). Extract from GRO death certificate for John Atcherley: Image posted in compliance with General Register Office copyright guidance.


[1] Waters Upton, Shropshire parish register covering 1809. Baptismal entry dated 17 Jan 1809 for Sarah Atcherley.
[2] 1841 census of England Wales. Piece 899, book 6, folio 7, page 10.
[3] Anon (unpublished manuscript?), History of the Census of 1841. Page 58. Copy viewed at histpop website.
[4] 1851 census of England and Wales. Piece 1991, folio 369, page 6.
[5] 1861 census of England and Wales. Piece 1867, folio 44, page 2.
[6] 1871 census of England and Wales. Piece 2805, folio 23, page 5.
[7] Death of Sarah Atcherley registered at Wellington, Shropshire, June quarter 1875; volume 6a, page 573; age given as 63.
[8] Wellington All Saints, Shropshire, burial register covering 1875. Entry dated 19 Jun 1875 for Sarah Atcherley.
[9] HMSO (1872), Thirty-third Annual Report of the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages in England. Pages 143, 197, and 206.
[10] Wellington, Salop. At: The Workhouse (website, accessed 3 Jan 2015).
[11] Ten Common Myths about the Workhouse. Myth 9. At: The Workhouse (website, accessed 3 Jan 2015).
[12] 1841 census of England and Wales. Piece 906, book 18, folio 4, page 8.
[13] Shifnal, Shropshire parish register covering 1810. Baptismal entry under “Baptisms for Priors Lee 1810” dated 29 Apr for John Atcherly. Indexed at FamilySearch: Batch C06492-1, Film 503517.
[14] Shropshire Archives item QR483/398, dated Quarter 1 1865. Indexed on Shropshire Quarter Sessions CD, by Shropshire Family History Society.
[15] 1871 census of England and Wales. Piece 1996, folio 56, page 5.
[16] High Ercall / Ercall Magna, Shropshire burial register covering 1864. Entry dated 12 Oct 1864 for Andrew Lawley.
[17] 1861 census of England and Wales. Piece 1896, folio 17, page 9 to folio 21, page 17.
[18] Death of John Atcherley registered at Wellington, Shropshire, September quarter 1874; volume 6a, page 485; age given as 63.
[19] Wellington All Saints, Shropshire, burial register covering 1874. Entry dated 3 Aug 1874 for John Atcherley.

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