Charles Mathews

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Charles Mathews – 

On the 8th April 1834, the comic Charles Mathews gave his last ‘at home’ at the Adelphi Theatre, scripted by Richard Peake. On the 7th, 9th and 11th April, Paganini gave some of his final appearances in the UK, on the same stage, four years after his first appearance. [i][1] The recent revival of venues such as Wilton’s Music Hall has helped to break down a distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘entertainment’ halls and theatres. This distinction was unknown in the 19th century in public venues. The distinction, however, did exist between what performers presented in public and in salon environments. As the doors to such drawing rooms and studios was more or less shut to hoi polloi, much of the free-er and, at the time, more serious activities and performances which took place there, is hidden to us, as it was hidden to those not of sufficiently bon ton to gain admittance.


In 1822, Mathews wrote to his wife from Edinburgh:


To Mrs. Mathews. Edinburgh: February 9. 1822. I know too many people here to study undisturbed; therefore am obliged to hide myself in the private walks, when the weather will permit. Yesterday was lovely, and I had a good spell; today boisterous and wet. Terry declared that he was blown off the pavement into the middle of the street, from the violence of a squall, and must have fallen, if he had not made a snatch at a man who returned his hug, like two people on the ice. …Sir Walter, the magician of the North, and all his family were there. They Huzzaed when he came in, and I never played with such spirit, I was so proud of his presence. Coming out, I saw him in the lobby, and very quietly shook his hand. ‘How d’ye do, Sir Walter?’ – ‘ Oh, hoo are yr? wall hoo have you been entertained?’ (I perceived that he did not know me)-‘Why, Sir, I don’t think quite so well as the other people.’-‘Why not? I have been just delighted. It’s quite wonderful hoo the devil he gets through it all.’- (Whispering in his ear): ‘I am surprised too; but I did it al myself.’ Lockhart, Lady Scott and the children quickly perceived the equivoque, and laughed aloud, which drew all eyes upon me: an invitation for to-morrow followed, which I accepted joyfully. I doubt if the players in Shakespeare’s time appreciated his invite as I do an attention from the man who in my mind is second only to him.’


The Melodramas presented by Mathews were known as ‘Adelphi Screamers’. The most famous of these wasTom and Jerry, or Life in London. It was adapted by T.W.Moncrieff from Pierce Egan’s eponymous novel. The illustrations for Tom and Jerry were engraved by George Cruickshank (1792-1878).

The 1834-5 season was Charles Mathews’ last managing the Adelphi Theatre with Frederick Yates. The Adelphi had been built in 1806 on Adam Street, and was originally known as the Sans Pareil; a wealthy merchant, John Scott, built it to show off the talents of his daughter, an actress and playwright. In 1819, it was renamed the Adelphi by its new owners, Messrs Jones and Rodwell, in honour of the Adam brothers, who were responsible for the development of the building of the residential, streets about the theatre. In the 1835-5 season, the theatre was open for 163 nights and mounted 29 plays. The theatre closed on 11th April 1835, and Mathews was indisposed for the rest of the season. The theatre was closed in May 1835, and Mathews was ill-very much ‘at home’. In point of fact, Mathew’s ‘at homes’ were close to modern ‘stand-up’, where he would regale the audience with comic tales of his travels.

For all the popular success of the Adelphi, Charles Mathews found it impossible to make it pay. His daughter noted: 

‘It is alarming to find that, in the fullness of the ‘Adelphi’s success’ …out of all the enormous receipts, all go without a shilling father can call profit. The building is not large enough to pay for the splendour and salaries which Drury Lane can not now afford. This should be seen to. It is a fallacy to say the concern prospers when the boxes are filled.’

Mathews died, to all intents and purposes, broken by this failure, on the 28th June 1835, aged 59. Lane’s illustrations to Pierce Egan’s’ The Life of an Actor’, include “A beggarly account. Of Empty Boxes. PROTEUS losing his benefits. No Joke in THEATRICALS!’ 

In 1833, Edwin Landseer also drew Mathews’s son, Charles Mathews Junior, riding a pony across a stream in Glenfeshie, ridiculing his incompetent riding, and habit of wearing a short kilt in Scotland.


In 1833, Herr Lidusdroph’s Company of Industrious and Russian Fleas, opened at 5 Leicester Square, and the “Extraordinary Exhibition of Industrious Fleas” opened in New York the following year. In 1844, James Planché produced his Drama at Home at the Haymarket, with Charles Mathews’ son, Charles Mathews junior (18031878), who was married to Madame Vestris, in the title role. Mathews sang:


//‘You talk about wonders, just look upon these;/You’d think them little industrious fleas;/But just through a microscope peer at their mugs,/And these two little fleas become horrid humbugs!’


Again and again, I find the subjects of this exhibit in Vesuvian circumstances. Perhaps the reason is more personal than pertinent. Like many northern European artists, I enjoyed the liberation of discovering Naples, violin in hand, in my late teens. The rawness of it all, the life lived out loud, had a permanent effect. Unlike Burney, on my musical visit, I did not find the volcano was ‘busy all evening’ but it loomed, reminding me to work, to live, fast and now, even as I tiptoed through the dusty salons of the Palazzo Reale or was offered a whole tray of syringes outside the monastery of  S.Martino. Eliza Vestris’s husband, Charles J. Mathews jun. , wrote to his father, Charles Mathews, from the crater itself.


‘My dear Father, – I flatter myself I have chosen a situation sufficiently piquant to white you a letter. Here I am on that mountain, the talk and wonder of the world, the terror of thousands! Not merely on it, but positively in the crater! In it!! Surrounded with smoke and fire! Standing on ashes, cinders, brimstone and sulphur! How little are the people I look down upon at this moment! They are like the Spanish Fleet, they cannot be seen; the King and all the royal family, al the pomp of the world is lost; all its vices, virtues, pleasures, pains, re forgotten. How ever it can arrive, that Seven Dials, and even Islington, is forgotten! Now are the Tottenham, Olympic and Royalty Theatres despised! What a scene of horror is around me! Fields of desolation, burning torrents, smoke, liquid fire and every implement of destruction! I can no more; I am overwhelmed with the magnificence of my imagination, I sink under the terrors invented and embodied by my own poetical mind. …. I write as you may suppose in high spirits, and conclude with saying that though you and your spouse are only my distant relations, that I shall always be yours. Charles J Mathews.’

The Poster Man, PSS, RAM, London, 2006, P. 21