Marie Bancroft - Leading Lady of the Victorian Theatre
Here’s an interesting story, if somewhat longer than normal, about a Yorkshire born lady who became a Bancroft through marriage…well her husband was not a “genuine” Bancroft but was born a Butterfield, and started using the Bancroft surname when he first went on the stage! … read on for the full story.
Marie Effie Wilton was born in Doncaster in 1839, the daughter of Robert Pleydell Wilton, a travelling actor, who just happened to be working in northern theatres at the time. A precocious child, she first appeared on stage at the age of five, often she would be dressed as a boy, maybe as a jockey, or in a sailor-suit, singing while dancing a hornpipe. She had no formal education, being taught entirely by her mother, who, at a time when sound-amplification was undreamed of, trained her daughter to speak so that her voice could be heard clearly from the back of the gallery. The stage was then considered a disreputable profession. Marie’s father had become estranged from his respectable family when he ran away to become an actor, and his children would suffer from similar contempt. Once Marie was engaged to perform some songs and recitations at a private fundraising function attended by wealthy ladies and gentlemen. Her audience was enchanted, and someone proposed that they contribute money to buy her a toy. A lady then enquired whose child she was. On the revelation that she was the daughter of actors, purses that had been enthusiastically opened were snapped shut and smiling lips were pursed in disapproval.
Marie would never even attempt to play the great dramatic roles. Instead, with a sparkling, captivating personality and diminutive stature (she was no more than five feet tall) she specialised in comedy, song and dance. She learnt her art initially in Bristol. Then in 1856 she was invited to London where she rapidly became a star of pantomime and burlesque, a form of musical satire, immensely popular at the time, largely because it involved young girls playing ‘breeches roles’ ….boy’s parts, which gave Victorian men the opportunity to legitimately see far more female leg than was otherwise considered seemly. Seeing her at the Strand theatre, Charles Dickens wrote to a friend advising him to go to see her: ‘Miss Wilton is so stupendously like a boy, and unlike a woman, that it is perfectly free from offence….I call her the cleverest girl I have ever seen on the stage in my time, and the most singularly original.’ Marie was then only nineteen.
Despite professional success, Marie’s personal life could not have been easy. She had two illegitimate children, Florence, who died as an infant, and Charles Edward Wilton in 1863. There has never been any definite proof of who the father of her son was, but speculation has it that it could have been another actor called William Hunter Grimston, who used the stage surname of ‘Kendall’, or even possibly the future King Edward V11! [For more details on this subject see the note at the end of this article]
By April 1865, she had managing to acquire a loan of £1000 and took a lease on the small run down Queens Theatre, popularly known as the ‘Dusthole’ in Charlotte St, off Tottenham Court Road. The above picture of the theatre is unfortunately not of good quality, but it’s the only one available. Following refurbishment she reopened it as the renamed Prince of Wales Royal Theatre. It is not know where the loan came from, but it is known she mixed with much of the high-society of the day, which might be a clue to the origins of the loan. She set out to transform it into one of the most fashionable in town. Attracted by her reputation, the carriage trade queued in the street for the first night.
Inside, they found carpets and comfortable seating, bright lights and colourful décor, refinements never-before seen in London. But she had further plans she intended to implement, the first of which was to provide her actors with costumes – previously bought at their own expense. She also began gradually to increase their pay, which was to be delivered to them individually, rather than expecting them to queue up for their wages each week.
She met the actor Squire Bancroft, while they were both working in a Liverpool theatre, after she had become established in London, and was then on tour in the north. She managed to persuade him to work with her back in London, and they then starred in a string of successful comedies in which Marie generally took the female role. Squire was considered a competent actor, where Marie was considered brilliant; He excelled as a manager, and committed himself to Marie’s plans for the theatre.
First they pioneered the practice of having just one play on the bill each evening, then the introduction of the matinee performance…a practice that was later to be widely adopted by other theatres as a valuable source of additional income. The Bancrofts were also great technical innovators, and used electric lights for the first time on the English stage to create storm scenes and also give the illusion of moving cloud. These innovations, helped by improvements in public transport from the suburbs, were eagerly followed by other changes and turned the theatre of late nineteenth-century London from a somewhat disreputable form of entertainment into one that the respectable Victorian middle-classes could embrace,…. and bring their wives too!
Squire Bancroft was born on 14th May 1841, the son of Secundus Bancroft White Butterfield [1799-1848], an oil merchant in Rotherhithe London, although it seems probable that the family line originates from the Halifax area of Yorkshire. His full name was ‘Squire Bancroft White Butterfield’ and he started to use the shorter name ‘Squire Bancroft’ when he first appeared on the stage in 1861 at the Theatre Royal in Birmingham. Rumour has it that his did this because he did not want to bring disgrace to the Butterfield family name, as being an actor in those days was not considered a respectable profession….or maybe it just looked better on the bill-boards! He continued to use the name for the rest of his life after officially changing it by deed poll on 14th December 1867 to ‘Squire Bancroft Bancroft’ so he must have been happy with it.
The coupled were married at Marylebone on 28th December 1867, and continued to perform at the Prince of Wales changing from producing and acting in comedies to more serious dramas by the early 1870’s. Following their marriage, Squire adopted Marie’s son, Charles, as his own, and a year later they had another son, George. Respectability assured, Bancroft was elected a member of the Garrick Club.
By 1879, after exactly 4000 performances, the Bancroft couple had outgrown the Prince of Wales and managed to acquire the lease on the larger Haymarket Theatre, and after redesigning it’s rundown interior, reopened it in 1880. There was a near riot on the first night because she had decided to abolish the pit bench seats near the stage, where the rowdiest elements of the audience used to sit and replace them with more comfortable padded seats, and rename them “the stalls”. The opening night proved to be a great success, attended by a glittering crowd of high society theatregoers including the great Henry Irving.
The 1881 census shows them living in the fashionable area of Cavendish Square, London without children, but having six servants…. coachman, cook, butler, maid, housemaid and stable hand, which shows that they were by then enjoying an upper-class lifestyle. The census of the same year shows the two children Charles and George, away at different boarding schools
The couple retired from the stage, at the height of their success on 20th July 1885, having made a considerable fortune from theatre production, and then rarely appeared on stage again.
Their retirement from the theatre was widely reported and even the New York Times wrote an article about the occasion with the following glowing comments:
“The celebration of the retirement of Mr and Mrs Bancroft from the management of the Haymarket Theatre was a brilliant and memorable event. The Prince and Princess of Wales and their daughters were present and the auditorium was crowded with persons prominent in the literary and artistic circles of London….several of the theatres had altered the evening’s programme so that the actors and actresses at the different houses might take part in the performance…Mr and Mrs Bancroft appeared in “ Masks and Faces”. They were repeated recalled and were showered with bouquets. Mr Henry Irving recited a farewell ode…the curtain was raised again, displaying a stage fairly converted into a garden with bouquets, wreaths and other floral offerings, which were limitless. Mr Bancroft appeared, struggling with emotion and made a long speech, in which he thanked the public and all those who had kindly assisted in making the evening’s entertainment such a success. At the conclusion of his remarks there were loud calls for Mrs Bancroft and when she appeared, the whole audience arose and waved their handkerchiefs, while the stage was again showered with bouquets”’
After retirement from the theatre, Squire Bancroft became chairman of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art [RADA] and a member of the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Board for the licensing of plays, and was knighted in the Jubilee Honours of 1897, ‘for services to the theatre’.
Lady Bancroft wrote three plays and a novel called ‘The Shadow of Neeme’, and also collaborated with her husband in writing two books about their lives called ‘Mr & Mrs Bancroft – On and Off the Stage Years’ and ‘The Bancrofts – Recollections of Sixty Years’
From 1917 they maintained rooms at the fashionable Albany, in Piccadilly. Lady Bancroft died in 1921, and her husband Sir Squire Bancroft died in 1926. Both are buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.
I suppose the question that must be asked is…. where did the Bancroft middle name come from in the Butterfield family? There seems to be no mention of it as a maiden name in any family marriages, so possibly it refers to a godparent, particularly if the family line does originate from Halifax in Yorkshire, where the Bancroft surname is quite common….. who knows, but I would be interested to hear from anyone with any ideas about this.
I am grateful to Caroline Blomfield, who is the great-granddaughter of Squire & Marie and provided much of this information, and I want to finish with one paragraph from the notes that she provided to help me with this article, which is a fitting epitaph to Squire and Marie Bancroft:
“In the theatrical world of the 1880’s, dominated by great actor managers, Marie and Squire Bancroft were as celebrated as Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Between them the Bancrofts transformed the theatre of their day. Squire Bancroft was a capable actor and an even better manager, but it was Marie Wilton Bancroft who had the greatest artistic talent, and it was she who initiated the theatrical revolution that was to make their fortunes.”
I also want to thank Chris Gares who’s website provided some of the information for this article and has all the details on Marie’s son Charles Edward, and the theories as to who his father might have been. This is fascinating story to read, and can be found on:
Since writing this article, Caroline, has produced a book about Squire and Marie Bancroft entitled " The Bancrofts, on and off the Victorian Stage" It can be purchased from Amazon on the following link:
Alternatively you can contact Caroline direct for more information on the following e mail: