John Henry Alexander
Actor, manager and theatre owner (1796 - 1851)
John Henry Alexander, actor, manager and laterally owner of the Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street, Glasgow was born in the seaside town of Dunbar in East Lothian, Scotland.
He was already managing two theatres (one in Dumfries and the other in Carlisle, both called the Theatre Royal) when he appeared on the Glasgow theatre scene in the early 1820s. The Caledonian Theatre in Dunlop Street in Glasgow was divided into two auditoria so that comedy and tragedy could be performed simultaneously. The lease for the whole theatre was snatched from under Alexander's nose. However, he managed to lease the basement and ran it as a separate entity called the Dominion of Fancy. All this led to a certain amount of friction with the Caledonian Theatre above and a war of attrition between the two theatres began. On nights when a quiet drama was planned for one theatre the other would hire a brass band. Eventually the magistrates instructed the two rivals to open on different nights but the public came in their thousands anyway to see the fun and the more illustrious Theatre Royal in Queen Street lost heavily.
In 1825 Alexander bought the whole building and after fire destroyed the Queen Street Theatre Royal on the 10th of January 1829 was able to take that name for his own. He was not in Glasgow at the time of the fire, but Mrs. Alexander immediately went to London and managed to secure the patent in her husband's name - a long and expensive journey in those days, taking two entire days to accomplish it - and the patent was transferred to the subsequently renamed Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street. Once the patent was secured the old theatre and adjacent buildings were taken down, and what was then considered an elegant structure put up on the site. During the process of demolition and building, Alexander's father acted as watchman. While running the theatre, he was also ably assisted by his wife, who acted as secretary, treasurer, wardrobe-keeper, prompter, etc., Alexander's brother Charles took the money at the gallery, and his father was check-taker, so that as much as possible was kept in the family.
Under Alexander’s direction the Theatre Royal became the city’s premier theatre and he made sure everyone knew it because modesty was not one of his attributes. At one point, when the theatre was refurbished, he had a statue of himself put up on the new facade, alongside all-time theatrical greats such as William Shakespeare. Glasgow theatre was fairly informal, but Alexander seems to have been particularly casual. He was famous for wandering round the stage during performances, moving the scenery, cajoling the band, scolding actors and counting the audience to make sure that the takings were correct. He would even perform "Alexander's Jig" on request from members of the audience.
It was a principle of Alexander never to keep the stage "waiting" as it was called. There must be someone on it, or some business going on. He was observed, when a scene was not ready to be presented in time, to pick up a bread roll and a knife, with which he would go on the stage and extemporise a speech totally unconnected with the piece, and in the middle of which, he would pretend to be choking with the roll, patting his own back and making the most frightful faces and contortions of limbs, expressive of the agonies, mental and physical, of a man in course of suffocation. Meanwhile he would call aside to the prompter "Are you ready?" and with the answer, “yes” say "Then turn up the footlights higher, sir! Let us have something to cheer us if the audience won't condescend to do so." Alexander is also credited with inventing the Great Gun Trick in which the trickster seems to catch a bullet in his mouth.
An incident took place in the theatre in February 1849. Sixty-five people were crushed to death or suffocated as a result of someone shouting 'FIRE'. It was a false alarm. Alexander roared himself hoarse in efforts to calm the panic in the audience. He was said never to have recovered from the shock and died a broken man not long afterwards on December 15, 1851. The Glasgow Herald of Tuesday, February 19th 1849 carried a lengthy article headed as “Frightful Accident at the Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street, sixty-five lives lost.” The article contained a list of persons killed and injured, listing their age, places of residence and where they died if not at the theatre.
On the 1851 Scottish Census, John is living at 198 Pitt Street, Glasgow. His occupation is listed as Manager and Proprietor of Theatre Royal, Glasgow. He died later the same year on 15th December 1851 aged 55 years and his monument in the Glasgow Necropolis must be one of the most ornate there.
The above shows the monument to Alexander in Glasgow Necropolis. The monument bears various sculptures related to the theatre, with an appropriate epitaph at the bottom. The front section features a proscenium stage complete with curtains and footlights. The figures on either side personify Tragedy and Comedy and the laurel wreath that is lowered onto the stage reminds the observer of Alexander’s final curtain call.
The IGI genealogy site lists his birth as 30th July 1796 (christening on 7th August 1796). The same source lists his parents, John Alexander and Margaret Pitcaithley as having an additional 3 sons, William Alexander, born 17th June 1791, christened 19th June 1791 at Perth, William Stewart Alexander, born 18th August 1794, christened 24th August 1794 at Dunbar and Charles Alexander, born 19th October 1798, christened 28th October 1798 at Dunbar. Curiously his obituary states that he was one of five sons.
John Henry Alexander married Elizabeth Riddell, daughter of George Riddell, Coach Builder and Mary Learmonth at Edinburgh in May 1817 and went on to have 5 (known) children, George Russell Alexander, born 11th December 1820 at Edinburgh, died 17th June 1901, Elizabeth Alexander, born ?, christened 29th October 1826, at Dumfries, Margaret Alexander, born 3rd January 1829, Glasgow, Janet Eliza Alexander, born 4th August 1833, Glasgow and Elizabeth Riddell Alexander, born ?, christened 19th October 1836, Glasgow.