Coming from Newton Heath, part of Manchester, a place where the football team, Manchester United had been formed in 1878, the name John Billington combined with the profession ‘Block Cutter’ has always been difficult to develop for certain. There was even a Reverend John Billington, who was incumbent in the church in which one of my John’s daughter’s was baptised. The Reverend John’s name is actually commemorated in a prominent window at the church. The Victorian Champion Jockey of the same name has always been another curiosity.Learning of John Billington, the actor, I wanted to find out more.
John Billington the actor was born in Goole, East Yorkshire 1830 and died in 1904 His wife was Adeline, also a thespian and was born in Portsmouth about 1831
Following his early life in Goole, John would find his way to Brighton, where he is listed in the Census of 1871 as being resident with his wife and 15 year old son, Joseph Billington Shaw.
By 1881, John and Adeline are living on Hampstead Road, Marylebone, an area of London then famed for great writers and frequented by aristocracy and the like. By 1883, the Toole- Billington combination seems to be taking off, when the Times reports John to be playing John Perrybingle in Toole’s production of the comedy ‘Boys and Girls’ at ‘Tooles’ .
Toole’s theatre had been so named by JL Toole, when he took over the Folly in Charing Cross in 1879. An 1882 programme show’s John Billington performing in Betsy Baker and managing Robert McCaire in the same Bill. The Toole – Billington partnership continued through the 1880’s with show after show being advertised in the London Times.
In 1891 John and Adeline were living with relatives in Portsmouth, according to the Census of that year but by 1892, the 62 year old actor is back at his friends theatre and appearing in Daisy’s Escape.
In 1897, as reported in the Times, the 7th Annual Dinner in aid of the Actors Benevolent fund was attended by John Billington, where it was announced the fund had raised £1300. The Fund still runs today of course, with its patron now HRH , The Prince Of Wales. The Fund founded by Sir Henry Irving states of it’s history:
‘Irving invited Charles Wyndham, J. L. Toole and Squire Bancroft, together with other prominent members of the theatrical profession, to dine with him one evening in the Beefsteak Room, and it was on their collective initiative that a decision was made to found a charity to be known as the Actors’ Benevolent Fund’
Perhaps one of those prominent actors was John Billington?
In 1901 John and Adeline are living in Burghley Road, St Pancras, and now aged 72 he lists his occupation as ‘Actor’. Perhaps an Actor never truly retires?
Though retire he did and it was at the Haymarket theatre on Tuesday 6th October 1903 that John Billington gave his farewell performance in ‘Waterloo’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’, of Sherlock Holmes fame . The matinee performance featured such great actors of that era as Sir Henry Irving, who as we know, was another close friend of J L Toole, and founder of the Actor’s Benevolent Fund.
John Billington died on 5 Sept 1904, in Highgate Road, Middlesex and an extract from his Probate details his effects, valuing just short of £400 were left to his widow Adeline.
Perhaps a fitting obituary to this public performer, that unlike, his more infamous namesakes, the only hanging of this John Billington is that of his likeness in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
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