Charles Rice 1819 – 1880
Charles Rice was born in 1819 in Brompton, London and, at the time, his father was a contractor and builder engaged in the construction of Buckingham Palace.
Charles’ father managed to secure Charles an apprenticeship with a firm of engravers in London and during his apprenticeship, Charles was asked to take on drawing work for official publications of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Charles already had a taste for the stage and had decided to enter the dramatic profession in the future but one particular day, Charles was asked to attend the hospital to make a drawing of the head of a murdered woman, but was so sickened with the work, that he “threw it up and ran away from home”.
Charles joined a dramatic company; his debut noted as 1840 and began touring the southern counties where his abilities were quickly recognised; he was soon promoted to the position of “first low comedian”. The range of his skills were stretched at times, from farce to tragedy, and he played with “much credit” Shylock and King Lear.
Charles took an interest in The Liver Theatre on Duke Street Bradford, which was a wooden building at the time and had first opened in 1841. Charles joined the partnership of Messrs Woolgar and Mosley, and remodelled the building, he added a ‘grand new front’ which he had designed, and the theatre was renamed Theatre Royal when it reopened in 1844.
The first performance under the lesseeship of Messrs Mosley and Rice, took place on 12th August 1844, the first play put on the boards was ‘The Hunchback’, which was followed by the laughable farce of ‘The Illustrious Stranger’; or, ‘Married and Buried’.
Charles toured the country repeating his leading parts and appeared in Liverpool at the Amphitheatre in May 1849, at the Theatre Royal in Aberdeen in March 1847 and then back to Liverpool in 1848.
Charles was anxious to find engagement in London, so travelled there soon after his tour and made his first appearance at the Britannia Theatre Hoxton on April 29th, 1851, as his favourite character of Narcissus Fitzfrizzle, in Selby’s farce of ‘The Dancing Barber’. He also appeared at the Grecian Theatre, the Queens Theatre and the Britannia Saloon in London during 1851.
His appearances at the Surrey Theatre and also the Strand Theatre saw Charles acting in the burlesque of ‘Ivanhoe’. During this period, Charles was writing his own pantomimes, and, one of his most popular pantomimes, The Koh-I-Noor [also known as the ‘Harlequin and the Koh-I-Noor’ and ‘Princess and the Pearl’] played one season at five different theatres! His dramas also included The Three Musketeers, The Stricken Oak, and his version of Rip Van Winkle. During his time on tour, Charles married his wife Harriot Hart [1856.]
Charles moved to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow in 1858 acting in ‘Pauline and the maid of the mill’. Performing in ’Perseus and Andromeda’ in Edinburgh in 1862, and then on to Dublin starring in the original farce ‘Lord Dundreary’
1863 saw Charles perform as ‘Turko’ in his own work ‘The Merchant and Mendicant’ to ‘immense success’ at the Royal Princess Theatre in Glasgow.
The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser advertised a ‘New Drama’ starring Charles Rice starting the Winter Season at the Queens Theatre in Manchester in September 1863. ‘The Stricken Oak’ written by Charles, used a special illusion from Professor Pepper to great effect. Charles again starred in ‘The Stricken Oak’ at the Theatre Royal in Belfast  and delighted the audience once again with the special illusion in dramas: ‘The Haunted Room’ and ‘Dream Spectre’.
The Belfast News-Letter advertised on 16 November 1864;
“Last Four Nights of the Popular London Artiste and Inimitable Comedian, MR. CHARLES RICE. The Startling Spectral Illusion, THE GHOST, introduced in the Drama of “THE DREAM SPECTRE”
Prices of Admission Dress Circle, 3s; Upper Boxes, Is 6d; Pit, 1s; Gallery, 6d. Half-Price at Nine o’clock
Charles became Lessee of The Theatre Royal in Oldham, which opened for the winter season in September 1865, and it was noted that Charles was ‘a gentleman well known and appreciated as a comedian in this neighbourhood’
‘The Stricken Oak’, and ‘The Dancing Barber’ were performances offered for the public and once again the spectral illusion ‘was introduced with great effect”. It’s clear from many of the newspaper articles he was well respected and thought of as a great actor and comedian.
The New Theatre Royal in Bath played host to Charles with his play Rip Van Winkle during 1866 and Sadler’s Wells Theatre Royal saw him perform Rip Van Winkle during 1867. Charles became lessee of the Victoria Hall in Douglas, Isle of Man for a short period and whilst there starred in the ‘Rough Diamond’ during 1867
In 1868 he once again became the Lessee of the Theatre Royal, Bradford, which he “conducted with great spirit and liberality”.
Charles and his drama company from Theatre Royal in Bradford visited and performed in Halifax Theatre Royal and Leeds Theatre Royal in 1870 to perform his drama The Stricken Oak along with the infamous Ghost Illusion. Huddersfield’s Theatre Royal saw Charles produce Sir Walter Scott’s novel ‘Kenilworth’ in 1871 and then, during 1872, Charles toured around the country; from Huddersfield to Dundee and Glasgow to Bristol, all the while bringing his pantomimes and dramas to the masses.
Christmas 1873, Charles ventured to London to take a Covent Garden Theatre for the winter season, producing his pantomimes of Red Riding Hood and Little Bo-Peep. The result encouraged him to continue the experiment for three successive seasons and whilst at Covent Garden, he also appeared as Rip Van Winkle, and for a few nights as Shylock.
Over his long career he also produced:
‘Babes in the Wood’, ‘Dick Whittington’, The’ Forty Thieves’, ‘Blue Beard’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Puss in Boots’. In 1877 he produced ‘Aladdin’ – maybe his most elaborate work, then ‘Jack and Gill’ and finally in 1880 ‘Robin Hood’.
In addition to his production of pantomimes, Charles found time to as a scenic artist to create beautiful ‘act-drops’ [back drops] which patrons saw at the Theatre Royal in Bradford.
Charles had been ill for some time and in the autumn of 1879 was ‘seized with a sudden and sever illness’ whilst preparing for the latest production of Robin Hood. The night before the pantomime was to take place, he was carried from his home in Drewton Street, Manningham to the Theatre and watched the final rehearsal. Charles was never to enter the Theatre again; his health slowly deteriorated until his death on 12 April 1880 at about 3pm. The cause of death was stated as ‘inflammation of the liver’
The Era Newspaper in a report of his death stated : “It is impossible to properly estimate the sorrow and regret which the melancholy event has caused among all classes of society in Bradford, with whom Mr Rice was a general favourite, loved for his kind and charitable disposition, courted for his genial temperament and ready wit, and respected for his rare and exceptional abilities, both as an author, an actor, a scenic artist, and a sound, practical man of business.
Charles’ wife Harriot took the lesseeship for the Theatre Royal which continued until her death in September 1887 aged 51.
Research by Susan Crossley