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The rich man's son who survived piracy and endured poverty for an actor's life

By Tamworth Herald  |  Posted: August 12, 2011

  • Left: The only known image of Tamworth-born Anthony Aston, from the frontispiece of his work "The Fool's Opera". Aston is pictured wearing the cloth cap of a fool.

  • New York in 1700. Aston spent two years there, "acting, writing, courting and fighting."

  • Aston, who came from upper class stock, was tempted into a life on the stage.

  • Sir Nathaniel Johnson, governor of Virginia, offered Aston a commission in his regiment.

  • Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. The seas were a lawless place in the early 18th century and Aston sailed to the Caribbean when it was a hotbed of pirate activity. His ship was plundered after it ran aground off Virginia.

  • Sir John Barnard, whose Playhouse Bill was "laughed out" of Parliament after Aston made an impassioned speech to MPs and Lords.

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THE noble members of parliament had never seen or heard anything like it.

As they settled into the leather benches of the world's oldest parliament to debate a new bill, a colourful character took the floor of the Palace of Westminster, demanding to speak on behalf of England's actors, singers and wandering minstrels.

His name was Anthony Aston, although the people of 1735 England would have known him better by his stage name, Mat Medley. Dressed in the colourful garb of a travelling troubadour, Aston gathered himself for the performance of his life.

The ancient hall fell silent. A broad smile spread across the actor's face as he felt the eyes of his audience fall upon him. Theatrically raising his hands to the vaulted ceiling, he launched into a florid, boastful, ad-libbed address that left many of the assembled noblemen open-mouthed and others in fits of laughter.

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For 10 minutes, this penniless scoundrel, who was known across the country for staying one step ahead of the law, held the great and the good in the palm of his hand.

But Aston was not intimidated by the high rank of his audience, because, at heart, he knew he was among equals. For his own colourful story had begun 53 years earlier, in a noble household… in Tamworth.

Anthony Aston was born around 1682 in Tamworth, the son of Richard Aston Esquire. His great-uncle was Sir Edward Aston, whose son, Walter, was the first Lord Aston. His mother was the daughter of Colonel Cope, of Drumelly Castle, in Ireland.

His father had great expectations for young Anthony, who was clever and resourceful. He enrolled him at Tamworth Grammar School, which under headmaster George Antrobus had won a deserved reputation for classical education.

He wrote his first verses of poetry while at the school, developing the skills that he would put to use writing for the stage.

But his father was impatient for young Anthony to plot a worthy path through life, and as he entered his teenage years the family was moved to London, so that he could begin training in law, a fitting profession for someone of such noble rank.

A tutor, called Ramsay, was employed to teach him law. At the age of 14 he became, in his own words, an "unworthy, idle, unlucky clerk" to a lawyer called Paul Jodrel. It was a hum-drum existence for a creative young man.

But the move to the capital had also opened his eyes to the wonders of the stage and the distractions of the fairer sex. Not far from his offices stood the theatres of London, where performers like Thomas Doggett made audiences roar with laughter and saucy scenes set pulses racing.

"Instead of going to proper offices I would go to see Doggett make comical faces," he later wrote. "This you must think gave me a taste of the girls, and which I am afraid I shall never leave off."

Before his 15th birthday he abandoned the legal profession. A life on the stage called.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, entertainers were at the very bottom of the social ladder. Actors, singers and musicians eked out an existence, often travelling from town to town, and from inn to inn, trying to persuade people to pay for their services.

Often they would perform for food and lodgings. Sometimes they were banned from working altogether by a town's magistrates.

Worse still, the law ensured that only a few large London theatres, known as "patent houses", were allowed to perform the best-known plays and shows. It was a cut-throat business, populated by scoundrels.

Aston's family were outraged, but he was not put off.

"As for my relations everywhere, I don't care a Groat for them," he would later write, "which is just the price they set on me."

Young Aston got off to a good start, his noble background perhaps helping him earn a place in the Duke of Norfolk's company of wandering players, lead by Thomas Doggett himself.

In his first few years he appeared with the troupe at Drury Lane, and toured with them in Ireland. But it seems this first taste of theatrical life and the frugal existence it brought made him reconsider his options.

For a while, he fell back on his family name, becoming a soldier.

He enjoyed being a rich man's son in uniform, but soon found the discipline of military life just as suffocating as a stuffy lawyer's office.

He decided to try his luck in the New World, and in 1701 boarded a ship called the Diligence, bound for Jamaica.

However, Aston's roguish ways, and his eye for the ladies, meant the eleven-week voyage was far from smooth.

Also on board was a lady passenger, called Betty Green, who had been "sent away" by her gentleman husband, with a parting gift of £1,000.

Whether it was her fortune or her beauty that attracted Aston is not known, but the ship's captain recorded that he was forced to clap him in irons for "misbehaving" with her.

At the age of 20, Aston arrived in the heat of colonial Kingston and reinvented himself. Setting himself up as a lawyer, he made money, kept a horse and was invited to join the Governor's regiment as an officer.

But, as was so often the case in Aston's life, things turned sour. The Governor died and his replacement withdrew the offer of a job. Out of favour, Aston once again boarded the Diligence, this time setting sail for South Carolina.

His return to sea was even more eventful. The ship ran aground on sands near Port Royal, leaving crew and passengers stranded.

They no doubt celebrated when they saw a sloop approaching from Bermuda, expecting to be rescued.

But this was the age of piracy, and the seas were a lawless place.

The "rescuers" plundered the Diligence, and dumped its travellers on the beach.

Aston finally arrived in Charleston, Virginia "full of lice, shame, poverty, nakedness and hunger".

America at this time was an outpost of the Empire. George Washington was still a boy and British governors held power.

Aston turned on the aristocratic charm, persuading the Governor, Sir Nathaniel Johnson, to make him a lieutenant in his regiment. But he took a dislike to the captain and decided it was time to return to England, which meant once again boarding a ship to the ports of South Carolina.

Again the Gods of the sea intervened. The ship ran into seas so violent that Aston was tied to the wheel to "steer for 12 hours".

The tempest grew and the ship was dashed to pieces. Aston was washed ashore to return to Charleston with only the clothes he wore.

In 1703 he tried again, setting sail for New York, but was again shipwrecked and washed ashore in Virginia.

Determined to make it back to England, this time he travelled the rest of the way to New York by horse.

The rough and tumble of New York, he found, rather agreed with his nature. He settled there for a year, where he made friends and spent his time "acting, writing, courting, and fighting".

His acting pedigree and gentlemanly demeanour made quite an impression on the city's fledgling theatrical scene, and he is remembered now by American scholars as one of the first actors of note to work in New York, long before the lights went on over Broadway.

In 1704 he finally arrived back in England, penniless but full of stories of daring-do.

He went to London and married a "Fair Lady".

Little is known about his wife, not even her name, but it is known that she acted alongside him for the rest of his life. They performed in England, Scotland and Ireland, travelling from town to town.

It was around this time that Aston developed his trade-mark act, which he called his "medley".

In it he strung together famous scenes, songs and poems with self-penned verses and anecdotes.

It was a pot-pourri of popular theatre that proved a hit wherever he went. Adopting the stage name "Mat Medley", Aston began to become well-known.

In 1706 his son, Walter, was born but this failed to dim his wanderlust and he continued to tour relentlessly, with his family in tow.

In time, Walter would grow to become part of the act and would eventually strike out as an actor in his own right.

It was still a struggle to make a living, however, and he would find any way to avoid paying taxes or fees to the patent houses for using well-known material.

In 1717, he advertised that he would be giving performances of his medley for free, but that audience members would be required to buy a toothpick for one shilling, a clever way of avoiding paying fees for public performance.

On another occasion, he was unable to pay for his lodgings, so left a trunk of his silk costumes with the landlord as security. The landlord did not know that the trunk had a false bottom, and Aston had swapped its content for stones and cabbages.

In 1726 the family performed in Edinburgh, after getting a licence from magistrates, but this was withdrawn after Lady Morrison, who lived directly below the theatre, complained that her ceiling was caving in with the weight of the audience. Aston took the matter to court but lost after a tradesman confirmed the perilous state of the venue.

In 1728 he found himself once again on the wrong side of the Scottish authorities, after his son, Walter, fell for a local girl called Jean Kerr.

Her family took a dislike to the Aston clan, and Aston and his son were locked up for "enticing her away". However, she declared her love for Walter, they were married and the Astons were chased out of town.

By 1728 Aston was nearing 50, but he continued to tour.

In 1730 he wrote his best-known work, The Fool's Opera, which was published to some acclaim.

Then, in 1735, came his great performance before Parliament.

Sir John Barnard had introduced the Playhouse Bill, which aimed to strengthen the monopoly of the patent houses and further squeeze the livelihoods of travelling players. Aston heard about the Bill while performing in Leeds and rushed to London to implore MPs to throw it out.

He began his speech by introducing himself as their "most grave, facetious, profound, whimsical, humorous, serious, open and occult humble servant."

He told the house that if "all country actors must suffer by this act, I question if there is wood enough in England to hang them all".

He claimed that though he was "esteemed throughout the Kingdom" the London patent houses refused him work. If the act was passed he and many others would starve, he pleaded.

It worked. By tickling the MPs' funny bones, he had the Bill laughed out of the house.

It had been the performance of his life, but he was not yet finished.

Aston continued to tour and perform, appearing into his old age and even outliving his son, Walter, who died in 1740.

Aston died in 1753, although precisely when and where is not known. It is perhaps fitting that the location of the final resting place of a man who spent so much of his life on the road remains a mystery.

Anthony Aston was a nobleman and a scoundrel, a rich man's son who died penniless, who operated outside the law but made few enemies.

He saw New York in its earliest days, survived pirates and poverty and bamboozled Lords and MPs with his wit and wisdom.

And he was, in a time when travel was arduous and celebrity rare, a nationally-famous name who today is unknown even in his hometown of Tamworth.

As one expert wrote, just before his death, Aston was "as well known in every town as the post horse that carried the mail."

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