Harry Rowe – The Puppeteer and Noisy Trumpeter

Harry Rowe “made a good deal of noise in the world while he lived, and caused considerable speculation among Shakspearian [sic] commentators after his death.”[1] He was born in Nottingham in 1728 to a school teacher and mantua-maker. Rowe was a “sharp boy” and when old enough became his father’s assistant at school; “but instead of attending to the morals of the scholars, he led them into a number of boyish tricks, such as breaking into hen-roosts, robbing of orchards, &c.”[2]

Harry Rowe

Harry Rowe. Public domain.

For his waywardness, his father apprenticed him to a stocking weaver, but Rowe “formed an improper connexion [sic] with one of the maid servants … [and] having lost his master’s good opinion … he entered as volunteer into the Duke of Kingston’s light horse.”[3] It was under Kingston’s regiment, Rowe obtained the rank of trumpeter and found himself ordered to Scotland.

In Scotland he became a participant at the Battle of Culloden, where Kingston’s troopers, who were not regulars, behaved beastly. They pursued the retreating army and killed and maimed women and innocent children. Having won the final confrontation in the Jacobite Rising at Culloden, Kingston’s regiment was ordered back to England where it was disbanded and where Harry Rowe suddenly found himself unemployed.

Thomas Rowlandson's Death and The Apothecary or the Quack Doctor, Courtesy of Wellcome Images

Thomas Rowlandson’s “Death and The Apothecary or the Quack Doctor.” Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Unemployed, Rowe decided to seek his fortune in London. He applied for a position with Orator Henley and was hired “in the double capacity of door-keeper, and ‘groaner;’ for which … he was admirably calculated; but being suspected of making too free with the money received at the door of the chapel, he was dismissed from … service.”[4]

The next position Harry Rowe worked was for a chemist, named Van Gropen, who was visited regularly by his sister’s husband, a “sham physician.” He assumed the title Dr. Wax. Rowe’s job was to “represent persons labouring under various diseases … [and] in the course of six months,  [Dr. Wax cured him] nine times … [of] dropsy, and before the expiration of his year, he had been the faithful representative of every disease incident to the human body.”[5] With Dr. Wax’s cure, Rowe’s reputation increased “insomuch that the faculty in the neighbourhood began to be seriously alarmed; and suggestions, tolerably well supported, began to be circulated, that [Rowe] was a hired impostor in the service of Van Gropen.”[6]

With all the rumors, Rowe became worried he might end up in the house of corrections and warned Van Gropen. Rowe also hinted to Van Gropen that he would make a better sham physician than Dr. Wax. Although Van Gropen agreed, he said no to Rowe because they were brother-in-laws. Accordingly, Rowe returned to Nottingham on the Nottingham fly where he became his father’s assistant again.

Puppet Illustration by George Cruikshank, Public Domain

Puppet Illustration by George Cruikshank. Public domain.

Harry Rowe then thinking about his career. “But [Rowe] being possessed of a mind that did not harmonize with the drudgery of a school … [decided on] what he called a ‘wedding shop.'”[7] The one problem with his idea was he was unmarried, and, so, he began looking for a wife. He soon found one. She was a woman who kept a millinery shop.

Rowe then decided the best place for his new wife and his new business was in Coventry, a city where Lady Godiva supposedly rode naked on horseback in the 11th century due to the high taxes levied by her husband. With a “ready-furnished house in the suburbs, called Bondfield House,”[8] Rowe also decided Tack was a better last name for his new business than Rowe. Thus, it was under the name of Tack that he advertised his new “Matrimony” business.

Rowe’s new business was a supposed match-making business similar to the business that marriage broker Claude Villiaume would establish during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, Harry Rowe’s business was where a gentleman could be “fitted with a wife as soon as his tailor [could] take his measure for a suit of clothes, and a lady … [could] have a husband as soon as her maid [could] … pin her handkerchief.”[9] Shortly, after Rowe’s advertisements appeared, “letters poured in from all quarters, and [Rowe] congratulated himself on his prospect of success.”[10]

Unfortunately, before his business got off the ground, his wife died and with no wife, Rowe struck a bargain with the widow of a man, who had died a fortnight earlier. He then came into possession of a well-appointed puppet-show and went from a marriage broker to an itinerant puppet showman overnight. Like Madame Tussaud would later do, he also toured with his show. He traveled throughout Scotland and northern England and, in the course of his travels, landed in York, where he became trumpeter to the High Sheriffs, a job that he performed for over forty years.

Harry Rowe With His Trumpet, Public Domain

Harry Rowe with his trumpet. Public domain.

Harry Rowe also soon became known for his “rough, ready, caustic wit, with which he interlarded the speeches of his wooden comedians, to the great delight of the audience.”[11] It was also in this capacity as showman, that Rowe kept a few stock plays ready to perform on a moment’s notice. One such play was Macbeth, which included a few alterations cleverly satirizing “Johnson’s, Stevens’s, and Malone’s editions of Shakspeare [sic].”[12] Somehow, however, people came to believe Rowe wrote Macbeth, and the belief was so strong that it was a “great mystification of later commentators.”[13]

In addition to Macbeth, another play titled No Cure, No Pay, was also attributed to Rowe. That play however was written by Dr. Andrew Hunter of York who was a skillful physician and able man of letters. When Rowe developed a long, painful illness and was “unable to manage his wooden company, the old trumpet-major sold the works of the charitable but satirical physician [Hunter], in all parts of the city of York, as his own composition.”[14]

After Harry Rowe died in the poor house on 2 October 1800, John Croft, a wine merchant of York, found Rowe’s memoirs, along with a musical farce written by him titled The Sham Doctor and then he published Macbeth and No Cure, No Pay.. The following was also written and appeared in 1828 “in print in Mr. Payne Collier’s interesting notice of ‘[Punch and Judy],’ … with illustrations, drawn and engraved by the inimitable Geo. Cruikshank.”[15]

“When the great angel blows the judgement trump,

He also must give Harry Rowe a thump:

If not, poor Harry never will awake,

But think it’s his own trumpet, by mistake.

He blew it all his life, with greatest skill,

And but for want of breath had blow it still.”[16]

References:

  • [1] Chambers, Robert, The Book of Days, Vol. 2, 1832, p. 436.
  • [2] Croft, John, Memoirs of Harry Rowe, 1800, p. 5.
  • [3] Ibid. p. 6.
  • [4] Ibid. p. 7.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 7-8.
  • [6] Ibid. p. 8.
  • [7] Ibid. p. 9.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid. p. 10.
  • [10] Ibid. p. 11.
  • [11] Chambers, Robert, p. 436.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Logan, William Hugh, Dramatists of the Restoration, 1874, p. 305.
  • [16] D’Avenant, Sir William, etal., The Dramatic Works of Sir William D’Avenant, Vol. 5, 1874, p. 350.

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