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Dolby's downfall, 1900 [audio available!]
Was it 'the incessant gorging and cocktailing'?
This week, an experiment! You can listen to me reading the text below using the embedded voiceover player here.
In last week’s Histories I shared an enjoyable account of Charles Dickens’ first public reading in the United States, in Boston, December 1867. It was written by his tour manager, George Dolby, who published a memoir of that US tour, Charles Dickens As I Knew Him, in 1885. My curiosity was piqued by Dolby himself, who seems to have been a larger-than-life bon viveur, a close friend of the author as well as managing his reading engagements and finances. And what particularly caught my eye was a passing reference online to his death as a pauper in Fulham Infirmary in 1900. How did someone so intimately connected with one of the most famous people of the age come to that pass? This week, after a lot of research in numerous archives and resources,I can tell you a good deal of his story – as far as I can tell, more than anyone has done before. He has no entry even in the Dictionary of National Biography. Yet his path crossed that of many other famous names of the time. So let’s begin.
We do have some info on George’s family background, thanks to research by Baldwin Hamey.His father was Samuel Dolby, a tobacconist then chop-house and coffee-house keeper in London’s Soho. The first child born to Samuel and his wife Charlotte (née Niven) was also called Charlotte, and an early talent for singing led to her studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Charlotte (1821–1885) went on to become (as ‘Madame Sainton-Dolby’) a famous contralto; and her younger brother George, born in 1830, later managed her appearances. In fact, it seems to be thanks to his sister that George met Dickens, who had met Charlotte in 1850.
In 1865, George had married Ursula Marian Moss, daughter of the local organist in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, and described as a “singer of exceptional ability” who was tutored by George’s sister. Their first child, another Charlotte, was born the next year (and lived until 1960). On 6th February 1868, during the US tour, Dolby received a telegram about the birth of his son, George Charles. Dickens – who became the boy’s godfather – arranged for a pony to be sent to the baby’s sister, Charlotte. (The author’s letters describe how the pony “trotted up and down the centre aisle” during the christening.)
Of course, Dickens was not long for this world after the US tour and subsequent British ones – he died in June 1870 (George’s book describes visiting him only a week beforehand: “it was painfully evident that he was suffering greatly both in mind and body”).
What next for George after the loss of his friend and financial security? Newspaper ads of the early 1870s show how he managed many operatic acts of the day – including his own wife and his sister. But perhaps his best follow-up was another literary giant: Mark Twain (1835–1910), whose 1873/4 lecture tour in England was managed by George.
Twain’s letters and autobiography give us glimpses of life in London, with his secretary, the poet C.W. Stoddard and Dolby forming his temporary “household”. Twain wrote:
Dolby was large and ruddy, full of life and strength and spirits, a tireless and energetic talker, and always overflowing with good-nature and bursting with jollity. It was a choice and satisfactory menagerie, this pensive poet and this gladsome gorilla.
George seems to have been known both for his robust defence (sometimes physical) of his clients against over-eager fans, and for his loud antics at the dining table and the bar – a theme we’ll return to shortly.
Alas Twain was only passing through, and thereafter George’s career seems to have become more precarious. If he had an annus horribilis, perhaps it was 1875. In April that year, the London Gazette reveals he filed for bankruptcy. A tour of Scotland with the German conductor and virtuoso pianist Hans von Bülow hadn’t gone well: a newspaper report notes the musician “found himself a loser to the extent of £1,493, through the failure of his agent, Mr George Dolby”. Von Bülow had described George as “a splendid mixture of Gentleman and Clown” and initially said “I cannot do without him” – but he resented George’s 10% commission, and then came to believe that George was swindling him out of some of the tour receipts.
And then: joy was followed by disaster. A daughter was born to George and Ursula on 30th September – and only days later, on 8th October, Ursula died suddenly, aged only 37 (I think the daughter died in infancy too).
That autumn, George tried to rally his affairs by entering into a business partnership with the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, the man who made Gilbert and Sullivan famous. But their venture as joint “opera and concert agents” failed and was “dissolved by mutual consent” in February 1876. Ten years later, a columnist in the magazine The Theatre reminisced in a snarky piece about George. It mentioned another tour of the States that Dolby undertook in the 1870s as the “Dolby Ballad Concert Company” which failed, and observed:
George Dolby went home, and according to late advices is, in the language of the day, traveling on his “uppers” and vainly persuading managers to buy “his recollections of Charles Dickens in America.” The reminiscences only cover a period of six months, but Mr. Dolby has contrived to fill three volumes with them…
He had clearly been planning the book for some while. In 1881, the American Register mentioned he was working on it, although it would take another four years to appear. The same paper noted George “had a vigorous constitution and was a great eater and a splendid drinker”.
George must have still had some appeal though: less than a year after the death of Ursula, he remarried, this time to a young music teacher (she was 18, he was 46) by the name of Emma Howes, from Battersea. They had two further children, Emma Maud(e) in 1877 and Samuel Edward in 1878. Were the demands of two families, combined with his extravagant lifestyle, proving too much of a drain? We all know the performing arts is a precarious trade, and as the phone might stop ringing today, the visitors’ cards perhaps stopped landing then.
What happened to George’s second wife and children? I haven’t found much to go on. His son George Charles (lodging with George near Manchester on the 1881 census night) was an architect’s assistant by 1891, but then left to pursue an artistic career in Paris and the trail goes cold (he possibly went to Canada). Emma junior and Samuel both married, as did Charlotte, and there were various grandchildren. On that same night in 1881, Emma senior was with her children in Clapham, but she appears to have died before 1891.
In the 1880s, there were more downs than ups. George’s book temporarily revived his fortunes (although reviews were certainly mixed) but an October 1886 newspaper report reveals he was “seriously ill in the Charing Cross Hospital”. Just four months later, he must have been feeling better, given that he opted to conduct a libel suit. The Morning Post for 22nd February 1887 provides a lively account of Dolby v. Newnes, which I won’t give in full here but the case related to an after-dinner speech by the American theatrical manager Howard Paul (1830–1905), which was then reported in publisher George Newnes’ magazine Tit-Bits. The key part is this alleged quote from Dickens:
[Dolby] possessed unlimited capacity for eating and drinking and had noble digestive powers. When any body called on me and suggested a drink I gently deputed Dolby to do it for me. When I was asked out to dinner and couldn’t conveniently attend Dolby turned up as my representative and occupied my place. He did most of my superfluous eating and drinking, and so saved me a vast deal of exhaustive festivity. In point of fact,’ concluded Mr. Dickens, ‘I simply engaged Dolby’s stomach. Then I perfectly understood. I remembered that Dolby had a fine, well seasoned, British iron-clad interior, and revelled in what he was wont to call ‘a big dinner.’ Mr. Dickens looked all the better for his American trip. Shortly after this I met Dolby at the club, and he was relatively a wreck. The incessant gorging and cocktailing, whisky scouring, champagning, liquoring, and other alcoholic frivolities had done their fell work, but Dolby still lives to protest that the Americans are the most hospitable people on the face of the earth.
The legal battle focused on whether something said in person (perhaps a case of slander) then became a more serious matter (libel) when in print. George’s legal team won, and he was awarded £100 – that’s probably more than £10,000 today, although I suspect George found a way to spend it quickly. Less than four years later, on the night of the 1891 census (5th April), he was listed as a 60-year-old widower (occupation “author”) at the Cleveland Street asylum – a workhouse/hospital that in an ironic twist was only doors from where Dickens had lived 75 years earlier and is believed to have been an inspiration for Oliver Twist.
I’ve found possible evidence for him running another failed musical event in 1893, but other than that he disappeared from public view. In November 1899, a newspaper reported that he was “said to be at the present moment lying ill in one of the London hospitals”. And then we only need turn to the Daily News of Monday 15th October 1900 for the final act of his story.
George Dolby, formerly private secretary to Charles Dickens, went to Fulham Infirmary twelve days ago, penniless, dirty, emaciated, and unkempt. He died on Wednesday of last week, and at the inquest on Saturday it was stated that he was insured for £3000 in favour of an artist son in Paris. He had no income, but was supplied with money by his friends. He drank to excess, and was turned from his lodgings in Hammersmith on account of his dirty habits. He formerly lived in Herefordshire, and had made large sums of money in the past. A distant relative named Rycroft, who identified, said he thought the deceased got so shabby that he had been ashamed lately to approach his friends for help. The verdict was “Bronchitis, accelerated by self-neglect.”
The last chapter in the life of the man who was Dickens’s aide-de-camp during some of his famous reading tours, both at home and in America, reads like a grotesque episode in a Wilkie Collins novel… Yet for several years Dolby had shared in some of the greatest personal triumphs of the novelist’s life, and lived with him on terms of the greatest intimacy… Dickens’s own letters are full of references to “Dolby,” and very curious and amusing they are.
The history of Dolby is the history of the readings. He was always in difficulties. So fierce was the demand to hear the reader that Dolby, not being Procrustes, could never accommodate the hall to the public. But enthusiastic crowds used to fill them to the roofs, and hundreds used to be turned away nightly. Their only resource was to “pitch into Dolby.”
“In Dublin,” says Dickens, “people are besieging Dolby to put chairs anywhere: in doorways, on my platform, in any sort of hole and corner. This was in Dublin. In Liverpool the police intimated officially that three thousand people were turned away—they carried in the outer doors and pitched into Dolby.”
It was Dolby who used to administer to the distinguished reader the oysters and champagne, and other fillips, between the “acts” in the dressing room. It was Dolby who used to amuse him in the harassing railway journeys between the towns and cities. It was Dolby who, bubbling over with joy, used to bring him the evidence of his amazing popularity, as judged by the heavy bags of money jingling in his hand. And sometimes Dolby used to come with hair dishevelled, and garments torn and tattered, after a fight with an enraged and disappointed crowd. It was Dolby who used even to help him on with his clothes when there was a train to catch after the reading was over… Then it was Dolby who used carry him off to the sea for a whiff of the briny. It was Dolby who used to provide cold collations and the best of drinks for those night journeys. At some of the bigger cities the excitement to hear him was so great that Dolby used to leave the genteel parts of the house and stem “the shilling tide.”
It was Dolby who kept off too pressing callers. There was a poet, for instance, who had christened his child after Dickens, and haunted him…
It was Dolby who fought the speculators who made corners in tickets for the readings… Although no one could buy more than six tickets, of course they employed others to buy for them, and then ran the prices up. Great indignation was the result, and Dolby was the man who was, metaphorically speaking, tarred and feathered in the daily papers… poor Dolby was the most unpopular and best abused man in America.
“This chap calling himself Dolby got drunk down town last night, and was taken to the police station for fighting an Irishman.” That was a sample of the lies that were told about Dolby, whose real crime was to have refused advertisements to the conductors of the journal in which the paragraph appeared…
It was Dolby who got confused with his manifold duties that he once sent an advertisement in these astonishing terms to the papers:—
“The reading will be comprised within two minutes, and the audience are earnestly entreated to be seated ten hours before its commencement.”
But it was Dolby who counted the money, which was the most interesting of all his duties. His own commission was £3000! The expenses were about £14,000. Dickens’ net reward was £20,000. The whole set produced over £30,000. But they killed him, and poor Dolby does not seem to have benefited much by his honorarium.
Alas, poor Dolby: swept up on the coat-tails of fame, only to land in the gutter. Like a character in Wilkie Collins? Perhaps, but so much more like one from Dickens himself. There’s more still to be told about George Dolby’s life, but I’ll save that for the future.
The longest piece about him I have found is here, but it focuses mostly on the American tour, and gives no details of his life between 1870 and 1900.
My source for this is Alan Walker’s Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times.
The account itself takes the opportunity to recall Dickens’ tour of America in some detail – here I have included only the parts relating to Dolby.