Fred Clifton. Yes, the whole world of Gilbert and Sullivan scholarship knows of Fred Clifton. He’s the comic actor-singer who almost was. The man who after having played supporting roles in The Sorcerer (Notary) and HMS Pinafore (Bobstay) was intended for the London role of the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance. But a certain Rutland Barrington begged for the part … so Fred’s chance for fame was pretty well lost. And it never really came again.
David Stone has summarised the central part of ‘Fred’s’ career on his G&S archive site, so I am not going to repeat that here ... I’ll just put in the bits about his life, rather than his career, that I’ve discovered.
So, to start with, who actually was Fred? We have been longtime told that he was born in Birmingham, 29 May 1844. And guess what, half of that, I now discover, is right! And it is the date that is right! ‘Fred’ was actually born in Dudley, and it was his father’s name that was Fred. He was Tom. There they all are, in Castle Street, Dudley, in the 1851 census: Fred the hairdresser from Peterborough, mama Eliza, and four children of whom Tom is the oldest.
Oh, and their name is not, of course, Clifton. Fred was born Thomas Hunsler Green. How’s that for a discovery. And how did I discover it? Well …
Let’s dip into the early career. Someone said that ‘Fred’ started his career at Reading in 1861. Perfectly possible, but the first reference I’ve found to ‘Fred Clifton comique’, in tiny provincial concerts, comes a year or two later.
But very soon, it’s ‘Mrs and Mrs Fred Clifton’. Really? I have to admit I never really believed it. ‘Marriages’ were not always of a fact in the Victorian theatre. But this one was a fact! And the lady? She was Mdlle Therese Brunelli, from Italy, pupil of San Giovanni (or sometimes ‘Don Giovanni’), prima donna La Scala, Milan, soprano …
Now ‘Mdlle Brunelli’ wasn’t rubbish. During her career she sang major roles in London. But she was no Italian. Of course, she didn’t know that Census records would one day be on the internet, so in 1871, when Tom was pretending to be ‘Fred Clifton’ she blithely put herself down as Mrs Ellen M Clifton, born Teignmouth, Devon.
Well, she was actually born Ellen Matilda Hird in Shaldon, across the water from Teignmouth, and she married Tom Green 13 November 1862 at Liverpool. And it was from that marriage record that I found out that ‘Fred Clifton’ was really Tom Green.
The couple performed together in music halls and the like for several years (‘Mr & Mrs Fred Clifton, burlesque operatic, high and low comic, duettists and solo comic and sentimental singers’), often around the Hull or Sculcoates area where Ellen’s folk (father was a customs tide-watcher) lived. Dioramas, operettas, music-hall sketches – I have a long list of minor dates – until Mr D’Oyly Carte (agent) discovered ‘Therese’. And next thing she was up in London, starring in the title-role of Black Crook at the Alhambra!
At the same time, Fred was traipsing round with the Eldred opéra-bouffe company, and then as a support to Jolly John Nash in his ‘musical, mimetic, Protean’ act..
And then, somehow (I’m sure someone knows how), he, like Messrs Grossmith and Barrington, moved out of the ‘entertainment’ business and into Mr Carte’s company ..
Also, around about that time, it seems that ‘Fred’ dropped Ellen, and waltzed off with a lady who appears to have been a chorine named Mary or Marie Glover. They promptly had one daughter in England (while ‘Therese’ staunchly still billed herself as ‘Mrs Clifton’) and then fled across the Atlantic, as ‘bigamists’ in those days had a habit of doing, to where ‘Fred’ would find a moderate career and an obviously fulfilling family life which produced six more (illegitimate) children before his death in 1903.
‘Therese’ put an end to her singing career in the early 1880s, and can be seen in the 1891 and 1901 census working as an attendant at the Lunatic Asylum at Banstead in Surrey …
Marie? Couldn’t care….
And that’s it.
So there you are. The details and facts which the various articles on Fred’s professional career, and all those G&S books don’t tell you, here they are! … come on, it only took me twenty years ..