Hastings, Bullens and Bruces at Christmas


Pantomime and Christmas entertainments made up a huge part of the Victorian theatre calendar. Rehearsals would start in October and pantomime season in a large establishment could last all through the winter - sometimes right up until March. The Victoria and Albert Museum says that as pantomime became more and more popular, one production could last the whole evening's entertainment from around five or six o'clock until after midnight. Sometimes there were two performances a day with the matinee being literally that - a show that began at ten or eleven in the morning.

Several members of my family took part in festive entertainments from the 1830s onwards but the person who became most bound up with the pantomime tradition was my grandmother's first cousin once removed - Henry Cranmer Hastings. He was the son of Fred Hastings Bullen and Francis Cranmer Oliver, famous stalwarts of the Newcastle Theatre Royal, and staged the annual entertainment at the Leeds Grand Theatre for over fifteen years.

Henry was the youngest of Fred and Frances' three children and as with many acting families in the nineteenth century, he used his connections and followed in the thespian tradition. Instead of using his birth surname of 'Bullen,' he used the name Hastings on stage like his father Fred.

He was born in 1853 in South Shields, the first two siblings being Walter and Katherine who also became actors. 

By 1871, Fred and Frances were no longer living together so the family had become fragmented. Henry was lodging in a house in Renfrew Street in Glasgow and is listed in the Census for that year as a comedian aged 18. He then starts to appear in plays  either alone or with other family members; for example, in March 1873, he played the part of The Imposter in the play 'Naomi,' with his sister Kate and his mother listed as Mrs. F. Hastings also appearing.

Henry then returned to Scotland where he appeared both at the Theatre Royal Dumfries and the Theatre Royal Dundee. He was in the Company organised by J.H. Clynds which saw the refurbishment and re-opening of the Theatre Royal Dumfries in 1876 but it is in 1877 when it's possible to link him definitively with pantomime, with a production of Robinson Crusoe. A website which charts the origins of Robinson Crusoe on stage states, 

'The original pantomime plot took its basis from Defoe’s novel. The story in short is that Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on a desert island, has adventures involving the cannibals, meets up with Man Friday and is rescued.

 Later authors added new characters to fit in with the genre. Mrs Crusoe, Polly Perkins, Will Atkins were added to the tale, as were pirates and even Davy Jones. Some versions have a love affair between Crusoe and a native Princess, and royalty in the form of King Neptune, Pirate Kings and Cannibal Kings and Queens have abounded in the tales transformation into pantomime. Animals have often featured too, with parrots, goats, apes and dogs making appearances over the years!' 

This is evidently accurate for we find Henry as King Neptune, announcing himself thus,

'Here Neptune dwells; seaweed and shells,

coral and comical figures you see,'

This was a lavish and epensive production for the Dundee theatre which had experienced up and down fortunes over the years, but sets which had taken over six months to build and costumes by Mme. Auguste of Paris, not to mention Henry working as Stage Manager as well as playing Neptune, meant according to the Dundee Courier ' that those who make a visit to the theatre may anticipate a treat.'

On the back of what appears to have been something of a triumph, Henry's pantomime career really took off. In 1878 there was a notice placed in The Era on 28th May which announced that Wilson Barrett had assembled a  specially selected company to perform 'Proof,' beginning with a 12 day run at the Theatre Royal Manchester. Henry is engaged not only as an actor but also as Assistant Stage Manager. Acting Manager is William Lee Anderson, better known as Lee Anderson who had risen from being a ballet master to becoming Barrett's right hand man and choreographer of future pantomime ballets. He had been born in Plymouth but like Henry, had made much of his early career in Scotland.

November 1878 saw Barrett lease The Leeds Grand Theatre and he took Lee Anderson and Henry Hastings with him. The theatre, which was compared to the finest Parisian establishments, opened to the public on 30th November 1878. According to the Leeds Mercury, 'the house was filled to overflowing by a fashionable audience.' 

The first pantomime staged at The Grand that year was Blue Beard. Theatre-goers had a surfeit of Blue Beards in Leeds that year as it was also staged at the Theatre Royal! Newspaper reviews seemed to regard both productions as equally proficient but by 2nd February, it appeared that The Grand's piece was the more popular according to The Era which stated that some 200 people had to be turned away on the last weekend in January 1879.

Blue Beard by Gustave Dore

As the years went by, the Grand staged ever more lavish and spectacular pantos. 1879 saw Dick Whittington and his Cat which ran until March 1880. By December 1880, the theatre produced Aladdin which apparently took three months to put together and according to The Yorkshire Post, it 'transcended' Dick Whittington of the previous year, boasting a Jewel Cavern, a Feast of Lanterns and highly trained elephants and camels. 1881 saw Red Riding Hood followed by Robinson Crusoe in 1882 which starred Miss Fannie Leslie who was such a success that she  went to star in London straight after the Leeds run had finished. In 1883 came Humpty Dumpty which was said to be something of a meagre plot from which developed a romantic fairytale. Wilson Barrett, Lee Anderson and Henry Hastings (named as Barrett's trusty lieutenants all received lengthy calls and hearty applause according to the Yorkshire Post in the December of that year. 

1884  saw another nursery rhyme inspired production - Bo Peep followed by Whittington the Second in 1885. The end of the run of Whittington saw the Hastings Surprise Party - this was Henry's benefit for that year and was apparently a night to remember! In 1886 came the Jubilee Pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor, which included of all things, a football ballet. The Yorkshire Evening Post was extremely generous in its praise of the production and reported that Mr. Henry Hastings has had the shaping and arrangement of all the vast mass of material and has fullfilled his task with great credit. The following years seem to be those of Henry's greatest triumphs at Leeds:  1887 was Cinderella while 1888 saw Aladdin and His Still More Wonderful Lamp; both productions mentioning the skills of Lee Anderson and Henry Hastings as Acting Manager and Stage Manager.

Sadly, Lee Anderson became ill in 1889 and tragically died at the age of just 41. This meant that Henry was elevated to the position of general manager and for the next few years, it was he who was responsble for the realisation of the panto. 1889 saw Mother Goose and The Leeds Times said 'Mr. Hastings produced it single handed and congratulations must be offered on the success of his maiden effort.' In1890 he produced Babes in the Wood which was written by Mr. Wilton Jones who wrote all the Leeds pantomimes of the 1880s and 90s. 

1891 saw 'The 40 Thieves' and Henry appearing in the Yorkshire Post's column, 'Men We Meet, in which he was described as one of the most well-known faces that had appeared in this popular weekly feature as well as describing him as being descended from an 'established theatrical family.'

In March 1892, the pantomime closed with a record benefit for Mr.  Hastings when even the lord Mayor of Leeds missed his dinner to attend the occasion.December1892 brought another version of Dick Whittington but it was bound up with tragedy. Miss Wadman, the actress who was due to play the lead that year, became ill and died at the start of the run. Her funeral took place on New Year's Eve 1893 but in an ominous twist, Henry could not attend the ceremony due to his own ill health. This was to be his last pantomime. In 1893's Robinson Cruso, Henry's name was not mentioned. instead the manager was named as Alfred Barrett and the next time Henry's name appears in the news is on the occasion of his own untimely death at the age of 41 the following year.