W. S. Penley

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Penley as the original Charley's Aunt, as drawn by Alfred Bryan

William Sydney Penley (18 November 1851 – 11 November 1912) was an English actor, singer and comedian who had an early success in the small role of the Foreman in Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury. He then achieved wider fame as producer and star of the phenomenally successful 1892 Brandon Thomas farce, Charley's Aunt and as the Reverend Robert Spalding in many productions of The Private Secretary.

Life and career[edit]

Penley was born at Broadstairs, St. Peters, Kent, England on 18 or 19 November 1851. He was educated in London, where his father had a school and studied singing at the Chapel Royal Choir. He was a chorister at the Chapel Royal and at Westminster Abbey[1]

Early career[edit]

Penley made his stage debut in 1871 at the Court Theatre as Tim in My Wife's Second Floor.[2]

Penley in Vanity Fair, 1893

He joined Richard D'Oyly Carte's Company in the chorus in Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury at the Royalty Theatre in London and on tour in 1875. In November of that year, he was promoted to the role of the Foreman of the Jury after the opera had returned to the Royalty. He continued in that role when Trial toured again and then was transferred to the Opera Comique late in 1876. In March 1876, he temporarily replaced Fred Sullivan as the Judge, when Sullivan's health declined from tuberculosis.[3] Penley returned to the role of Foreman at the Royal Strand Theatre and on tour in 1877.[2] Penley was considered to be an important addition in the small role, with his malleable comic features.[4] In between these engagements, he played Baron Jacquier in Nottingham through the summer of 1876 and Zapeter (at the Strand Theatre in London) in the fall of 1876 in W. S. Gilbert and Frederic Clay's comic opera Princess Toto.[5] Penley later again played the Learned Judge and also the Usher in Trial.

In 1879, Penley played Mr. Grinder in a revival of B. C. Stephenson and Arthur Sullivan's The Zoo at the Royalty. He then rejoined D'Oyly Carte as Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore on tour in 1879.[6] After that, among many other roles, he played Brother Pelican in Falka (1893) and the Reverend Robert Spalding in The Private Secretary at the old Globe Theatre in Newcastle Street, in 1884. He succeeded Herbert Beerbohm Tree in this role and was famous for his portrayal of it for many years.

Penley re-joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company again in 1891, playing Punka, the Rajah of Chutneypore, in The Nautch Girl at the Savoy Theatre, while Rutland Barrington stepped out of the role to tour with Jessie Bond. Barrington returned to the company later that year, and Penley moved on to other projects.[2]

Charley's Aunt and later years[edit]

Penley in "Charley's Aunt", 1892

On 29 February 1892, Penley produced the comedy Charley's Aunt at Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds, appearing in the role of Lord Fancourt Babberley (who impersonates Donna Lucia, as shown in the photo at right). Brandon Thomas wrote the play as a vehicle for Penley, and this turned out to be a very happy event for the star. The piece was a success, and Penley then produced it in London at the Royalty Theatre in December 1892, after which it transferred to the Globe Theatre in 1893. Charley's Aunt became an unprecedented hit, running for 1,466 performances in London, a historic record that lasted for decades. The original run finally ended in December 1896, but the play was revived several times afterwards. Penley's contract with Thomas gave Penley a seven-year lease to produce the piece, with an option for an additional seven years. Charley's Aunt would earn Penley £200,000.[7] During the run, Penley also directed curtain raisers, including Journey's End by Horace Wykeham C. Newte.

In 1900, Penley had the Novelty Theatre rebuilt, renaming it as the Great Queen Street Theatre. There he first produced and starred in A Little Ray of Sunshine. After this production came revivals of The Private Secretary and Charley's Aunt later that year. Penley retired from acting in 1901 but continued to manage the Great Queen Street Theatre until 1907.[2] Penley was a Freemason, becoming an early member of Green Room Lodge (an actors' lodge affiliated with the Green Room Club), and also the Savage Club Lodge, a lodge closely associated with the Savage Club.[8]

Penley and his wife had two sons and three daughters. After a two-month illness, Penley died at the age of 60 at his home in St. Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex.[9] He is buried at Hastings Borough Cemetery.[10]


  1. ^ Ayer, p. 288
  2. ^ a b c d W. S. Penley Biography at the Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte website
  3. ^ Ainger, pp. 113, 120
  4. ^ Walbrook, pp. 38–40
  5. ^ Photo of Penly as Zapeter in Princess Toto at The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
  6. ^ "Provincial Theatricals," The Era, 12 October 1879, p. 7; and The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 14 October 1879, p. 2
  7. ^ Information about Penley and Charley's Aunt
  8. ^ Jackson, John. MQ Magazine, Issue 11, October 2004, p. 18, accessed 7 October 2014; and Savage Club Lodge 2190, Savageclublodge.com, accessed 7 October 2014
  9. ^ The Times, 11 November 1912 Obituary notice
  10. ^ The Times, 14 November 1912 Funeral notice


External links[edit]