William Payne (pantomimist)

W H Payne in the title role as Bluebeard; or, Harlequin and Freedom in Her Island Home (1860)

William Henry Schofield Payne (1804–18 December 1878) was an actor and pantomimist who created much of the stage business connected with the character Harlequin. He was the father of the Victorian era pantomime clowns the Payne Brothers.

Born in the City of London in 1804, W H Payne was apprenticed to Isaac Cowen, a stockbroker; but in his eighteenth year he ran away, and joined a travelling theatrical company in the Warwickshire circuit. He rose to play small parts at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. Returning to London, he studied under Grimaldi and Bologna at Sadler's Wells Theatre, and then obtained an engagement at an east-end theatre, and in the following year (1825) migrated to the Pavilion Theatre. Here he remained some years, playing small parts, which he raised into importance by the admirable expression of his pantomimic action. At Christmas he represented the clown, with Miss Rountree (afterwards his first wife) as Columbine. Payne would wear a partial mask, so contrived that the play of his features could be seen. This was little more than a nose and forehead, and sometimes a separate chin.[1] On 26 December 1831 he made his first appearance at the Covent Garden Theatre in the pantomime Hop o' my Thumb and his Brothers by Charles Farley, in which he played Madoc Mawr, the Welsh ogre, Miss Poole being Little Jack, and Priscilla Horton (afterwards Mrs German Reed) the Genius of the Harp. The next year he was still more successful in the pantomime produced on 26 December and called Puss in Boots, in which his character was Tasnar, chief of the Long Heads and No Bodies.[2][3][4]

During his long career Payne played many parts, ranging from pantomime to tragedy. He was harlequin to Joe Grimaldi's clown at Sadler's Wells in 1827; he was Dandy Lover to young Joe Grimaldi's clown, and made a capital clown himself. He acted in tragedy with Charles Mayne Young, Charles Kemble, James Wallack and Edmund Kean, and on Kean's last appearance (Covent Garden, 25 March 1833), when playing Othello, and unable to finish the part through illness, it was Payne, then acting Ludovico, who carried him off the stage. He prominently figured in grand ballet with Pauline Leroux, Fanny Cerrito, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny and Therese Elssler and other dancers of note, and played in state before George IV, William IV, Victoria, Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie.[1][2][4]

In 1836 Payne was stage manager at the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel[5] and in 1841 he was back at Covent Garden, and filled the rôle of Guy, Earl of Warwick, in the pantomime produced at Christmas. On 31 March 1847 he opened at Vauxhall Gardens in a ballet with his wife and his sister, Miss Annie Payne. In 1848 he was engaged by John Knowles for the Theatre Royal, Manchester, and here he remained seven years, increasing the annual run of the pantomime from its usual twenty-four nights to one hundred, and making Robinson Crusoe so attractive that it was represented 125 nights consecutively. On leaving Manchester he appeared with his sons at Sadler's Wells in the pantomime of the Forty Thieves at Christmas 1854. Latterly the Payne family were regularly engaged for Covent Garden, where they became the chief actors and pantomimists in the openings, as well as the contrivers and performers of the harlequinades. They were also frequently seen at the Standard Theatre, the Crystal Palace, and other places. At Christmas 1860 Payne played the title role in Bluebeard; or, Harlequin and Freedom in Her Island Home at the Covent Garden Theatre.[6]

Through the whole of his career Payne's private virtues commanded the respect of the profession. In his later years as his powers as a mime faded Payne moved into speaking roles in burlesque.[1] He died at Calstock House, Dover, on 18 December 1878. A writer in The Spectator said: ‘The last true mime has departed in the person of W. H. Payne.’[2][4][7]


Payne's sons, The Payne Brothers: Harry (left) and Fred Payne

By his first wife Payne had four children: Harriet Farrell, who married Aynsley Cook, and, with her husband, took leading rôles in operatic performances; Annie, a dancer and actress, who married William Turner; Harry (1833–1895), pantomimist and clown at Drury Lane; Frederick, born January 1841, who came from Manchester to London with his father in 1854, and made his first appearance in a juvenile part in the pantomime of the Forty Thieves at Sadler's Wells. When the Payne family became regularly engaged for the Covent Garden pantomimes, he acquired distinction as the harlequin and as a graceful and grotesque dancer. His ‘hat dance’ in the pantomime of Cinderella in 1865 was singularly quaint and clever. In 1877, while engaged in the pantomime at the Alexandra Palace, his mind became affected, and from this affliction he never thoroughly recovered, and he died at 3 Alexandra Road, Finsbury Park, London, on 27 February 1880, aged only 39.[4][8][9][10][11]


  1. ^ a b c 'The Last of the Mimes', The Spectator, 28 December 1878, pp. 1633–4
  2. ^ a b c Boase, George Clement (1895). "Payne, William Henry Schofield" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 44. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  3. ^ The Era 22 December 1878, p. 12
  4. ^ a b c d Boase, G. C. Payne, William Henry Schofield (1803–1878)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 28 April 2018 (subscription required)
  5. ^ Cast of The Blind Beggar of Bethnal n (1836) - East London Theatre Archive
  6. ^ Flyer advertising Bluebeard; or, Harlequin and Freedom in Her Island Home - Footlight Notes website
  7. ^ E. Stirling, Old Drury Lane, (1881), ii. 204–5
  8. ^ The Era, 29 February 1880, p. 6
  9. ^ E. Reid and H. Compton, eds., The Dramatic Peerage, 1891, pp. 185–6
  10. ^ The life and reminiscences of E. L. Blanchard, with notes from the diary of Wm. Blanchard, ed. C. W. Scott and C. Howard, 2 vols. (1891), i. 57, 127, 214, 303, 318, ii. 444
  11. ^ D. Pickering, ed., Encyclopaedia of Pantomime (1993), 152, 82