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Saturday, 9 October 2010


My distant cousin George Verrall changed his name to George Vernon when he became an actor. “Mr Vernon,” recalls Henry Dickinson Stone in his 1873 memoir Personal Reminiscences of the Drama, “was one of nature’s noblemen, a gentleman of the old school, highly educated, and a dramatic artist of the very first order.” (George Vernon was the name of a member  of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the early seventeenth century theatre company associated with William Shakespeare.)

He emigrated to Albany in New York State in 1827 in the company of the Fisher family, actors all. What a fascinating bunch! Like the Verralls, a Sussex family: two brothers and four sisters, all marinaded in theatre from an early age by a librarian father Frederick George Fisher who was obsessed with Shakespeare.

Jane Merchant Fisher, Mrs Vernon (1796-1869)

Jane Fisher, the eldest, was a tall woman with a slightly pinched but expressive face who became one of America's greatest comediennes, having made her stage debut at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1817. She was probably also the reason that William Verrall made the trip – they married soon after their arrival in America.

John, her eldest brother also achieved a reputation as a versatile comic actor. Amelia, who possessed a high order of musical and dramatic ability herself, quite the stage in 1840 to run a dance academy.

Caroline, one feels, had rather been bullied into joining the theatrical profession. She never pursued it in America, opting instead for domestic life as the wife of a newspaper editor. Charles, the second youngest of the family, acted briefly in the US before founding a weekly magazine for sports and the dramatic arts called “Spirit of the Times.” He did marry an actress however, and their daughter, known as Little Clara Fisher, took to the stage with a beautiful voice.

Clara Fisher, later Mrs Maeder (1811-1898)
(not Little Clara Fisher!)

Little Clara was named after her aunt Clara, the youngest of the six children of Frederick Fisher. Aunt Clara had been a child star long before she came to America at the still-young age of 17. After her debut in 1817, aged 6 alongside her older sister Jane at Drury Lane, she was hailed (according to her New York Times obituary) as “the most wonderful child that the stage had known, and her popularity became at once very valuable in a pecuniary sense to her father. George IV went to see her act.”

Starting anew in America she rose to even greater fame in everything from opera to comedy. People named their babies, race horses, hotels, brands of cigar, steamboats … even whole city blocks after her! She made and lost fortunes, and by reinventing herself as a character actress she was able to carry on working until ten years before her death, becoming known as “the oldest actress alive.”

Frederick Fisher’s Library in Eastbourne, c1795

I don’t know whether the Fishers’ father came with them to America. He used to sell books and stationery in Eastbourne and was later an auctioneer in London. An amateur actor himself, he had without doubt pushed his children into the life he wanted for himself. And a little piece of him does exist in the US, as an exhibit in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia – a series of papier mache models of Shakespearean locations in Stratford! Shakespeare's birthplace, the famous mulberry tree and so on. Frederick made them in 1830, perhaps for the Second Royal Gala Shakespeare Festival in Stratford that year.

How his handiwork ended up in Philly I don’t know. Souvenir-buying American tourists were presumably thinner on the ground in Stratford upon Avon in 1830 than they are now! Perhaps he sent it to one of his theatrical children in the States to remind them of their roots and their Shakespearean father. Or perhaps, if he did emigrate himself, he made it in America to remind himself of the roots of his great passion for the bard.


  1. I was wondering where the image of Clara Fisher as a child comes from? Is it in a viewable museum collection or archive. Sue

  2. Sorry to say I can't remember! I have her autobiography, which has many images including the Indian dance one above, and others of the child actor, but I can't find that one in it. It may have appeared online somewhere - I confess I was less scrupulous about noting sources back then. What's your interest in Clara Fisher?

  3. Thanks, Heart of the Wood. I'm researching images for a Shakespeare website. The image of Clara is hard to attribute. I can find the Indian dancer one in the London V & A Museum collection but at a cost... and it isn't a Shakespeare role. Thanks for getting back to me though.

  4. If you'd like to PM me via my website (link above right) I'd be happy to discuss the images in her 1897 autobiography, which I now find do include the childhood image above, and also one of her aged 9 playing Richard III!

  5. I'm researching family genealogy that includes the theatrical Fisher family. My great great grandmother, Oceana was the daughter of Alexander Palmer Fisher. I have found some information about Oceana and here sister, Alexina, that enjoyed early fame as child actors in NY and San Francisco, CA. I'm interested in the history and statistics of the Fisher family and will appreciate any information you can share. Email:

  6. Hi Stan, thanks for your comment. I've emailed you directly in reply.
    Best wishes,
    Colin Salter


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