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Elizabeth Jane Phillips 

Mrs. E.J. Phillips [Elizabeth Jane] was born September 7, 1830 in Chatham (Quebec) Canada, made her stage debut in 1852 in Hamilton, Ontario, half-way between Toronto and Buffalo) in John Nickinson's company, and eventually became a member of AM Palmer's noted Stock Companies at the Union Square and Madison Square Theaters during what is described as the "golden age of American theatre". She was almost 53 when these letters begin in 1883, and had been in New York and with Palmer for 6 years.

With EJP's career, single parenthood (after she was widowed, and possibly before she married John Nickinson -- assuming she did), and addresses in funky parts of Manhattan, I've been revising stereotypes I'd held about Victorian women. It was also a surprise to realize that her San Francisco was before the earthquake, her Boston pre-Fenway Park and her Madison Square preceded the Flatiron Building.

EJ Phillips

Gilbert & Bacon, 40 N. Eighth St., Philadelphia 
Photographs as publicity       
Photos and playbills

These letters reveal an enterprising working woman who went to California seven times (but was dubious about touring Australia and boat travel in general), a devoted mother and grandmother, who expresses regrets about missing family birthdays and holidays and wearies of long train rides, but chafes when roles are not forthcoming and writes with equanimity of train wrecks and climbing Pike's Peak at 53, and visiting the White House.

I had hoped to find more descriptions of activities and people in these letters, and slightly fewer declarations of maternal devotion and remarks on the weather, but eventually a social history of the Gilded Age and the Victorian theater, house-keeping and childrearing, medical concerns and advice,  boardinghouse life, connections with Jacob Riis and tenements and long distance travel are emerging. The travel and acting schedules (when work was available) were incredibly hectic, and make clear why she didn't have too much to report about many of the cities she visited. What is surprising is that she does so much, read so many newspapers, was interested in visiting Indian reservations and riding trolleys and complains so little!

The more I read her letters, the more interested I became in putting them into context. I am still filling in contemporary magazine and newspaper accounts and reviews to get a clearer sense of what was happening over one hundred years ago. Her era was marked by rapid changes in technology, great volatility and uncertainty in the theatrical profession (and elsewhere during what has been called The Gilded Age) and trying economic times.

An EJ Phillips obituary describes the Phillips family as "in no way concerned with the theatre, and she passed her girlhood in an environment that would seem to offer small opportunity for the development of dramatic talent."  She made her professional stage debut in Hamilton [Ontario] Canada, on Easter Monday in 1852 as Grace Harkaway in Dion Boucicault's London Assurance, [Charlotte Nickinson playing the showier role of Lady Gay Spanker]  although at the end of her life she writes about several earlier amateur roles.  Her reviews of this time were "never enthusiastic, but were kind and encouraging". [Mary Shortt

The following was written in the last years of her life.
Elizabeth Jane Phillips, born Sept 7th 1830 in Chatham, Province of Quebec, Canada, daughter of Thomas Phillips, by his wife Elizabeth (Williams) Phillips
In my 18th or 19th year, I am not sure of the date, I was invited to join in an amateur performance for the benefit of a lady, who with her husband belonged to an amateur association of Hamilton and they were [illegible] of a lady for the cast of “Pride of the Market”.  They wanted me for “Louisa De Volange”. I said “No” and then they appealed to Mother, and after a good deal of coaxing they prevailed on her to let me play “for this time only”. And I did, making a very successful 1st appearance on any stage; so much that whenever the amateur company wanted to cast another play I was always sent for and given a prominent part. Costumes were furnished by the manager of the association and I was not under any expense.  I loved study and became enthusiastic over my work and continued to join in these occasional performances for about three years.

In the meantime I had received several offers of employment from professional companies and at last accepted one from Messrs [Thomas Pope] Besnard & Nickinson to open the season in Toronto, Ont on Easter Monday 1852 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. And here, and at that date I began my career on the stage, which lasted forty-five years, through the United States and Canada.

"Thomas Pope Besnard (T.P.B.) appeared from nowhere as the driving force behind the Lyceum Theatre and the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Toronto between 1846 and 1852; he then disappeared completely from the scene. The mystery man of nineteenth century Ontario theatre history, T.P.B. has occasioned much romantic speculation over the years. This paper removes the mystery, and details Besnard's prosaic life. ... Thomas Pope Besnard was a prominent figure from 1846 to 1852, producing, managing, and acting in plays throughout the region around Toronto, and especially at that city's Lyceum and Royal Lyceum Theatres. Murray Edwards credits his work with linking theatre in Toronto more closely with theatre in New York and London.3 And yet, after 1852, references to Besnard disappear completely. ... That drink had become a problem for T.P.B. was evident when he "appeared 'blind drunk' in one of his favourite plays, The Irish Tutor" on 5 May 1851. (Shortt, 76) Drinking may not have caused Besnard's failure to develop the Royal Lyceum to its potential, but it could not have assisted his efforts.

As a man of some intelligence, T.P.B. must have realized the extent of his limitations at the Royal Lyceum when John Nickinson brought a small company to Toronto for a short season from 12 April to 19 May 1852. Nickinson and his daughter Charlotte had appeared earlier in Toronto under Besnard's management, but on this occasion he brought a small, hand picked, wellrehearsed company, and chose plays with a popular appeal. As Shortt notes of this season, "In contrast to Nickinson's energetic professional competence, Besnard's bumbling amateurism was glaringly apparent, and with the end of the Nickinson engagement Besnard disappeared forever from the Toronto theatrical scene." (Shortt, 82) By the end of Nickinson's short stay before leaving for Quebec, everyone,29 including himself, must have realized the need to replace the popular T.P.B. with a professional theatre manager. That is exactly what happened when Nickinson returned with his company in the winter of 1853.30 " Patrick B. O'Neill, Thomas Pope Besnard Less than Enshrinement https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/tric/article/view/7223/8282

John Nickinson had made his first stage appearance in Toronto at the Royal Lyceum Easter Monday 1851. EJ Phillips was engaged for Nickinson's Utica, NY company and remained with the company until 1858.  [Shortt]    more on John Nickinson  more on Toronto theatre life   more on Growing up in Canada

Their first two children were born in Toronto Charles (1858-1859) and Harriet "Hattie" Nickinson Dolman (1860- 1946) and my great- grandfather Albert Edward Nickinson (1863-1948) in Cincinnati.    John Nickinson (1808-1864) died in Cincinnati, Ohio  EJ Phillips then worked with  Ben DeBar, Lawrence Barrett and Chestnut St. Theater, Philadelphia,   Charlotte Cushman    Union Square Theater Company   Madison Square Theatre Company     Death of EJ Phillips 1904           

I found a handwritten EJ Phillips autobiography in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Her manager AM Palmer collected them from almost every Union Square Theatre Co actor. There are boxes and boxes.. And I finally transcribed it -- hard to read, but i was delighted to find her report of Civil war Cincinnati as follows

Mrs. E. J. Phillips
In the city of Toronto, Ont. Canada, in the “Royal Lyceum” Theatre on Easter Monday 1852 I made my first professional appearance as a stock actress, playing “Grace Harkaway” In “London Assurance”. The “stars” Mr. John Nickinson and Miss Charlotte Nickinson appearing as Sir Harcourt Courtly and “Lady Gay Spanker” .

Previous to this time I had gained some experiences in an “amateur” association of Hamilton Ont. Can. where in my 19thyear I made my first appearance on any stage as M’selle de Volange in “The Pride of the Market”. The Manager of the Association Mr. John Harrison of Yorkshire Eng. , a portrait painter by profession and though not professionally so — an excellent actor and manager, having known me from my early childhood took great interest in my successive appearances and to his teaching is due the credit of my amateur triumphs.

For my second appearance he entrusted me with “Diana Vernon” in “Rob Roy”. A month afterwards I donned the somber embodiment?  of  “Lady Randolph” in [John] Home’s “Tragedy of Douglas”.  Then followed great predictions from  Press & Public of my future achievements and the “greatness” that was in store for me! 

But some good came from it! For our fame having reached Toronto, a distance of 40 miles, we were invited to repeat our performance in that city for the benefit of the “Irish Famine Fund”.  We gladly accepted and by our performance had the honour of aiding largely to the Fund’s  benevolent purpose, afterwards repeating in Hamilton and London  our performances for the same worthy cause.  

During the following years Charles Kemble Mason [1805-1875] came to the city and having of the successes of the association proposed to play a few “parts” with them.  And to his Glenalvon I again appeared as Lady Randolph [in the Tragedy of Douglas] this being the first professional with whom I had the honour to appear.  He also played the Stranger, Mr. Baker of the Association playing Dr. Haller and I the Countess.  Early in 1853 Mr. Thos. P.[ope] Besnard, an  Irish comedian and a retired officer of the British Army induced the  “Association” to appear with him in [Samuel Lover’s ] “The White Horse of the Peppers: how to pay the rent” etc.  I taking a part in all his performances which resulted in his offering me an engagement, he having become Leasee and Manager of the “Royal Lyceum” Toronto which he was to open on the 12th of April 1853. I accepted his offer and through him was introduced into the Dramatic Profession and began my professional career.    

I soon realized that acting was work not play! Day after day new parts were handed to me to study for the next night. But experience was gained and confidence strengthened and now – near the close of 38 years I still feel the benefit derived from those early struggles. During my first ten years I played in the chief cities of Canada and in the western cities of New York State. Playing with nearly all of the prominent “stars” of the time, whose kindness and encouragement are still happy memories with me,  Among whom I may mention C.W. Couldock [1815-1898], James Anderson, John Brougham [1814-1880], James Wallack Jr. [1818-1873], James Wallack [1794-1864] and Charles Mathews [1803-1878] Sir Wm Don [1825-1862], Charles Dillon [1819-1881], James Bennett? Mrs. Barnes?, Mrs. Fannon? Miss [Fanny 1821-1900] Morant, Mrs. Chas. Mathews [Lizzie Weston Davenport Mathews d 1899], Mr. [died 1882] and Mrs. D[aniel]W[ilmarth] Waller [Emma 1819-1899] and many many others.

In 1862 I was engaged for “Pike’s Opera House”, Cincinnati where I remained until the destruction of the theatre by fire on the 22nd of March 1866. The performance that night was a revival of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. [Alice Zavistowski played Puck.] Twenty minutes after the performers had left the theatre the stage and auditorium were in flames and all efforts to save any portion of the building were in vain. During my four years at this “Temple of the Drama” I had to work very hard and in every “line of business”. From Tragedy to Comedy, Farce, Burlesque & Pantomime, “Leading Parts” Heavies, Old humour & Soubrettes – nothing came amiss. It was very seldom that I was “out of the bill”.  [At least one source says that John Nickinson was not hired at Pike’s until 1863. Was EJ Phillips more employable than he was?]

During the war I witnessed many striking and patriotic scenes here. The soldiers from every state going to and from the battle field. Our audiences were frequently composed chiefly of soldiers. It was after the Surrender of Vicksburg [July 1863] that General Grant was most enthusiastically received here by the soldiers, many of whom had been with him through his campaign. T Buchanan Read [1822-1872] recited his poem of Sheridan’s Ride and arose with a greater ovation Capt. Wm. E Sheridan [1839-1887] who had been the ‘leading man” of the Opera House before the war and gave up his position to join the army resumed his position in Septr 1865. Made his appearance in “Effie Deans’ [character in Heart of Midlothian] carrying his arm in a sling, it having been wounded in battle. The company he commanded was present to give him a reception and they did it most heartily. Poor fellow! He is at rest now in a strange land. [He died in Australia.] 

During this season of 1864-65 a most unique performance of Hamlet was given by Gentlemen of the Cities of Cincinnati and Columbus for “The Benefit of the widows and orphans of the Soldiers, who died in the war”. Hamlet was represented by Ex Lieutenant Governor [Charles] Anderson [1814-1895 later governor of Ohio after the death of Gov. John Brought in 1865] of Ohio. All the other parts were played by Lawyers, Doctors, Bankers, and Brokers – Mrs. Thomas Barry [Clara Biddies married 1856] Ophelia -- a young lady of the Opera House Stock Co “players”, and I as “Queen Gertrude”. The house was crowded! Very large prices had been paid for seats and boxes. One box sold for $600.” The receipts were very large. The performance and ball?! It was for charity.

I remained in Cincinnati for another season playing in “Wood’s Theatre”. Scene painter ET Harvey compares the two theatres “There was a dignity about the aristocratic Pike’s which kept the general public from getting familiar with either the theatre of the company. But there was always an easy sociability about the “Old Woods,” It was built by Geol Wood, who had married Cincinnati’s greatest actress Eliza Logan. They moved to New York in the early part of the Civil War.” [and EJ Phillips knew them and their children when she lived in New York.]

The seasons of 67-68, 68-69 I was engaged in Indianapolis. March 68 I played for the first time with Edwin Forrest [1806-1872] and did not find him as difficult to please as I had heard – on the contrary he was kind and complimentary – I played Emelia in “Othello”, “Goneril” in “King Lear” and “Servia” in “Virginius” with him.

My next engagement was at the “Varieties Theatre” in New Orleans which commenced in Octr 1869-1870. 1871 Engaged by Chas Pope for the St. Louis “Olympic theatre”. This management having theatres in Memphis Tenn., New Orleans, and Mobile. The company was sent several times during the season to support “stars” in those cities.

Sept 1873 I returned again to the “Olympic theatre” St Louis when Mr. Pope was still manager reporting with the company on trips to the Southern cities in the spring beginning and traveling with Mr. Barrett until July and again engaged with him for the season of 1874-75 which was spent traveling through the United States and Canada.

Before closing my Season with [Barrett] I made an engagement for Septr 1875 for the Chestnut Street Theatre Phila. where I appeared as “Clarissa” in “Our Boys” which was revived in the Spring of ’76 and ran through the entire “Centennial” Summer and beginning of the regular Season Septr 1876. During my vacation in the Summer of ’77 Mr. A.M. Palmer sent for me to play Mrs. Tubbs in “Pink Dominos” which he was to produce in August. I accepted his offer and made my first appearance in the Union Square theatre in August 1877 in the above part.

Being still under engagement to [William D] Gemmill [(c. 1845- 1882] and [J Frederick] Scott of the Chestnut Street Theatre Phila. for the Fall Season. I could not remain with Mr. Palmer to travel with Pink Dominos and returned to Philadelphia to open our season. Our season was closing at the end of May 1878 I again made an engagement with Mr. Palmer to join his company then playing in Chicago, Ill. opening in the Duchess in “A Celebrated Case”. At the end of the Summer season I returned to New York and was then made a member of the Stock Company of the “Union Square Theatre” remaining there until May 1885.

The parts I was cast for under Mr. Palmer’s management at his Union Square Theatre were Aunt Fanny in “Banker’s Daughter”, “Lady Ogden” in “False Friend”, Countess in “The Creole”, Mrs. Powers in “Daniel Rochat”, Countess in “Danicheffs”, Countess in “Two Orphans” Mrs. Jarvis in “Lights O’ London” , Eleanor Mormay in “Felicia”, Tabitha Harewood [Trump] in “Conscience”, Prudence in “Camille”, Marianne Florence in “The Rantzaus”.

Mr. A.M. Palmer having become manager of the Madison Square Theatre reengaged for the Fall season 1885 at this theatre, where I first appeared as “Lydia” in “Saints & Sinners”. I was now in my 10th season under Mr. Palmer’s management. An excellent proof of his amicability and my appreciation thereof. He is a warm friend to the theatrical profession. To his increasing efforts and sound judgment are due its thanks for the present state of the “Actors’ Fund of America”. Under his management I hope to finish my career upon the [music?] stage.

I was born in the village of Chatham, province of Quebec, Canada on the 7th of September 1830. My parents were natives of Ledbury, Herefordshire, Eng. My father belonged to the British Army and with his wife came  with his regiment The Royal Staff Corps” [military engineering formed c.1800- c.1837 disbanded] – to Canada about 1822.  After his “retirement” remaining in Canada, and in Octr 1837 he went with my mother and I, his only surviving child, to reside in Hamilton, Ontario. In the private schools of that city I received my education. There in Burlington Cemetery my parents are resting. I have been a widow for 26 years, having a son and daughter, both happily married. 

In closing I will add a list of the principal parts I have appeared in since 1852.

Othello  Emilia & Desdemona
Coriolanus Volumnia
Hamlet Queen Gertrude
Merchant of Venice Portia
Macbeth Lady Macbeth
Richard III Queen, Lady Anne & Duchess of York
Comedy of Errors Adriana
King John Eleanor
Romeo & Juliet  Juliet & Nurse
Taming of the Shrew Katharine
Merry Wives  Mrs. Page 
Henry VIII Queen Katharine
Twelfth Night Olivia
As You Like It Celia
King Lear Goneril
Pisarro  Elvira & Cora
Lucretia Borgia Lucretia
School for Scandal  Lady Teazle, Mrs. Candour
Love’s Sacrifice Margaret, Hermione
Clandestine Marriage Mrs. Heidelberg
Rivals Mrs. Malaprop, Lydia & Julia
She Stoops to Conquer Mrs. Hardcastle
Stranger Mrs. Hallam & Countess
The Gamester Mrs. Beverley
Venice Preserved Belvidera

This gives a slight idea of the work done by your humble servant,  
Elizabeth J. Phillips
New York N.Y. 
March 8th 1890  

Sperdakos, Paula Canada's Daughters, America's Sweethearts The Careers of Canadian "Footlight Favorites" in the United States, Fall/Automne 1999 https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/TRIC/article/view/7084
trick B. O'Neill, Thomas Pope Besnard Less than Enshrinement https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/tric/article/view/7223/8282
Virtual Library: History United States The Gilded Age 1876-1900 http://vlib.iue.it/history/USA/ERAS/gilded.html

Last revised July 1, 2019

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