From Ballet Dancer to Fish Hawker – The Story of Elizabeth “Minnie” Grisdale Gear

Posted: October 8, 2012 in C19th, Cumbria, Family History, History
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This is the story of a young girl who became a ballet dancer at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London, who married a famous and well-to-do painter, who lived the good life for a while and moved to America. But later poverty and tragedy were to strike and this young girl eked out her final years hawking fish in Falmouth, Cornwall.

Outside Drury Lane Theatre 1820

Because of tight licensing laws in the early nineteenth century there were only two main theatres in London – The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane was one. It was a world where high culture and society met the demimonde. Shakespearean, German and French plays were produced alongside music and romantic ballets. Talented artists were employed to capture scenes from the plays and ballets as well as being commissioned to paint portraits of the leading actors, actresses and dancers – for example of the famous though scandalous and notorious Edmund Kean. Starting in the 1820s one of the most successful and rising of these artists was the young John William Gear (J W Gear). Born in Alverstoke, Hampshire into a very talented and successful Hampshire family, John Gear’s father, Joseph Gear, was both a renowned marine painter and a musician in the Drury Lane Theatre orchestra.

John painted and engraved dozens of scenes from the vibrant life at Drury Lane. In 1824 he even painted the royal family of Hawaii who attended a performance at the theatre during a “state” visit to London.

John William Gear’s painting of the Hawaiian Royal Family at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1824

As mentioned, as well as tragedies the theatre put on romantic or “pastoral” ballets, which usually followed the heavier and more melodramatic fare. There was also what we would now call a “Corps de Ballet”, with principal and supporting dancers. Starting in 1824 one of these dancers was a “Miss Grisdale”. Her full name was Elizabeth Grisdale; though she was known as Minnie. Her name can be found on many of the theatre’s advertising “bills” in the 1820s – for example in 1825 she danced dozens of times in the “pastoral ballet”  The Rossignol – or, The Bird in the Bush. This followed various tragedies such as Macbeth, Der Freischutz and The Merchant of Venice, which featured among others the great Edward Kean and a young James William Wallack (of whom more later). She might have known Joseph Gear as well. The only record I can find that gives some of her (approximate) words is the report of a trial for theft heard at the Old Bailey on the 6th April 1826, it concerns the theft of a pair of Elizabeth’s drawers:

MARGARET HARDING was again indicted for stealing, on the 27th of October, 1 Pair of drawers, value 1s. 6d., the goods of Elizabeth Grisdale, spinster.

ELIZABETH GRISDALE. I belong to Drury-lane Theatre – I was there in October last. The prisoner was a dresser there. These drawers are my property; they were missed from the Theatre on the night after I left them, when I went there to dress – I cannot say when it was.

THOMAS SAMUEL RAVENSCROFT. I am a pawnbroker. I took in these drawers of the prisoner, on the 27th of October – I have known her some time.

GUILTY. Aged 28.

Recommended to Mercy. – Confined Six Months.

Elizabeth was born in the Tower Hamlets in the East End of London and baptized on 5th July 1807 in the Church of Saint George in the East. Her parents were Gideon Grisdale and Elizabeth Jordan. Gideon was a jeweller living in Ship Alley, Well Close, in Tower Hamlets. Interestingly Gideon had also been a party to a trial at the Old Bailey in 1813:

WILLIAM HALL was indicted for feloniously stealing, on the 16th of April, a clock, value 5 l. the property of Gideon Grisdale .

JOHN DUNN GARMSAY . I am a clock-maker, in the employ of Mr. Grisdale; I made the clock for Mr. Grisdale; he told me the clock was stolen out of the shop.

Q. Did you afterwards see the clock in the possession of the prisoner – A. No.

JAMES BLAND. I am a silversmith; I live in Norton Falgate. I bought the clock of the prisoner about four months ago; that clock was afterwards claimed to be Mr. Grisdale’s property; I delivered it to Hewitt, the officer. I did not ask him how he came by it, nor he did not tell me.

WILLIAM HEWITT. I am an officer. I produce this clock; it was delivered to me by Mr. Bland; Mr. Garmsay saw the clock in Bland’s window; I went and took the clock, and directed Bland to stop the prisoner if he ever saw him again. I know nothing more than finding the prisoner in custody.

John Garmsay . This clock is the property of Mr. Grisdale. Elizabeth Grisdale is too ill to attend.


London jury, before Mr. Common Serjeant.

Gideon Grisdale was born In Matterdale in 1777, the first of the many children of the old blacksmith in Dockray, Matterdale: Wilfred Grisdale, and his second wife Ruth Slee. Wilfred had been born in 1711 to Joseph Grisdale and Agnes Dockray. He had married Ann Brownrigg in 1733 but the couple had no children. But when Ann died in 1775, Wilfred wasted no time in marrying again. He married a young Ruth Slee (48 years his junior) in 1776, at the age of 65. But children soon followed, six in all: Gideon, Charlotte, Bilhah, Wilfred, Joseph and William. The stories of some of Gideon’s siblings are well worth telling and I will probably return to them.

The Old Bailey

As we know Gideon had moved to London and become first a “pawn broker” and then a “jeweller, trader and chapman”. But for reasons we will probably never discover by July 1813 Gideon had been declared bankrupt. From various notices in the London Gazette we know something of what happened. Several meetings were called where his creditors had to prove the debts owed and where Gideon was “examined” as to his estate. This took the better part of a year. Assignees were appointed to manage the bankruptcy and they then proceeded to sell off Gideon’s lease on his premises plus all his “stock in trade, household furniture, goods, chattels, property and effects”. Two dividends were declared for creditors before Gideon was released from bankruptcy by order of “the Right Honourable John Lord Eldon, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain” having “in all things conformed himself according to the directions of the several Acts of Parliament concerning bankrupts”.

All this was going on while Elizabeth was still a small girl. What became of Gideon and his wife after the bankruptcy is a mystery, they disappear from the historical record.

A Ballet at Drury Lane Theatre

Returning to Elizabeth, she was obviously a pretty young dancer at Drury Lane and there she must have caught the eye of John W Gear because on the 19th February 1827 they were married in the Church of Saint Martin in the Fields.

John and Elizabeth Gear never had children and when and why Elizabeth stopped dancing is unknown. But John’s career seems to have flourished and he kept on painting and engraving in the theatre throughout the 1830s and 1840s. The couple seem to first have lived in Wilson Street, Gray’s Inn Road, but in both 1841 and 1851 they were living at 5 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square a very prestigious and well-to-do address. Things looked bright.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass

Yet for some reason John and Elizabeth left for America in 1852 – moving first to New York and later to Boston. Perhaps the reason was that John’s career was stagnating, or perhaps it was in order for John to live near his father Joseph Gear who had emigrated to the United States many years before and was living and working in Boston; still painting but mostly working as a bassist in the Boston theatre. It’s possible that Joseph was ill and his son wanted to see him before he died – which Joseph did in 1853.

The Houghton Library of Harvard University, where much of John’s work is held, tells us the following:

John William Gear… was an English-born portraitist, miniaturist, watercolor painter, and lithographer, who specialized in theatrical portraits. His greatest work was the publishing of a set of impressions of theater audiences, Portraits of the Public being Heads of Audiences, …. This work was to be published a few at a time in pamphlet form, but only number one ever appeared. He exhibited in London, 1821-1852, and came to Boston ca. 1852 and set-up a business for cleaning and restoring paintings. Although he exhibited his work at the Boston Athenaeum in 1855, he sank into poverty.

We are also told that his father Joseph:

Joseph Gear (1768-1853) was a marine painter, engraver, caricaturist, and a musician. He immigrated to the United States in 1824?, later moved to Boston, and exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum, 1829-1837. He was said to be a “double bassist employed at Drury Lane Theatre, London, and Tremont St. Theatre, Boston, Mass.” John William Gear was his son.

But the sad part for John and for his wife Elizabeth was that:

In 1866 he (John) committed suicide at his father’s grave (Joseph Gear) in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Falmouth Harbour

A sad but human tale. What became of Elizabeth (Grisdale) Gear? Already in poverty it seems she soon returned to England. By 1871, aged 63, she was living in Falmouth, Cornwall, at 7 Briton’s Yard, right on the harbour. She was a “Shell Fish Dealer”, being born in “Saint George in the East, London”. Elizabeth, now listed as Minnie Grisdale, was still there in 1881, carrying on the same trade – as a “Hawker”.

A fish hawker was a trader in fish, much like what we now call a fish-monger. She would have bought fish from the returning fishing fleet and sold it to local people, probably from an outdoor stall. We can only imagine what Elizabeth thought when she looked back on her life. How she had been a beautiful ballet dancer at Drury Lane; how she had married a successful and affluent painter; how they had lived at ease in London; how they had gone to America where it had all gone wrong and her husband had committed suicide on his father’s grave and how now she was just selling fish! Who knows? Did her Falmouth customers hear any of this? And if so did they believe her?

Elizabeth “Minnie” Gear died in 1890 in Falmouth.

One coincidence might be mentioned. One of the famous actors who played on the same stage as Elizabeth, and on many of the same days, was a young James William Wallack. After touring extensively in the United States from 1818, Wallack settled in New York in 1852 and started “Wallack’s Theatre” in 1861. In New York one of the actors who was a regular member of his Theatre Group in the 1860s was a certain Walter Grisdale, about whom I wrote briefly on the site. Walter’s great great grandfather, Joseph Grisdale, was also Elizabeth Grisdale Gear’s great grandfather!

  1. Once more an interesting Grisedale essay. But may I query “John W Gear because on the 29th February 1827 they were married in the Church of Saint Martin in the Field”? Surely 1827 was not a leap year?

  2. […] From Ballet Dancer to Fish Hawker – The Story of Elizabeth “Minnie” Grisdale Gear […]

  3. […] From Ballet Dancer to Fish Hawker – The Story of Elizabeth “Minnie” Grisdale Gear […]

  4. […] From Ballet Dancer to Fish Hawker – The Story of Elizabeth “Minnie” Grisdale Gear […]

  5. […] was born in Carlisle, Cumberland, England in 1804, he had been named Gideon after his father Wilfred’s brother. […]

  6. […] in 1853, joined the gold rush, and later found a decapitated man. Another member of the family became a ballet dancer at Drury Lane, married well, went to Boston but died hawking fish in […]

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