John Henry was born on 6 Feb 1838 to Samuel & Mary (née Behenna) Brodribb in Keinton-Mandeville in Somerset. Samuel had departed from the traditional farming occupation of his Clutton family and was a travelling salesman for the tailors of a large general store in the then prosperous quarry town. It was presumably on one of these sales forays that he met Mary in St. Ives. The cottage weaving industry was soon to be overtaken by the industrial revolution and Samuel had to look for work elsewhere. In 1842 the family moved to Bristol and lived in No. 1, Ashley Road, Montpelier where there is a blue plaque to Sir Henry. This does not contain any dates, which is probably just as well because, depite one account speculating that the young Johnny may have supped his first ale in the nearby Old England, it is doubtful that he spent more than a few months there. His parents, fearing for his delicate health in the damp and grime of Bristol, sent him to stay with his maternal aunt’s family back in Cornwall. They were Sarah and Isaac Penberthy who resided in Halsetown, a new model village built to the south of St. Ives. The following account of his time there was published in the Journal of the Old Cornwall Society, Volume 2, Part VII, April 1934 apparently from the recollections of contemporary witnesses to at least his return visits.
SIR Henry Irving, or to give him his real name, John Henry Brodribb, was born near Bristol; but his mother was a member of the family of Behenna, a family that has lived at or near St. Ives for generations. He spent many of his holidays with his mother’s people at Halsetown, and when he was four years old he came to stay there for some years with his mother’s sister Sarah (Sally), who had married a mine captain, Isaac Penberthy by name.
His aunt seems to have been a woman of decided character and spirit, serious, yet with a sense of humour which enabled her to cope successfully with her husband, who is described as a very passionate man given to violent outbursts of temper. In one of these fits it is related that he raged about the house, tearing down pictures and smashing the furniture till, his passion slightly assuaged, he flung off to his duties at the “bal.” Mrs. Penberthy, however, was not to be intimidated by all this and she determined to teach him a lesson, so calmly fetching hammer, nails and cord, she proceeded to hang all the debris of furniture, pictures, and ornaments round the sitting room. When the captain, feeling rather ashamed after his outburst, again entered his home, and beheld this novel scheme of decoration, he burst out laughing, but this humorous object-lesson is said to have had the desired result.
Mrs. Penberthv was a devout Methodist and a pillar of the Halsetown Wesleyan Chapel, although strangely enough she believed in the greater efficacy of the rites of the Church of England. and had her children baptised and confirmed at Lelant Church. It was her hope that “Johnny,” as Irving was called by his relations, would become a minister when he grew up and deep was her disappointment when he chose differently. It is said, however, that he obliged her once in this respect. On one of his later visits, when the preacher failed to put in an appearance, he led the service at chapel and preached the sermon!
In other years Irving’s aunt was reconciled to his choice of profession so far as to go to London on purpose to see him act at the Lyceum Theatre. She staved with the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who made much of her. Great preparations were made, and a new black satin dress was bought purposely. The old lady’s scruples proved too strong for her after all, however, and when her nephew came to see her in the afternoon before the performance, she said “Well Johnny, I know you’re not doing any harm, but I’ve taken it to the Lord in prayer, and I cannot enter a play-house!”
Such a woman was well able to curb and guide the restlessness of wayward genius. That Irving was greatly attached to her and her family is proved by his frequent visits subsequently, and by his regard for his cousins, of whom he spoke as his “brother and sister.”
Sir Henry Irving is remembered at Halsetown as being a delicate child, but full of energy and spirit, and up to as many pranks as any boy. Many were the rents and tears that his aunt had to mend for him, and often he wore out the seats or his trousers when sliding down “The Rocks,” a pile of granite rocks close to the Top Row of houses in Halsetown, and a favourite playing-place for children, now as much as then. Great fun was one day caused by his bestriding a donkey head-to-tail, and in this manner riding it through Halsetown Hotel from the back door to the front!
His histrionic ability seems to have appeared early, as when quite a small child he often entertained his friends by very dramatically reciting poems he had learnt.
When old enough he was sent to a dame-school in Halsetown, kept by a Miss Penberthy, near the present Halsetown School. The schoolroom was the parlour of the Cottage, and the children when entering the back door would throw their outdoor clothes on the stairs which led up from the kitchen, and then pass on to the front room. Only the rudiments of the “three R’s” were taught and the school was kept in a very free-and-easy manner, the scholars’ studies often being broken into by their mistress’s domestic duties, or by her need for water or wood, which they were detailed to fetch.
However, she must have been of some good at her job for in after life Sir Henry never forgot his old schoolmistress, and when grown up and famous he used to pay her visits and help her with presents. On one occasion, finding that her sight was failing, he sent her from London a pair of spectacles in a suitably inscribed silver case. This of course was shown to everyone and greatly prized, until at her last illness someone made off with it.
Another time Irving brought Miss Ellen Terry—whom my informant briefly describes as “a fat woman”—with him, and “screeches of laughing” were heard from outside the house as he and old Miss Penberthy talked over past times together.
He would often on his visits give the old lady money to take her scholars for a picnic to Knill’s Steeple.
It is said that the last time he visited Halsetown was just after his old school-mistress’s death. He had not been warned of this, was much upset, and listened eagerly to the details of her illness and burial. My informant tells me that she will never forget how he appeared that day as, dressed in a long flowing cape, a soft black hat, and with his hair clustering over the back of his collar, he stood on “The Rocks” where he had so often played in childhood, and gazed with keen eyes at the groups of grey cottages, the bare fields and the wide moorland beyond, as if bidding them all farewell.
In 1848, Johnny joined his parents again, who had by this time moved to London. He spent a little time in Dr. Pinches’ private school and was later employed as a clerk. In 1856, a legacy of £100 from a paternal uncle allowed him to purchase the necessary costumes and props to set himself upon an acting career, and as was the custom, he adopted a stage name—Henry Irving. I will leave the details of his later career to the theatrical historians, suffice to say that he achieved great sucess and became the first theatrical knight but died in poverty in Bradford on 13 Oct 1905 soon after completing his final performance.
The following is a speculative family tree of the BEHENNA family with the caveat that I don’t have access to all of the relevant registers, particularly after 1840. It is clear that there was a lot of family for Johnny to get to know, even if not all of these children survived. I haven't looked at the PENBERTHY family to see if John & Isaac were related.
Thomas BOHANNA == Catherine |--Catherine BOHANNA bap. 4 Feb 1798 Lelant. Lived in Skidden Hill (1841, Independant) | == William PARSONS | |--Mary Firsden PARSONS bap. 5 Oct 1825 St. Ives (father Butcher) | |--Nancy Bohenna PARSONS bap. 7 Oct 1827 St. Ives (father Butcher) | |--Celina (Catherine) PARSONS bap. 24 Jul 1829 St. Ives (father Butcher) | |--Eliza Jane PARSONS bap. 5 Jun 1833 St. Ives (father Butcher) | |--William Carter PARSONS b. 16 Apr 1836, bap. 25 Apr 1836 St. Ives Wesleyan Methodist | |--Thomas BOHENNA bap. 3 Feb 1799 Lelant |--Sarah (Sally) BOHANNA bap. 28 Jan 1800 Lelant | == Isaac PENBERTHY b. c1796, m. 13 Feb 1830 Lelant lived Halsetown (1841, Mine Agent) | | [apparently the corner house, opposite the Inn] | |--Isaac PENBERTHY b. c1830 | |--John Thomas PENBERTHY bap. 7 Sep 1832 St. Ives (father Miner) | |--John Thomas PENBERTHY bap 16 Mar 1834 St. Ives (father Miner) | |--Sarah Catherine PENBERTHY b. 11 Mar 1836, bap. 28 Jul 1836 St. Ives Wesleyan Methodist | |--John PENBERTHY bap. 3 Jan 1840 St. Ives (father Miner) | |--Joshua BOHENNA (a Butcher) bap. 20 Oct 1805 Lelant | == Elizabeth BANFIELD m. 10 May 1842 St. Ives | |--Mary BOHANNA bap. 31 Jan 1808 Lelant | == Samuel BRODRIBB | |--John Henry BRODRIBB b. 6 Feb 1838 Keinton-Mandeville, SOM | d. 13 Oct 1905 Bradford, YKS | |--Eliza BOHANNA bap. 4 Feb 1810 Lelant | == John PENBERTHY b. c1801 lived Street an Garrow, St. Ives (1841, Miner) | |--John PENBERTHY bap. 16 May 1834 St. Ives (father Miner) | |--Eliza Catherine PENBERTHY b. 8 Jan 1836, bap. 14 Feb 1836 Halsetown Wesleyan Methodist | |--Charlotte PENBERTHY bap. 6 Mar 1840 St. Ives (father Miner) | |--Jane BOHENNA bap. 27 Dec 1811 St. Ives (of Lelant) |--Nanny BOHENNA bap. 1 Oct 1813 St. Ibes (father Farmer) |--Thomas BEHENNA bap. 22 Nov 1816 St. Ives (father Yeoman)