Tag Archives: William Bradwell

The Bradwell Family of Prop Masters

In a previous post, we learned that the first props master of the Metropolitan Opera was a man named A. J. Bradwell, and that he came from a family of props masters stretching back nearly two hundred years. Who were the Bradwells? I’ve been researching them for awhile and wanted to introduce you to the main ones I’ve found: four generations of props masters spanning a time from the 18th century all the way to the 20th century.

William Bradwell (?-1849)

William Bradwell was a theatrical decorator and machinist in London. He worked on many of the props, tricks, and effects at Covent Garden from 1806-1839. His work on the pantomimes were so well-known that his name was used to advertise shows as a sign of quality. He was once referred to as “the fairies’ couch maker.” He worked directly under such English stage greats as Dibdin the Younger, Macready, and E.L. Blanchard (in fact, Bradwell hired a young Blanchard as a props running crew at the beginning of his career).

He and his wife Elizabeth had a son named Edmund in 1799.

1834 Drury Lane Playbill
1834 Drury Lane Playbill

Edmund Bradwell (1799-1871)

Edmund was working at the Theatre Royal in Dublin until Robert Elliston took him back to London to build properties and machinery for the Surrey Theatre. He worked at a number of theaters, such as the Olympic, Lyceum, and Her Majesty’s Theatre, and quickly developed a reputation for innovative “transformations.”

Edmund and his wife Margaret had at least seven daughters, and two sons who continued in the business: Edmund William Bradwell, and Alfred John Bradwell.

1851 Playbill for Queen of the Frogs
1851 Playbill for Queen of the Frogs

Edmund William Bradwell (1828-1909)

Edmund William was born in Ireland immediately before his father returned to London. His work as a builder and decorator seems to have been more focused on the decoration of theatre interiors. A number of theatres that opened or were renovated around this time had some of the design and decoration executed by E. W. Bradwell.

EW and his wife Elizabeth had three daughters and one son. The son, William Edmund Valentine Bradwell, appears to have followed in the family business at least a bit.

1855 Playbill for Kean's Henry VIII
1855 Playbill for Kean’s Henry VIII

William Edmund Valentine Bradwell (1858-1938)

William was born on Valentine’s Day. His occupation was listed as both a builder’s artist and a decorative artist in surviving paperwork. I don’t know much more about him than that.

Alfred John Bradwell (1845-after 1891)

Alfred was Edmund’s son and Edmund William’s brother. His career began as an assistant to his father on a number of pantomimes throughout London, learning to accomplish all sorts of mechanical transformations and properties. He built his own reputation as a pantomime properties artisan at Drury Lane after his father died. He emigrated to the United States and became the first properties master at the Metropolitan Opera when it opened in 1883. He also trained Edward Siedle, a properties master who would go on to become technical director at the Met, transforming it into a technical powerhouse in the early twentieth century.

He and his wife Annie had a number of children, with their son Herbert Augustus Bradwell continuing the business. He had another son, Ernest Athol Bradwell, who appears to have worked as both an actor and a stage carpenter over the years.

1884 Ad for Metropolitan Opera
1884 Ad for Metropolitan Opera

Herbert Augustus Bradwell (1873-1911)

Herbert was born in London, but mostly grew up in New York City after his father joined the Met Opera. He became quite the well-known creator of electrical and mechanical effects on stage. In the early twentieth century, Coney Island was the home of massive live spectacles, such as volcanic eruptions and train crashes. Herbert was coproducer and an effects creator for one of the most successful ones known as “The Jonestown Flood,” in which an entire town was flooded during every performance. When this closed, he produced his own show in the same building known as “The Deluge,” a recreation of the Noah’s Ark story. It was wildly successful, and he transferred the show to London. It failed there, and a second attempt at a disaster spectacle in Brussels ended up burning to the ground. Now broke, he brought his family back to New York, and ended up starving himself to keep his family fed. This led to a mental breakdown that put him in the hospital, where his heart eventually gave out. He died at the young age of 44, completely destitute.

1906 Ad for The Deluge
1906 Ad for The Deluge

A Strange Passage in my Life (part 2), 1835

The following occurred in 1835 and comes from a collection of stories about life on the stage (I previously published the first part). It’s a bit long, but the description of props from generations past is absolutely fascinating:

A Strange Passage in my Life (part 2)

by E. L. Blanchard

On a certain unlucky Friday in the month of November, 1835, there was a consultation in Bradwell’s room about calling into requisition for the forthcoming pantomime of “Guy Fawkes” some old mechanical contrivances which were known to be in existence, but being quite unknown to a later generation, were considered likely to increase the attraction of the Christmas novelty, without involving any extra expenditure. The task of selecting what was likely to be most suitable was assigned to me, and I received special instructions to look out for a certain “animated peacock,” originally made for a pantomime produced early in the century, under the title of “Harlequin and the Swans, or the Bath of Beauty.” Continue reading A Strange Passage in my Life (part 2), 1835

A Strange Passage in my Life, 1835

The following occurred in 1835 and comes from a collection of stories about life on the stage. I find it notable in describing what a props run crew person was charged with, as well as revealing what the pay was for overhire on large shows:

A Strange Passage in my Life

by E. L. Blanchard

It had long been his earnest desire to obtain a practical knowledge of the mode of working stage machinery, and when an old friend of his family, Mr. William Bradwell, the ingenious theatrical mechanician, for many years associated with Covent Garden, proposed that he should be placed on the “property” staff of that establishment as a recipient of the nightly eighteenpence paid to extra hands during the run of spectacular pieces, the offer was eagerly accepted. Throwing in such trifling literary services as a couplet or a comic song for a pantomime, and occasionally assisting in the authorship of a playbill, the duties I had to discharge in this department were neither irksome nor unpleasant.

The distribution of banners, shields, and spears was committed to my charge, and when “Macbeth” was played, I had to count out the exact number of branches required for Birnam Wood to come to Dunsinane, and to see that the forest sent on by human instalments was duly returned and stacked, when the scene was over, in its accustomed corner.

When it was necessary for the evil demon to go below, it was my hand that gave the signal for the trap to descend, and the match to be applied to the pan of red fire; and, when the good fairy had to be despatched on some benevolent mission above, mine were the arms ready to receive her in the flies, and respectfully enfold the waist that had to be unhooked from the strong hold of the “traveller.”

When the revolving pillars of the ascending temple, used in the melodramatic romance of “Aladdin,” produced such a pretty effect, that a round of applause was sure to follow, I felt, as the invisible promoter of this peaceful revolution, bound to acknowledge the complement with an unseen bow. When the radiating star opened in the first scene of “The Bronze Horse,” to inspire by an encouraging dream the slumbering Zamna, Prince of China—represented by Mr. John Collins, uneasily reclining on a most uncomfortable mossy bank in the foreground, and usually grumbling during his supposed sleep about calico flowers being nailed to his couch with sharp tin tacks, placed the wrong way—mine was the hand giving movement to the complicated mechanism.

When Claude Frollo was flung by Quasimodo from the Tower of Notre Dame, it was my mission to hurl through the window the substituted dummy, and my misery to learn that a left-handed deputy, appointed one evening, had sent the stuffed figure through the wrong window, and pitched it into the middle of the pit, among a crowd of amazed spectators, who, after nursing the tattered effigy for awhile in a seemingly affectionate manner, returned it with such force across the footlights, that it fairly knocked down Mr. Henry Wallack, who entered at that moment as Quasimodo, and sent the Esmeralda, Miss Vincent, into such a fit of irrepressible laughter, that it became necessary to ring the curtain down as speedily as possible.

Scott, Clement. Stories of the Stage. London: G. Routledge, 1881. 22-23. Google Books. 25 Oct. 2007. Web. 2 May 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=TRgOAAAAQAAJ>.