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Lee, (Richard) Nelson (1806–1872), pantomimist and theatrical entrepreneur, claimed that he was born on 8 January 1806 at Kew, Surrey, though this is unverified. He was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Lee, 63rd regiment of foot, who died in Martinique in 1811, and was probably brought up at Walworth, Surrey, with his elder brother James, with whom he attempted to set up a theatre in south London in 1822. During the 1820s he learned acting and juggling chiefly among the travelling fairs in and around London, and in 1827 was taken on by Robert Elliston as a utility player at the Surrey Theatre. He soon became a leading harlequin, and in 1831 wrote the pantomime for the Adelphi.

In 1836 Lee took over John Richardson's itinerant theatrical show in conjunction with his long-term business partner John Johnson, and in the same year briefly managed Sadler's Wells. In June 1838 he promoted and organized the Hyde Park fair to mark Queen Victoria's coronation, an occasion which was a success, made his fortune, and brought his name before the general public. In the same year he married Amelia Griffiths (1818–1870). They had eight children, the eldest being Nelson J. Lee (1842–1923), who was a writer of melodramas and acted as his father's amanuensis.

Lee's energy was prodigious, and until the 1850s he managed various minor London theatres, took Richardson's show round the fairs, and wrote several pantomimes each year. He lost much of his travelling show by fire (1845) and by riot (1850), and the fair he helped organize for the Great Exhibition in 1851 was a financial disaster. Lee was ‘a hardy adventurer always courting success, encountering checks and often disaster but pursued an undaunted way’ (Wilson, 53). In 1849 he took over the City of London Theatre, which, until it was sold for railway development in 1868, became the centre with which his name was most associated. His annual pantomimes were awaited with anticipation in east London. He wrote at least 230, in whole or in part, which were performed all over the country; his dramas, however, were less successful.

E. L. Blanchard and J. R. Planché may have achieved greater critical acclaim, but Nelson Lee (as he was universally known) was the most prolific and financially successful writer of pantomimes of his day. Thackeray wrote of him:
I often think with gratitude of the famous Mr Nelson Lee—the author of I don't know how many hundreds of pantomimes—walking the summer wave at Margate or Brighton, revolving in his mind the idea of some new gorgeous spectacle of faëry, which the winter shall complete. (Seymour and Smith, 246)
Lee retired from the theatre in the mid-1860s and went on to mount regular entertainments at the Crystal Palace. He died at his home, 4 Nelson Cottages, Shrubland Road, Dalston, London, on 2 January 1872, perhaps the last of the fairground impresarios, who had regularly captivated the multitude by presenting a Shakespeare play in the open air in just fifteen minutes. He was buried in Abney Park cemetery, Stoke Newington, on 5 January.

Alan Ruston

Sources  

A. Ruston, ‘Richard Nelson Lee and the Victorian pantomime’, Nineteenth Century Theatre Research, 11/2 (1983), 106–11 · A. Ruston, ‘Richard Nelson Lee and Nelson Lee Junior’, Nineteenth Century Theatre, 13/1 and 2 (1990), 75–85 · A. E. Wilson, East End entertainment (1954), chap. 13 · The Players, 1/18 (28 April 1860), 137–8 · T. Frost, Old showmen of old London fairs (1874), 247, 254, 320, 346–55 · M. Williams, Some London theatres past and present (1883), 16, 52–3, 58–78, 82, 98, 101 · T. Horne, ‘Nelson Lee’, The Era (9 June 1906), 23–4 · The Era (7 Jan 1872), 9 · will, 1812, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1538 [Col. R. Lee] · W. Seymour and J. Smith, Happy Christmas (1970), 246 · Era Almanack and Annual (1868), 23 · The life and reminiscences of E. L. Blanchard, with notes from the diary of Wm. Blanchard, ed. C. W. Scott and C. Howard, 2 vols. (1891), 408

Archives  

NYPL · U. Texas · V&A, theatre collections |  TNA: PRO, petition HO/45/3291/72161


Likenesses  

carte-de-visite, V&A, theatre collections, Enthoven collection · photographs, Harvard TC · woodcut, repro. in Illustrated Sporting News (14 July 1866), 420 · woodcut, repro. in The Players, 137 · woodcuts, Harvard TC

Wealth at death  

under £9000: probate, 7 Feb 1872, CGPLA Eng. & Wales