William O'Brien - Actor and Provost-Master-General of the Bermudas
Actor and dramatist. Son of a fencing master, and a descendant of the Earls of Clare, Ireland. Married (1764) to Lady Susannah Sarah Louisa Fox-Strangways (1743-1827), daughter of the first Earl of Ilchester. Author of at least two plays, Cross-Purposes (1772) and The Duel (1773).
He was engaged by David Garrick to appear at Drury Lane, performing for the first time on 3/10-1758 in the play The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. When he married in 1764 he retired from acting and was forced, with his wife, to go to America for a time for marrying an Earl's daughter without the Earl's consent. In a letter from David Garrick to George (Colman?), Garrick writes that "O'Brien said that their passage of thirty-four days had been a serious affair, worse than any tempest in the theatre, and he had begun to say his short prayers. Lady Susan had been vastly ill the whole way, but was now quite well again".1
Their luck changed, however. In 1768 O'Brien became Secretary and Provost-Master-General of the Bermudas. Shortly thereafter Lady Susan's family forgave the young couple for their marriage and allowed them to live at Stinsford House in Dorset.2 O'Brien became Receiver-General for Dorset and a popular member of society in London and Dorset.
According to various sources, the couple was "most affectionately attached to each other", and their vault in Stinsford Church later had an influence on author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) as it "gained a romantic interest in his mind at an early age". The Journal of Mary Frampton states that "[n]o two people were more liked, or their society more courted . . . He had most amenity; she most strength of character."3 They both lived to a reasonably advanced age, O'Brien dying in 1815 and his wife in 1827. Following O'Brien's death "Susan was overcome with grief [...], telling her niece Mary that he had been ‘the object of my thoughts, affections and anxieties since nineteen years old, and must until death be the object of my regrets’" 4
- 1. Oman, Carola (1958). David Garrick. Hodder and Stoughton. p. 268
- 2. Stinsford House later featured prominently in Thomas Hardy's Under a Greenwood Tree. It is today a Grade II listed residential building, which was recently sold on the open market for £535,000, cf. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3878824/Period-home-church-Thomas-Hardy-s-heart-buried-literary-great-inspired-write-Greenwood-Tree-sale-535-000.html
- 3. Hardy, Evelyn (1954). Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography. Hogarth Press. p. 22-24
- 4. http://www.stinsford.me.uk/resi.htm
Boswell and O'Brien met at Garricks on May 13, 1763. Boswell described O'Brien as "a lively little fellow, but priggish". O'Brien re-enters Boswell's journal on April 15, 1772, when they both dined with David Garrick. On this occasion Boswell described him as "quite the fine man about town" (following his marriage with Susan Strangways) and "I thought him agreeable. His foppishness appeared to be only vivacity and neatness".
O'Brien's play Cross Purposes, a Farce in Two Acts is sometimes available from online used bookstores via AbeBooks, as are the sources referred to in the notes to this article, including Carola Oman's biography about David Garrick.