Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, 1818 – 1866. A ‘Tragedian’ whose life ended in tragedy.

Norma blog postsNorma Hampson is a long-standing volunteer at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive and has written this blog to share details from her current project, listing visitors from the early Birthplace visitor books.

It is only natural that members of the acting profession would, if in the vicinity of Stratford-upon-Avon, wish to pay a visit to the birthplace of the Bard, particularly if, like Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, they had performed many of his characters.   He, in fact, made two visits: 19th June 1851 with his address as London and 30th July 1853 with his address as New York.   In each instance he penned his signature followed by the word ‘tragedian’, an occupation he named on both the 1851 census and on the New York passenger list aboard the ‘America’ in December 1851.


Gustavus Vaughan Brooke was born on 25 April 1818 in Dublin where he received his education.  A lucky break, led to his first stage appearance at the early age of fifteen years at the Theatre Royal, Dublin.  He continued to play various roles, with some success, touring provincial theatres in England but his first appearance in London at the Victoria as Virginius attracted little attention.   However the next decade brought stronger roles and eminence. Considered to be the greatest actor of his time he played many of the Bard’s major roles including Hamlet, Shylock, Iago, Othello and even Romeo with Helen Faucit as Juliet.

G. V. Brooke as Hamlet

G. V. Brooke as Hamlet

He sailed to New York in December 1851 and played Othello at the Broadway Theatre with great success, but a tour of that country followed by a tour of Australia was a disaster and he returned to London penniless.

On 23rd February 1863 in Liverpool, he married Avonia Jones daughter of George Jones an American Tragedian.* On the marriage certificate Gustavus gave his occupation as Tragedian and that of his own father as Gentleman.

Little success in London, due to his old-fashioned style of acting, prompted him to set sail again for Australia with his sister.   The vessel foundered on 10th January 1866 and Brooke, described by the few survivors as manly and heroic, perished in the shipwreck.

His wife meanwhile had been touring in England and was performing in Dublin in 1866.   She died in New York on 6 October 1867 and was buried in MountAuburnCemetery, Boston.   She was described as a moderate and rather statuesque actress with a musical voice and some tragic capacity marred by a tendency to declamation.


DNB Vols. 1-20, 22 p.978

Avonia Jones (1839? – 1867) actress, daughter of George, Count Joannes and his wife Mrs Melinda Jones was born at 43 Barrow Street, subsequently Washington Place West, New York.

  • sylvmorris1

    Thank you for this lovely post, I didn’t know about his tragic death. How appropriate for someone who called himself “tragedian”. It’s a pity he looks rather dull in the famous image of him as Hamlet as he was famous for the energy of his performances, and was called “the second Edmund Kean”. His greatest role was Othello, though he also played Iago to great acclaim. On both his visits to Stratford in 1851 and 1853 he was performing in Birmingham.

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