Charles Benjamin Incledon (17631826)



  • Singer

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
November 2023

Although baptised Benjamin, the young Incledon preferred the name Charles. He was born in St. Keveron, Cornwall, the son of Bartholomew Incledon (d. 1891), a surgeon and apothecary. At the age of eight, the boy entered the Exeter Cathedral choir and subsequently studied with William Jackson (1730–1803) when the latter became the cathedral’s organist in 1777. Knowledge of this period of his life comes from a romanticized biographical article in the Theatrical Inquisitor (“Biographical Memoir of Mr. Incledon,” August, 1817: 85–94). Allegedly drawn from Incledon’s own notes, the account states that the young chorister was overheard singing in the church yard by an emissary of Commodore Walshingham of the Thunderer who obtained permission to take the boy back to the ship for three days to entertain his officers. Evidently, the young singer would have remained, but his mother denied the request. If the story is true, it is fortunate that Mrs. Incledon intervened—the Thunderer was subsequently sunk in the West Indies and all aboard perished.

Eventually, the time came when Incledon’s voice broke and he left the cathedral choir. He joined the navy, seeing action during the late days of the War of American Independence. Following the conclusion of that conflict in 1783, Incledon was paid off so that he could follow his dream of a singing career. He was recommended to George Colman at the Haymarket theatre, but nothing emerged from the interview. Incledon returned to the south and found employed in the theatres in Southampton and Salisbury. These performances lead to an appointment in Bath in 1785 where the manager John Palmer, junior (1776–1809) initially had to be convinced that there was promise in the rather rough and ready young man, who had a voice, but seemingly little acting ability.

It was also in Bath where Incledon continued his vocal studies with the noted Italian pedagogue Venanzio Rauzzini (1746–1810). At this point, Incledon was largely untrained although he possessed a voice of considerable size. Rauzzini realized the potential of his voice and patiently taught him. It was to Rauzzini that Incledon owed his subsequent career; he remained faithful to his singing master, returning to sing in Rauzzini’s Bath concerts on numerous occasions. In 1798, the Bath Herald (January 20) reported that “we are happy that Incledon’s gratitude keeps pace with his Improvements; and that he thus assisted Mr. Rauzzini, to whose early instructions as a master, next to Nature, he is indebted for the perfection of his musical powers.”

Although the singer had the vocal attributes for a significant career, his progress towards achieving his goals was not rapid. His strong voice made him a natural for performances in outdoor settings such as the concerts in the Vauxhall Gardens where Incleldon appeared from 1785–89. Although he already had theatrical experience in Southampton and Bath, he did not make his London theatrical debut until 1790. The singer had never lost his Cornish accent and this was potential liability in some roles. Furthermore, he could be a difficult personality. William Parke’s memoirs are filled with accounts of Incledon’s selfishness and occasional insensitivity. The author writes that “Incledon, the celebrated vocalist, was a singular compound of contrarieties, amongst which frugality and extravagance were conspicuous” (Musical Memoirs, 2 vols. London: 1830, 2:56). Cyrus Redding (Fifty Years’ Recollections literary and persona1, 858) also recounts the singer’s boorish behaviour when he had indulged in too much drink.

What could not be denied, however, was the size and quality of Incledon’s voice. Parke records that the singer’s intonation was perfect and that “his fine volume of voice filled the whole theatre” (Musical Memoirs, 2:306). Incledon had already agreed verbally to a contract at the Covent Garden theatre when he was approached by Thomas Linley (1733–95) from the Drury Lane theatre with a much better offer. The singer felt obliged to accept his initial offer from the Covent Garden theatre where he made his debut on September 17, 1790, as Dermot in William Shield's The Poor Soldier. The Public Advertiser (September 18, 1790) states:

Mr. Incledon’s merits, as a Singer, are not unknown to the Public, as his exertions at Vauxhall, for the last two of three seasons, will testify. We shall briefly state that his voice, which is clear and melodious, wants not for variety and power, and that the management of it is not without taste. From the specimen of Mr. Incledon’s abilities in Dermott, as a performer, he will want polishing, his manner being rather stiff and embarrassed ... [but] his stile of singing, which is very articulate, is peculiarly adapted to the Stage.

Like many tenors of the era, he sang in falsetto in the upper range of his voice. This, inevitably, resulted in a change of vocal quality and colour, but it also allowed him to sing notes higher than most modern tenors would find comfortable, often above the tenor high C. This high tessitura appears to have been comfortable to him, and William Shield (1748–1829) composed music for Incledon at the Covent Garden theatre that exploited this high range. F.J. Haydn (1732–1809) heard Incledon in Shield’s The Woodman when he visited London in 1791: “The first tenor [Incledon] has a good voice and quite a good style, but he uses the falsetto to excess. He sang a trill on high C and ran up to Gꞌꞌ(H.C. Robins Landon, trans., The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn. London: 1959, 273).

Although Incledon had a good sense of style, he could make musical mistakes. When Shield’s Hartford Bridge was given its premiere at Covent Garden on November 1, 1792, Incledon likely made a significant musical error in his most famous song, “The Heaving of the Lead,” a ballad in the tradition of a sea song. The singer was taken to task by the Times for possibly causing a musical disruption (November 5, 1792): “Incledon who confessedly has the best voice on the stage, sung a most admirable Sea song,—but either through his inattention or the fault of the band, there was a discord in one part of it that should have been avoided.” Fallible Incledon may have been, but William Oxberry likely exaggerates when he writes that “he never had the slightest claim to science as a vocalist―seldom kept in time with the orchestra―and, from the wildness of this falsetto, got very frequently totally out of tune” (Dramatic Biography and Histrionic Anecdotes (London: G. Virtue, 1825–27, 4:79)).

Incledon never sang in Italian opera, although he did enjoy some success in oratorio including the first London performance of Haydn's Creation (March 28, 1800). His greatest strengths lay in the area of multi-verse ballads about the sea. The singer’s association with the sea was part of a carefully crafted identity which was useful in a time of political unrest. As Anna Maria Barry notes, “Charles Incledon made a great effort to present himself as a brave and respectable British sailor during a period in which we might expect this mode of self-representation to be especially effective” (“Charles Incledon: a singing sailor on the Georgian stage,” in Martial Masculinities: Experiencing and Imagining the Military in the Long Nineteenth Century, Manchester Univ. Press, 2019, 97). It is likely that this image also helped cover up some of his deficiencies as an actor. Covent Garden often went to extreme lengths to give the singer a sea song in their new shows, the land-locked Hartford Bridge being a case in point. The advertisement for the 1793 publication of William Pearce’s libretto apologized for giving a sea song to a military character, but claimed that Incledon’s performance had made audiences forgive the error.

Rauzzini composed numerous songs for his former student, mostly in the ballad style. Some, such as “The Topsail fills the waving Bark unmoors” (c. 1795) capitalized on Incledon’s public persona as a singing sailor. His most famous performance was the unaccompanied rendition of “The [Sea] Storm,” by George Alexander Stevens (1710–80), a nine-verse ballad which the singer performed in front of a painted backdrop of a tempest at sea. The singer’s ability to effectively communicate the events of the text made this ballad an enduring audience favourite, and is depicted in a lithograph from 1826. It is likely that his interpretation of the text was enhanced by his own experience of nearly drowning when the ship on which he and wife travelled sank on route from Ireland to London. Walter Hawken Tregellas records the following: “When Incledon was returning home from Dublin, on one occasion, the vessel in which he embarked was upset in passing the bar. Several of the passengers were drowned, but the singer saved himself by climbing, in sailor fashion, to the round top, with his wife lashed to him; Incledon all the while uttering a strange mixture of oaths, prayers, and confessions. They remained in that perilous position for several hours, until rescued by some fishermen” (Cornish Worthies: Sketches of Some eminent Cornish Men and Families, 1884, 2:106).

Incledon remained with the Covent Garden theatre until his retirement in 1815. There had been some interruptions because of artistic and salary disputes over the years, the most serious being in 1811–12. During the summer months, Incledon travelled widely, performing throughout Britain and making several trips to Dublin. He continued to perform long after his farewell to the Covent Garden theatre. By 1817, Incledon was in need of money and thus travelled to New York. His voice was no longer in pristine condition and his performances in Arne’s Love in a Village (1762) were criticized. Still, the tour netted him a large sum. His final operatic performance took place in April 1822, but he continued to sing in concerts until 1824. His final years were spent in Brighton where he was a proud member of the local glee club. Incledon died of a stroke in 1826 while in Worcester.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

INCLEDON, CHARLES (1763–1826), vocalist, the son of Bartholomew Incledon, surgeon, and Loveday, his wife, was baptised at St. Keverne, Cornwall, on 5 Feb. 1763, as Benjamin, a name he afterwards discarded for 'Charles' (Boase and Courtney, Bibliotheca Cornubiensis, Suppl., p. 263). The family is probably a branch of the Incledons of Bratton in Devonshire, who intermarried with the Glinnes of Cornwall (Visitation of Devon, 1620). Incledon was sent to Exeter when he was eight to sing in the cathedral choir under Langdon and Jackson, but after a few years he abandoned his studies, and ran off to sea. About 1779 he was bound for the West Indies on board the Formidable (Captain Cleland). He afterwards changed to the Raisonnable (Captain Lord Hervey), and in 1782 saw some active service. In the meantime Incledon's voice and talent had been noticed by his officers, who encouraged him in his wish to leave the navy and seek his fortune on the stage, and furnished him (it is said) with letters of introduction to Colman and Sheridan; but if Incledon really applied to these managers, he failed to make any impression. He seems to have obtained his first hearing at Southampton with Collins's company in 1784 as Alphonso in Arnold's `Castle of Andalusia.' Twelve months later he appeared at Bath as Edwin in `Robin Hood,' Rauzzini among many friends there giving him valuable help and some instruction. In the seasons of 1786 to 1789 Incledon sang at Vauxhall Gardens, and at length, on 17 Sept. 1790, made his first appearance on the London stage at Covent Garden in the part of Dermot in Shield's `Poor Soldier.' The new singer's fine tenor voice, correct ear, and finished shake (Parke), won him popular favour, in spite of his unskilful acting (which was partly caused by a bad memory) and vulgar accent. For some time he and Mrs. Billington [q.v.] were the chief stars of Covent Garden Theatre, and Incledon's connection with it lasted until 1815. He was one of the eight representative actors who signed Holman's `Statement of the Differences subsisting between the Proprietors and Performers of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden,' &c., in 1801 [see Holman, Joseph George], but, unlike Holman, did not sever his connection with that house. At Covent Garden Incledon took the leading parts in Shield's operas, Arne's 'Artaxerxes,' the revival of the 'Beggar's Opera,' and other pieces, and he sometimes sang sailor-songs in costume between the acts. He was also an enthusiast for church music, and was engaged for the sacred music concerts at the King's Theatre under Linley in 1792, and at the Lenten oratorios under John Ashley [q.v.] at Covent Garden, where he took part in the first performance of Haydn's `Creation' on 28 March 1800 (he had sung before Haydn at a meeting of the Anacreontic Society on 12 Jan. 1791). His name occurs only once, at Worcester in 1803, as a singer at the Three Choirs meetings; but he frequently made provincial tours. On one of his journeys to or from Ireland he and his wife were shipwrecked, and narrowly escaped drowning. In 1816, the year after his secession from Covent Garden, Incledon wrote to Robbins (Brit. Mus. MS. Egerton 2334, fol. 1) that `if he could get an eligible situation at Drury Lane he should prefer it to anything.' Incledon sailed for America, and first appeared at the Park Theatre, New York, on 17 Oct. 1817, as Hawthorn in 'Love in a Village,' but did not create a favourable impression. His voice was past its prime, he was burly, careless in his dress, and poor as an actor (Records of the New York Stage, i. 329). He left New York in August 1818, took his leave of the stage at the English Opera House on 19 April 1822, and soon afterwards went to reside at Brighton. He died on 11 Feb. 1826 from a paralytic affection while on a visit to Worcester. He was buried in Hampstead churchyard.

It was in ballads that the 'marvellous sweetness and forcible simplicity' of Incledon's style were best heard (cf. Gent. Mag. 1815, pt. ii. 1616). His favourite songs included Stevens's 'The Storm,' Gay's `Black-eyed Susan,' Shield's `Heaving of the Lead,' and many love-songs by the same composer (see Fairburn, Incledonian and Vauxhall Songster, Lond., 1808, 12mo). In 'My bonny, bonny Bet, sweet Blossom,' Incledon used his falsetto with great effect; but after some years he abandoned excessive use of it. His natural voice, full, open, and pure, ranged from A to G (fourteen notes), his falsetto from D to E (or about nine notes). Leigh Hunt and H. Crabb Robinson have commented on the singer's awkwardness and vulgarity. `Just the man I should have expected,' wrote the latter, after meeting him in a coach, 15 Oct. 1811 (Diary, i. 343), 'seven rings on his fingers, five seals on his watch-ribbon, and a gold snuff box.' Incledon was always restless and eccentric in manner; good-natured, sometimes witty, generally coarse in his conversation. His irregular habits and eccentric ways annoyed Charles Mathews the elder, who joined him in a year's tour, and records the great triumphs of the singer in Ireland (Memoirs, i. 149, 151). Moore (Russell, Life, i. 96), recalling certain reunions on the island of Dalkey, near Dublin, where the young wits of the town founded a mock kingdom and held a court, notes that Incledon was knighted as Sir Charles Melody on one occasion (in 1795), when the singer visited the island with a party of friends. Mathews, at his own benefit on 4 June 1816, played the part of Macheath in the 'Beggar's Opera,' and attempted 'the voice and manner of a celebrated performer of that character' (Genest, viii. 554). This was said by Donaldson to be a perfect mimicry of Incledon's person and voice. Incledon was three times married. His first wife died in 1800, the second, Miss Howell of Bath, in 1811 (Gent. Mag. vol. lxx. pt. i. p. 93, vol. lxxxi. pt. i. p. 597). His third wife was in earlier life Mrs. Martha Hart.

Two portraits by De Wilde and a third by an unknown artist represented Incledon as Macheath. They are now in the Garrick Club. Another portrait, a head in oils by Lawrance, was in 1867 in the possession of Herr Brause wetter at Wagram. An etching of Incledon in the character of a sailor singing 'The Storm' was published by Roberts.

Incledon's eldest son Charles Incledon (1791-1865), in spite of his dislike of the profession of an actor (H. C. Robinson, Diary, ii. 418), appeared at Drury Lane as Meadows in 'Love in a Village' on 3 Oct. 1829, under the patronage of Braham. His voice was tenor, and pure in quality. For many years he lived at Vienna as an English teacher, and he died at Bad Tiiffer in 1865 (Pohl, Haydn in London, p. 337).

[Dict. of Music, 1827, i. 392; Grove's Dict. of Music, ii. 2; Parke's Memoirs, ii. 248; Russell's Representative Actors, p. 278; Bernard's Retrospections of the Stage, vol. ii.; Donaldson's Fifty Years of an Actor's Life, p.45; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. x. 92; Georgian Era, iv. 289; Era Almanack, 1870; Boase and Courtney's Bibliotheca Cornubiensis, iii. 1241, Supplement, p. 263, and Collectanea Cornubiensia, p. 405; authorities quoted above.]

L. M. M.