W.F.H. Parker

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W.F.H. Parker was a puppeteer, magician and impresario from England.

He was the owner of a theatrical company (sometimes referred to as Mr Parker's Theatre of Mechanics or the Mechanical and Picturesque Theatre of Arts), which toured internationally showing huge, life-size Automaton figures. They “worked automatically through wires, ropes, steam” or through someone inside the huge puppets.

Cape Town career as puppeteer 1837-1839, 1849-1851

In 1837 Parker arrived in Cape Town and impressed audiences with the Automaton figures, billed as the "Mechanical and Picturesque Theatre of Arts" (Bosman, 1828: p. 231). It was one of the first recorded puppet displays in Cape Town (a M. Decanis had preceded Parker, showing only one Automaton figure in June 1837).

The first performance by the Automata - or as they were billed as "Mr Parker's Theatre of Mechanics" was on 5 December 1837 and consisted of Polander , The Enchanted Turk, Children in the Wood (Morton) and Joey Grimaldi's Trip to Brentford (possibly their version of the classic comedy riding act called Billy Buttons, or the Tailor's Ride to Brentford)

The company apparently performed daily from November 1837 till January 1838 in a space described as "The Mechanical and Picturesque Theatre of Arts", Long Street ("opposite Mr Bam's").

Later he also showed the Automata in The Enchanted Witch, or Mother Shipton, along with scenes from London life, including the Vaux-hall Gardens, the "Ascent of Mr Sadler's Balloon", etc.

Another presentation by the company was The Battle of Navarino, between the British, Dutch and French fleets.

In 1838 the company took their show on the road to Stellenbosch, Worcester, Swellendam, George and Uitenhage, finally ending in Cape Town again.

In in December 1839 they were performing in the Commercial Hall Grahamstown.

In 1847 or 1848 he was back in Cape Town with the Automata, and apparently continued showing them till some time in 1851.

Cape Town career as manager 1847-1851

With his second period in Cape Town, Parker apparently also moved into more formal theatre by leasing the new Drury Lane Theatre for one season as manager, to present the semi-professional New English Theatrical Company (also referred to as Parker's Company in some sources) in a season of light dramas and operas. (There are some doubts about the exact dates. According to Groom's reminiscences in the Cape Illustrated Magazine of 1899 (cited in Bosman, 1928: p. 419), he saw Parker in 1847 and 1848, but Bosman, expresses some doubts about the 1847 date, stating that his research shows that while Parker was definitely in Cape Town in 1848 with his "Theatre of Mechanics", and at that time thus could have taken the Drury Lane Theatre. There is evidence however of a seasons in 1849, 1850 and possibly 1851. The company sometimes appeared in the Drury Lane Theatre and at others in the Hope Street Theatre (by then known as the Victoria Theatre).

After that he seemed to have disappeared from the scene, though a company called the English Amateur Company now appeared to perform in the Garrison Theatre, till some time in 1853. Whether Parker was still part of the company is uncertain. Given his proclivity to advertise himself, it seems unlikely.

As manager Parker seems to have had some problems with the Drury Lane Theatre in his first season there, as may be seen from Sam Sly's harsh critique of the theatre and the company in his review of their production of Luke the Labourer (Buckstone) in January 1849. besides the acting, Sly found found the space noisy and that the ventilation abominable (cited in Bosman, 1928: p. 419). Apparently this even caused the company to close down temporarily.

Listed among the company members (which included officers from the Garrison Players and other amateur actors from local groups), by were H. Hughes (who was both actor and stage manager), Mr Miller, Mr Etton, Mr Rogers, Mr Herbert, Mr Tilbury, Mrs Parker, Mrs Hughes and master C. Hill.

The company's repertoire under Parker's management included inter alia the above mentioned Luke the Labourer (Buckstone), as well as Victorine (Buckstone) , The King's Command (Thompson), Damp Beds (Parry), Woman's the Devil, Matteo Falcone (Merimée, tr. Wilson) and The Midday Ashore (Bernard).

[TH, JH]


F.C.L. Bosman. 1928. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel I: 1652-1855. Pretoria: J.H. de Bussy. [1]: pp. 231-2, 384-6, 417-423,502.

P.J. du Toit. 1988. Amateurtoneel in Suid-Afrika. Pretoria: Academica.

Jill Fletcher. 1994. The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to its History from 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg.



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