Stars of Sunderland pantos past

The Avenue Theatre.
The Avenue Theatre.
Share this article
Have your say

To mark the end of the panto season, today Sarah Stoner looks at one of Sunderland’s panto stars of the past.

ONE man’s dedication to digging deep into his family history has unearthed the story of a publican’s son who rose to fame as a comedian and pantomime dame.

STAR TURN: The King's Theatre - where Harry often performed.

STAR TURN: The King's Theatre - where Harry often performed.

Harry Kilburn won rave reviews at theatres across Britain and Europe during Victorian times – including London’s West End – until pneumonia and heart failure left him dead at just 48.

“My great-great-uncle was known as Dame Roker and was extremely popular between 1880 and 1908,” said Steve Kilburn. “From the press cuttings I’ve found, he was a household name.

“But, until I started researching my family tree, I didn’t know anything about him. He might have been famous in Victorian times, but no-one knew much about him in my family at all.”

Harry’s father, Henry Kilburn, moved to Sunderland from Hull as a teenager in 1851, finding work alongside his twin brother, William, at the Wear Glassworks in Trimdon Street.

COMIC ACT: The Lyceum Theatre - where Harry once trod the boards.

COMIC ACT: The Lyceum Theatre - where Harry once trod the boards.

“The twins were only 19 when they started at the glassworks. They were the oldest of seven brothers, and their father was the well-known Hull policeman John Kilburn,” said Steve.

“It was not long before both men married. Henry went on to have five sons and three daughters, with young Harry Kilburn born in September 1860 at Hedley Street.”

Within just a few years the twins had moved from the glass to the beer trade. William became landlord of The Sportsman’s Arms in Deptford Road in 1864, and Henry took over in 1871.

William went on to run The Beehive in Hylton Road, while Henry took over The General Havelock in Trimdon Street in 1876. Both men loved a drink – and the comradeship of sharing a pint.

Silksworth Row Railway April 1952 old ref number 18-2101

Silksworth Row Railway April 1952 old ref number 18-2101

“Harry’s early double act was called The Brothers, and I think it was based on his father and uncle when they had had a few too many. The act was said to be hilarious,” said Steve.

“I have a press cutting from when he performed The Brothers at the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle, which says it was ‘acted, as well as tumbled, danced and sung most skilfully.’”

Indeed, Harry was a “born comedian,” according to newspaper reports of the time.

And, following his professional début at the Wear Music Hall in Drury Lane as a teenager, in a sketch written by John Green of “dialect story fame,” he was hailed an “instant success.”

Victoria Hall no date old ref number 15-1685

Victoria Hall no date old ref number 15-1685

“It was reported that after his first night performance he was engaged for the next Christmas panto. Several times afterwards he was the dame in the Avenue Theatre panto,” said Steve.

Harry’s rise to fame began as a member of St Mark’s choir, where he served for seven years, before graduating to perform in charity shows with the Wear Amateur Dramatic Society.

His comedy skills even merited a brief mention in the Echo in November 1879, when he teamed up with a Mr H. Dwyer at the Theatre Royal in Bedford Street to sing two songs.

“The attendance was moderate, but the entertainment was exceedingly good and thoroughly deserving of better patronage,” wrote an Echo reporter.

Harry went on to find fame and fortune as a music hall artiste in London, but still regularly returned to his Wearside roots to perform in shows at the Victoria Hall and other local theatres.

It was the decision to team up with the Alexander Family – a troupe of pantomimists – in the mid-1880s, however, which really set him on the road to international success.

“Harry went all over Europe with the Alexander Family, including France, Spain, Holland, Belgium and Germany,” said Steve, of Roker. “His name usually featured prominently in the adverts.

“Rather confusingly he was billed as the “Irish comedian J.H. Kilburn” in the early days, but I’ve checked all the facts and figures and it is definitely my Uncle Harry from Sunderland.”

A starring role in Puss in Boots at the Tyne Theatre in 1889 garnered Harry further praise from the critics, as did a benefit concert at the Thorton’s Varieties at South Shields in 1891.

And he even took part in a charity football match at Ashbrooke, in aid of Sunderland Orphan Asylum, in February 1892 – as part of the cast of the Avenue Pantomime Company that year.

“Harry Kilburn was a great success, and even standing room was hard to obtain in most parts of the house,” reported the Echo about his panto, rather than soccer, performance.

Harry continued to tread the boards in Europe, as well the West End and provinces, with the Alexander troupe in the 1890s – calling in at Sunderland several times over the years.

His roles were not, however, always confined to pantomime. Indeed he played Old Bob, a black man with a donkey, in The Bandit King in 1895 – winning praise for his “merriment.”

And, while playing Sancho Panza in Don Quixote at the Lyric Theatre in London, he was commended as “evidently a comedian of experience, full of resource and extremely funny.”

“Harry also found the time to get married, to burlesque artist and dancer Ruth Grosvenor, and in 1889 they celebrated the birth of baby Henry James. Sadly, the boy died in 1899,” said Steve.

The turn of the 20th century found Harry back in Sunderland, where he held a charity matinee at the Avenue Theatre in 1900 and performed in several other shows around the town.

But his hopes of playing yet another pantomime dame in the 1908 Christmas show at the King’s Theatre were not to be. He died two weeks before taking to the stage.

“Mr Kilburn was Sunderland’s most popular pantomime dame. The many thousands to whom his name became a household word will learn with deep regret of his death,” wrote the Echo.

“He died suddenly after playing the lead role in three very successful musical comedies,” said warehouse man Steve. “The death certificate says it was pneumonia and heart failure.

“It is such a shame he didn’t live longer, or even in a different era with television or cinema, as he may well be better remembered today. He was obviously a very talented man indeed.”

l Have you discovered anyone interesting in your family tree? Contact Sarah Stoner at