Thanet Writers Spotlight Francis Burnand

Rebecca Delphine highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and playwright Francis Burnand, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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Sir Francis Cowley Burnand was born in central London on 29th November 1836. An only child, he was raised by his father since his mother died when he was just 8 days old. Born into a prosperous family, Francis was educated in Eton and Cambridge. During his school years he wrote many comic plays, including a theatre farce at the age of 15 called Guy Fawkes Day. He went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he established the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, against the approval of the Vice-Chancellor of the University. Members of this unapproved club performed under stage names to avoid being identified. The club’s growing popularity enabled its eventual acceptance by the Vice-Chancellor, and it’s still a prosperous club to this day. During this time Francis wrote several plays under the name of Tom Pierce.

Upon graduating in 1858, Francis was expected to choose a conventional career in Law or in the Church, and Francis began training to become a priest. His training did not last long though, as Francis insisted the profession he was destined to have was not in church, but in the theatre. His father allowed this, but insisted he also studied for the bar exam, which would allow him to argue in court if he were to change his mind and instead pursue a career in Law.

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In February 1860 Francis had a play performed in the prestigious West End called Dido the Celebrated Widow—which was a musical burlesque—and the following month married an actress called Cecilia Ranoe. Another success was in 1863, aged 27, with The Man at the Wheel, a burlesque stage piece which was popular in both Europe and America. By this time Francis had become experienced in payment negotiations and was amongst one of the first writers to decline fixed royalties in favour of profit sharing.

In 1866 F. C. Burnand had huge success with his burlesque parody of Black-Eyed Susan by Douglas Jerrold, which he titled The Latest Edition of Black-Eyed Susan. His show ran for 400 nights at the Royal Theatre, enjoyed much popularity in the United States as well as Europe, and has been revived many times since then.

In the 1870s Francis regularly created comic pieces and illustrations for Punch, a weekly magazine of humour and satire which he occasionally submitted illustrations to as a teenager. These works included Happy Thoughts, a popular column about difficulties and distractions of everyday life.

In 1870 Cecilia, Francis’ wife, died at the age of 28, leaving him with their seven young children. Four years later Francis married Cecilia’s sister Rosina, an act which at the time was illegal in England, meaning the new couple were married in continental Europe.

Francis continued to find success both as a sole author and with collaborations, and enjoyed creating burlesques of other writers’ works. He also edited original publications, including The Diary of a Nobody by the Grossmith brothers.

In 1880 Francis was appointed the forth editor of Punch magazine, and with the theatre business being one of both success and failure, Francis often used his position to enhance his own plays while include antagonistic reviews of the plays of his rivals.

In total Francis contributed to Punch for 45 years, and was knighted in 1902 for adding much of the magazine’s popularity and prosperity.

His final stage creation was a collaboration of the pantomime of Cinderella in 1905 at the age of 68. For the next year he focused on Punch, writing increasingly wordy and anecdotal contributions, with his great judge of talent allowing the magazine to thrive.

Francis is known as a prolific writer due to how between 1860 and 1900 he produced over 200 works for the stage, including pantomimes, Victorian burlesque and farces.

He had five sons and two daughters with his first wife Cecilia, and two sons and four daughters with his second wife Rosina.

The exact year Frances moved from London to the coastal town of Ramsgate—in Thanet, Kent—isn’t known, but he certainly lived much of his later life in Thanet. He had a large circle of friends in Thanet who admired his relentless sense of humour.

Francis suffered through a long winter with bronchitis and died at his home in Ramsgate on the 21st April 1917 aged 80. He is buried in the cemetery of St Augustine’s Abbey Church in Ramsgate. His plays continued to be performed, and even a century later his reputation lives on.

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Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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