Life story retold by Yota Dimitriadi. Thank you to the Dickens Museum archives and the Royal Academy of Music Library for additional information on Henry Burnett.
Henry Burnett was a tenor of considerable reputation, professor of music and the brother-in-law of Charles Dickens. Dickens considered him the ‘ideal man’ and based the representation of Nicholas Nickleby on him. Henry’s eldest son inspired the character of Tiny Tim. Years later when Burnett was asked by Frederic Kitton to write a memoir for Dickens in Kitton’s book ‘Charles Dickens by Pen and Pencil’, Burnett wrote that he was greeted almost everywhere he went as the hero of the Nicholas Nickleby story.
Henry was born in Brighton but spent most of his childhood in Gosport. There, he became noticed by ‘the precocious powers of [his] voice’ (Croydon’s Weekly Standard Saturday 25 February 1893) and was taken under the wing of Sir George Smart, then organist of the Chapels Royal. Sir George Smart was one of the leading musicians in London at the turn of 19th century. He was a founding member of the Royal Philharmonic Society and conducted the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the UK (1825).
Henry was something of an infant phenomenon. He became noticed in musical parties in Brighton as a distinguished young singer. At the age of 10 he was taken to the Brighton Pavilion and standing on the table, he sang a solo before George IV and the Court. The King was suffering from gout and was wheeled in the room. This story is shared in James Griffin’s book ‘Memories of the Past: Records of Ministerial life‘ (1883, p169) and was recounted by Henry himself as Griffin was a church minister close to the Burnetts when they moved to Manchester.
Subsequently and by recommendation of Sir George Smart, then organist of the Chapels Royal, in 1832 Henry became a pupil of the Royal Academy of Music where he met the talented fellow musician Fanny Dickens, his future wife.
In the Royal Academy of Music register (above) Henry is recorded as 20 years of age and his home address marked as 47 Regency Square, Brighton. Regency Square was a prestigious housing development that was aimed for and attracted the social elite of its time. The housing development was built in 1832 and numbers 47-49 are different in style than the other houses in terms of their doorway and windows.
Henry was for some years principal tenor at Drury lane and Covent Garden. He took over the part of Squire Norton in Hullah and Dickens’s The Village Coquettes from John Braham in April 1837 at the St James’s Theatre. The Morning Advertiser (July 9, 1838) announced that he had moved to the Lyceum, where later that year he performed in the premiere of Macfarren’s The Devil’s Opera. Shortly after that, he moved on to Covent Garden but there seems no trace of him on the stage after the 1838-1839 season. Henry Burnett performed in opera because of financial necessity, but he disapproved of the stage because of religious views. Dickens, who liked his brother-in-law in every other respect, could never forgive him for removing himself and Fanny from the stage, and eventually from the ‘corruptions’ of London.
Henry occasionally appeared in opera at the old Theatre Royal in Fountain Street and met with capital reception. Henry was also a member of the Bath Theatre Company, filling in the principal tenor parts in a succession of operas at Theatre Royal, in Bath. An interesting incident is recalled in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette (Saturday 16 July 1938) when Charles Dickens visited Bath could not see Burnett’s name on the opera bill and thought that he was not performing. The efficient management of the York House had promptly removed the previous bill advertising their popular opera ‘The Love spell‘ on Tuesday Feb 25th 1840. Had Dickens seen this poster, he would have seen Henry’s name in the cast as one of the suitors to Adena.
Henry Burnett was a non-conformist and Dickens did not like his religious views. After having children and under the advice of John Hullah, Henry and Fanny left London in 1841 and settled in Manchester or ‘Cottonopolis’ as it was called in the press at the time, where they established reputations both as teachers of music and as vocalists. They taught following the Hullah method and supported themselves by teaching. Henry continued to perform at music concerts as well. Fanny seldom appeared in public and confined herself to teaching. Soon after they settled in Manchester, they became members of the Rev James Griffin’s congregation at Rushholme Road independent Chapel and for sometime during the absence of regular choir conducted the musical part of the service at the chapel. The pastor of that congregation was the Rev. James Griffin, who recorded in print his recollections of the Burnetts.
Fanny and Henry had two sons: Henry Augustus Junior in 1839, who was born during the residence in Upper Brook Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock. Henry Augustus was disabled and died at the age of 9, a year after his mother. He inspired Dickens’s characters little Paul Dombey and Tiny Tim. The second son, Charles Dickens Kneller Burnett was born in 1841 and is buried in Reading Old with his father, step-mother and half-siblings including Mary Gordon Burnett.
Fanny was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1846. Charles Dickens persuaded Henry to bring the family back to London for Fanny to have more support from her family and the best doctors. Unfortunately Fanny died at the age of 38 in September 1848. Dickens acknowledged that Henry had always been very good to her [his sister]’ (Southern Echo 18 Feb 1893). They remained friends.
Henry moved back to Manchester and married Sarah Hargeaves in Chorlton in 1857. Sarah’s family were wealthy landowners and cotton mill owners from Colne, Lancashire. They had two more children: Mary Gordon and Reginald Hargreaves. Sarah died in Altrincham and Reginald died in Reigate. Henry left Manchester in 1859 or 1860.
By 1871 the Burnett family had moved to Titchfield, Hampshire where Henry came from. Henry was recorded in the census of that year as “landowner”. Mary Gordon 12 and Reginald 9 lived there with their cousins: Helena 19, Lucy 17, Louisa, 14, all scholars and Fanny 16 “scholar when well’’.
The 1881 census shows that the family moved to Sonning, Earley in Wokingham. They lived at ‘Gothic Cottage’ in Crescent Road. Reginald was now 19 and still a scholar. Mary Gordon, 22 and her cousin Helena was still there and now 38. Charles Dickens Burnett was 38, unmarried and a clerk.
We do not know why Henry left Reading and moved back to his home town. He died in his 82nd year in Titchfield, Hants.
Buried in Section 12, Row C, Plot 2