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Charles Dibdin

Charles Dibdin (1745–1814) was an English composer, singer, writer, poet and painter – to name a few of the various occupations he held during his lifetime. Dibdin is largely known as a composer of stage works, particularly his comic operas and the ‘Table Entertainments’, which he wrote and performed across England.

Born to a large family with at least 14 siblings, he was an autodidactic composer who learnt primarily through his practical experiences in the theatre. His musical career began as an Opera singer at Covent Garden in the 1760s, where his most lauded roles were as the “Farmer’s Son” in Samuel Arnold’s The Maid of the Mill (1765) and as “Mungo”, the black servant in The Padlock (1768). In 1768 he left Covent Garden for a seven-year contract at Drury Lane as a composer where he had some of his biggest successes with comic operas during the early 1770s.

By 1776, Dibdin was £800 in debt and fled to France for two years to avoid imprisonment. To pay his debts, Dibdin wrote prolifically during this time and returned to Covent Garden in 1778. However, this did not go well as he tried to publish his music in monthly anthologies, as opposed to opera by opera. Lack of public interest and disagreements with management made Dibdin leave Covent Garden. He had constant struggles with debt for the remainder of his life.

In 1787, Dibdin embarked on a nine-month tour of England, performing the one-man ‘Table Entertainments’. His intention was to raise funds to travel to India, but this plan ended swiftly having decided that sea travel did he did not agree with him, he disembarked at Torbay.

Having not made it past Devon, he went back to London and began to perform his one man throughout the 1790s. This gave Dibdin enough money to open his own small theatre, the Sans Souci, and a publishing Warehouse. He died penniless and friendless in Camden in 1814. His prolific output meant he had written hundreds of songs, and a vast array of music for the English stage, as well as producing books, paintings and poems (of various quality) that give an insight into the musical world of England in the 18th Century.

Other than the Freemantle Collection, Brotherton Library, material on Charles Dibdin can be found at: The British Library, The Houghton Library, Harvard University and the City of Southampton Archives.