Charles Dibdin was born in Southampton on March 15, 1745, the eighteenth son of a poor silvermaker. Before his death in 1814 he became one of the most celebrated songwriters in Britain. Although his music is not currently highly regarded, the patriotism and sentiment embodied in his songs reflect his times at least as well as history books.
Dibdin's talent for music was first noticed at the age of nine when he entered the College of Winchester. The organist, Mr. Fussell, gave him rudimentary instruction (the only instruction Dibdin ever received) and Dibdin began to sing at the Cathedral, at concerts during races in the area and became the principal performer in a weekly amateur concert. Rather than continuing studies for a career in the church, Dibdin determined to make a career in music.
Charles applied for the position of organist at Waltham in Hampshire, but was rejected. When his brother Tom (who was 29 years older) returned from sea, Tom brought Charles to London. Tom found Charles a job tuning harpsichords for a music seller in Cheapside. Tom returned to sea, to be captured by a French man-of-war. Charles composed songs for the harpsichord, but without his brother's influence, his employer refused to publish them. Dibdin eventually found a publisher, Thompson, of St. Paul's Church-yard, who paid him three guineas for six ballads.
Dibdin then had the good fortune to be introduced to the manager of Covent Garden, and Dibdin was hired as a chorus-singer. Recognizing his talent, the manager hired Dibdin to compose The Shepherd's Artifice in 1762. Dibdin was seventeen. For a time he both composed and performed in ballad operas. He had great success as a performer, but he stopped performing in order to devote himself to composition, thereafter singing only in public performances of his own music.
Although his opera Love in the City (1767) failed, his music had been praised, and Dibdin began to make a name for himself. His greatest early success was The Padlock (1768). For several years he produced music for local theatres. In 1778 Dibdin was appointed the exclusive composer for Covent Garden at a salary of 10 pounds per week. However, his relations with managers and performers were poor, and the scandal of his liaison with one of the chorus singers caused a great deal of turmoil. According to his account he was the victim of "ill-treatment and breach of faith."(1)
Dibdin left Covent Garden and became one of several parties to build the Circus Theatre (later the Surrey Theatre). Dibdin was appointed sole manager for life and was to be paid one fourth of the profits. However, personal conflicts again arose and Dibdin withdrew from the Surrey in 1785. He then entered a period of financial turbulence. Dibdin financed the building of a theatre, which was destroyed by a wind storm. He turned his hand to writing and began a weekly periodical, The Devil, which failed.
Dibdin decided to try his fortune in India. His brother, Tom, had died in the India trade (Charles wrote Tom Bowling in Tom's honor after Tom's death at sea), but Charles hoped to be received by Tom's friends and connections. To raise money for the voyage he traveled throughout England giving performances of his music. However, the tour was not profitable. The public did not believe the famous Mr. Dibdin would tour the country and he was "generally viewed as an impostor."(2)
Destitute, Dibdin sold the rights to his music. He sold The Waterman, which had made two hundred pounds, for two guineas. In 1788 Dibdin sailed for India, and was driven by the winds into Torbay. At Torbay he gave a series of "Entertainments" with great success. He returned to England and began to tour. He wrote music and performed Entertainments named the Whim of the Moment, Poor Jack, The Oddities and others. In addition to the income for performing, Dibdin sold the music to publishers. By his own account he made more money in four months than he had in his whole life.(3)
Dibdin opened another theatre, Sans Souci, but it too failed. He began a series of lectures on music at Leicester Place, and published two books on musical instruction, but without formal training he was not highly regarded as a musician, and these were not successful. However, he continued to tour throughout England, Scotland and Ireland to acclaim. In 1803 the Government voted Dibdin an annual pension of 200 pounds. At the age of sixty he retired to Cranford. However, in 1808 the Grenville administration withdrew his pension and Dibdin resumed his career. He never regained the success he had once enjoyed and a public dinner was held to raise money for him. With those proceeds he was able to retire to Camden Town. In 1813 he had a stroke, and died the following year on July 25.
Charles Dibdin's life was marked by scandal. During his first marriage he had a liaison with Mrs. Davenet, a chorus singer at Covent Garden. He had children by her, including dramatists Thomas and Charles, both of whom eventually took their father's name. Dibdin abandoned Mrs. Davenet, leaving her in poverty. According to one source his abandonment of her was the reason he lost his position at Covent Garden, as Garrick took her part. He left Mrs. Davenet for Miss Wyld, whom he married upon the death of his wife. Dibdin had several children by her, but only a daughter survived him.
Charles Dibdin is best known for his nautical songs. This is in spite of the fact that he was only at sea for one brief voyage and did not appear to have "extended contact with seafaring people."(4) Dibdin idealized sailors and wrote of them as noble heroes with faithful sweethearts and wives, who often died bravely in the cause of their country. They are sentiments that now seem overly romanticized, but that were extraordinarily popular with the public and the men he wrote about.
Dibdin's songs were said to be worth ten thousand sailors to the cause of England. His songs were popular not only in England, but in Canada and America before and during the American Revolution and during the War of 1812. Though most of his songs are forgotten, songs such as Tom Bowling endure.
(2)Ibid., xx (3)Ibid., xx (4)Ibid., xxviii
G. H. Davidson, The Songs of Charles Dibdin, How and Parsons: London, 1842.