JUST one word on a Southampton tomb encapsulates the fascinating life and career of Edward Askew Sothern and also provides a slight mystery as to why he was buried in a Southampton Cemetery.

Walkers in Southampton Old Cemetery may have come across a sturdy stone cross with a simple inscription on the base, “Edward Askew Sothern. Born April 1, 1826, died January 20, 1881”. In between is the single word “Comedian”.

Edward Askew Sothern was born in Liverpool and started his working life as a clerk but his dream was to go on the stage.

He played in various English repertory companies without notable success.

In 1852 Edward decided to try his luck in America and performed in plays in Boston and New York, often with his wife Emily in the cast.

He was then offered a part in Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin.

His role was to be that of a harmless but brainless English nobleman called Lord Dundreary.

He shared his misgivings about accepting such a small, unimportant part with his friend, Joseph Jefferson, who had been cast as the leading man.

Jefferson supposedly replied: “There are no small parts, only small actors”.

From then on Sothern threw himself into making Dundreary a memorable caricature of an English aristocrat – foolish, foppish, lisping and capering around the stage.

He expanded the role with gags and ad libs until it became the central figure of the play.

The show ran for 150 nights in New York and when it made its London debut at the Haymarket Theatre, Sothern received rave reviews.

The long, bushy side burns he wore when in character became known as dundrearies and twisted aphorisms such as “birds of a feather grow no moss” were all the rage.

The character became so famous that it inspired spin off plays like Lord Dundreary Abroad and Dundreary Married and Done For.

Unfortunately the original play Our American Cousin is now infamous for being the play that Abraham Lincoln was watching at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC when he was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth.

Sothern was no longer in the cast because his career had moved on by then.

He appeared in many other plays and his popularity grew on both sides of the Atlantic.

WS Gilbert, best known for his collaboration with Arthur Sullivan, wrote several plays especially for him.

By the time of his death, Sothern was living in Cavendish Square in London.

It is unclear whether his wife and family ever moved from Liverpool to live with him.

Sothern had four children, three boys and a girl, all of whom became actors. Indeed EH Sothern reprised his father’s Dundreary role but then became better known as a Shakespearean actor.

Edward Askew Sothern was buried in Southampton “at his own request” but his only known link with the town was his sister, Mary Cowan, who lived here and was later buried in the same grave as her brother. Her inscription is on the other side of the tomb.

As a frequent traveller across the Atlantic, Southampton may well have been his port of embarkation or disembarkation which he was able to combine with a reunion with his sister.

A will made shortly before his death made Mary Cowan his principal beneficiary but a previous will had left most of his estate to his wife and children.

Emily Sothern contested her husband’s will but lost and it can only be conjectured that an irrevocable gulf had opened up between Sothern and his family.

Edward Askew Sothern was an incorrigible practical joker.

Maybe he felt he had to live up to the date of his birth.

He and his friends would stage mock arguments in public places and run fake advertisements in newspapers. It is unsurprising, therefore, that many people failed to turn up for his funeral service in Southampton believing the notice of his death to be just another of his pranks.

By Ally Hayes, tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk .