William Parsons was born in London on 29 February 1736, the son of William Parsons, a carpenter in Bow Lane, Cheapside. After attending St Paul’s School and apprenticing to a surveyor and perhaps an apothecary, Parsons developed his interest in amateur theatricals into a professional endeavour. He began his stage career at York in the mid-1750s, and about 1757 he joined the company at Edinburgh. After five years there he began an engagement with Garrick at Drury Lane on 21 September 1763, when he played Filch in “The Beggar’s Opera”. He was soon seen that season as Douglas in “Henry IV part 1”, Rosencrantz in “Hamlet”, Charino in “Love Makes a Man”, Robert in “All in the Wrong” and Polonius (his most substantial role). At Drury Lane over 32 years he appeared in some 200 roles, few of them of capital importance, but in many supporting roles he was excellent. His forte became old men like Colonel Oldboy in “Lionel and Clarissa” (G0657) and country clowns like Scrub in “The Stratagem”. His best role was thought to be Corbaccio in “Volpone”. At the Haymarket, where he appeared regularly in summers, he introduced numerous characters in new comedies. Parsons’s last appearance was as Sir Fretful Plagiary in “The Critic” on 19 January 1795. After much suffering from asthma he died at Frog Hall, his home at Stangate, St George’s Fields, Lambeth, on 3 February 1795, and was buried in St Margaret’s Churchyard at Lee, near Blackheath.
Parsons was an actor of great merit and a person of modesty and sociability. He was on the committee that formulated the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund and was one of ‘the School of Garrick’ (G0661). He retained his interest in the arts as an amateur painter and draughtsman. A watercolour drawing by him called ‘A Composition of Fancy’ was reported in PGC (G0931) as location unknown,’ but it has now been located; it was engraved by Angus in 1790. Some 38 portraits of Parsons are recorded in the BDA.