Travelling performers had been a feature of European life since at least the Middle Ages so it is no particular surprise to find a group showing up in Wolverton in the 1851 Census, although it is pure chance. Travelling players could have been in Wolverton on any other week in a ten year period and we would be entirely ignorant. There are, to my knowledge, no surviving playbills or contemporary accounts of such goings on, and local newspapers were yet to be invented in that part of the world. This accidental vignette does show us that there was money to be made in what must have been a hard life on the road. I imagine that after a 56 hour working week, Wolverton’s citizens were only too happy to be entertained.
On the night of the census in 1851, both the Radcliffe Arms and the New Inn accommodated the players.
The Rogers family were at the nucleus of this group, spanning three generations: Thomas and Mary Rogers, both 64, their son, also Thomas, with his wife Ann and four children, their daughter Caroline and the man she later married, John Wade Clinton, and two actors in their early twenties, just starting on a career, Charles and Caroline Brown. There was certainly enough of them to form a small acting company, capable of taking on most of the popular dramas of the day. The emphasis was on “light” entertainment and heavy tragedy left to the sophisticates of the London stage. The melodrama was the great favourite. These plays had a plot line which usually boiled down to Dick Dastardly threatening the Virtue of the pale, innocent and defenceless heroine, but thankfully foiled by the manly hero. In addition they might perform short sketches from the Commedia del Arte tradition and do a few comic “turns”. They are all recorded in the Census as “Comedians”, which would mean that they would perform the repertoire described above rather than do stand-up comedy as we would understand it today. In later censuses the women style themselves as “Actress” and John Wade Clinton gives his profession as “Lecturer and Comedian” which might suggest some changes in their repertoire.
Thomas Rogers the elder was born in Christchurch, Hampshire in 1786. His wife Mary was born in London so it is fair to assume that they met while touring. The family turns up in Warminster in 1841, all of the part of the family business. Their son Thomas is married to Ann with the beginnings of their family. There are three daughters, Amelia, 20, Augusta, 18 and Caroline, 15. Amelia and Augusta disappear from the Census after this date, presumably due to marriage. It is possible they continued their careers.
Some measure of the itinerant lifestyle can be taken from the places of birth of the children of Thomas and Ann Rogers -Agnes in Arlesford, Lavinia in Wimborne, Leonard at Henley in Arden, Amelia at Christchurch, Alfred at Wimborne, Clara in Somerset. After Caroline married John Wade Clinton, their children were born in Arlesford, Shaftesbury, Stallbridge and Bridport. In every census they are staying at Inns or in lodgings.
Thomas and Mary Rogers probably died with their acting boots on but the next generations appear to move towards more settled professions. Thomas Rogers the younger, his wife Ann, and two of their daughters settle as Innkeepers at Wootton Basset in their 60s. One son, Leonard became a telegraph supervisor in derbyshire and another, Alfred, a bank manager. John Wade Clinton started up a photography business in London’s West End. I have not been able to follow Charles and Caroline Brown.
On 30th March 1851, Thomas, the elder and Mary Rogers, John Wade Clinton and Caroline Rogers were staying at the Radcliffe Arms. The New Inn put up Thomas and Ann Rogers and their four children as well as Charles and Caroline Brown. We don’t know how long they stayed – I suppose for as many performances as could be booked, possibly a week. I imagine they performed at the Reading Room at Wolverton, this being the only building (apart from the school) able to accommodate this sort of activity.