The Comedians

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.

A Theatre Production at the Church Institute – 1958

As this is the centenary of the opening of the Church Institute on Creed Street, and MADCAP are celebrating the event, I thought I would post this programme from 1958 – exactly 50 years ago.
The G&S production by the grammar school had been an annual event since 1949. The driving duo behind this enterprisewere Harold Nutt, the Music master (pictured above in a woodcut by Peter Lowe the Art and Woodwork teacher) and Robert Eyles, Senior Master and English teacher.
Mr Nutt was a very energetic and charismatic teacher and it was entirely due to his enthusiasm that there was a school orchestra and musical productions. Andrew Morgan, son of Donald Morgan the headmaster, has remarked elsewhere that Harold Nutt was the first music teacher employed by the school, so he was the originator of many things. As we lined up outside the music room to go into class he would invariably say “Lead on Macduff!” to the boy at the front. I only found out years later, when I actually read Macbeth, that Shakespeare wrote “Lay on MacDuff!”
Mr Eyles was a good English teacher, although he could be a little tetchy at times. One occasion sticks in my mind because I was on the receiving end of his tongue-lash. he was taking us through a poem and told us that a tabor was a musical pipe. I looked it up in my dictionary and offered, “It says here sir, that it’s a drum.” “What sort of dictionary is that?” he rounded on me, “A Woolworth’s dictionary!” To which of course there could be no response.
Anyway, Harold Nutt looked after the musical side and Robert Eyles the acting side, also taking for himself the part that had the clever lyrics – in this case the First Lord of the Admiralty.
The pair were also good friends as well as colleagues and ould regularly meet up in the Saloon bar of the Vic on Sunday lunchtime.
The school orchestra rehearsed separately from the cast until about a week before the event. I think there were about three performances and the Church Institute hall was packed always. The orchestra took up its place in front of the stage, roughly in the area now taken up by the thrust stage and the whole cast managed on what is quite a small stage. I think the the school’s G&S productions were performed in the Empire theatre in the early years, but I suspect that the cost became too high.
In 1956, G&S was dropped for a production of a play called “Lady Precious Stream” produced by the history teacher, Oscar Tapper. Music still featured, as Mr Nutt composed (or perhaps orchestrated) some entracte music for the occasion. The musical production returned in 1957 with “Lilac Time” based on the story of Franz Schubert, and of course using his music. And in 1958, the witty and popular Gilbert and Sullivan mad their return to the Church Institute stage.

Theatre in Wolverton – 1958

Last week I visited the Church Institute, probably for the first time in 50 years. It is now MADCAP Centre for Performing Arts; structurally, the building is little changed.

The stage is a proscenium arch type and was the only kind known to our Edwardian forebears, but the present incumbents have built a thrust stage in front of that to give themselves more production flexibility. Modern lighting hangs from the ceiling tie rods and modern blinds have replaced the old blackout roller blinds. The parquet wood block flooring is original and has now lasted exactly 100 years.  The architect was John Oldrid Scott, who, like his more famous father, was responsible for the design of an extensive range of ecclesiastical architecture across the country.
I’ve written about the Church Institute before, but I now want to reflect on its role in theatre production.
Typically theatre was not a very accessible experience for Wolverton’s inhabitants. Only large towns and cities had professional theatre companies in the 1950s. Northampton was relatively close with the Repertory Theatre and the New Theatre. Oxford offered the only other provincial alternative, otherwise it was London. I do not recall Bedford having a professional theatre. The Northampton rep. used to put up weekly posters outside Dimmocks Grocery store on Aylesbury Street, so they must have attracted some regular theatre-goers from Wolverton. The New Theatre was, I believe, largely given over to Variety Shows. I have some photographs of my father singing there in the 1940s which would suggest that this was so. I do recall going to see pantomime there as a child.
Repertory theatre was probably very hard work – rehearsing next week’s production during the day and performing the current production at night, with two weekly matinees. I think we were taken to see a Shakespearean production once as a school party and I know that on my own initiative I went to see the rep’s production of Sheelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey”, which was the hot play of 1958.
But back to Wolverton. I think touring companies would come through every now and then. I do remember the D’Oyly Carte touring group coming to Wolverton in the late 40s, because my mother boarded some of them in our house. This was my first encounter with thespians. Touring Variety Shows also came to Wolverton  and usually performed on the stage at the Works Canteen. Local amateurs and semi-professional entertainers frequently put variety shows together; several were held at the Top Club.