24th September 1806. As they queued to buy tickets for the evening’s performance at the Tunbridge Wells Theatre, the woman who took their money provided theatre-goers with almost as much entertainment as the play would later on. Sarah Baker, an elegant, elderly lady, wearing a bonnet and shawl, sat behind a table cluttered with silver candlesticks, trumpets and tankards, and a large silver inkstand. She teased and scolded customers, regardless of their age or class, saying ‘Pass on Tom-Fool’ impatiently to any who were too slow.
When they had taken their seats the audience enjoyed a performance of Samuel Foote’s play ‘The Mayor of Garrett’. They laughed at henpecked husband Jerry Sneak, trying but failing to stand up to his domineering wife, with no idea that the diminutive 18-year-old playing him would go on to become one England’s most famous actors.
In around 1788 Sarah Baker, who had previously been a travelling performer, established a theatre called The Temple (nicknamed ‘Temple of the Muses’) on Mount Sion, Tunbridge Wells. She had competition at first from a Mr Glassington, who ran a theatre on nearby Castle Street; the two showed plays on the same nights and competed enthusiastically for audiences. However, after a year or so Sarah prevailed. She had The Temple demolished and used some of the materials from it to build a small theatre at a prime site on the Lower Walk, next to the Sussex Tavern. In 1802 she replaced this with a larger and more elegant building, notable for the fact that, due to the theatre’s location on the county boundary, the stage was in Kent and the auditorium in Sussex.
Sarah, who also ran theatres in Faversham, Rochester, Maidstone and Canterbury, was a hard-working and shrewd businesswoman, who made substantial savings by selling tickets personally and by channelling customers for the box, pit and gallery all through a single entrance. She distrusted banks and, once the evening’s performance was over, stored the takings in a set of large china punchbowls. As she travelled from town to town she would carry large amounts of gold in her pockets, although eventually she was persuaded to invest with the county banks and a few respectable tradesmen.
Actor Thomas Dibdin, a member of Sarah’s Company for some years, said that she ‘owned an excellent heart, with much of the appearance and manners of a gentlewoman’, although he also commented that her language was sometimes more appropriate to the Peckham fair.
In addition to running the box office, Sarah used to cut and paste programmes, recycling old ones and getting an actor to write the names in as her writing was poor. In the early days she would help actors dress, do sound effects and act as prompter. She was also a poor reader, which made prompting difficult. On one famous occasion, when she was unable to help an actor who called for a word, and the next, and the next, without receiving any response, Sarah finally threw the book onto the stage, saying ‘There, now, you have ‘em all; take your choice’.
In autumn 1806 Sarah employed actor Edmund Kean, who stayed with her company for around a year. He played a range of minor parts, entertained the audience with comic songs between acts and did general work such as carrying messages. All this for a salary of 18 shillings a week. His big break came eight years later at the Drury Lane Theatre, when he played Shylock, Richard III, Hamlet and Othello in a single season. From then on he was a celebrated actor, performing Shakespearean roles all over the world, for payments of £50 a night or more, although with a turbulent personal life and wild lifestyle which led to his death at the age of 44.
After Sarah’s death in 1816 the Tunbridge Wells Theatre was taken over by her son-in-law, actor William Dowton. Business gradually declined and it closed in 1843, at which point the Corn Exchange was constructed behind the theatre’s façade.