Sarah Baker and her Kentish Theatres 1737-1816: Challenging the Status Quo

by Jean Baker

Sarah Baker was an illiterate fairground performer who became one of the most successful self-made women of her time. Born in 1737, she grew up travelling the country with her mother and younger sister in order to entertain crowds at country fairs and race meetings. In the early 1770s Sarah, recently widowed and with three young children, took over the small family troupe and, in the face of fierce opposition from male rivals, began to concentrate upon Kent. Temporary makeshift facilities were their only performance venues until 1789, when she opened the first of the four ‘great grand’ theatres she built in the county: Canterbury, Rochester, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells. Across the 1790s she played a unique and hugely influential role in the rapidly evolving towns where she concentrated her activities. After her death in 1816 her estate was valued at more than £16,000 (in excess of £1.5 million today).

Sarah Baker’s long life spanned a turbulent period of change which marked her experiences. Robert Walpole’s political insecurities, William Wilberforce’s evangelical concern with the nation’s moral fibre, William Pitt’s policy of war with France, even the French Revolution, all had life-changing consequences for Sarah and her family. By presenting her unlikely transformation from strolling player to wealthy entrepreneur in relation to the pressures under which she operated, this book casts new light not only on the role of Georgian provincial theatre but also on the volatile times in which Sarah Baker lived.

Jean Baker, who is unrelated to her subject, has based Sarah Baker and her Kentish Theatres, 1737-1816: Challenging the Status Quo on extensive study of playbills, newspapers and manuscripts held by archives in England and abroad. An appendix itemises Sarah Baker’s repertoire from 1766 to 1816. The book features thirty-seven illustrations (including eight colour plates), some of them previously unpublished.

Hardback, 288 pp, 29 B&W illus., 8 colour plates. ISBN 9780854300846

Sarah Baker was an illiterate fairground performer who became one of the most successful self-made women of her time. By presenting her unlikely transformation from strolling player to wealthy entrepreneur in relation to the pressures under which she operated, this book casts new light not only on the role of Georgian provincial theatre but also on the volatile times in which Sarah Baker lived.

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STR Annual Publication 2019

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