Sarah Baker was a fairground performer, a ‘strolling player’, who became one of the most successful self-made women of the eighteenth century. She was born in 1737 and throughout her childhood and youth travelled the country with her mother Ann Wakelin and her younger sister Moll entertaining the crowds at country-fairs and race meetings. As itinerant performers they were classified by law as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ with destitution and imprisonment an ever-present threat. In the early 1770s Sarah, recently widowed and now with three young children to care for, took over from her mother as manager of the small family troupe. In the face of fierce competition from male rivals she began to concentrate her activities in Kent. Despite her growing popularity and success, a portable wooden booth and a motley collection of makeshift facilities such as warehouses, malthouses, stables, barns and innyards ‘fitted up’ for the purpose of entertainment would be her only ‘theatres’ for the next 20 years.
It was not until 1789 that Sarah – well into her fifties by then – opened in Canterbury the first of what she described as her ‘great grand’ Kentish theatres. She went on to build three more purpose-built theatres in the county at Rochester (1791), Maidstone (1798) and Tunbridge Wells (1802).
Some measure of Sarah’s financial success is that when she died at Rochester in February 1816, just months before her eightieth birthday, her estate was estimated by her grandson to be in excess of £20,000. It was an extraordinary achievement, even more remarkable in that she was ‘illiterate’ and, reputedly, never learned to write more than her name.
Sarah was buried in the graveyard at St Nicholas Church, Rochester on 28 February 1816. Tom Dibdin, an old friend who had performed with her company over many years composed the epitaph that was engraved upon her headstone. It was a fitting tribute to the ‘Governess-General’ of the Kentish Drama from an intelligent man who had great respect and affection for his old employer and who also knew her better than most:
If industry have claim to moral worth;
If to be useful to our kind on earth,
Be good in Heave’s eye; - then she, whose frame
Decays beneath, with humble hope may aim
At happiness to come. Alone, untaught,
And self-assisted, (save by Heaven) she sought
To render each his own, and fairly save
What might help others when she found a grave.
By prudence taught life’s troubled waves to stem,
In death her memory shines – a rich unpolished gem.
“No further seek her merits to disclose,
Or draw her frailties from their dread abode;
There they alike in trembling hope repose, -
The bosom of her Father, and her God.”
Sarah’s long life spanned a period of great turbulence and change in this country and the difficulties of those years are mirrored in every twist and turn of her career. Her pragmatic, opportunistic reaction to the many challenges she faced not only ensured her survival but also meant that she, herself, played a significant role - albeit inadvertently - in the political, social and cultural development of Kent’s rapidly growing towns at the end of the eighteenth century.
Dr Jean Baker’s book: Sarah Baker and her Kentish Theatres 1737-1816: Challenging the Status Quo can be purchased via the publisher, The Society for Theatre Research’s on-line bookshop
This article was published: 30 January 2023.