The Old Stagers have been in existence, and have performed plays exclusively in Canterbury, since 1842. This amateur dramatic company, whose historic records are held at the Cathedral Archives, was established to perform plays in the city at night in order to entertain the cricketers, their spectators and visitors to Canterbury who were assembled for Cricket Week during the day. Over so many years, they have celebrated their various anniversaries with gratitude. But none, perhaps, is more poignant than this year’s anniversary which marks the outbreak of the First World War.
The two World Wars have been the only occasions in their long history when the Old Stagers have been forced to cancel their performances in Canterbury. But whereas the Second World War was declared in September 1939, allowing the last production in peace-time to go ahead, the Old Stagers of 1914 were less fortunate. The declaration of war in 1914 actually took place in August during Cricket Week, with cricketers, actors and audience already gathered in Canterbury for what then was one of the social season’s highlights.
Not that war came as a surprise. Rehearsals for the play would have begun, as they did this year, towards the end of June – and it was on 28th June that Franz Joseph was assassinated at Sarajevo, thus placing the world on the path to war. Many Old Stagers then were prominent in public affairs and would have known of the dangers ahead. But no doubt even they hoped the worst wouldn’t happen. Rehearsals continued throughout July in preparation for their first night on 3rd August at the Theatre Royal, located in Guildhall Street where Debenhams is now.
We can only imagine the mood prevailing in Canterbury that first August weekend. Most would have assembled in Canterbury on Sunday, 2nd August. It was reported at the time that the hotels were much less full than normal, and that a number of officers who were to have taken part in the plays were no longer able to do so. The cricket proceeded as planned, with Sussex defeating Kent by 32 runs in the first match, and Kent defeating Northampton by an innings and 52 runs in the second, watched by a crowd of some 7,000 people.
But the drama was not so lucky. The two plays which were due to be performed by the Old Stagers – ‘Lady Clancarty’ by the former editor of ‘Punch’ Tom Taylor (himself a famous Old Stager) and ‘Priscilla Runs Away’ by Elizabeth Arnim – were cancelled on 3rd August, the day of the first night. War was declared on the 4th.
In those days, Canterbury Cricket Week in the first week of August – coinciding with one of the country’s first bank holidays – dominated the thoughts and activities of the whole city. It was the Week when the “great and the good” converged on Canterbury in large numbers, and the tradesmen of the town enjoyed their most lucrative week of the year. The mood prevailing in Canterbury 100 years ago must have been sombre and dejected. A poignant letter is contained in the Old Stagers archives from a Captain Gould who was to appear in the play that year. He was one of those forced to withdraw at the last moment and he wrote in apology “We are now hard at it clothing reservists and filling up countless documents of every sort so that I am really practically confined to my table…I am sorry to say that I see practically no chance of my getting away at all tonight from Barracks.”
This year, the Old Stagers assemble in happier, although not in untroubled, times. ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ will be performed at the Gulbenkian Theatre during the week commencing 4th August. (See www.thegulbenkian.co.uk) This will be our 163rd season. So far, Old Stagers can claim never to have missed a season other than in the event of war. In this week, when we remember the sacrifices and hardship occasioned by World War I, our hope is that no further conflict, nor indeed any other circumstance, will prevent this ‘run’ from continuing. This is a wish and determination even more strongly held as the first official history of the Old Stagers is nearing completion. The more we think of the individuals who created this legacy, the more determined we are that this unique chapter of England’s theatrical history should continue. This, surely, would have been the wish of those Old Stagers who gave their lives in the 1914-18 War and whose names are recorded below:
Captain Hugh William Brodie, killed in action 13th October 1915
Lieutenant John Charles (Jack) Gardom, killed in action 6th August 1915
Clive Kelsey, killed in action (rank & date unknown)
Captain James McBain Ronald, killed in action 23rd April 1915
Colonel George Colbourne Nugent, M.V.O. On The Staff, killed in action 3rd June 1915
Colonel Gerald Cornock-Taylor, O.B.E. who died on active service, 14th February 1919
Richard Ritchie, Manager of the Old Stagers
Published 7th August 2014