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She inspired Dickens to a love of storytelling - the remarkable Sarah Baker's amazing life retold

By: Medway Messenger reporter medwaymessenger@thekmgroup.co.uk

Published: 11:00, 24 October 2014

Charles Dickens was a mere slip of a lad when she died but the great writer owes a lot to the remarkable theatre impresario Sarah Baker.

Her amazing story is told today, charting a life rich with stories of a towering figure in Medway's 18th and 19th Century live entertainment industry.

Few women made a greater impact on the British theatre than Mrs Baker, who died in the house she had built next to Rochester’s Theatre Royal on February 20 1816.

The paybox, commanding all entrances, from which Mrs Baker kept an eye on the customers and the cash

Yet this remarkable woman, who owned theatres all over Kent, had the humblest of beginnings.

Dickens himself was said to have had his interest in drama and storytelling kindled by her legacy and is even thought to have based one of his characters on the inspirational woman.

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Born in 1737, during the reign of George II, he mother Anne Wakeling managed a troupe of travelling players. Such performers were the variety artistes of their day, performing puppetry, ventriloquism, conjuring, dancing and musical acts.

When her ropedancing husband died, she was just 32 with three children to support. Ever resourceful, she did what she knew best and set up a troupe of travelling performers like her mother before her.

The Theatre Royal Rochester where Charles Dickens' interest in drama was kindled

She earned enough money – £500 – to have a portable wooden theatre built, which was hauled from town to town and in which her players performed. This was eventually set up in Preston Street, Faversham, as the town’s permanent theatre.

As her profits grew, Mrs Baker had brick theatres built in Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Canterbury, Folkestone and most notably Rochester. Each of these had a residence attached.

Always careful with money, she had her theatres designed so that the one box office served all entrances. This meant she could keep a sharp eye on both the money and the customers as they came in.

The imposing Mrs Baker let it be known who was in charge. She would preside over her pay box with her books spread out in front of her and a large silver inkstand, of which she was very proud, on the counter.

As soon as the curtain went up she would retire to her house next door to count the takings. In 1808 – when she was past 70 – Mrs Baker retired. She died 10 years later in her 80th year in the house she had built next to the Theatre Royal, Rochester. She is buried in St Nicholas’ churchyard but her memory lives on to this day.

For the full story on this remarkable lady, see today's Medway Messenger.

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