Before Miss Scotney’s almshouses were built in Church Street, Market Deeping, there was a large barn on the site, which was used periodically in the first half of the 19th century by travelling theatre companies.
Visiting actor-managers paid for specialist carpenters to fit out the barn with a stage and seating, and the interior was elaborately painted. Spectacular effects were often created. In 1807 a performance of Bluebeard included “an elephant as large as life”, an illuminated garden and “an enchanted chamber in which the pictures change on the instant to transparent figures of horror”.
Joseph Smedley’s company of comedians, which included his wife and some of their ten children, were regular performers in Deeping. He had a successful circuit throughout Lincolnshire from 1804 until he stopped touring in 1841. This advertisement from Stamford Mercury in 1822 states that their programme on 8th October was “by desire of the inhabitants of Glinton”. The company usually stayed for about ten days and each night’s show included two plays.
It’s not clear whether the Church Street venue, known as Miller’s Barn, was stripped of all theatrical fittings in-between visits, but an auction was advertised in June 1840 of “3,570 feet of prime seasoned red deal wood, being the interior of Market Deeping Theatre”.
In 1842, theatrical manager, Frederick Bullen had the theatre repainted and decorated, and on Monday 23rd May, Deeping Cricket Club “bespoke Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals”. During the following Monday’s performance of “The Poor Gentleman”, patronised by the Odd Fellows, there was a dramatic accident. A wooden gallery crashed down on to members of the audience, causing broken ribs, dislocated shoulders and other injuries. Newspaper reports suggested that the incident was likely to ruin the company’s prospects at Deeping.
Despite Mr Bullen’s wife miscarrying due to shock, within ten days he had the theatre completely refitted and decorated. On 10th June Stamford Mercury reported “The Foresters have bespoken Colman’s comedy, Heir at Law for this evening and a good house is anticipated, as every attention has been paid to the solidity of the building and confidence is quite restored.”
However, the heyday for travelling theatrical families was almost over. Performances in the barn ceased long before it was demolished in 1877, to make way for the almshouses.
On Saturday, 9th September, Deepings Heritage will be staging a special event in Church Street, at the Odd Fellows Hall, between 1.30pm and 4.30pm. There will be a display of local history archives, including old photographs, maps, oral history transcripts and many other items of interest.
ADMISSION IS FREE AND EVERYONE IS WELCOME