Treading the boards, an actor’s life, 1911

111 Wellington Road North, Stockport, today is a car showroom but 100 years ago, a seven-roomed theatrical boarding house stood on this site.  With regular trams puttering between between Stockport and Manchester city centre, it was a convenient bed-stop for strolling players and theatrical vagabonds.

On census night, 2nd April 1911, 25 year old Doane Gardiner was lodging in two rooms at this address where London-born Clara Hayes ran her theatrical digs business. His entry reads ‘actor, Shakespearean Repertoire, legitimate stage.’  This is a long way from his home as he intriguingly gives an address of c/o Morgan Grenfell & Co, London EC (his bank) and place of birth as Albany, New York. So what on earth was this chap doing in Stockport?  A romantic version of the wild west?

Doane’s description of himself was very specific. What was repertoire and legitimate theatre? Even in the theatre, the class system ruled.  Doane was a Bishop’s grandson, so there was no way he would have performed in risque music hall. No, Doane was a serious thespian hence his care in the census records. Repertoire was an established theatrical tradition; actors performed a production six nights a week plus two matinees whilst rehearsing their next production. They might even perform several different plays in one week. In 1911, there were not paid for rehearsals soit was a hard graft indeed. Anyone with theatrical aspirations took the menial position of assistant stage manager supporting the stage manager with props, sound effects, and rehearsals – whilst taking on smaller roles as cast all whilst learning on the job. Meanwhile, many theatrical troupes travelled round the country from venue to venue – a week here, a week there, travelling by train and staying in digs which they paid for out of their salary. Tough.

So why was an actor from New York performing in Stockport of all places?  A quick scan of the 31st March 1911 edition of the Stockport Advertiser reveals an advertisement for The Theatre Royal Stockport (long since demolished) in St Peter’s Square three or four tram stops from Doane’s digs.   The theatrical offering for discerning Stopfordians that week was a different Shakespeare play each night, a choice including Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Othello, Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It. There was more of the same the following week. Doane was not headlining.

A year earlier, in the US 1910 census, Doane is found, an actor, living with his parents in New York.  His sister Margaret, by the way, became a suffragist. To discover what our potential leading man looked like, his application  for a US passport  in June 1906 revealed a student at Harvard University; 5ft 10” tall (taller than the average Englishman), a small mouth, prominent chin, high forehead, brown hair, grey blue eyes, roman nose and oval face. Hamlet anyone?  He intended to return to the USA within five months.

As an American citizen, he was under no obligation to fight for the British Army when we went to war against Germany in 1914. However on the 30 November, just three months after England had declared war, he became a naturalised British Citizen. His occupation? Actor and stage manager. The US Adjutant General Military Records testify what happened next.

‘Enlisted private Machine Gun Corps, British Army 1914; transferred to Inns of Court Officers’ Training Corps; promoted corporal January 1915; commissioned 2d lieutenant 3rd Reserve Battalion, City of London Royal Fusiliers in April; served as officer in charge of Zeppelin observation posts; commission lieutenant January 1916; went to France in November; organisation attached to British 4th Army; transferred to supply service; with Army of Occupation, Germany; returned to England and demobilized February 1919.  Engagements: Flanders 1916 and 1917. Twice mentioned in despatches.’

What a hero!


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