When Sadler’s Wells opened in 1683, it was 23 years after actresses first appeared on stage. Prior to 1660, female roles were acted by adolescent boys but after the Restoration, Charles II encouraged theatre managers to employ women.
The earliest evidence I have found of a woman performing at Sadler’s Wells is 1740, when Mrs Rayner danced ‘The Parting Lovers’. Undoubtedly there were female performers before 1740 but our press cutting collection does not begin until 1737 to verify this. Additionally, the majority of early press cuttings consist of adverts for performances with few performer names given.
Other early female performers include Miss Rayner (presumably a relation of the above) who in 1748 demonstrated her skills on the rope whilst having candlesticks attached to her feet, while in 1759 Miss Isabella Wilkinson performing on the wire fell and broke both legs.
Sadler’s Wells’ history is richly scattered with women who have steered its fortunes, including:
• Mary Warner, joint manager in the 1840s
• Mrs Bateman, who restored the theatre in 1879
• Lilian Baylis, who re-opened the theatre in 1931
• Dame Ninette de Valois, who established its reputation for ballet in the 1930s
• Dame Margot Fonteyn, who trained and danced at Sadler’s Wells in the 1930s and 40s.
Throughout the project I will blog about the inspirational women who have helped Sadler’s Wells survive.