Sarah M'Cready: actress, wife and mother, business woman, friend, and ghost.

8 Mar 2019

While many Bristolians recognize the name ‘Sarah Macready’, how much do we really know about the manageress who is said to still haunt the Theatre today? We’re delving into the archives to discover who Sarah was, and why she and her family are so embedded in the Theatre’s history!

Sarah Desmond: Actress

Throughout her life Sarah played many roles, adopting different identities and adapting to the requirements of each act. Her name changes frequently across archival records. Catherine Hindson writes that the marriage register records Sarah’s full name as ‘Sarah Ashton Desmond’. After marrying, she’s known as ‘Sarah M’Cready’. Later she uses ‘Sarah Macready’, which Kathleen Barker suggests would have been a way for Sarah to highlight her connection to her famous step-son: William Charles Macready.

The circumstances of Sarah’s birth are equally vague. The day and month are a mystery, though the year was 1790. Her parents’ names are unknown, and Hindson notes Sarah’s birthplace is defined as ‘either Newcastle or Newcastle under Lyme’ by Hindson. Due to the social conventions of the era, it’s not so unusual that so little evidence remains of Sarah’s early life. Surviving documents usually relate to finance or business, traditionally male spheres, which has contributed to the obfuscation of female history.

Sarah’s early acting career does not seem to have been well-received. She was part of William M’Cready’s acting touring company, but was heavily criticized for having insufficient professional skills. Actresses were expected to play both comic and tragic roles, and to frequently travel between venues which involved days on the road in uncomfortable coaches and the risk of highwaymen. It was not an easy or glamorous life, but Sarah’s reputation began to slowly improve when she began performing at the Theatre Royal Whitehaven in April 1815.

William M’Cready went bankrupt in 1809, but recovered and began leasing the Theatre Royal Bristol in 1819. This extended Sarah’s travelling circuit, but Bristol audiences were much more receptive than her previous audiences. Her Lady Macbeth performed on 28th May 1819 drew much praise: ‘The effect infinitely more striking than that produced by Mrs Siddons’ (Bristol Mercury, 31st May 1819)! She received a warm welcome in Wales too, with reviews in The Cambrian calling her ‘An acquisition to any stage’ (24th July 1819)! Three years later, her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth was called “classically accurate in all the majestic dignity and peculiarities of that great sovereign” (The Cumbrian, 26th July 1823).

Sarah M’Cready: Wife, Mother and Stepmother

In 1821, two years after William M’Cready became manager of the Theatre Royal Bristol, William and Sarah were married. William’s first wife, Christina Ann Birch, had died in 1803. They’d had six children, including William Charles Macready. We don’t yet know when Sarah and William met, though it’s likely to have been around 1806 when William took on management of the Newcastle Theatre Royal. William Charles writes of a woman staying at their house, who caused trouble between himself and his father when he returned home for Christmas in 1808; however, there’s no way to prove if this was Sarah.

Certainly, William Charles and Sarah’s relationship remained strained throughout Sarah’s life; letters between the two when Sarah was manager are blunt, lacking terms of endearment.  Perhaps William Charles’ aversion is more understandable when you realize that William was forty-five years older than Sarah, and that Sarah was only three years older than William Charles…

Nevertheless, William and Sarah seem to have been happy. There’s no evidence the couple were involved before Christina died. The only scandalous event was the birth of their son, George William, in 1814 - seven years before the couple married. George William is the only member of the M’Cready/Macready/Macready-Chute dynasty to refrain from theatre work, dying in India whilst serving as an Assistant Surgeon in the British Army. His paternity was never confirmed, but William leaves a share of his assets to ‘the boy known by the name of George William Macready’ in his will (TCW/M/000248).

In 1824 Sarah gave birth to their second child, a girl whom they named Mazzerina Emily Macready. Committed to Mazzerina’s education, Sarah had her take music lessons where Mazzerina learnt to play the harp. Though it seems Sarah hoped Mazzerina would have a different career, like the rest of her family Mazzerina was drawn to the stage. Kathleen Barker writes that Mazzerina ‘made her stage debut, first in Cardiff and later in Bristol’ in 1842. It was through acting that she met actor and theatre-manager James Henry Chute, who she eloped with in October 1844. Though initially shocked Sarah forgave the pair, and lived with them in Bath in 1851 and later in Queen’s Square, Bristol.

William left everything to Sarah and their shared children in his will (TCW/M/000248); his six children from his first marriage were left only good wishes. William’s faith in Sarah is shown through his desire to leave his businesses in her hands.

Sarah Macready: Manager, Entrepreneur and Business Woman

William M’Cready ran the Theatre Royal Bristol for ten years; Sarah managed it for twenty! Though William intended it to pass straight to Sarah when he died, her inheritance was contested. It wasn’t until 1834, five years after William’s death, that she procured a lease on the Theatre. Even then the proprietors would only grant her a short lease, making it harder for Sarah to arrange performances.

Their reluctance to appoint her, and skepticism at having a woman in charge of the Theatre, was unwarranted. Sarah’s acting experience aided her greatly in her new role as manager. She was the first woman to manage theatres in Bristol, Bath and Cardiff simultaneously. Having performed for audiences in Bristol and across the provinces, Sarah knew what kind of acts would draw a crowd, and understood the way actors worked. She frequently travelled to London to meet performers and attend shows, networking to ensure she could fill her stages with the brightest and the best. Those years saw a wide variety of performers at the Theatre Royal Bristol, including animals and acrobats. It was under Sarah’s management that Ira Aldridge first graced the Theatre’s boards as Oroonoko in ‘A Slave’s Revenge’ in 1846. The same year, Sarah welcomed Charlotte Saunders Cushman as Romeo in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Sarah even utilized the sailors docking in Bristol, scouring the local pubs on King Street for men to dance hornpipes onstage at the end of the evening.

Letters at the Theatre Collection, University of Bristol, give us an insight into her relationships with prominent actors. Charlotte Cushman writes with regret that she is ‘engaged the two nights [Sarah] offered” for her to perform at the Theatre, but that “I shall pass through Bath to Exeter on Sunday and should anything occur to make any time for me you shall know. Believe me with kindest remembrances from myself to you, Ever truly yours, Charlotte Cushman” (Theatre Collection, University of Bristol. TCW/C/000169/048). Conversely, in 1844 Charles Kean sent Sarah a letter asking if he could play at the Theatre: ‘could you receive us for three nights commencing Monday Jan 8th? … My mistress sends her love twice. You know you always ‘have’ Charles Kean” (Theatre Collection, University of Bristol. TCW/C/000169/034). A few months later he writes again, asking her to “paint five new scenes” and for money towards his costume for Richard 3rd (Theatre Collection, University of Bristol. TCW/C/000169/037). Sarah would have understood the chaotic life of an actor, constantly travelling between venues which could take days, juggling props and costumes as well as personal items.

Other letters show support for Sarah’s management. Charles Kemble wrote to Sarah soon after she gained control of the Theatre, asserting ‘that your theatre may prosper is the sincere wish of your true friend and servant’ (Theatre Collection, University of Bristol. TCW/C/000169/017). Sarah’s friend, actress and writer Ann Hatton, wrote “wishing you every success as I find you have opened the Bristol Theatre. Do my good creature nerve yourself to the undertaking and favour me, who am most truly interested for you with an account of how you go on, and your future prospects” (Theatre Collection, University of Bristol. TCW/C/000169/019).

Notwithstanding her hard work and well-wishers, Sarah’s management was not straightforward or easy. Theatres were expensive to run, and audiences were unpredictable. Like William before her, Sarah struggled to keep the Theatre financially stable despite her business acumen. Letters at the Bristol Archives from Sarah to the Theatre proprietors show that Sarah requested money for building repairs frequently (TR/Kst/9); the absence of architectural alterations noted in the committee minutes prove that her pleas were predominantly ignored. Nonetheless, the beautiful painted panels on display in our dress circle were commissioned by Sarah. She clearly cared for her actors and staff too, writing to the proprietors and securing money to renovate the Green Room (TR/Adm/1/2, Bristol Archives).

Sarah: Goodbyes and Ghosts

Sarah died on the 8th March 1853, aged 63. She’d fought chronic pneumonia for five weeks, and was buried in the same crypt as her husband, William, at Bristol Cathedral at noon on the 14th March. She was remembered fondly in several newspaper obituaries: ‘an actress of more than average ability and a woman of considerable energy and tact’ (The Cambrian, reprinted in The Morning Post, 14th March 1853); ‘an energetic manageress and scrupulously just in all of her transactions’ (The Weekly Review and Dramatic Critic, 18th March 1853); ‘displayed great tact, energy and judgement, and ever evinced a warm interest in her profession’ (Bristol Mirror, 12th March 1853).

However, Sarah’s presence in the Theatre seems far from over – even today! Over the years, the Theatre has been the site of consistent ghost sightings. Ghost stories are a fairly common feature of old buildings and, as the longest consistently-running theatre in the UK, maybe it comes as no surprise that the Theatre is haunted. Given that most Georgian theatres burnt down before their 20th birthday, 250 years of drama on and off-stage offer ample opportunities for a lingering spirits. Catherine Hindson has explored the relationship between ghosts and theatre, arguing that architectural redevelopments which seek to secure the future of an organization can raise ghosts from the past – either in condemnation or approval of the proposed changes.

From actress Samantha Bond to architect Andrzej Blonski, and tour guide and long-term Bristol Old Vic employee Andrew Stocker, every encounter with ‘Sarah’ leaves a lasting impression. As Hindson explains: “accounts of [Sarah’s] presence are restricted to the footprint of the early nineteenth-century building and are marked by her wide silk dress and the scent of lavender” (158). The ghost is always described as female, though some experience her as affirming whilst others find her threatening.

There has been some disagreement as to which spectral Sarah still walks the boards, with some arguing that our ghost is Sarah Siddons instead of Sarah Macready. Yet why would Sarah Siddons, famous tragedian, haunt the Bristol theatre when she played here only a handful of times? Surely it’s more likely that the female phantom is Sarah Macready, who dedicated much of her life to the Theatre.

This theory is supported by the experience of a staff-member, retold by Andrew Stocker during backstage tours. Whilst patrolling the Pit passageways to ensure the Theatre had been secured properly for the evening, this individual felt a rush of cold air. Anxious to check that a door hadn’t been left ajar, he shone his torch down the passageway but saw nothing. Suddenly his dog began growling, trying to pull him backwards, away from the passage. Undeterred he tried to continue forwards, but found himself unable to move. The smell of lavender surrounded him, and he heard someone say ‘Get out!’ Moreover, he felt breath on his face as though someone had spoken directly in front of him, though he could see no one there!

The idea of Sarah Siddons walking the passages is incongruous with her acting career. In contrast, as manageress, Sarah Macready would have had to ensure the rough audiences from the Pit had left at the end of the evening. Her ghost may simply be retracing routes she walked in life, still determined to protect the Theatre even in death!

Though she came from uncertain circumstances, met mixed responses to her acting, struggled to gain support from the Proprietors during her management of the Theatre Royal Bristol, Sarah’s legacy lives on.

Further reading:

Hindson, Catherine. (2013) A Whiff of Lavender: the Theatre Ghost and the Redevelopment of the Bristol Old Vic. Theatre Notebook, 67 (3), 156-172.

(2016) Heritage, Capital and Culture: the Ghost of Sarah at the Bristol Old Vic. In: Luckhurst, Mary and Emilie Morin (eds.). Materiality, Performance and Modernity. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hindson, Catherine. (Forthcoming) ‘Sarah M’Cready’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

We owe much of our Sarah-knowledge to Theatre Historian Catherine Hindson, and lots of our archival evidence comes from our fab partners at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and Bristol Archives. Thanks for helping us learn about our past!