Like many 17 year old girls, Charlotte Lowes was starstruck by a glamorous actor, but her infatuation with Penrith lad William Johnstone, a common travelling player, was never going to satisfy middle class society. When her father, a wealthy Wigton lawyer, forbade the match, Charlotte escaped her locked bedchamber and eloped to Gretna Green with William. So began a life on the road, captured in her popular memoir, A Travelling Actress in the North and Scotland.
Much of Charlotte's next 50 years were spent moving from venue to venue, reliant for a living upon what she called 'the turbulent ocean of public opinion' and the honesty of the acting troupes' managers whom she accused of a 'marked reluctance to pay salaries regularly.'
The company's performances would be held wherever they were accepted, with Charlotte's memoir recounting appearances as far apart as Arbroath and Flookburgh, Berwick and Maryport, Cartmel and Catterick; in the back rooms of inns, in barns and halls, and even outside. Musical interludes would be interspersed between short theatrical performances. In later years this style evolved into the ever popular music hall and variety genre, but for Charlotte celebrity status was a distant hope and penury a near neighbour.
In some parts of the North country pockets of local prosperity benefitted the visiting actors. Entertaining the rich miners of Alston Moor and the genteel company at the Keswick Regatta was well paid, but for much of the year the players had to eke out a precarious living.
In Charlotte's case, a year or so after eloping with William she was herself persuaded to join her husband in treading the boards. She proved to be a talented actress and the income she earned in that way, though erratic, was needed to support her growing family.
For a while things looked up as Charlotte's acting skills led her to Mr Cawdell's superior theatre company in the North East, but there a dispute led to her return to the nomadic uncertainties of the travelling player. By chance, Charlotte, William and their expanding family headed back to Wigton with another acting troupe, where her father's surviving relations attempted to intimidate local inn-keepers into withdrawing offers of venues.
Not long afterwards the couple took the tenancy of the Hare and Hounds on Wigton's Allonby Road, perhaps hoping to give their children a settled upbringing. Sadly this hope was dashed as William was accused of debt and dragged away to Carlisle Gaol. Charlotte took what work she could find, washing silk stockings and quilting to raise the money needed for his release. After William's freedom was secured the couple worked hard to establish a secure living and his subsequent employment as an auctioneer suggested that they were heading towards respectability. Sadly, this too was shortlived, as Charlotte was struck down insensibly for four months with brain fever. When she regained her senses she found that her beloved William had succumbed mortally to the same illness.
Charlotte again returned to the acting life and in Penrith joined Mr Hobson's Company of Comedians, soon becoming joint manager of the company. The risks of being on the road with a fairly disreputable crew led Charlotte, now aged thirty five to take another actor Mr Thomas Deans, thirteen years her junior, to be her husband. Marriage in Workington was followed by the rapid expansion of their family as Charlotte's existing brood of six was supplemented in the following years by eleven more children, one born backstage during a performance and one in a hedgerow.
The family suffered extremes of hardship, often going hungry and penniless. Life on the road must have been a never-ending trial but Charlotte showed great resilience and strength of character, leading them on as they were buffeted by the weather and threatened by vigilantes who tried to shut down their shows.
Whether from feeling some genuine joy in acting, or fearing what might happen if she pursued another path, Charlotte could not step aside from the life of the travelling player and she continued to act until she was in her seventies. Much of her story would have been forgotten if she hadn't published her memoirs in 1837, the proceeds from which allowed her to furnish a small cottage for her old age. She passed away in March 1859 in a small house behind Carlisle's Botchergate Post Office with Thomas at her side. She was 90 years old.
In more recent times her autobiography inspired its own stage play which brought echoes of her voice to the same Cumbrian towns and villages where she had performed two centuries earlier.