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Kelly Monahan tells us about Sunderland Theatre Company (and a national scandal)

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Sunderland Theatre Company is particularly interesting because it was founded in 1893 by Dr George Frederick Vincent, a well known organist and composer. The Vincent family was well known in Sunderland - George’s father Charles and his brother William ran a music shop, his brother Henry owned St Mark’s Organ Works which manufactured church organs, and his brother Charles.J. was an organist and composer who founded the Vincent Music Publishing Company. George himself studied music at the Leipzig Conservatoire in Germany and later returned to Sunderland to become the organist at St Thomas’ Church in Sunderland. During this period he founded Sunderland Operatic Society, the first productions being “After All” and “H.M.S. Pinafore” in 1894. It appears to have been a family affair, as his son George and niece Nora both appear as performers in the 1890s, and his nephew Victor wrote a comic opera which was performed by the society in 1924. 

In 1900, George moved to London to teach at Trinity College and play the organ at St Michael’s Cornhill, and he also wrote a number of operettas and cantatas. The society continued to perform after his departure, with a break in performances during WWI and a subsequent revival led by Chief Constable Frederick Crawley, whose claim to fame is introducing the police box (an American invention) to the UK. Around this time the word “Amateur” was added to the society’s name, making it “Sunderland Amateur Operatic Society”. There appears to have been another break in performances during WWII, around which time the word “Dramatic” was added to the society’s name, although this was dropped again by the early 1960s. The society continued to perform as “Sunderland Amateur Operatic Society” until September 2013, when it was renamed “Sunderland Theatre Company”.

A particularly interesting historical footnote is the 1902 marriage of the founder’s niece Nora Vincent (who performed with the society) to a jeweller and amateur violinist named Robert March Blacklock. It seems possible that these two could have met via their musical and theatrical hobbies. Their subsequent divorce in 1904 was a national scandal which was reported in newspapers as far away as London; divorce was virtually unheard of in that time, and this one was all the more scandalous because Nora had run away to London with a pierrot (circus performer) whom she had met on the pier in Sunderland. Unfortunately I have been unable to find out what happened to Nora after that, as she disappears from the census records and is not listed in any further performances with the society. 

 I have attached a photo of the Vincent music shop at 34 Fawcett Street, Sunderland - probably taken in the late 1890s. The shop closed in the early 1900s after George’s brother and father died. The building later became part of a department store but was destroyed by bombing during WWII. It’s highly likely that one of the men pictured in front of the shop is George F. Vincent himself.