Maud Carpenter (1892-1967)

Sector: Travel and Leisure (Theatre management)

In 2011, the oldest surviving repertory theatre in the country, the Liverpool Playhouse, celebrated its centenary. Maud Carpenter would have been looking down with pride. She worked for the Liverpool Playhouse for her entire career and managed it for nearly forty years and its survival is in no small part due to her. A prominent figure in the city she was involved in a host of charitable activities, including the Royal British Legion, and was the first President of the Liverpool branch of the Soroptimists. When she died her funeral service in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral was packed.

Maud was born on 19th March 1892 in the Toxteth area of Liverpool. She was the fifth of seven children born to George and Mary Jane Carpenter. Her father was a bricklayer who later became a Clerk of Works, overseeing the delivery of building projects. This meant moving about and Maud spent some of her childhood in the village of Hadley, near Wellington in Shropshire, but by the time she started work aged around 18, she was back in Liverpool. She trained as a shorthand typist and her sister, who was working in the box office of Kelly’s Theatre on Paradise Street, gave her a job as her junior: Maud was there to see the birth of the Liverpool Repertory Theatre in 1911.

Maud Carpenter
Maud Carpenter n.d.

Liverpool’s role in the repertory tradition
Liverpool was a wealthy and vibrant city at the turn of the 20th century. With a population of more than 760,00, it was the third largest city in the UK after London and Manchester and just ahead of Glasgow. Ada Nettleship’s son-in-law, the painter Augustus John arrived in 1901 to teach at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art. Work on the great Anglican Cathedral, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, began in 1904. In 1908, the Walker Art Gallery held ‘The Historical Exhibition of Liverpool Art’, a comprehensive show of 18th and 19th century art that marked the beginning of serious study and patronage of local artists.

The vast majority of theatre-goers outside London saw products staged by one of around 170 touring companies, usually coming from London, and the largest cities were tiring of having their cultural agenda set by the capital. In the first decade of the 1900s, Manchester and Glasgow both set up their own permanent repertory companies, Manchester in 1908, Glasgow in 1909. The Gaiety Theatre in Manchester was dependent on the personal wealth of founder Annie Horniman. Glasgow’s company folded within a couple of years. Liverpool looked for a different model.

Led by Professor Charles Reilly, head of the Liverpool School of Architecture, a proposal was made to stage an experimental six-week season at Kelly’s Theatre, which opened in February 1911. It was successful enough to result in a campaign to raise money from Liverpool citizens to fund a permanent company and venue. Some 1,500 residents put up £16,000 to create a social enterprise where the goal was to put on a dramatic programme that was consistent with solvency. No dividends were expected but costs had to be covered. A board was appointed and a new 800-seat venue was found, the old Star Theatre on Williamson Square. The Liverpool Repertory Theatre opened there on 11th November 1911 with a performance of ‘The Admirable Crichton’. Maud moved with the company and kept her box office role.

Maud’s growing role at the Liverpool Playhouse
In 1916 the theatre was re-named the Liverpool Playhouse. Maud became private secretary to the producer Bridges Adams and from 1917 had full charge of all the booking arrangements. In 1918 she was made Assistant Manager and, in recognition of her extraordinary organisational skills, took over as licensee and manager of the theatre on 23rd March 1923, just after her 31st birthday. William Armstrong was made director-producer, responsible for everything on the creative side – staging and directing the plays and building the company of actors. Among those who trod the stage in the 1920s were Robert Donat and Rex Harrison.

Maud did everything else. She managed the building, balanced the books and filled in tax returns. She was involved in the hiring of the behind-the-scenes crew: the actor Patricia Routledge started her career at the Liverpool Playhouse as an assistant stage manager in 1952 and was thrilled when, after three months, Maud offered her a permanent job. “Would you like to come to the company? I’ll pay you £5 a week.” “Oh yes, Miss Carpenter,” she replied in delight.

Maud oversaw the marketing, setting up contracts and negotiating salaries. She organised mystery day trips for company members and started a Thrift Club to encourage regular saving: members made a commitment at the beginning of the season which was taken out of their weekly pay and then returned to them as a lump sum at the end of the season. She had time for anyone and everyone. Each year more photographs of stage stars were added to the wall of her office as she assumed a role that was a cross between fairy godmother and mother confessor.

Programme cover from 1951 showing the Liverpool Repertory Theatre in 1911

For the theatre to stay out of the red, over the season the programme had to strike the right balance between artistic merit and popular appeal. The director-producer was also ultimately responsible for the programme but Maud gave plenty of input. Given her role, she was always more inclined to prefer crowd-pleasing productions. When she started, she didn’t have a wide knowledge of plays but she generally had good instincts, able to read a play list and say ‘they’ll come to that, they won’t come to that, they’ll hate that’. She didn’t get to see a lot of the productions herself, too busy with the front-of-house but she enjoyed theatre-going: the first thing she did after she retired was visit Chichester Festival Theatre.

Daily life in the theatre
Maud’s brilliance in the management of the theatre was undisputed. During the season, the day followed a regular pattern: cleaners arrived at 8am to start picking up all the litter from the previous night’s performance. At 10am the stage staff arrived to prepare for the rehearsals of the next play to be staged. The actors, stage manager and producer arrived a little later and there would be a period of rehearsal for the next play to be staged. Then there would be a break so everything could be prepared for that night’s performance of the current production.

She knew how reliant the theatre was on repeat business and worked hard to deliver a great customer experience, expecting everyone else to do the same. The writer Beryl Bainbridge, who joined the company after the Second World War, when she was just sixteen, remembers her speaking with real passion to the company about ‘our’ audience, ‘our’ patrons, without whom they could not survive. (She later drew on Maud when she created the character of Rose Lipman in her book ‘An Awfully Big Adventure’ by Beryl Bainbridge, published in 1990 and made into a film in 1995 starring Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant, with Prunella Scales playing Rose.)

Her high standards meant that the theatre always had fresh flowers, was clean – ‘an inquisitive finger is always exploring for dust’ – and opened on time. Attendants had new dresses every season. Worn upholstery and carpets were replaced, lighting was upgraded. She took the unusual step of using the foyer to provide good-quality tea and coffee and in 1938 installed a panelled tea and coffee bar. In 1936 she built a glass verandah to shelter those queuing up early. Her care for playgoers physical wellbeing was seen at this time seen as ‘unusual’ She also kept an eye on the competition, visiting other theatres to suss out what they were up to.

By the 1930s, the theatrical model had changed significantly: by now there were 37 repertory theatres and companies and only 37 companies on tour. In his 1934 book, Cecil Chisholm claimed that the Playhouse was by far the most successful repertory in the country, a theatre where ‘at the moment some of the finest productions and acting in the country are to be seen’.

Maud, front row, second from left, at the celebration of the 21st anniversary of the Liverpool Playhouse in 1932.

Women’s networks
Maud’s job kept her busy but she made time to connect with others outside the world of theatre. In November 1926, a Liverpool branch of the Soroptimists was set up, only the second one outside London, and at its December meeting a month later forty professional and business women gathered together for a lunch. Maud spoke on ‘The inner workings of a repertory theatre’ where she ‘successfully corrected the impression of a lady who had once remarked that she thought all Miss Carpenter had to do was to order buns and drink for the bar’.

Maud was elected its first President in 1927. Within a year membership had grown to eighty including, according to the local newspaper, merchants of coal, cigars and wholesale fruit, an estate agent, an analytical chemist, a heavy haulage contractor, a brick maker, a woman minister of religion (probably Maude Royden) and a woman city councillor (probably Margaret Beavan, who became the city’s first woman Lord Mayor in 1927). The barrister Rose Heilbron was later another famous member. Maud was Vice President in 1932 and in 1935, when the National Union of Soroptimist Clubs held its annual conference in Liverpool, was part of the Social Committee.

She was also President of Childwall and Wavertree Townswomen’s Guild in 193 and had connections to the 1918 Club, another important Liverpool women’s network, donating the gavel still used in their meetings.

Voluntary work
As if this wasn’t enough to juggle, Maud was active in raising funds for a number of different organisations. These included the Stage Guild and the local Goodfellow Fund, which Maud helped by staging fundraising concerts in the theatre. She worked with local philanthropists like Walter Harding, who bought out an entire floor of the theatre for two nights at Christmas and gave tickets to nurses in hospitals across Merseyside.

One of her longest-term commitments was to the British Legion and the annual Poppy Appeal. In 1929 Lady Haig paid Liverpool a flying visit – literally. Her pilot was the pioneering aviator, Lady Mary Bailey. Gusting wind and driving rain meant that they only just managed to land at Hooton aerodrome in time for the two-minute silence which they observed with their goggles pushed up over their flight helmets. Then it was on to the Birkenhead Town Hall and finally Liverpool, where Maud was among the welcoming committee. By 1939, when she was President of the British Legion Ball, Maud was a recognised local celebrity, opening exhibitions, spas and furniture stores. Lord Mayors came and went but Maud Carpenter was a constant, one badged ‘the unofficial Lady Mayoress of Liverpool’. 

It might seem as if Maud was married to the theatre but in fact her husband was David Farrington, a civil servant, working for Customs and Excise, whom she married in December 1919. On their 25th wedding anniversary he was invited to a special celebratory lunch by the Soroptimists where he said he had always been keen on his wife following her professional career even after she was married but he kept a very low profile and Maud carried on working under her maiden name. However, she always wore her wedding ring, sometimes swapping the gold band for a diamond-set eternity ring for evening events. And while Maud might not have ventured on to the stage, she loved dressing up: women journalist who reported on her attendance at events often mentioned her dresses: a charming frock of shell pink chiffon with frosted Venetian embroidery and a pretty touch of blue; a gossamer creation of delicate green flowered chiffon; a graceful gown of black chiffon with a cape of ermine trimmed with white ostrich fronds.

The war years and beyond
When war broke out, the theatre initially closed, though Maud continued to go in every day. In 1939 Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) was set up by the man involved in that first experimental theatre season in Liverpool, Basil Dean, and Leslie Henson. Maud joined the Western Regional Committee, seeing to the welfare of the performers engaged to entertain the troops in the various Garrison theatres in the area. She was heavily involved in Liverpool’s Women’s Voluntary Service while the Soroptimists staffed the Angel Services Club which provided meals for service men.

The theatre reopened in 1942 with the company from the Old Vic Theatre in London re-locating to Liverpool for four years. Maud was finally elected to the Board in 1945, its first woman director. The men dealt with a woman in their midst by sneaking off to the bar at the Adelphi Hotel after meetings officially finished to discuss the things they didn’t want her to know.

In 1951, Maud was awarded an honorary degree of Master of Arts from Liverpool University and in 1954 she was made an OBE for her service to theatre in 1954. When Maud retired in 1962 she was made a vice-president of the Board. She died on 18th June 1967 after a short illness.

Her successor as general manager, Carrie Gardner, paid tribute to her from the stage: ‘No theatre in the country can look back with more pride and affection on the years of its fulfilment than Liverpool Playhouse. No theatre can claim a personality of the richness and variety of approach of Maud Carpenter.’ She earned the respect of the countless actors, directors and stage crew who passed through the Playhouse doors during her fifty year career, as well as from playgoers.

One of the reasons so much is known about Maud’s life and work is because of her four-decade friendship with the journalist Mary Ventris. Mary had a regular column in the Liverpool Echo, ‘A Woman’s Note’ and on Maud’s death she shared her memories. ‘She had a gift for sizing up character and rarely in my experience of her…have I known her to be at fault in her judgment. She was a strict disciplinarian where work was concerned but had the happy knack of seeing the best in people. With a naturally cheerful disposition ‘whatsoever her hand found to do she did with with all her might.’ A fitting tribute to an inspiring woman.

Sources include:

Liverpool Echo 14/12/1926; 22/4/1927; 2/11/1927; 24/2/1928; 9/7/1929; 23/6/1929; 11/11/1929; 12/8/1932; 14/11/1932; 27/5/1933; 8/5/1934; 12/4/1935; 21/6/1935; 3/12/1935; The Stage 10/8/1939; Liverpool Echo 14/19/1941; 24/3/1943; 19/12/1944; 19/11/1945; Guardian 12/3/1959; The Stage 12/7/1962; Liverpool Echo 19/6/1967; Guardian 20/6/1967

‘The Liverpool Repertory Theatre 1911-1934’ by Grace Wyndham Goldie (1935); ‘An outline of the Modern Theatre Movement’ by Cecil Chisholm (1934); ‘Liverpool Playhouse: A Theatre and its City’ by Ros Meakin (2011)

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