North Walsham & District Community Archive

When Death stalked a North Walsham Stage

When Death stalked a North Walsham Stage

(A True Story)

Extract from "The Christmas Dragon" Christmas 1943
A Miscellany devised & compiled by soldiers of a battalion of The Royal Berkshire Regiment (Princess Charlotte of Wales) and attached of other regiments with the assistance of certain friends of the regiment resident in and around North Walsham, Norfolk.

In 1780 'tis true North Walsham had no "China Dragon Club" to which the local lasses and lads might 'hie it' to a Dance, a Play, or even a good rollicking ENSA concert, but the town had its compensations even in those far off days, and travelling companies were playing nightly to packed houses at Fisher's Theatre (now the Church Rooms), in Vicarage Street.
On one hand-bill of about this time, in possession of a local resident, we are informed that The White Swan Company of Norwich are presenting nightly at Fisher's Theatre, "A Grand Play entitled 'All the World's a Stage' or 'The Butler in Buskins'— Tickets to be had. at the "King's Arms" "Cross Keys" and "The Bear" Pit two shillings, Gallery one shilling.  To begin at a quarter-past-six-o'clock."
The star of this particular Play was a certain Mrs. Barry, which calls to mind one of the most amazing stories connected with the English stage.
It was while this particular company were playing at Fisher's Theatre that Barry, a North Walsham smuggler of some wealth, first met his wife-to-be. Although he was some twenty years her senior, the plump, fair-haired little actress encouraged his attentions, and before the company had finished their run at Fisher's they were married at North Walsham Church.
Later, Barry built Hamlet House in Bacton Road, where for some few years they lived in comparative happiness.
But it was the old story of crabbed age and youth.
The young vivacious Mrs. Barry could not easily forget the life, lights and laughter of which she had grown so fond. Twenty-three was never an age at which a woman of her type could be expected to settle down with a man old enough to "be her father. And so there followed the inevitable quarrels and scenes. The young bloods of the district paid her compliments which she encouraged further to infuriate her husband.
Now Mrs. Barry had a strange hobby indeed. Day after day during their residence at Hamlet House she was experimenting with the effects of various poisons on rabbits, guinea pigs, and other animals, much to the anxiety of her gardener John Flaxman, whose aid she solicited. Flaxman, the local Sexton and a God-fearing man, openly denounced her a wicked woman for her cruelty to 'poor dumb critters.'
One severe winter a large forehead wound which Barry had sustained in some smuggling brawl began to re-open, giving him considerable pain. His wife's attitude changed, and she persuaded him to let her treat the wound rather than call in the local doctor.
Exactly what form her 'treatment' took will never be known, but Barry went from bad to worse and died in her arms some weeks later.
One would have thought under the circumstances that the very inscription on his tombstone in North Walsham Churchyard would have aroused some suspicion, " His widow's loss—Science's gain "—but it apparently did not.
Mrs. Barry left Hamlet House, and returned to her life on the stage. Some years later fate brought her to the North Walsham Theatre in a Play with the paradox of a title "The Fair Penitent."
In one particular scene, representing a Charnel House, in which the stage was littered with bones of the dead, Mrs. Barry had to place her hand in a skull, and withdraw some important papers.. As has been pointed out, she was something of an amateur physician, and.the property bones and skull fell far short of her ideas of realism; thus she sought out old Flaxman, the Sexton.
Now no-one was more conversant with the facts surrounding her husband's death than the old gardener, and he had his own ideas on that score. Ideas, let it be said, that he had no qualms in openly announcing to the world.
"Surely you can get me some real human bones—a real skull, Flaxman," she said.
And Flaxman did. He straightway exhumed the remains of his master and presented Mrs. Barry with them on the afternoon of the first performance. This good lady apparently more fully appreciated the presence of her husband's skeleton than she had ever approved of the presence of his body, for she w7as well pleased and ordered the property bones to be removed and the real bones substituted for the evening performance.
But that first performance of "The Fair Penitent "—which might now be billed as 'featuring Mr. and Mrs. Barry'—proved to be this good lady's last.
All went well until the Charnel House Scene, but as Mrs. Barry plunged her hand into the upturned skull, the climax of the play, Death waited his cue in the wings of Fisher's Theatre that night. And as she paused for dramatic effect, the toothless Flaxman yelled from his seat in the pit.
"Go on—go on, that's your poor dead husband's skull you've now got your hand in—you—you murderess—and they be his poor bones all about you, too."
Mrs. Barry screamed and slumped to the floor in writhing agony. The performance was stopped and she was carried to the house of a friend, where she died some hours later.

F. T. L. Sheppard.