To be honest I’d never actually heard of Gertrude Swansway. She was one of those ‘larger-than-life’ characters and to the locals in Shoreham at the end of the 19th century, she was simply known as ‘Aunt Gertie’.
When ever you needed anything organised, arranged or distributed, Aunt Gertie was your lady. The reason that so much is remembered about her life is the fact that she left so many diaries.
However there had always been one journal missing, that of the year 1901. This question was answered when the diary turned up several weeks ago under the floorboards of one of the large houses down by the river, currently being renovated. In Gertrude’s journal of 1901 was recorded the funeral of Queen Victoria and the opening of the new Co-operative shop on Shoreham High Street. So why did she hide the journal?
Contained within the pages were scribblings to suggest that Aunt Gertie had been a paramour of the new King of England.
We’ll leave those stories for another time and get to the part that is pertinent to this evening. 2009 is the 85th anniversary of the Shoreham Village Players, although this wasn’t the first drama society formed in the village – in her journal, Aunt Gertie discussed how she, along with Minty Minton and Shasha Dogoody in July 1901 formed the Shoreham Strolling Troubadours.
Minty had mentioned at their inaugural meeting that “Something should be done to cheer the ballyhoo village up” “Weren’t we now in the modern age, the Edwardian age” at which point Aunt Gertie blushed. “I suggest we put on a ballyhoo show” said Minty. Shasha Dogoody said “As long it does not involve that dwedfull Oscar Wilde”. Minty felt that that was rather a shame but Aunt Gertie insisted we should not mention that horrible man’s name again. Then Minty came up with a corker – “why don’t we put on Three Men In A Boat?” Shasha Dogoody said “You mean dat rawwer spiffing little story by Jerome K Jerome?” “Exactimondo”, said Minty and “I know the very ballyhoo place to stage it”.
And that, dear friends, is why the first ever recorded drama production in Shoreham was actually held on the river.
Minty had taken charge from the word go. “I see myself as J, said Minty, “you Gertie can be George and Sasha shall be Harris. Mrs Trafalgar’s pooch can play Montmorency. So it’s all settled”….and apparently it was.
“I see the whole thing taking place upon a little boat in the middle of the Darent river” said Minty getting ever so excited. ”We shall tie the boat to the bridge and the audience will bring hampers and sit by the river”. Gertie was to write the ballyhoo play and Sasha could stitch together some marvelous costumes.
The rehearsals went ever so well, although Minty suggested holding them after dark “to maintain secrecy”. Therefore there was many an inhabitant of the village that made their way home from the nearby hostelry believing that they could hear supernatural voices. One such man, Ebaneezer Twislewaite was so frightened by the experience that he took an oath never to drink again – at least until the day he got hit by a runaway horse and sadly expired.
As far as the three of them could judge - in the dark, that is - the rehearsals had gone exceedingly well.
Then came the big day, ”the grande journee” said Minty in his rather over excited manner. Many of the great and good were sitting in anticipation on either banks of the river. Hampers were opened and oodles of food consumed.
However dear friends, I have to mention at this juncture - that the evening prior, when the three were having their dress rehearsal in the dark – it had rained very heavy, very heavy indeed.
To say that the river was torrential on the day of the performance was to rather underestimate it. It was just as Aunt Gertie was shouting (very deep voice) “Montmorency, Montmorency where are you?” that the tiny boat began to slip it’s mooring – that is to say, from being tied to the bridge. No one noticed at first and as the boat edged down the river a little, the picnickers just moved their derrières a few inches further along the bank.
However when the boat finally did break loose , it was actually very noticeable since Sasha Dogoody somehow managed to remain tied to the bridge and went flying off the back of the boat - just as Aunt Gertie and Minty started on a rather fateful voyage down stream.
The last they heard of Sasha was as she shouted “be bwave fellow thespians, be bwave”.
Minty shouted to Gertie “.. I do believe that you should also play the part of Harris, Gertie”
(Deep voice) “Why should I?” “Because I don’t know the ballyhoo part, that’s why” screamed a panicky Minty.
It was also obvious to those ashore that the audience had now broken into a trot, and then a run, attempting to follow the boat down stream.
“Gertrude, please speak up and please try to make the voices of George sound different from that of Harris”
Aunt Gertie got ever so cross and warned Minty (deep voice) “I may be a lady but one more derogatory word about my acting and by God I’ll give you a sound thrashing within an inch of your life”.
Monty had never heard Auntie Gertie talk like that and to say Monty was stunned was an understatement – that is, until he was actually stunned when the boat hit the second bridge. Unfortunately Monty was standing and took the full force, ending up face down in the river. Aunt Gertie had fallen backwards on to the deck and so avoided hitting any large objects.
Nothing could cool Gertie’s temper however, and when Police Constable Wikenshaw of Otford constabulary tried to help her to her feet – his face appeared to stop Aunt Gertie’s fist.
That evening Minty was taken to a hospital in Bromley, Aunt Gertie cooled her heels in Sevenoaks’ gaol and everyone forgot about Sasha Dogoody who literally hung about the bridge for several hours afterwards.
The following week, the Shoreham Strolling Troubadours was officially closed down by a vote of 3 votes to nil.
Minty suggested they never speak of it again.
And that dear friends is the real beginning to the Shoreham Village Players.
thank you to Jerome K. Jerome :-)
thank you to Jerome K. Jerome :-)
bobby stevenson 2013