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Christopher rich--from puritan to theatre manager.

On 2 September 1642, the Puritan-dominated Parliament issued an order closing the theatres. (1) Performances of public stage-plays were considered inappropriate at a time when the country was threatened with "a Cloud of Blood by a Civil War". The ordinance described them as "Spectacles of Pleasure, too commonly expressing lascivious Mirth and Levity", and recommended to the people "the profitable and seasonal considerations of Repentance, Reconciliation, and Peace with God" (House of Lords Journal 5.336). Despite these precautions, by the end of the month, the country was embroiled in the opening skirmishes of the Civil War.

There must have been many infringements of the original edict, as it became necessary on 22 October 1647 to issue a further ordinance, giving sheriffs and justices in the London area the power to enter theatres and commit any transgressing actors to prison, "there to be punished as Rogues, according to Law" (House of Lords Journal 9.490). On 11 February 1648, Parliament went further and issued "An Ordinance for the utter suppression and abolishing of all Stage-Plays and Interludes" (House of Lords Journal 10.41-42). All playhouses and theatres were to be pulled down, all players to be seized and whipped as incorrigible rogues, and anyone caught attending a play to be fined five shillings. In the midst of this theatrical turmoil, Christopher Rich, the lawyer who later became the manager of Drury Lane Theatre, was born. The two events might seem to be totally unconnected, but this article will show how Rich was born into a strict Puritan household, and his great-uncle was a Member of Parliament when these ordinances were passed.

Biographical information about Rich's early life and origins is still sketchy. The only available source appears to be Paul Sawyer's brief biography Christopher Rich of Drury Lane published in 1986. Sawyer established, from the register of admissions to Gray's Inn, that Christopher was born in Over Stowey, Somerset, the second son of John Rich, yeoman. The Over Stowey parish records then show that he was baptised there on 30 December 1647. However, Sawyer's subsequent research was incomplete, and based solely on the records of this one parish. They contain certain significant lacunae, as he acknowledges, and consequently he does not identify all of Christopher's siblings, nor much information about his parents. He does not appear to have extended his research to include information from wills, or other contemporary documents, to fill these gaps. As I will demonstrate, these sources can shed much greater light on Christopher Rich's family and origins.

Documents in the Somerset Record Office (SRO) show that Rich was a common surname in the Quantock hills between Over Stowey and Lydeard St Lawrence. There were clearly many inter-related families, all using the same limited palette of Christian names. The records are concerned with the sale of land and properties, together with other minor legal disputes, and the relationship between the parties is often only described as "kinsman". This makes identification of individuals extremely difficult. One such document however (SRO Q/SR/86/36) tells us that Christopher's father, John, was more precisely a "clothier", undoubtedly dealing in woollen cloth from the sheep grazing in the local hills.

A further hindrance to research is that all locally-proved wills were destroyed by fire during the bombing of Exeter in the Second World War. However, Christopher's parents, John (died 1676) and Susanna (died 1682), both left wills which were proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, and these survive at The National Archives (TNA). From them one can deduce the names of all of Christopher's siblings, and confirm that he was one of eight children who survived into adulthood. He had an elder brother, John (baptised 1635), five sisters and a hitherto unknown younger brother with the unusual name of Collamore. Collamore Rich must have been born after 1657 when there is a gap in the parish records and surprisingly, as the youngest son, was the sole executor of his father's will in 1676 and inherited the lands in Over Stowey. The older brothers, John and Christopher were merely two of several "overseers" of the will.

Sawyer hazards that Christopher's father, John, was possibly the son of Francis Rich, one of three brothers, Edward, Samuel and Francis, from an earlier generation resident in Over Stowey; but acknowledges this is speculation based on "the lack of a negative, rather than the presence of a positive, fact" (2). He was not correct in his attribution. A dispute in the Court of Chancery in 1638 (TNA C 2/ChasI/R34/62), between John Rich of Over Stowey and Simon Venn, yeoman of Lydeard St Lawrence, over the income from a tenant, states that John Rich was the son of Thomas Rich of Lydeard St Lawrence. He was a brother of the aforementioned three. The Chancery records show that John Rich was in dispute with his father-in-law, Simon Venn. Although I have been unable to find any official record of the marriage in the local parishes, John Rich's wife was Venn's only surviving child, Susanna. Simon Venn (1584-1640) was a local yeoman who traded extensively throughout the West Country. He is buried at Lydeard St Lawrence, but died in Exeter as his gravestone in the parish church testifies. Simon Venn had several siblings amongst whom was a younger brother, John, who was Susanna Rich's uncle and thereby Christopher's great-uncle. And it is this side of the family which holds the greatest interest for historians.

John Venn is now generally known with the appellation The Regicide through his actions as one of the signatories to Charles I's death warrant. He was two years younger than his brother Simon, having been born in Lydeard St Lawrence in 1586, and his life is now, for obvious reasons, well-researched. Following an apprenticeship with the Merchant Taylors' Company, he established himself as a successful woollen and silk merchant in London during the 1620s. He also became active in the London militia, which first brought him to prominence in politics, and he helped organise the petition sent to Charles I at York in September 1640 calling for a new parliament. In June 1641 he was elected to the Commons, and subsequently accused of organising riots at Westminster during the debates in order to intimidate MPs opposed to the Grand Remonstrance, the list of grievances to be presented to the King. During the summer of 1642, Charles I denounced Venn and his associates as traitors for stirring up London against him, and declared they would never be pardoned. When the Civil War broke out, Venn raised subscriptions from the citizens of London to support Parliament's war effort and was appointed a colonel of foot in the army. After the battle of Edgehill in October 1642, he became governor of Windsor Castle, a post he held until 1645, withstanding attacks by royalist forces; and, in January 1649, he was appointed a commissioner of the High Court of Justice which conducted the trial of King Charles. He was a devout Puritan, and one of the signatories of the King's death warrant.

Christopher Rich's family were thus closely related to a major participant in one of the most pivotal events in British history. Although, it would be wrong to assume that the members of the Rich family were necessarily imbued with the same Puritanical zeal as John Venn, there is circumstantial evidence which indicates that Christopher's parents did share the same beliefs. The anonymous pamphlet A Most Famous Victory describes the actions of John Venn in Windsor, repelling the advance on the town by Royalist forces led by Prince Rupert, on 7 November 1642. It is dated 10 November, three days after the event, and was published in London by "J. Rich". There is nothing in the document to confirm that J. Rich was Venn's nephew but, if this is not the case, the name would be a most unusual coincidence. The speed with which the pamphlet was produced indicates that the author was not in Somerset at the time, and it seems reasonable to assume that John Rich had allied himself to serve the Parliamentarian cause alongside his uncle.

Further evidence of the family's Puritan sympathies can be found in Simon Venn's will (TNA PROB10/614). This shows that he was godfather to Thomas Manton (1620-77), the Puritan clergyman who was born in Lydeard St. Lawrence. Manton was appointed by Parliamentary Ordinance on 20 March 1654 to be a "Commissioner for the Approbation of Publique Preachers", and his biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes how he preached before Parliament in 1647 and 1648, and was one of Oliver Cromwell's chaplains (Vernon). Simon Venn also left bequests to eight "ministers of good words", a typically Puritan sentiment. One can deduce that he shared his brother John's beliefs and would have raised his daughter Susannah to follow the same principles. Christopher Rich was not simply the son of a yeoman in a remote corner of the country, as one might otherwise have predicted. When he was born in 1647, his great-uncle John Venn would have been at the height of his power and influence in the country.

However, Venn died suddenly, and unexpectedly, in June 1650. In his will (TNA PROB11/213)2 he left land in Monkton (presumably West Monkton, just outside Taunton) and 20 [pounds sterling] to Susan Rich, wife of John Rich, and 10 [pounds sterling] each to her six eldest children, of whom the youngest would have been Christopher. The seventh child, Mary Rich, was only a year old, and Collamore was not born until at least 1657. John Venn appointed his widow, Margaret, executrix, also charging her to "pay the portions given to my couzen Rich his children by my deceased bro. Simon Venn as they come due to be paid". Five years later, in 1655, Susanna Rich also received a bequest of 10 [pounds sterling], with a further 10 [pounds sterling] for her children, from John Venn's daughter, Anne (TNA PROB10/800). Anne Venn had been totally obsessed with religion since childhood, as demonstrated by a journal discovered in her closet after she died which was published in 1658 as A Wise Virgin's Lamp Burning. The preface states that "Her conversation was in heaven; she walked with God" ((A3v), and describes the contents of the book as "the free, frequent and familiar intercourse betwixt the Lord and a godly soul, her continual Addresses to him, and his gracious Returnes to her" (A3r). Anne Venn left many bequests in her will, and one assumes that all the recipients found favour with her. Christopher Rich would therefore have been raised in the knowledge of the importance of his great-uncle, and aware of his family's involvement in the conflict that had torn the country apart.

According to Novum Repertorium Ecclesiasticum Parochiale Londinense by Reverend George Hennessy (1898), Simon Venn's godson Thomas Manton was educated at Blundell's School in Tiverton, about 20 miles in a direct line from Lydeard St. Lawrence. The school was founded in 1604 with money bequeathed for the purpose in his will by Peter Blundell, a wealthy merchant from the town who died in 1601 (TNA PROB11/97). Simon Venn had a close personal association with Tiverton and the founder's family through his wife, Katherine nee Collamore (hence the name of Christopher Rich's brother). The marriage can be confirmed by her father Christopher Collamore's will (TNA PROB11/198), which also makes mention of all Katherine's siblings. These were a brother, Robert of Uplowman, a village just outside the town, and three sisters Joan Collamore, Priscilla Blundell and Mary Mosier. Priscilla Blundell's husband, also called Peter, belonged to a collateral branch of the founder's family and, according to The Donations of Peter Blundell by Benjamin Incledon (1802), both he and his son John served as a Feoffees (Trustees) of the school (Appendix One, xlv). All these parties, or their descendants, were later involved in a dispute in the Court of Chancery in 1647 over the inheritance of land owned by Robert Collamore. Simon and Katherine Venn were both dead and so John Rich and Suzan his wife were listed as plaintiffs, together with John Blundell and Joane Collamore (Blundell versus Mosier, TNA C 2/ChasI/B65/17).

Christopher Rich therefore had relatives who lived in the Tiverton area. However, the most relevant confirmation of a possible connection between his generation of the Rich family and Blundell's School is that Christopher's elder brother John (1635-c.1697), spent all his adult life in villages close to Tiverton. He was firstly an innkeeper in Hemyock and later lived in Halberton, where he died 1696-97. This information can be ascertained from a variety of sources, which include the parish records of Nether Stowey (where he married in 1658), deeds at the SRO (e.g. DD\DP/8/5) and the Calendar of Devon wills. (Devon wills were also destroyed by fire in the Second World War, and so the date of death cannot be precise.) This could well indicate that John Rich attended Blundell's School as a boy and never left the area. In which case, it seems possible that both his brothers, Christopher and Collamore could also have been educated there. Unfortunately, the earliest Admissions Register still in existence starts in 1770, so this can be no more than supposition. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence is strong.

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died and two years later the monarchy was restored. In August 1660, the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion was passed which granted a free pardon to everyone who had merely supported the Commonwealth and Protectorate. All the living regicides, however, were hunted down, tried and sentenced to death. Those who had died before the Restoration, such as John Venn, were posthumously attainted for high treason and their property and estates forfeited to the Crown (copies of the Act in TNA C 204/51, 52). Committees were appointed in each County to investigate the traitors' estates, and the members' names can be found in the records of the Lord High Treasurer, the Earl of Southampton (TNA T51/6/p.67). These Committees must have based their investigations on the wills of the regicides, and this may explain why the original of John Venn's will does not appear at the National Archives in series PROB 10 (only the transcript in PROB 11 exists). Presumably these committees reported back to Parliament with their findings but, so far, I have found no copies of any such reports. Considering the importance and uniqueness of these documents, this is surprising. However, the catalogue of the National Archives shows that an enormous number of documents relating to Special Commissions of Inquiry in series E 178 were lost or "transferred elsewhere before 1912". Their present whereabouts, if they still exist, is unknown. It is also not clear in the Act of Parliament whether monetary bequests had to be repaid, and I have similarly found no records which would clarify the point. The Act refers to "the pains penalties and forfeitures imposed upon the estates and persons of certain notorious offenders excepted out of the act of free and general pardon indemnity and oblivion". A rigorous interpretation of the word "estate" would include all bequests appearing in the deceased's will, even small gifts of money, and there seems no reason to suppose that the authorities would not have interpreted it accordingly. The Rich family must have had to cede the lands in Monkton received from John Venn, and probably the money received from both Venn and his daughter Anne.

At some time after this turbulent childhood, and for reasons still unknown, Christopher Rich left Somerset and, in 1673, is first recorded in London. As clerk to the lawyer Sir Thomas Skipwith, he witnessed the Licence Allegation on 30 April for Skipwith's second marriage at Westminster Abbey. At this time Rich was not a law student, and it was not until three years later, on 6 June 1676, that he was formally admitted as a student to Gray's Inn. This is the year his father died, and my research has shown that the two events must have occurred very close together. There is a gap of several years in the parish records of Over Stowey at this time, and so the precise date of his father's death and burial cannot be known, but John Rich made his will on 28 November 1675 and, according to a document in the records of the Court of Chancery from May 1680, died about six months later (TNA C 8/238/59). This would place his death at the end of May or beginning of June 1676. One is therefore tempted to see a connection between the two events. However, Christopher did not profit financially from his father's death as John Rich left debts, and the first priority was to sort out his financial affairs.

John Rich's executor, as previously mentioned, was actually his youngest son, Collamore, but he travelled to London to seek help from his older brother; and it was Christopher who found the 100 [pounds sterling] plus interest to redeem the mortgage on one tranche of land comprising 100 acres (SRO A\AYY/1). However, there were further mortgages to pay off, and decisions then on which properties to sell, and at what price, to recoup the expenditure. Christopher's brother-in-law, Amos Birkham, was in Over Stowey seeking purchasers, and the substance of the 1680 case in Chancery, referred to above, was a disagreement over the price and conditions he had negotiated with a possible purchaser.

It may be mere coincidence that Christopher's formal enrolment as a law student at Gray's Inn came at the time his father died. There were precedents for a legal career within the family. His great-uncle Robert Collamore had been admitted to the Inner Temple in 1622; and a cousin (technically, first-cousin-once-removed), John Mosyer, (3) was admitted there in 1646. John Mosyer was a son of Stephen Mosyer and his wife Mary, Robert Collamore's sister. The Mosyers had been the defendants in the 1647 inheritance dispute in Chancery, referred to earlier. John Mosyer had a distinguished legal career, and rose to become Treasurer of the Inner Temple. It is therefore surprising that Christopher Rich did not seek to start his law career with him, but went to work for Sir Thomas Skipwith. Perhaps John Mosyer helped to arrange this. Rich and Mosyer were certainly well acquainted later in life; Rich named his second son Christopher Mosyer Rich in 1693; and when John Mosyer died in 1697, unmarried and without issue, he left the balance of his estate, after several bequests, to his clerk Jeremy Mount and his "cozen" Christopher Rich (TNA PROB 10/1297).

When Rich received this bequest in 1697, he had been a widower for three years. He married comparatively late, at the age of 37, on Christmas Day 1684. His wife was Sarah Bewley, who bore him seven children in the ten years of their marriage, four of whom, all girls, died at birth. Sarah died in October 1694, a month after the birth of the last of these, Catherine, probably from complications following childbirth. Rich was left with three children: Susanna (born 1689), John (born 1692), and Christopher Mosyer (born 1693); and then in August 1697 Susanna died. Previous writers have speculated how Rich would have raised his surviving sons from such a young age. The Biographical Dictionary of Actors surmised that he must have remarried, citing as a possibility a Mrs Susanna Rich whose name appears in the Lincoln's Inn Theatre account books many years later. These show that, on the 26 October 1726, Christopher Mosyer Rich was reimbursed 3 [pounds sterling] 12s 2d for "the burial charge of Mrs Susanna Rich" (British Library Eg MS 2266). There is absolutely no evidence for a second marriage, and this is dismissed by more modern sources such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Apart from the absence of a marriage licence, which would have been a necessity, Rich makes no provision for a widow in his will and asks to be buried "with his wife" (not his first wife) at St Andrew's Holborn. The theatre account books give no indication of the identity of Mrs Susanna Rich, but it is natural to assume that she must have been related to Christopher Rich in some way.

Another name that occurs in Christopher Rich's later dealings is that of Henry Rich, who witnessed deeds relating to Rich's land speculations in the parish of St Andrew's, Holborn in 1711 (London Metropolitan Archives MDR/1715/2/1). These deeds were only formally entered in the Middlesex Deeds Register in 1715, a year after Christopher Rich's death. Henry Rich also witnessed Christopher's will in 1714, and was granted benefit performances at Lincoln's Inn Theatre on 6 July 1715, 22 June 1716 and 27 May 1717, when he is described in the newspaper advertisements as the "Pit-Office-Keeper". The 1726-27 account book, which included the payment for Mrs Susannah Rich's burial, shows that Henry was receiving a pension of 5s a week at the time. There are no payments after 5 June 1727 in the final weeks of this volume, which may be significant and could indicate when he died. Once again, sources such as the Biographical Dictionary of Actors merely surmise that Henry must have been a relation.

Fortunately, it is possible to show that Henry and Susanna were a married couple. Henry Rich and Susanna Prince were granted a marriage licence by the Vicar-General in London on 30 April 1696, and the application yields more details about their origins. Henry was "of Halberton in ye County of Devon Gent aged about 30 years and a Bachelor", and his bride was "of West Munckton in ye County of Somerset aged about 25 years and a Spinster". The licence states that the couple were to be married at either St Clement Danes or St Mary Savoy but, unhelpfully, the marriage is not recorded at either church. The fact that Henry Rich came from Halberton confirms the family connection. As mentioned previously, this was where Christopher Rich's elder brother John was living when he died in 1696-97. Henry Rich was John's son. He was baptised on 27 March 1663 at Hemyock, a few miles from Halberton and where the family had earlier lived. He was therefore Christopher Rich's nephew.

The fact that Henry and Susannah were married in London, and not the West Country, is, I believe, significant. It may even be that Henry came to London at his uncle's specific behest, bringing Susannah Prince with him. If not, and their arrivals were purely fortuitous, it is still reasonable to assume that Christopher would have taken advantage of their services. The couple would have been an ideal choice to take on the responsibility for the care of his two young sons. The evidence that John and Christopher Mosyer were paying Henry a pension over 30 years later, and also paid for the burial of Susannah, is indicative of a close, continuing relationship. The records of St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street show that Henry and Susannah took up residence in Chancery Lane, and in the succeeding years had three children of their own who were christened in the church: John on 12 December 1698, Thomas on 7 February 1701 (new style) and Ann on 18 March 1703 (new style).

Nothing further is known about these children. They do not appear to have been connected with the theatre in adult life, and it is not known whether they survived into adulthood. No childhood burials have been found. Nor can the burials of Henry and Susannah be found in any of the parishes close to Chancery Lane and Lincoln's Inn. 3 [pounds sterling] 12s 2d is expensive for a burial in 1726. The most expensive burial at St Martin-in-the-Fields, for example, where the financial accounts still exist, cost 1 [pounds sterling] 10s 5d at this time. This suggests that Susannah was not buried close to where the family lived, and the cost incorporated payment for transport. However, nothing that I have discovered about the couple gives any indication where the burial might have taken place.

There is a similar lack of information about Henry's death. He did not leave a will, and limited administration of his affairs was granted many years later, in November 1751, to the purchaser of a property in which Henry had a partial interest (TNA PROB 6/127 ff. 245-49). The grant merely stated that he was "dead without making any Will in Chancery Lane".

This article, therefore, has concentrated solely on details about Christopher Rich's personal life and origins; the new information about his Puritan background surely makes his later career in theatre management an unexpected development. Moreover, his work in the theatre does not appear to have been influenced by a legacy of his Puritan up-bringing. He certainly did not subscribe to the strictures of Jeremy Collier, the theatre critic and clergyman who published a pamphlet in 1698 entitled A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, the Introduction to which starts:
 The business of Plays is to recommend Virtue, and discountenance
 Vice; To shew the Uncertainty of Humane Greatness, the sudain Turns
 of Fate, and the Unhappy Conclusions of Violence and Injustice:
 'Tis to expose the Singularities of Pride and Fancy, to make Folly
 and Falsehood contemptible, and to bring every Thing that is Ill
 Under Infamy, and Neglect. (B1r)

Rich was not beholden to this dogma. As a pragmatic theatre manager, he gave the public what they wanted, and if that was a desire for exotic spectacle, so be it.

Colley Cibber, in his Apology for the Life o fMr Colley Gibber, gave an example of what Rich was prepared to do to keep his audiences entertained:

His Point was to please the Majority, who could more easily comprehend any thing they saw than the daintiest things that could be said to them. But in this Notion he kept no medium; for in my Memory he carry'd it so far that he was (some few Years before this time) actually dealing for an extraordinary large Elephant at a certain Sum for every Day he might think fit to shew the tractable Genius of that vast quiet Creature in any Play or Farce in the Theatre (then standing) in Dorset-Garden. But from the Jealousy which so formidable a Rival had rais'd in his Dancers, and by his Bricklayer's assuring him that if the Walls were to be open'd wide enough for its Entrance it might endanger the fall of the House, he gave up his Project, and with it so hopeful a Prospect of making the Receipts of the Stage run higher than all the Wit and Force of the best Writers had ever yet rais'd them to. (2.6)

Despite the Puritans, the theatre remained a place for "Spectacles of Pleasure", and plays might still express "lascivious Mirth and Levity".

Works cited

Cibber, Colley. An Apology for the Life of Mr Colley Gibber, Comedian. London: John Watts for Colley Cibber, 1740.

Collier, Jeremy A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Wing C5264. London: S. Keble, R. Sare and H. Hindmarsh, 1698.

Hennessy, George. Novum Repertorium Ecclesiasticum Parochiale Londinense. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1898.

Highfill, Philip H., Kalman A. Burnim and Edward A. Langhans. eds. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Mangers and other stage personnel in London, 1660-1800. 16 vol. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1973-91.

House of Lords Journal. Main Papers 1509-1700. London: Archive of the House of Lords. Classmark HL/PO/JO/10/1.

Incledon, Benjamin. The Donations of Peter Blundell. Exeter: Trewmans, 1804.

A Most Famous Victory Obtained by that Vallant [sic] Religious Gentleman, Collonell Venne, against Prince Robert. Wing M2888. London: J. Rich, 10 November 1642.

Sawyer, Paul. Christopher Rich of Drury Lane. London: UP of America, 1986.

Tait, R. S, and C. H. Firth. eds. Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1911.

Vernon, E. C. "Manton, Thomas (bap. 1620, d. 1677)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Venn, Anne. A Wise Virgin's Lamp Burning, or God's Sweet Incomes of Love to a Gracious Soul Waiting for Him. Wing V190. London: E. Cole, 1658.


(1) The ordinances are transcribed in Tait and Firth (26-27, 1027, 1070-22) and at British History Online.

(2) Original wills proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury can be found at the National Archives in series PROB 10, and this reference is given wherever possible. John Venn's will is missing from this series. Court transcripts are available in PROB 11, now searchable online.

(3) John Mosyer spelt his name this way in his will, but the name can also be found as Mosier. Instances where it is spelt Moyser, or Moiser, as can be found in some references to Christopher Moyser Rich, are certainly inaccurate.

Terry Jenkins is a retired opera singer. For 25 years he was a principal tenor with the English National Opera. He made his Covent Garden debut in 1976, and performed widely in Europe and the USA. His article "The Will of John Rich--Probate and Problems" appeared in Theatre Notebook Volume 64 pp. 12-27.
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Author:Jenkins, Terry
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Date:Jun 1, 2012
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