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At The Cutting Of The Baddeley Cake

January 8, 2015
by the gentle author

Harry Nicholls cuts the Baddeley Cake with the cast of ‘Babes in the Wood’ in 1908

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I made one of our rare trips up to the West End this week to join the excited throng at Drury Lane celebrating London’s oldest theatrical tradition, the cutting of the Baddeley Cake, which has been taking place on Twelfth Night since 1795.

After the performance, members of the cast of “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory” gathered for the ceremony in the palatial neo-classical theatre bar dating from 1821, in front of a large party of fellow actors and actresses who had trod the boards of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in former years, and Alex Jennings – who stars as Willy Wonka – cut the cake. Liberal servings of strong punch containing wine, brandy and gin, concocted by the Theatre Manager to a secret recipe handed down through the centuries, ensured that the evening went with a swing. In recent years, the cake has been themed to the show running at the theatre and we were treated to huge chocolate cake, cunningly baked in the shape of a Wonka bar by a Master Chocolatier.

It was an occasion coloured with sentiment as the performers, still flushed from the night’s performance, came to recognise their part in this theatre’s long history while the retired actors filled with nostalgic emotion to be reunited with old friends and recall happy past times at Drury Lane. The splendid event is organised annually by the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund which was founded by the great actor-manager David Garrick in 1766 to provide pensions to performers from Drury Lane and still functions today, for this notoriously most-uncertain of professions, offering support to senior actors down on their luck.

Twelfth Cake was a medieval tradition that is the origin of our contemporary Christmas Cake. Originally part of the feast of Epiphany, the cake was baked with a bean inside and whoever got the slice with the bean was crowned King of Misrule. The Baddeley Cake is the last surviving example of this ancient custom of the Twelfth Cake and – appropriately enough – owes its name to Robert Baddeley, a pastry chef who became a famous actor, and left a legacy to the Drury Lane Fund to “provide cake and wine for the performers in the green room of Drury Lane Theatre on Twelfth Night.”

A Cockney by origin, Robert Baddeley was pastry chef to the actor Samuel Foote when he grew stage-struck and asked his employer, who was performing at Drury Lane, if he could join him on the stage. “You are a good cook, why do you want to be a bad actor?” queried Foote, dismissing the request, but offering to find him a role on the stage if Baddeley was still keen in a year’s time.

With theatrical daring, Baddeley left his employer, travelled the continent for a year and returned to marry Sophia Snow, the glamorous daughter of George III’s State Trumpeter. On the anniversary of his original request, he presented himself at the Stage Door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and asked Foote for the job which he had been promised. In fact, Baddeley turned out to be a talented actor and quickly made a name for himself in comic roles, playing foreigners. The attractive Sophia Baddeley was also offered roles, exploiting her musical abilities and natural charms, and her husband arranged with the management to pocket both their salaries himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it proved to be a volatile marriage, especially when she took revenge on her husband by working her way through all the male members of the company.

The situation came to crisis in a duel over Sophia Baddeley’s honour between George Garrick (David’s brother) and Robert Baddeley in Hyde Park, yet she managed to reconcile the opponents with a suitably theatrical demonstration of her astonishing powers of persuasion. It appears that the constant tide of marital scandal published in the newspapers did no harm to the careers of either Mr & Mrs Baddeley.

Eventually, Robert Baddeley became a permanent member of His Majesties Company of Comedians at Drury Lane at a salary of twelve pounds a week. He was best known for originating the role of Moses in ‘The School for Scandal’ which premiered at Drury Lane in 1777, and it was in costume for this character that he collapsed on stage on November 19th 1794 and died at home in Store St next morning.

Baddeley’s will extended to seventy pages, including the legacy of his house in Moulsey as an asylum for decayed actors and a three pound annuity for the provision of an annual Twelfth Cake and punch for the performers at Drury Lane. The asylum failed because the old actors did not like being labelled as decayed, so the property was sold and his estate merged with the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund – but the annual ceremony of the cake which bears his name lives on.

Each year before the Baddeley Cake is cut, the Master of the Fund proposes a toast to Robert Baddeley and everyone raises their glasses of punch – as we all did this week – in celebration of London’s oldest living theatrical tradition and in remembrance of the Cockney pastry chef who fulfilled his dream of becoming an actor.

Robert Baddeley (1733-1794) The pastry chef who became a famous actor

Painted by Zoffany, Robert Baddeley as Moses in Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal,” which premiered at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1777

Robert Baddeley “I have taken my last draught in this world” Henry IV Part II

Baddeley’s Twelfth Cake

William Terriss cuts the Baddeley cake in 1883

Cutting the Baddeley Cake on the stage of Drury Lane in 1890

Alex Jennings (currently starring as Willie Wonka) cuts the Baddeley Cake 2015, accompanied by the cast of “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”

Theatre Royal Drury Lane

New photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Click here to learn more about the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    January 8, 2015

    Number One, how fabulous that there are still Twelfth Night traditions, especially given that everyone these days thinks Christmas is merely a big blowout, buy-everything one-day extravanganza (rather than 12 days long). Number two, if Baddeley was earning 12 pounds/week back in 1777 (admittedly probably not every week), he was a very wealthy actor. The equivalent value today is about 1,350 pounds, but the actual economic status value is over 21,000 pounds – meaning if he was living today, he could hobnob with people earning that amount weekly. Finally, I wonder what he’d think of the cake! (I think it’s terrific, but they did so some very ornate confectionaries in those days.)

  2. Gary Arber permalink
    January 8, 2015

    Sarah and the G.A. full of cake and punch return to Spitalfields and a good time was had by all.
    The way that you find these unknown traditions and share them with us is one of the delights of Spitalfields Life, Thanks Gary

  3. Ros permalink
    January 8, 2015

    Nice post about something completely different. I wonder if Hermione Baddeley was distantly related?

  4. January 10, 2015

    Very interesting to see William Terriss as well – I wonder if he stops haunting the Covent Garden Tube station to slip into some of these celebrations? I’ve always found that particular piece of ghostlore fascinating.

  5. Chris Grant permalink
    September 28, 2016

    In answer to Ros, Hermione & her sister Angela (Mrs Bridges in “Upstairs Downstairs”) were relatives of Robert Baddeley.(From Chris Grant archivist at The Kings theatre, Southsea, Hants)

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