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In her autobiography To Tell My Story, Frances Barnes' daughter Irene describes her childhood in Exeter. There were four girls - Violet, Edith, Angela and Irene - and two boys - Reggie and Kenneth. Irene writes of holidays spent at Dawlish or Exmouth and sometimes with  her father's sister who lived not far from Falmouth in Cornwall. She talks about the daily routine - waking at 7.0am, followed by piano practice then family prayers and breakfast before leaving home:

"Then off to the Exeter High School to which we drove each day in a low, four-wheel pony carriage with a dicky seat at the back. School was from nine to one. A strict silence prevailed. There was no speaking to each other under any conditions. It was a discipline to which I attribute a natural, rather silent characteristic in later years.


Our headmistress stands out in this background very clearly. Miss Hall was short and stout, with pale flaxen hair severely done. She was the personification of power and awe. A summons to her room was a major occurrence of great magnitude and before I knocked my heart would be beating with apprehension. When in later years we met her again and she had overcome her astonishment at Violet's and my strange choice of career, we met on a common basis. When I knew her just as our headmistress that would have seemed a gap which could never be bridged."


Exeter High School c.1903

Exeter High School (better known as The Maynard School) c.1903

Photograph by Mary Hare


The "strange choice of career" which Irene and her sister Violet adopted was to go on the stage as actresses. It seems a very ordinary choice these days but for the daughters of a Victorian Vicar, it verged on the unthinkable. It was Violet, five years older than Irene, who first had the idea. Irene writes:


"As it leaked out to various relations, strong opposition was encountered everywhere. My father felt the situation poignantly and was tormented by his convictions of the dangers Violet would encounter in entering such an unknown world. He exaggerated the difficulties and the temptations and regarded them as insurmountable. But he loved Violet and was anxious not to frustrate her longings and understood that it was to be her life work and gradually became convinced that his consent must over-rule all his misgivings. It was a fine and courageous attitude he took when finally he agreed to it. My mother, on the other hand was heart and soul in favour of grasping the opportunity.


Now, the doors of the theatre are opened so wide and so easily to those who seek that life that it is impossible to fell the shaking of the universe that was experienced in our little corner of Devonshire in 1884."


The family remained in Exeter for a few years longer  but eventually the decision was made to move to London where Violet's stage career had begun. By this time, Edith and Angela were in Paris studying music, Reggie was attending Westminster School and only Irene and Kenneth remained at home with their parents.


Violet had been befriended by the well-known actress Ellen Terry and one day, when Violet asked her what she was reading, Ellen Terry replied Miss Vanbrugh the Actress and, as a joke, suggested that she should use the stage name Violet Vanbrugh. It turned out to be an excellent suggestion, not only for Violet but, later, for Irene when she also went on the stage. The Barnes sisters became two of England's best-known actresses and dominated the West End stage for the early part of the 20th century.


But Violet and Irene were not the only members of their family to enjoy success - their brother Kenneth (who retained the name of Barnes) was also to achieve a highly successful career in the world of theatre. Their sister Angela also used the name Vanbrugh in her professional life as a violinist. 


Violet and Irene in The Merry Wives of Windsor
Mistress Page (Irene Vanbrugh) and Mistress Ford (Violet Vanbrugh)

The Merry Wives of Windsor 1934




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