Audience members in the know at The Dukes Theatre frequently use the back stairs at the rear of the auditorium to access the bar after a show sooner than those patrons queuing to leave by the more conventional exit at the front by the stage.
Someone who observes those using this short cut is the Rev Robert Housman. His portrait hangs above the stairs and he smiles benignly at all he surveys.
The building occupied by The Dukes comprises the former St Anne’s Church, with a 1970s extension tacked on to the back and side. Mr Housman founded St Anne’s, which first opened its doors in 1795.
As befits a building now occupied by the radical and disruptive force which is The Dukes, Mr Housman and St Anne’s were considered highly controversial in their time.
He was born in Skerton in 1759. After being educated at The Grammar School (then situated close to the castle), young Robert was originally apprenticed to a local surgeon, but soon found distaste for that and a desire to become be ordained. He trained in theology at Cambridge and eventually returned to his home town.
While at Cambridge he became evangelised in a way which set him apart from the more sedate clergy of Lancaster and his sermons caused outrage in some quarters. It is recorded the local gentry would cross the road to avoid him if he was walking on their side of the street.
Mr Housman greeted this disdain for his views by a determination to share his brand of faith with as many of his fellow townsfolk as he could. This led to him building St Anne’s, which was soon established a place much beloved by members of its congregation; though it is fair to say its force for good was not understood by others in town.
By his old age the energetic Mr Housman had become a much-loved character in Lancaster and remained in post at St Anne’s until 1836.
After that he continued to preach, his final sermon being at St Luke’s in Skerton during which he became dizzy half way through. The service was cut short and he died not long afterwards in 1838.