Born in Grays Inn Lane in April 1763, Anna Maria was destined to the stage, giving private performances of her ‘fine toned’ voice by the time she was ten, and by fourteen performing at the Drury Lane Theatre and earning between £6 and £12 each week. In 1780 Anna Maria made her début at the theatre playing Princess Mandane in ‘The Orphan of China’.
In 1783 she toured in Ireland, and was romantically linked to the actor John Kemble. In Dublin, one gentleman in the audience threatened to shoot her unless she would ‘receive his addresses’. Following the near shooting Anna eloped with a young nobleman, but was discovered and returned to London and the Drury Lane Theatre by her parents, appearing as Emily in ‘The Double Disguise’.
In 1785 she was married to Mr Crouch, a lieutenant in the navy. She continued to perform under her maiden name of Phillips until she became pregnant later that year. A fall brought on premature labour and she lost the child.
She returned to the stage in 1787 to play Janette in the opera ‘Richard Coeur de Lion’ where she fell in with the acclaimed baritone Michael Kelly. The pair appeared together in the opera of ‘Lionel and Clarrisa’ later in that year, which was the start of what was to become a lifelong intimacy.
In 1788 she met with a further accident which left her unable to perform for some time and left a slight scar on her face. Reports were that her husband had ‘thrown things at her’, but she maintained that her Hackney Coach had overturned causing her injury.
In 1790 Anna Maria played Polly Peachum, (with Kelly as Captain Macheath) in the Beggars Opera for the opening season of the Duke Street Theatre in Brighton.
In 1791 after six years of marriage, Anna Maria and her husband separated. Kelly commented that her husband “never appreciated the gem he possessed”, and the following year Anna Maria enjoyed a brief affair with the Prince of Wales who surprised Mr Crouch with a payment of £400 per year “in return for not suing for the alienation of his wife’s affections” , an outcome which Mr Crouch probably did appreciate – although perhaps Mr Kelly was made less content by this turn. Anna Maria also profited from this liaison, being given a bond for £12,000 from the Prince. Considering that the Duke Street Theatre cost £2,500 to construct in its entirety the previous year this was a substantial sum – approximately £670,000 in contemporary currency.
Anna Maria’s relationship with Kelly continued despite this affair, and the couple took a house in London as well as a property in Brighton on North Street. A further accident – a blow from a ‘weighty chest’ caused Anna Maria to lose the power of her voice. She took to applying leeches in the morning before a performance.
The first ‘death’ of Anna Maria took place in 1792. Returning from America with Kelly after a concert tour, their ship was reported lost with all hands. According to the London papers they were “followed to the grave by a large concourse of people bitterly lamenting their untimely end” The arrival of the deceased in Manchester – safe and well – brought the period of mourning to a close.
Anna Maria continued to perform until 1803, when she removed permanently to Brighton for the benefit of her health, which had been much impaired by excessive drinking. Her final and actual death in 1805 followed a further fall from a carriage and was attributed to drunkenness. Anna Maria died at the age of 42.
Following her death, Kelly penned this comment;
“I hope I, who knew her best, may be permitted to say, had she been so fortunate as to meet with a husband capable of appreciating and cherishing her estimable qualities and superior talents, she would have lived and died without a blemish on her fame”
The following year he commissioned her monument of Coade Stone which is Grade II listed and one of the few ornate pieces to have survived from this period. The inscription which he penned reads:
The remains of ANNA MARIA CROUCH. During many years a performer at Drury Lane Theatre. She combined with the purest taste as a singer the most elegant simplicity as an actress. She was distinguished by the powers of her mind. They enabled her when she left the stage, to gladden the life by the charms of her conversation, and refine it by her manners. She was born April 30th 1763 and died 2nd October 1805
This stone is inscribed to her beloved memory by whom she esteemed the most faithful of her friends.
Her monument can be found just east of the church against the boundary with Church Street