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The Theatre Royal, York Street, Glasgow

Theatrical Rivals Francis Seymour and J. H. Alexander

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A Bird's Eye View of Glasgow in 1864, showing York Street, lying between the Broomielaw and Argyle Street, second street west of Jamaica Bridge - Courtesy Glasgow University Library.

Above - A Bird's Eye View of Glasgow in 1864, showing York Street, lying between the Broomielaw and Argyle Street, second street west of Jamaica Bridge - Courtesy Glasgow University Library.

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A Close-up of the Theatre Royal in York Street, Glasgow on west side at the top of York Street before the tenements facing Argyle Street. From the Bird`s Eye View of Glasgow 1864 - Courtesy Glasgow University Library.From October 1829, when the opening week was headlined by Edmund Kean, until November 1831 Glasgow's latest Theatre Royal operated in York Street south of Argyle Street leading down to the expanding Broomielaw quaysides on the Clyde as the invention of steam boats increased the rate of the city's growth. Argyle Street – named in honour of the Duke of Argyle – was originally known as Anderston Walk as it connected westward to the adjacent manufacturing burgh of Anderston.

Right - A Close-up of the Theatre Royal in York Street, Glasgow on west side at the top of York Street before the tenements facing Argyle Street. From the Bird`s Eye View of Glasgow 1864 - Courtesy Glasgow University Library.

Francis Seymour leased and managed the Theatre, in succession to his Queen Street Theatre Royal. The new building, previously the Glasgow Riding School, which now moved to Cambridge Street, was paid for by his influential friends and merchants, and had boxes, pit and gallery. Its programmes, of which there are over 200 surviving in Glasgow University Library thanks to the major Collection of city books and ephemera collected by bookseller Dr John Smith of Crutherland, show the breadth of productions including historical dramas – including the works of Walter Scott - plays, ballet, opera, melodrama, comedy, farce, pantomime and circus (especially equestrian).

The top rate for admission was 4s for a seat in the boxes, 2s 6d for the gallery and 1s for the gallery. On occasion, for less well-known artistes, admission was 3s, 2s, and 1s respectively. Lower second prices were available at 9pm. Doors opened at 6,30pm and performances started at 7pm. Children under 14 years of age were admitted half-price to the boxes and pit only. Tickets and places for the boxes were had, normally, from Mr Findlay, carver and gilder, Miller Street, which was closer to the centre of business than York Street which, with neighbouring James Watt Street, was opening up with some villas of merchants and manufacturers and some warehouses for supplies imported, and goods for export.

Glasgow`s Broomielaw, looking west, in the mid -19th century - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Above - Glasgow`s Broomielaw, looking west, in the mid -19th century - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Frank Seymour's performers heralding his New Theatre Royal, as the bills declared, would include many regular artistes, some in his own company and others, he had engaged for the palatial Theatre Royal which he had leased in Queen Street, but that Theatre had burned down in January 1829. His second week in York Street was a tour de force with William Macready for a whole week of Shakespeare.

Seymour, always a welcome actor, had now returned to Glasgow after becoming the popular and entertaining lessee of the Belfast Theatre in February 1829 – a Theatre he knew well as the business manager for J. E. Byrne who had taken up the Queen Street Theatre Royal, Glasgow, prior to Seymour doing so. With help from a Relief Ball in Glasgow he had rebuilt his wardrobe and music papers following the Queen Street fire where amongst other things he had lost a valuable wardrobe, a set of new scenery about to be shipped to Belfast's Theatre, and a complete assortment of a new scenery for a little Theatre in the island of Bute, to which Mr Kean had already subscribed.

For his new Theatre in York Street, Seymour announced all new scenery painted by Mr Villars, his main scenic artist, assisted by Messrs Phillips and Abbott.

The large rectangular building sat on the west side of the street close to its junction with Argyle Street. Early town maps title the building "Circus" and later ones title it "Theatre". On its east side, Seymour moved his family from 120 Buchanan Street, handy when running the Queen Street Theatre, to 34 York Street with views across to his new Theatre. After the Theatre's use by Seymour it was converted into a bonded warehouse, known as Bond No.9, one of many in the area's streets which housed valuable commodities including tea, tobacco and whisky. The building continued into the 1890s.

Zoomable town plans, made available by the National Library of Scotland, show on a Glasgow plan published firstly around 1807, a Circus site in York Street, which may be an addition in editions after its first publication, seen here, and in a later plan published in 1854 the site is described as a Theatre, seen here, although in fact it had by then become a bonded warehouse.

A playbill for the New Theatre Royal, York Street, Glasgow, for the opera 'Guy Mannering', starring Mr Braham, on 27th October 1829 can be viewed here in the Scottish Theatre Archive collection of Glasgow University Library.

A Summer entertainment bill of June 1830 can be seen here, from the University of Glasgow Library, which also portrays the friction between J. H. Alexander of the Dunlop Street Theatre and Francis Seymour.

Theatrical Rivals Francis Seymour and J. H. Alexander

Francis Seymour and rival John Henry Alexander were of similar age, both busy and popular, and shared a mutual dislike of each other. Alexander had frequently ignored the Royal patent of others in his early days and brushed off legal actions against him. One finally accumulated wealth from his endeavours and the other did not. Seymour arrived in the city from Ireland, and Alexander from Dunbar via Theatres in Carlisle and Dumfries. In the mid-1820s they each rented a different part of the old Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street, which because of the new Theatre Royal, Queen Street, was operating in two parts - as the Caledonian Theatre, run by Seymour from 1825, and who forestalled its use by Alexander, who made do with the basement, running it as the Dominion of Fancy. Noise, intrusion and newspaper warfare ensued between them, with the magistrates eventually instructing each to play on alternate nights. When Seymour took over the lease of the Theatre Royal, Queen Street, Alexander took over all of the former Theatre in Dunlop Street.

For some four years Seymour was also the stage manager of the Queen Street Theatre Royal for J. E. Byrne. When Byrne absconded, taking the keys with him, Seymour became lessee. After only one year of his five-year lease of the elegant Theatre Royal in Queen Street, fire destroyed it but Seymour was advised by his solicitor that as his intended five-year tenure had ended by fire it would be possible to have the Royal patent adjusted to recognise his plan for a new Theatre Royal in York Street. Alexander thought otherwise and after lengthy legal jousting Alexander was awarded the Royal patent for Glasgow.

Of the many influential friends of Irishman Frank Seymour, who had been dealt such a blow as the fire destroying the Theatre Royal in Queen Street – the phrase "influential friends" being first used in this period by Walter Baynham who became stage manager of the Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street – one would be Dr. John Smith, bookseller and man of letters, whose large Collection is in Glasgow University Library. The probability of this is put forward, credibly, by Adam McNaughton – performer, educationalist and contributor to the Arthur Lloyd website. Smith was a shareholder in the first Steamboat Shipping Company in Europe, a magistrate and an owner of land close to the Clyde. In York Street, among others such as Barclay of Barclay Curle shipbuilding fame, were members of the Laird family, originally from Greenock, where the family business was that of rope making and canvas manufacture. One of the Lairds was sent off to the Mersey to open a branch of the rope and canvas business and instead embraced the new technologies in engineering, creating what today is the Cammell Laird shipbuilding company in Birkenhead. Another was Alexander Laird and his son John Laird, basing themselves in Glasgow. with their town houses in York Street, and offices in Miller Street. Alexander had been a passenger in Henry Bell's PS Comet in 1812 when, on the Clyde, it sailed as the first seagoing steam ship. The Lairds soon founded the first steamboat companies in Europe, all with grand geographic names reflecting the regular lines now established between Glasgow, and Greenock, and Liverpool, Isle of Man, Londonderry, Belfast, Dublin, Limerick and Cork and with the Western Highlands and Inverness through the Caledonian Canal. Collectively they became known as the Laird Lines, later as Burns & Laird. Steamboat sailing suited Seymour, being a frequent traveller with his theatre companies crossing to and from the Clyde to Ireland.

Before his untimely death, from cholera, John Laird resided at 4 York Street, and also carried out business from 57 York Street, the site of the new Theatre. His aunt, Janet Laird, was the wife of Glasgow's William Harley of Willow Bank, the best known and enterprising developer of Blythswood Hill, including Bath Street and Blythswood Square up to the 1820s. Intriguingly, Dr. Tom Honeyman, the most successful of directors of Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Galleries & Museum, proposed in 1943 that, as part of the planning for post-war development of the city, a new municipal Theatre (and concert hall) should be created on one side of Blythswood Square, with views over the Clyde. Janet Laird and her husband William Harley would have approved.

A Painting of singer John Braham - Courtesy Graeme Smith.J. H. Alexander now enjoying his royal patent in the upgraded and reunited Dunlop Street Theatre Royal made it difficult for actors wishing to appear under Frank Seymour but some of the firmament ignored Alexander and appeared in York Street including Mr Braham and Mr Kean.

Left - A Painting of singer John Braham - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Around the end of November 1829, the Theatre bills had the following inserted:- "During the short close of the House, care has been taken to render the centre Boxes secure from any annoyance from the Gallery." Pantomimes proved popular including the intimation in January 1831:- "A new Pantomime has been produced under the superintendence of the celebrated Mr Cooke, late of the Royal Circus, Liverpool." Cooke opened his Comic Pantomime "With new Magnificent Scenery, Mechanised Changes, Tricks ...and with new Scenery, Dresses and Decorations". This was GULLIVER's TRAVELS, or the Harlequin in Laputa... and concluded with a Grand Carnival and Masquerade.

Edmund Kean as Othello - Courtesy Graeme Smith.During 1830 celebrated tenor John Braham took the singing honours centre stage, and Mr Kean again delighted with his Othello. Five decades later a correspondent in the Evening Citizen recalled Braham in the Theatre in the title role of the new opera Masaniello [which had its premiere in Paris in 1828]. ..."In this building "Masaniello" was first performed in Glasgow with the famous John Braham in the title-part. The opera was repeated again and again in the town with undiminished success. The music was immensely popular, as well it may be. Young ladies in the West-end strummed it on their pianos (the West-end terminated at Blythswood-square or east of it), street boys whistled the "Market Chorus" and barrel organs ground out the "barcarolle" and the "guaracha.""

Left - Edmund Kean as Othello - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

In May 1830 Seymour was declared bankrupt, resulting from running so many Theatres, including Ayr, Kilmarnock, Paisley, Greenock and Glasgow but he always bounced back. York Street Theatre continued as before. October 1830 saw further pantomime, notably including a production by the famed Grimaldi, first time performed in the city, of the name "Harlequin and the Three Wishes." Towards the end of 1830 the title heading the bills changed to read "Theatre, York Street" as Alexander had won the battle for the patent rights in the city. In April 1830 Seymour was still being harassed by Alexander who tried to serve a penalty of £50 upon him, because Seymour was still presenting plays. Seymour declared, through his bills, "I would sooner cut off my right hand... and not a penny in the way of a fine would be paid." The last known playbills are for November 1830.

After York Street, Seymour concentrated on his circuit of Theatres in Ireland, being as popular as ever, but not accumulating wealth. From 1832 he resumed as lessee and manager of the Belfast Theatre, where earlier he had been the business manager for J. E. Byrne (prior to them, in turns, leasing the Theatre Royal, Queen Street, Glasgow). Seymour expanded further by taking up Londonderry Theatre, also leasing Cork Theatre Royal for over 10 years to which he added the Theatre Royal, Limerick. When running his other Theatres, in season, Mrs. Seymour looked after the Belfast Theatre.

The Cork Examiner announced the news of Frank Seymour's passing in 1854 in his native town of Cork, at the age of 64... "Long known to the theatrical public of this country… as an actor, Mr Seymour had very considerable merits; and those who remember him in his favourite character as the "Irish Tutor", will agree with us in saying that he was entitled to no mean rank as a representative of Irish comedy. Amid all the trials and troubles of his chequered career, Frank Seymour preserved a sanguine and cheery disposition, which enabled him to face gallantly a sufficiently froward destiny, but now his toils and troubles have come to an end." He was an entertaining companion, encouraged others to develop dramatic ability and had a large circle of friends, but not J. H. Alexander of Glasgow.

The above article on the Theatre Royal, York Street, Glasgow was written by Graeme Smith and kindly sent in by him for inclusion on this site in May 2018.

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