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Manchester Theatres a History Lesson

From The Era, 4th of January 1896

May contain some factual errors

Manchester Theatres Index

The Theatre Royal, Peter Street, Manchester in July 2009 - Courtesy Charles BowmanA correspondent of The Era has recently written :— During my long residence in Manchester I have never come across any townsman who knows anything of Manchester theatres prior to the building of our present Theatre Royal in 1840," and as he asks for "more light " I may say that the first mention we have of anything relating to the drama in this town appears to be a statement of Hollingworth that a mystery play called Robin Hood was performed in the Old Church during the reign of Mary of sanguinary memory; but the earliest theatrical notice connected with the town is one bearing reference to the comedy of Fair Emm; or, the Miller's Daughter of Manchester, with the Love of William the Conqueror, which was performed by Lord. Strange's servants in 1681, and afterwards published. The burial of Philip Cornish, a comedian, is chronicled in our parish register in 1742. About this time various London and Dublin companies began to pay flying visits to the town, and in the following year Farquhar's Recruiting Officer was presented at the Exchange. Macbeth followed at the same place in 1750.

Right - The Theatre Royal, Peter Street, Manchester in July 2009 - Courtesy Charles Bowman.

In 1753 our first theatre was erected at the corner of Marsden-street and Brown-street, its agent being Aulay Macaulay, of shorthand fame, at that time a grocer in this town. It was quickly engaged by Mr Elrington, the manager of an itinerant company, who issued bills announcing that on Monday, Dec. 3d, 1753, he would open the theatre with a play and other amusements for the benefit of the Infirmary (originated in the previous year). Our good forefathers, however, were not prepared to have the "demoralising" influence of the drama in their midst, so the authorities stepped in, forbade the performance, and ordered the players to leave the town within twenty-four hours, and the unfortunate actors had to return to Ireland. Full particulars of this transaction are given in "The Memoirs of Charles Lee Lewes."

The theatre remained unopened (save for one concert in 1755, and the musical masque, Acis and Galatea, three years later) until December, 1759, when James Whitley brought his company of comedians, and began the first theatrical season upon its new boards. In October of the following year the London players visited the town, and finding Whitley in possession, performed in the Riding School, on the Salford bank of the Irwell, about half-way between the present Victoria-bridge and Blackfriars. This company erected a wooden bridge, on the site of the present Blackfriars bridge, for the purpose of enabling the inhabitants of Manchester the more readily to cross the river to their theatre, and for sixty years this bridge, which was :flagged, remained one of the principal communications for foot passengers between Manchester and Salford.

One of the earliest pieces seen upon the new boards in Marsden-street was Addison's Cato, performed by the senior scholars of the Free Grammar School, in December, 1759, and repeated in 1760 and 1761, the principal character being sustained by Richard Pepper Arden, who subsequently became Lord Alvanley. This theatre finally closed its doors on May 12th, 1775, a patent having been granted to the new theatre, then in course of erection, and Whitley left the town. The old theatre was then turned into a newsroom and tavern, and since then has served many purposes, the School of Design (now the School of Art) at one time having its habitation there. Many theatrical stars of the day trod its boards, amongst others Miss Farren and her sisters, who left it to enliven the audiences at the new theatre. Some account of the performers and performances at the old theatre is given in. Procter's "Manchester in Holiday Dress."

Poster for the Queen's Theatre, Manchester for Wednesday the 3rd of March 1841, advertising: 'The Wreck of the Royal George' and 'Yew Tree Ruins or, The Wreck, the Mirer, & the Murderer.' - Courtesy Trevor J Dudley.The Manchester Playhouse Bill, granting a patent to the Theatre Royal, then in course of erection at the corner of Spring-gardens and York-street, on ground purchased from Thomas Caygill Worsley, of Platt Hall, after a warm debate, was passed in May, 1775. As illustrating the spirit of the age, it is worth recalling that the Act was opposed by the Bishop of London on the ground that Manchester was a manufacturing town, and nothing could be more destructive to the welfare of the place than a playhouse; while it was supported by the Earl of Carlisle, because Manchester, he said, had become a seat of Methodism, and he thought there was no way so effectual to eradicate "that dark, odious, and ridiculous enthusiasm as by giving the people cheerful amusements which might counteract their methodistical melancholy."

Left - A Poster for the Queen's Theatre, Spring Gardens, Manchester, formerly the Theatre Royal, for Wednesday the 3rd of March 1841, advertising: 'The Wreck of the Royal George' and 'Yew Tree Ruins or, The Wreck, the Mirer, & the Murderer.' - Courtesy Trevor J Dudley.

The new theatre, though yet unfinished, was opened an June 5th (Whit Week), 1775, on account of its being the race week, under the management of George Mattocks and Joseph Younger. They continued managers for several years, and were succeeded by a variety of adventurers, none of whom persevered more than a year or two, till Messrs Banks and Ward assumed the management. When the former relinquished his position in 1800 Mr Ward was joined by Mr Bellamy.

The theatre was burned down a little after midnight on June 19th, 1789 (and not in 1787, as stated by Mr Byam Wyke), the lessee being Mr Joseph Harrop, the proprietor of the Manchester Mercury, the estimated loss, which was covered by insurance, being £3,000. Its audiences fostered the opening genius of many performers, who afterwards became the pride and ornament of the metropolis. Those four stage stars, Miss Farren, Mrs Siddons, John Philip Kemble, and Mrs Inchbald, appeared upon its boards in one company, and amongst others may be mentioned Mrs Jordan, George Fretlerick Cooke, Munden, and Riley, the itinerant.

A Newspaper cutting advertising Young Roscius and his brother Master B. Grossmith appearing in Hull and Beverley in July 18833Mr Byam Wyke is again wrong in stating that the theatre was rebuilt in Fountain-street. It was rebuilt on the same site, and reopened on Monday, Feb. 15th. 1790, under the management of Messrs Ward and Banks. In 1792 Dibden appeared on its stage under the name of Merchant, and in the following year he married Miss Hilliar, of the Bolton Theatre, at the Collegiatie Church, Manchester. He stayed in the town for over three years. The last bill-of-fare issued from the play house while yet a theatre royal is dated June 12th 1807. The young Roscius and other infant prodigies trod its boards.

Right - A Newspaper cutting advertising Young Roscius and his brother Master B. Grossmith appearing in Hull and Beverley in July 1833.

In the meantime, the theatre proving too small, some of the most prominent and influential inhabitants of the town resolved to build a larger theatre in Fountain street, and whither the patent was removed. The foundation-stone was laid:in 1806, and the new theatre was opened on June 29th, 1807, with the comedy Fall as It Flies and Rosina under the management of Mr Macready, father of the tragedian, who agreed to give an annual rent of £1,600, increased by rates and taxes to £2,200. The theatre, which occupied a site of 2,065 square yards, at an annual chief rent of £180, was bounded on the north by the Garrick's Head, on the east by Back Mosley-street, on the south by Charlotte street, and on the west by Fountain-street. The title deeds of the property reveal the names as proprietors of some of the most prominent and influential inhabitants and include Roger Aytoun, after wards Major-General Aytoun ; ThomasWalker, jun., the father of the author of The Original; and Dr. Percival, a relative of Prime Minister who was murdered in the lobby of the House of Commons by Bellingham.

The building was too large, and Mrs Linnaeus Banks tells us in the novel of "A Manchester Man" that the box lobby was so capacious that a coach and four could have been driven from one end to the other. It subsequently underwent a reduction, and the lobby was converted into a warehouse, which divided the theatre from the Garrick's Head. It then held upwards of 2,000 persons comfortably seated, and the rent was reduced to £800, the warehouse bringing in £330.

On the opening of the theatre it was visited by a rapid succession of metropolitan meteors, to wit - Munden, Mrs Siddons (her farewell visit), young Roscius, and Elliston. In 1809 Macready found himself in financial straits, and young Macready, who was then at Rugby, was recalled, and although only a youth of sixteen, became practically manager of his father's company. In 1811 and 1813 Joseph Grimaldi appeared at the theatre, and in November, 1813, John Astley was there with his equestrian troupe. In the same year, Mrs Clark, youngest daughter of William Cowdroy, proprietor of the Manchester Gazette, appeared as Euphrasia, in The Grecian's Daughter. She was kindly received, and on the occasion of her benefit realised £200. In 1843 Simms Reeves made his debut as plain John Reeves at this theatre in the character of Tom Tug, having been engaged for singing parts, a circumstance which he appears to have forgotten, judging from his autobiography. It is worthy of note that Mr Salter's salary at this theatre was 50s. per week, and that when the younger Macready was here in 1834 Clarke paid him £91 for the week.

This theatre was burnt down on May 7th, 1844, Mr Robert Roxby being the lessee at the time. The building, which had cost £10,700, was insured in three offices for £15,200, and as the insurance companies preferred to make a settlement in cash rather than rebuild the theatre, the proprietors determined to abandon the theatrical venture, believing the land to be more valuable for warehouse purposes. They thereupon sold the patent to Mr John Knowles. They reckoned, however, without their host, for the land remained vacant until quite recent years (if we except a timber building called the Philharmonic Hall, erected during the exhibition year of 1857, and commonly let as a circus), when Daniel Lee and Co. built a warehouse upon its site.

On the burning down of the old Theatre Royal in Fountain-street, a committee of gentlemen set to work, and obtained a fund of nearly £800, whereby every person employed at the theatre received his or her stipulated salary for about six weeks, until Mr Roxby transformed Cooke's Circus, then in Mount-street, into a temporary Theatre Royal, which was opened about June, 1844, with She Stoops to Conquer. After the New Theatre Royal in Peter-street was opened it became again Cooke's Circus, and was called the City Theatre, and its name is now and again mentioned in the inquiry columns of our local newspapers.

Mr Knowles having acquired the patent of the Theatre Royal in September, 1844, he purchased the Wellington Hotel and Brogden's horse bazaar, in Peter-street, and on this site erected the present Theatre Royal from the designs of Irwin and Chester, at a cost, it is said, of £23,000. It will surprise many who look at its begrimed appearance to learn that the statue of Shakespeare, which stands over the principal entrance, is of pure Carrara marble. The theatre was opened on Sept. 29th, 1845 (and not in 1846, as stated by Mr Byam Wyke), with an opening address written by Mark Barry, and read by Mr H. J. Wallack. Douglas Jerrold's comedy of Time Works Wonders followed. The management was under Mr Augustus Harris, the father of the present renowned Sir Augustus Harris.

The theatre continued the high tradition of its predecessor in Fountain-street, and the late Mr John Knowles, up to the time of his disposal of it to a limited liability company for 250,000, took care that no dramatic season should pass without a visit of the theatrical stars of the day. The high repute of the theatre has since been maintained, and it may fairly take rank as a playhouse second only to the histrionic theatres of the metropolis. Sir Henry Irving made his first appearance on its boards on Sept. 29th, 1860, as a member of the stock company. The following was the programme:-

"THE SPY; OR, GOVERNMENT APPOINTMENTS,"
a Drama, by Mr A. Young.
Michael Perrin (a Village Curate) Mr CHARLES CALVERT
Adolphe (a Young Carpenter) Mr HENRY IRVING (His First Appearance)
Fouche (Minister of Police) Mr G. F. SINCLAIR
Belette (his Secretary) Mr F. EVERILL
Julian de Fancon Mr CLIFFORD COOPER (His First Appearance)
Julie (Perrin's Niece) Miss Louisa ANGEL (Her First Appearance)

There was a private theatre in King-street about the year 1820, constructed in the basement of the house of W. Harrison Ainsworth's father, and of which the young novelist was the leading spirit. An account of this theatre will be found in Manchester Guardian "Notes and Queries," Note 1,048, 1,065. The prologue which is given in the last note signed "C." was spoken by the writer of the note, who was no other than the late James Crossley.

In March, 1827, Robert Bradbury opened the old theatre in Spring-gardens as the Amphitheatre. It afterwards was called the Minor Theatre, and then took the name of the Queen's. It fulfilled its mission as a Thespian temple until March 16th, 1869, when it surrendered to the Vandals, and warehouse property was erected upon its site.

Now for the Olympic, which was opened, according to Mr Byam Wyke, in 1838. A good deal of misconception prevails about this shortlived theatre. Some say that it was originally a place of worship, others that it was converted into a theatre from a warehouse. Both appear to be wrong. The facts seem to be as follows;— When the Rev. Samuel Warren was expelled from the Wesleyan Conference, as a result of the "Fly-street" controversy, a section of the Methodists went with him, and they were called Warrenites. They first used a wooden building called Coolie's Circus, in Lever-street, and afterwards erected a brick and wood building at the corner of Lever-street and Stevensen!s square. Dr. Warren soon after entered the Church and became the first incumbent of All Souls, Every-street, Manchester, which was consecrated in November, 1840, the first stone having been laid Oct. 26th, 1839. After Dr. Warren entered the Church, the brick and wood building at the corner of Lever-street was pulled down, and a carrier's warehouse erected on its site. This in its turn was killed by the railway system, and was also demolished, the Olympic Theatre being raised in its place.

The performances here were of a very low caste, though G. W. Brookes once made his appearance on its boards. When Carter, the lion king, was there a short play was acted every evening. Van Arnburgh, another lion king, was at one of the other theatres at the same time. As a matter of fact they were partners, and the professed rivalry was simply to draw custom. Carter married Miss Dean, an actress at the Olympic, and the daughter of Samuel Dean, a Manchester pawnbroker. Something about this old Manchester theatre can be found in the first volume of the Manchester City News Notes and Queries, pages 10, 17, and 25. The premises were purchased in 1842 by Messrs Falkner, who turned it into a drapery store.

In point of histrionic importance, the Prince's Theatre comes next to the Royal. It was erected by a company with a capital of £20,000, from plans by Mr Edward Solomons. It was opened on Saturday, Oct. 15th, 1864, under the management of Mrs Charles Calvert, who had previously been at the Theatre Royal from 1857 to 1862, with The Tempest, in which Mrs Julia St. George took the part of Ariel, with Mr and Mrs Calvert as Prospero and Miranda, and Mr Cathcart as Caliban, concluding with a burlesque by H. J. Byron, entitled Mazourka; or, the Stick, the Pole, and the Tartar. These were at once followed by a series of Shakespearian revivals, which for a time made Manchester the centre of histrionic interest, and which are regarded by many as the only great thing in Manchester theatrical art or history.

A Music Hall Poster for the London Music Hall, Manchester in 1864 - Poster from a private collection and kindly sent in for inclusion on the site.The Queen's Theatre in Bridge-street has had a checkered career. Originally an hotel, its history as a place of amusement dates from the time when Dr. Marks and his "little men" gave some very clever musical entertainments there. Mr Helliwell, the india rubber manufacturer, reconstructed the building to serve the purposes of "The London Music Hall." Further alterations transformed the building into a circus and amphitheatre, and Mr Garcia, its lessee, subsequently succeeded in getting the place licensed for the performance of stage plays, and the first piece enacted under the new order was Formosa.

Right - A Music Hall Poster for the London Music Hall, Manchester in 1864. On the Bill were The Sisters Gillbee Glifford, Mr and Mrs St John, The Brothers Pentland, Mr T Crossling, and Tibbets & Hamilton. Also advertising the following week with a Benefit for the Sisters Gillbee Gifford and Sam Collins. Poster from a private collection and kindly sent in for inclusion on the site.

When Mr Helliwell disposed of the theatre, Mr J. B. Dodson became the proprietor; Mr F. B. Egan, of the old theatre in Spring-gardens, and Mr Walter Rainham becoming the new lessees. After making extensive alterations they inaugurated their management by producing a new play called Insured at Lloyd's, continuing with stock pieces until the production of the pantomime The Forty Thieves. Mr Dodson himself, with Mr Bailey as manager, and afterwards Mr Edward Henry, carried on the theatre at a later date. A limited company were the next proprietors, Mr Henry being retained as manager. He was succeeded by Mr W. G. Irwen, who in turn gave place to a syndicate by whom Mr Edmonds was appointed manager. When Mr Salter became lessee under the syndicate, Mr J. C. Emmerson received the appointment of manager.

The theatre was carried on successfully until the expiration of a nine years' lease, when some dispute arose on the question of rent, which ended in the house remaining unoccupied for some time. Mr Richard Mansell was the first lessee to place the theatre on the popular basis, which has been its chief characteristic in recent years, by lowering the prices and catering for he multitude, a policy which was continued by Mr J. Pitt Hardacre who began theatrical life in Manchester at a salary of three shillings a-week, and who purchased the lease, goodwill, &c., of the theatre from Mr Mansell for £3,500. The theatre was destroyed by fire on Aug. 17th, 1890, and a new building erected by Booth and Chadwick, architects, which was opened on March 28th, 1891, with All that Glitters is Not Gold and Robert Macaire.

The Comedy Theatre, Peter-street, which was opened for the first time on Dec. 22d, 1885, was erected and furnished at a cost of about £15,000, and has accommodation for about two thousand persons. The St. James's Theatre is of too recent a date to require any remark.

Mr Byam Wyke says "Perhaps few people know of two other theatres that once existed in those parts, namely the Lyceum, Mather-street, and the Palladium, Ancoats." Very likely, indeed, for the simple reason that they never were theatres. The Ancoats Lyceum was opened about 1835, and was an educational institute, where the "three R's " were taught. It had day schools, evening schools, a newsroom and library, and lectures were occasionally given by prominent men, amongst whom were Mr Leo Grindon and Mr T. Wilkinson. In 1850 the weekly average at the day school was 243, and the number of volumes issued from its library was 4,995. Its annual tea parties were held in the Mather-street Temperance Hall, which probably Mr B. W. confounds with it. Amongst its supporters were Sir William Fairbairn, John A. Nicholls, Mark Phillips, Hugh Birley, Sabs Schwabe, Sir John Potter, William M'Connell, Richard Cobden, Alexander Henry, Sir Elkanah Armitage, &c. There were two other Lyceums, one in Chorlton-upon-Mednock, and the other in Salford. They were simply a lower class of mechanics' institutions to reach the masses.

The Palladium was more of a concert hall than a theatre. There were several of these - The Polytechnic, in Salford, and the Paganini, in Ancoats, where Thomas Inglesent (Blind Tom) was a noted performer. Many of these places were simply public houses, with a large room attached where music was performed. They were in no sense theatres, but something after the style of the Canterbury, at the corner of Chapel-street and Greengate, Salford, which lately lost its licence.

This article was originally published in the Era, 4th of January 1896 and may contain some factual errors.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.