Arthur Lloyd.co.uk
The Music Hall and Theatre History Site
Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904.

 

The Surrey Theatre, Blackfriars Road, London

Formerly - The Royal Circus

Introduction and History - Various articles on the Surrey Theatre - The Royal Circus - Family Connections

Also see: The Surrey Music Hall in the Surrey Zoological Gardens - The Surrey Music Hall Southwark Bridge Road.

An early image depicting the Surrey Theatre Blackfriars Road, London.

Above - An early image depicting the Surrey Theatre Blackfriars Road, London.

A Notice published in The Morning Post of the 25th of April 1910 on the Opening of the Surrey Theatre.The Surrey Theatre was first opened in 1810 and was a conversion of the former Royal Circus which itself was first opened on the 4th of November 1782 by Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin. The Royal Circus burnt down on several occasions and was eventually rebuilt and reopened as the Surrey Theatre in April 1810.

Right - A Notice published in The Morning Post of the 25th of April 1910 on the Opening of the Surrey Theatre.

The Morning Post reported on the opening in their 24th of April 1810 edition saying:- 'Here we meet with an old friend with a new name: the Royal Circus being now lost in the above appellation. This place of amusement may vie in splendour with any in the metropolis, Mr Elliston having spared no pains nor expense to beautify and adorn it.

A section from an Ordnance Survey Map of Waterloo & Southwark from 1872, showing the site of the former Surrey Theatre.The ride has been thrown into an excellent pit, with convenient seats, and the box lobby entirely covered with matting, the boxes lined with green cloth, the fruit rooms elegantly fitted up, and the entrance made elegant and commodious.

Left - A section from an Ordnance Survey Map of Waterloo & Southwark from 1872, showing the site of the former Surrey Theatre.

The most prominent alteration and embellishment is the new proscenium. Apollo and the Muses are richly painted over the curtain. The ceiling represents the story of Bacchus and Ariadne. The private boxes, and particularly the stage boxes, are furnished with rich draperies of crimson and gold, and every thing has been done to add to its appearance.

A Google StreetView Image of the site of the former Surrey Theatre today - Click to Interact.The Beggars' Opera, as a burletta, introduced Mr. Hill, lately of Covent Garden Theatre, as Macheath, who sung the songs with much much ability, and received great applause.

Right - A Google StreetView Image of the site of the former Surrey Theatre today - Click to Interact.

A new Pantomime, called Q in the corner, was provided, the scenery, music, and decorations of which will render it very attractive.'

The above text in quotes was first published in The Morning Post, 24th of April 1810.

An image depicting the Surrey Theatre on fire in 1865.

Above - An image depicting the Surrey Theatre on fire in 1865.

The Surrey Theatre had first opened in April 1910 but was destroyed by fire on the night of the 30th / 31st of January 1865. The Dundee Advertiser carried a short notice about the fire in their 31st of January 1865 edition saying:- 'Last night, at the Surrey Theatre, before the conclusion of the pantomime, a fire was discovered in the ceiling, caused by the leakage of the chandelier supply pipe. The proprietor, Mr Shepherd, assured the audience that there was no danger, and begged them to leave quietly, which they did, and, it is stated, no accidents occurred. Soon after, the whole house was in flames, lighting up the metropolis, and attracting an immense concourse of spectators. At 12.30 the building was gutted, and the adjoining houses were in danger, but a number of steam fire-engines were playing, and at one o'clock the fire was being got under. A number of the performers were unable to change their dresses, and the clown and sprites were seen watching the conflagration in their stage costume. Owing to the excitement and confusion it was impossible to obtain further details.' - The Dundee Advertiser, 31st of January 1865.

The burning down of the Surrey Theatre was front page news for the Penny Illustrated Weekly News of February 11th 1865 as seen below.

Destruction of the Surrey Theatre by fire - Interior and Exterior View - The Penny Illustrated, 11th February 1865.

Above - Destruction of the Surrey Theatre by fire - Interior and Exterior View - The Penny Illustrated, 11th February 1865.

The Fire had been the end for the old Surrey Theatre, first opened in 1810 and now destroyed in 1865, but the Theatre was soon being rebuilt with workmen reported to have been constructing the new Theatre day and night for nearly twelve months, the Clerkenwell News reported on the progress in their 15th of November 1865 edition saying:- 'The works of the new Surrey Theatre are proceeding with amazing activity, and the building begins already to assume an aspect indicating an approach to its final completion. Numerous bodies of day and night workmen, comprising stonemasons, bricklayers, carpenters, labourers, &c, are continuously employed on the building - the day artisans, &c., being relieved at a stated hour by the night workmen, and the night workmen at an appointed time in the morning by the day workmen. Thus a sort of perpetual motion in pushing forward the work is in active operation. Already the building has been roofed and slated and the interior parts of the architect's plan are so far forward as to indicate his designs. Some painters, and all sorts of artists are busily employed in their respective vocations, preparing the paraphernalia necessary to fit the theatre for its purposes, and for the reception and gratification of the public, who are anxious to see the completion of, and to patronise, the new structure. There are impressions in some quarters that Mr. Shepherd will be able to give his "opening night" before Christmas, and that the theatre will be in every respect in full working order on "Boxing night" when the lieges will once more have the opportunity of witnessing a pantomime within the walls of the Surrey - a house famed in the past as second to none in the production and success of that style of entertainment. The management of the establishment is already mustering a company, of whose varied ability report speaks most favourably, and amongst whom the old favourites hold their places.' - The Clerkenwell News, 15th of November 1865.

The Theatre was rapidly nearing completion in late November 1865 when approximately 200 of the workmen involved in its construction went on strike, they said that the foreman, Mr. Foster, was tyrannical and had held back their wages. They said that they would strike until Foster was removed from his position and their wages were paid. Eager to finish the Theatre its owners relented and put a new foreman in charge and the work on completion of the Theatre resumed. However the opening was delayed as a consequence and the manager Mr. Shepherd, let the public know when it would open in newspapers, one such notice, from the Illustrated London News, can be seen below.

A Notice on the delay of the opening of the New Surrey Theatre - From the Illustrated London News, 9th of December 1865.

Above - A Notice on the delay of the opening of the New Surrey Theatre - From the Illustrated London News, 9th of December 1865.

A Notice printed in the South London Press on Saturday the 23rd of December 1865 on the Theatre's imminent reopening.The new Surrey Theatre, designed by the architect John Ellis, was eventually opened on Boxing Day, the 26th of December 1865, some twelve months after the former Theatre had burnt down.

Right - A Notice printed in the South London Press on Saturday the 23rd of December 1865 on the Theatre's imminent reopening.

The Standard reported on the new Theatre in their 25th of December 1865 edition saying:- 'The Surrey Theatre has just risen, like the phoenix, from its own ashes, and by en exceptional privilege it re-appears improved and enlarged, and with a strength, commodiousness and splendour never possessed by its predecessor.

The late building was burnt down on the night of the 30th of January, 1865 and the same numerals, therefore, tell the year of its absolute destruction and of its perfect resumption...

Almost immediately after the destruction in January last of the theatre thus commemorated plans for a new building were solicited from architects on behalf of Lieut. Colonel Temple West, who is the owner of the site and of a considerable portion of the surrounding property. Several designs were accordingly sent in, and the choice from among them ultimately fell on those submitted by Mr. John Ellis, architect, of Austin - friars, London.

In the beginning of April the excavation works were begun, but considerable difficulties had thus early to be encountered both from the treacherous nature of the soil and the constant bursting in of water while the seller was being formed under the stage. These obstacles were, after much labour, overcome; the cellar and foundation work were brought to a successful issue; the main walls were next commenced, and then rapidly rose in its complete form the solid and spacious edifice of which we now proceed to lay, upon official authority, a detailed account before our readers.

The site of the new theatre may be described as an irregular pentagon, about 200 feet in its largest diameter, and about 110 feet in width - fronting the Blackfriars-road by a facade of 62 feet. Those who remember the old theatre will see that the new building covers a much larger area than the former one; most of this increased space has been added to the stage, which, with its mechanical appliances, is one of the most perfect and best arranged in Europe.

The main entrance is by a tetrastyle Ionic portico, 62 feet in width by 30 feet in height, projecting 13 feet from the main wall. The centre doorway leads to the box-entrance lobby by a massive stone staircase enriched with ornamental iron balustrades. On the right hand is formed the pit entrance, placed on a level with the roadway; and on the left hand the entrance to the gallery, by a massive stone staircase seven feet in width.

The auditorium is horseshoe in form, 68 feet in length from the curtain to the back wall of the pit, and 62 feet in width. Two rows of stalls are provided, separated from the pit by a partition, surmounted by an ornamental mental iron cresting. The floor of the dress circle is raised on an average ten feet above the pit level, and is supported upon iron columns and girders. The first tier of boxes and circle are nine feet, and the second tier ten feet in height from floor to ceiling; these are supported upon iron columns, of very elaborate design, brought forward to the front of the circle, thus forming the safest and strongest method of construction, and presenting a pleasing architectural feature. The whole of the fronts to the boxes and gallery are enriched and modelled in carton Pierre, with medallions and wreath decorations, finished on light tints and gold ornamentation.

The outline of the proscenium opening is very elegant and of good proportion. The upper part is very richly decorated, and the effect of the pendentives, entablature, and covered ceiling, with the Royal arms, is both striking and original. The auditorium is covered by an enriched and coffered dome, 50 feet in diameter, rising 10 feet in the centre and 55 feet above the level of the pit flooring; it is highly ornamented in gold and delicate tints upon the blue ground work of the coffers; and the same arrangement is adopted for the entablature running round the base of the dome, with sunk patella, tinted light Venetian red, and bearing the names of celebrated dramatists inscribed thereon in gold letters. The names selected are - Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Drayton, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Wycherly, Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Dryden, Congreve, Steele, Cibber, Addison, Goldsmith, Fielding, Rowe, Colman, Garrick, Otway, Byron, Sheridan, Macklin, Sheridan, Knowles, Douglas, Jerrold, and Bulwer.

In the centre of the ceiling, which is of moulded carton Pierre, is fixed a large sunlight burner, which illuminates the entire house; the heat arising from this is carried away by an iron tube, 18 inches in diameter, round which is fixed a wrought-iron jacket, 7 feet in diameter, both going through the roofs into the open air, thus thoroughly and effectually ventilating the entire building.

The whole of the roofs are constructed of iron; that over the auditorium in eleven trusses, each 65 feet span, and that over the stage in ten trusses, each 72 feet span. The flies are supported by four lattice girders, each 60 feet in length, thus leaving the stage perfectly clear and open from side to side. Spiral iron staircases, 6 feet in diameter, communicate from the scene docks to the upper flies, affording the quickest possible access to all the working machinery of the stage and barrel loft, as also for the development of large transformations and other scenic effects.

The carpenters shop and painting-room are placed at the back of the building, and are very conveniently planned. Three frames can be painted at one time, the whole being under the control of the principal artist engaged in preparing any scenery required, and separated from the theatre by iron doors, so that the dangerous part of the house is completely without the main building.

All the entrances and exits are of great width, fireproof, and of stone construction, offering ready escape in case of fire or alarm of any kind. The designs for the modelled ornamentation and coloured decoration have beep supplied by the architect himself, thus rendering this theatre a really architectural work, and free from that unsubstantial look which disfigures many building of this class.

The stage is 60 feat in depth, and 70 feet in width between the scene decks, which are each 15 feet deep, making a total of 100 feet for working room; beneath this is a large cellar, capable of receiving the heaviest set scenes that may be required. Great care has been taken that this part of the theatre should be unexceptionably executed. In order to arrive at this result the machinery and appliances, of theatres, not only in England but on the Continent, have been studied and examined; the consequence is that there are many features in this part of the building that have never been seen before in this country, and the whole economy of the scenic art will here be carried out without that confusion, noise, and delay which disfigure the drama, even in many of our principal theatres.

It may be here mentioned that the solidity of construction, and economy of space in this theatre are remarkable. The greenroom, refreshment and retiring saloon, dressing-rooms, ballet room, wardrobe, treasury, and numerous offices, are all spaciously lofty, and convenient. The contractor entrusted with the works was Mr. C. N. Foster, of New Wharf, Whitefriars, and the whole of the drawing and designs were supplied by Mr. John Ellis, the architect.

A number of gentlemen connected with the drama, either as authors or as actors, and a few professional architects in addition, were invited to visit the new theatre an Saturday, and were shown round the various parts of the building by Mr. Ellis and Mr. Shepherd, the lessee and manager. This inspection produced what, we believe, was a unanimous approval of the mode in which the whole of the works have been designed and executed. The first feeling created by the general appearance of the house is a sense of chaste and sober ornamentation, rendered subservient to the great purposes of solidity, utility and convenience; and a more detailed examination serves to confirm this early impression. It is evident that nothing that labour and still could supply to give completeness to the whole edifice has been neglected; and it was impossible to pass along its convenient passages and staircases to witness, its ample and equably diffused light, and to feel the relief of its perfect ventilation, without becoming convinced that in the internal arrangements of great public buildings our architects of the present day have made immense advances on this branch of art as practised by their predecessors in either ancient or modern ages. The public will be admitted to the theatre tomorrow night, and they will then have an opportunity of judging how large an audience it can contain, and with what ease, regularity, and comfort they can all be accommodated.'

The above (edited) text in quotes was first published in the Standard, 25th December 1865.

The Surrey Theatre during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897.The new Surrey Theatre opened to a packed house on Boxing Day, the 26th of December 1865, with the National Anthem followed by solos, a speech by the Theatre's manager Mr. Shepherd, and then a drama called 'Honesty is the Best Policy', and a Pantomime called 'King Chess', in which some of the stage machinery didn't work as expected, causing the evening to be extended towards midnight.

Right - The Surrey Theatre during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897.

Pantomimes would become a regular Christmas feature at the Surrey, with drama being the main fare throughout the rest of the year.

In 1920 the Theatre was turned over to Cinema use and by 1924 had been completely closed. The Theatre then remained empty until its final demolition in 1934.

Some more details and history of the Theatre and its site, from various sources can be read below.

If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.

The Surrey Theatre

From "The Romance of London Theatres" by Ronald Mayes

The Royal Surrey TheatreIn 1771, a "strong man" and a prominent equestrian performer opened an exhibition and riding school in opposition to Astley, who began his managerial career owning a circus tent on a piece of waste ground near the Westminster Bridge. Twelve years later Charles Hughes, the "strong man," entered into partnership with Charles Dibdin, the song writer, and raised a building costing fifteen thousand pounds, near the obelisk in Blackfriars Road, which was opened under the name of the Royal Circus. Equine and canine drama was produced there.

Right - The Royal Surrey Theatre.

The original idea was to make the house a school for actors. Among the sixty members we find several who were destined to loom large in the theatrical world, for example, Mrs. Charles Kemble and others. The ballet master was Grimaldi, the Father of the inimitable "joey."

An early handicap to the success of the house was the opposition of the Surrey magistrates to theatrical amusement, who closed the place as an unlicensed building. The devotees of the theatre, however, offered such resistance to these measures that the Riot Act had to be read and the military called out. The house obtained a licence and was re-opened a few months later.

"The Romance of London Theatres" by Ronald MayesThe Royal Circus not only introduced equine performers to the London stage, but also had the honour of being the first place at which canine actors appeared. The actors owning the animals being called "dog-stars." These actors always travelled in pairs, one playing the hero and other the villain. The former was always attended by his faithful "Dawg," who at the end of the turn, at a given signal, sprang at the throat of the Villain, around which was a thick pad covered with a red cloth, invisible of course, to the audience. The dog did not let go until the bad man of the piece had expired in great agony.

In 1803, the Royal Circus shared the usual fate of theatres by being burned down, and it was rebuilt and opened the following year with the same style of entertainment. In 1809, William Robert Elliston, who had won his laurels at the patent houses, became manager, and converted the place into a theatre. Elliston paid a rental of over two thousand pounds per annum and turned the stables into saloons and the arena into a pit. He retired in 1814 when he transferred his energies to the Olympic, and the house was again turned into a circus.

The resident orchestra of the Royal Surrey Theatre circa 1880 - Courtesy Rosemary.In 1827, Elliston tried his fortunes as manager once more, and discovered Douglas Gerald as a Stage writer. His "Black-Eyed Susan" was an enormous success. At one time Cooke, the hero, played it every evening at Covent Garden, as well as at the Surrey.

In 1865, just as the audience was leaving, a fire broke out, destroying the theatre. It was immediately rebuilt on a larger and more superior scale.

Right - The resident orchestra of the Royal Surrey Theatre circa 1880 - Courtesy Rosemary May whose husband's great great grandfather, George Phillips, was musical director / arranger and leader of the orchestra at the time, he is shown in the photograph front centre with violin.

In 1880, George Conquest, an admirable pantomimist, took up the management and the house flourished until 1901, when he died. Since that time the Surrey has not retained its old prestige and has now fallen into disuse.

The above text was first published in the "Romance of London Theatres" by Ronald Mayes - From a Programme for the London Pavilion Jan 14th 1929.

The Surrey Theatre

From "The Face Of London" by Harold P. Clunn (1956)

Surrey Theatre Blackfriars RoadThis stood on the site of the Royal Circus, which opened on 4 Nov. 1782 and continued in use until 1810, although it had a troubled existence, being burnt down in 1799 and 1803. Rebuilt in 1806, it was converted into a theatre by Robert ELLISTON, who gave it the name by which it was thereafter known.

Right - The Surrey Theatre Blackfriars Road.

To avoid trouble with the PATENT THEATRES, he put a ballet into every production, including Macbeth, Hamlet, and FARQUHAR's The Beaux' Stratagem. Elliston left in 1814, and the Surrey became a circus again until Thomas DIBDIN reopened it as a theatre in 1816, but with little success. Not until Elliston returned did its fortunes change, with the production on 8 June 1829 of Douglas JERROLD'S Black-Ey'd Susan, which with T. P. COOKE as William, the nautical hero, had a long run. Elliston himself made his last appearance at this theatre on 24 June 1831, twelve days before he died. Osbaldiston then took over, and among other plays produced Edward FITZBALL'S Jonathan Bradford; or, the Murder at the Roadside Inn, which ran for 260 nights, but it was Richard Shepherd (who succeeded Alfred Bunn in 1848 and remained at the theatre until 1869) who established its reputation for rough-and-tumble TRANSPONTINE MELODRAMA. On 30 Jan. 1865 the theatre was burnt down, but a new theatre, seating 2,161 people in four tiers, opened on 26 Dec. 1865. Little of note took place until 1881, when George CONQUEST took over, staging sensational dramas, many of them written by himself, which proved extremely popular, and each Christmas an excellent PANTOMIME. The Surrey prospered until his death in 1901, but thereafter went rapidly downhill until in 1920 it became a cinema. It finally closed in 1924 and the building was demolished in 1934.

The above text is from The Oxford Companion To Theatre 4th edition 1983.

...On the west side of Blackfriars Road, near St. George's Circus, stood the Surrey theatre, destroyed by fire On 30 January 1865 and rebuilt within twelve months. The fire occurred during the final scene of the Pantomime called 'The Investigation in the Forest of Fancy', but the audience, not being very large, soon dispersed, and nobody was hurt. Shortly afterwards the theatre was a mass of flames and nothing was saved except the money in the box office. In less than an hour the building had been burned to the ground. The first theatre on this site was known as the St. George's Fields Circus. It was built in 1782 by Charles Dibdin the poet; in 1805 it was burned to the ground like its successor. The second theatre was opened in 1805 The site has been acquired for an extension of the Royal Eye Hospital. Close by is Peabody Square, built in 1871, which contains sixteen blocks of artisan dwellings enclosing two quadrangles, which communicate with each other. They occupy the site of the old Magdalen Hospital on the west side of Blackfriars Road.

The above text (edited) was first published in "The Face Of London" by Harold P. Clunn (1956).

The Surrey Theatre

From "The Oxford Companion To The Theatre" (Second edition)

Surrey Theatre Blackfriars Road 1823 - From 'Charles Dickens and Southwark' (London borough of Southwark)In 1771 an equestrian performer named Charles Hughes opened a riding-school and exhibition in apposition to Philip Astley. Some years later bland Charles Dibdin built, at the cost of £15,000, an amphitheatre near the Obelisk in Blackfriars Road, and opened it in 1782 as the Royal Circus. It was here that the equestrian drama, made famous by Astley, really started.

Right - The Surrey Theatre, Blackfriars Road in 1823 - From 'Charles Dickens and Southwark' (London borough of Southwark)

The Royal Circus had a very troubled existence and was burned down in 1803. Rebuilt in 1804, it continued its previous course, until in 1809 Elliston, the Great Lessee, converted it into a theatre. To evade the Patent Act he put a ballet into all the plays, which included Macbeth, Hamlet, and The Beaux' Stratagem.

In 1814 he gave up, and the building became a circus again until in 1816 Thomas Dibdin reopenedit and named it the Surrey. He failed in 1823 and the theatre sank very low. Elliston took it over again in 1827, when he left Drury Lane. Douglas Jerrold, then a struggling young playwright, brought him Black-Eyed Susan, which he accepted at once. T. P. Cooke was engaged for it at £60 a week and a 'half clear' benefit every sixth week, and it was produced on 8 June 1829. It drew all London, and on the 300th night the theatre was illuminated. The author, who wrote many more plays for the Surrey, received no more than £70 as remuneration for a successful run Of 400 nights.

Elliston made his last appearance at the theatre on 24 June 1831, and died a fortnight later. Osbaldiston then took over, and among other things produced Jonathan Bradford; or, the Murder at the Roadside Inn, a poor play which ran successfully for 260 nights. It had a novel stage-set divided into four, with four actions going on simultaneously.

Royal Surrey Theatre Bill for April 15th 1895.Osbaldiston was succeeded by Davidge, a miserly man, and then by Bunn, from Drury Lane, who essayed opera. In 1848 'Dick' Shepherd, the originator of the rough-and-tumble melodrama now associated with the Surrey, took over, with Osbaldiston back as his partner. This soon ended, however, and Creswick, a fine legitimate actor, joined Shepherd, who was broad and vulgar. Yet their association was successful and lasted, with a short break, from 1848 to 1869. During this time the theatre was burned down and rebuilt.

Left - Royal Surrey Theatre Bill for April 15th 1895.

Nothing of importance then took place until 1880, when George Conquest, actor, playwright, and pantomimist, took over.

A section from an Ordnance Survey Map of Waterloo & Southwark from 1872, showing the site of the former Surrey Theatre.He ran sensational dramas, many of them written by himself, which proved very much to the taste of his patrons, and every Christmas he put on a fine pantomime. The house flourished until his death in 1901.

Right - A section from an Ordnance Survey Map of Waterloo & Southwark from 1872, showing the site of the former Surrey Theatre.

It declined after this and became a cinema from 1920 to 1924, with a brief season of opera. Several attempts were made to reopen it, but there were too many restrictions in the lease and it became derelict. Eventually the land was purchased by the Royal Ophthalmic Hospital, and the building was pulled down in 1934.

The above text was first published in "The Oxford Companion To The Theatre (Second edition)".

The Surrey Theatre

"From Charles Dickens and Southwark"

Surrey Theatre Blackfriars Road Playbill 1839 - From 'Charles Dickens and Southwark' (London borough of Southwark)In Blackfriars Road, near the obelisk, was the old Surrey Theatre. It is possible that Dickens had in mind this this theatre as the one in which Frederick Dorrit played the clarinet in the orchestra. Performances of Dickens's works used to take place in this theatre during his lifetime to wildly enthusiastic audiences. In November 1838, only a month after the issue of the last instalment, a Surrey Theatre playbill records a dramatised production of Oliver Twist. Other productions included Nicholas Nickleby. John Forster relates how 'One version at the Surrey Theatre was so excruciatingly bad that in the middle of the first scene the agonised novelist lay down on the floor of his box and never rose until the curtain fell.'

Right - Surrey Theatre Blackfriars Road Playbill 1839 - From 'Charles Dickens and Southwark' (London borough of Southwark).

The above text was first published in 'Charles Dickens and Southwark' (London borough of Southwark).

If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.

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

The Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road, London

From "The Romance of London Theatres" by Ronald Mayes

The Auditorium and Stage of the Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road - From 'Microcosm of London or London in Miniature Vol 3', 1904.

Above - The Auditorium and Stage of the Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road - From 'Microcosm of London or London in Miniature Vol 3', 1904.

Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road, LondonONE of the most famous old theatres in London -- the Old Surrey, in Black-friars Road, crossing St. George's Fields -- is likely to be soon in use again. An English family has owned the site of the theatre since 1346. It was first opened in 1782 by Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin, the song writer, and was called "The Royal Circus," and the history of the old place is interesting, apart from the fact that it stood on the site where the once famous Surrey now stands.

Right - The Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road, London.

Previously, the ground on which the building was erected was occupied by a riding school and exhibition, and Dibdin proposed in his new theatre "to have a stage on which might be represented spectacles, each to terminate with a joust or tilting match, so managed as to form a novel and striking coup de theatre, and that the business of the stage and ring might be united."

An early Entrance Token for the Gallery of the Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road, London - Courtesy Alan Judd An early Entrance Token for the Gallery of the Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road, London - Courtesy Alan Judd

 

Above - An early Entrance Token for the Gallery of the Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road, London - Courtesy Alan Judd

At first the entertainments were performed by children, the idea being to render the circus a nursery for actors. The theatre was opened however without a licence, and was closed by the order of the Surrey magistrates after they had read the Riot Act from the stage. The following year a licence was obtained, but success was threatened by continual disagreements amongst the partners. Breaches of the law were continually involving the managers in prosecutions. One justice Hyde was very much against them, and on one occasion, at the head of a force of police, he entered the theatre and seized the offending parties, This particular judge seems to have had a grudge against the Royal Circus, because whilst he was finding fault with this theatre he allowed the most disgraceful exhibitions of duck-hunting to be pursued at the "Dog and Duck," a few yards' distant in St. Georgees fields.

"The Romance of London Theatres" by Ronald MayesDelphini became manager in 1788, and produced a splendid spectacle, with a real stag-hunt.

Then there were several "dog-pieces" put together to introduce upon the stage as actors, two knowing dogs called 'Gelert and Victor!' Such was their popularity that they held daily receptions, and people flocked in hundreds to gaze upon and fondle these animals.

The popularity of the theatre was largely increased by the skill of John Palmer, a new stage manager, who was however committed to the Surrey Gaol in 1789, as "a rogue and a vagabond."

The Circus was destroyed by fire in August, 1805, and re-built the following year. When it was re-opened it carried on the old style of entertainment until 1809, when Robert Elliston took it over. He paid a rental of £2,200 per year for the building, and transformed the amphitheatre into a commodious pit and the stables into saloons.

The main type of entertainment now produced was melodrama, and here Miss Sally Brook made her first appearance in London. Then followed all sorts of varieties; one piece being produced especially to exhibit two magnificent suits of armour of the fourteenth century, which afterwards appeared in the Lord Mayor's Show.

In 1816, Tom Dibdin offered his services as stage manager under Elliston, and the Circus was extensively altered, and reopened as the Surrey Theatre.

The above text was first published in "The Romance of London Theatres" by Ronald Mayes - From a Programme for the Marble Arch Pavilion December 16th 1929.

Family Connections to the Surrey Theatre

Arthur Lloyd and his wife Katty King, are known to have performed at the Surrey Theatre on several occasions, see details below.

Advertisement from the ERA Almanack of 1880 for Arthur Lloyd and Katty King in Pantomime at the Surrey Theatre in 1878 - 1879 - Courtesy Jennifer Carnell.

Above - An Advertisement from the ERA Almanack of 1880 for Arthur Lloyd and Katty King in Pantomime at the Surrey Theatre in 1878 - 1879 - Courtesy Jennifer Carnell.

A cutting from the ERA of the 28th of December 1878 on the pantomime 'The House That Jack Built' at the Surrey Theatre in 1878 / 1879.

Above - A cutting from the ERA of the 28th of December 1878 on the pantomime 'The House That Jack Built' at the Surrey Theatre in 1878 / 1879. Also mentioned in this cutting is Nellie Dyoll, whose real name was Ellinor Lloyd, Arthur Lloyd's Sister.

A cutting from the ERA of the 5th of January 1879 on Katty King's performance in the pantomime 'The House That Jack Built' at the Surrey Theatre in 1878 / 1879.

Above - A cutting from the ERA of the 5th of January 1879 on Katty King's performance in the pantomime 'The House That Jack Built' at the Surrey Theatre in 1878 / 1879.

Other Pages that may be of Interest