With our new and upcoming exhibition on Victorian Leisure, our wonderful team of volunteers have been researching Victorian Theatre, read on to discover more!
Although theatre was already part of the landscape of Britain by the start of the reign of Queen Victoria, it underwent rapid expansion throughout that period as part of a wider embrace of all types of live entertainment following The Regulation of Theatres Act in 1843.
Despite deep divisions of social class, opportunities increased which enabled people from many more parts of society to experience and enjoy the variety of entertainment on offer.
As now, London had previously witnessed a large expansion of theatre life and became the biggest concentration as the capital expanded but, in every city and many major towns venues opened which appealed to the growing populace and its demands for entertainment.
The nature of performances varied across the genres of drama, melodrama, comedy and music as well as stage-managed and highly theatrical readings such as those delivered by Charles Dickens who toured throughout Britain and America.
Promoting performances was as important as the events themselves and creative impresarios would announce ‘A Tale of Mystery’ or ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ to entice and intrigue potential customers.
Even in many smaller towns there was an enthusiastic market for such live entertainment and in the Midlands, there were many examples of local communities embracing theatres during the nineteenth century.
Although not the originator of theatre, perhaps during the long Victorian era, it finally came of age.
A Mr J. Simms came from the Theatre Royal Birmingham and Manchester came to Northamptonshire and operated in Daventry for a season in 1810, in ‘superior and improved accommodation’ although the location is not clear.
There is a record of dramatic performances in Daventry as far back as April 1770 at the Moot Hall, when it was situated in the High Street.
In 1803 the Theatre was in a barn, which burned to the ground in February that year.
A letter in the County Records Office shows that in 1806 Mr Harper of the Theatre Royal Richmond presented his respects to the Mayor and asked for permission to ‘perform at Daventry, also to build a theatre for the present season as Daventry has for some years been without theatrical amusement’.
In January 1815, Simms announced he was setting up a theatre in the premises of Mr Molladay, a Hatter in High Street, Daventry.
On 7th June 1836 Jackman sent a letter to the Solicitor T.L. Grey (a drama loving solicitor) in Daventry, ‘I shall have great pleasure in taking Mr Lines’ premises for a theatre, I am inclined to think it would answer in 18 months and should not mind giving £25 per season’.
Then the Mayor of Daventry, Richard Wildgoose, was a great supporter of the drama and his name appears in one of his playbills of the first season of this new theatre dated Friday 20th October 1837, for Love in a Village and Catherine and Petruchio.
The Daventry Theatre was in Cow Lane, the old name for New Street on the site later occupied by Stead and Simpson’s shoe factory (and now Tesco).
The theatre was to remain in use for various functions until at least 1871, when the Assembly Hall was built in New Street and Foundry Place at a cost of £1,400, and having a stage, ante rooms and vestibule. Later it became the Regal Cinema.
Souce: Theatre Uni-Royal by Lou Warwick, 1974.
Theatre in the Midlands
The Theatre Royal in Leicester (formerly known as The New Theatre) was opened in 1836 at which the national anthem was sung followed by a performance of Sheridan’s ‘School for Scandal’.
Northampton saw the opening of the New Theatre Royal in 1884 with a performance of Twelfth Night and it was reported:
‘No element of success was wanting to contribute to the superb triumph that crowned the opening of this new theatre’. (The Stage 1884)
In 1881, the Leamington Theatre Company was formed and commissioned the design of the 1,200-seat capacity Theatre Royal which produced its first performance in 1882 titled ‘The Lily of Killarney’.
The Tamworth Assembly Rooms was first proposed in 1887 as a fitting monument to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and its doors to the public two years later.