Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.
Rich's Glory, or his Triumphant Entry into Covent-Garden.
Theatre Royal Covent Garden, as altered previous to the opening on 15th September 1794. Destroyed by Fire, September 20th, 1808.
E.N.E. View of Covent Garden Theatre from Bow Street.
Covent Garden Theatre owes its foundation and rise to Mr. John Rich, son and successor to Mr. Christopher Rich, late patentee of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, who having, through a parsimonious disposition, appropriated to himself a greater share of the profits in that Theatre than in reason and justice he was entitled to, raised such an host of enemies in the actors under him, that William Collier, Esq., a lawyer and Member of Parliament for Truro in Cornwall, of an enterprising disposition, taking advantage of these intestine feuds, obtained a lease and licence over the head of Rich, in Drury Lane Theatre, which he took possession of by force, though not before his opponent had carried away everything of the stage property worth removing. Some time before this, Rich had taken a lease of D'Avenant's Theatre, and possessing his patent, began building a new Theatre on the site of the old one in Portugal Street, but did not live to see it finished. His son, however, opened it in the year 1714, and continued his company there until their final removal to Covent Garden, in 1733. Mr. Rich, finding his Theatre in Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, too small for his favourite performances in pantomime, had long contemplated building a Theatre on a larger scale; and, judging Covent Garden convenient for this purpose, plans were drawn by Mr. Sheppard, his director and architect, which, on being submitted to general inspection, met the approbation of the public, who subscribed considerable sums towards the undertaking, on being admitted renters or shareholders in the concern. Workmen were immediately employed to clear some old buildings (supposed part of the Convent left by Inigo Jones) for the foundation; and Mr. Sheppard completely finished the building in twenty-two months, commencing in February, 1731, and left it ready for opening in November, 1732; though the company did not remove from Portugal Street till early in the ensuing year, 1733. The novelties Mr. Rich produced this season were, Achilles, an opera, by Gay, brought out a few months after the author's death; and the Parricide, a tragedy, by Shirley. The manager gained considerable popularity from the circumstance of the patentees of Drury Lane Theatre refusing a benefit to two persons, whom they had been under obligations to, and had given a promise by three of their managers, but afterwards refused their concurrence; Mr. Rich, on the first application from one of the parties, immediately consented to give a benefit at his house, from no other motive than a knowledge of the difficulties the person laboured under in his circumstances, though otherwise entirely unknown to him.
The great attraction of Covent Garden Theatre consisted in the pantomimes, which the manager spared no cost or pains to draw the attention of the public to visit, though on one occasion it proved a melancholy, instead of a pleasant entertainment, as we learn that on the night of Oct. 1, 1736, in the entertainment of Dr. Faustus, at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, when the machine, wherein were Harlequin, the Miller's Wife, the Miller, and his Man, was got to the full extent of its flying, one of the wires which held the hind part of the car broke first, and then the other broke, and the machine and all the people in it fell down upon the stage; by which unhappy accident, the young woman who personated the Miller's wife had her thigh broke and her knee-pan shattered, the Harlequin had his head bruised and his wrist strained, the Miller broke his arm, and the Miller's Man had his skull so fractured, that he soon after died. The audience was thrown into the greatest surprise; and nothing was heard but shrieks and cries of the utmost agony and horror.
The year 1737 was rendered memorable at Covent Garden TheatreAt Covent Garden Theatre, one John Somerford tumbled from the upper gallery into the pit, being ten yards, without receiving any hurt. When the play was done, he told Mr. Rich that he had made himself free of the gallery, and hoped he should have the liberty of going into it when he pleased; to which Mr. Rich consented, with a provided always, that he did not come out of it in the same abrupt manner. by the success of the burlesque opera of the
Dragon of Wantley, written by Carey, and set by Lampe, "after the Italian manner." This excellent piece had run twenty-two nights, when it was stopped, with all other public amusements, by the death of Queen Caroline, November 20th; but was resumed again on the opening of the Theatres in January following, and supported as many representations as the Beggar's Opera had done ten years before; and if Gay's original intention in writing his musical drama was to ridicule the opera, the execution of his plan was not so happy as that of Carey, in which the mock heroic, tuneful monster, recitative, splendid habits, and style of music, all conspired to remind the audience of what they had seen and heard at the lyric Theatre, more effectually than the most vulgar street tunes could do, and much more innocently than the tricks and transactions of the most abandoned thieves and prostitutes. Lampe's music to this farcical drama was not only excellent eighty years ago, but is still modern and in good taste.
Mrs. Cibber's name was announced in the play-bills to perform the part of Lady Constance in King John, at Covent Garden Theatre, in the year 1750; but, being suddenly taken ill, Mrs. Woffington, who was ever ready to show her respect to the public, and her willingness to promote the interest of her employer, came forward to the front of the pit, ready dressed for the character of Constance, and offered, with the permission of the audience, to supply Mrs. Cibber's place for that night. The spectators, instead of meeting her address with approbation, seemed entirely lost in surprise. This unexpected reception so embarrassed her, that she was preparing to retire, when Ryan, who thought they only wanted a hint to rouse them from their insensibility, asked them bluntly if they would give Mrs. Woffington leave to act Lady Constance? The audience, as if at once awakened from a fit of lethargy, by repeated plaudits strove to make amends for their inattention to the most beautiful woman that ever adorned a theatre.
From the death of Mr. Rich, which happened in December, 1762, to the 14th of September, 1767, Covent Garden Theatre was under the direction of Mr. Beard, his son-in-law, by the appointment of the widow, and the rest of the parties concerned; Mr. Rich leaving, besides his widow, four daughters, all then living and married, who were to have an equal dividend amongst them. Mr. Beard being bred to music, he very judiciously exerted his powers to distinguish that Theatre by musical performances, as his predecessor had done by pantomime. Mr. Garrick was in his zenith at Drury Lane Theatre, and drew the whole town, until the tide was turned through Mr. Beard's musical performances of Love in a Village, Artaxerxes,In 1763 a very serious riot took place at this Theatre, in consequence of the managers refusing to admit half price to the opera of Artaxerxes; the audience became enraged at the parsimony of the proprietors. and, in revenge for their obstinacy, completely gutted the house. The public in the end triumphed, and half price has ever since been taken, with the exception of a first season to an expensive and popular pantomime. the Maid of the Mill, &c., aided by the best singers and instrumental performers, brought crowded houses for four successive prosperous seasons, at the expiration of which, Mr. Beard, who had been long troubled with an incurable deafness, once more brought the patent forward, which was purchased for sixty thousand pounds, paid down in August, 1767, by Messrs. Colman, Harris, Rutherford, and Powell: Mr. Colman undertaking the regulation of the stage department. This alliance, however, was of short duration, as, in July, 1768, Messrs. Harris and Rutherford made a forcible entry into the Theatre, expelled by violence the house-keeper appointed by the acting managers, nor would quit possession until compelled by virtue of a warrant under the hand and seal of the high sheriffs of London and Middlesex: this produced a paper war, which was carried to a considerable extent, but ended in an arrangement, that left the patent and Theatre in possession of Messrs. Harris and Powell; and, on the decease of the latter, Mr. Harris became sole patentee, under a certain obligation of paying a moiety of the profits to the daughters of Mr. Powell.
Mr. Harris had determined, in the year 1781, to take down his Theatre, and alter the inside; and for this purpose employed Mr. Richardson as principal architect: but the project was not carried on so far; other alterations, less expensive, were deemed equally good. The roof was raised eight feet over the stage, and to a proportionate height to the back of the second gallery, which opened a full view of the stage, even to the spectators in the back seats. The first gallery projected equal to the front of the boxes, and four seats beyond the front of the second gallery. By these means the Theatre had a light appearance, giving a full view of the stage. The seats in the galleries and pit were raised six inches higher than before.
The boxes, which were constructed on a very advantageous plan, were considerably elevated, and built upon the stage as far as the space before occupied by the side stage doors. The boxes were separated by Corinthian pillars, white with gold flutings and ornaments, which also supported the upper boxes and first gallery; in the front of each box was a curtain of crimson drapery, and the linings were of the same colour; at the back of the front boxes several others were erected on a new construction, being detached from the rest. The sounding-board over the stage represented a clear sky. The front of the lower green boxes was pannelled white, with cornices and festoons of flowers gilt. The entrances were also considerably improved. The house opened September 23, 1782, with an occasional prelude by Mr. M'Nally.
In 1785 Covent Garden Theatre received various improvements in painting, gilding, and the removal of some of the boxes, which rendered the house more commodious.
Destruction of Covent Garden Theatre by Fire.
September 20, 1808. About four o'clock in the morning this extensive building was discovered to be in flames; and so fierce and rapid was the fire, that no exertion could stop its course. Within less than three hours after its commencement, the whole of the interior was destroyed; nearly all the scenery, wardrobe, musical and dramatic libraries, and properties of all kinds, were a heap of smoking ruins. A considerable number of engines promptly attended, but there was a total want of water for some time, the main pipe having been cut off with the intention of laying down a new one, and above an hour elapsed before some of the engines could be supplied; they afterwards played with the utmost possible effect for upwards of an hour, when the roof of the Theatre fell in with a dreadful crash, and thus announced the destruction of the interior of the building. The fire raged with most violence at the upper end of Bow Street, on the western side of which, seven houses were destroyed, including the public-house called the Strugglers. In Hart Street the flames communicated to the houses on the opposite side of the street from the Theatre, and four of them caught fire at the same moment; but, by the great activity of people and firemen, they suffered little more damage than a severe scorching.
The most painful part of this unexpected event, however, remains to be described: at an early stage of the fire, a party of firemen broke open the great door under the Piazza, Covent Garden; and, having introduced an engine into the passage, they directed it towards the galleries, where the fire appeared to burn more fiercely, when, dreadful to relate, the burning roof of the passage fell in, and buried them, with several others, who had rushed in along with them, in the ruins. It was a considerable time before the rubbish, which now blocked up the door, could be cleared away; when it was effected, an awful spectacle presented itself—the mangled bodies of dead and dying appearing through the rubbish, or discovered in each advance to remove it. At twelve o'clock eleven dead bodies had been removed into the churchyard of St. Paul's, Covent Garden; three of them were firemen belonging to the Phœnix fire-office: some were sent to the Middlesex Hospital, miserably mangled, with broken limbs and severe bruises. Several respectable young men having approached too near the flames, perished by the steam which arose from the burning ruins upon which the engines were playing. The number of persons whose lives were unfortunately sacrificed to their activity and assiduity in endeavouring to arrest the progress of the flames, amounted to twenty. Many others (more perhaps in number) were severely and dangerously wounded. The insurances on the Theatre scarcely exceeded £ 50,000, and the savings from the Shakespeare premises amounted to £ 3500 more, which, on the whole, was not more than one fourth part of the sum requisite to replace the loss. The actual loss, however, was immense: besides the usual stock of scenery, there was an additional quantity for a new melo-drama, which was shortly to be brought forward. Of the originals of the music of Handel, Arne, and many other eminent composers, there are no copies; and of many other pieces of music, only an outline had been given. Some excellent dramatic productions, the property of the Theatre, were lost for ever.
The Bedford and Piazza Coffee-houses escaped the flames, owing to a wall which had been erected by the proprietors of the Theatre from the back of the adjoining premises. Another accident happened on Wednesday, by the falling of a wall in Hart Street, which killed one man, and bruised several others. They had been warned of their danger, but disregarded it.
The organ, left by Handel as a legacy to the Theatre, stated to be worth upwards of one thousand guineas, and which only played during the Oratorios, was consumed. The Beef-steak Club, which held its meetings at the top of the Theatre, lost their stock of wines, valued at £ 1500. Mr. Ware, the leader of the band, lost a violin of £ 300 value, which had been left behind him that night for the first time in two years; Mr. Munden his wardrobe, which cost him near £ 300; Miss Bolton her jewels; and the other performers property, in the aggregate, to a considerable amount.
A subscription was opened for the relief of the sufferers. The King's Theatre was, with much liberality, offered by Mr. Taylor to Mr. Harris; and the Covent Garden Company began performing in their new quarters, in the Haymarket, on the 26th. The performances were Douglas and Rosina.
Tuesday, Jan. 10, the workmen employed in clearing away the ruins of Covent Garden Theatre, at the Piazza door, where the Phœnix engine, with the firemen, were so unfortunately destroyed, dug out, near the cistern, the body of a young man, not burnt, but crushed to death. It proved to be the son of Mr. Webb, of Tottenham Court Road, and had been missing ever since that dreadful morning; but his parents, until the discovery of the corpse, had flattered
themselves with the delusive hope that he had been either trepanned into a regiment of the line, or been impressed into the navy.
Saturday, Dec. 31, the foundation-stone of the new Theatre in Covent Garden was laid by H. R. H. the Prince of Wales, as Grand Master of the Freemasons: the Duke of Sussex, Earl Moira, and other distinguished noblemen, with some hundreds of that order, attended in procession. Considerable importance and interest was given to the spectacle by the honour thus conferred upon it; and all necessary pre-arrangements having been admirably attended to by the proprietors and the architect, the whole ceremony passed with much eclat. H. R. H. the Prince of Wales arrived at one o'clock, and was received by Earl Moira, and other superior members of the order; a discharge of artillery and loud acclamations welcomed his approach, while all the bands uniting, struck up "God save the King." His path, from the entrance to the marquee, was covered with green cloth. His Royal Highness having arrived at the marquee, Mr. Smirke, the architect, presented him with a plan of the building: His Royal Highness then advanced, and deposited in the basement-stone a brass box, containing two medals, one of bronze, on which was a portrait of His Royal Highness, and on the reverse, the following inscription:
Regis. Instaurandi. Auspiciis
In. Hortis. Benedictinis
Suâ. Manu. Locavit
The other medal was deeply engraved in copper; on one side is inscribed:
Under the Auspices of
His most sacred Majesty George III.
King of the United Kingdom of Great Bri-
tain and Ireland,
The foundation-stone of the Theatre
Was laid by His Royal Highness
George Prince of Wales,
On the other side is engraved, "Robert Smirke, Architect."
There were deposited also gold, silver, and copper British coins of the latest coinage.
Three masons then spread mortar over the lower stone; and Earl Moira, Deputy Grand Master, having presented the Prince with a silver trowel, His Royal Highness, as Grand Master, finished spreading it, and the stone was slowly let down; its descent was proclaimed by a discharge of artillery. The plumb, the level, and the square were then presented by the acting Grand Master, with which the Prince tried the position of the stone, after which he finished the laying of it by three strokes with a mallet; he now poured over it the antient offerings of corn, wine, and oil, from three silver vases. His Royal Highness then returned the plan into the hands of the architect, desiring him to complete the edifice comformably to it; and, addressing Messrs. Harris and Kemble, he expressed his wishes for the success and prosperity of the undertaking.
owes its foundation and rise to Mr. John Rich, son and successor to Mr. Christopher Rich, late patentee of the Theatre Royal, , who having, through a parsimonious disposition, appropriated to himself a greater share of the profits in that Theatre than in reason and justice he was entitled to, raised such an host of enemies in the actors under him, that William Collier, Esq., a lawyer and Member of Parliament for Truro in Cornwall, of an enterprising disposition, taking advantage of these intestine feuds, obtained a lease and licence over the head of Rich, in , which he took possession of by force, though not before his opponent had carried away everything of the stage property worth removing. Some time before this, Rich had taken a lease of D'Avenant's Theatre, and possessing his patent, began building a new Theatre on the site of the old in , but did not live to see it finished. His son, however, opened it in the year , and continued his company there until their final removal to Covent Garden, in . Mr. Rich, finding his Theatre in , , too small for his favourite performances in pantomime, had long contemplated building a Theatre on a larger scale; and, judging Covent Garden convenient for this purpose, plans were drawn by Mr. Sheppard, his director and architect, which, on being submitted to general inspection, met the approbation of the public, who subscribed considerable sums towards the undertaking, on being admitted renters or shareholders in the concern. Workmen were immediately employed to clear some old buildings (supposed part of the Convent left by Inigo Jones) for the foundation; and Mr. Sheppard completely finished the building in months, commencing in , and left it ready for opening in ; though the company did not remove from till early in the ensuing year, . The novelties Mr. Rich produced this season were, Achilles, an opera, by Gay, brought out a few months after the author's death; and the Parricide, a tragedy, by Shirley. The manager gained considerable popularity from the circumstance of the patentees of refusing a benefit to persons, whom they had been under obligations to, and had given a promise by of their managers, but afterwards refused their concurrence; Mr. Rich, on the application from of the parties, immediately consented to give a benefit at his house, from no other motive than a knowledge of the difficulties the person laboured under in his circumstances, though otherwise entirely unknown to him.