Londina Illustrata. Graphic and Historical Memorials of Monasteries, Churches, Chapels, Schools, Charitable Foundations, Palaces, Halls, Courts, Processions, Places of Early Amusement, and Modern Present Theatres, in the Cities and Suburbs of London and Westminster, Volume 2Wilkinson, Robert
Royal Circus, or Surrey Theatre.
The celebrated lyric poet, Mr. Charles Dibdin, Senior, was the projector of this place of amusement, about the year . Horsemanship, which had been lately brought to a pitch of perfection unknown before, was at this period much admired, having been rendered familiar to the public by the rival exhibitions of Hughes and Astley. Hughes opened his Riding School, on the Surrey side of , , under the name of the British Horse Academy, in opposition to Astley's British Riding School, which had begun the previous May, at the Surrey side of . At this time, they both performed in the open air by daylight, if not wet weather; began at , and mounted at o'clock. The admission to the Ride was ; to the Room, They both continued until , when their exhibitions were shut up by the magistrates. Astley went on again in , but Hughes never re-opened his old Riding School. This exhibition of horsemanship by Hughes gave the idea to Mr. Dibdin, who conceived, if it could be divested of its vulgarity, it might become an object of public encouragement and profit. His plan was to introduce all the dexterity and romantic interest of ancient chivalry, such as tournaments, running at the ring, and various other feats of equestrian celebrity, &c. &c. into the stage representations, and thereby to create an interest as well as desire of encouragement in the superior classes of the public. A sum of money was offered to him by friends in furtherance of this project, and a spot was fixed upon on the Surrey side of , for building a requisite theatre. The reversion of the ground, which was situated near the Surrey road turnpike, was vested in Colonel West, father of the present Temple West, Esq. Mr. Dibdin immediately applied to the former gentleman, who not only approved of the scheme, but instantly joined in it. He was introduced to Dibdin's friends, and the whole business of building, opening, &c. was arranged in a short time: Colonel West purchased the life-interest in the premises, and became of the proprietors. Mr. Dibdin's intention was to open upon a small scale, at , to get on by degrees, and thus to avoid the jealousy of the larger theatres; but this timid management West overruled; he was for coming out at once an object of attraction, and under a proper license, which he was confident might be obtained from the Lord Chamberlain: or otherwise, that the dormant patent of Mr. Harris might be procured; but the Lord Chamberlain unfortunately had no jurisdiction in Surrey, nor could the patent have been used in that county, nor was it likely Mr. Harris should thus have set up an enemy againt himself. Both of these schemes were tried, and failed. It was afterwards arranged to open the concern under the best favourable circumstances that offered, and it was at the same time agreed, that Mr. Dibdin should be the sole manager for life (but nothing was reduced to writing), and to receive a of the profits. Hughes was to conduct the horse department, and Mr. Grimaldi (father of the present popular clown of the same name) was engaged as ballet-master.
The building, which is said to have cost nearly was substantial and elegant; and appeared in all respects a place worthy of public encouragement. It was begun in , and opened in the same year, but a license.[*] The magistrates closed its doors at Christmas, but it re-opened on the , under the usual magistrates' license. The drawing up of the curtain, in November, took place before a crowded and elegant audience, with a prelude followed by a grand entrée of horses, a grand ballet (by children), "Admetus and Alceste," various feats of horsemanship by Hughes's pupils, and a pantomime parody (also by children), called "Mandarina, or the Refusal of Harlequin." little boys (the Leanders) played the trumpet, and the performances closed with fireworks. Among the juvenile performers were Miss Romanzini (now Mrs. Bland), Miss Wilkinson (Mrs. Mountain), Miss de Camp (Mrs. C. Kemble), Mr. Russell, the Misses Simonets, Laborie, the Leanders (hornplayers,) &c.
Near the commencement of the ensuing season, when the proprietors applied for the license at the quarter sessions, they were refused, and it was granted in name only; he having been for some time secretly working to effect this point. Soon after the opening in , Colonel West died; the other proprietors (among whom was Sir John Lade) interfered, and thus commenced the disputes which ultimately destroyed the concern. At this time there were about children engaged, with a school master and mistress to attend them. The season was for months, and was taken during that period.
At the end of the season, Mr. Dibdin, having been expelled the management by a cabal formed against him, filed a bill in equity to ascertain his right. This occasioned a general quarrel among the parties: Hughes (who was the opponent of Dibdin, and of the cabal) called on that gentleman unexpectedly, and proposed to him to seize the Theatre and open it, accounting to the proprietors for their fair proportions in the concern, and at the same time promised to have Mr. Dibdin's name inserted in the next license. They accordingly took forcible possession, and publicly announced to open on Easter Monday ; before which time, however, a convention took place; and it was agreed that Dibdin and Hughes should rent the Theatre at a year. They opened, the receipts were great, and all went on well for about weeks, when they quarrelled about a scheme of Mr. Dibdin's, to bring forward a commemoration of Arne. This was the plea for Hughes to get rid of Dibdin; "he seized the money at the door, kicked the Treasurer out of the house," &c.; the representations were in consequence not properly conducted, the House was soon deserted by the public, and Mr. Dibdin entirely quitted the Circus, on receiving from the proprietors in liquidation of all his claims.
The House continued open the following summer, with but indifferent success, until the year , when the late John Palmer, comedian, became a prisoner in the King's Bench, obtained the privilege of the rules, and resided in the ; and entering into an agreement with a Mr. Read (who at that time held the Theatre of the proprietors, and who in published the History of the Circus, with his own case), he performed there, and conducted the performances until the , when the Circus was shut up, in consequence of an information laid against it by the winter Theatres. During Palmer's management the "BASTILE" was produced, and performed to crowded audiences successive nights, chiefly through his own excellent performance of Henry in it.[*] At the time Palmer joined it, the Theatre was fast verging towards dissolution, from gross and repeated abuses in its management, by persons without judgment or principle.
The House appears to have closed from the last mentioned period, until Easter Monday ; for a play-bill of that date announces, "The Royal Circus to open for the time these years." The performances at that period consisted of horsemanship, by Hughes's troop from Russia, and Handy's troop; Rope-dancing, Tumbling, Balancing,
|and the Taylor riding to Brentford; but stage performances. The prices were, Boxes, Pit, and Gallery, s In May, a pantomimic interlude was added.|
In , Temple West and Jane West (his mother) let the Theatre to James Jones, for years, at guineas per annum (a pretty strong proof of the wretched state to which it had been reduced); and the next year, , the House having been refitted, altered, and a coffee-room added, opened under the stage management of Lascelles, a dancing-master and pantomimist. The success was, however, through the whole of that season but very indifferent; though an excellent company for such a Theatre, it must be admitted, was engaged—containing in the horse department, of the performers in the world, George Smith and Crossman; and among the stage performers, Mrs. Parker, and her daughter-in-law, Mrs. H. Johnston; the Bolognas, father and son; Mrs. Iliff; Jew Davis (as he was familiarly called in the profession); Mrs. Henley, and Mr. Pilbrow (excellent burletta performers), &c. &c. The next season the Circus company, who had been in Scotlaud during the winter, were augmented by the addition of the late "Tom Blanchard" (formerly of ), Mrs. Herbert, afterwards a very favourite singer and performer here, and under the stage management of Mr. Cross (Lascelles having been discharged); and the pieces being judiciously got up, and in general well performed, the House by the end of the season became an established theatre.
During , Mr. Cross, having married the daughter of Mr. James Jones, was by him admitted to a share of the proprietorship, and being a spirited man, and well adapted to conduct such a concern, produced several pieces with a degree of expense and splendour which rivalled the winter houses. Among these pieces were "Black Beard," a grand equestrian pantomime called "the Magic Flute," &c.; and the receipts either in this or the following season amounted (from information of the Treasurer of the Theatre) to between and
The Theatre was rebuilt in (the interior), from Cabanel's designs, and opened on Easter Monday. Stage and ceiling raised, and the lobbies rendered more commodious.—It was opened with Almoran and Hamet.
In , it was altered and further embellished. During this and part of the preceding season, several new performers had been engaged, some of whom then evinced merit, and have since held respectable situations at the winter theatres. Among the names may be more particularly mentioned, Messrs. Broadhurst, J. Smith, and G. Smith, of ; and Gibbon (singers); the late Mr. Wallack, an excellent performer for such a House, and the late Mrs. Roffey. Mr. Byrne, formerly of , was also engaged at this time, as harlequin and balletmaster; and Laurent as clown. With such a company the concern continued to gain ground in the public favour.
A new "fruitery" added, and "silver tickets" issued, in .
During (), a fire broke out between and o'clock in the morning; it was got under by o'clock; but the whole of the Theatre was destroyed, with or more adjoining houses. The insurance was for only
In , a new Theatre having been erected with great promptitude, was opened on Easter Monday this year. Cross was continued acting manager, under a committee of trustees (Jones being involved), to regulate the finance. The Theatre cost rebuilding Like all theatres conducted by committees, the establishment soon went to ruin; it lingered until
, When Elliston took the Theatre for years, from the , at per annum; besides the ground-rent, taxes, &c. &c. He opened on Easter Monday with an Address, merely relative to his having boldly ventured on the Theatre, and turned singer without a voice, &c.; after which the Beggar's Opera was performed as a [*]
In , under the name of the "Surrey Theatre" (late royal Circus), Mr. Thomas Dibdin became sub-director. The horse-ride on this occasion was converted into a pit, but it was much too large. Elliston's season was incredibly successful, but his expenses were great, and he extended his seasons from months (from Easter to Michaelmas) to more than months (much longer than the place would attract); so that before he quitted, in , he had lost considerably. The following pieces were, among many others, altered during his management into burlettas: Macbeth; George Barnwell; Bold Stroke for a Wife; Honey Moon; London Hermit; Beggar's Opera; Children in the Wood; Matrimony; Mayor of Garrett; High Life below Stairs; Silvester Daggerwood; Raising the Wind; Son in Law; Blind Boy, &c. &c.
Mr. Elliston quitted the premises, , and for the remaining years of Jones's term they were engaged by a Mr. Dunn, who had been an assistant in the House, unknown and unacquainted with the proper mode of conducting a theatre; and a Mr. Branscomb, landlord of the Circus Coffe-house; for a year. They admitted a Mr. Heywood as a partner, and again turned the pit into a circus for horsemanship. Branscomb soon after died, Heywood became a bankrupt, and this Mr. Dunn was sole arbiter. No wonder the concern was soon ruined; and so it was literally. At last even the Dog and Duck and Apollo Gardens would have been reckoned genteel places compared with it. It was in the end noticed by the magistrates. Compelled to quit before their term expired, Messrs. Dunn and Co. gutted the place of every moveable which the law allowed them to take; and on the , they had an auction on the premises, and sold all the rubbish not worth carrying away, and or horses.[*]
Mr. T. Dibdin commenced , with a piece called "A House Warming," an occasional Address, the Sicilian, and Chevy Chase; a new and commodious pit on an elevation of degrees; the House altogether improved and splendidly embellished, and a numerous and well-selected company and band. The scenery and the whole of the stage apparatus were new and excellent, and the concern in all respects was on an extensive scale of expense. There were also free admissions, private boxes, a fruit-room, &c. Although unsuccessful in conducting the affairs of , Mr. Dibdin was here quite at home. His quickness in converting some of our most popular novels into pieces suited to such a Theatre, is just what is required; they last the short time they are wanted, and are heard of no more. Since his management great variety has been brought forward, and his success has been various, sometimes losing greatly, and at other times tolerably well attended. The present season () is said, however, to have been extremely productive, from the attraction of or fortunate pieces. The prices now are, Boxes, Pitt, Gallery, Begin at half-past o'clock; half price at half past o'clock.
[*] With this advertisement: "November 7, will open the Royal Circus, and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy, with a variety of entertainments, upon a plan entirely new. Feats of horsemanship, relieved by the efforts of a number of children educated in the Academy, who will perform their exercises in music, dancing, oratory, &c. The Circus, dresses, decorations, and whole troops of performers, entirely new. The equestrian part conducted by Mr. Hughes. Doors open at Six, begin at Seven. Boxes, 4s. Pit, 2s. Gallery, 1s." This advertisement was discontinued after the 14th of the same month: and on December 19, 1782, the Royal Circus, and Equestrian Academy, was advertised to open under the direction of Hughes. No mention is made in this advertisement, of children.
[*] The public manner in which Palmer acted every night, the sums he received, and which it is said he squandered, in open defiance of his creditors, caused the clause in the next Debtors' Act, making all public houses and places of amusement, out of the Rules.
[*] Mr. Elliston started with a determination to mutilate our established dramatic pieces, and he succeeded. Not even Shakespeare's sacred name could stop his unrelenting hand; and Macbeth, sung in doggrel rhyme, evinced the little feeling an actor of high reputation on our national boards, had for our divine bard. From this bad example, have all the minor theatres gradually encroached upon the regular drama, and now openly violate the laws laid down for their government. Astley's, Sadler's Wells, the Royalty, the Regency, and even the Olympic and the Sans Pareil (though the latter are licensed by the Lord Chamberlain), stand in this predicament, their permission to play, expressly limiting them to the performance of burlettas; and though, upon a late appeal, the law officers did not think proper to know what was a burletta, they might, if they would consult the published documents on Palmer's claims to act at the Royalty, learn to know what is not a burletta. Mr. Elliston's next project was to petition Parliament to perform musical pieces, with regular dialogue, for himself, and the other minor theatres. And on March 1, 1810, he addressed a letter to Mr. Perceval, to whom he stated, "that the license under which he acted, required that the dialogue should be attended throughout by an accompaniment of music, and that he meant to solicit leave to bring in a Bill to act operas." In this, of course, he failed.
[*] The continuation of the account of this Theatre, from the above period until it was opened by Mr. T. Dibdin, &c. will be found in an account of the Cobourg Theatre.
Title page of Vol. 2 reads: Theatrum illustrata. Graphic and historic memorials of ancient playhouses, modern theatres and other places of public amusement in the cities and suburbs of London & Westminster with scenic and incidental illustrations from the time of Shakspear to the present period.