Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Theatre and Shows - Theatres and Venues - Covent Garden Theatre

Covent Garden Theatre ... The concluding remark of the editor on Covent Garden Theatre [see below, ed.] has, he regrets to say, been completely verified; that magnificent establishment, one of the finest in the world, having been degraded to the level of a shilling concert room, and appropriated to the meetings of the Anti-Corn-Law League

Covent Garden Theatre ~ had its rise from a patent granted in 1662, to Sir William D'Avenant; whose company was styled the "Duke's Servants," in compliment to the Duke of York, afterwards James II. The old theatre, which was built about 1733, was first opened by Mr. Rich, the celebrated harlequin and introducer of regular pantomimes. Like that in Drury Lane, it underwent many alterations and enlargements; and like that, also, it was destroyed by fire, together with several adjoining houses, on the morning of the 28th of September, 1808. This great ornament of the metropolis was erected, from designs by Sir Robert Smirke, within ten months from the laying of the foundations, at an expense of 150,000l., exclusive of the scenery, wardrobe, and properties. Its principal front, in Bow Street, was designed from the Done temple of Minerva, in the Acropolis, at Athens; but its character is somewhat too solemn and massive for a theatre. In itself, the portico is magnificent; but its proportions cannot be seen to advantage, for want of space; above the windows, on each side, are basso-relievos, representing the ancient and the modern drama; and within the niches of the terminating projections, or wings, are statues of Tragedy and Comedy. There is much grandeur in the vestibule and principal staircase; and the interior of the house, capable of containing about 3,000 persons, from its general form, a long horse-shoe, and judicious arrangements, is excellently adapted for theatrical display. It is also most elegantly decorated, its prevailing colour being yellow, interspersed with gold; the rose, the thistle, and the shamrock forming some of its prominent ornaments. A magnificent cut-glass chandelier, illuminated by gas, depends from the centre of the roof. An alteration was made in the year 1820 in the scenic department of this theatre, by which the upper part of the proscenium can be raised fourteen feet by machinery, so as to allow the most distant spectator a complete view of the stage. This was done in anticipation of a drama, produced at that period, under the title of the "Gnome King;" the scenery of which was the most superb and brilliant, and the mechanism the most ingenious, that was ever exhibited in a theatre. Covent Garden Theatre has, like its neighbour in Drury-Lane, been doomed to experience a sad reverse; from its first erection, in 1809, till within these last ten years, it possessed a company of actors, all of distinguished talent in their several departments; and tragedy, comedy, opera, farce, and pantomime, were performed with equal excellence; in proof of this position, it is only necessary to refer to the names of Munden, Farren, Fawcett, Jones, Incledon, Cooke, Emery, Johnstone, Blanchard, Simmons, Penson, Liston, Keely, Power, Grimaldi, Charles Kemble (in himself a host), Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Davenport, and Miss Paton, the leading performers of a company, whose surpassing excellence was, nevertheless, by a concatenation of events, rendered altogether unproductive. The cause of this decline, for, though gradual at the first, it at last came rapidly on, may be traced to the following circumstances: - In the first place, the patent theatres, erected upon the faith of government, suffered from the withdrawal of its protection; and through the tacit permission of the law's infringement, these properties were assailed by the formation of theatrical establishments in various pants of the metropolis, some proximate, others remote, with an extension of licenses to various others of a different description. Secondly, an alteration in the habits of the people, by the adoption of late dinners; and lastly, the march of music which may literally be said to have carried the assault, by force of arms, to the utter destruction of the two national theatres, the complete triumph of sound over sense, and consequent increase of demoralization. 

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

COVENT GARDEN THEATRE* (*The first Drury-lane Theatre was frequently called Covent-garden Theatre). A theatre on the west side of Bow-street, Covent-garden, and the second theatre on the same spot. The first theatre was opened Dec.7th, 1732, by John Rich, the famous harlequin and patentee of the theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-fields, (d.1762). This was burnt down on the morning of the 20th of September, 1808, the organ left by Handel, and the valuable stock of wine of the Beef Steak Club, sharing the fate of the whole building. The first stone of the second theatre (the present) was laid by the Prince of Wales on the 31st of December, 1808, and the theatre was opened at "new prices" on the night of the 18th of September, 1809. The architect was Sir Robert Smirke, R.A., and the statues of Tragedy and Comedy, and the two bas-reliefs on the Bow-street front, are by Flaxman.
"The new Covent Garden Theatre opened 18th Sept. 1809, when a cry of 'Old Prices' (afterwards diminished to 'O.P.') burst out fro every part of the house. This continued and increased in violence till the 23rd, when rattles, drums, whistles, and cat-calls, having completely drowned the voices of the actors, Mr. Kemble, the stage-manager, came forward and said, that a committee of gentlemen had undertaken to examine the finances of the concern, and that till they were prepared with their report the theatre would continue closed. 'Name them!' was shouted from all sides. The names were declared. 'All share-holders!' bawled a wag from the gallery. In a few days, the theatre re-opened: the public paid no attention to the report of the referees, and the tumult was renewed for several weeks with even increased violence. The proprietors now sent in hired bruisers, to mill the refractory into subjection. This irritated most of their former friends, and amongst the rest the annotator, who accordingly wrote the  song of 'Heigh-ho, says Kemble,' which was caught up by the ballad-singers and sung under Mr.Kemble's house-windows in Great Russell-street. A dinner was given [Dec.14th], at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand, to celebrate the victory obtained by W.Clifford in his action against Brandon the box-keeper for wearing the letters O.P. in his hat. At this dinner Mr.Kemble attended, and the matters were compromised by allowing the advanced price (seven shillings) to the boxes." Note of the Messrs. Smith in Rejected Addresses, p.48
The new prices on the first night were Boxes, 7s., half-price 3s.6d.; Pit 4s., half-price, 2s.; the Lower and Upper Galleries the same as usual. The riot lasted sixty-seven nights, after which the Pit was reduced to 3s 6d. The expenses of Covent-garden Theatre are so very great that it has long been unlet for the purposes of the legitimate drama. M. Julien held his Promenade Concerts in it for some time, and in the years 1843-45, it was leased by the members of the Anti-Corn-Law League. Great alterations were made in the spring of 1847, under the direction of Mr. Albano, and on Tuesday, April 6th, 1847, it was publicly opened as an Italian Opera, but with such an extravagance of expenditure, that in 1848 there was a loss of 34,756l. and in 1849 of 25,455l. In one year (1848), the Vocal Department cost 33,349l.; The Ballet 8105l. and the Orchestra, 10,048l.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

COVENT GARDEN THEATRE, Bow Street, was first built in 1733, and opened by the celebrated harlequin Rich. In 1787 it was partly rebuilt; in 1792 again enlarged; and in 1808 destroyed by fire. In 1809 a new structure started up in "Covent Garden, the design by Smirke, and the general character appropriately classical. ·The managers of the new theatre were Messrs. Harris and John Philip Kemble.
    For upwards of thirty years Covent Garden was the home of the legitimate drama; it then passed under the sway of Mr. Charles Mathews and Madame Vestris. In 1847, when Grisi, Mario, Persiani, and Costa seceded from Her Majesty's in the Haymarket, Covent Garden was opened for Italian Opera, and the boards trodden by a Kemble and a Siddons became the scene of triumph of the "Queen of Song," of Tamburini, Mario, Tamberlik, and Bosio. Unfortunately, during the winter season of 1855-56, the noble old theatre was let to a Mr. Anderson, who closed a series of entertainments in "magic" by a bal masqué, on the 5th of March 1856. Towards morning an alarm of fire was raised by the semi-drunken crowds, and in a few hours the stately edifice was literally burnt to the ground.
    Mr. F. Gye, the lessee, immediately resolved to build another and still more capacious theatre. Mr. E.M. Barry's designs were adopted, and the works carried on with such vigour and skill, that, though capable of accommodating 3000 auditors, and one of the largest theatres in London, it was completed in six months, and opened on the 15th May 1858, with Meyerbeer's "Huguenots."
    Flaxman's figures of Tragedy and Comedy, and the bas-relievos on the Bow Street front, were rescued from the ruins of "old Covent Garden. The total length of the building is 240 ft.; width, 122 ft. ; height, 100 ft. The noble stage is 90 ft. square, and the proscenium 50 ft. high; the portico 82 ft. wide, and 84 ft. high. In the interior there are three tiers of boxes, and the decorations are very rich and fanciful. For the convenience of visitors to the theatre, a floral hall has been erected, combining an elegant promenade with a floricultural show.
Class of Performances: In the summer, Italian. opera and ballet divertissements; in the winter, English opera and operettas, under the management of Miss Louisa Pyne and Mr. W. Harrison.
Admission: Italian Opera prices-Private boxes, 21. 2s. to 6l. 6s.; pit-stalls, 1l. 1s.; pit, 8s. ; amphitheatre stalls, 5s.; amphitheatre, 2s. 6d. English Opera prices-Private boxes, 10s. 6d. to 4l. 4s. ; dress circle, 5s.; stalls, 7s.; upper boxes, 4s. ; amphitheatre stalls, 3s.; pit, 2s. 6d.; gallery, 1s.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865

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Covent Garden Theatre, Bow-street, Covent-garden.—one of the largest theatres in Europe, ranking next after San Carlo at Naples, the Scala at Milan, and the Pergola at Florence. The stage also, is on a very large scale, and fitted np with every convenience. It is intended primarily for Italian opera, but is now commonly used in the autumn for promenade concerts, and in the winter for pantomime, in which the spectacular element largely predominates. There are only two full tiers of boxes above the pit, which in some degree lessens the general effect, but which enables the boxes themselves to be constructed with much more headroom. When open for any other performance than Italian opera the greater portion of these two box tiers is converted into a lower and upper dress-circle, whilst the pit tier of boxes is thrown into the pit or promenade. During the Italian season full evening dress is de rigeur in every part of the theatre except the gallery and this rule is most stringently enforced. The main front is in Bow-street, where there is a covered entrance for carriages, and the façade of which is decorated with Flaxman's statues of Tragedy and Comedy rescued from the fire which destroyed the late building. Over the carriage-way is a large and handsome saloon, or foyer. NEAREST Railway Stations, Charing-cross (S.E. & Dist.) and Temple; Omnibus Routes, Strand, St. Martin's-lane, and Holborn.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Covent Garden Theatre

Covent Garden Theatre - photograph


Covent Garden Theatre, the headquarters of Italian Opera in this country, was built in 1858 by E. M. Barry, in Bow Street, on the site of two earlier theatres, both of which were destroyed by fire. It can accommodate 3,500 persons, and on the nights when the chief artists in the world are singing there are seldom any vacant seats to be seen. The lessee, Sir Augustus Harris, uses the theatre out of season for fancy dress balls, occasional public meetings, etc. The main entrance is beneath the handsome Corinthian colonnade. The glass house to the left is the Floral Hall, the wholesale foreign fruit market; and the stone building facing the theatre contains Bow Street police station and the chief Police Court in London. The road at right angles to Bow Street is Long Acre.