Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Theatre and Shows - Theatres - Holborn Theatre Royal 

    The Holborn Theatre Royal at 43 High Holborn is built on the site of the old Post Office, Stable Yard, and has the advantage of three distinct entrances - one from Holborn, one from Brownlow Street, and the other from Jockeys' Fields. The building forming the stables and coach-houses of the old mail carts were pulled down some five years ago. The site thus opened for building purposes offered an area of 15,000 feet, which for a period of upwards of three years remained vacant. The probable difficulties likely to arise from the claims of the adjoining tenants to the free enjoyment of light and air, taken in conjunction with the facilities afforded by the unsettled state of the law respecting this point, deterred many from venturing on any building speculation likely to bring upon them numerous expensive law-suits. Mr. Sefton Parry, however, selected the site as one suitable for the erection of a Theatre, and with the view to overcome the difficulties the building was sunk some ii feet in the ground. This arrangement afforded many facilities, as it rendered the entrance to the pit and boxes more convenient - inasmuch as the pit is reached by a passage on a level with Brownlow Street, where also is the gallery entrance, while the access to the boxes is but a little above the level of Holborn, the stage entrance being from the rear of Jockeys' Fields.
    Long before the walls of the building had attained the height of the enclosing wall, and before any opinion could be formed by the adjoining owners whether the structure would in any way interfere with the easement of light and air over the old stable-yard, injunctions poured forth on all sides for redress of probable or imaginary wrong about to be experienced by the parties enjoying the privilege of obtaining light and air from their neighbours' premises. These proceedings to an extent delayed the building. After considerable difficulties in law proceedings, terms were ultimately arrived at which restricted the building being carried up beyond a certain limit. These restrictions to a great extent precluded Mr. Parry carrying out his original intentions. The building is now of the following dimensions: From foot-lights to the back of pit, 70 feet; width of pit between walls, 52 feet; from foot-lights to back of stage, 67 feet; width of stage, 52 feet; proscenium, 26 feet by 23 feet; the height from floor of pit to ceiling, 35 feet.
    The internal arrangement of the Theatre consists in four rows of stalls, 3 feet 6 inches from back to back; pit seats, 2 feet io inches from back to back. It was originally intended that the first tier should be devoted to the dress circle, in the manner of the Haymarket Theatre. The idea was afterwards modified by Mr. Parry, and four boxes were formed on either side; the dress circle, consisting of six rows of seats 3 feet apart, facing the stage. The second tier has four slip boxes on either side, two rows of amphitheatre stalls, and at the back is a spacious gallery.
    There are no proscenium boxes as in ordinary Theatres, the space having been taken up by additional staircases; by this arrangement there is greater facility of exit in case of panic or from other causes.
    At the rear of the dress circle there is a convenient saloon for refreshments and a ladies' cloak room. In the pit there is also a refreshment saloon, and throughout the building are conveniences generally so deficiently provided in our Metropolitan Theatres. The building is in the usual horse-shoe form, but such has been carefully studied so as to enable the audience, from any part of the house, to command a full and uninterrupted view of the stage; from the back seat in the gallery the foot-lights and orchestra are visible. In this point the building is very successful.
    The ventilation has formed a matter of serious study. There are numerous openings left in the most convenient positions to avoid draughts, which admit the cold air, while the heated atmosphere is allowed to escape into the roof by perforations left in the ceiling, the area of which amounts to upwards of 300 superficial feet; from the roof the vitiated atmosphere escaped into the open air by louvre openings. Doubting the sufficiency of such an ample provision, a sun burner has been introduced, which is usually of itself considered sufficient for ventilating any public building. The gallery, generally the warmest and closest place in the house, has the advantage of a through draught, there being opening all round, as well as ventilators in the ceiling. Taking into consideration the ample accommodation between the seats, and the provisions made for ventilation, there is little doubt that the present Theatre will prove the most comfortable of our Metropolitan houses.
    ...  At half-past six, when the various approaches to the new Theatre were for the first time made accessible to the public, an enormous crowd was waiting to obtain admission. The gallery entrance, in Brown- low Street, was cornpletely besieged, and the elegant vestibule leading to the boxes, and which presents from the Holborn side the aspect of a tasteful con servatory, was early filled with a very anxious but extremely orderly crowd. It was very quickly intimated that no more money could be taken to any part of the house, and at the same time it became evident that had the Theatre been twice as capacious as the largest structure existing there would have been a very great number of persons who, desirous of being present on the first night, would have been unavoidably doomed to disappointment. Directly the fortunate possessors of places, which had been secured long beforehand, found themselves cornfortably seated a general buzz of admiration attested the delight of the spectators at the light and cheerful look of the house, and the completeness of the arrangements made for the perfect comfort of the occupants of the pit, the boxes, and the stalls. This feeling broke out into a stronger expression when the new act-drop, so charmingly painted by Mr. Charles S. James, gave the utmost effect to the picture framed by the proscenium. This act-drop, it should be stated, is a very pleasing composition of the Watteau school, and shows the highly-finished and chaste style of the artist in the most favourable point of view. There was a loud demand for Mr. Charles James, but he diffidently declined to respond.
    The performances commenced at seven o'clock with a new farce, by Mr. T. J. Williams, called Larkin's Love Letters which derived apparently from the same French original on which the recent Strand piece of Waiting for the Underground was founded, is full of verbal fun and absurd situations of broad practical humour. As soon as the curtain had fallen on the farce, there was a general desire to congratulate the Manager, and when Mr. Sefton Parry came forward in the midst of a storm of congratulations, he earnestly delivered the following brief address: 
    Ladies and Gentlemen,  I come to bid you welcome to my house. (Great cheering.) The welcome is warm, but I hope you will find the house cool, and, although I have endeavoured to make it roomy, I trust I shall never see any room in it. I have spared nothing to make it convenient and comfortable, and I honestly think I have succeeded indifferently well. (Applause.) If you feel a little closely packed in some parts now - if, in fact, you feel like figs in a box - it is not the fault of the box, it is the fault of the figs. (Cheers and laughter.)    Some cheerful friends of mine encouraged me with the remark that I had lodged my Theatre too far East. I replied that the people of London will go to a good entertainment wherever it is, and I mean to give the best. (Cries of Bravo.') With this resolve I addressed myself to the dramatist who really seems to wield a charmed pen and he gave me his cordial adhesion, and what was better, a new drama. The company contains the very best artists that I could procure, and I believe I have left no endeavours untried to win that public support on which my fortune now depends. (Acclamations.)
    Ladies and Gentlemen, - In this enterprise is embarked the savings of my Professional life, and I regard with gratified pride my ship, the only one that has been launched in London for upwards of a quarter of a century. Here I stand alone at the tiller, looking out for the breeze of public favour. I am engaged in a more perilous voyage than the Red, White, and Blue. That little wonder put to sea with - two men and a dog. I am alone in my venture. Will 7 you please to take me in tow? (Immense cheering.)
(Prompter's bell.) Eh! what, ho! it is the prompter! He is in a hurry to begin the drama. I told him I would allow no long waits between the acts, and he is trying the guillotine on the inventor. (Roars of laughter.)
I was about to add - (Prompter's bell). It is no use, he won't let me add more than this: I hereby declare and pronounce that on this, the 6th day of October 1866, and in the thirtieth year of the reign of Victoria the Good, there is opened for public - entertainment and recreation a new Theatre, to be called the Holborn Theatre Royal. God save the Queen!'
    Mr. Parry then retired, amidst renewed rounds of applause, and the band, which is a very efficient one, played the National Anthem, the whole audience immediately rising, and the effect of the Theatre at this moment being strikingly impressive.
At eight o'clock commenced the drama which had been written to inaugurate the new Theatre, and with that remarkable success which is no more than the well-earned result of that combination of inventive ingenuity, with a practical knowledge of the stage, possessed by very few who have written for it, Mr. Dion Boucicault's latest work, written in four acts, and entitled Flying Scud; or, A Four-Legged Fortune, was brought before a deeply-interested audience. Breaking entirely fresh ground, this admirable dramatist has here shown a remarkable power of turning the most difficult subject to a strikingly-effective account. The Turf' has never been so characteristically illustrated on the stage as in this piece, and the strong dramatic interest which prefaces it will not fail to secure the sympathies of the lovers of English sport, and, at the same time, highly gratify those who care nothing for the incidents which excite the attention of the Sporting World.' We are hurried on through this justly-named racing' drama without the least slackening of the reins of imagination, and the scenes pass so rapidly that it seems the shortest interval of time between our first start with the characters and our arrival at the place where we leave the owner of Flying Scud' to tell anew the strange and exciting story of his career.
    The plot of this drama is so full of incident, and the action so rapid that it is quite impossible to detail the story in all its parts.
    Thus brilliantly has been inaugurated the first season of the new Theatre Royal, Holborn; and when the Snow Hill viaduct is finished and the Thames embankment completed, both being events which will have a direct influence on the increased traffic through the thoroughfare in which this Theatre stands, we may have to repeatedly refer to this establishment, not merely as being one of the best situated Theatres in the Metropolis, but also as one of the most decidedly prosperous.

The Era 7th October 1866

    At a few minutes to five o'clock a tenant of one of the houses situated in Brownlow Street, a thoroughfare in which the pit entrance was situated, was looking out of his back-room window when he saw smoke issuing from the windows of some of the dressing-rooms of the Theatre. On perceiving this he immediately gave the alarm, and within a very few minutes several steam engines arrived upon the scene. It was some time, however, before the firemen could gain an entrance to the Theatre, owing to the fact that they had to break open the doors of the box entrance in Holborn. By the time this was effected no fewer than twelve steamers were in full working order, and as there was a plentiful supply of water the whole almost simultaneously began to play upon the flames, which by this time were raging in every part of the Theatre. The fire, owing to the extremely inflammable nature of the materials with which the building was erected, took such a firm hold that it was evident from the first that the utmost efforts of  the fire brigade would be unavailing except to save the surrounding premises in this densely-populated neighbourhood. 
    After the fire had been raging for about twenty minutes the roof fell in with a tremendous crash, carrying in its descent portions of the gallery and upper boxes. This had the effect of setting the pit on fire, notwithstanding that it was almost submerged in water. The fire, although extremely fierce, was not of long duration, as may be gathered from the fact that from the first outbreak till it was virtually over it did not occupy more than three hours. Mr. Clarence Holt, who was on the scene, stated that he thought the fire commenced on the stage near the green-room. This supposition would appear to be borne out by the fact that it was from that part of the building the smoke and flames were first seen to issue. From thence it quickly caught the property-room and stage, which were in an incredibly short space of time destroyed, together with a large amount of machinery under the stage. As may be supposed, there were immense crowds of persons to witness the progress of the fire, but these were kept well back by a large body of police of the E Division, under Inspectors Clifford and Pinnock. Captain Shaw was at an early hour on the scene, and with his usual skill and energy directed the operations of the firemen, through whose exertions no property in the immediate neighbourhood of the Theatre was materially injured. 
    Up till eleven o'clock at night the firemen were still engaged in playing upon the ruins. The damage is estimated to amount to over 25,000.
    No cause can be assigned for the fire. After the curtain fell on the previous night the Theatre was left in the custody of a watchman, and all then appeared safe. The place, however, strange to say, was left unprotected during the day, thus rendering the appliances about the building useless in case of a disaster. The building is the property of Mr. James Gordon, who, we understand, is fully insured, but Mr. Wilmot, the Lessee, was uninsured, and is a sufferer to the extent, we believe, of about 2,000.

The Era, 11 July, 1880

EDITOR'S NOTES:

Also known as the Theatre Royal Holborn, and the Holborn Theatre Royal. Later the Mirror Theatre in 1875 and then the Duke's Theatre in 1880, but destroyed by fire in that year. [see Lost Theatres of London by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson for more information]