Regency Bicentennial:   Opening Night at the Royal Coburg Theatre

Two hundred years ago, today, a new theatre opened in the Lambeth area of London. Though it is known as the "Old Vic" today, it was originally named after the beloved young Princess of Wales, who, along with her new husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, had laid the foundation stone two years earlier, the day construction began. Sadly, Princess Charlotte would not live to attend the first performance at her namesake theatre. Eventually, the theatre was renamed for a German duchess who would marry one of the royal dukes later in that same month of May. Unlike the patent theatres in Regency London, this new theatre was built south, rather than north, of the Thames River.

The founding of the Royal Coburg Theatre . . .

Until modern times, Lambeth was an area outside of the City of London, which is located south of the Thames River, in the crook where the river turns east after flowing north from the area of Vauxhall. The northern section of Lambeth was a soggy marshland which became swamped with even more water during heavy rain storms. In the eighteenth century, the land was drained, but it remained relatively rural, since there was no easy access from the more urban part of the metropolis north of the river. The closest crossings over the Thames were Westminster Bridge to the west and Blackfriars Bridge to the east, but both were at some distance from the north Lambeth area. That all changed in June of 1817, when the newWaterloo Bridge was opened. With that new crossing, Lambeth was suddenly much more accessible from the northern side of the river.

From 1814, Daniel Dunn and James King were the managers of the Surrey Theatre, which had originally opened as the Royal Circus, in 1782. This theatre was located in Bermondsey, in the Southwark area of London, west of Lambeth. In 1816, Dunn and King lost their lease on the Surrey Theatre when the rent was raised beyond their means. They decided to found their own theatre rather than try to take a lease on another theatre. One of their investors was John Thomas Serres, who had once been the Marine painter to King George III. Though he was a talented painter, Serres’ wife, Olivia, had badly damaged his career in the early years of the nineteenth century. Olivia Serres took it into her head that she was the illegitimate daughter of King George’s younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland. She repeatedly pressed her claim as publicly as she could, and demanded that people address her as "Princess Olive of Cumberland." His wife’s peculiar behavior cost Serres his position at Court and he was forced to seek other means of income. In addition to investing in the new theatre planned by Dunn and King, he was able to use his royal connections to obtain the formal patronage of the newlywed royal couple, Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, and their permission to name this new venture the Royal Coburg Theatre.

In 1816, the Waterloo Bridge was under construction, with a planned opening date in the late spring of the following year. Once it was open, the Covent Garden area and other London theatres would only be a short carriage ride from the area of north Lambeth. The Waterloo Bridge was to be a toll bridge and the Waterloo Bridge Company officials were well aware that they would need attractions in the Lambeth area in order to lure people living north of the river to travel over their new bridge. That was one of the reasons they were very willing to invest in the new theatre which was to be built in Lambeth. In addition, they also provided some of the construction materials. The Waterloo Company had pulled down the ruins of the old Savoy Palace, in the Strand, using the stone from the grand old building in the northern approach to their bridge. In 1816, they provided the surplus stone from the Savoy Palace for use in building the foundation of the new theatre.

Dunn and King were familiar with the work of the German architect, Rudolphe Cabanel, who had worked on several London theatres during the years he lived in the city. In particular, Cabanel had worked on the Surrey Theatre, in 1805. Dunn and King hired him to design their new theatre in Lambeth. The site selected for the new theatre was on the east side of the new Waterloo Road, which ran south from Waterloo Bridge, at the intersection of The Cut, a developing commercial street. It is believed that the modern rules for the sport of boxing were first set down on paper in a gymnasium on the second floor of a pub situated on The Cut. As the summer of 1816 came to a close, the building site had been found, the funding had been secured and the architectural plans were complete. It was time to begin construction of the new Royal Coburg Theatre. In September of 1816, Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the new building and together they laid the foundation stone for the theatre which would carry their name.

Unfortunately, Dunn and King had underestimated the cost of building a new theatre and their funds ran out early in 1817, at which time construction was halted. The two men diligently sought other sources of funding, or investors, but as the months passed, they gradually became discouraged. Finally, in October of 1817, Joseph Glossop, the son of a wealthy merchant, stepped forward to provide the additional funding needed to complete construction of the Royal Coburg Theatre, and building resumed. The final cost of construction came to about £12,000. Within a few months, Dunn and King dropped out of the project and Joseph Glossop took over management during the final stages of construction. When the new theatre was completed, Joseph Glossop also became the theatre manager during its early years.

The new Royal Coburg Theatre had a rather plain exterior, with a very simple classical facade. However, the building was sturdy and very well-built. In the interior, the auditorium consisted of a spacious pit area, filled with many backless benches; two tiers of boxes and what one visitor described as a "remarkably large gallery." When construction was completed, the Royal Coburg Theatre had seating for 3,800 people, though today, it can only accommodate less than half that number. The ceiling of the auditorium and the proscenium were decorated with richly burnished gold and silver ornaments which had been specially created by a Mr. Collet and his associates. Another important amenity of the new theatre was the "Grand Panoramic Marine Saloon" designed and painted by John Thomas Serres, who was also an early investor in the theatre. This ornate marine saloon was thought to be quite fashionable and stylish. Serres also designed and painted many of the new stage sets which would be used in the theatre, in company with several other prominent scene painters of the day. There was no doubt this new theatre would be unlike any of the other theatres that had been built in London in many years.

From the beginning, the Royal Coburg Theatre had been designed to be illuminated by gas, which was manufactured by a purpose-built gas plant located on the premises. The main portion of the auditorium was lit by "A Superb Central Lustre." This enormous central light fixture was surrounded by many smaller, but equally elegant lustres, which "will shed a beautiful and brilliant light over the whole house," according to the hand-bill that was issued to advertise the grand opening night at the Royal Coburg Theatre. The information which had been distributed about the newly-built theatre had certainly piqued the curiosity of many eager London theatre-goers. The auditorium was filled to capacity on that first night of performances.

Opening night at the brand new Royal Coburg Theatre took place on Monday evening, 11 May 1818. Even though the theatre had the patronage of members of the royal family, it was not an official patent theatre. Since it was not a patent theatre, the manager was forbidden from staging any serious dramas, such as the works of Shakespeare. Instead, as a minor theatre, it was restricted to offering melodramas, pantomimes, ballets and other lighter fare. Joseph Glossop, the manager, decided to offer three quite different styles of entertainment for that evening. On the program, he listed Trial by Battle, or Heaven Defend the Right a "Melodramatic Spectacle in One Act," in which the village beauty is abducted by a wicked baron, written by William Barrymore; to be followed by an Asiatic Ballet, Alzora and Nerine, or The Fairy Gift, an exotic fairy tale and finally, as was usual at that time, a comedic harliquinade, Midnight Revelry was to be the last entertainment of the evening.

The first entertainment on the program, the melodrama, was to begin at half past six o’clock. However, Mr. Glossop had not counted on the determination of one of the actors he had hired to play in the harliquinade that evening, a Mr. Norman. It seems that Mr. Norman, who regularly worked at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, was double-booked that night, and had a performance at the Opera House later that evening. Mr. Norman solved his problem by taking the stage just as the curtain rose and Mr. Munro, the lead actor in the melodrama, stepped out to give the opening address. Interrupting Munro, Norman addressed the audience, putting his case to them, and urging them to call for the harliquinade to be played first. Mr. Glossop soon came on to the stage to remove Norman and restore order, but found himself pelted with a barrage of orange peels and apple cores from the pit. In the end, he had to concede and the harliquinade would come first that night. Some new songs had been written for opening night, which were performed in between the other entertainments. The entire performance that first night ran to just over four hours. In the days that followed, the theatre, its amenities and the entertainments provided on opening night, were all highly praised in the press.

Despite the generally good reviews of opening night at the Royal Coburg Theatre, in one magazine, the Waterloo Bridge Company was taken to task because they had not provided street lighting along Waterloo Road as it ran through Lambeth to The Cut, where the new theatre was situated. Nor had they made any effort to light the footpath in that area. Most affluent theatre-goers would have taken their carriages to the theatre, which would have provided them some lighting for their journey. However, those on a budget may have skipped the costly tolls to cross Waterloo Bridge, since many are known to have traveled to the new theatre by water, taking a wherry over the Thames River. Those folks would have been most inconvenienced by the lack on lighting on Waterloo Road. Regardless of how they traveled over the river, many people were eager to attend performances at the new theatre, and it was regularly patronized for the remaining years of the Regency. The range of ticket prices ensured that even those with limited funds could afford a seat in the theatre. Tickets for the lower box seats cost four shillings, while the upper box seats were priced at three shillings. Seats on benches in the pit went for two shillings and seats in the gallery were one shilling each.

It should be noted that, in 1821, a remarkable curtain was installed across the stage of the Royal Coburg Theatre. This curtain was thirty-six feet high and thirty-two feet wide. It was made up of sixty-three sections of mirrored glass set in gilt frames. However, the weight of this remarkable curtain was over five tons and it was soon deemed to be so heavy that it might bring down the roof of the theatre. It was removed and dismantled within a few months. In the end, many of the mirrored glass sections were used to decorate other parts of the theatre. Though it was installed after the Regency was officially over, and remained in place for less than a year, this is one of the most well-known features of the Royal Coburg Theatre.

Sadly, in November of 1817, while the new theatre was still under construction, Princess Charlotte died in childbirth. She did not live to attend the glittering opening night at her namesake theatre. However, Prince Leopold remained a royal patron of the theatre for more than a decade. It is not clear whether or not he attended opening night. Since he would still have been in mourning for his wife and child, that seems highly unlikely. By 1830, Prince Leopold had left England and had become King of the Belgians. When the Royal Coburg Theatre was sold, in 1833, the new owners, Daniel Egerton and William Abbot, were able to gain the patronage of Leopold’s sister, Victoria, Duchess of Kent, who was, by then, the mother of the new heir to the British throne. In July, they then renamed their theatre the Royal Victoria Theatre. Records show that the Duchess of Kent and her daughter, Princess Victoria, attended a single performance at the re-named theatre later that year. It is reported that they enjoyed the performance and found the theatre "pretty … clean and comfortable." Though neither Victoria is known to have attended any other performances, the theatre remained the Victoria Theatre.

In time, this theatre became known by the affectionate nickname, "Old Vic," a name it retains to this day. The theatre was heavily remodeled in 1871, and was badly damaged by German air raids during World War II. Regardless of the changes made to the exterior and the interior, the basic structure is still the same building that originally opened in May of 1818 as the Royal Coburg Theatre. And, as it is one of the oldest theatres in London, this season’s program at the Old Vic is being celebrated as its bicentennial season.

Dear Regency Authors, might you send some of your characters to opening night at the Royal Coburg Theatre, if your story is set in early May of 1818? Will they travel by carriage over the new Waterloo Bridge, and have box seats, or will they cross the Thames River in a wherry, then walk to the theatre and take seats in the pit or the gallery? Or, will you wait and send them to a performance later in that season, or in the next? Then again, will you have one or more of your characters invest in the new Royal Coburg Theatre? How will they react when construction has to be halted in early 1817, due to lack of funds? Are there other ways in which the new Royal Coburg Theatre can play a part in an upcoming Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Opening Night at the Royal Coburg Theatre

  1. Although I have a fiction with a theatrical background planned for 1819, it is centred more around the opera dancers and their ilk but perhaps one of them is hoping to break into serious acting and sees the new theatre as a way to increase her repertoire, as it were

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      That makes sense to me. Even though the Royal Coburg was not a patent theatre, they did stage a lot of melodramas. They also staged a number of different types of entertainments, which would give your character a chance to get a wide array of experience and help them expand their skill set.

      Or, what if your character needs the extra money, and, like Mr. Norman, takes work at both Covent Garden and the Royal Coburg? With the Waterloo Bridge, the two were not that far apart, and, with two gigs in one night, it would be worth it to pay the small pedestrian toll to take the much shorter route between them.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • many thanks for that, I think that will work out well for the self-styled Esmeralda de Vere, who might go back to being Aggie Hitchins for a real acting role. She has had a cameo role before in the series and is going to get a bigger spot so I shall be glad to make her more rounded

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