CHAPTER 6 - THE ROYAL VICTORIA HALL— “THE OLD VIC”
[See plates 19 and 20.]
The history of “The Old Vic” during the last fifty years and of the
important part it has played in the development of the modern British
theatre has often been told. The building dates back to 1816 and is one of
the oldest theatre buildings in London, though it has been greatly altered
both externally and internally.
The original proprietors were Mr. Jones and Mr. Dunn who, having
failed to renew their lease of the Surrey Theatre, near St. George's Circus,
at a reasonable rent, (ref. 88) decided to build on their own account and obtained a
sub-lease of a piece of copyhold ground of the manor of Lambeth on the east
side of the newly laid out Waterloo Road. They secured the patronage of
Princess Charlotte, who had married the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, and through
her influence were granted a licence from the Surrey justices in 1816. The
theatre was named, in compliment to the princess, the Royal Coburg
The site was very swampy, “being immediately on the west side of
one of the large and ancient ditches made for the drainage of Lambeth
Marsh,” and stone from the old Savoy Palace, which was being pulled down
for the construction of the northern approach to Waterloo Bridge, (ref. 88) was used
to make a firm foundation. The Waterloo Bridge Company, which hoped to
gain custom from the patrons of the theatre, contributed to its cost. (ref. 88) The
theatre opened in May, 1818, with a melodrama “Trial by Battle” and a
pantomime, “Harlequin and Comus.” Edmund Kean, Junius Brutus Booth,
Sheridan Knowles Macready, Samuel Phelps, and Joseph Grimaldi, the
clown, were among the early performers and in 1834 Paganini gave his
farewell performance in England there.
The theatre was designed by Rudolph Cabanel. Brayley described
it in 1826 as “plain, though well built,” the auditorium consisting of “a
spacious pit, two tiers of boxes, and a remarkably large gallery.” The marine
or box saloon was designed and painted by John Thomas Serres, marine
painter, who had a share in the theatre. In 1822 a special feature in the form
of a looking-glass curtain was erected on the stage. It was 36 feet in height
and 32 feet in breadth, and consisted of 63 divisions of glass set in a massive
gilt frame (Plate 20). The weight of the curtain proved dangerous to the
roof and it had to be dismantled. Parts of the glass were used to decorate
the ceiling and the saloon. The house was originally lit by gas which was
manufactured on the premises. (ref. 88)
Princess Charlotte died in 1817, and in 1833 the theatre (ref. 48) was renamed
the Victoria in compliment to Princess Victoria.
After 1834 the standard of entertainments given at the theatre
declined, most of them consisting of the crudest melodramas, while much of
the income was provided by the sale of drinks. (ref. 89) John Hollingshead, who
later played a part in the regeneration of the theatre, has described how the
gallery audience would tie handkerchiefs together to form a rope which was
used to haul up large stone bottles of beer from the pit. Charles Kingsley,
in Alton Locke, published in 1850, wrote of “the beggary and rascality of
London … pouring in to their low amusement, from the neighbouring
gin-palaces and thieves' cellars.” (ref. 90)
The financial position of the theatre was precarious and it was put
up to auction in 1871 and again in 1874. In 1879 the Coffee Palace Association, urged on by John Hollingshead and Emma Cons, took over the theatre.
A fund was raised by public subscription and the title deeds were handed to
the Charity Commissioners. About £3,000 was spent on alterations and
re-decoration, which were designed by Elijah Hoole, and in 1880 the house
was opened as the Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall. (ref. 89) At first, lectures
and temperance meetings alternated with variety entertainments, but under
the guidance of Miss Cons and her niece, Lilian Baylis, the theatre became a
centre for opera and for Shakespearean and classical drama. During the last
50 years many actors and actresses of the front rank have established their
Extensive alterations were made to the building in the 1920's to
comply with the regulations of the London County Council. The theatre was
severely damaged by enemy action in 1941, but it has been re-conditioned,
and it re-opened its doors in November, 1950. The architect for the reconditioning was Douglas Rowntree.
Two important educational developments in connection with the
theatre must be mentioned. In the days of Emma Cons, evening classes for
boys of the neighbourhood were started in one of the disused dressing rooms.
Attendances rapidly increased and in 1889 the back of the theatre was
walled off and made into a college, named Morley College, in memory of
Samuel Morley, an early benefactor of the theatre. The college moved to a
site in Westminster Bridge Road in 1923. (ref. 89)
The second development is of more recent growth. In 1947 the
Joint Council of the National Theatre and the Governors of the Old Vic, in
association with the Arts Council, established the Old Vic Theatre School.
The school was opened by Ellen Wilkinson on the stage of the theatre on
24th January, 1947. (ref. 73)
The theatre is a plain building of brick construction with panel
treatment at the sides linked by blind arcading.
The front elevation to The Cut is partly stone faced and partly
rendered. It is of three storeys with the entrance projecting slightly forward.
Above the entrance, which has a canopy, the parapet is terminated each side
by stunted obelisks. The first floor windows have quasi-pediments supported
on consoles, while above the square second floor windows there is a cornice
without blocking course. Prior to alteration the cornice was surmounted by
a broken pediment and the side elevations had heightened parapets.
The interior of the theatre has been much changed since it was
opened. The gallery and balcony, which are supported on cast-iron columns,
have fronts which are bellied out and ornamented with detail. There is a
large enriched ceiling rose above the auditorium from which an elaborate
chandelier is suspended.
A feature of the recent restoration is the new fore-stage giving a
greater link between audience and actors; it is lower than the main stage,
and its erection with splayed flanks involved the destruction of boxes at