Survey of London: Volume 23, Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1951.
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CHAPTER 6 - THE ROYAL VICTORIA HALL— “THE OLD VIC”
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, (fn. 3) 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 Theatre.
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, (fn. 3) 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. (fn. 3) 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. (fn. 3)
Princess Charlotte died in 1817, and in 1833 the theatre (fn. 1) 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. (fn. 4) 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.” (fn. 5)
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. (fn. 4) 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 reputations there.
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. (fn. 4)
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. (fn. 2)
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 the sides.