Covent Garden Theatre and the Royal Opera House: Management

Survey of London: Volume 35, the theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.

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'Covent Garden Theatre and the Royal Opera House: Management', Survey of London: Volume 35, the theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, (London, 1970), pp. 71-85. British History Online [accessed 12 June 2024].

. "Covent Garden Theatre and the Royal Opera House: Management", in Survey of London: Volume 35, the theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, (London, 1970) 71-85. British History Online, accessed June 12, 2024,

. "Covent Garden Theatre and the Royal Opera House: Management", Survey of London: Volume 35, the theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, (London, 1970). 71-85. British History Online. Web. 12 June 2024,

In this section


Covent Garden Theatre and the Royal Opera House: the Management

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, stands upon the site of the theatre erected by John Rich in 1731–2. It is the third theatre to occupy this site, both its predecessors having been destroyed by fire. The first, designed by Edward Shepherd, was burnt in 1808, and the second, designed by (Sir) Robert Smirke, was destroyed in 1856. After this second fire the present building was erected in 1857–8; E. M. Barry was the architect. After nearly two and a half centuries of theatrical usage 'Covent Garden' has earned many claims to fame—as a theatre still acting under the authority of letters patent granted by Charles II, as the scene of the triumphs of many great actors and musicians, and in recent years as the home of both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. Many of these distinctions have been fully described elsewhere, (fn. 1) and the following account has therefore been written from the managerial and architectural viewpoints; it only refers incidentally to the performers and performances which would form an important theme of a comprehensive study of the theatre.

On 16 March 1730/1 Wriothesley, third Duke of Bedford, granted to John Rich, esquire, four separate ground leases of land and buildings at the north-east corner of Covent Garden Piazza (Plate 39). Rich, described as of Southampton Street, Bloomsbury, had managed the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields since 1714, (fn. 13) and after his recent success there he evidently wished to build a larger theatre.

Before the grant was made Rich had had to purchase the interests of three existing leaseholders, but he already held the ground lease of the fourth piece of ground himself, by direct grant from the Duke in 1726. The four leases, (fn. 14) all for sixty-one years from Lady Day 1731, were for the ground shown on fig. 9. There was to be a peppercorn rent for the first year, and thereafter rents of £100, £80, £40 and £30, making a total of £250 per annum. The site had hitherto been occupied by several houses and their ancillary stables and coach houses, most of which Rich covenanted to rebuild. His portico houses at the north-east corner of the Piazza were, however, not to be rebuilt, but to be maintained 'in the like good order, symetry, proportion, forme, plight and condition or better' than they then were. On the principal plot, measuring 120 feet from north to south and 100 feet from east to west, he covenanted to erect 'a new Grand Theatre', with access by three passages some 9 or 10 feet wide—one from the portico walk on the south, another from Hart Street to the north and the third from Bow Street to the east.

News of Rich's plans was first published on 12 January 1730/1, when The Daily Courant stated that 'We hear the Subscription for building a new Theatre in Bow-street, Covent-Garden, for Mr. Rich, amounts to upward of 6000l, and that the same will be very speedily begun by that ingenious Architect James Sheppard [sic], Esq.'. (fn. 15) In fact no money had yet been paid to Rich, and other equally inaccurate accounts continued to appear in the press during the next few weeks. (fn. 16) Demolition of the existing buildings on the site of the new theatre was, however, in progress in February 1730/1, (fn. 17) and in April the foundations were being dug. (fn. 18) By June, when the building contract was signed, a large part of the new brickwork had been completed. (fn. 19)

Fig. 9. Site plan in c. 1774. Based on a plan of c. 1760 in the Greater London Record Office, and on the plan in Dumont's Parallele de Plans des Plus Belles Salles, c. 1774. Heavy lines show Rich's property

The articles of agreement which John Rich signed with Edward Shepherd of St. George, Hanover Square, architect, on 3 June 1731 provided that Shepherd should complete the building of the theatre 'according to the Dimensions in the Plan or Sections thereunto annexed' by Michaelmas 1732 at a cost of £5,600. Shepherd was to be paid in five instalments of one thousand pounds, which would be due to him when his work reached certain specified stages, and the final six hundred pounds were to be paid on the completion of the building or by 21 December 1732. All disputes were to be referred to Mr. Henry Joynes of Kensington and Mr. Roger Morris of St. George, Hanover Square, both architects, for settlement. (fn. 19) (fn. 2)

In order to safeguard Shepherd's interests a second agreement was signed on the same day, 3 June 1731, between Rich, Shepherd and Benjamin Hoare, esquire, the banker, and Christopher Cock of St. Paul, Covent Garden, gentleman. By this deed Rich assigned his lease of the site of the theatre (but not his three other leases of the surrounding property) to Hoare and Cock upon trust. (fn. 19) Rich intended to finance the whole venture by the sale of fifty shares, each of £300, making a total capital of £15,000. (fn. 22) The money so raised was to be paid into a special account at Hoare's Bank, Hoare and Cock were to issue share certificates to the subscribers, and the money in the account was to be used to pay Shepherd for building the theatre. Rich was to retain the residue, which (if all the shares were sold for £300 each and the contract price of £5,600 for the building were not exceeded) would amount to £9,400. (fn. 19)

Within a few weeks of the signature of the two agreements Rich was complaining to Shepherd about bad workmanship and, on 4 September 1731, that 'the workmen were left to themselves not knowing what to do next, but rather than be idle, thought they must do something and so went upon their owne heads'. Shepherd ignored these complaints, and Rich attempted to arrange a meeting with Joynes and Morris 'before things were gone to too great a length to be remedyed'. But Morris was absent abroad, and although the roof of the theatre was covered in on 18 December, whereby payment of no less than £4,000 was due, (fn. 23) Shepherd had still not received any money at all.

Rich did not open the subscription list for shares in the theatre (at any rate publicly) until 11 December 1731. The manuscript 'Proposals by John Rich Esq.', which bear this date, recite that Rich had obtained a sixty-one-year lease of a site in Covent Garden and that Shepherd had contracted with Rich to build a new theatre there by Michaelmas 1732. 'Now Mr Rich Proposes to divide the Premisses into fifty parts or Shares', and to sell the shares for £300 each to such subscribers as 'do upon the Signing this Proposal pay into the hands of Mr Hoare Banker in Fleet Street one hundred pounds and on Lady Day [25 March] 1732 the farther sume of one hundred pounds, and when the new Theatre Shall be finished the further sume of one hundred pounds.'

Hoare and Cock were (as mentioned above) to pay Shepherd from this fund, 'and the Residue (if any) to be paid to Mr. Rich'. Upon receipt of the last instalment of each share Hoare, Cock and Rich were to assign one fiftieth part of the premises to each subscriber, who was then to lease it back for the remainder of the sixty-one-year term less one month to Rich, who would of course be the manager of the theatre. Each subscriber was to receive a rent from Rich of two shillings 'for every night that Publick Acting shall be performed in the said new Theatre', and the right of free entry for himself or his nominee 'to see Plays in the new Theatre (without paying anything for the same) in any part of ye House Excepting behind the Scenes'. Rich also covenanted to pay the ground rent to the Duke of Bedford. (fn. 22)

There was to be no provision for redemption of the subscribers' capital at the end of the sixty-oneyear lease, but in an average season of 170 acting nights (fn. 24) each shareholder would receive a rent of £17 (2s. x 170), which would correspond to an annual dividend of 52/3% on an investment of £300, plus the right of free entry every night. In the event the subscription proved so popular that shares were frequently bought and sold at a premium (on one occasion for as much as £345), and even as late as 1774, when more than two thirds of the leasehold term had already elapsed, a share was sold at par for £300. (fn. 25)

The 'Proposals by John Rich Esq.' were signed by thirty-eight individuals, who between them contracted for forty-seven shares. (fn. 22) The first subscriber's payment into Hoare's Bank was made a month later, on 10 January 1731/2, and on 28 January the sum of £600, which had by that time been deposited, was paid to Edward Shepherd. Thereafter money continued to come in slowly until 4 October 1733, when the account was closed. By then £6,700 had been received. (fn. 26)

This sum of £6,700 represented the sale of only twenty-two shares at £300 each, plus £100 in part payment for a twenty-third share. (fn. 19) Previous writers (fn. 27) have concluded that 'the subscribers barely paid in enough to satisfy the amount of the building contract' for £5,600 with Shepherd and that Rich's intention to raise £15,000 by the sale of fifty shares ended as no more than 'the ruins of a lovely dream'. But in fact all the shares were sold, for a list of the names of the fifty shareholders in 1744 exists in the British Museum. (fn. 28) By this time many of the original purchasers had sold their shares, often at a profit, but this list shows that Rich did raise his £15,000, many of the later payments being probably deposited in Rich's own bank, instead of in Hoare's, which was only used because Shepherd normally banked there, whereas Rich did not.

As stated above, Rich's proposals of 11 December 1731 were signed by thirty-eight individuals, who between them contracted to buy forty-seven shares. Seventeen of these signatories were subsequently credited with deposits of £300 each at Hoare's Bank and on 1 March 1732/3 fifteen of them (or their heirs) each received an assignment of a share of one fiftieth, (fn. 3) although in some cases the payments to Hoare's were not completed until after this date. On the same day Walter Greenwood (a signatory) also received an assignment although only credited with a deposit of £200, and two other assignments were issued to Richard Powell and Edward Wilson, who had not signed, but who are nevertheless credited with £100 each (after 1 March 1732/3) in Hoare's Bank. It is therefore clear that by this date (when the theatre had been open for some four months and some idea of its likely profitability could be formed) the buying and selling of shares had already begun. The names of the persons to whom shares were assigned are listed in the table on pages 109–11.

So far eighteen assignments, representing payments to Hoare's Bank of £4,900, have been accounted for. Seven other signatories were credited with deposits at Hoare's varying from £100 to £400 and totalling £1,500, but as they received no assignment they presumably sold their shares, in most cases only partly paid for; while two other people who did not sign the proposals were nevertheless credited with £200 and £100 each in Hoare's (thus bringing the total payments up to £6,700), evidently after buying a partly paid share from one of the original signatories.

Between 1 May 1733 and 26 September 1734 another twenty-eight assignments were issued, nineteen of them to signatories. In January 1737/8 one more assignment was made, to a nonsignatory, thus bringing the total number of assignments up to forty-seven. (fn. 4) None of the recipients of the twenty-nine assignments issued on or after 1 May 1733 were credited with any deposit at all at Hoare's Bank. As they clearly did not receive their shares free of charge the only possible inference is that they paid direct to Rich —and, indeed, there is clear evidence that this was the case, for when Christian Frederick Zincke, a signatory who had received his assignment on 21 September 1733, decided in 1738 to sell his share the deed by which he did so specifically states that he had bought the share in 1733 by paying £300 to Rich and only a nominal sum of five shillings to Hoare and Cock. (fn. 30) The assignment of 1 May 1734 to Thomas Holt also states the same thing.

Under the terms of the proposals it had been intended that all the money paid by the subscribers should be deposited at Hoare's Bank. The reason why this was not done is clear. As promoter of the whole scheme, it was Rich's business to find buyers for the shares, and it was therefore to him, not to Hoare's, that some at least of the subscribers made their payments. (fn. 31) At first Rich passed this money on to the account at Hoare's, with the names of each individual subscriber, and Hoare and Cock at once started to pay Shepherd. But when he became involved in disputes with Shepherd about the cost of the building Rich evidently foresaw that if he continued to pay the whole capital of £15,000 into Hoare's Bank, as envisaged in the proposals, he might, pending settlement of the disputes, be unable to draw out 'the residue' to which, after payment of Shepherd, the proposals entitled him. He therefore began to withhold some of his receipts.

It has already been stated that the last payment into Hoare's was made on 4 October 1733 and brought the total payments into the account up to £6,700. But by this time thirty-one assignments, representing £9,300 (31 x 300), had been issued (see the table on pages 109–11), and it is therefore clear that Rich had withheld the difference for his own use. By May 1733 Shepherd had been paid £4,100 out of the Hoare's account towards the contract price of £5,600, and after the last payment into the account in October there remained a balance of £2,600 (£6,700 less £4,100), which would be ample to pay for the disputed balance due to him. And so indeed it proved, for on 7 November 1734 Shepherd's bills were settled by a final payment out of the Hoare's account of £1,550, bringing his total receipts up to £5,650, only £50 more than the original contract figure. The balance of £1,050 (£6,700 less £5,650) which remained in the account was paid out during the same month in small amounts to various creditors of Rich's; Rich himself received £200, and the account was closed on 25 November 1734.

By this time the theatre had been in use for nearly two years, the first performance (Congreve's The Way of the World) having taken place on 7 December 1732. During this period Shepherd's account remained unsettled. At a meeting held on 8 November 1732 between Rich, Shepherd, Morris and Joynes to settle the disputes, the two arbitrators had agreed (according to Rich) that much of the brickwork was bad and should be taken down, but they had been unable to reach a settlement. At last, in March 1733/4, Rich filed a bill of complaint in Chancery in which he recited numerous building deficiencies and charged Shepherd with having deviated from the terms of the contract. Shepherd rebutted these accusations and claimed that Rich, besides owing him £1,500 under the articles of agreement, also owed him some £575 in interest due for default of payment and for extra works not included in the contract. (fn. 19) In May 1734 he filed a counter bill of complaint against Rich, (fn. 32) but the dispute was evidently settled out of Court with the final payment of £1,550 in November. (fn. 26)

Rich remained the manager of Covent Garden Theatre until his death in 1761. The seating capacity of the theatre was around 1,400 persons, which yielded an average nightly receipt of about £80. (fn. 33) Despite the large capital gain which he had made by the sale of the fifty subscribers' shares, the rents which he received from his leasehold premises adjoining the theatre (including the Shakespeare's Head Tavern and the Bedford Coffee House), and from the wine vaults under the theatre (fn. 34) he was obliged in 1742 to mortgage his interest in the Killigrew and Davenant patents for £8,000. (fn. 28) In the following year he also mortgaged his 2/36 share of Drury Lane Theatre, his 7/36 share of the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, and all his property in Covent Garden except the theatre; (fn. 35) and in January 1744/5 he had to provide additional security for the mortgage on the patents (on which he had paid no interest) by mortgaging even the theatre and its wardrobe. (fn. 28) These mortgages may reflect his expenses incurred in the enlargement of the theatre northward to Hart Street over ground already in his leasehold tenure. A deed of 1760 refers to the wine vaults 'under the north end of the new Building erected at the north end of the said Theatre in Hart Street', (fn. 36) and the extension is shown on the plan reproduced on Plate 39. The date of the enlargement is not known; it was probably after 1740 and certainly before 1760.

John Rich died on 26 November 1761, leaving a widow, Priscilla, and five daughters (one illegitimate). By his will he authorized his wife to sell all his interests in both the letters patent and the theatre, and to divide the proceeds of the sale (subject to a few small legacies) equally between herself and his four legitimate daughters. Until the sale took place the theatre was to be managed jointly by his widow and one of his sons-in-law, John Beard, an actor and singer who had performed at both Drury Lane and with Rich at Covent Garden. (fn. 37) For the next six years Beard was the effective manager. In February 1763, during performances of Thomas Arne's opera Artaxerxes, a claim to the right to enter the theatre at half price after the third act was enforced by the disorderly tumults shown in the engraving reproduced on Plate 41c, one of the earliest representations of the interior of the theatre.

In December 1765 Priscilla Rich obtained from the fourth Duke of Bedford an extension of the lease of the theatre from 1792 to 1801, (fn. 38) and in 1767 she and her four daughters sold the two letters patent and the theatre to Thomas Harris, John Rutherford, William Powell and George Colman for £60,000. (fn. 39) Harris, who may possibly be identified with, or related to Thomas Harris, soapmaker, of High Holborn, (fn. 40) seems to have been the originator of this partnership. Neither he nor Rutherford, a merchant (probably of wine) of Newman Street, St. Marylebone, (fn. 41) to whom he first turned, had any experience of the theatre, and in March 1767 they therefore invited Powell, a successful young actor at Drury Lane, to join them. Powell consented, but after signing a partnership agreement he requested that George Colman, the dramatist, should be admitted to a share in the purchase. Harris and Rutherford first refused, but they agreed when Powell threatened not to proceed with the treaty. Colman at once proposed that he should have a monopoly of the running of the theatre, and at a meeting with Harris and Rutherford at a coffee-house in Dean Street he suggested that Powell's 'vanity, Folly, Expensiveness and other Pernicious qualities' required Powell's exclusion from any share in the management. After much debate it was finally agreed, by articles signed on 14 May, that Colman, with the assistance of Powell where required, should direct the productions and all things 'comprehended in the dramatic and theatrical province', Powell should act, and Harris and Rutherford should control the finances of the concern and have the right to veto Colman's plans. By this time Harris had placed a deposit of £10,000 in the hands of the vendors, and the purchase was completed on 1 July 1767. (fn. 42)

The articles of agreement signed on 14 May 1767 gave rise to the much publicized disputes between Harris and Rutherford on the one hand, and Colman, supported by Powell, on the other. Harris and Rutherford claimed the right to be associated in the management of the theatre with Colman, who sought to exclude them from 'the dramatic and theatrical province'. During the autumn of 1767 regular weekly meetings of the four proprietors were held at the theatre on Thursdays, but by December these conferences had been discontinued after 'some high Disputes'. In January 1768 Harris and Rutherford published A Narrative of the Rise and Progress of the Disputes Subsisting between the Patentees of Covent Garden Theatre, the first of a score of mutually abusive pamphlets published during the course of this year. In the summer there were unseemly incidents outside the stage door after the carpenter had on Colman's orders 'barricadoed the Doors and Windows . . . by fixing Timbers against them'. Posses of angry men menaced each other across the threshold, but even the intervention (at Harris's instigation) of Justice Spinnage, who 'declared he would order the Doors to be broke upon', failed to produce more than a temporary truce, and Colman, embattled within, retained effective possession of the theatre. (fn. 43)

In September 1768 Rutherford, evidently weary of the whole affair, sold two-thirds of his quarter share to Henry Dagge of the Inner Temple, esquire, and the remaining one third to James Leake of the Strand, stationer, for £18,500. (fn. 44) In the fourteen months since his purchase of his quarter share from the Rich family in July 1767 for £15,000 Rutherford had therefore made a capital profit of £3,500—a fact which much weakened Harris's case when in February 1769 he filed a bill of complaint in Chancery against Colman (and Powell). (fn. 45) Colman could hardly be convincingly accused of incompetent management of the theatre, and on 20 July 1770 the Court refused to set aside the articles of 14 May 1767 or to award Harris damages. (fn. 46)

Meanwhile Powell had died suddenly at Bristol in July 1769, and for the next five years Colman remained in effective command of the theatre. He appears to have become reconciled with Harris, but ill health and the death of his wife gradually impaired his vitality, (fn. 47) and on 1 July 1774 he sold his quarter share to James Leake, for £20,000. (fn. 48) He had thus made a capital profit of £5,000 on his original outlay, and had earned for himself the distinction of presenting, on 15 March 1773, the first performance of Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

The management of the theatre now passed to Harris, who retained it, at first absolutely and later in partnership with J. P. Kemble, until his partial retirement in 1809. He began his long reign by commissioning Sheridan to write a play, (fn. 49) and the first performance of The Rivals was given on 17 January 1775. He continued to work in close friendship with Sheridan, who had purchased part of Garrick's moiety of Drury Lane in 1776. Together they planned to establish a third theatre in London, and in 1778 they bought the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, from which, however, they both quickly withdrew, Harris after the first season and Sheridan in 1781. (fn. 50) Meanwhile Harris was consolidating his holding in Covent Garden, and by the complex transactions which have been described on page 5 he had by 1785 acquired 46/60 of both the leasehold of the theatre and the two patents, plus a twenty-one-year lease (jointly with Sheridan) of the remaining 14/60 of the patents. The financial resources required for these purchases were provided partly by a long series of intricate mortgages in many of which Harris's brother-in-law, Thomas Longman of Paternoster Row, bookseller, was involved, (fn. 51) and partly by the sale, for £250 each, of shares which earned for the purchaser a rent of two shillings for each performance and the right of free entry during the remainder of the existing lease. (fn. 52)

With possession of a majority holding in the theatre Harris began in 1782 to improve the auditorium, which had hitherto apparently 'not undergone any material alteration, except in the decorations'. In that year it was 'judiciously widened under the direction of Mr. Richards, (fn. 5) who was confined to the present walls, and therefore could not extend it as he wished' (see Plate 42, fig. 10). (fn. 53) In January 1785 Harris opened negotiations with the fifth Duke of Bedford for the extension of the lease, due to expire in 1801, but although terms for a prolongation to 1846 were agreed the matter was eventually dropped, perhaps owing to the objections raised by the minority shareholders. (fn. 54)

By about 1790, however, a complete renovation had become essential for the preservation of the theatre's competitive position against that of its rivals. The King's Theatre in the Haymarket was rebuilt in 1790–1 after its destruction by fire, and Sheridan had been working for the rebuilding of Drury Lane since at least 1789. (fn. 55) In April 1792 Harris therefore signed an agreement with the fifth Duke of Bedford for the extension of the lease of the theatre from 1801 to 1895. Harris covenanted to spend £15,000 on improvements and enlargements, while the Duke agreed to advance the whole of this sum to Harris at once at 4% interest, in exchange for a very large increase of rent to £940 per annum. Harris was also to pay the Duke a fine of £5,948. (fn. 56)

During the summer of 1792 the theatre was very considerably altered, to designs by Henry Holland (see page 91). The auditorium was entirely rebuilt and the principal entrance transferred from the Piazza to Bow Street, where a portico was erected over the pavement and the old passage to the theatre greatly enlarged (Plates 46, 47, 48, fig. 11). The total expenditure is said to have been about £30,000. (fn. 57)

When the theatre re-opened on 17 September 1792 the price of tickets was considerably increased, and the charge for admission to the gallery was raised from one shilling to two. (fn. 58) This raised a tremendous hubbub which continued until the end of the second act, when a member of the company 'assured the audience, that as it seemed to be their wish that a second Gallery, at the usual price, should be continued, the Manager had given directions to build one with the utmost expedition'. (fn. 59) Makeshift alterations were carried out within a few days, (fn. 60) and in the summer of 1793 permanent arrangements were made. (fn. 61) By this time the Duke of Bedford had granted the new lease (expiring in 1895) to Harris, (fn. 62) who had sold his 46/60 of the Killigrew patent to the trustees of Drury Lane for £11,667 (see page 6). With the help of this windfall further alterations, notably to the ceiling, were made in the summer of 1794. (fn. 63) A clause in the Duke's lease of 1793 reserved a box in the theatre for his own private use.

In 1803 Harris, who had by this time been associated with Covent Garden for some thirtysix years, sold for £22,000 a one-sixth share of the theatre and the Davenant patent to John Philip Kemble, the actor. (fn. 64) Kemble had performed for many years at Drury Lane, and he now took a share in the management of Covent Garden, at a salary of £200 per annum plus a fee of £37 16s. for three appearances a week as an actor. (fn. 65) He celebrated his arrival by making, in the summer of 1803, a number of alterations to the interior of the theatre (fn. 6) (see page 93).

Despite Kemble's assumption of the management the old disputes between Harris and George White (the owner of a small share in the Davenant patent through his father-in-law, William Powell, see page 5) broke out again in an acrimonious correspondence which Harris published in 1804. White accused Harris of financial mismanagement, to which Harris justifiably replied that he had trebled the value of the property, and that White had 'regularly witheld, or refused your consent to every measure that has been, from time to time, proposed'. (fn. 67)

In 1806, however, a degree of harmony was restored when Harris sold back to Powell's descendants 1/60 of the patent which he had acquired in 1781, and a one-eighth share in his lease of 1793 from the Duke of Bedford. They in turn agreed to pay their proportion of the very high rent, (fn. 68) and all the proprietors (Thomas Harris, his son Henry, J. P. Kemble, and Powell's descendants George White and Ann Martindale) then agreed that certain liabilities incurred by Harris alone in 1802–3 should be charged proportionately on all their shares. (fn. 69)

This unusual harmony proved short-lived, for on the morning of 20 September 1808 the theatre was completely destroyed by fire. The performance of Pizarro on the previous evening had required the firing of a gun, and it was supposed that the wadding from the gun had lodged in the scenery. The fire was discovered at about four a.m., and within three hours the whole building and several adjacent houses in Bow Street were in smoking ruins. Twenty-three people were killed, most of them by the collapse of the burning roof, and amongst the material losses were Handel's organ and the manuscripts of a number of his compositions. (fn. 70)

Sir Robert Smirke's Theatre of 1809

Nine days after the fire Harris and Kemble called upon the sixth Duke of Bedford's auditor to discuss the rebuilding of the theatre. They had already decided to raise £50,000 by the sale of one hundred shares at £500 each. Each shareholder was to have the right of free admission to all performances and was to receive an annual dividend of £25 for the remaining eighty-seven years of the lease then in being; thus, in theory, he would receive £2,175 (87 x £25), but at the expiry of the lease there would be no repayment of the capital.

Harris and Kemble had also selected their architect for the new theatre, (Sir) Robert Smirke, then aged only twenty-six, and had decided, with the Duke of Bedford's co-operation, to enlarge the site of the theatre by taking in all the adjacent houses on the west side of Bow Street and south side of Hart Street. Several of these houses had been leased for long terms to Harris as recently as 1806, and they and others had subsequently been destroyed in the fire. The Duke evidently proved willing to assist, and the whole of the east side of the new theatre therefore fronted on to Bow Street. (fn. 71)

The subscription list for the new shares was filled up by early November (fn. 72) —£76,000 was raised, by the sale of 152 shares (fn. 73) —and the foundation stone of the new theatre was laid by the Prince of Wales on 31 December 1808. (fn. 74) The principal contractor was Alexander Copland, who performed all the bricklayer's and slater's work and some of the carpenter's and mason's; his account was for £127,601. (fn. 7) Smirke's fees amounted to £8,924. (fn. 75)

In September 1809, when the theatre was ready to be re-opened, the proprietors announced that as they had spent some £150,000 in the rebuilding, an increase in the prices of admission would be necessary. This gave rise to the famous 'O.P.' (Old Price) riots, which began on the opening night, 18 September, and continued without intermission for nearly three months. At every performance a continuous organized hubbub was maintained which completely drowned the actors' voices. A committee which included the Solicitor General, the Recorder of the City of London and the Governor of the Bank of England was appointed to investigate the accusation that the proprietors had made excessive profits. It reported that since 1803 the proprietors' average annual profit had been 63/8% on their capital, but if this whole capital had been insured the profit would have been only 5%. For want of full insurance coverage the proprietors had sustained a very heavy loss for which no compensation was payable. With the increased admission prices and the same degree of insurance protection as previously their profit was unlikely to exceed 3½% per annum, but with the old admission prices they would make an annual loss of ¾%. (fn. 76)

Despite these assurances the disorders continued, and eventually, in December, the proprietors were compelled to restore the old prices.

The new theatre (Plates 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, fig. 12) was not a success, at least financially. It stood for less than fifty years, a comparatively short life for such an expensive building, and during most of this period the proprietors and shareholders derived little profit from it. This was the age of big theatres, in which the owners of the two patent houses attempted unsuccessfully to preserve their crumbling monopoly rights by building larger theatres whose increased seating capacity would, they hoped, keep pace with the requirements of the growing numbers of theatre-goers in everexpanding London. The new Covent Garden normally accommodated some 2,800 people (fn. 77) (fn. 8) and (according to a contemporary abstract of bills) cost £187,888, exclusive of wardrobe, stage equipment and ancillary costs incurred in the adaptation of various adjacent buildings. (fn. 75) By 1832 Francis Place, in evidence before a Select Committee of the House of Commons, accurately summed up the plight of both the patent theatres in his statement that 'It is the excessive outlay, and the high prices of admission, the consequences of the monopoly, inducing them to build houses which cannot be filled, which has ruined them'. (fn. 78)

In the years between Thomas Harris's partial retirement in 1809 and his death in 1820 the management of the theatre appears to have been shared with his son Henry Harris and with John Kemble. In 1812 they and the other proprietors (i.e., George White and Mrs. Martindale, descendants of William Powell) agreed that the funds for the theatre should, after payment of all outgoings, including the dividend to the 152 shareholders, be applied to the payment of certain specified debts. This agreement appears to have been observed 'for a year or two, and then to have been abandoned'. (fn. 79) By 1817 the Duke of Bedford was complaining that his rent was in arrears, to which Harris replied that he and his partners had not taken a shilling profit on their investment. (fn. 80)

Thomas Harris died in October 1820, and soon afterwards John Kemble transferred his onesixth share to his younger brother, Charles Kemble. (fn. 81) Henry Harris, with 7/12, was now the principal proprietor, and therefore succeeded to the management. His partners, Kemble (1/6), and George White's sons-in-law and heirs, John Willett (1/16) and John Forbes (1/16), soon became dissatisfied with his arrangements, however, and in March 1822 they entered into an agreement with Henry Harris by means of which they were to have control of the theatre for ten years. But one proprietor was not a party to this agreement. This was Francis Const, a lawyer, who at about this time inherited a life interest in one eighth from Mrs. Martindale, recently deceased. When he heard of the agreement he filed a bill of complaint in Chancery in which he correctly asserted that some of the debts mentioned in the agreement of 1812 were still unpaid, and therefore prayed for the appointment of a receiver of the profits of the theatre. This plea proved successful, and on 19 February 1824 a receiver was appointed. Four days later Kemble, Willett and Forbes repudiated their agreement of 1822 with Harris on the ground that they had entered into it without knowledge of the existence of the agreement of 1812. Harris then filed a bill for performance of the agreement of 1812. (fn. 82) After three hearings the case was ultimately decided in 1831 against Harris. (fn. 83)

With this contentiousness among the proprietors Covent Garden did not prosper during the 1820's, (fn. 84) and in 1829 payment of the rates and taxes was so far overdue that a magistrate's warrant was issued and a tax-collector put in temporary possession. In addition to the extravagance and incompetence of Kemble, Willett and Forbes (fn. 85) the proprietors were facing the challenge of changing social and religious attitudes. Charles Kemble stated in 1832 that 'The late hours of dining take away all the upper classes . . . from the theatre; religious prejudice is very much increased, evangelical feeling, and so on; and they take away a great number of persons from the theatre who formerly used to frequent it'. But above all, the ancient monopoly rights of both the patent theatres were being steadily eroded by the competition of the ever-growing number of new and smaller theatres licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. In 1832, the centenary year of Covent Garden's career, when the total encumbrances on the property had risen to the enormous sum of £256,496, the proprietors decided to relinquish the management and to secure what they hoped would be a reliable revenue by sub-letting the theatre. P. F. Laporte, who had formerly managed the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, was granted a seven-year sub-lease at an annual rental of some £10,000, payable to the proprietors. (fn. 86)

This important change of managerial policy did not succeed. Laporte departed after only one year, and for the next ten years there was a series of short and financially (though not always artistically) unsuccessful sub-tenancies—Alfred Bunn 1833–5, who was also managing Drury Lane, D. W. Osbaldiston 1835–7, W. C. Macready 1837–9, and C. J. Mathews 1839–42. (fn. 87) By 1843, when the Act for regulating theatres finally abolished the monopoly rights of the two patent theatres, Covent Garden had virtually ceased to be a place of dramatic or musical entertainment and had become the venue for a series of meetings of the Anti-Corn Law League, whose long campaign was finally successful in 1846. (fn. 88)

The sub-tenants' failures had, of course, involved both proprietors and the holders of the £500 shares issued in 1808–9 in further difficulties. In 1832 the shareholders, who were entitled to an annuity of £25 on each share but who had not received a single shilling during the previous seven years, agreed to forgo part of the arrears and for the future to accept only £12 10s. per annum until all outstanding debts had been paid. (fn. 89) In the same year the sixth Duke of Bedford agreed to reduce the ground rent payable to him by the proprietors by £300 per annum, (fn. 90) and in 1837, when the proprietors had had to forgo part of their rent from their sub-tenant (Osbaldiston), the Duke agreed to another reduction, this time of £200 per annum. (fn. 91) Despite these concessions the total charge upon the building stood at about £5,000 per annum (consisting of ground rent, rates and taxes, salaries of treasurer and firemen, and provision for gradual repayment of outstanding debts), and for three years, 1843–5, the theatre was virtually unused, apart from occasional short bookings. (fn. 89)

At this point Covent Garden Theatre was rescued from its parlous position by the discontent which prevailed among the musicians at Her Majesty's (formerly the King's) Theatre in the Haymarket, hitherto the principal home of opera in London. In 1846 the Italian composer Giuseppe Persiani, piqued, it is said, at the refusal of Benjamin Lumley, the manager of Her Majesty's, to accept an opera of his composition, (fn. 92) took a lease of Covent Garden from the delighted proprietors at a rent of £6,000 per annum. (fn. 89) He obtained the assistance of Frederick Beale, a member of Cramer, Beale and Company, the music publishers, and of (Sir) Michael Costa, the disgruntled conductor at Her Majesty's, (fn. 92) and towards the end of 1846 he engaged Benedict Albano, who had hitherto been known chiefly as a civil engineer, to reconstruct the theatre for opera. (fn. 93) Work began in December, and during the next four months up to 1,200 men worked day and night in what amounted to the complete rebuilding of the interior of the theatre (Plate 57). The total cost of the alterations and re-equipment was variously estimated at £27,000 and at upwards of £40,000; the contractor was Henry Charles Holland. (fn. 94)

The theatre, now known as the Royal Italian Opera House, re-opened on 6 April 1847 with a performance of Rossini's Semiramide. (fn. 95) A large loss was made during the first season, and Persiani fled abroad. Changes were made in the management, (fn. 96) and by March 1848, when further alterations were being made to the auditorium, Frederick Gye had become 'the general controller'. (fn. 97)

Gye was the son of the proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens, and had first been associated with Covent Garden in 1843. (fn. 98) This connexion lasted until his death in 1878, and during this long and eventful period he proved to be one of the theatre's most successful managers. In 1849 the proprietors granted him a seven-year lease at a rent related to his gross receipts (fn. 99) and after an uncertain start (fn. 100) he was greatly assisted by the closure of Her Majesty's Theatre, his principal rival in opera, from 1852 to 1856. (fn. 101) But in January of the latter year he unfortunately subleased the theatre to J. H. Anderson, known as 'The Wizard of the North', for a six-week run of conjuring and pantomine. (fn. 102) Anderson, it is said, had already burnt down two theatres over his head, and was now to add a third to his remarkable record. (fn. 89) During the concluding moments of a disorderly bal masqué sponsored by Anderson, fire broke out in the theatre at about five o'clock on the morning of 5 March 1856, and within a few hours the whole building had been destroyed (fn. 103) (Plate 58).

The Building of E. M. Barry's Royal Italian Opera House and the Floral Hall, 1856–60

Within five days of this disaster Gye was discussing the new situation with the seventh Duke of Bedford's agent, (fn. 104) but rebuilding did not begin for almost nineteen months. (fn. 105) The proprietors now (i.e., the owners of the patent and the existing lease, of which thirty-nine years remained unexpired) were Henry Harris's two daughters, represented by William Harry Surman, 7/12, the late Charles Kemble's representatives, 1/6, Captain Forbes, 1/8, and John Willett, 1/8. (fn. 104) (fn. 9) Henry Harris had died in 1839 leaving private debts of £50,000, none of which had been repaid, while the affairs of Charles Kemble, who had died in 1854, were in Chancery, where his share in the theatre had been valued at £500. The proprietors' debts on the property had by now been reduced to the comparatively small sum of £9,000, but even so they were quite unable to rebuild the theatre from their own resources. (fn. 89) The 152 shareholders (i.e., those who had in 1808–9 subscribed £500 each towards the rebuilding then in progress, in exchange for the right of free entry and an annuity of £25 for the rest of the term of the lease) were in no better position. Since 1832 they had agreed to forgo half their annuities, and the value of their shares had declined from £500 to £120 each. At a meeting of both the proprietors and the shareholders held on 15 March 1856, Surman, as the representative of the principal proprietors, flatly stated that he and his partners were 'not in a condition to rebuild the theatre' unless the shareholders were able to raise £100,000. (fn. 106) This they proved unable or unwilling to do, and on 10 April the Duke of Bedford therefore obtained an order in the Court of Queen's Bench by which he resumed possession of the site. (fn. 107) The shareholders of 1808–9 lost all their money and rights of free entry; the proprietors forfeited their lease, but presumably retained possession of the now almost valueless patent. The way was now clear for Gye to make a completely fresh start, and to erect the opera house which still stands.

In his negotiations with the seventh Duke of Bedford Gye's position was strengthened by the fact that he was the sole applicant for a new lease. At first even he thought that it would be impossible to raise the money to build a new theatre or opera house, and he therefore proposed to erect 'a Concert Room of large dimension and a Building (which he proposed to call The Floral Hall) for the sale of Flowers upon an enlarged scale'. This proposal involved the purchase and demolition of the Piazza Hotel (the easternmost house in the portico walk on the north side of the marke square) in order to provide the Floral Hall with a front to the square. When the Duke's agent mentioned the rent that would be expected Gye broke off the negotiation, 'stating that owing to the principles of free trade having been brought to bear upon Theatrical property through an end having been put to the Monopoly so long enjoyed by Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres, it had become impossible to raise the funds necessary for rebuilding a Theatre unless the site for it could be obtained at a much more moderate ground rent . . .'. (fn. 108)

Gye was an extremely able man of business and it is therefore very remarkable that he should have clung to his ill-conceived scheme for a Floral Hall. While quite a young man he had, in about 1842, 'projected a scheme for connecting the different parts of the metropolis by means of a gigantic arcade', and in 1845 he had read a paper on the subject. The arcade, of iron and glass and 70 feet in height, was to extend from the Bank to Trafalgar Square and was to be of the same width as a first-class thoroughfare; it would combine 'the grand desideratum of a covered communication with a spacious and luxurious promenade', and at some point in its course there was to be 'an extensive flower market, constructed entirely of glass'. (fn. 109)

Only four months before the fire at Covent Garden Theatre he was evidently still hankering after this idea, (fn. 109) and so, when the Duke of Bedford's expectations of rent had somewhat abated and negotiations had been resumed, Gye stuck to his Floral Hall. He also hinted that he might at some future date convert the proposed concert room into a theatre or opera house. Terms were at last agreed; early in 1857 the Duke's agent gave the lessee of the Piazza Hotel notice to quit (for which substantial compensation had to be paid) (fn. 110) and on 18 February he and Gye signed an agreement for a ninety-year lease to be granted to the latter, who covenanted to erect two buildings, to be known as the Royal Italian Opera House Concert Room and the Floral Hall. (fn. 111) The rent was to be £1,150 per annum. (fn. 112)

In order to raise the money for the rebuilding, Gye on 1 October 1857 conditionally assigned the agreement for a lease to three trustees (fn. 113) to hold on behalf of a group of about fifteen wealthy gentlemen, each of whom lent substantial sums totalling about £80,000. These mortgagees included the architect of the new theatre, E. M. Barry (£1,500), the principal contractors, C. and T. Lucas (£21,159 jointly), the sub-contractor for the ironwork, Mr. Henry Grissell (amount unknown) and the Duke of Bedford (fn. 114) (£19,600). Building work had already begun, on 23 September 1857. (fn. 115)

The new theatre was built within less than eight months, and at a contract figure of £60,000 plus another £10,000 for extra works, (fn. 116) its cost was less than half that of its predecessor. Although the site leased to Gye was larger than that occupied by Smirke's theatre, a substantial portion of the new site was to be used for the Floral Hall, and the area of ground available for the new house was therefore much reduced. By greatly increasing the height of his building (eight storeys of rooms on either side of the main block) and by placing it on an east-west instead of a northsouth axis, Barry nevertheless contrived to design a theatre with almost as many seats as its predecessor and with a larger stage and auditorium (fn. 117) (Plates 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, figs. 13–15).

Most of the bricklayer's work had to be done during the unfavourable winter season. In order to avoid delay Messrs. Lucas, the contractors, supplied their employees with special waterproof clothing, 'and the men, while working in this black-hooded costume, reminded [E. M. Barry] of nothing so much as the story-book pictures of the familiars of the Inquisition'. Much of the joiner's work was prepared at Lucas's Lowestoft works and brought down to London. (fn. 115) With mounting costs and shortness of time Gye attempted to put off the erection of the portico in Bow Street, but the Duke of Bedford and his agent insisted, 'knowing how generally the completion of buildings of this kind, once postponed, never takes place (it was so with old Drury Lane Theatre, the appearance of which in Brydges Street remained through this cause, an eyesore till that Theatre was burned down)'. (fn. 118) The order for the construction of the portico was not given until 27 March 1858, but Messrs. Lucas rose to the occasion, and the last stone of the architrave was fixed complete on 8 May, one week before the opening of the theatre. (fn. 115) Over £100,000 were staked, it is said, in bets on whether the theatre would be ready by the appointed day; even on the very morning 'the confusion seemed to be increasing instead of diminishing; and persons, tempted by curiosity to visit the scene of their expected evening's amusement, were inclined to wonder how they could ever get into the house'. (fn. 119) But all was well, and the theatre was opened on 15 May 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. (fn. 120)

Three weeks later, on 7 June, the seventh Duke of Bedford executed the lease to Gye. Specifically excepted from it was one private box, plus its own lobby, retiring room, fireplace, chimney-stack, staircase and entrance, which were retained for their own use by successive Dukes, until 1940. (fn. 121) The contrivance of this tiny enclave, reminiscent of the 'peculiar jurisdictions' sometimes found in the complex field of medieval ecclesiastical law, had occasioned the architect much trouble, for the retiring room could only be placed behind the curtain, and the approach to the ducal box had therefore to be by means of 'a sort of bridge thrown over a corner of the stage'. (fn. 117)

Owing to shortage of money the erection of the Floral Hall had not yet begun, (fn. 118) but in April 1858 the site was being prepared by the demolition of the Piazza Hotel and the passages which had formerly provided access to the old theatre from the Piazza. (fn. 122) In July Gye mortgaged his lease of the whole site, this time to the Rock Life Assurance Company (fn. 123) and the Duke of Bedford advanced him a further £7,500. (fn. 118) Building work presumably began soon afterwards, the architect again being E. M. Barry and the contractors C. and T. Lucas, with Mr. Henry Grissell responsible for the ironwork. (fn. 124) The hall (Plate 68) extended some 230 feet westward from Bow Street. On its north side it abutted on the opera house, and on the south and west sides the walls were of brick; the remainder of the fabric was of glass and iron. At the west end a short arm extended southward to obtain a frontage to the market square, and the intersection of the two arms was covered by a glass dome. Gye intended to lease stalls for the sale of flowers, plants and seeds, (fn. 125) but the Duke of Bedford did not welcome such competition for the business of his market, and in 1860 he therefore provided new accommodation for some of the flower dealers at the south-east corner of the Piazza. The Floral Hall was first used on 7 March 1860, (fn. 126) when a grand Volunteers' ball took place there.

For over twenty-five years the Floral Hall proved to be a white elephant. Unable to use it as he had originally intended, Gye and his successors repeatedly attempted to obtain the permission of successive Dukes to use it in other ways—as a drill hall, (fn. 127) for concerts and exhibitions, and even as a music hall. (fn. 128) Occasional licences for concerts were granted, but the neighbours' objections were considered to be reasonable (fn. 129) and standing permission was never conceded. (fn. 130) In 1865 the West London Industrial Exhibition was held there, (fn. 131) but in 1872 Gye was still, according to the Duke's advisers, 'disposed to be troublesome as to making proper application for licences'. (fn. 132) In 1882 the ninth Duke, who was constantly on the look-out for a chance to relieve the endemic congestion of the market, proposed that he should buy the leasehold of the Floral Hall from Gye's heirs. Terms could not be agreed, however, (fn. 133) and it was not until 1887 that the Duke, now desperate for space, finally did so. He paid £20,000 for his purchase (fn. 134) and agreed to a reduction of £435 in the annual ground rent payable to him under the lease of 1858 for the site of both the opera house and the hall. (fn. 112) (fn. 10) The Floral Hall was at once incorporated into the market as a foreign fruit mart. It is still used for this purpose, but the roof and the dome were destroyed by a fire in April 1956. (fn. 135)

The Royal Italian Opera House From 1858

Gye continued to hold the ground lease of the theatre, heavily mortgaged, until his death on 4 December 1878, when his personal estate was valued at under £35,000. (fn. 136) In 1873 most of the subscribers to the building fund of 1856–8 agreed to accept about half of the amounts still due to them in exchange for the free use of specified seats or boxes in the theatre during the unexpired residue of the lease. (fn. 114) But a number of mortgages and other encumbrances remained outstanding, and by 1875 they had all been bought by or transferred to Andrew Montagu of Melton Park, an exceedingly wealthy Yorkshire landowner, for the enormous sum of £105,000. (fn. 137)

Gye bequeathed all his interest in the theatre to his five children, one of whom, Ernest, had already been concerned in the business and now assumed control. (fn. 138) Opera in London was, however, being gradually ruined by the excessive salaries demanded by the foreign 'star' singers. (fn. 139) Ernest Gye proved unable to bear this load for long, and in 1883 he and his brothers and sister (evidently with Andrew Montagu's concurrence) assigned all their interest in the ground lease to the Royal Italian Opera Covent Garden Limited. (fn. 140) Gye continued as manager for another season, but in 1884 this company was wound up. (fn. 141)

From 1888 until his death in 1896 Sir Augustus Harris presented seasons of opera with the powerful financial backing of a group of aristocratic patrons. (fn. 142) In 1895 Andrew Montagu, who had become the outright owner of the ground lease (evidently by foreclosure on the equity of redemption), had also died. He had bequeathed all his enormous real estate to George Denison Faber, (fn. 143) who was then the registrar of the Privy Council—a post from which he speedily resigned on this sudden access of good fortune. (fn. 11) Faber was in 1918 created Baron Wittenham of Wallingford; he was an enthusiast for grand opera, but he was also, according to The Times, 'a financier of the first order', (fn. 145) and in 1899 he therefore sold the ground lease for the useful sum of £80,000, to the Grand Opera Syndicate Limited. (fn. 146)

This Syndicate consisted of the wealthy patrons who had hitherto supported Sir Augustus Harris. Its directors immediately raised a working capital of £60,000 by the issue of 600 mortgage debentures of £100 each. (fn. 147) Substantial alterations (including the rebuilding of the stage to the designs of Edwin Sachs) were made to the interior of the theatre in 1899–1901 and in 1911, (fn. 148) and under the Syndicate's auspices 'fair but intermittent' profits were made until the war of 1914–18. (fn. 149)

In 1914 Sir Joseph Beecham (owner of the famous proprietary brand of pills and father of Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor, who had first appeared at Covent Garden in 1910) had entered into an agreement with the eleventh Duke of Bedford to buy the whole of the Covent Garden estate, including the opera house. Sir Joseph had died in 1916 before the completion of the contract, and in 1918 the whole estate was conveyed to a private company controlled by the Beecham family, the Covent Garden Estate Company, of which Sir Thomas was a director. However, this change of ground landlord was no help to the theatre, which the Grand Opera Syndicate had been compelled, in 1917, to mortgage to Coutts and Company, the bankers. (fn. 150) In 1919 the Syndicate presented a season under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham, but in the more straitened financial circumstances of the postwar period it had lost much of its vigour. From 1925 to 1927 summer seasons of opera were given by the London Opera Syndicate, which had been formed by Samuel Courtauld, the industrialist, and had taken a three-year sub-lease from the Grand Opera Syndicate. The latter, 'though still alive, had ceased to function, [and] the "Phoenix" seemed really dead' when yet another syndicate, called the Covent Garden Opera Syndicate, appeared and was granted another short sublease. (fn. 151)

Opera in London was thus in an already precarious position when in February 1929 the Grand Opera Syndicate surrendered the ground lease of the theatre to the ground landlord. (fn. 152) This was now Covent Garden Properties Company Limited, to which the market and part of the old Bedford estate (including, of course, the opera house) had passed from the Beecham family's private company. It was a public company, dealing exclusively in real estate, and by 1930 rumours were circulating that after February 1933, when the short sub-lease to the Covent Garden Opera Syndicate expired and the Covent Garden Properties Company would obtain possession, the theatre would be demolished. (fn. 153)

The interim period between 1930 and 1933 was chiefly remarkable for the grant of the first state subsidy to opera in England. In November 1930 Philip Snowden, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour administration then in power, announced that the British Broadcasting Corporation having recently launched a scheme for the promotion of grand opera, the government intended to assist the Corporation by an annual grant of £17,500 for five years. (fn. 154) Much public criticism of this then novel action ensued, and one outraged taxpayer even attempted to obtain an injunction to prevent payment of the money. (fn. 155) In the more stringent financial conditions of 1932 the subsidy was suspended, but the precedent had been established. (fn. 156)

In the same year 'A certain melancholy interest' attached to a brief season of grand opera under Sir Thomas Beecham, for it had now been 'more or less definitely decided' that after the next summer season the theatre would be demolished. (fn. 157) In December 1932 Covent Garden Properties Limited submitted plans to Westminster City Council for the formation of a new street extending across the centre of the site of the opera house, and in the same month The Times lugubriously accepted the inevitability of demolition. (fn. 158)

The existing sub-lease of the theatre, originally to expire in February 1933, had been extended for another five months, to 31 July. (fn. 159) At the annual general meeting of Covent Garden Properties Company Limited, held on 14 July, the chairman, Philip E. Hill, stated that while the directors of the company did not wish to take 'a merely mercenary view' of the question, it was nevertheless 'quite impossible, in fairness to the shareholders, to continue to let the Opera House at a rental which was admittedly only a fraction of its true normal value'. (fn. 160) This rental had, since the previous February, been £1,000 per month, (fn. 161) compared with the £715 per annum which had been paid since 1887 under the lease granted by the Duke of Bedford in 1858.

But the theatre was rescued yet again. By December 1933 a new company, the Royal Opera House Company Limited, of which Philip Hill himself was one of the directors, (fn. 12) had obtained an agreement for a new lease, and Covent Garden Properties Company Limited had undertaken to make important improvements to the theatre. These works, which ultimately cost some £70,000, included an entirely new wing of offices, dressing and rehearsal-rooms in Mart Street. (fn. 162)

The Royal Opera House Company Limited continued as lessee until 1938, when it was wound up. (fn. 163) By 1939 the position was critical once more, and the annual report of Covent Garden Properties Company Limited stated that 'unless more satisfactory arrangements for letting or for a sale of the property can be made, the board must develop the property in the best interests of this company'. (fn. 164)

During the war the theatre was leased to Mecca Cafés and used as a palais de danse. (fn. 165) In July 1944 it was announced that Leslie Boosey and Ralph Hawkes, the music publishers, were to take a five-year lease of the opera house, (fn. 166) and that a number of persons eminent in the arts had been appointed to a committee of management. (fn. 167) From this evolved the Covent Garden Opera Trust, (fn. 168) under whose auspices, and with the help of a regular subvention from the newly established Arts Council of Great Britain, the opera house embarked on its immensely successful post-war career. The first post-war performance took place on 20 February 1946, with a performance by the Sadler's Wells Ballet of The Sleeping Beauty. (fn. 169)

In July 1948, when Boosey and Hawkes's lease was drawing to an end, Covent Garden Properties Company Limited announced their intention of granting a new and much longer lease to a new tenant. This would have ended the promising post-war departure inaugurated by Boosey and Hawkes in conjunction with the Covent Garden Trust and the Arts Council, and was therefore opposed by the Council. The government then issued a compulsory purchase order against the ground landlords and eventually, after prolonged negotiations, Covent Garden Properties Company Limited granted to the Ministry of Works a forty-two-year lease commencing on 25 March 1949. The Ministry then sub-let the theatre to the Covent Garden Trust, which subsequently became the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Limited. (fn. 170) This arrangement still exists, and has been severely criticized by the Arts Council on the ground that during the forty-two-year lease well over one million pounds of public money will be spent on the maintenance of a building still in private ownership.


  • 1. See especially The London Stage 1660–1800. Part 3, 1729–1747, ed. Arthur H. Scouten, two volumes, 1961, and Part 4, 1747–1776, ed. George Winchester Stone, three volumes, 1962; Harold Rosenthal's two works, Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden, 1958, and Opera at Covent Garden. A Short History, 1967; and Henry Saxe Wyndham, The Annals of Covent Garden Theatre from 1732 to 1897, two volumes, 1906.
  • 2. The text of the articles of agreement is recited in P.R.O., C11/2662/1. Amongst the archives of Hoare's Bank, Fleet Street, there is an abstract of part of the text of the agreement. This document (unsigned and undated) was evidently drawn up shortly after the opening of Rich's public subscription on 11 December 1731, and its purpose was merely to provide agreed formulae whereby Rich, as the building work progressed, was to certify to Hoare's that payment of x pounds to Shepherd had become due, and after Hoare's had made the payment, Shepherd was to sign a receipt for it. This document or memorandum has been wrongly identified as the building contract itself, and this mistake has given rise to unnecessary difficulty over the chronology of events.
  • 3. The date of the assignment to William Workman is not known, but as he signed the proposals and deposited his £300 he almost certainly received it on 1 March 1732/3.
  • 4. No record has been found of the remaining three assignments, which undoubtedly existed, for in July 1744 there were fifty shares in being. Two of these assignments must certainly have been made to Robert Knight, who signed for one share but paid £400 into Hoare's Bank, and who in 1744 owned two shares. This brings the number of assignments up to forty-nine, with only one unaccounted for. It is, however, possible that Rich deliberately retained one share for himself, and later sold it at a profit. (Philip Elias Turst, who promoted the building of the Pantheon in Oxford Street in 1769–72 by methods very similar to Rich's at Covent Garden, retained one of his fifty shares for himself.)
  • 5. John Inigo Richards, R.A., principal scene-painter at Covent Garden.
  • 6. According to James Boaden, writing in 1825, William Thomas Lewis, an actor of long standing at Covent Garden, bought a one-sixth share of the property from Harris in about 1799, but relinquished it in the following year after a dispute between Harris and the actors. The conveyances which these transactions must have involved (if in fact they occurred at all) have not been found.
  • 7. Other tradesmen who worked at the theatre, with the amount of their accounts (to the nearest pound), were: carpenter, Richard Martyr and Son (£11,927); carpet maker, Drury and Son (£514); carvers and gilders, J. Lovell (£98), E. Rigby (£67); chandeliers, William Collins (£887); enamellers, Madgwick and Cooper (£43); glaziers, T. and P. Palmer (£1,020); heating apparatus, Boulton and Watt (£639); lampmaker, G. Phillips (£1,959); locksmith, Samuel Lloyd (£452); masons, William Peacock (£777), Shell and Milton (£83), Francis Webster (£64); painter, gilder and paper hanger, C. Dixon and Son (£8,342); paintings in bas relief, Robert Smirke, senior (£379); paper hangers, Robson and Hale (£480); paviours, H. Brown (£338), William Meredith (£251); plasterer, Francis Bernasconi (£6,060); plumbers, Samuel Briggs (£1,861), Lancelot Burton (£2,796), William Tarte (£1,878); smiths, Armstrong and Company (£1,538), J. Cruckshanks (£803), Cutler and Macnaughton (£2,149), William Feltham (£26), William Morris (£1,895), E. Neville (£44), Robert Smith (£146); statuaries, J. Flaxman (£210), B. Papera (£193), C. Rossi (£714); upholsterers, Tatham and Bailey (£2,103); wirework, Welch and Maddox (£148). Thomas Carpenter was the clerk of works, and John Cantwell the district surveyor.
  • 8. This figure of 2,800 excluded spectators in the private boxes. The amount of accommodation available was frequently varied. When George IV visited the theatre in 1823, 4,255 people paid for seats, and this figure again excludes the occupants of private boxes.
  • 9. Between 1825 and 1832 Forbes and Willett had each become possessed of half of Francis Const's 1/8 thus increasing their respective shares from 1/16 to 1/8 (see page 8).
  • 10. The ground rent for the combined site of the opera house and the hall was £1,150 per annum. After the ninth Duke's acquisition of the lease of the hall in 1887 the ground rent payable for the opera house alone was £715 (£1,150–£435).
  • 11. It may be noted that a small part of this inheritance consisted of the original of the Davenant letters patent. In the complete absence of any evidence on the point it may be surmised that Frederick Gye had acquired it from the pre-1856 proprietors, and that it had later passed from Gye to Montagu.
  • 12. The other directors were Lord Allendale (chairman), Lord Lloyd, Lady Cunard, Lord Esher, Lord Stonehaven, Ronald Tree, Benjamin Guinness and Geoffrey Toye (managing director).
  • 13. The London Stage 1660–1800, Part 2, 1700– 1729, ed. Emmett L. Avery, 1960, p. xxxii.
  • 14. E/BER, four leases of 16 March 1730/1 to John Rich; see also B.O.L., Contract Book for Covent Garden and Bloomsbury from Dec. 1730, nos. 4–7, pp. 5–22.
  • 15. The Daily Courant, 12 Jan. 1730/1.
  • 16. The London Stage 1660–1800, Part 3, 1729– 1747, ed. Arthur H. Scouten, 1961, pp. xxvii–xxviii.
  • 17. The British Journal, 20 Feb. 1730/1.
  • 18. The Daily Advertiser, 29 April 1731.
  • 19. P.R.O., C11/2662/1.
  • 20. Basil Francis, 'John Rich's Proposals', in Theatre Notebook, vol. xii, 1957, pp. 17–19.
  • 21. Scouten, op. cit., pp. xxviii–xxx.
  • 22. B.M., Add. MS. 32, 428.
  • 23. P.R.O., C11/2662/1; C11/2732/81.
  • 24. Scouten, op. cit., pp. lxxvi-lxxvii.
  • 25. For examples of shares sold at a premium see M.L.R. 1735/1/224; 1735/3/414; 1735/5/ 406; 1738/5/473; 1749/1/313; 1774/7/425.
  • 26. Hoare's Bank records, ledgers 33/123, 34/123, John Rich.
  • 27. E.g., Basil Francis in The Bankers' Magazine, vol. clxxiii, 1952, pp. 565–9, and in Theatre Notebook, vol. xii, 1957, pp. 17–19; also Scouten, op. cit., p. xxviii.
  • 28. B.M., Add. Ch. 9319.
  • 29. Survey of London, vol. xxxi, 1963, p. 270.
  • 30. M.L.R. 1738/5/473.
  • 31. This point is explicitly made in P.R.O., C11/ 2662/1.
  • 32. P.R.O., C11/2732/81.
  • 33. Scouten, op. cit., pp. xxxii, lxxiv.
  • 34. B.M., Add. Ch. 9312, and Add. MS. 12201, ff. 30–3; M.L.R. 1735/4/322.
  • 35. M.L.R. 1743/1/493–6; 1743/2/273.
  • 36. Recited in B.M., Add. MS. 12201, ff. 30–3.
  • 37. P.C.C., 444 Cheslyn.
  • 38. B.O.L., lease of 2 Dec. 1765 to Priscilla Rich.
  • 39. M.L.R. 1767/6/50–1.
  • 40. The New Complete Guide, 1774, p. 229.
  • 41. Baldwin's New Complete Guide, 1770, p. 164.
  • 42. B.M., Add. MS. 33,218; Eugene R. page, George Colman the Elder, 1935, passim.
  • 43. B.M., Add. MS. 33,218.
  • 44. M.L.R. 1768/6/187–8; Baldwin's New Complete Guide, 1770, p. 139.
  • 45. P.R.O., C12/1024/36.
  • 46. Page, op. cit., pp. 177–83.
  • 47. Ibid., pp. 190–1, 198, 202, 203n.
  • 48. P.R.O., C54/6378, no. 11.
  • 49. The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, ed. Cecil Price, 1966, vol. 1, p. 85.
  • 50. Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 116–21, 171.
  • 51. See, for instance, M.L.R. 1784/3/279; 1785/2/605; 1785/3/40.
  • 52. See, for instance, ibid., 1781/3/466; 1782/2/538.
  • 53. George Saunders, A Treatise on Theatres, 1790, pp. 83–4; The Morning Chronicle, 24 Sept. 1782.
  • 54. B.O.L., Estate Letters, 21 Feb., 5 March 1785.
  • 55. Sheridan Letters, vol. 1, 1966, p. 213.
  • 56. E/BER, agreement for a lease to Thomas Harris, 7 April 1792.
  • 57. The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 62, 1792, p. 862.
  • 58. The Public Advertiser, 15 Sept. 1792.
  • 59. Ibid., 18 Sept. 1792.
  • 60. Ibid., 2 Oct. 1792.
  • 61. Ibid., 17 Sept. 1793; Dorothy Stroud, Henry Holland. His Life and Architecture, 1966, p. 125.
  • 62. E/BER, lease of 13 June 1793 to Thomas Harris.
  • 63. The Gazetteer, 16 Sept. 1794; Stroud, loc. cit.
  • 64. P.R.O., C54/7757, no. 7; M.L.R. 1803/5/461.
  • 65. Herschel Baker, John Philip Kemble, The Actor in His Theatre, 1942, p. 274.
  • 66. James Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, 1825, vol. 11, pp. 372–4.
  • 67. Mr. G. White's Letter to Mr. Harris, June 5 1804, with Mr. Harris's Answer, June 17 1804, (B.M. pressmark, 11795 K 31 no. 24).
  • 68. M.L.R. 1806/4/620–1.
  • 69. Ibid., 1806/4/622.
  • 70. The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 78, 1808, pp. 846–7, 1038; Westminster Abbey Muniments, Inquisitions and Depositions for 1808, nos. 54–65
  • 71. E/BER, leases of 4 March 1806 to Thomas Harris and of 1 May 1818 to Thomas and Henry Harris and J. P. Kemble; Covent Garden Theatre Papers, notes on conversation of 29 Sept. 1808 between Messrs. Harris, Kemble and Adam.
  • 72. The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 78, 1808, p. 1033.
  • 73. P.P., Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons to inquire into the Laws affecting Dramatic Literature, 1831–2, vol. vii, p. 102.
  • 74. The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 79, 1809, p. 81.
  • 75. B.M., Add. MS. 31, 977.
  • 76. Ibid., Covent Garden Theatre playbills (pressmark, play bills 92).
  • 77. The Illustrated London News, 12 Dec. 1846, p. 373.
  • 78. P.P., Report of Commons Committee on Laws affecting Dramatic Literature, 1831–2, vol. vii, p. 206.
  • 79. The Law Journal, vol. v, 1827, Easter Term, pp. 131–9 (B.M. pressmark, PP 1345).
  • 80. B.O.L., Estate Letters, 10 June 1817.
  • 81. Baker, op. cit., pp. 345–6.
  • 82. P.R.O., C13/2587, Const v. Kemble; The Law Journal, loc. cit.
  • 83. The Law Journal, vol. vii, 1829, Hilary Term, pp. 79–84 (B.M. pressmark, PP 1345); Richard Bligh, New Reports of Cases heard in the House of Lords in 1831, vol. v, 1834, pp. 730–54 (B.M. pressmark, 708 c 8).
  • 84. P.P., Report of Commons Committee on Laws affecting Dramatic Literature, 1831–2, vol. vii, p. 100.
  • 85. Henry Saxe Wyndham, The Annals of Covent Garden Theatre from 1732 to 1897, 1906, vol. 11, pp. 55–8.
  • 86. P.P., Report of Commons Committee on Laws affecting Dramatic Literature, 1831–2, vol. vii, pp. 43, 49, 52, 115, 250.
  • 87. Saxe Wyndham, op. cit., vol. 11, passim.
  • 88. Ibid., vol. 11, pp. 172, 177.
  • 89. The Times, 18 March 1856.
  • 90. E/BER, Covent Garden Theatre Papers, Adam to Haedy, 21 July 1832.
  • 91. Ibid., Haedy to Adam, 28 April 1837.
  • 92. Saxe Wyndham, op. cit., vol. 11, pp. 181–2.
  • 93. The Illustrated London News, 6 Dec. 1856, pp. 562–4.
  • 94. Ibid., loc cit; The Builder, 10 April 1847, pp. 165–6.
  • 95. The Illustrated London News, 10 April 1847, pp. 225, 233–4; The Builder, 10 April 1847, pp. 165–6.
  • 96. Saxe Wyndham, op. cit., vol. 11, p. 187.
  • 97. The Builder, 19 Feb. 1848, p. 88; 11, 18 March 1848, pp. 125, 135.
  • 98. Harold Rosenthal, Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden, 1958, p. 87.
  • 99. Royal Opera House archives, agreement of 24 Sept. 1849.
  • 100. Rosenthal, op. cit., pp. 93–4.
  • 101. Survey of London, vol. xxix, 1960, p. 243.
  • 102. Saxe Wyndham, op. cit., vol. 11, p. 200.
  • 103. The Illustrated London News, 8 March 1856, p. 243.
  • 104. E/BER, Covent Garden Theatre Papers, Haedy to the Duke, 10 March 1856.
  • 105. The Illustrated London News, 9 Jan. 1858, p. 38.
  • 106. E/BER, Covent Garden Theatre Papers, H. Surman to Haedy, 17 March 1856; The Times, 18 March 1856.
  • 107. P.R.O., KB122/1418, f. 31.
  • 108. B.O.L., Annual Report, 1856, pp. 2–4.
  • 109. The Builder, 15 Dec. 1855, pp. 603–4.
  • 110. E/BER, Covent Garden Theatre Papers, Parker to proprietors of Piazza Hotel, 16 Jan. 1857.
  • 111. M.L.R. 1857/12/259.
  • 112. B.O.L., Annual Report, 1894, p. 200.
  • 113. M.L.R. 1857/12/379.
  • 114. B.O.L., deed of compromise between F. Gye and the contributors to the building fund, 29 June 1873.
  • 115. The Builder, 18 Feb. 1860, pp. 102–3.
  • 116. Ibid., 22 May 1858, pp. 345–7; The Illustrated London News, 10 July 1858, p. 34.
  • 117. The Builder, 11 Feb. 1860, pp. 85–7.
  • 118. B.O.L., Annual Report, 1858, pp. 3–4.
  • 119. The Illustrated London News, 22 May 1858, p. 507.
  • 120. Saxe Wyndham, op. cit., vol. 11, p. 224.
  • 121. M.L.R. 1858/9/606.
  • 122. The Illustrated London News, 10 April 1858, p. 367.
  • 123. M.L.R. 1858/10/41.
  • 124. The Builder, 2 April 1859, pp. 235–6.
  • 125. Ibid., 11 Feb. 1860, p. 88.
  • 126. The Times, 8 March 1860.
  • 127. B.O.L., Annual Report, 1861, p. 7.
  • 128. Ibid., Annual Report, 1882, vol. 2, p. 6.
  • 129. Ibid., Annual Report, 1862, pp. 8–9.
  • 130. Ibid., Annual Report, 1871, p. 126.
  • 131. The Illustrated London News, 13 May 1865, p. 465.
  • 132. B.O.L., Annual Report, 1872, p. 218.
  • 133. Ibid., Annual Report, 1882, vol. 2, p. 6.
  • 134. Ibid., Annual Report, 1887, p. 174.
  • 135. The Times, 7 April 1956.
  • 136. P.C.C., 1879/442.
  • 137. M.L.R. 1875/19/621; The Annual Register, 1895, p. 208.
  • 138. P.C.C., 1879/442; Saxe Wyndham, op. cit., vol. 11, p. 270.
  • 139. Felix Remo, Music in the Land of Fogs, English ed., 1886, p. 177.
  • 140. M.L.R. 1883/25/679; 1885/9/833.
  • 141. Rosenthal, op. cit., p. 198.
  • 142. Saxe Wyndham, op. cit., vol. 11, pp. 283, 290.
  • 143. P.C.C., 1895/135b; The Annual Register, 1895, p. 208.
  • 144. M.L.R. 1916/7/969; The Times, 4 July 1928.
  • 145. The Times, 2, 5 Feb. 1931.
  • 146. M.L.R. 1916/7/969.
  • 147. Ibid., 1916/7/970.
  • 148. Rosenthal, op. cit., pp. 279–80, 359.
  • 149. The Times, 6 Nov. 1925.
  • 150. M.L.R. 1917/1/814.
  • 151. The Times, 4 July 1928; Rosenthal, op. cit., pp. 391–2.
  • 152. M.L.R. 1929/8/70; The Times, 16 Nov. 1928.
  • 153. The Times, 3, 5, 8, 31 July 1930.
  • 154. The Annual Register, 1930, part 1, p. 94.
  • 155. The Times, 6 Dec. 1930.
  • 156. The Annual Register, 1932, part 1, p. 96.
  • 157. Ibid., 1932, part 11, p. 48.
  • 158. The Times, 14, 17 Dec. 1932.
  • 159. Ibid., 6 July 1933.
  • 160. Ibid., 15 July 1933.
  • 161. Rosenthal, op. cit., p. 393.
  • 162. The Times, 8 Dec. 1933; 19 Jan. 1934; 20 July 1939.
  • 163. Rosenthal, op. cit., pp. 394–5.
  • 164. The Times, 20 July 1939.
  • 165. Rosenthal, op. cit., p. 553.
  • 166. Ibid., p. 581; The Times, 10 July 1944.
  • 167. The Times, 20 July 1944.
  • 168. Ibid., 26 Oct. 1945.
  • 169. Ibid., 21 Feb. 1946.
  • 170. Fourth Annual Report of the Arts Council of Great Britain 1948–9, pp. 20–1.