Places of entertainment

Pages 531-535

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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The Assembly Rooms

Proposals to finance the building of rooms in which the already established weekly assemblies, concerts, and race-week balls might be held (fn. 1) were first published in a broadsheet in March 1730. Subscribers, of whom enough were quickly found, contributed not less than £25 and not more than £50. (fn. 2) Twelve directors were chosen amongst the subscribers and by May of that year £3,000 were available to enable them to bargain for builders' contracts and to purchase the site in Blake Street. The directors invited Lord Burlington to design the building asking him to provide a large dancing-room not less than 90 feet long, another large room for cards and play, another for coffee and refreshments, and several auxiliary rooms. (fn. 3) In his 'Egyptian' hall, influenced greatly by the work of Palladio and Vitruvius, Burlington not only fitted their requirements but built what has been called his masterpiece. (fn. 4) Burlington collected a further £500 among his friends and £500 more were raised by a new subscription in York. (fn. 5) The subscriptions were eventually raised to £5,500 but even this sum probably did not cover the building costs. (fn. 6)

Burlington sent rough drawings for the work at the end of October 1730, and followed these with detailed plans and wooden templates for the mouldings, and sent one of his clerks to reside on the site; the foundation stone was laid on 1 March 1731. (fn. 7) Some difficulty was met in finding sufficient suitable stone for the building but it was ready for the race week of August 1732, the directors having met daily at the rooms during the preceding week to expedite the finishing touches. (fn. 8) Burlington was a director almost without a break until his death in 1753 and attended some of the early directors' meetings. (fn. 9)

No dividends on the subscribers' shares were declared before 1736, the profits arising before that year being devoted to completing and furnishing the rooms. (fn. 10) This arrangement was a forerunner of the way in which the finances of the rooms were to be managed for the next 200 years. Dividends were frequently, though not always, declared but much less frequently actually paid. (fn. 11) Shareholders were expected to collect their dividends, none was sent by post or draft. Occasionally wealthy shareholders remitted their dividends. (fn. 12) Thus, as early as 1746, profits from lettings to the assemblies and concerts had accumulated and dividends had not been collected so that £800 was lying idle and was lent to four of the directors. (fn. 13) In 1776 accumulated funds amounted to some £1,400 and arrears of interest some £1,200: by 1813 arrears of interest stood at £8,000 of which £5,000 was written off in 1815 and arrears accounted only from 1794. (fn. 14)

Without some such financial arrangement it seems unlikely that the rooms would have survived: by 1747 the directors were noticing that the assemblies were little frequented and unless encouraged could not long be supported. (fn. 15) Directorship was now in the hands of two or three local persons, who were often the only ones attending the annual subscribers' meeting in October when directors were appointed. (fn. 16) The day-to-day management of the rooms was left in the hands of the steward: from the early 1730's to about 1760 the appointment was held by one man, Reuben Terry. (fn. 17)

By the 1760's much of the old spirit of the assemblies appears to have gone: the lamps outside the rooms were lighted only two days each week; directors' meetings were formalities. (fn. 18) In the 70's and most particularly between 1773 and 1774 some attempt was made to reform the management of the rooms and to encourage or re-establish the social activities for which they had been built. (fn. 19) The rooms appear to have been used at this time principally by dancing masters and occasionally for concerts: attempts to revive assemblies met with small success; even race week was badly attended. (fn. 20) There may have been a slight revival of activity in the 80's and 90's but it quickly declined; between 1810 and 1825 the directors failed to meet and subscribers did not appear at meetings. (fn. 21) In 1825 a new movement for reforming the management of the rooms had some success: in the 20's and 30's the rooms were used for dancing and concerts and more structural repairs were put in hand than in the preceding period. By the late 1840's interest had declined again and did not revive until about 50 years later when between 1893 and 1896 the affairs of the rooms were reformed for the last time. (fn. 22)

From this time until 1925 the rooms were managed by the secretary and steward, Arthur Anderson of York, who let the rooms for dancing and meetings and himself supplied much of the furniture and decorations. (fn. 23) By 1924 Anderson had acquired the second largest holding in the shares of the rooms: the County Hospital, which had acquired in the 18th century all or most of Burlington's shares from the Duke of Devonshire, was the largest shareholder. Only 62 shares out of about 200 foundation subscriptions were then claimed. In 1925 the shares were all acquired by the corporation, which still held some foundation shares, and the rooms leased to Anderson. (fn. 24) He died in 1927 (fn. 25) and the rooms were thereafter leased to various persons. (fn. 26) After the Second World War the corporation took the rooms into its own hands and completely restored them: the rooms were reopened in 1951 when a ball was held attended by many of the descendants of the original subscribers. (fn. 27) The rooms have since been regularly in use for social functions in the city.

The rooms consist of a main hall (see plate facing p. 544), a large and small annexe, and a rotunda and cube room. On either side of a vestibule there are reception rooms, and a kitchen is attached to the premises. The colonnaded main hall was originally divided from the annexes by walls and a portico with steps extended into Blake Street. For reasons of convenience neither feature was restored in 1951. Minor alterations in building, decoration, and the use of the rooms have occurred throughout its history: the restored decoration is said to be less austere than Burlington's original. (fn. 28)

Festival Concert Rooms

The chief performances of the Yorkshire Music Festival of 1823 were given in the minster, with evening concerts in the Assembly Rooms. The Rooms proved to be too small for this purpose, and in 1824 a group of interested people bought property adjoining them for the erection of a new concert room. It was decided that the cost should be met from the receipts of a second music festival to be held in 1825, and that the new room should be vested in trustees for the equal benefit of the York County Hospital and the Leeds, Hull, and Sheffield infirmaries; these institutions (together with the minster restoration fund) had benefited from the music festival of 1823. (fn. 29)

By January 1825 a guarantee-subscription fund for the new building amounted to nearly £9,300, and the room was opened later that year. It was designed by Peter Atkinson the younger and W. R. Sharp and accommodated 2,000 people. The concert room stood to the rear of the Assembly Rooms from which access was provided by a connecting door; this made it unnecessary for an entrance from Finkle Street (now Museum Street) to be provided and several houses stood between the room and this street. (fn. 30) In 1829 the directors of the concert room received about £2,550 from the proceeds of the third music festival of the previous year; each of the four benefiting institutions was credited with £350 of this sum, and a further £350 was used to adapt the buildings fronting upon Finkle Street as 'rooms and accommodations for performers and other purposes'. (fn. 31) The rooms were rented for various other events: in 1832-3, for example, they were used by the York Choral, Musical, Missionary, Bible, and Jewish societies; by barristers at the assizes, the 'Bohemian Brothers' and private individuals; and for a ball and a poetry reading. Of the profit made that year £80 was divided between the four benefiting institutions. (fn. 32) The fourth and last music festival was held in 1835, when the concert room was again used for evening concerts. (fn. 33)

The buildings between the concert rooms and Finkle Street are said to have been removed in 1859-62 (fn. 34) when the street was widened under the provisions of the Lendal Bridge Act. (fn. 35) It seems likely that the buildings later to be known as Museum Chambers and Museum Street Rooms and regarded as part of the Festival Concert Rooms were erected at this time, as the adjoining Thomas's Hotel and the Board of Guardians' offices are said to have been. (fn. 36) The concert room frontage to Museum Street had certainly been completed by 1889. (fn. 37)

Among the functions held in the concert rooms in the early 20th century were film shows: a cinematograph licence was granted from 1910 until 1915. (fn. 38) In 1929 the upper stories of the rooms were converted into offices and the lower (presumably the concert hall itself) was to become a produce saleroom. (fn. 39) The rooms were bought for £14,000 by Alderman Cooper in 1940 and he sold them at the same price to the corporation in 1941. From this time part at least of the building was known as Museum Chambers and rooms were leased to a variety of tenants. (fn. 40) Parts of the building were still used as offices and a storeroom in 1958 when the concert hall itself was converted into an exhibition hall and was once again connected with the Assembly Rooms. (fn. 41)

The De Grey Rooms

In 1842 the corporation leased ground in St. Leonard's Place to John Henry Lowther and others, who built there the De Grey Rooms; the necessary capital had been raised by the formation of a joint stock company in the previous year. The rooms were intended primarily to house the officers' mess of the Yorkshire Hussars during their annual visit to York, and for the barristers' ordinary (i.e. their daily meal) at the assizes; they took their name from Earl de Grey, colonel of the regiment. The rooms were also used for concerts, balls, public entertainments, and meetings. (fn. 42)

The rooms have continued in the hands of tenants since the original lease expired in 1917, (fn. 43) and their use for entertainments and meetings has been only rarely interrupted: they are said to have been used as the city treasurer's office in 1925 (fn. 44) and were requisitioned by the military authorities during the Second World War. (fn. 45)

The Theatre Royal (fn. 46)

The establishment of a theatre in York dates from the early 18th century when companies of travelling players relying upon private patronage, which had been common in the 16th and 17th centuries, were being replaced by independent companies using limited, regular circuits of a few towns. One of these companies, owned by Thomas Keregan, performed in Hull, Leeds, Beverley, and York, and in 1734 obtained permission to open a theatre in the tennis court of the old Ingram house near the minster. (fn. 47) This accommodation proved inadequate and in 1744 Keregan's widow leased the cloisters of St. Leonard's Hospital from the corporation where she built York's first permanent theatre. It is upon this same site that the present Theatre Royal stands.

The theatre manager was Joseph Baker, a member of the company, and he succeeded Mrs. Keregan as lessee in January 1761. He was given the lease on the condition that he spent at least £500 on improving the building and by 1765 he had created a spacious theatre which was reckoned to be one of the finest outside London: it consisted of a pit backed by a tier of boxes and two galleries. In doing so, however, Baker expended all his energy and capital and was obliged to give up the theatre almost as soon as he had created it. (fn. 48)

During the 1760's another theatre, small and doubtless only temporary, existed in the city: the Little Theatre, in Jubbergate, where the Leeds Company of Comedians were performing The Beaux' Stratagem and other plays in 1767. (fn. 49)

The new manager and lessee, who took over the Theatre Royal (fn. 50) in 1766 and remained until his death in 1803, was Tate Wilkinson. He published voluminous memoirs which give a very detailed history of the theatre during these years. The circuit was enlarged to include York, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Wakefield, Doncaster, and Hull, and this kept the company busy for most of the year. (fn. 51) The building was only slightly altered, the sides of the first gallery being converted into green boxes in 1780. There were many financial crises but Wilkinson managed to remain solvent throughout his years as manager. (fn. 52) His greatest achievement was to enhance the prestige of the theatre in York until it began to approach that of the London theatres. It was an arduous task. He had to discipline an unruly and ill-mannered audience; (fn. 53) he had even to convince his own actors of the dignity of their profession and his attempts to direct their performances were regarded by them as an intrusion. The repertoire of the company was extended by him to include most of the works of Shakespeare and those of Sheridan and other 18th-century playwrights soon after their London productions, to say nothing of opera and oratorio. (fn. 54) On the other hand the greatest profits were always made from the worst plays or contrived spectacles involving stage machinery. Indeed, the only occasions on which profits were made on Shakespearian productions were those when there were visiting London 'stars' like Mrs. Siddons (fn. 55) or John Philip Kemble. (fn. 56)

After the death of Tate Wilkinson, his eldest son, John, was manager for a few years; after initial success he was obliged in 1814 to give up the circuit which, by that time, was reduced to York, Hull, Leeds, Doncaster, and Wakefield. During the next half century there was a decline, and manager followed manager in rapid succession. For long periods there was no manager at all and in 1853 the corporation was only prevented with some difficulty from closing 'Satan's synagogue', as they called it. There was a parallel decline in taste. The programme was lengthened because of the growing practice of putting on three or four short pieces with interludes. (fn. 57) Most of these pieces were melodramas or adaptations of popular novels. (fn. 58) The nadir was reached with nigger minstrels and poses plastiques. One of the more enterprising managers, Robert Mansel (1821-4), carried out extensive alterations to the building. The interior was entirely remodelled so that it had a semicircular, as opposed to the old rectangular, form, with two tiers of boxes, a gallery, and a commodious pit. Mansel had organized a public subscription for these alterations and he had also persuaded the corporation to give him some assistance. In 1834-5 the corporation also provided the theatre with a new façade, including a pseudoElizabethan gable, in St. Leonard's Place; this was becoming more important than the theatre's aspect into Lop Lane (now Duncombe Place).

Despite all these improvements the old circuit of theatres, centred upon York, had completely collapsed by 1860. It was revived once more in 1865 by John Coleman who built up his 'Great Northern' circuit of York, Leeds, Hull, Doncaster, Liverpool, and Glasgow. This was a highly successful business enterprise based upon spectacular productions, particularly of pantomimes and melodramas, and making no concession to taste. Coleman spent much of his profits on further alterations to the theatre. In 1866 he removed the old middle gallery to make an improved dress circle and in 1875 he added a new upper circle with a promenade. He also extended the pit underneath the boxes and circle and reduced the number of boxes. When the work was completed in 1888, Coleman had produced a more characteristically Victorian theatre.

Coleman became bankrupt in 1876 and the theatre was transferred to W. A. Waddington (fn. 59) who had been trying to obtain the lease for many years. It remained in the hands of the Waddington family until 1911. Waddington made the final break with the old circuit system for he relied entirely upon touring companies. These companies brought many notable plays (fn. 60) to York and the system of short pieces and interludes was completely abandoned. More alterations to the building were made, notably the complete reconstruction of the St. Leonard's Place façade, producing the present Victorian Gothic front. (fn. 61)

The increasing popularity of music halls caused W. H. Waddington to give up the theatre in 1911. It was then taken over by Percy Hutchison who continued to use touring companies against the growing competition of the cinema. In 1933 he was declared bankrupt.

The difficulties were overcome by an unusual expedient. A group of leading citizens formed The York Citizens Theatre Trust, with a capital of £2,300 subscribed in £1 shares, to establish a repertory company in the theatre. (fn. 62) The company began performances in February 1935 but it was not immediately successful. After it had been reorganized as a non-profit-making trust and the prices of the seats had been much reduced, however, the repertory system rapidly became established and continued to flourish in 1958.

The Opera House and Empire

At the beginning of the 20th century the Theatre Royal found a rival in the music hall: the 'York New Grand Opera House' was opened in 1902 and presented popular entertainments in various forms. It was built on the site of the corn exchange, King Street, by the proprietors of the Opera House, Harrogate, who, in the previous year, had bought the exchange for £7,500. The York Opera House was designed by John Briggs, the London theatre architect, and cost about £23,000. (fn. 63) In 1903 it began to present 'varieties' in order to avoid direct competition with the Theatre Royal and it was presumably from this time that it was known as the Opera House and Empire. (fn. 64) The theatre was closed in 1956 and reopened as the 'S.S. Empire' in 1958 for roller skating, dancing, and other purposes. (fn. 65)


In the early years of the century 'animated pictures' joined variety as a competitor of the Theatre Royal. Film shows were given in the Opera House, the Festival Concert Rooms, the Exhibition Buildings, the Victoria Hall (Goodramgate), the New Street Wesleyan Chapel, (fn. 66) and in the Theatre Royal itself. (fn. 67) Two of these were later used as permanent theatres: the New Street chapel at some time after its disuse for worship in 1908 became first the Hippodrome, and then, in 1920, the Tower Cinema, which was still open in 1959; (fn. 68) the Victoria Hall later became the National Picture Theatre but was closed for conversion to a dance hall in 1924 (fn. 69) and later demolished. Films were also among the enter tainments of the City Palace, Fishergate, which was staging variety concerts as early as 1910; as the Rialto, it was burnt down in 1935 but was replaced by the new Rialto on the same site. (fn. 70) This cinema, also staging variety shows and concerts, was still open in 1959.

The first building designed as a cinema, the Electric, Fossgate, was opened in 1911; re-named the Scala in 1951, it was sold for use as shops in 1957. (fn. 71) Three further cinemas were established during the following ten years: the Picture House, Coney Street, was opened in 1915 and converted to shops in 1955; (fn. 72) The Grand, Clarence Street, was opened as a cinema and ballroom in 1919 but converted to a rollerskating rink and ballroom in 1958; (fn. 73) and the St. George's Hall, Castlegate, was opened in 1921 (fn. 74) and was still in existence in 1959.

Four new cinemas were opened in the 1930's: the Regent, Acomb, in 1934, (fn. 75) the Odeon, Blossom Street, the Regal, Piccadilly, and the Clifton, in the street of that name, in 1937. (fn. 76) The Regent closed in 1959 (fn. 77) but the others were then still open.


  • 1. See above.
  • 2. York Corp. Rec., Ass. Rooms. Min. Bk. 1729-58, pp. 1-3.
  • 3. Ibid. pp. 6-7.
  • 4. Rudolf Wittkower, Hist. York Ass. Rooms (York [1951]).
  • 5. Ass. Rooms Min. Bk. 1729-58, pp. 6-7.
  • 6. Ibid. p. 40; some of the building costs were probably paid out of early profits; the first dividend was paid on £5,275: ibid. p. 136.
  • 7. Ibid. pp. 11, 15; the inscription on the stone shows the date to have been Queen Caroline's birthday reckoned according to the year ending 25 Mar.: this has led to some confusion in publications about the rooms.
  • 8. Ibid. pp. 23, 61.
  • 9. Ibid. 28 June and 1 July 1731, 11 Oct. 1732 and see ibid. p. 285.
  • 10. Ibid. pp. 134, 136.
  • 11. Ass. Rooms Dividend Acct. Bks. passim
  • 12. Min. Bks. 1758-1838, pp. 108-9.
  • 13. Ibid. 1729-58, p. 231; and see 1758-1838, p. 78.
  • 14. Ibid. 1758-1838, p. 131 and under date.
  • 15. Ibid. 1729-58, p. 243.
  • 16. Ibid. passim
  • 17. Ass. Rooms Min. Bk. 1729-58, passim
  • 18. Ibid. 1758-1838, p. 28 and passim
  • 19. Ibid. pp. 119, 131.
  • 20. Ibid. pp. 136-7, 142 sqq. 146, 156, 176.
  • 21. Ibid. passim
  • 22. Ibid. and 1858-1925 passim
  • 23. Ibid. 1858-1925 passim; from 1899 the secretary submitted an annual report to the directors.
  • 24. Ass. Rooms Register Bk.; Min. Bk. 1758-1838 pp. 108-9; Yorks. Gaz. 12 Sept. 1925.
  • 25. Yorks. Gaz. 8 Oct. 1927.
  • 26. York Corp. Mins. 1927-8, 47.
  • 27. Wittkower, Hist. York Ass. Rooms, passim; York Georgian Soc. Rep. 1950-51, 29 and passim; Yorks. Gaz. 22 June 1951.
  • 28. The building has been described in numerous publications: see e.g. Wittkower, Hist. York Ass. Rooms, York Georgian Soc. Rep. 1950-1; Country Life, 22 June and 13 July 1951; [Arthur Anderson] York Ass. Rooms (York 1902).
  • 29. J. Crosse, Acct. Grand Musical Festival held in Sept. 1823 (priv. print. York, 1825), appendixes pp. 22-23; Yorks. Herald, 28 Apr. 1906.
  • 30. Crosse, Acct. Grand Mus. Fest. &c. app. p. 23 and plan facing p. 21.
  • 31. York Corp. Rec. K/94, 'Contract for alterations, &c.', 'Statement of Acct. 1829'.
  • 32. Ibid. 'Cash Acct. &c. 1833'.
  • 33. Yorks. Herald, 28 Apr. 1906.
  • 34. Knight, Hist. York, 667.
  • 35. 23 Vict. c. 19 (priv. act).
  • 36. Knight, Hist. York, 673.
  • 37. O.S. Plan, 1/2500 (1892).
  • 38. York Corp. Mins. passim.
  • 39. Yorks. Gaz. 5 Oct. 1929.
  • 40. York Corp. Mins. 1939-40, 684-6; 1940-1, 215; 1941-2, 393; 1947-9, 118, 934; 1952-3, 564, 936.
  • 41. Yorks. Eve. Press, 27 Feb. and 25 Sept. 1958.
  • 42. York Corp. Mins. 1915-16, 730; Sheahan and Whellan, Hist. York and E.R. i. 601.
  • 43. York Corp. Mins. 1916-17, 279; 1921-2, 30; 1922-3, 736; 1926-7, 307; 1940-1, 16, 360; 1944-5, 639; 1952-3, 600.
  • 44. Kelly's Dir. N. and E.R. and York (1925).
  • 45. York Corp. Mins. 1938-9, 671; 1941-2, 651.
  • 46. This article is derived almost entirely from Sybil Rosenfeld, 'The York Theatre', T/S in York Pub. Libr.
  • 47. Performances had been given in the Merchant Tailors' Hall since 1715; for the Ingram house see p. 340.
  • 48. Baker may have tried to start another theatre in 1768 when he petitioned the corporation about it: York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 44, p. 245.
  • 49. York Courant, 20 Oct. 1767; no other reference to this theatre has been found.
  • 50. It acquired this title by royal patent in 1769.
  • 51. In the season of 1780 it played as follows: 9 Jan.-5 May, York; 7 May-13 July, Leeds; 13-22 July, Sheffield; 13-18 Aug. Newcastle; 20-31 Aug., York (Race Week); 3-22 Sept., Wakefield; 24 Sept.-6 Oct., Doncaster; 23 Oct.-7 Jan., Hull.
  • 52. MS. accts. for most of the period 1776-83 are preserved in York Pub. Libr.
  • 53. Audiences were always noisy and there were severa riots. In 1791 the audience even attempted to set fire to the theatre.
  • 54. Handel's oratorios were regularly performed during Passion Week.
  • 55. In 1777, 1789, 1796, and 1799. On the first occasion she was not very well known and Wilkinson unsuccessfully tried to persuade her to join the company.
  • 56. In 1788, 1791, and 1799. He had been a member of the company from 1778 to 1781.
  • 57. On the other hand these years saw some fine productions of the operas of Mozart and Rossini.
  • 58. A Dickens craze succeeded a Scott craze.
  • 59. He owned a music shop in Stonegate, the Festival Concert Rooms and a second theatre in Scarborough.
  • 60. These included works by Pinero, Ibsen, and Shaw, and a production of Lady Windermere's Fan in Sept. 1892, in the presence of its author. Sarah Bernhardt appeared in La Dame aux Camélias in 1904 and with Mrs. Patrick Campbell in Pelleas et Melissande in 1905.
  • 61. The old 'piazza', which was then removed, was reerected in Fulford Road, near Howard Street, where it still stands.
  • 62. Hutchison had had a repertory company for a short period in 1930.
  • 63. Yorks. Gaz. 13 Apr. and 16 Nov. 1901, 11 Jan. 1902, 28 Dec. 1951.
  • 64. Yorks. Herald, 15 Sept. 1906.
  • 65. Yorks. Eve. Press, 9 June 1956, 23 May 1958.
  • 66. See p. 409.
  • 67. See, e.g. Yorks. Gaz. 2 and 23 Dec. 1905; 16 Nov. and 29 June 1907, 4 Jan. 1908, 2 Jan. 1909.
  • 68. Ex inf. G. Drayton, Esq. 1956; Yorks. Eve. Press, 28 Mar. 1956.
  • 69. Yorks. Gaz. 12 July 1924.
  • 70. Ibid. 25 June 1910, 8 Apr. and 22 Nov. 1935.
  • 71. Ibid. 3 June 1911; Yorks. Eve. Press, 27 Mar. 1957.
  • 72. Yorks. Gaz. 17 Apr. 1915; Yorks. Eve Press, 10 May 1955.
  • 73. Yorks. Herald, 11 Nov. 1919; Yorks. Eve. Press, 4 June 1958.
  • 74. Yorks. Gaz. 12 Mar. 1921.
  • 75. Yorks. Herald, 12 Feb. and 13 Mar. 1934.
  • 76. Yorks. Eve. Press, 1 Feb., 25 Sept. and 18 Nov. 1937.
  • 77. Ibid. 19 Mar. 1959.