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The Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham

Formerly - The New Theatre - The Theatre

Introduction - First Theatre - Second Theatre - Third Theatre - Fourth Theatre - Shakespeare Tavern

Birmingham Index

The fourth and final Theatre Royal, Birmingham during the run of 'Can-Can' on the 21st of May 1956. The Theatre would be demolished only 7 months later - Courtesy Gerry Atkins

Above - The fourth and final Theatre Royal, Birmingham during the run of 'Can-Can' on the 21st of May 1956. The Theatre would be demolished only 7 months later - Courtesy Gerry Atkins

There have been four Theatres on this site in New Street, Birmingham and all four are listed individually on this page below. Also included at the bottom of this page are details of the Shakespeare Tavern or Bragg's Vaults, which was a hostelry situated beneath the Theatre, and in business from the early years until the 1904 rebuild.

The First Theatre - 1774

The New Theatre

The first Theatre on this site in New Street, Birmingham opened on the 20th of June 1774 as the New Theatre. It was built for Richard Yates at a cost of £4,000 and designed by the architect, Saul. The auditorium was capable of accommodating some 2,000 people. In 1780 a new facade and portico were added, designed by Samuel Wyatt, which survived until 1902 despite the rest of the building being destroyed by fire twice. The first fire was on Friday the 17th of August 1792 and was reported in the World Newspaper on the same day, saying:

'On Friday morning, about one o'clock, the inhabitants of Birmingham were alarmed with the cry of Fire! It was soon discovered to be the Theatre. This elegant pile of building was, in a few minutes after the discovery, one vast blaze. The very grand front, we understand, was executed by that ingenious artist Mr. Wyatt, at an expence of 4000l.

No cause can yet be assigned for this accident - but the general opinion is, that a few miscreants have been some time premeditating the destruction of this building, as some attempts were before made to set it on fire. The Theatre was the property of Mr. Yates and several other Subscribers.

By this unfortunate circumstance, the following persons are disappointed of their Benefits: Mr. Fawcett, Miss Cleland, Mr. Suett, Miss Webb, Mr. Harley, Miss Purcel, Mr. and Mrs. Wewitzer, Miss Valois, Mr. and Mrs. Rubery. The following Benefits are over: Mr. Marshall - £83, Mrs.Booth & Mr. Frederick £50, Mr. Saunderson £70, Mr. and Mrs. Rock £59, Mr. Chalmers £63.

The Shakespeare Tavern, belonging to Mr. Wilday, is much damaged. Suett, the Actor, is inconsolable for the loss of a curious Box of Wigs, which he has been some time collecting, at a great expense.'

Above text in quotes is from the World Newspaper Friday the 17th of August 1792.

The Second Theatre - 1794

The Theatre / The Theatre Royal

After the fire and destruction of the first building the Theatre was subsequently completely rebuilt in 1794 by George Saunders and Charles Norton except for the Wyatt facade which survived the fire.

The Theatre's name was changed to the Theatre Royal in 1807 when a Royal Patent was granted to the Theatre on the 1st of August that year. John Alfred Langford wrote about this in his 'A Century of Birmingham Life or A Chronicle of Local Events from 1741 to
1841' Volume 2, pp262-263, in which he quotes his source as being the 'Journals of the House of Commons' and writes: 'On 26th February 1807 William Sharpe, James Woolley, Matthew Boulton and other people from Birmingham, proprietors of the Theatre, requested leave to bring in a Bill to grant Letters Patent. It was reported on March 23 that a Committee had examined the petition, the report was presented, leave was given to bring in a Bill. The Bill was brought in on March 25, it passed the Commons on April 21, passed the Lords with a few amendments. On August 1st it received the Royal Assent, and the Theatre in Birmingham became the Theatre Royal.' Courtesy Maggie Burns (Librarian, Archives and Heritage, Central Library, Birmingham) who says: 'Langford also remarked that the first advertisement to carry the title Theatre Royal was dated November 2nd, 1807.'

Sadly the Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham, which was managed by Mr. Bunn at the time, was destroyed by fire just like its predecessor, this time on the 14th of January 1820. The Liverpool Mercury carried an extract of a private letter about the fire in their 14th of January 1820 edition saying:

'This morning this town was thrown into the utmost alarm by the cry of 'fire'; the inhabitants were fortunately many of them not retired to rest, it being Twelfth Night. On proceeding into the street, the Theatre was found on fire: and although every assistance was immediately given that possibly could be in the course of two hours the whole of that beautiful and magnificent structure was reduced to a heap of ruins. The first alarm was given about one o'clock; a party had been detained until a late hour by the festivities of the manager, Mr. Bunn, in one of the rooms, and they had only broken up about half-past eleven. Every attempt to check the progress of the flames was found unavailing; and about three o'clock the roof fell in with a tremendous crash. Fortunately no lives have been lost during this dreadful calamity; but not an article of any description was saved. The performances of the evening had been Pizarro, and it is conjectured that the wadding from the muskets might have occasioned the disaster, by which many members of society have been cast upon the world without any portion of their property. The Theatre was insured in the Sun Office for £7000, and the furniture in the Norwich Union for £2000. Our last Theatre was burnt down by an incendiary in August 1791.' (Please note that this date is in error as the first Theatre actually burnt down on Friday the 17th of August 1792 and not 1791 as stated in this article. M.L.)

Above text in quotes is from the Liverpool Mercury, 14th of January 1820.

Underneath the Theatre was a bar called the Shakespeare Tavern, also known as Brags' Vaults. This was in existence since the very first Theatre on the site and remained until the rebuild of 1904. There are more details on this below.

The Third Theatre - 1820

The Theatre Royal

The 1820 rebuilt Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham - From 'The Playgoer' 1901 - Courtesy Iain Wotherspoon

Above - The 1820 rebuilt Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham, with the 1780 Samuel Wyatt Facade still in place - From 'The Playgoer' 1901 - Courtesy Iain Wotherspoon

The Theatre was then rebuilt yet again making it the third Theatre on the site, this time designed by the architect Samuel Beazley, who replaced everything behind the Samuel Wyatt facade which remarkably had survived the second fire as well as the first. Although there had been no deaths in the fire of 1820, during the rebuilding of the Theatre several people were injured and one died when an accident occurred when part of the building collapsed. The Newcastle Courant reported the story in their May the 20th 1820 edition saying:

'A fatal accident occurred at the re-building of the Birmingham theatre on Wednesday last. A cast iron cradle or beam, of considerable length, which supported a heavy superstructure of brick at the back of the stage, suddenly snapped in the centre, and, bringing down in its fall the immense mass of materials above it, injured eight of the workmen, several of them very severely. The sufferers were conveyed to the hospital, where one of them died as soon as he arrived; the others are all in a fair way to do well. The proprietors have since determined, not only to exclude cast iron from all parts of the building where the least dependence upon it is required; but to substitute a wooden roof for the wrought or plate iron one they had intended to erect; and which, at a very great expense, was nearly, if not wholly constructed, the workmen are now employed in removing the cast iron supports which were put up before the accident took place. The proprietors have resolved to settle an annuity upon the widow of the poor man killed, and make a weekly allowance to the injured workmen, until they shall be able to resume their employment.'

Above text in quotes is from the Newcastle Courant, 27th of May 1820.

In 1875 the stage and auditorium were altered by the architect, Naden, and ten years later in 1885 there were major alterations to the building when the fly tower was replaced with a new one.

Underneath the Theatre was a bar called the Shakespeare Tavern, also known as Brags' Vaults. This was in existence since the very first Theatre on the site and remained until the rebuild of 1904. There are more details on this below.

This third Theatre was completely demolished, including Wyatt's facade, in 1902 to make way for the building of a new Theatre on the same site.

A small part of the 1820 Theatre still survives in the form of a relief of Shakespeare and Garrick, now held at the Birmingham Central Library.

The Fourth Theatre - 1904

The Theatre Royal

The fourth and final Theatre Royal, Birmingham during the run of 'Can-Can' on the 21st of May 1956. The Theatre would be demolished only 7 months later - Courtesy Gerry Atkins

Above - The fourth and final Theatre Royal, Birmingham during the run of 'Can-Can' on the 21st of May 1956. The Theatre would be demolished only 7 months later - Courtesy Gerry Atkins

A programme for 'Random Harvest' at the Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham for the week commencing Monday July the 18th 1949.The Theatre was completely rebuilt after the old one had been demolished and the site had been cleared, making it the fourth Theatre on the site. This one was designed by the architect Ernest Runtz with a new frontage designed in the Adam Style. The Theatre was built for the Theatre Royal Birmingham Ltd., at a cost of £50,000, and opened on the 16th of December 1904 with a production of the Pantomime 'Babes in the Wood.'

The auditorium of the new Theatre Royal was built on four levels, Stalls and three balconies, and had a capacity of 2,200. The stage was 46ft deep by 72ft wide, with a proscenium opening of 34ft and a height to the grid of 59ft. There was an orchestra pit capable of accommodating 17 musicians.

A programme for 'The Dancing Years' by Ivor Novello at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham in June 1941 - Courtesy Alison Tobin - Click to see entire programme.Right - A programme for 'Random Harvest' at the Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham for the week commencing Monday July the 18th 1949.

In 1929 the Theatre was taken over by Moss Empires.

During the First World War the Theatre Royal was noted for giving free performances for wounded soldiers, some 30,000 of whom were entertained during those four years.

Left - The Theatre also carried on during the second world war, this programme for 'The Dancing Years' by Ivor Novello was produced in June 1941 - Courtesy Alison Tobin - Click to see entire programme.

In 1956 the Theatre was taken over by Valentine Parnell & Emile Littler.

 

The Auditorium of the fourth Theatre Royal, Birmingham - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure of 1949

Above - The Auditorium of the fourth Theatre Royal, Birmingham - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure of 1949

 

A Birmingham Post article on the last night of the Theatre Royal, Birmingham - Courtesy  Howarth Nuttall.The Theatre Royal closed its doors for the last time on the 15th of December 1956 after the last performance there of 'Fol-de-Rolls'. Howarth Nuttall was a member of the "Fol de Rolls" company and says:- 'They began demolishing the Theatre even as the show was performing, back-stage that is. A member of the cast on that night was the late Leslie Crowther. Because Greatrex Newman who ran the "Fols" was unable to be present, the farewell speech was given by Clarkson Rose. I have a photo of the final line-up of that night (see below) and also a press cutting from the Birmingham Post (right and transcribed below)' - Howarth Nuttall.

The Birmingham Post article photo captions read:- "The Lord Mayor of Birmingham Ald.E.W.Apps speaking at the end of the last night at the theatre Royal on Monday night. Interior demolition work began immediately the audience had left."

"The Fol-de-Rols line up for the final curtain of the final show. And behind the gaiety is finality. As William Makepeace Thackeray wrote: "The play is done, the curtain drops." But at least there is the knowledge that the Royal’s story has been ended on a note of cheerful humour... Two Pieces of the old building above will still exist – the medallions picture at each side of the top of this page. These stone portraits of Shakespeare and Garrick that survived two burnings and one demolition, to be bought finally by Phillip Rodway and presented to the theatre – have been removed from the circle staircase ready to be included into the new building expected to be erected on the Inner Ring Road. The house is dead, but what is housed can never die. For drama is the grace that makes witches of whispers and breathes delight into a painted mask." - Birmingham Post, Monday December 17th, 1956 - Kindly sent in and transcribed by Howarth Nuttall.

 

The Last Night line up of 'Fol De Rolls' at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham before it was demolished - Courtesy Howarth Nuttall.

Above - The Last Night line up of 'Fol De Rolls' at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham before it was demolished - Courtesy Howarth Nuttall. From left to right as you look at the picture are Liz Mosscrop, Pat Burrell, Ursula Gayler, Kenneth Mason, Tom Walling, Pauline Innes, Charlie Stewart, Kathleen West, Leslie Crowther, Anne Matthew, Peter Felgate, Patricia Lambert, Howarth Nuttall, Jacque Prescott, Pat Woodward, and Jennifer Martin. Accompanying the show in the pit were Harry Tate and Alice Stephenson on two pianos and Jimmy Green the drummer.

A photograph of the 'Fol De Rolls' Company singing Auld Lang Syne on stage at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham on the Theatre's final night before it was demolished - Courtesy Howarth Nuttall.

Above - A photograph of the 'Fol De Rolls' Company singing Auld Lang Syne on stage at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham on the Theatre's final night before it was demolished - Courtesy Howarth Nuttall.

The Theatre Royal, Birmingham was demolished after the final performance of 'Fol De Rolls' on the 15th of December 1956. An office building called the Woolworth Building was later built on the site.

 

A visitor to this website, Maureen Taylor-Glaze, has sent in some memories of the Theatre Royal and her Grandfather who worked there for many years. Maureen says: ''Thank you for taking me down memory lane - a lovely trip! My grandfather, Joe Rushton, worked for the Theatre Royal for years - so many that "they" fired him at least twice, based on his well-over legal retirement age, but he kept turning up to show people to their seats in the upper balcony - to which he walked all stairs to get to his post! Finally, the managers just laughed, and ignored their paper-work. Granddad worked at this post until a few days before his death. I have so many memories which have started to pop up about my trips to the theatre with him, some of which include being taken, with lots of warnings to "Shush and be a lady", back-stage. I also remember, thanks to you, the stories my Grandfather and his son, Charles, telling me of how they still managed to stay "open" during the war ... Uncle Charles was in the Fire Brigade as he wasn't eligible for "full service." I also remember Granddad telling me about, when they were doing re-roofing from bomb damage, they started playing soccer on the roof with a "ball" they'd found ... then to their horror, they realised it was a skull from a bomb victim. Granddad was sick over the wall on to New Street. But, my memories of the back-stage ...Ah, what fun - thank you so much. - Maureen Taylor-Glaze 2011.

If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share, please Contact me.

 

The Shakespeare Tavern (Known as Bragg's Vaults) beneath the Theatre Royal, New Street,

The Shakespeare Tavern, also known as Bragg's Vaults, situated beneath the Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham - Photograph held in the Birmingham Reference Library - Courtesy Lesley Close whose Great Great uncle, George D. Bragg, ran the Shakespeare Tavern in the 19th century

Above - The Shakespeare Tavern, also known as Bragg's Vaults, situated beneath the Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham - Photograph held in the Birmingham Reference Library - Courtesy Lesley Close whose Great Great uncle, George D. Bragg, ran the Shakespeare Tavern in the 19th century, and whose obituary is reproduced below.

Death of Mr. George D. Bragg

Birmingham Daily Post, Friday January 12th 1900

The Shakespeare Tavern, also known as Bragg's Vaults, situated beneath the Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham - Photograph held at the Birmingham Reference Library - Courtesy Lesley Close whose Great Great uncle, George D. Bragg, ran the Shakespeare Tavern in the 19th century.Death removed yesterday a somewhat remarkable personage, and one of the oldest tradesmen in the city, in the person of Mr. George Davey Bragg, wine and spirit merchant, of New Street. Mr. Bragg, who was over ninety years of age, had been in failing health for some time, but until a month ago, when he had an attack of bronchitis, he regularly attended business.

Right - The Shakespeare Tavern, also known as Bragg's Vaults, situated beneath the Theatre Royal, New Street, Birmingham - Photograph held at the Birmingham Reference Library - Courtesy Lesley Close whose Great Great uncle, George D. Bragg, ran the Shakespeare Tavern in the 19th century.

Bragg’s Vaults, known officially as the Shakespeare Tavern, are situate under the Theatre Royal, and are of an old-fashioned character. The business was established by Mr. Bragg’s father, who, at an early age, took his son into partnership, and at his death, in 1851, at the age of seventy-four, the deceased gentleman had more money invested in the business than its founder.

Originally the business was entirely of a family character, and the customers who called and gave orders had a drink given to them. Such a reputation did this system secure, that customers took to calling without the excuse of an order, and paid for their drinks. A more retail business was consequently done, and a few years ago the quaint old tavern, with its cobwebs and dirty whitewashed walls, was a popular house of call with many of Birmingham’s leading tradesmen.

Above everything did the old man object to be interfered with, and his greatest enemy was the Health Inspector, who once a year, or less, insisted on the whitewashing of some of his cellars. As the little man of rather mean, if not shabby, exterior was driven away from his premises in a carriage of a long passage, drawn by a horse that matched it, no one would have suspected his great wealth or the fact that he was at one time a great dandy, and one of the most dashing horsemen of his day.

His real hobby was, however, shooting, and as a youth his pocket-money was spent in this pursuit. He was a man of remarkable activity, and until the last conducted the important work connected with his business. At eighty years of age, with a handful of dry biscuits in his pocket, he would tramp over the Welsh hills of his Moellogan estate and exhaust his keepers with walking; while, when close on ninety years of age, he bagged four brace of pheasants, a hare and a rabbit – ten kills out of twelve shots. To the last the old sportsman adhered to his muzzle-loader, and it was his love of shooting that led him to invest his capital in the way he did. For the
indulgence of his sporting proclivities, he also purchased estates in Gloucestershire and at Sutton Coldfield. He was a large landowner at Perry Barr, where he lived on the Birchfield Road. As indicated, Mr Bragg was of a quiet disposition, and never identified himself with public work. He never married, and had no close relations. His only sister married Mr. Samuel Hammond Turner, whose descendants are his nearest kin. The remains will probably be interred in the family vault at Great Barr, in which the bodies of his father and mother, taken from the catacombs of Christ Church, were recently placed.

Above text from the Birmingham Daily Post, January 12th 1900 - Courtesy Lesley Close whose great great uncle was George D. Bragg.

Lesley Close writes: 'The man mentioned in the last paragraph, Samuel Hammond Turner, is my great great grandfather. The remarkable thing is that he, the Mr Turner who married Mr Bragg's sister, died in 1841, almost 60 years before his brother in law, yet still merits a mention. As the article also mentions, George Bragg's father (also called George) ran the business before his son took over. George died in 1851 and documents from the time he was in charge suggest that the place of business was the Shakespeare Tavern beneath the theatre from very early on.' Lesley Close.

The Shakespeare Tavern was in existence since the very first Theatre on the site and remained until the rebuild of 1904.