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Early Drama in Bradford

From the ERA, 25th of June, 1887

Bradford Index

At the ordinary meeting of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society Mr W. Scruton recently read a paper on-the above subject. After briefly alluding to the time when the principal towns of Yorkshire were supplied with dramatic fare by the "Old York Theatrical Circuit," and especially the interesting period of Tate Wilkinson's management of the same, Mr Scruton dealt more particularly with the period when stage plays were first started in Bradford.

This town had never had any connection with the Old York Circuit, and those of its inhabitants who loved stage performances had to he satisfied with what they could find in such " Temples of the Drama " as came to the winter fair, and remained here for a week or two after Christmas. Fast dying out, however, was the generation that remembered the periodical visits of such strolling companies as Holloway's, Thornes', Parrish's, Yeoman's, Chatterton's, and others, who for many years pitched their tents in such open spaces in the town as might be available.

One of such spaces used for a long course of years for this purpose was a large piece of ground now occupied by Thornton's Buildings, Market-street. Afterwards the open ground adjoining the old Christ Church, top of Darley-street, became and continued for many years the favourite arena for the old strollers' booths.

Passing on to the period when Bradford could at last boast of a permanent stage of its own (about 1810), Mr Scruton said "Truly the drama had a very lowly and modest beginning here, for the first theatre of a permanent character was none other than an old barn in Southgate (now Sackville-street), Westgate. The history of this place is involved in much obscurity. I have it, however, on the authority of the late Mr Booth Illingworth, who spent the earlier portion of his life near the spot, that this was really the scene of the first Bradford Theatre. Its proprietor and manager was Mr L. S. Thompson, father of the afterwards famous Lysander Thompson, and the place, insignificant as it was, came to be spoken of as Thompson's Theatre. Mr Thompson, however, soon vacated the old barn, and took a fair-sized room in the yard at the back of the King's Arms, Westgate. Here he fitted up a stage and carried on dramatic performances in good earnest. In 1820 Mr Thompson left the King's Arms Yard, and started a theatre of some pretensions in Market-street. The place was then known as the Butter Cross, more recently as Bartle's Corner, and is now the site of the tower of the present Exchange building. As a theatre the place was capable of holding 700 or 800 people. It was while here that Mr Thompson induced the poet John Nicholson to write a three-act drama. It was entitled The Robber of the Alps, and was so well received that he was tempted to try his dramatising powers again. He did so, and produced his Siege of Bradford, which was successfully acted for the benefit of Mr Macaulay, one of the players, and yielded a profit of £47. But Nicholson derived no benefit from the performance, although he had been led to believe that he would receive a share of the profits.

Mr Thompson brought some good talent to his theatre in Market-street. It was a comfortable and attractive place, and ably managed, but failing to meet with sufficient encouragement he became disheartened and abandoned it, after pulling through a varying career of about three years. On Mr Thompson's vacation of the Market-street Theatre it was engaged for about two months by that King of "Strollers," Jemmy Wild, whose travelling booth afterwards became so widely known. As yet, however, Wild had not gone in for the drama, his programme consisting mainly of conjuring tricks, juvenile acrobatic exploits, and the wonderful feats of a pony called Billy, with small extras in the shape of ballet dances and short farces "never before attempted."

To him succeeded Smedley's and Skerrit's patent theatre. The former of these was located in the space now known as Peel-square. It was a large wooden structure, capable of holding about 1,200 people, was "highly respectable," well managed, and comfortable. Several of the scenes were from the brush of J. Wilson Anderson, a Bradford artist of considerable ability. Although Smedley had a good stock company he nevertheless went in for the "star" system. One of the most brilliant of these was the great tragedian G. V. Brooke, whose tragic fate on board the London will long be remembered. Brooke fulfilled a six nights' engagement here, beginning on Monday, June 19th, 1837, his performances being confined chiefly to Shakespearian characters.

Mr Skerrit's theatre, which was located but for a short period in the upper room of the Odd Fellows' Hall, Thornton-road, was one of the best attempts ever made to supply Bradford with superior dramatic performances. The building was not, unfortunately, favourably situated for a theatre, but a greater drawback than this was the very limited accommodation it afforded for a paying audience, the gallery especially being very small, and the admission - a shilling - being too high a figure for the "gods," who, when the price is in accordance with their pockets, are undoubtedly the best and most reliable patrons of the drama.

Another theatre dear to the memory of many an old Bradford playgoer was the old Theatre Royal, Duke-street, or the old "wooden box," as it was often called. As the home for so many years of what was styled the " legitimate drama " it certainly was a shabby concern. It was erected in the year 1841 as a theatre for Mrs Wild, and went by the name of the "Liver" theatre. Then it did service as a circus for a time, and in 1844 it was engaged by Messrs Mosley and Rice for the purposes of a theatre. Before being opened by them, however, it was altered and improved very much, and a grand new front, designed by Mr Chas. Rice, was stuck on.

There were other associations, however, clinging to the quaint-looking old building in Duke-street that must not be overlooked. It was the cradle of histrionic talent of no common order. Here was the birthplace of reputations such as those of Amy Sedgwick, Julia St. George, Maria Jones, Lysander Thompson (the younger), Rogers, Belford, J. G. Shore, Stoyle, and others, "names which reflected a glory back upon the place whence they sprang."

The boards of that old "wooden box" had been honoured by the tread of actors no less distinguished than Macready, Vandenhoff and his talented daughter, Mr and Mrs Charles Kean, Phelps, the Misses Cushman, Helen Faucit, and others.

The audiences at the old Royal were chiefly made up of the sons of toil - horny-handed men, who liked good acting and plenty of it. It was the play they went to see - not blue-fire and saltpetre - and if it was not to their liking they had a way of showing their disapproval which could not possibly be misunderstood.

The first performance in the old Royal, under the lesseeship of Messrs Mosley and Rice, took place on August 12th, 1844, and the first play put on the boards was that of The Hunchback, which was followed by the laughable farce of The Illustrious Stranger; or, Married and Buried.

In a conversation which he had with Mr Rice a few years ago concerning this period of his connection with the Bradford theatre he told Mr Scruton that the company at this time was the best he (Mr Rice) had ever known to be brought together outside London. It included Lysander Thompson, Mr and Miss Woolgar, Julia St. George, Walton, the tragedian, Lewis Ball, Mrs Nunn, and others of scarcely less excellence. Mr Scruton produced a playbill which gave the cast of the company at this time. It gave the names of fifteen male and ten female actors. Out of this number (twenty-five) only three now survive - viz. Mr Lewis Ball, Mrs Nunn, of this town, and Miss Kirk (now Mrs Brooke).

In the old stock company days the capabilities of actors were severely taxed by laborious study and long rehearsals. Some conception of this might be formed when it was stated that Mrs Nunn had appeared in as many as fourteen characters in one week. To Mrs Nunn belonged the honour of having reached the highest sum ever realised in the old Royal on the occasion of a single benefit. The largest amount that could be raised with a crowded house and at ordinary prices was £50. The year 1845 was regarded as a very successful one, the three proprietors having the sum of £450 to share among them as the net profits of that season. In illustration of his paper, Mr Scruton exhibited a view of the old Theatre Royal in Duke-street.

The above article was first published in the ERA, 25th June 1887.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

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