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The Britannia Theatre 115 - 117 High Street, Hoxton

Now - Hoxton Street, Hackney

See also in this area: The City of London Theatre, Bishopsgate - Wilton's Music Hall, Whitechappel - The Hoxton Hall - Hoxton Varieties, Shoreditch - The Royalty / Brunswick Theatres, Whitechappel - Shoreditch Theatres and Halls

 

The Britannia Theatre, Hoxton - Courtesy Peter CharltonThe Britannia Theatre, Hoxton was built by Finch Hill & Paraire and opened on Monday the 8th of November 1858. The Theatre is considered to have been one of the most important 'Saloon Theatres' of its period. Originally there had been a 'Saloon Theatre' behind the Britannia Public House built for Samual Lane. This was so successful that in 1858 he commissioned Finch Hill & Paraire to build him a new Theatre with a horse-shoe shaped auditorium. Finch Hill & Paraire, of 441 Oxford-street, had previously built a number of early music halls, and were the architects for the Theatre Royal, Holborn in 1866.

Right - An early photograph of the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton - Courtesy Peter Charlton.

The ERA reported on the opening of the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton in their 14th of November 1858 edition saying: ' Whatever may have been the anticipations of the most sanguine of those that come to behold the new and splendid theatre which Mr. Lane had erected on the site of the old Britannia Saloon - now, with the Lord Chamberlain's sanction, licensed to assume its prouder and more appropriate designation - we will venture to say that those expectations must have been more than realized by the elegance and the magnitude of the edifice in which they found themselves.

It must be some eighteen years ago, to borrow a popular line from the melodramatic repertory, since we first went forth into the then almost unexplored region of Hoxton to visit the spacious establishment which was, at that period, of itself a wonder, newly founded by Mr. Samuel Lane for the amusement of the population more especially belonging to this district. The theatre was then equal to most minor theatres; the pieces, chiefly based on subjects and legends of local interest, were written, and well written, for the purpose, and more attention was paid to scenic and spectacular effect than was at that time to be observed at places of far higher pretensions. Gradually the audience came to understand the economy and enjoyment of an evening passed within its walls, and as the throng of visitors was increased by those who had found the fame of its productions penetrating the very heart of the metropolis, the limits of the original building were enlarged, its attractions multiplied, and new exertions were found necessary to provide sufficiency of accommodation for the substantial evidence if this extension of patronage.

Thus encouraged to make still further improvements on his original design, the proprietor determined to construct an edifice which should not only be in perfect accordance with the requirements of the time, but in advance of all that had been up till that moment performed by his managerial brethren. The result was on Monday evening displayed in the opening of what may be justly described as the most spacious and comfortable of modern theatres, and one which, in its construction, reflects the highest credit on the architects, Messrs. French Hill and Paraire, and on the builders, Messrs. Hollands and Hanneir. A description of the building and its appurtenances, derived from accredited sources (The Builder), will best serve to substantiate statements that might otherwise seem to savour of hyperbolical epithets:—

The site of the Hoxton Theatre occupies two parallelograms of ground, whereof one, next High-street, 36 feet by 52 feet, is appropriated to a tavern and two entrance ways - and the other at the back, 150 feet by 110 feet, is occupied by the theatre and its accessories, as promenades, scene painters' rooms, and carpenters' shop. Between the two main buildings is a corridor covered with glass. Into this both the entrances lead, and it is united by wide archways to a similar space in the theatre building, at the back of the pit, the whole together forming a promenade of 50 feet by 30 feet, from which access is gained to the pit, and by the staircases to the other parts of the house. There are three tiers of boxes at the sides of the house, but in the centre, the space corresponding in height with the two upper tiers, is occupied by one large gallery, which extends to the full limit of the building, or over the saloon, which itself corresponds with that part of the promenade which is immediately attached to the pit. The pit extends under the lower tier of boxes. It measures 76 feet in width, and is 58 feet from the back wall to the orchestra front. The stage is the same width, 76 feet, and it measures 60 feet from the footlights to the back wall. The curtain opening in the proscenium is 35 feet across and 36 feet in height. A portion of the pit is arranged as stalls. The accommodation in that floor is estimated at 1,200 persons seated (1,000 in the general area, wad 200 in the stalls); but, bringing into consideration the standing room in the promenade, and at the back of the pit, the total number accommodated will be 1,500 persons. The seats in the lower tier of boxes are divided into two classes by framed partitions. The whole accommodation in this tier will give 600 sittings; but the standing-places in the refreshment-room and adjoining will raise the number to 650 persons. The side boxes in the upper tiers and the great gallery will altogether hold 3,250 persons; whilst the sum of accommodation in all parts of the house, at 1 foot 6 inches to each sitter, will be 3,250 persons.

The two entrances from High-street are each of them 14 feet wide. There are in all five staircases; one of the number, however, is merely a staircase of communication between different parts of the house. Leading out from the ends of the promenade are two staircases to the boxes, each 5 feet wide, and at one end is a staircase of the same width to the galleries. The other staircases are those placed as before noticed. The refreshment-room to the boxes is 50 feet by 60 feet; and the floor is fire-proof. Three doorways of 4 feet opening, and others of 4 feet 6 inches, give access to the boxes of the two classes on this tier. All doors are made to open outwardly, and within the thickness of the walls. Cisterns and fire-proof cocks are to be provided. In case of a rush from the house escape, in addition to that by the 14 feet ways, could he afforded by removal of some light framed partitions separating the inner bar of the tavern from the outer bar, or that next the street.

The arrangements for the refreshment department, and in the provision of various conveniences, are extensive, as they are required to be from the practice of the house to avoid trouble in checks and re-admissions. Besides the tavern and the refreshment-saloon of the boxes, there is a refreshment court communicating with the pit promenade, and measuring 28 feet, by 25 feet, and an open court on the opposite side 50 feet by 15 feet. The main walls are 2 feet 3 inches in thickness at the piers, which carry the roof principals, the recesses being formed with arches above, and inverted arches below. The front to High-street, comprising that of the tavern, with the entrances to the theatre, is of stone, save the ground story which is in cast iron. Piers or pilasters with ornament carved thereon at the upper part of the shaft, a plain cornice, and windows with moulded and splayed reveals are the chief features.

The lighting of this splendid building has been intrusted to Messrs. Defries, of Houndsditch, who gained such high encomiums at the Royal Italian Opera, for the largest and most elaborately constructed chandelier in any theatre in Europe. The reputation of this firm has continually increased, they having fitted chandeliers in all the new metropolitan theatres, and though the last, not the least, they have displayed their talent at the New Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, which elegant interior is lighted by sixteen crystal sunlights that produce a marvellous effect, all the lights being hidden by glass prisms. The entrance is lighted by fourteen prismatic lanterns, all of richly-cut glass. On the whole, the lighting of this theatre must be declared perfect.

The prevailing colour of the interior, which has been decorated with the utmost taste under the suggestive direction of Mrs. S. Lane, is of a light roseate tint, relieved with mouldings in gold and white, and some elaborate ornamentation in high relief. The ceiling, which is divided into compartments, is of an oval form, and the way in which the auditorium has been fitted up must equally arrest attention from the adequate accommodation provided and the neatness of the appointments. Instead of the seats in the stalls and boxes being painted, the plain wood is varnished, a much better plan, and the comfort of the visitors is studied in a manner that can only be described by stating that the arrangements of the retiring rooms assimilate to those of first-class railway-stations.

The interest of the spectators, who came in thousands on the opening night, and have since been almost equally numerous, was evidently centred in the beautiful and commodious structure which had been prepared to receive them; but the dramatic entertainment well deserved the attention that it afterwards received. The curtain rose to a slight sketch apropos of the event, called Old Friends in New Frames, in which the principal members of the company appeared at a railway-station near the seaside, ready to resume their positions on the reopening of the theatre, Mrs. S. Lane prettily and appropriately directing and encouraging their efforts as the personification of the tutelary genius Britannia. The National Anthem was then well sung by the company, with solos by Miss Lilly Ross, and a new drama by Jar. C. H. Hazlewood, entitled The Brigand's Secret, was produced for the occasion. The principal feature in the cast is Mrs. S. Lane, who represents Jacqueline Jaconetti, a wandering Savoyard, with a vast amount of piquant vivacity, and sings very prettily the song of "I visit every town." Matthioli Venoni, the Brigand Chief, who possesses the important secret, is vigorously enacted by Mr. George Clair; and he is ably supported by Mrs. B. Ware, Mrs. W. R. Cranford (late Miss C. Borrow), Mr. J. Parry, Mr. J. Reynolds, Mr. W. Rogers, Mr. S. Sidney, and the other members of the company. In the second act a pas seul de basques, danced in admirable style by Mddle. Celeste Stephan, elicited much applause; and the scenery, especially the Vineyard. by Sunset, occupying the whole extent of the stage, and the Pavilion in the Chateau, attracted much observation. Written with a thorough knowledge of stage effect, the piece was quite successful; and was followed, by the song of "Billy Barlow," by Mr. G. W. Ross; and the interesting drama of Jessie Pere; or, the Return of the Wanderer, an established. favourite with the audience. A new act drop, representing a classical landscape, by Mr. William Beverley, principal scenic artist at the Italian Opera and Drury-lane, was exhibited in the course of the evening, and excited general admiration. The establishment of such a theatre as this in our northern suburbs is an event of much significance; and Mr. Lane, the proprietor, must be heartily congratulated on the success which his enterprise and liberality have secured for his exertions.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the ERA, 14th of November 1858.

Arthur Lloyd played the Britannia Theatre in 1865 and then again in 1882, this time at a Benefit for Mrs. Lane. The Stage reported on the evening saying: 'Mr. Arthur Lloyd's burlesque sketch, Maid Mary Anne; or, All a-Growing and a-Blowing, was the initial item on the bill, and its performance proved most entertaining. It was, if we mistake not, played some little time ago at the London Pavilion, and, as its title indicates, is a skit on the massive young lady lately exhibited at the Alhambra. When it is recorded that Mr. Arthur Lloyd makes-up very cleverly for Mr. Wm. Holland, that Mr. Tom Lovell impersonates the Amazon Queen with all his old appreciation of genuine humour, end that Mr. Victor Liston renders valuable aid, the success of the sketch goes without saying. The Stage, December 15th, 1882.

James Fernandez performed at the Britannia Theatre in August 1899.

The Britannia Theatre was later managed by Sara Lane, Sam Lane's widow, who was an actor and singer of some repute, and the Britannia was so popular with local audiences, with it's spectacular melodramas, that it soon became known as the Drury Lane of East London.

The site of the former Britannia Theatre in September 2013 - Photo M. L.In 1923 the Britannia was converted into a Cinema and gave up live productions, showing films exclusively.

Sadly the Theatre was bombed during the war in 1940 and mostly demolished, although there were still some fragments remaining until the 1970s. Today the site of the Britannia Theatre is occupied by flats.

Right - The site of the former Britannia Theatre in September 2013 - Photo M. L.

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

 

The Britannia Theatre, Hoxton by Ronald Mayes

The Britannia Theatre Hoxton.This fascinating little theatre, which stood in High Street Hoxton was unknown to any save its supporters in the North of London, drawn mainly from the districts of Hoxton and Kingsland. It stood on the site of an Elizabethan hostelry and gardens, called the "Pimlico" which was a favourite resort of London citizens for many a long year.

On Easter Monday 1841, The Royal Britannia Saloon-Britannia Tavern, Hoxton as the house was originally called was opened by Samuel Lane. His widow, Sara Lane, succeeded him in 1849, and was the manageress until her death in 1899.

Right - The Britannia Theatre Hoxton.

The theatre was unique in that it continued so long under one management; its actors, in the main, joined the company when young and many remained until their death. Authors too, wrote exclusively for the house, the drama peculiar to the theatre, preaching the gospel of rags. The Christmas pantomimes, which were well staged, usually ran up to Easter.

These early saloons were the forerunners of the music halls, having a particular licence which, whilst preventing the performance of Shakespeare, allowed the consumption of food and drink.

The Britannia held anything between three to four thousand people - the gallery was 3d., the pit 6d., and there were a few stalls at 1s. each.
Mrs. Lane, who was so well beloved of the surrounding districts that she could go alone unmolested where policemen had to go in couples, served up such shockers as "Sweeney Todd, The Barber Fiend of Fleet Street," "Maria Martin," or "The Murder in the Red Barn," &c. In 1851 James Anderson was engaged at a salary of £ 180 per week to play Shakespearean parts.

The old saloon was closed in 1858, and some adjacent houses were bought, on the site of which the Britannia Theatre arose. Here every variety of entertainment was given - "Pepper's Ghost," giants, acrobats, swimmers, Tom King, the pugilist, &-co.

Until almost before her death Sara Lane played "principal boy" in the yearly pantomime and acted as "Queen" at the "Britannia Festival," or annual benefit night. On these occasions the Festival would open about six o'clock with a drama, followed by acrobatic turns, songs, and dances. In the intervals refreshments of gigantic proportion were served. Attendants staggered under loads of sandwiches, fried fish, and hot saveloys. Others laboured carrying round their waist a wide zinc belt divided into compartments for porter and ale and provided with taps for
drawing off the liquid refreshment.


The turn of the evening arrived and the curtain went up showing Mrs. Lane, the Queen of Hoxton, surrounded by members of her troupe. Each member was then presented, and received a present from the manageress, afterwards turning to the audience and saying a few words.

The packed house, who knew the inner lives of the players as well as they did themselves, then threw bouquets - not the usual kind - but articles they thought the recipients in need of - joints of meat, boots, intimate wearing apparel, &c. In fact, stall holders frequently had to put up their umbrellas in case a parcel fell short. The audience then dispersed about midnight, tired but happy.

From 'The Romance of London Theatres' By Ronald Mayes.

 

Obituary for Frederick Perry who died 4 April 1917

A Famous Drummer
Military Funeral at Abney Park Cemetery

The internment took place yesterday, in the family grave at Abney Park Cemetery, of Mr Frederick William Perry who had the reputation of being one of the finest drummers in the world. His death occurred on Wednesday week, in his eighty-first year, and he is survived by his wife, Mrs Julia Mary Perry, who, a year younger than her husband, is an invalid, and lives at Frampton Park Road, South Hackney, where the couple had resided for the past thirty-five years. (Julia died 1920).

The late Mr Frederick Perry comes of a military and professional family. His father was Band Sergeant-Major of the Coldstream Guards, his grandfather was bandmaster of the Grenadier Guards and his great-great- grandfather also belonged to this latter regiment. The two last named members of the family died in Chelsea Hospital. The deceased, in his earlier days was noted as being one of four men who could properly play the ophicleide, a large brass German instrument used in military bands but now defunct owing to its difficult manipulation. Of his two sons, the elder became bandmaster to the 10th Lincolnshire Regiment, and also held the post of bandmaster to musicians of the Great Western Railway, India, in which country he died. The other son Mr Alfred Perry also served as a trooper in the 13th Hussars, afterwards entering the theatrical profession, with which the deceased drummer's seven daughters also became associated - two under the name of Curette.

A Magnificent War Record.

Mr Perry was corporal drummer in the Honourable Artillery Company for about forty years and was also a member of the Veterans' Corps of Hackney. He has serving with the Forces at the present time 21 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.

Another interesting fact, from a local point of view, is that Mr Perry was for fifty-two years drummer at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, he being the only musician who sat in the same orchestra for such a long period. In recognition of his services, Mrs Sara Lane, the then proprietress of the theatre made him a public presentation on his fiftieth anniversary, of a gold watch and albert, subscribed for by herself and others connected with the theatre. He was her oldest servant. His association with the "Old Brit" ceased when the Crawfords parted with it about ten years ago. Up to just prior to his death, however, he was still beating the drum and fulfilling engagements.

Many of the drummers in London were Mr Perry's pupils, and he had the distinction of training the late Queen Victoria's trumpeter to beat the drum and play the cornet. He himself received his tuition at the same time as the Duke of Edinburgh.

At yesterday's internment the coffin was covered with a Union Jack belonging to the Hackney Veterans' Corps, and his four grandsons, Messrs William and Thomas Danford, Sydney Woodhurst and Ernest Forrester acted as pall bearers.

Frederick William Perry's obituary courtesy Liz Shea.

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