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The Theatre Royal, Queen Street, Glasgow

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Queen Street, Glasgow showing the Theatre Royal to the right of the image - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Above - Queen Street, Glasgow showing the Theatre Royal to the right of the image - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

 

A Google StreetView Image of the former Royal Exchange, Glasgow, now the Gallery of Modern Art. At the center of this image is the site of the former Theatre Royal, Queen Street - Click to Interact.As the city of Glasgow was continuing to move westwards Walter Neilson, a market gardener and merchant, bought some riggs of land at Back Cow Lane and led the initiative with other merchants to set out plots to form Queen Street and the large elegant mansions which followed. William Cunninghame of Lainshaw, one of the most prosperous of the Tobacco Lords, took three plots for the site of his mansion in 1770 (which was incorporated in 1827 into the new Royal Exchange and is currently a Gallery of Modern Art).

Right - A Google StreetView Image of the former Royal Exchange, Glasgow, now the Gallery of Modern Art. At the center of this image is the site of the former Theatre Royal, Queen Street - Click to Interact.

To the north of his mansion was ground which was a market garden of fruit, vegetables, pear, apple and other trees. When the tenancy of this ended in 1801, and the two thatched cottages demolished, the site was bought from the Council for a new Theatre paid for by public subscription, the committee of merchants responsible being Laurence Craigie, John Hamilton, Dugald Bannatyne, William Penney and Robert Dennistoun.

The Corporation sent a petition to Parliament in February 1803 for a patent for the Theatre:-

That the City of Glasgow has of late been much extended and enlarged and beautified, whereby the number of wealthy and opulent inhabitants has much increased; and it has become expedient to provide for their amusement and that of the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood, a public theatre or playhouse, for acting tragedies, comedies, operas, and other performances of the stage, under proper rules and regulations; therefore pray that leave may be given to his Majesty to issue letters patent.


Designed by the city`s leading architect David Hamilton, the new Theatre Royal opened on 24 April 1805 and was “Unequalled out of London”. The new building in its Adam style and splendour accommodated 1,500 people and had six Ionic columns on the front, Corinthian columns in its main vestibule, an elliptical spectatory, three galleries and a proscenium gilded to resemble a picture frame. For a time there was a wooden building connected to it to house panoramas. John Jackson convinced the committee he should be the first manager.

An Entrance Token for the Theatre Royal, Glasgow - Courtesy Alan Judd An Entrance Token for the Theatre Royal, Glasgow - Courtesy Alan Judd

Above - An early Entrance Token for the Theatre Royal, Glasgow - Courtesy Alan Judd - If you know which of the three Theatres Royal in Glasgow this was produced for please Contact me.

Jackson was now totally exhausted and died a poor man in 1806. A series of new managers took over and in 1807 the Glasgow Herald wrote:- 'The superior excellence of the present company of the Theatre Royal is manifest from the number and respectability of the audience. We have no hesitation in saying that we bear off the palm from every provincial theatre in the kingdom.'

Popular artistes included Julia Glover, Charles Macready, Edmund Kean, Mr & Mrs Charles Kemble, Mrs Howard and Mrs Wyndham. Whenever Kean appeared the house was full to overflowing and 250 additional seats were added in the wings and onstage. The premiere of the national opera 'Rob Roy' took place in Queen Street in June 1818 starring W. H. Murray before it went on tour round Scotland.

Performances attracted the rich and not so rich patrons (there was a riot in 1818 when ticket prices were increased, requiring the Militia to be called to restore order). On the 18th September the same year the Theatre became the first in Britain to have gas lighting, with the announcement that:- 'The Grand Crystal Lustre of the front Roof of the Theatre, the largest of any of that time in Scotland, will, in place of the Wicks and the Candles and the Oil Lamps, be “Illuminated with Sparkling Gas.”'

A reviewer wrote:- 'every seat in the boxes up to the double and triple tier was at once engaged, the spacious pit was crammed to suffocation, the first, second, and third galleries had not an inch of standing room to spare. The house presented a most brilliant appearance. Nearly every citizen of wealth or repute was present with his family. The signal was given. The green curtain of the stage was raised. Then the band struck up the National Anthem, the audience joining in the chorus. The gas, as if by magic, made its first “evolutions” to the astonishment of all, leaving some of them to fancy that they had been ushered into a new world – a perfect Elysium on earth.'

The programme that night consisted of Mozart`s Don Giovanni by a company of Italian artistes under the baton of Mr John Corri. Scene painters included Alexander Nasmyth, who had added to his fame through his portrait of Robert Burns, and later David Roberts who wrote of his arrival in 1819:- 'This theatre was immense in its size and appointments - in magnitude exceeding Drury Lane and Covent Garden.'

But it was eventually the Dunlop Street Theatre that became busier - partly because the old building now had two operators in it, one upstairs and one downstairs, and partly because of the high rental cost of operating the Queen Street Theatre.

A playbill advertising a benefit performance in 1826, led by Clara Fisher, for the Relief of the Industrious Poor can be seen here.

An Entrance Token for the Theatre Royal Amphitheatre, Glasgow - Courtesy Alan Judd An Entrance Token for the Theatre Royal Amphitheatre, Glasgow - Courtesy Alan Judd

Above - An Entrance Token for the Amphitheatre of the Theatre Royal, Glasgow - Courtesy Alan Judd - If you know which of the three Theatres Royal in Glasgow this was produced for please Contact me.

The ruins of the Theatre Royal, Queen Street, Glasgow after being destroyed by fire on the 10th of January 1829 - Courtesy Donna Robertson. In 1829 this beautiful Theatre in Queen Street was burned to the ground following a rehearsal. The Theatre cost £18,000 but was insured for only £5,500 and the materials of the actors and manager were not insured. It was not rebuilt. The manager Frank Seymour made off with the £1,000 proceeds of a Relief Ball and went to Belfast. He returned in October the same year as manager of the newly built YORK STREET Theatre, claiming he had the right to the Letters Patent. Over a year later that Theatre closed (it was too far from the town centre and the Dunlop Street Theatre made certain that all shows came to it first).

Right - The ruins of the Theatre Royal, Queen Street, Glasgow after being destroyed by fire on the 10th of January 1829 - Courtesy Donna Robertson.

The above article on the Theatre Royal, Queen Street, Glasgow was written by Graeme Smith and kindly sent in by him for inclusion on this site in June 2015. It is extracted from Graeme Smith's book 'Theatre Royal : Entertaining a Nation'.

More about this Theatre and contemporary Theatres in Glasgow can be read online in The Glasgow Stage by Walter Baynham published in 1892.

 

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