Arthur Lloyd.co.uk
The Music Hall and Theatre History Site
Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904.

Celebrating Twenty Years Online 2001 - 2021

The Goodman's Field Theatre, Great Alie Street, Whitechapel

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

The Third Goodman's Fields Theatre, Great Alie Street, London in 1801 - From 'London Town Past and Present' Vol 2 by W. W. Hutchings 1909.

Above - The Third Goodman's Fields Theatre, Great Alie Street, London in 1801 - From 'London Town Past and Present' Vol 2 by W. W. Hutchings 1909.

Theatreshire Books  - Click to View Inventory

Goodman's Fields in Whitechapel owes its name to the existence of a plot of open space called Tenter Ground where bleached cloth was stretched to dry on tenterhooks. This open space disappeared long ago but its edges are still indicated by North Tenter Street and South Tenter Street.

The first Theatre in Goodman's Fields opened in 1703 and it was sited in a passage between Prescott Street and Chamber Street, south of Tenter Ground, see map below. It seems not to have lasted very long and we know almost nothing about it.

Goodman's Fields - From John Rocque's 1747 map of London - Courtesy Robert Whelan. Key:- (A) The site of the first (1703) Theatre - (B) The site of the second (1729) and third (1732) Theatres - (C) The site of the fourth (1739) (New Wells) Theatre.

Above - Goodman's Fields - From John Rocque's 1747 map of London - Courtesy Robert Whelan. Key:- (A) The site of the first (1703) Theatre - (B) The site of the second (1729) and third (1732) Theatres - (C) The site of the fourth (1739) (New Wells) Theatre.

We know more about the second Theatre. In 1729 the playwright Thomas Odell announced that he had been given permission to raise a subscription to open a Theatre in Ayliffe Street (now Alie Street) in Goodman's Fields, Whitechapel (see map above). There was considerable local opposition to having a Theatre in the area and applications were made to the justices of the peace to stop it.

Nevertheless it opened on 31 October 1729 with a performance of The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. It was not a new building but a converted warehouse and it represented the fourth Theatre in London, joining Drury Lane, Lincoln's Inn Fields and the King's Opera House in the Haymarket. For the first time since Charles II had issued theatrical patents at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there were now three regular companies performing plays in London.

The Theatre was small, with pit, boxes and a single gallery but it was profitable. The objections continued however, and there was a petition to the King to close it down. It ceased operations on 28 April 1730, but then, by some means we don't understand, it started up again on 11 May.

Odell started his second season on 16 September 1730, but he seems not to have enjoyed being a manager and, by the start of the 1731/32 season, the Theatre had passed to Henry Giffard, an actor in his company. Giffard wanted to build a bigger and better Theatre on the same site so he obtained a sixty-five year lease on the site, on the corner of what are now Alie Street and Mansell Street (see map above), from the local landowner Sir William Leman. It seems that Odell only held the site on a short lease and no one would put up the money for a purpose-built Theatre without security of tenure.

The architect of the new Theatre was Edward Shepherd, who was designing Covent Garden Theatre for John Rich at the same time, and work was underway by the early summer of 1732. The Theatre opened on 2 October 1732 with a performance of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1, with Giffard playing Hal. This new Theatre was a handsome building with a painted ceiling depicting a scene Apollo and the Muses surrounded by portraits of Shakespeare, Dryden, Congreve and the actor Thomas Betterton. Like its predecessor, it had a pit, boxes and a single gallery and its capacity was somewhere between 700 and 750 people.

Giffard and his wife acted with the company in their new Theatre from September to May every year until 16 May 1736 when they moved to the Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, opening there on 18 June 1736. This Theatre was standing empty because John Rich, who owned the building, had made so much money from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in 1728 that he had been able to build himself a new Theatre in Covent Garden. The Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields had a capacity that was almost twice that of the Goodman's Fields Theatre so it made financial sense for Giffard to move.

In the following year, Giffard unwisely allowed himself to become a pawn in Prime Minister Robert Walpole's scheme to introduce stage censorship. Walpole wanted to put a stop to the attacks on him by playwrights, especially Henry Fielding. However, censorship was very unpopular at the time, especially with the ruling Whig party, as it was felt to be unEnglish, and Walpole had failed before in his attempt to get a bill through parliament. In 1737 he succeeded in getting the Licensing Act through parliament by devising a deceitful strategy. The official story was that Henry Giffard went to Walpole with the script of a play called The Golden Rump which he was obliged to stage for financial reasons, even though it was stuffed with obscenity, treason and attacks on the royal family. Walpole stood up in the House of Commons during a debate on the Licensing Act and read some passages from The Golden Rump that were so shocking that MPs had no hesitation in voting for his bill. Of course, there never was any such play as The Golden Rump. It had no existence beyond the few sheets of paper Walpole was waving around in the House of Commons.

It was said that Giffard received £1,000 for assisting Walpole, but one effect of the Licensing Act was to make his Theatre in Goodman's Fields worthless, as only Theatres which held a royal patent or licence from the Lord Chamberlain were permitted to put on plays. Giffard had neither so he announced the sale of the Theatre, which still had more than fifty years to run on its lease, and an auction of its contents. We don't know if the auction went ahead but the sale certainly didn't, because in 1740 Giffard came up with an idea for getting around the restrictions of the Licensing Act. It became known as the 'concert formula' and it involved pretending that the evening's entertainment was a concert, for which patrons bought a ticket, but this concert was divided into two halves with a play performed 'gratis' in the interval. Concerts did not require a license from the Lord Chamberlain and all Theatres had orchestras, whatever they were presenting. These orchestras performed three pieces of music before the curtain went up, then more music between the acts. It was an easy matter to rearrange these musical interludes to make a 'concert' which could be given with a very long interval.

This newspaper advertisement for David Garrick's first London appearance is pretending that the audience are paying to hear a concert, for which no licence was required from the Lord Chamberlain, with two plays being performed 'gratis'. The theatre is described as 'the late theatre in Goodman's Fields' as if it is no longer a theatre – it is a concert hall! Reproduced in Shakspere to Sheridan by Alwin Thaler (1922).Giffard introduced this very obvious ruse when he opened his season on 15 October 1740 and he managed to get away with it. As his Theatre was in Whitechapel, it didn't represent a very serious threat to Covent Garden and Drury Lane, as they were in the West End and he was east of the City. His audience was mainly drawn from the population of the Square Mile, which was still large, rather than the fashionable districts further west. However, when Giffard opened his second season of 'concert' performances in the autumn of 1741, the situation changed, because he had discovered David Garrick. On 19 October, Giffard was announcing a performance of Shakespeare's Richard III, with 'the part of King Richard by a GENTLEMAN (who never appeared on any stage)'. We don't know how Giffard first came into contact with the unsuccessful young wine merchant in the Strand who had travelled down from Lichfield with his friend Samuel Johnson, and who harboured theatrical yearnings. However, at some point, probably in the early part of 1741, Giffard seems to have realised that he was onto something potentially big, and he took Garrick to Ipswich, where Giffard ran a summer season, to give him a crash course in acting. It was not strictly true, therefore, to describe Garrick in October as having 'never appeared on any stage', but he had never appeared in London before.

Right - This newspaper advertisement for David Garrick's first London appearance is pretending that the audience are paying to hear a concert, for which no licence was required from the Lord Chamberlain, with two plays being performed 'gratis'. The Theatre is described as 'the late Theatre in Goodman's Fields' as if it is no longer a Theatre – it is a concert hall! Reproduced in Shakspere to Sheridan by Alwin Thaler (1922).

Garrick's Richard III was a revelation and it was a case of overnight stardom. The house wasn't full for that first appearance, but word went around that there was a new acting sensation in Goodman's Fields and the fashionable world flocked to see him. The roads from Temple Bar to Whitechapel were jammed with the coaches of the gentry heading into the unfamiliar territory of the East End. One night Garrick heard that the poet Alexander Pope was out front, which gave him palpitations, but he needn't have worried. Pope's verdict was that: 'I am afraid the young man will be spoiled, for he will have no competitor.' As the season progressed, Garrick appeared in a range of parts from King Lear to Lord Foppington in The Relapse. At the age of twenty-four, he was the most celebrated actor in London, credited with introducing a new and more naturalistic acting style that caused people to see plays in a new light. The situation was regarded as intolerable by the managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden who put pressure on the Lord Chamberlain to explode this scam of 'the concert formula' and enforce the Licensing Act. A performance of The Beggar's Opera in Giffard's Theatre on 27 May 1742 was the last to take place there. The building was later converted into a chapel and then a warehouse. It burnt down in 1802.

An 'Admission Check' for the Pit of the Goodman's Fields Theatre - Reproduced in the book 'Shakspere to Sheridan' by Alwin Thaler in 1922.An 'Admission Check' for the Pit of the Goodman's Fields Theatre - Reproduced in the book 'Shakspere to Sheridan' by Alwin Thaler in 1922.

Above - Both sides of an 'Admission Check' for the Pit of the Goodman's Fields Theatre - Reproduced in the book 'Shakspere to Sheridan' by Alwin Thaler in 1922. The caption stated that the check showed the only known contemporary image of the Theatre where Garrick made his first appearance in 1741.

By the time Henry Giffard closed down his Theatre, another one had already started to operate, diagonally opposite across Tenter Ground in Hooper's Square on the corner of Lemon (now Leman) Street (see map above). It was called the New Wells and it opened in June 1739, specialising in pantomimes, tightrope walkers and dancers. However, in 1744, with Giffard's Theatre now closed, the New Wells started presenting plays, starting with The Recruiting Officer on 26 November. It was run by an actor called William Hallam who was a member of an extensive acting dynasty and he used the 'concert formula', like Giffard before him, to get around the Licensing Act. For the next two years Hallam presented plays in the winter, harlequinades and tightrope walkers in the summer. However in 1747 Hallam found himself facing a campaign to shut him down. He gave up performing plays (for which he should have had a licence) and stuck to pantomimes and acrobats (much safer). However, in the summer of 1751 he decided to try his luck with plays again, appearing as Richard III and Othello. This was risky and his Theatre was finally closed down on 18 December 1751. It seems that he was not charging for tickets but rather sold alcohol at very high prices to pay for the shows, which made him liable to condemnation as a 'public nuisance'.

For most Theatre managers who were shut down in London, the answer was to go somewhere else in the country, but William Hallam had a much bolder plan. He formed a company under his brother Lewis Hallam to go to America under the name of The London Company of Comedians. They made their first appearance at Williamsburg in Virginia on 15 September 1752 with Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and enjoyed considerable success. William Hallam took the risk of reopening his New Wells Theatre in November 1752 to give five benefit performances for himself. He got away with it, but they were the last performances in the New Wells, which subsequently became a tobacco warehouse. These benefit performances were probably to raise money for the London Company of Comedians, which prospered and went on to build Theatres in New York, Charles Town and Philadelphia. They represented the first fully professional theatrical venture in the New World, and it came about because an illegal Theatre in Goodman's Fields was shut down in 1751.

The above article on the Goodman's Fields Theatre was kindly researched and written especially for this site by Robert Whelan.

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

Other Pages that may be of Interest