The Royal Olympic Theatre, Newcastle Street and Wych Street, London
Formerly - The Olympic Pavilion / Little Drury Lane / Olympic Theatre of Varieties
The history of the Royal Olympic Theatre stretches back to 1803 when the former Drury House, later Craven House, at the end of Wych Street was pulled down and the site cleared for the construction of a new building for Philip Astley who is better known for his earlier 'Astley's Ampitheatre'. The new building was designed as a so called ' house of public exhibition of horsemanship and droll' which Astley would name the Olympic Pavilion on its opening on the 6th of November 1806.
The 'Morning Chronical' carried an advertisement for the new building in their 16th of September 1806 edition saying: 'New Olympic Pavilion, Newcastle street, Strand (established by authority of the Lord Chamberlain), Will Open on Thursday next, with a variety of new Equestrian and Other Entertainments, performed by numerous Artists, amongst whom are Messrs. Smith, Crossman, Davis and that wonderful Phenomenon Master Davis; as also the celebrated Dancer and Pantomime Performer Mrs. Parker (being their first appearance in London these three years.
The Olympic Pavilion, completely finished (decorated and embellished) entirely on a new plan, under the sole direction of Mr. Astley, senior.
The Grecian Chandeliers by Messrs. Neale and Bailey, St. Paul's Church-yard. - The Decorations and Embellishments by Messrs. Bridges and Davenport, Bond-street. - The Scenery, &c. painted by Messrs. Grieve, Clark, Wilson, Matthews and Assistants.
The Performance to begin at seven o'clock precisely. - Admittance, Box 4s. Side Boxes 3s. Pit 2s. Gallery 1s. - The different doors will open as follows - the Boxes and Pit in Newcastle-street, at half past six, and the Gallery, in Wych-street, at a quarter before seven o'clock.
The Olympic Pavilion will be attended every day by that able Equestrian Artist, Mr. Davis, for the purpose of Instructing Ladies and Gentlemen in the Elements of Riding, as also for improving the Action of Horses in general.' The 'Morning Chronicle 16th of September 1806.
The 'Morning Chronicle' went on to carry another advertisement on the opening day of the Olympic Pavilion in their 6th of November edition saying: '[The] New Olympic Pavilion, (Established by Authority of the Lord Chamberlain.) This present evening, Thursday 6th, Friday 7th, and Saturday 8th instant, the Entertainments will commence with a grand Cavalcade - Horsemanship by the first Troop in Europe. Merryman by Mr. Crossman. Exercises on two horses by Master Davis. The Redoubtable Charger will exhibit surprising specimens of animal sagacity. A new Diversement, called The Scotch Lovers, or the Gretna Green Blacksmith. Principle Dancers, Mr. Crossman, Mr. C. Dubois, Miss Taylor and Mrs. Parker. Blacksmit, Mr. Duboise, Sen, and Sandy, (with songs). Mr. G. Smith. Battute Excersises by the whole Troop of Horsemen. The celebrated Mr. Smith will go through his most wonderful Equestrian Feats on a single horse. The laughable Burlesque of the Metamorphose in Sack. The Entertainments to conclude with the new Comic Pantomime, called Hags of Mischief, or Harlequin Ploughboy. Harlequin, Mr. Crossman; Clown Mr. Duboise; Sen; and Columbine, Mrs. Parker - Doors to be opened at Half past Six, and to begin at Seven precisely.' - The Morning Chronicle 6th November 1806.
Despite the flowery language in the advertisements of the time the Olympic Pavilion was not a great success and Astley sold the lease to Robert Elliston in 1813. Elliston altered the building and changed the name to the Little Drury Lane Theatre, he changed the entertainments too, so as to attract the bigger and more fashionable audiences of the West End. The new Theatre opened on the 19th of April 1813 with a production of 'Love's Perils or The Hermit of St. Kilda'.
In December 1813 the name was changed again, this time to the Olympic Theatre and then in 1818 the Theatre was partly rebuilt at a cost of £2,500 and reopened as the Olympic New Theatre on the 16th of November, still under the management of Robert Elliston. This new venture for the Theatre was more successful and Eliston's first season, in which he performed himself, netted him a large profit. The opening production was Moncrief's 'Rochester', in which he played the hero, and this played to full houses throughout the run, allowing him to purchase the lease of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane which was available at the time. However, because of the Patent laws Elliston was not allowed to run both Theatres so he put the Olympic up for sale on the 13th of June 1820. Unable to find a purchaser however he eventually let the building to George Reeves and the composer Captain Barlow who reopened the Theatre on the 22nd of October 1820.
Above - A poster for a benefit for Mr. Rippin in March 1822 which included a vast cast in Pierce Egan's 'Life in London or the Larks of Logic, Tom & Jerry' and other pieces - Kindly donated by Shirley Cowdrill.
Reeves and Barlow were not successful though and the Theatre was then run by a succession of hopeful lessees during the first half of the 1820s, four of whom would end up bankrupt, as Elliston was himself by 1826, when he was forced to sell the Olympic to pay off his debtors for the sum of £5,103 on the 27th of February 1826. The Theatre was bought by John Scott who would eventually go on to reconstruct the building, install gas lighting, and rename the Theatre the Royal Olympic, a name it would go on to carry for the next 70 years. However, Scott didn't keep the building for long, and put it up for sale in October 1829.
It looked for a while like it might be taken over and converted into Barracks and Headquarters for the new Police Force. This didn't come to pass however, and the following year the building was leased by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, better known as Madame Vestris, the much loved actress and opera Singer who had earned a small fortune in her career by then.
Above - The Olympic Theatre in 1831 - Courtesy Tony Meech
Madame Vestris had the building redecorated and improved, remodeling the auditorium and adding two parterre boxes on either side. The building reopened on January the 3rd 1831 under the management of W. Vining, and Vestris went on to make the Olympic as famous as herself by putting on elaborate burlesques and melodramas.
Above - A silk Bill for the reopening of the New Olympic Theatre by Madame Vestris on January 3rd 1831 - Courtesy Richard T Jones whose G. G. Grandmother Susannah Trehearn was the 2nd wife of Charles William Jeffs, who worked under the stage name of Charles Wilkins, long time manager of the Marylebone Music Hall. The Bill originally belonged to Charles Wilkin's.
Above - The exterior of the Second Olympic Theatre - From 'London's lost theatres of the 19th century' by Errol Sherson.
The fire was the end for the old Olympic but a new building was soon constructed on the site and opened the same year. The Olympic Theatre, as it was now called, opened with a Christmas Pantomime on Boxing Day December the 26th 1849, under the management of its new lessee W. Watts of St. John's Wood. The Illustrated London News carried a small piece about the new Theatre in their December 15th edition saying: 'This Theatre was lighted up on Wednesday evening, for private inspection: the affect was highly imposing. The company is uncommonly powerful. Among the new engagements are Mr. G. V. Brooke, Mr. Compton, Mr. Meadows, Mr. Reeve, Miss Seymore, and a host of female talent.' The Illustrated London News.
Above - The Auditorium of the second Olympic Theatre
This second Olympic Theatre went on to stage many successes including plays by Dion Boucicault, John Maddison Morton, Robert Brough, Francis Burnand, John Coyne, John Oxenford, Mrs Alfred Phillips, John Simpson, Tom Taylor, and Montagu Williams. Nellie Farren was also a staple at the Olympic for two years.
Above - The Auditorium of the second Olympic Theatre - From 'London's lost theatres of the 19th century' by Errol Sherson.
The Theatre closed for a short period during 1883 for renovations and then reopened with a production of 'The Spiders Web' on the 1st of December 1883 under the management of Anna Conover who had had the building reconstructed internally to the designs of the well known Theatre Architect C. J. Phipps. The main reason for this was because of the numerous defects that had been found in the building by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and which were considered a serious obstacle to the safety of the public. A report carried in the ERA of the 4th of August 1883 stated: 'In the Olympic Theatre, Wych-street, Strand, so great are considered the structural defects that no fewer than twenty-two important alterations are required, involving the building of a brick wall to divide the stage from the auditorium, the principal staircase to be reconstructed, the present gallery staircase to be reconstructed, and an additional one provided, and a staircase on the stage removed, an additional exit on the south side of the theatre and a doorway from the external wall on the north side of the theatre leading into Maypole-alley, to form an exit from the stalls and private boxes on the north side, the pit refreshment bar to he removed, as well as the gallery refreshment bar, and six rows of seats in the southeast angle of the gallery to be removed. All openings between the theatre proper and the houses in Wych-street and Craven-buildings to be stopped up with brick work or be closed with wrought iron doors in wrought iron frames, and the theatre premises to be separated from all adjoining premises. The ERA 4th of August 1883.
The work was carried out by Patman and Fotheringham to the designs of C. J. Phipps, and the Theatre was repainted with decorations by Druce & Co.
Conover would run the Theatre until 1886 when Edward Terry took over the management for a while whilst his new Terry's Theatre on the Strand was being built. He then handed over the reigns to Agnes Hewitt in 1887 and she in turn let the building to Yorke Stephens.
The end for this Theatre was under the management of John Coleman who introduced a season of plays at so called 'popular prices', but the novelty didn't pay off and the building was sold to Charles Wilmott who had it demolished in the Spring of 1889.
Right - A Programme for 'In His Power' by Mark Quinton, and 'Ruth's Romance' by Fred Broughton, produced at the Olympic Theatre in the 1880s - Click to see entire programme.
Above - The exterior of the Third Olympic Theatre - From 'London's lost theatres of the 19th century' by Errol Sherson.
Wilmott's new Olympic Theatre retained some parts of the exterior walls of the former 1849 building but they would be unrecognisable, and the interior was completely demolished and rebuilt. The Theatre was constructed by Holliday and Greenwood, and designed by the well known Theatre Architects Bertie Crewe and W. G. R. Sprague with an auditorium decorated in the Louis XVI style. The Theatre opened on Thursday the 4th of December 1890 with a production of 'The People's Idol'.
The ERA reported on the newly built Olympic Theatre in their October the 25th 1890 edition saying: 'Some time during November there will be restored to the list of London playhouses the New Olympic Theatre, which, as an example of modern scientific theatre-building, will form a more than ordinarily notable example of what can be done in the way of providing for the comfort and safety of the public in the erection of places of amusement.
The site of the old Theatre has been dealt with by two very rising young architects, Messrs. Crewe and Sprague, who have caused a large modern theatre to be erected by the builders, Messrs. Holliday and Greenwood, who are now quite experts in theatrical building. The result of their joint labours, assisted by other firms in various departments, which will receive due recognition later on, is such as to lead to the belief that the new theatre will be as creditable to themselves as the projectors as it will be satisfactory to Mr. Charles Wilmot, the proprietor, and profitable to Mr. Wilson Barrett, who has become its tenant for a long term.
Right - A Sketch of Wilson Barrett - From The Pall Mall Gazette of the 4th of December 1890.
The exterior of the building has been entirely altered; indeed, the greater part of it is absolutely new, only portions of two of the old flank walls now remaining, and these are scarcely recognisable, having been so completely worked in to the new design. The principal front has a decidedly classic character; but what will first strike the visitor is the tremendous array of exit doors, there being no less than seven of these facing Wych Street, in addition to the duplicated exits from the pit and gallery, making seventeen in all. These extend right along the classic front, and are continued throughout the ground level of the added portions which adjoin the entrance. This notable feature is a source of congratulation to all concerned, for, by the special arrangements which have been carried out, the entire auditorium will be able to leave their seats and gain the street in the short space of from two to three minutes, and this is saying much when it is borne in mind that the new house is a very large one, capable of accommodating an audience of thousands. Each level will have exits on both sides of the theatre, and all the staircases are very 'easy going', dangerous curves having been very adroitly avoided. This would render anything like an ugly crush very improbable, if not absolutely impossible. No-one can legislate for a panic-stricken audience; everything in such a case must of necessity be left to chance; designers of large buildings can only take the greatest possible care, and this condition has apparently been more than fulfilled by Messrs. Bertie Crewe and W. G. R. Sprague. Again, the building is fireproof as far as modern science can make it so. The construction of the building is entirely of fireproof materials - concrete and iron being the principal employed; the iron has been reduced to a minimum, and it has been thoroughly encased, so that fire cannot easily attack it. The box-fronts have been constructed of steel girders, from which radiate the iron-work supports, upon which rests the concrete forming the steps which make the gradual rise to the back; this rake is so graduated that the feeling which oftentimes comes to audiences of being perched up so that they fancy they are falling forward is quite avoided; again, in the entire interior there is not a single beam, column, or stanchion to be seen, the view of the stage is, therefore, quite uninterrupted, and the seating arrangements have been so laid out that an excellent view of the stage is obtained by those seated in the remotest parts of the house.
Above - The interior of the third Olympic Theatre - From the 'Penny Illustrated' 6th December 1890.
The sight line has been most carefully studied, the same remark applying to all parts of the theatre, the gallery being as satisfactorily looked after as the dress circle and upper boxes. The main building has been subdivided into sections, so that it really consists of several buildings in one, these being effectually isolated by fireproof walls between. Thus there is the theatre proper, the dressing-room blocks on either side, and the electric light block. The roofs, with one exception, are constructed of concrete; but that of the stage is timber, it being thought well to construct it in that material, so that, should a fire occur on the stage, the 'devouring element' would have a natural vent, and thus there would be more likelihood of saving the auditorium in such a case.
The approach from Wych Street is by the semi-circular box-office or through the grand entrance lobby, a splendid hall, measuring 30 ft. by 18 ft., from whence the staircases lead to the stalls, dress circle, upper boxes, and grand saloon. This is the same size as the entrance hall, and like it, it is to be very handsomely decorated, a particularly pleasing effect being produced by the raised decorations in the cove under the ceiling. On this level are the managerial offices, while ladies' and gentlemen's retiring-rooms and lavatories are to be found on every floor, and are all admirably fitted up. Refreshment buffets are equally well placed, and the arrangements for serving and for stores are really admirable. The dress circle itself is on a very graceful curve, and at the back are nine very comfortable private boxes, while the passage-way all around is 4 ft. 6 in. in width. On this level is the Prince's' box, with its pretty suite of retiring-rooms, decorated in Oriental style; and this is approached from Wych Street by a special entrance door and staircase. On the dress circle tier there are two proscenium boxes on either side, and these are continued on the next level. The curves of the circles are so schemed that each sets a little back from the other; that is to say, the segment is in each case slightly flattened. This not only adds to the effect, but it also makes the sight line so much better. There is a good promenade at the back of the upper boxes, and even the gallery level has the same provision.
Above - A Programme for 'Virginius' at the New Olympic Theatre for May 14th 1892
The seating capacity is nearly 3,000viz., gallery, 1000; upper boxes, 300; dress circle, 230; pit, 1,200; stalls and private boxes, of which there are nineteen in all, about 270. This means a money-holding capacity of about £275 to £300, at ordinary prices. There is safe standing room for 500 more persons. The auditorium is about 55 ft. wide, the depth from the footlights to back of the pit is about 95 ft., and the height from floor to under side of ceiling is about 6o ft.
The decorations are entirely in the Louis XVI style; all the ornamentation is in raised carton pierce or plasterwork, which is very well modelled, and which will be richly decorated. Electric lights are made to peep out through all points of the design. The ceiling will be a very important item of the decorative scheme, as it should be. It is shaped like an inverted saucer, a huge sun-burner occupying the centre, and electric lights in festoons at intervals all around; the decoration is a tracery of colour, through which will be seen the semblance of a rich blue sky. The four spandrels at the corners are used for decorative groups, and to afford the means of introducing the electric lights, which will also be found studded about the circle and box fronts and depending from the boldly decorated panel in the ceiling over the footlights. The prevailing tints are the shade of rose known as Rose du Barry and various shadings of gold, at times bright and at times dull, thus obtaining a brilliant effect of light and shade. The proscenium opening is 30 ft. wide. This is a massively decorated, bold feature formed of columns on double raised plinths in panels enriched, while heavy wreaths of flowers and variegated leaves encircle the columns, which are terminated with very handsome capitals supporting the frieze. The colouring of all this will be principally decorated gold.
The stage is a very excellent piece of work. The dimensions of this are: Depth from footlights to back wall, 50 ft.; width from wing to wing, 60 ft., but this width is increased to about 130 ft. by supplemental buildings on either side; the height to under part of gridiron is 65 ft. ; thus those elaborate sets and complete changes of scene, for which managers must now provide, can easily be effected here. Rolled-up scenes are done away with, everything going straight up. The stage has two full bridges, one half-bridge, and all necessary cuts. A fire-escape has been specially arranged so that exit can be made through the roof of the stage, and thence over the other roofs to the lower levels in Wych Street.
There are more than twenty dressing-rooms, large and small, some very large, but none too small for three or four persons. These are all fitted with lavatories and there are three exits from the stage to the street on two sides of the buildings. The question as to whether the artistes have been looked after may safely be answered in the affirmative, as the ventilation, sanitary arrangements, and other accommodation appear to be excellent. The stage and dressing-rooms will be lighted by electricity; and this has been arranged by Mr. Harry South on a triplicate system which makes failure well nigh impossible. The stage has been laid by Mr. Wood; the curtains, upholstery, and stall lounges or divans, which will be a special luxury, have been made by Messrs. Oetzmann and Co.; Messrs. Vaughan and Brown are responsible for the gas and heating arrangements; while the hydrants, of which there will be plenty, are by Messrs. Shand, Mason, and Co. ; and the decorations, which promise to be very attractive, have been executed by Messrs. Allard and Co., of Paris.
The new Olympic Theatre opened on Thursday the 4th of December 1890 with a production of 'The People's Idol' which was not nearly as successful as the reviews for the building itself and was quickly followed by revivals of 'The Silver King', 'The Lights of London', and a new version of an old play called 'Belphegor' but now renamed 'The Acrobat'.
Despite the costs of building the new Theatre Charles Wilmott gave up his tenure on the Theatre the following year and Murray Carson took over the Lease, in August 1891, and then in 1892 Signor Largo put on an opera season which ended early, indeed the new Theatre seemed to be stricken with failure for its first few years, despite the occasional short success such as 'Dick Whittington' at Christmas. The Theatre even went over to being a Music Hall in August and September 1893 and was renamed the Olympic Theatre of Varieties. After this various melodramas were staged at the Theatre but with little success. And then Ben Greet took over the Theatre in 1897 and staged a series of Shakespeare plays there.
The last production to be put on at the Olympic was 'A Trip to Midget Town'. This was staged by the New York duo Carl and Theodor Rosenfield. They had had the Theatre entirely redecorated for the occasion. The play was thought of as very strange by all who saw it and after a run of just 90 performances it closed on the 17th of November, as did the Theatre, and this time for good, although it wouldn't be demolished for several years yet.
The Olympic Theatre was finally demolished when London's Aldwych, named after the Old Wych Street, was constructed. This vast operation began in the last years of the nineteenth century and was not finally completed until after the First World War. Four theatres were demolished during the early stages of the work. The Olympic Theatre in Wych Street and the Opera Comique in the Strand were closed in 1899, the Globe Theatre in Newcastle Street shut its doors in 1902. This was followed by the closure of the Gaiety Theatre in the Strand in June of the same year.
Remarkably within the labyrinthine honeycombed courtyard innards of the BBC's Bush House the back wall of the final Olympic Theatre is still there, behind the gated apertures that punctuate the Aldwych frontage of the building on the right.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F. Some details were gleaned from Mander & Mitchenson's excellent book 'The Lost Theatre of London.'