Sadler's Wells and Lilian Baylis Theatres, Rosebery Avenue, Islington, London
Formerly Sadler's Wells Musick House, Miles's Musick House
Above - The Sadler's Wells Theatre in September 2009 - Photo M.L.
The Sadler's Wells Theatre which stands on Rosebery Avenue, Islington today is the latest in a long line of Theatres built on this site since 1683, which, apart from the earlier Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, is the longest established continuous place of entertainment in the UK. The present Theatre is an entirely new building which was designed by the architects RHWL and Nicholas Hare and completed in 1998. There is more information on this new Sadler's Wells Theatre and its studio, the Lilian Baylis Theatre, further down on this page.
Entertainment on this site goes right back to 1683 when a wooden building called the Musick House was erected on land owned by Thomas Sadler, who was a surveyor of Highways. In the gardens of the Musick House Sadler would later discover 'medicinal wells' which would go on to become a popular resort for Londoners wishing to be cured of all manor of ailments. There is more information on the Wells themselves furthur down on this page, and the Musick House and Miles's Music House, as it was known by 1699, here.
Above - A sketch of the first Sadler's Wells Theatre from a 1910 programme for 'The Harbour Lights'.
In 1765 the old wooden Musick House was demolished to make way for the building of a newer brick built Theatre on the site. This was designed and built by the architect Thomas Roasoman and opened in April 1765. The new Theatre would become famous for its elaborate productions, including pantomimes and dramas, and in 1804 Charles Dibdin's nautical productions. The house was also later home to many of the pantomimes staged by the famous clown, Joseph Grimaldi. Edmund Kean too gave his first dramatic recitals as a child in this Theatre under the name of Master Carey. There are some more details of the Theatre's productions and leading players from it's earliest inception until the 1840s below.
In 1772 there were alterations to the building when the interior was remodeled, and ten years later in 1802 the auditorium was entirely reconstructed by the architect Rudolphe Cabanel.
The famous clown Joseph Grimaldi made his first performance at Sadler's Wells Theatre as a tiny child aged two in 1781. Many years later, on the 15th of October 1807, having performed in 'Mother Goose' there that night a terrible accident occurred as a result of a false fire alarm which resulted in the death of 23 people. An article in 'Old & New London' published in 1897 says: 'At a dreadful accident at Sadler's Wells, in 1807, during the run of Mother Goose, when twenty-three people were trodden to death, during a false alarm of fire, Grimaldi met with a singular adventure. On running back to the theatre that night he found the crowd of people collected round it so dense, as to render approach by the usual path impossible. "Filled with anxiety," says his " Memoirs," "and determined to ascertain the real state of the case, he ran round to the opposite bank of the New River, plunged in, swam across, and, finding the parlour window open and a light at the other end of the room, threw up the sash and jumped in, a la Harlequin. What was his horror, on looking round, to discover that there lay stretched in the apartment no fewer than nine dead bodies! Yes; there lay the remains of nine human beings, lifeless, and scarcely yet cold, whom a few hours back he had been himself exciting to shouts of laughter."' Old & New London' 1897.
Above - An early Entrance Token for the Gallery of the Sadler's Wells Theatre - Courtesy Alan Judd
The ERA reported this event and a brief history of the Theatre in their 17th of November 1878 edition saying: 'The change in the management of the Lyceum Theatre naturally induces Mrs Bateman to seek for another dramatic home, and, as we have already said, this energetic lady has arranged to open Sadler's Wells Theatre for legitimate drama, but, of course, not until a complete renovation of the Theatre has been effected under the superintendence of Mr C. J. Phipps, F.S.A., the architect of so many Theatres.
Everything but the old walls will be removed, and even these will have to be strengthened, and the roof of the Theatre, will not only be new, but will be raised much higher than at present, and the pit, instead of being sunk, will be on a level with the street, thus obviating the necessity for staircases, an improvement which in these days of panic and alarm respecting fires in Theatres will, we fancy, be greatly appreciated.
Left - A postcard depicting the first Sadler's Wells Theatre.
The new structure will accommodate 2,600 persons. It is intended to make a carriage drive, and also to erect a covered portico similar to the one at Her Majesty's Theatre. Mrs Bateman also purposes to plant a row of trees in front, thus reviving one of the olden peculiarities of the place, for in an old print of Sadler's Wells there is an avenue of trees entirely shadowing the Theatre.
The most modern appliances will, wherever possible, be brought into requisition, and it may be mentioned that the electric light will he used in five huge lamps in front of the Theatre. The decorations of the interior will be cream-white, sky-blue, crimson, and gold, and will be carried out in the most approved style. The drop curtain will contain a representation of Sadler's Wells when it was a resort for invalids, and also of the quaint dresses of the company who visited the place. This, together with the principal portions of the scenery, will be intrusted to Mr Hawes G. Craven, the scenic artist of the Lyceum.
The orchestral arrangements will be under the direction of Mr W. C. Levey, for many years past director of Drury-lane Theatre; Mr Robert Symes, machinist, at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, will have charge of the machinery, and the box-office will be under the supervision of Mr W. Charman, formerly of the Lyceum Theatre.
It is intended to open the Theatre in February, or, at the latest, by the 1st of March, when Miss Bateman and an efficient company will appear, and the plays represented will include some of the masterpieces of the English drama.
The present Theatre was built in 1765, but for many years previously the site was greatly frequented for its waters, which had the reputation of possessing wonderful medicinal virtues. It was, in fact, to entertain the invalids who used the waters that Mr Sadler, the owner of the wells, erected an orchestra in 1683, and thus laid the foundation of a Theatre, than which no place of amusement in the country was in its day more renowned and which now possesses associations of the most interesting character. At Sadler's Wells the inimitable Grimaldy made his debut, and here also the famous Edmund Kean, as a child, gave his first dramatic recitals under the nom de theatre of Master Carey. From 1844 to 1859 the Theatre was under the management of Mrs Warner and Mr Phelps, and after a brief interval it was reopened by Mr Phelps in September, 1862.' From the ERA, 17th of November 1878.
There are some more details of the Theatre's productions and leading players from it's earliest inception until the 1840s below.
Under the ownership of Samuel Phelps in 1844, and after the breaking up of the Patent Theatres, Sadler's Wells was finally able to stage legitimate drama. Indeed, Phelps' productions of Shakespeare's plays there made theatre history.
In Horatio Lloyd's autobiography he mentions Phelps, saying 'The late Tom Taylor had a high opinion of the merits as a stage-manager of Mr Phelps. "I never," he said, "saw rehearsals more thorough, more careful, or more business-like. Phelps was as able as he was indefatigable in stage-management. To one who remembers Macready at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the Keans at the Princess's, and Phelps at Sadler's Wells, it seems to be a lost art.' Horatio Lloyd 1886.
Horatio Lloyd's famous son Arthur Lloyd, and Arthur's wife, Katty King, and Arthur's brother, Delarue Lloyd, are known to have performed together at the Sadler's Wells Theatre on November the 3rd 1890. The press said of the performance 'Poor Houses but Miss Katty King commanded the cheers and the admiration of the audience in every scene. Mr. Arthur Lloyd has furnished a fine study of character, and Delarue Lloyd has been well to the fore as the Scotland Yard Inspector.'
There are more details of the Theatre's productions and leading players from it's earliest inception until the 1840s below.
In 1901 another famous Theatre Architect, Bertie Crewe, played a hand in remodeling part of the building but despite this the Theatre would not last long and by 1915 it had become unused and derelict.
The site was eventually acquired by a charity which was set up by Lilian Baylis in the 1920s and the Theatre was completely rebuilt with designs by the architects F G M, Chancellor and yet another famous name in Theatre Architecture, Matcham & Co.
Left - Squire Bancroft, Lilian Baylis, Edith Evans, Sir Arthur
The new Sadler's Wells Theatre, which opened on the 6th of January 1931, was not a great architectural achievement however, with its bare internal walls and a stage that seemed to be too far away from the audience. The Theatre opened in conjunction with the Old Vic Theatre, then also run by Lilian Baylis. The aim of the two Theatres was to produce quality theatre for the general public.
Above - The Sadler's Wells Theatre on its reopening after the war on the 7th of June 1945 - From the book 'A Theatre for Everybody, the story of the Old Vic & Sadler's Wells' by Edward J. Dent, 1945.
By 1934 the Theatre was being used exclusively for Opera and Ballet but was closed during the War, only reopening again when it was all over on the 7th of June 1945.
In 1938 some land around the building was acquired and the Theatre was improved and extended by the architects Stanley Hall, Easton & Robertson.
Left - A Programme for the D'oyly Carte Company performing 'The Mikado' at the Sadler's Wells Theatre on July the 8th 1953.
In 1960 there were some slight improvements to the building including reworking the wardrobe rooms.
In 1988 a new smaller Theatre was added to the site, called the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, designed by Wolff Olins Hamilton. More on this below.
Despite all the improvements to the 1931 Chancellor / Matcham & Co Theatre over the years, its lack of wing space and plain auditorium, which was further ruined by an acoustic panel which had been installed over the proscenium arch hiding the relief panel, the Theatre's days were always going to be numbered. And because the 1931 Theatre was so architecturally unloved, whilst the Sadler's Wells Company itself was so theatrically celebrated - and with the awarding of National Lottery funding in the mid 1990s - plans to demolish the building and build a new Theatre on the site were celebrated rather than challenged.
The 1931 Theatre closed for the last time on the 30th of June, 1996, and work soon began on its demolition and the building of the new Sadler's Wells Theatre on the same site. Parts of the old building were in fact retained for incorporation into the new building although it is hard to tell nowadays. The stage house was completely demolished however.
Right - Demolition of the 1931 built Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1996 - Courtesy Jason Mullen.
Above - Demolition of the 1931 built Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1996 - Courtesy Jason Mullen.
Above - Demolition of the 1931 built Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1996 - Courtesy Jason Mullen.
Above - The Sadler's Wells Theatre in September 2009 - Photo M.L.
The Present Sadler's Wells Theatre on Rosebery Avenue, Islington is an almost entirely new building which was designed by the architects RHWL and Nicholas Hare and completed at a cost of £54m in 1998.
The new Theatre, which opened on the 11th of October 1998 with a performance by the Rambert Dance Company, has a vastly improved auditorium compared to the former, with a capacity of 1,500, and a relationship to the stage which is far more suitable for a Theatre of this stature. The Stage House was also completely rebuilt to modern standards.
The 221 seat Lilian Baylis studio Theatre, which was built to compliment the main Theatre in 1988, still stands beside the new Sadler's Wells Theatre and its entrance is now also the entrance to the Theatre's Cafe and Stage Door.
Right - The entrance to the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre at Sadler's Wells in September 2009 - Photo M.L.
Despite all the Theatres built on this site over the years even this newest incarnation was constructed so that access was provided to the remains of the famous Sadler's Wells which are now situated beneath the Theatre.
Sadler's Wells Theatre is a Grade II Listed building and the theatre company's mission statement says 'Sadler's Wells is a theatre with a strong, dynamic contemporary programme, uniquely dedicated to bringing the very best international and UK dance to London audiences.'
There are many articles which mention the Sadler's Wells Theatre on this site, please use the search box at the top of this page to find them.
You may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.
You may also like to visit the Sadler's Wells Theatre Archive here.
Sadler's Wells and the Theatre - From Old & New London 1897
Above - Sadler's Wells in 1756 - From 'Old & New London' 1897
WHILE we treat of the places of amusement in the north of London near Islington, we must not forget Sadler's Wells (Islington Spa), or New Tunbridge Wells, as it used to be called. The chalybeate spring was discovered in 1683 by a Mr. Sadler, a surveyor of the highways, in the pleasant, retired, and well-wooded garden of a music-house he had just opened. The discovery was trumpeted in a pamphlet, detailing the virtues of the water. It was, the writer asserted, a holy well, famed, before the Reformation, for its healing power, which the priests attributed to their prayers. It had been, in consequence, looked on as a place venerated by superstition, but arched over at the Reformation, it had been since forgotten.
The Wells soon became famous with hypochondriacs. Burlesque poems (one probably by Ned Ward) were written on the humours of the place, as well as treatises on the cure of invalids by drinking the water; and finally, in 1776, Georg Colman produced a farce, called The Spleen; or, Islington Spa.
In the summer of 1700 Sadler's Wells came into high favour with the public. Gout hobbled there; Rheumatism groaned over his ferruginous water; severe coughs went arm-in-arm, chuckling as they hobbled; as for Hypochondria, he cracked jokes, he was in such high spirits at the thought of the new remedy. At this time dancers were admitted during the whole of the day on Mondays and. Tuesdays, says Malcolm, provided they did not come in masks.
In 1733 the Wells were so fashionable that the Princesses Amelia and Caroline frequented the gardens in the June of that year daily, and drank the waters, the nobility coming in such numbers that the proprietor took above £30 a morning. Feathers flaunted, silks rustled, fans fluttered, and lovers sighed, partly with nausea and partly with love, as they sipped the bitter waters of AEsculapius. On the birthday of one of the princesses, the ladies were saluted as they passed through Spa Fields (then full of carriages) by a discharge of twenty-one guns - a compliment always paid to them on their arrival - and in the evening there was a great bonfire, and more powder was burnt in their honour. On ceasing to visit the gardens, the Princess Amelia presented the master with twenty-five guineas, each of the water-servers with three guineas, and the other attendants with one guinea each.
Above - Sadler's Wells (From a view taken in 1756) - From 'Old & New London' 1897
From 1683 till after 1811 these gardens were famous. Nervous, hypochondriac, hysteric affections, asthmas, indigestions, swellings, and eruptions, all took their doleful pleasure in them, and drank the waters with infinite belief. In 1811 the Wells were still frequented. The subscription for the water was a guinea the season; to non-subscribers, and with capillaire, it cost sixpence a glass. The spring was then enclosed by an artificial grotto of flints and shells, which was entered by a rustic gate; there was a lodging-house, to board invalids, and in the garden a breakfast-room, about forty feet long, with a small orchestra. In the room was hung up a comparative analysis of the water, and there were testimonials of its efficacy from gentlemen who had been ill for quarters of centuries, and had drunk all other mineral waters in vain.
On the bark of one of the trees (before 1811) were cut the two following lines :
"Obstructum recreat; durum terit; humida siccat;
The following lines were written in a room of the lodging-house, just as a votive tablet might have been hung up on the walls of a Greek templ :
" For three times ten years I travell'd the globe,
On the death of Sadler, his music-house passed to Francis Forcer, whose son exhibited rope-dancing and tumbling till 1730, when he died.
The place was then taken by Mr. Rosoman, a builder, and the wooden house was, about the year 1765, replaced by a brick building: A painting, introducing Rosoman and some of his actors, was in 1811, to be seen in the bar of the "Sir Hugh Myddelton," the inn introduced by Hogarth in his print of " Evening," published in 1738. There was at this time, at the "Sir Hugh Myddelton," a club of actors, who, in 1753, formed a regular company, at what had now become a theatre. The amusements here were originally in the open air, the tickets to spectators including refreshments. The Connoisseur, of 1756, notes the feats of activity exhibited here. After that time this suburban theatre became famous for burlettas, musical interludes, and pantomimes. Here Grimaldi cracked his drollest jokes, and here the celebrated Richer exhibited on the tight rope. The New River was also taken advantage of, and introduced into a tank the size of the stage, to represent more effectively naval victories and French defeats. After Rosoman, Mr. Thomas King, the comedian, and Mr. Wroughton, of Drury Lane, became proprietors; and at one time Mr. Charles Dibdin, jun., was stage-manager.
A most fatal panic took place at this theatre on the 15th of October, 1807. The cry, "A fight!" was mistaken for "A fire!" and a rush took place from the gallery. The manager, shouting to the people through speaking-trumpets, entreated them to keep their seats; but in vain, for many threw themselves down into the pit, and eighteen were crushed to death on the gallery stairs. The proceeds of two benefits were divided among the children and widows, of the sufferers.
Sadler's Musical House, which, tradition affirms, was a place of public entertainment even as early as the reign of Elizabeth, seems early to have affected a theatrical air. In May, 1698, we find a vocal and instrumental concert advertised here, the instrumental part being "composed of violins, hautboys, trumpets, and kettle-drums." It was to continue from ten to one, every Monday and Thursday, during the drinking of the waters. In 1699 the Wells were called "Miles's Music House;" and in that year Ned Ward, always coarse and always lively, describes going with a crowd of Inns of Court beaux to see a wretch, disguised in a fool's cap, and with a smutty face like a hangman, eat a live fowl, feathers and all.
"The state of things described by Ned Ward," says Mr. Pinks, "is abundantly confirmed by the reminiscences of Edward Macklin, the actor, who remembered the time when the admission here was but threepence, except to a few places scuttled off at the sides of the stage at sixpence, which were reserved for people of fashion, who occasionally came to see the fun. 'Here we smoked and drank porter and rum-and-water, as much as we could pay for.' Of the audience Macklin says, 'Though we had a mixture of very odd company, there was little or no rioting; there was a public then that kept one another in awe."
Ned Ward, who was a quick observer, describes the dress-circle gallery here as painted with stories of Apollo and Daphne, Jupiter and Europa, &c. In his poem, "A Walk to Islington," Ned Ward is not complimentary to the Sadler's Wells visitors. In the pit, he says, were butchers, bailiffs, housebreakers, footpads, prizefighters, thief-takers, deer-stealers, and bullies, who drank, and smoked; and lied, and swore. They ate cheesecakes and drank ale, and one of the buffoons was also a waiter. The female vocalist was followed by a fiddler in scarlet. Then came a child, who danced a sword-dance, and after her
"A young babe of grace,
About 1711 the Wells seems to have become still more disreputable, and in 1712 a lieutenant of the navy was run through the body there by a Mr. French, of the Temple, in a drunken quarrel.
Macklin says there were four or five exhibitions in a day, and that the duration of each performance depended upon circumstances. The proprietors had always a fellow outside to calculate how many persons were collected for a second exhibition, and when he thought there were enough, he came to the back of the upper seats and cried out, "Is Hiram Fisteman here?" This was a cant word between the parties, to know the state of the people without, upon which they concluded the entertainment, and dismissed the audience with a song, and prepared for a second representation.
In a poem called "The New River," written about 1725, Mr.
William Garbott, the author, thus describes the Wells, with advertising
Forcer, a barrister, the proprietor in the early part of the eighteenth century, improved the pantomimes, rope-dancing, and ladder-dancing, tumbling, and musical interludes. Acrobats threw summersaults from the upper gallery, and Black Scaramouch struggled with Harlequin on the stage. The old well was accidentally discovered in Macklin's time, between the New River and the stage-door. It was encircled with stone, and you descended to it by several steps. Cromwell, writing in 1828, says that it was known that springs existed under the orchestra, and under the stage, and that the old fountain of health might hopefully be sought for there. In 1738, in his "Evening," not one of his most successful works, Hogarth introduced a bourgeois holiday-maker and his wife, with Sadler's Wells in the background. In "The Gentlemen's and Ladies' Social Companion," a book of songs published in 1745-6, we find a song on Sadler's Wells, which contained several characteristic verses. Rope-dancing and harlequinade, with scenery, feats of strength, and singing, seem to have been the usual entertainment about this period. In 1744 the place was "presented" by the grand jury of the county as a scene of great extravagance, luxurious idleness, and ill-fame, but it led to no good results. In 1746 any person was admitted to the Wells, "and the diversions of the place," on taking a ticket for a pint of wine. This same year a ballet on the Battle of Culloden, a most undanceable subject, one would think, was very popular; and Hogarth's terrible "Harlot's Progress" was turned into a drama, with songs, by Lampe.
The Grub Street poets, in the meantime, belauded the Wells, not without
reward, and not always inelegantly, as the following verses show:-
"Ye cheerful souls, who would regale
A writer in the Connoisseur of 1756 praises a dexterous performer at the Wells, who, with bells on his feet, head, and hands, jangled out a variety of tunes, by dint of various nods and jerks. The same year a wonderful balancer named Maddox performed on the slack wire, tossing balls, and kicking straws into a wine-glass which he held in his mouth. Maddox, the equilibrist, entertained the public for several seasons by his "balances on the wire," and his fame was celebrated by a song set to music, entitled "Balance a Straw," which for a time was very popular. A similar feat was afterwards performed at the Wells by a Dutchman, with a peacock's feather, which he blew into the air and caught as it fell, on different parts of a wire, at the same time preserving his due equilibrium. The same performer used to balance a wheel upon his shoulder, his forehead, and chin, and afterwards, to show his skill as an equilibrist, he poised two wheels, with a boy standing on one of them.
The road home from the Wells seems to have been peculiarly dangerous about 1757, as the manager announces in the Public Advertiser that on the night of a certain charitable performance a horse-patrol would be sent by Mr. Fielding (the blind magistrate, and kinsman of the novelist) for the protection of nobility and gentry who came from the squares. The road to the City was, as he promised, also to be properly guarded. A year later an armed patrol was advertised as stationed on the New Road, between Sadler's Wells and Grosvenor Square. Foote wrote, about the same time:
" If at Sadler's Wells the wine should be thick,
In 1765 the old wooden theatre at the Wells was pulled down and a new one built, at an expense of £4,225. A three-shilling ticket for the boxes, in 1773, entitled the bearer to a pint of port, mountain, Lisbon, or punch. A second pint cost one shilling.
In 1763 Signor Grimaldi, Joe Grimaldi's father, first appeared as chief dancer and ballet-master. He continued there till the close of 1767. In 1775 James Byrne, the famous harlequin of Drury Lane, and the father of Oscar Byrne, was employed at Sadler's Wells as a dancer, and a Signor Rossignol gave imitations of birds, like Herr Joel, and accompanied the orchestra on a fiddle without strings. About this time, too, Charles Dibdin the elder wrote some clever and fanciful pieces for this theatre, entitled "Intelligence from Sadler's Wells."
In 1772 Rosoman surrendered the management to King, the famous comedian, who held it till 1782, when Sheridan gave him up the sovereignty of Drury Lane. King had been an attorney, but had thrown up his parchments to join theatres and play under Garrick. He excelled in Sir Peter Teazle, Lord Ogleby, Puff, and Dr. Cantwell. His Touchstone and Ranger, says Dr. Doran, were only equalled by Garrick and Elliston. He was arch, easy, and versatile, and the last time he played Sir Peter, in 1802, the fascinating Mrs. Jordan was the young wife. King remained an inveterate gambler to the last, in spite of Garrick's urgent entreaties. King sold the Wells, says Mr. Pinks, for £12,000. Joe Grimaldi appeared at Sadler's Wells first in 1781, in the character of a monkey. In 1783 egg-dancers and performing dogs were the rage, the dogs alone clearing for the managers, in one season, £10,000. The saying at the theatre at that time was, that if the dogs had not come to the theatre, the theatre must have gone to the dogs. Horse-patrols still paraded the roads to the City at night.
In 1786 Miss Romanzini (afterwards the celebrated ballad vocalist, Mrs. Bland) appeared at the Wells, and also Pietro Bologna, father of the celebrated clown, Jack Bologna. In 1788 Braham, then a boy, who had first appeared in 1787, at the Royalty Theatre, Wells Street, near Goodman's Fields, made his first appearance at the Wells. "Two Frenchmen," says Mr. Pinks, "named Duranie and Bois-Maison, as pantomimists, eclipsed all their predecessors on that stage. Boyce, a distinguished engraver, was the harlequin, and, from all accounts, was the most finished actor of the motley hero, either in his own day or since. On the benefit-night of Joseph Dortor, clown to the rope, and Richer, the rope-dancer, Miss Richer made her first appearance on two slack wires, passing through a hoop; with a pyramid of glasses on her head, and Master Richer performed on the tight rope, with a skipping-rope. Joseph Dortor, among other almost incredible feats, drank a glass of wine backwards from the stage floor, beating a drum at the same time. Lawrence threw a somersault over twelve men's heads, and Paul Redige, the 'Little Devil,' on October 1st, threw a somersault over two men on horseback, the riders having each a lighted candle on his head. Dubois, as clown, had no superior in his time, and the troop of voltigeurs were pre-eminent for their agility, skill, and daring."
After Wroughton's time, Mr. Siddons (husband of the great actress) became one of the proprietors of the Wells, where, in 1801, a young tragedian, Master Carey, the "Pupil of Nature," otherwise known as Edmund Kean, recited Rollo's speech from Pizarro. His great-grandfather, Henry Carey, the illegitimate son of the Marquis of Halifax, and the author of the delightful ballad, "Sally in our Alley," had written and composed many of the ballad operas and ballad farces which were very successful at Sadler's Wells.
In 1802, Charles Dibdin, jun., and Thomas Dibdin, his brother, were busy at the Wells.
In 1803 appeared Signor Belzoni, afterwards the great Egyptian traveller, as the "Patagonian Samson," in which character, says Mr. Pinks, "he performed prodigious feats of strength, one of which was to adjust an iron frame to his body, weighing 127 lbs., on which he carried eleven persons. The frame had steps or branches projecting from its sides, on which be placed eleven men in a pyramidical form, the uppermost of whom reached to the border of the proscenium. With this immense weight he walked round the stage, to the astonishment and delight of his audience. On one occasion a seriocomic accident occurred, which might have proved fatal not only to the mighty Hercules, but also to his pyramidical group. As he was walking round the stage with the vast load attached to his body, the, floor gave way, and plunged him and his companions into the water beneath. A group of assistants soon came to the rescue, and the whole party marched to the front of the stage, made their bows, and retired. On Belzoni's benefit-night he attempted to carry thirteen men, but as that number, could not hold on, it was abandoned. His stature, as registered in the books of the Alien Office, was six feet six inches. He was of good figure, gentlemanly manners, and great mind. He was an Italian by birth, but early in life he quitted his native land to seek his fortune."
In 1804 Sadler's Wells first began to assume the character of an aquatic theatre.- An immense tank was constructed under the stage, and a communication opened with the New River. The first aquatic piece was a Siege of Gibraltar, in which real vessels bombarded the fortress. A variety of pieces were subsequently produced, concluding with a grand scene for the finale, on "real water." Thomas Greenwood, a scene-painter at the Wells, thus records the water successes in his "Rhyming Reminiscences:"
"Attraction was needed the town to engage,
"mong the apparently perilous and appalling incidents exhibited," says a writer to whom we have already been much indebted, "were those of a female falling from the rocks into the water, and being rescued by her hero-lover; a naval battle, with sailors escaping by plunging into the sea from a vessel on fire; and a child thrown into the water by a nurse, who was bribed to drown it, being rescued by a Newfoundland dog."
In 1819 Grimaldi sang for the first time his immortal song of "Hot Codlins," the very night a boy was crushed to death in the rush at entering. "Sadler's Wells was let at Easter, 1821, for the ensuing three seasons, to Mr. Egerton, of Covent Garden Theatre; in which year it was honoured by the presence of Queen Caroline, the wife of George IV., and her Majesty's box and its appointments were exhibited daily to the public for a week afterwards. In 1822, in a piece called Tom and Ferry, pony races were introduced, a course having been formed by laying a platform on the stage and pit. Upon the expiration of Egerton's term the Wells were let to Mr. Williams, of the Surrey Theatre, the son of the proprietor of the once-famous boiled beef house in the Old Bailey. He employed one half of his company, in the earlier part of the evening, at Sadler's Wells, and thence transferred them to the Surrey, to finish there; and at that theatre he adopted the same course, the performers being conveyed between the two houses by special carriages. Williams's speculation, however, turned out a complete failure."
In 1823 the use of water for scenic purposes was discontinued for a time at Sadler's Wells, and in 1825 the old manager's house, next the New River Head, was turned into wine-rooms and a saloon; the season, in consequence of the immense growth of the neighbourhood, was extended from six to twelve months, and Tom Dibdin was engaged as acting manager. The year 1826 being very hot, the manager got up some pony-races in the grounds, which drew large audiences. On March 17, 1828, Grimaldi took his farewell benefit at Sadler's Wells.
Subsequently Mr. T. Dibdin became manager at the Wells, and produced a variety of ballets, pantomimes, burlettas, and melodramas. In 1832 that best of all stage sailors, Mr. T. P. Cooke, made his first appearance at this theatre as William, in Black-Eyed Susan, a piece which ran one hundred nights. In 1833, during a serio-romantic lyric drama called The Island, and founded on the mutiny of the Bounty, the stage and its scenery was drawn up bodily to the roof of the house, to avoid the tediousness of a "wait." The Russian Mountains was also a great success.
In 1846 Mr. Samuel Phelps resolved to produce all Shakespeare's plays, and actually did represent thirty of them. These occupied about 4,000 nights, Hamlet alone running for 400.
Having been closed for some years, the theatre was rebuilt, and opened in 1879 by Miss Bateman. Since that date the theatre has been under the management of Messrs. Chatterton, Robson, Hart, Cave, Roberts, and others. It is now known as New Sadler's Wells.
Above text from Old & New London, 1897.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.