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The Wigan Theatre, Behind the Eagle & Child Hotel, Later the Royal Hotel, Standishgate, Wigan, Lancashire

Wigan Theatres

A photograph of the Royal Hotel Standishgate, Wigan, formerly the Eagle & Child Hotel, behind which was the Wigan Theatre from 1803 - From the book 'Wigan Town and Country Rambles' by John T. Hilton 1914 - Courtesy Wigan World - The site of the Hotel is currently home to a branch of W. H. Smith - Click here to see the site today.

Above - A photograph of the Royal Hotel Standishgate, Wigan, formerly the Eagle & Child Hotel, behind which was the Wigan Theatre from 1803 - From the book 'Wigan Town and Country Rambles' by John T. Hilton 1914 - Courtesy Wigan World - The site of the Hotel is currently home to a branch of W. H. Smith - Click here to see the site today.

A poster for 'Pizarro' and 'Paul and Virginia' at the Theatre, Wigan on February 6th 1824 - Courtesy Gerard Shannon and George Richmond.From the evidence of a playbill dated Tuesday August the 2nd, 1785, a new Theatre had opened at the rear of the old “Eagle and Child Hotel “in Standishgate, which later changed its name to the “Royal Hotel“ as playbills of performances in 1824 and 1825 show. The building eventually became officially known as “The Wigan Theatre“ but it seems likely that "Eagle and Child" name remained in popular usage, because as late as 1836 the building was still being referred to as the “Eagle and Child “in the local press.

Right - A poster for 'Pizarro' and 'Paul and Virginia' at the Theatre, Wigan on February 6th 1824 - Courtesy Gerard Shannon and George Richmond.

The Theatre behind this inn was typical of provincial Theatre building of the period. The auditorium consisted of boxes, a pit and a gallery, the charges for admission being three shillings, two shillings and one shilling, not particularly cheap. However visitors to the Theatre were assured “that care would be taken to render passage through the inn-yard as unobjectionable as possible”. Towards the end of the eighteenth century and early in the nineteenth century this Theatre was visited on a number of occasions by a Mr John Welsh and his company, a well-known actor as far back as 1771. Although there is some confusion about the dates of Welsh’s visits to Wigan it is certain from the evidence of old playbills that his company performed at the “Eagle and Child” Theatre on the 4th March 1803. It is also known that John Welsh and his company visited the town again1810, when on the 14th March at the “Eagle and Child” they performed, a celebrated comedy called, “The Rivals, or A Trip to Bath”.

A poster for 'Slave' and 'Blue Beard' at the Theatre, Wigan on March 16th 1825 - Courtesy Gerard Shannon and George Richmond.In 1808, the Wigan Theatre was visited by John Stanton and his company, who called themselves “Their Majesties’ Servants”. On this visit they presented a comedy called “The Honeymoon”. This company toured what was then called the Lancashire circuit, which included Wigan, Blackburn, Bury, Lancaster, Preston and Rochdale. John Stanton, as well as being an accomplished actor, also had the reputation for being one of the best scenic artists in the provinces. About this time, 1808, a gentleman by the name of John Howard, who already controlled the other Theatres in the Lancashire circuit, took control of the Wigan Theatre. Howard brought a young girl called Clara Fisher, a child actress and great theatrical attraction of the time, to the town. The announcement of this event to Wigan theatregoers reads:-

“This young lady made her first appearance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 10th December, 1817, then just six years old, and by her wonderful performance in Garrick’s revised romance of “Lilliput” (in which was introduced the last act of “Richard III”) drew crowded houses for seventeen nights, and immediately afterwards played the same character at Covent Garden with increased success.”

Left - A poster for 'Slave' and 'Blue Beard' at the Theatre, Wigan on March 16th 1825 - Courtesy Gerard Shannon and George Richmond, who says 'The small print at the bottom of the 1824 poster "Tickets available from the Eagle and Child", and the new name for the Hotel appearing on the top of the 1825 poster, would suggest that the name change for the Inn/Hotel took place in 1825.'

Clara Fisher was named “The Theatrical Phenomenon of the Age”, and it is reported that at the age of eleven, in one evening she appeared in as many as seven different character parts!

In 1822, Howard engaged an actor called Francis Courtney-Wemyss at a fee of a guinea and a half a week. However, due to the misfiring of a gun in a dual scene on stage Wemyss left shortly after he arrived. R. J. Broadbent reported this incident in his serial on the Wigan Theatre printed in 1915 in the Wigan Observer:-

“The cause of Wemyss premature leave-taking is best recorded in Wemys's own words. He tells us, “Having to act Kenmure in the “Fall of Clyde”, at that time a very popular piece, in the dual scene, in which Kenmure being wounded and supposed to be dead, turns the rest of the plot of the drama, the pistols miss-fired, and were again cocked, with no better success. Another pair of pistols was furnished by the property man; this only added to our difficulty as mine exploded but not all the efforts of my adversary could induce his pistol to go off. Now as I was to be killed and not him the only option left was to fall without cause or to lower the curtain and begin the scene again. We adopted the latter course; for which the manager in anger made use of expressions both harsh and unnecessary. At last I cut the argument short by saying, “If you please Mr Howard, you will accept my six weeks’ notice and we will part." “Certainly, sir. You have only been rather too quick for me. I should have proposed the same thing at the close of the performance, for your airs and grandeur are only fit for Covent Garden or Drury Lane, and won’t do for my Theatre”. - The Wigan Observer.

Wemyss was later to go to America and become the manager of the Philadelphia and Baltimore Theatres.

Another performer of repute, at the time, who appeared at the Wigan Theatre, was Frances Harriet Kelly. Miss Kelly came to Wigan in 1825 to play Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”, as she had done three years previously at Covent Garden. Ten years later Juliet was played again in Wigan with rather less success. The following report published in the Wigan Observer on the 27th November 1915 by R. J. Broadbent reveals:-

“In 1835, Henry Boxby Beverly, brought a company to Wigan to play some of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies. One was Romeo and Juliet, but it became something of a comedy rather than a tragedy from a ludicrous incident which occurred during the progress of the performance. The juvenile leading lady, a good actress, and a very pretty woman by the way, and a young mother, was cast to play the heroine. The baby had been placed in the dressing room for security, and to be near the mother, but just before the balcony scene the young tyrant became unruly and impossible to control. What was to be done? A mother’s tact hit upon the true soothing syrup. She nestled the infant to her breast, and from that moment the young villain became silent as a mouse. Being called, she hastily mounted the rostrum that supported the supposed balcony hastily throwing a lace scarf over her shoulders, which concealed the little suckling, and leaning over the balcony, with her other arm pensively placed upon her cheek, she looked the picture of innocence and beauty. The scene opened and went glowingly. But, alas! Juliet has to appear and disappear three times, and in her effort to do so gracefully, and yet conceal the child, she stumbled against the iron brace that held up the frail structure. Down fell the balcony, and lo! The lovelorn maiden was discovered with a baby at her breast-seated on a tub, which served for a stool, and at her foot accidentally placed there by the thirsty carpenter, was a quart pot. The said carpenter was discovered on all fours steadying with his back the rickety structure above. Shrieks of laughter from all parts of the house greeted this tableau, and of the play no more was heard that night.” - The Wigan Observer, 27th November 1915.

The Theatre was also used as a ballroom; a public announcement in 1841 states that, “the ballroom of the Royal Hotel was a recognised place for entertainment."

A lovely colour photograph showing the Royal Hotel, Wigan, here in use as a branch of Smiths - With kind permission Wigan Reference Library

Above - A lovely colour photograph showing the Royal Hotel, Wigan, here in use as a branch of Smiths - With kind permission Wigan Reference Library

The actual year of closure of the the Wigan Theatre is unknown, but it is likely to have been around 1851 after the opening of the Theatre Royal in King Street. The Royal Hotel, however, remained in use as such until the building was converted in the twentieth century into a Woolworth store; it remains as such in 2012 though now a branch of W. H. Smith.

This article on the Wigan Theatre was first written in 1974 by George Richmond and has now been updated by him in 2012 and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site. The article is © copyright George Richmond 1974 - 2012.

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

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