The Surrey Theatre, Blackfriars Road, London
Formerly - The Royal Circus
In 1771, a "strong man" and a prominent equestrian performer opened an exhibition and riding school in opposition to Astley, who began his managerial career owning a circus tent on a piece of waste ground near the Westminster Bridge. Twelve years later Charles Hughes, the "strong man," entered into partnership with Charles Dibdin, the song writer, and raised a building costing fifteen thousand pounds, near the obelisk in Blackfriars Road, which was opened under the name of the Royal Circus. Equine and canine drama was produced there.
Right - The Surrey Theatre.
The original idea was to make the house a school for actors. Among the sixty members we find several who were destined to loom large in the theatrical world, for example, Mrs. Charles Kemble and others. The ballet master was Grimaldi, the Father of the inimitable "joey."
An early handicap to the success of the house was the opposition of the Surrey magistrates to theatrical amusement, who closed the place as an unlicensed building. The devotees of the theatre, however, offered such resistance to these measures that the Riot Act had to be read and the military called out. The house obtained a licence and was re-opened a few months later.
The Royal Circus not only introduced equine performers to the London stage, but also had the honour of being the first place at which canine actors appeared. The actors owning the animals being called "dog-stars." These actors always travelled in pairs, one playing the hero and other the villain. The former was always attended by his faithful "Dawg," who at the end of the turn, at a given signal, sprang at the throat of the Villain, around which was a thick pad covered with a red cloth, invisible of course, to the audience. The dog did not let go until the bad man of the piece had expired in great agony.
In 1803, the Royal Circus shared the usual fate of theatres by being burned down, and it was rebuilt and opened the following year with the same style of entertainment. In 1809, William Robert Elliston, who had won his laurels at the patent houses, became manager, and converted the place into a theatre. Elliston paid a rental of over two thousand pounds per annum and turned the stables into saloons and the arena into a pit. He retired in 1814 when he transferred his energies to the Olympic, and the house was again turned into a circus.
In 1827, Elliston tried his fortunes as manager once more, and discovered Douglas Gerald as a Stage writer. His "Black-Eyed Susan" was an enormous success. At one time Cooke, the hero, played it every evening at Covent Garden, as well as at the Surrey.
In 1865, just as the audience was leaving, a fire broke out, destroying the theatre. It was immediately rebuilt on a larger and more superior scale. In 1880, George Conquest, an admirable pantomimist, took up the management and the house flourished until 1901, when he died. Since that time the Surrey has not retained its old prestige and has now fallen into disuse.
'The Romance of London Theatres" by Ronald Mayes - From a Programme for the London Pavilion Jan 14th 1929.
The Surrey Theatre, ,
Blackfriars Road, London
This stood on the site of the Royal Circus, which opened on 4 Nov. 1782 and continued in use until 1810, although it had a troubled existence, being burnt down in 1799 and 1805. Rebuilt in 1806, it was converted into a theatre by Robert ELLISTON, who gave it the name by which it was thereafter known.
Right - The Surrey Theatre Blackfriars Road.
To avoid trouble with the PATENT THEATRES, he put a ballet into every production, including Macbeth, Hamlet, and FARQUHAR's The Beaux' Stratagem. Elliston left in 1814, and the Surrey became a circus again until Thomas DIBDIN reopened it as a theatre in 1816, but with little success. Not until Elliston returned did its fortunes change, with the production on 8 June 1829 of Douglas JERROLD'S Black-Ey'd Susan, which with T. P. COOKE as William, the nautical hero, had a long run. Elliston himself made his last appearance at this theatre on 24 June 1831, twelve days before he died. Osbaldiston then took over, and among other plays produced Edward FITZBALL'S Jonathan Bradford; or, the Murder at the Roadside Inn, which ran for 260 nights, but it was Richard Shepherd (who succeeded Alfred Bunn in 1848 and remained at the theatre until 1869) who established its reputation for rough-and-tumble TRANSPONTINE MELODRAMA. On 30 Jan. 1865 the theatre was burnt down, but a new theatre, seating 2,161 people in four tiers, opened on 26 Dec. 1865. Little of note took place until 1881, when George CONQUEST took over, staging sensational dramas, many of them written by himself, which proved extremely popular, and each Christmas an excellent PANTOMIME. The Surrey prospered until his death in 1901, but thereafter went rapidly downhill until in 1920 it became a cinema. It finally closed in 1924 and the building was demolished in 1934.
Above text from The Oxford Companion To Theatre 4th edition 1983.
...On the west side of Blackfriars Road, near St. George's Circus,
stood the Surrey theatre, destroyed by fire On 30 January 1865
and rebuilt within twelve months. The fire occurred during the final
scene of the Pantomime called 'The Investigation in the Forest of Fancy',
but the audience, not being very large, soon dispersed, and nobody was
hurt. Shortly afterwards the theatre was a mass of flames and nothing
was saved except the money in the box office. In less than an hour the
building had been burned to the ground. The first theatre on this site
was known as the St. George's Fields Circus. It was built in 1782 by
Charles Dibdin the poet; in 1805
it was burned to the ground like its successor. The second theatre was
opened in 1805 The site has been acquired for an extension of the Royal
Eye Hospital. Close by is Peabody Square, built in 1871,
which contains sixteen blocks of artisan dwellings enclosing two quadrangles,
which communicate with each other. They occupy the site of the old Magdalen
Hospital on the west side of Blackfriars Road.
Above text (edited) from The Face Of London by Harold P. Clunn (1956).
The Surrey Theatre, , Blackfriars Road, London
Right - The Surrey Theatre, Blackfriars Road in 1823 - From 'Charles Dickens and Southwark' (London borough of Southwark)
The Royal Circus had a very troubled existence and was burned down in 1803. Rebuilt in 1804, it continued its previous course, until in 1809 Elliston, the Great Lessee, converted it into a theatre. To evade the Patent Act he put a ballet into all the plays, which included Macbeth, Hamlet, and The Beaux' Stratagem.
In 1814 he gave up, and the building became a circus again until in 1816 Thomas Dibdin reopenedit and named it the Surrey. He failed in 1823 and the theatre sank very low. Elliston took it over again in 1827, when he left Drury Lane. Douglas Jerrold, then a struggling young playwright, brought him Black-Eyed Susan, which he accepted at once. T. P. Cooke was engaged for it at £60 a week and a 'half clear' benefit every sixth week, and it was produced on 8 June 1829. It drew all London, and on the 300th night the theatre was illuminated. The author, who wrote many more plays for the Surrey, received no more than £70 as remuneration for a successful run Of 400 nights.
Elliston made his last appearance at the theatre on 24
June 1831, and died a fortnight
later. Osbaldiston then took over, and among other things produced Jonathan
Bradford; or, the Murder at the Roadside Inn, a poor play
which ran successfully for 260 nights. It had a novel stage-set divided
into four, with four actions going on simultaneously.
Osbaldiston was succeeded by Davidge, a miserly man, and then by Bunn, from Drury Lane, who essayed opera. In 1848 'Dick' Shepherd, the originator of the rough-and-tumble melodrama now associated with the Surrey, took over, with Osbaldiston back as his partner. This soon ended, however, and Creswick, a fine legitimate actor, joined Shepherd, who was broad and vulgar. Yet their association was successful and lasted, with a short break, from 1848 to 1869. During this time the theatre was burned down and rebuilt.
Left - Royal Surrey Theatre Bill for April 15th 1895.
He ran sensational dramas, many of them written by himself, which proved very much to the taste of his patrons, and every Christmas he put on a fine pantomime. The house flourished until his death in 1901.
Right - Surrey Theater from and Old Ordnance Survey Map of Waterloo & Southwark, 1872.
It declined after this and became a cinema from 1920 to 1924, with a brief season of opera. Several attempts were made to reopen it, but there were too many restrictions in the lease and it became derelict. Eventually the land was purchased by the Royal Ophthalmic Hospital, and the building was pulled down in 1934.
Text from The Oxford Companion To The Theatre (Second edition).
In Blackfriars Road, near the obelisk, was the old Surrey Theatre. It is possible that Dickens had in mind this this theatre as the one in which Frederick Dorrit played the clarinet in the orchestra. Performances of Dickens's works used to take place in this theatre during his lifetime to wildly enthusiastic audiences. In November 1838, only a month after the issue of the last instalment, a Surrey Theatre playbill records a dramatised production of Oliver Twist. Other productions included Nicholas Nickleby. John Forster relates how 'One version at the Surrey Theatre was so excruciatingly bad that in the middle of the first scene the agonised novelist lay down on the floor of his box and never rose until the curtain fell.'
Right - Surrey Theatre Blackfriars Road Playbill 1839 - From 'Charles Dickens and Southwark' (London borough of Southwark).
Text from 'Charles Dickens and Southwark' (London borough of Southwark).
Above - The Auditorium and Stage of the Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road - From 'Microcosm of London or London in Miniature Vol 3', 1904.
ONE of the most famous old theatres in London -- the Old Surrey, in Black-friars Road, crossing St. George's Fields -- is likely to be soon in use again. An English family has owned the site of the theatre since 1346. It was first opened in 1782 by Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin, the song writer, and was called "The Royal Circus," and the history of the old place is interesting, apart from the fact that it stood on the site where the once famous Surrey now stands.
Right - The Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road, London.
Previously, the ground on which the building was erected was occupied by a riding school and exhibition, and Dibdin proposed in his new theatre "to have a stage on which might be represented spectacles, each to terminate with a joust or tilting match, so managed as to form a novel and striking coup de theatre, and that the business of the stage and ring might be united."
Above - An early Entrance Token for the Gallery of the Royal Circus, Blackfriars Road, London - Courtesy Alan Judd
At first the entertainments were performed by children,
the idea being to render the circus a nursery for actors. The theatre
was opened however without a licence, and was closed by the order of
the Surrey magistrates after they had read the Riot Act from the stage.
The following year a licence was obtained, but success was threatened
by continual disagreements amongst the partners. Breaches of the law
were continually involving the managers in prosecutions. One justice
Hyde was very much against them, and on one occasion, at the head of
a force of police, he entered the theatre and seized the offending parties,
This particular judge seems to have had a grudge against the Royal Circus,
because whilst he was finding fault with this theatre he allowed the
most disgraceful exhibitions of duck-hunting to be pursued at the "Dog
and Duck," a few yards' distant in St. Georgees fields.
Delphini became manager in 1788, and produced a splendid spectacle, with a real stag-hunt.
Then there were several "dog-pieces" put together to introduce upon the stage as actors, two knowing dogs called 'Gelert and Victor!' Such was their popularity that they held daily receptions, and people flocked in hundreds to gaze upon and fondle these animals.
The popularity of the theatre was largely increased by the skill of John Palmer, a new stage manager, who was however committed to the Surrey Gaol in 1789, as "a rogue and a vagabond."
The Circus was destroyed by fire in August, 1805, and re-built the following year. When it was re-opened it carried on the old style of entertainment until 1809, when Robert Elliston took it over. He paid a rental of £2,200 per year for the building, and transformed the amphitheatre into a commodious pit and the stables into saloons.
The main type of entertainment now produced was melodrama, and here Miss Sally Brook made her first appearance in London. Then followed all sorts of varieties; one piece being produced especially to exhibit two magnificent suits of armour of the fourteenth century, which afterwards appeared in the Lord Mayor's Show.
'The Romance of London Theatres" by Ronald Mayes - From a Programme for the Marble Arch Pavilion December 16th 1929.