Before 1750, Norwich was England’s largest and wealthiest city after London. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it already had a long tradition of local theatre performances by that date—too long to cover in a single posting. There were, at times, up to six theatres in the city, as well as an established company, The Norwich Company of Comedians, which had established a regular “circuit” of tours to towns in Norfolk and the neighbouring counties.
The White Swan Playhouse, attached to an inn of the same name just behind St. Peter Mancroft church in the Market Place, was the main theatre. However, it wasn’t really up to London standards in size or layout. Some of the worthies of Norwich had already leased some land nearby called The Chapel Field, owned by the estate of the Earl of Buckingham. There they had erected The Assembly Rooms for public entertainment in 1754.
This building, still standing today, was designed by a local developer/builder/architect called Thomas Ivory. His design for The Octagon Chapel, still also happily preserved, was much admired—even by John Wesley (though he abhorred the Unitarian views of the minster and congregation there).
It was not surprising, therefore, that The Proprietors of the Chapple Field Estate, as these Norwich worthies called themselves, should approach the same man in early 1757 to give the city a theatre that could hold up its head even against the famous Drury Lane.
Thus it was that Norwich came to have its own purpose-built theatre. There seem to be conflicting claims made about the oldest theatre in England outside London, depending on how that phrase is interpreted. Norwich’s theatre has operated since 1758 on more or less the same site, but not in the same building. On a strict interpretation, it did not become “The Theatre Royal” until it obtained its royal licence in 1768. Bristol’s Theatre Royal, now the Bristol Old Vic, opened in 1766, uses the original building, if modified, and thus claims to be the oldest continually operating theatre in Britain. The Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire, was built in 1788, but it closed in 1848 and was not reopened until 1963. The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, now in the care of The National Trust, wasn’t constructed until 1819, so it’s Regency, not Georgian.
The Theatre Goes Ahead
Of course, the Assembly Rooms, built scarcely two years before, had somewhat depleted the funds of the “Proprietors of the Chapple Fields”. They therefore encouraged Ivory to bear most of the cost of building the theatre himself—which he agreed to do. To back this up, the Proprietors agreed to by 30 shares of £20 each between them, paid for in instalments. This £600 was their total commitment.
In the astonishingly short time of ten months, Thomas Ivory made good his side of the agreement and delivered a fine theatre on the site, seating around 1000 people in conditions of luxury unknown in the city before. Indeed, so concerned were some potential patrons that such a large building, when full of people, might collapse on their heads that Ivory commissioned six “experts” (three master-bricklayers and three master-carpenters) to certify that the building was entirely safe, even when full. The Norwich Company of Comedians was hired to provide the actors and all was ready for a grand opening on January 31st, 1758.
The Norwich Mercury announced the event like this:
The Grand and Magnificent Theatre in this City, which is now finished, and to be open’d on Tuesday the 31st of this Instant January,—is allow’d by all Conniseurs and Judges, to be the most perfect and compleat Structure of the kind in this Kingdom. It is most admirably constructed for seeing and hearing; the Stage is large and lofty; and the Scenes so highly finish’d and executed, by the late ingenious Mr. Collins, that they are accounted far superior to any of the kind.
The Satisfaction the Structure and Decorations hath given, has induc’d the Gentlemen who are Subscribers, to desire the Receipts of the First Night may be solely appropriated to the Use of the Proprietors,—when the City will be entertain’d with the Comedy of the
Way of the World
Written by the ingenious Mr. Congreve
And a Farce, called
The Mock Doctor; or, The Dumb Lady Cur’d
With Entertainments of Dancing between the Acts
And a New Occasional Prologue and Epilogue.
After the performance, the same newspaper reported:
On Tuesday last was open’d (with Congreve’s Way of the World) the New Theatre lately erected in this City; when the Elegance of the Structure, and the easy manner of conducting the appertaining Materials, (a choice Band of Music, &c) gave great Pleasure and solid Satisfaction to a very numerous, genteel, and polite Audience; consisting of more than a Thousand Spectators.
Thomas Ivory, Theatrical Impressario
For the first ten years of the new theatre’s existence, Thomas Ivory remained its sole proprietor. To ensure a steady and professional company of players, he not only engaged the existing Norwich Company of Comedians on a regular basis, he also purchased all the scenery and costumes owned by the proprietor of that company, both in Norwich and elsewhere on their circuit. In 1764, he added the building of a fine new theatre in Cochester for their use and converted their mode of payment from “a sharing to a Salary Company,—which gave that degree of encouragement to performers of Merit,—that the scheme commanded, & was supported by the best Actors, out of London”.
In 1766, he also leased an additional piece of land to extend his theatre. Then, in 1768, came the final piece of the jigsaw. He obtained a royal licence by Act of Parliament (8 Geo III cap. 28) to perform stage plays in Norwich. His New Theatre—once renamed “The Grand Concert Hall” to avoid problems of theatrical use without the necessary royal licence, now became “The Theatre Royal, Norwich”.
Thus it remains to this day, though Ivory’s building has long gone, replaced on the same site by a new Theatre Royal, begun in the 1820s and substantially altered since, in part thanks to the Luftwaffe.
The Committee Books of the proprietors of the theatre between 1768 and 1825 are preserved in the Norwich Record Office. Thanks to The Society for Theatre Research, they were transcribed with great care by Dr. D H Eshleman in 1970. It is on her work that this article is mostly based.
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