For centuries people in Birmingham have enjoyed going to the theatre. Some readers may remember the Theatre Royal which used to be in New Street, just below Ethel Street. The site was sold to Woolworths and the theatre was demolished in December 1956, because it was not making a profit for the company that owned it, Moss Empires.
The theatre had been there from 1774. At that time strict control was exercised by the government, and theatres were not permitted to put on plays unless they had been granted the royal patent. Musical entertainments could still take place.
It was not uncommon for theatres to advertise and sell tickets for a concert, but add a dramatic performance as a free event. Once a theatre gained a licence, it was usually called ‘the Theatre Royal’, and there is a Theatre Royal in many towns across the British Isles. Birmingham was granted its license in 1807.
The theatre was already being used for musical entertainment. Sometimes there would also be a play – but that part of the show would be free, a bonus to the music. The theatre had been used frequently for the Birmingham Triennial Festival, as it and St Phillips were the only two buildings inBirminghamable to house a large audience before the Town Hall opened in 1834. When the theatre burnt down in 1820 a committee was rapidly formed so that it could be rebuilt for the Triennial Festival, which was the main way of raising money for the General Hospital. This was necessary as there was no National Health.
Theatre Royal Collection in Birmingham Archives & Heritage
In the nineteenth century most theatres offered a variety of entertainments. From early in the century there were pantomimes, though perhaps different from the type we see now. There were often animals on stage; horses and other animals feature on playbills. The section holds playbills for many of Birmingham’s theatres. The longest and most complete is that for the Theatre Royal, running from the late eighteenth century to 1956.
One special collection in Birmingham Archives & Heritage inherited from the Theatre Royal comprises play texts and prompt books dating from the mid to the late nineteenth century. Many are printed, about 300 are manuscripts. The majority of the manuscripts are copies made for prompting and for stage management. A few appear to be original versions of plays scripted by the author; for example ‘She Shall be Married’ and ‘O’Shaughan’ by Mary Anne Thompson.
The collection was formed by successive managers, at a time when there was both a stock company, and when touring companies travelled the country. It was saved by the young assistant manager, Philip Rodway, when the Theatre Royal was demolished for rebuilding 1902-1904. He then kept it at the new Theatre until it was sold to Moss Empires in 1929, and took it with him to the Prince of Wales Theatre in Broad Street where he had also been manager from 1918. When he died in 1932 his will specified that the play texts collection should go to R. Crompton Rhodes, a local historian and drama critic. He died unexpectedly in 1935, and the collection came to the Central Library ‘at Mr. Rodway’s privately expressed desire.’ Almost all copies of Shakespeare plays are with the Shakespeare collection, all the others are held in Birmingham Archives & Heritage. Some are unique.
Theatre Royal Broadside LP 28.1
Rhodes, R. Crompton The Early Nineteenth Century Drama L52.41