200th anniversary of Whitechapel’s old Royalty Theatre first in world with gaslight on stage
PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 August 2016
The spectacular nature of early 19th-century theatre was made possible by new gas-lighting on stage—which first appeared anywhere in the world in London’s East End 200 years ago today.
The Royalty, later known as the East London Theatre, was the first playhouse with gas lighting on stage.
But the 200th anniversary was about to pass unnoticed until it “came to light” at a Society for Theatre Research conference on Regency theatre, held at Downing College in Cambridge last week.
The Royalty was outside the popular West End theatre scene, tucked away in a backwater of Whitechapel, off Wellclose Square in Well Street (now Ensign Street).
But it stole the march on the big London playhouses with its gaslight innovation when it opened for its autumn season on August 5, 1816.
“The old Royalty had the first gas-lit stage for good reason,” according to theatre historian Dr Pieter van der Merwe, of the Greenwich Royal Museums.
“The managing ‘trustee’ was Joseph Vickers who had been a refiner of whale oil which was widely used for lighting.
“He had a small coal-gas station, the East London Gas Works, in a yard belonging to the theatre to light streets with a local mains network of 3,000 yards of pipe.”
But ironically The Royalty also became the first theatre to be burned down by gas, on the night of April 10, 1826.
“Stage lights not fully turned off after the night’s performance set scenery ablaze at 1am,” Dr van der Merwe adds. “Those with a stake in the theatre were under-insured, including Vickers, who went bankrupt and died a year later.
“Theatres were often destroyed by fire, but the Royalty also seems to have been the first such loss caused by gas.”
The Royalty first opened in 1786 as the only regular theatre outside the West End. It catered to an audience working in shipping, import-export, and other river trades on the Thames east of The Tower, including seamen in the old port of London.
It also attracted VIPs such as Admiral Nelson whose mistress Lady Hamilton lodged on the waterfront at Blackwall three miles downriver.
Yet despite the gaslight innovation and an advertising fanfare, the event passed almost unnoticed by the West End theatre press—except for one observant commentator: “The novelty of the scene astonished and delighted us, this being the first theatre that has attempted to introduce gas lights onto the stage. The foot lights were admirably managed, as well as the side lights and chandeliers fitted up in a neat and elegant style. The play of A New Way to Pay Old Debts was well got up.”
Another review a month later added: “The scenic effect is so wonderfully heightened by the power and steadiness of the Gas Lights, that we think no-one can depart disappointed, which imparts safety, convenience and elegance.”
The Royalty never ranked among the great London theatres. Today, nothing marks its existence or its pioneering use of gas.
What does remain is a row of cast-iron Georgian bollards along the pavement in Ensign Street where it stood.
Here, the crowned monogram ‘RBT’ on the bollards marks where the Royal Brunswick Theatre once stood which replaced the Royalty.
But the more imposing Brunswick, opened on February 25, 1828, was also to meet a tragic end—after only two days. It had a fatal design flaw to its structure, with the wide roof-span being under-supported by iron beams. The entire roof caved in during a morning rehearsal, killing 13 people.
But the theatre tradition started 230 years ago in this corner of Whitechapel, less that a mile from the Tower of London, has only recently returned, with the reopening of the equally-historic Wilton’s Music Hall of 1859 in Grace’s Alley, a cut-through from Ensign Street leading to Wellclose Square.
It was a long intermission from the time Wilton’s closed as a Music Hall after a fire in 1887, to its rebirth and complete overhaul as a theatre venue today.