18th Century Theatres and Concert Halls

Theatre Royal, Edinburgh

In 1739 the first Scottish patent petition under the Act of 1737 was submitted to Parliament but, in the face of the combined opposition from the University of Edinburgh and civil authorities, the petition failed.

In 1620 the Incorporation of Tailors had acquired an area of land on the south side of the Cowgate on which stood "several buildings, some of them apparently ruinous, with two courts or yards.  They immediately built a hall, which was finished in 1621. The draft of the National Covenant was approved in the Hall on 27th February 1638.

In 1741, the English actor Thomas Este took his acting company to Edinburgh where performances at Tailor’s Hall Hotel in the Cowgate were advertised as concerts.  Este’s company presented plays, free of charge, following the concerts.   English actress Sarah Ward joined the company at Tailor’s Hall in 1745 for a brief time and started a campaign to raise funds for a permanent theatre in Edinburgh. Wealthy citizens and local tradesmen fully supported the plan and in 1746, the London actor, John Ryan, laid the foundation stone in the Canongate.  Tailor’s Hall was used by itinerant acting companies until 1753.   In 1801, the Argyle Brewery acquired the whole of the Tailors' property.

In the autumn of 1747 the newly built Canongate Hall opened with a concert followed by a performance of Hamlet.  John Home, an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland and a dramatist, presented his play Douglas at the Canongate in 1756. The Church of Scotland acted quickly with condemnation of John Home. Not only had he written a play, but he had shown complete disregard for church views on theatre.    Notwithstanding this opposition, Home's work became one of the core texts of 18th and 19th century British Theatre. 

The Canongate theatre operated successfully for ten years without a patent. In January 1767, a great riot broke out in which the auditorium and stage were mostly destroyed. The theatre was repaired by its proprietors and the first patent since the Licensing Act of 1737 was obtained by the Canongate Concert Hall proprietors.  The Theatre was sold, together with the Royal Patent, to actor/manager David Ross 1728 - 90, an experienced actor of Scottish descent, born in London.   Against considerable opposition, he opened the Canongate Concert Hall on 9th December, 1767 with a performance of The Earl of Essex, preceded by an address written by James Boswell. 

Ross had a successful season at the Canongate, playing the leading roles in several plays, including The Beggars' Opera, Romeo and Juliet and The Suspicious Husband.  During his second season in Edinburgh, Ross was planning the opening of his new house to be built in Shakespeare Square.

In November 1769, Ross opened his new Theatre Royal in Shakespeare Square with a performance of The Conscious Lovers.  However, the first season at this theatre was not a success, due to the poor quality of many of the supporting players in the company and Ross returned to London, to joined Foote's company at the Haymarket.  Meanwhile, Foote came north into the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh.

In the ensuing years the theatre was under the management of West Digges, Bland and Digges then Tate Wilkinson before the arrival of John Jackson in 1781.  The Theatre Royal continued until1859, when the site was sold to the government for the construction of the new post office.

A second theatre, destined to replace the Theatre Royal in Shakespeare Square, was built in Broughton Street.  This theatre had a varied history and, over the years, a variety of names. Designed as a circus, and opening in 1788, it was known as Jones and Parker's Circus.  It was converted to a theatre in 1809. Thereafter it was known as Sadler’s Wells, New Theatre Royal, Corri’s Rooms, Pantheon, (Royal) Caledonian, Adelphi, Queen’s Theatres and Opera House and, finally, the Theatre Royal.

In 1793 the building was in the hands of Corri, succeeded by Stephen Kemble in the same year. By 1809 it was in the hands of Henry Siddons passing to Harriet Siddons and W H Murray in 1815.  A Mr Bannister had the premises in 1817 but W H Murray continued his association with the premises until his retiral in 1850.

A collection of Playbills for the Theatre Royal are held by the National Library of Scotland.  Covering the period 1807 to 1851, many of these are available online.   For further reading, see particularly Findlay, Bill (ed.), A History of Scottish Theatre, Edinburgh, 1998, and Dibdin, James C. Annals of the Edinburgh Stage, Edinburgh, 1888.]

[Text based on the RCAMHS Records, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, article by Kathleen Airdrie, Theatre and the Church of Scotland. Published at Suite101.com, Theatre Database of the Theatre Trust, RCAMHS Canmore database The Laughing Audience website and the National Library of Scotland.]

For further information, please follow this LINK


Tailor’s Hall Hotel in the Cowgate: View of courtyard from North.  20th Century CANMORE Record, © RCAHMS

Tailors 2
Tailor’s Hall Hotel in the Cowgate: Interior-general view of Hall.  20th Century CANMORE Record, © RCAHMS

Theatre Royal
The Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Square, Edinburgh. Engraving after a drawing by T H Shepherd published in 1829.

Glasgow, Dunlop Street

Before 1750, the entertainment of the Burgh had been entirely provided by bands of strolling players, acrobats, tumblers, singers, and dancers.  The first theatre was erected in 1752; a wooden booth built against an old wall of the Bishop's Palace at Castle Yard.   This building was demolished by the mob in 1754, reputedly urged on by George Whitefield 1714-1770, one of the more evangelical early Methodists.

The religious authorities of Glasgow strongly opposed the construction of another theatre within the boundaries of the city, so a theatre was built in Grahamston, close to the River.  The actress George Anne Bellamy, often known as Mrs Bellamy, was booked to perform on the opening night and to continue to direct plays and musical concerts over the next two months.

Despite this theatre being damaged by the mob, it opened only two days late on, 26 April, 1764, with a Concert of Music between the parts of which were presented gratis a Comedy called the Citizen, to which was added a Farce called High Life Below Stairs.  This theatre was destroyed by fire on 5th May 1780.  The building was not restored. and it remained derelict until it was then converted into a granary.

In 1782, John Jackson built a new Glasgow playhouse on St. Enoch's Croft.  The land was purchased from Colin Dunlop, the Provost of Glasgow, and the 'Dunlop Street Theatre' cost £3,000 to erect.  It held sufficient patrons to yield a nightly income of £90 to £100, at Edinburgh prices. 

The theatre opened in January 1782, and was worked for fifteen years by the Edinburgh stock company. Mrs. Sarah Siddons made her first Glasgow appearance at the Dunlop Street Theatre in 1795 and Harry (Henry Erskine) Johnston filled a short engagement.

[Text based on The Story of the Scots Stage, by Robb Lawson (1919) and Abandoned Communities operated by Stephen Fisk.]


Dunlop Street
The theatre in Dunlop Street that replaced the Alston Street theatre. The statue of William Shakespeare can be seen in the centre of the top floor.  Original in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.  [This image is in the public domain.]

Theatre Royal, Dumfries

The Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Street, Dumfries, was opened on the evening of Saturday 29th September 1792, during the reign of George III, having been built under the licensing Act of 1788.   The event was reported in the Dumfries Weekly Journal, which stated: 'The united elegance and accommodation of the house reflected equal honour on the liberality and taste of the proprietors, and design and execution of the artists, and conspired with the abilities of the performers in giving universal satisfaction to a crowded and polite audience.'

In 1790 Mr George Stephen Sutherland, an actor manager who had been playing with a company at the Old Assembly Room in the George Hotel, approached various people in Dumfries and its neighbourhood to raise a loan for the purpose of building a theatre in Dumfries.  Among those involved was Robert Burns, then resident at Ellisland Farm, just north of Dumfries.

Burns, writing from Ellisland to his friend William Nicol, on 2nd February 1790, said: 'Our theatrical company, of which you must have heard, leave us this week. Their merit and character are indeed very great, both on stage and in private life, not a worthless creature among them; and their encouragement has been accordingly. Their usual run is from eighteen to twenty pounds a night; seldom less than the one, and the house will hold no more than the other. There have been instances of sending away six and eight and ten pounds a night for want of room. A new theatre is to be built by subscription; the first stone is to be laid on Friday first to come. Three hundred guineas have been raised by thirty subscribers, and thirty more might have been got if wanted. The manager, Mr Sutherland, was introduced to me by a friend from Ayr; and a worthier or cleverer fellow I have rarely met with.'

A meeting of the subscribers was held on 18th February 1790, at which Mr Sutherland announced that he had feued a part of the gardens at East Barnraws, later Queen Street, as a site, and submitted plans by Thomas Boyd, architect and James Hutchison, joiner, that were based on the design of the Theatre Royal, Bristol. The plans were approved, and the foundations laid the same year. 

The 1792 Founding Deed of the Theatre is drawn up in favour of Robert Riddell of Glenriddell. By this Deed, Thomas and William Bushby granted to Riddell the ground situated in the Burgh of Dumfries on the South East side of the street called the Barnraws, or Shakespeare Street; as the Deed puts it, 'ground on which he (Robert Riddell) had at Candlemas 1790, built a house intended for a Theatre or Playhouse.'   Robert Riddell bound himself to pay Thomas Bushby £5 a year, one half at Candlemas, the other at Lammas. Further to that Bushby received two 'Brass Tickets', which entitled him 'to have right to call upon the Manager of the Theatre or other person who issues tickets and receive and use two gratis admission tickets every night to any place in the boxes or pit that he or they shall incline, agreeable to the practice of other theatres in such cases, excepting the Benefit Nights of the performers; the tickets to be called for each day about the usual time, unless a particular box be pitched upon for the season.' In the event of any refusal, Riddell or his representatives were to pay to Bushby or his representatives double the highest price for each refusal.

Each original subscriber of ten guineas or over was given the right of free admission to the theatre, receiving a silver medallion, on one side of which was an engraving of the theatre, and on the other his name.   The building of the theatre had scarcely begun when the capital was exhausted, and the subscribers had to build at a much grater cost than had been intended. An extra five hundred pounds had to be raised to finish the building.

In the autumn of 1792, the Rood Fair, the Circuit Court and the meetings of the Dumfries and Galloway and Caledonian Hunts were held in Dumfries and the new theatre was opened on time at a cost of some £800. The design, by Thomas Boyd of Dumfries, was based on that of the Theatres Royal in Bristol and Edinburgh.  The Theatre or the New Theatre, seating between five and six hundred, opened under the management of Sutherland's partner, John Brown Williamson, from the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Among those who appeared at the theatre in the early years were Mrs Kemble, Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready (whose father was the lessee for four years), Miss Jarman from Covent Garden, Samuel Phelps and Ellen Tree.

Burns continued his association with the theatre until his death in 1796, writing the prologue 'The Rights of Woman' for Miss Louise Fontanelle's Benefit Night and, in 1794, a tribute to Maria Theresa Kemble (1774 - 1838) as 'Yarico' in the opera 'lnkle and Yarico'.

[Text based, in part on the Guild of Players website, Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service and The Burns Encyclopedia]


Assembly RoomsThe Old Assembly Rooms at the George Hotel, Dumfries accommodated theatrical performances prior to the construction of the Theatre Royal. Collection of Dumfries and Galloway Museum Service.  [Image in the public domain.]

Theatre Royal, Dumfries c 1900. Glass Plate Negative of Theatre Royal (exterior), Dumfries, c 1900.  160 X 210 mm. Collection of Dumfries and Galloway Museum Service.  [Image in the public domain.]

Section under development

Section under development

Section under development

Top   ~   Back to Ayrshire Theatre History  ~  Theatres History in Great Britain and Ireland  ~  Nineteenth Century Actors   ~  Nineteenth Century Musicians

Contact Us  ~  Cookies and Site Information