19th Century Theatres and Concert Halls

Theatre Royal, Edinburgh

In 1741 an acting company presented concerts at Tailor’s Hall Hotel in the Cowgate, a avenue that was in use until 1753.  The Canongate Concert Hall, a purpose built space, opened in November 1747, with a concert followed by a performance of Hamlet.  

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 in 1767 the first patent since the Licensing Act of 1737 was obtained by the Canongate Concert Hall proprietors.  The Canongate theatre was sold to actor/manager David Ross shortly after the patent was obtained and. in 1769, Ross opened his new Theatre Royal in Shakespeare Square.

There have been two sites for Theatres Royal in Edinburgh, the first in Shakespeare Square (the site of the GPO, now Waverley Gate), built in 1769.  This was the original patent theatre in Scotland.  The site was sold to the government in May 1859, for the construction of the new post office.

The newer Theatre Royal, on the Broughton Street site, 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 & Parkers 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 had been converted to a theatre and 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.

The building was altered in 1836, when the proscenium was widened. Damaged by fire in 1855, the building re-opened briefly then, in 1857 it was altered to become the New Theatre & Opera House with a capacity of 1700 seats.  The proscenium width was now 24 feet and the stage dimensions of 58 feet depth and a width of 62 feet.  Management passed to R H Wyndham in 1865 when the theatre was rebuilt after a further fire.  The new building had over 2600 seats.  A further fire in 1876 necessitated rebuilding to designs by Phipps.

The stock companies established in Edinburgh, supplemented by artistes from London and the Northern English Theatre circuits, toured to the recently opened theatres in other burghs in Scotland. There was a very wide variety of drama and spectacles presented in the city, often using scenery and costumes created for the London performances.  But increasingly, there was home-grown drama on offer as Scott's novels provided material that assured a sound future for the new theatre at Broughton Street.

Scott's historical novels offered new possibilities for adaptation to the theatre.  A play that was unambiguously about the modern political situation in Scotland would have been heavily censored, but a play based on a novel about the Jacobite risings could escape censorship on the grounds that it was just based on fiction. This allowed for the possibility of a national drama that might reflect on Scotland through the medium of literature.

In the later decades of the 19th century several other theatres and music halls opened in Edinburgh and adjacent burghs. Details of many of these venues can be found on the The Music Hall and Theatre History Website - arthurlloyd.co.uk

[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, The Laughing Audience website, The Story of the Scots Stage, by Robb Lawson (1919).and the National Library of Scotland.]

The short period of Lloyd’s manage
ment at The Theatre Royal quickly
became over-extended financially, unable
to cope with the wage costs of over
one hundred members of the stock company. Wyndham took over the
management, reducing the payroll to thir
ty-five actors, until he was forced to
sell the theatre in 1859 to the government
, for construction of the General Post
He transferred operations to th
e Queen's Theatre and Opera House,
one of the many earlier theatres on the
site of the present Festival Theatre.
His seasons included many revivals of the National Drama, the dramatised
Waverley novels. Wyndham always lived
in a flat above his theatres, and it
was at the Adelphi in 1853, four days be
fore the fire, that his son, (Frederick)
F. W. P. Wyndham (1853-1930), was born.
During 1869, Wyndham senior took leave
of theatrical affairs and leased the
theatre to J.B. Howard for a summer
season. This younger actor, who came
from western Ireland, had become a star
of the company, principally through
playing the title role in revivals of
Rob Roy
Guy Mannering
(Sir Walter
Scott, 1816).

The new Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, 1865.  Engraving by Paterson for the Illustrated London News, 160 x 185 mm.  [Image in the public domain.]

Fire at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, 1884. London Illustrated News.  [Image in the public domain.]

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, built in 1883 by C. J. Phipps for J. B. Howard and F. W. P. Wyndham.  Photograph ca 1930 ©RCAHMS

Theatres Royal, Glasgow

In Glasgow, 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  A replacement was opened outwith the burgh boundaries in 1764, surviving until destroyed by fire on 5th May 1780.  

In 1782, John Jackson built a new Glasgow playhouse on St. Enoch's Croft.  This theatre, known as the Dunlop Street Theatre, was worked for fifteen years by the Edinburgh stock company.  Thereafter, there was a stock company based in Glasgow and providing performers to other burghs in the West of Scotland. 

The Dunlop Street Theatre had now been in existence for twenty-two years. During that period, the city had changed its aspect, with new villas and pleasure grounds. St. Enoch Croft had grown into a beautiful park, and Queen Street had become the fashionable centre of residence.  From the commercial point of view, it was deemed a feasible scheme to build a new theatre, and accordingly, in 1804, at the extreme westward end of the city, in Queen Street, operations were commenced.

From 1805, the newly built Theatre Royal in Queen Street was Glasgow's first legitimate theatre – that is, a theatre that held a royal patent that licensed it to produce the spoken drama. It struggled for success, despite frequent visits by the actor Edmund Kean and a reputation for spectacular and extravagant productions.  The comedy, The Honeymoon was the opening play.

Seating 1,500 people, the house was supposed to hold £260, the yearly rental being fixed at £1,200. Upon its boards, in due course, appeared some of the greatest stars of the day—the Kembles, Harry Johnston, Cooke, Kean, Macready, Mrs. Siddons, Miss Farren, Mrs. Jordan, Dowton, Fawcett, Elliston, Braham, Liston, Miss Stephens, Charles Mayne Young, Sinclair, Miss Tree, Catalini, Emery and Mrs. Glover.

Jackson and Aitken, the old managers of the Dunlop Street house, became the provisional lessees, upon their promising to secure the very best histriones for the new house. In 1814, the management of the Queen Street house came into the hands of the ever-popular Henry Erskine Johnston, who had now become notorious as the man who thrashed the Prince of Wales.

The opening of the Queen Street premises, in 1805, resulted in a drastic decline in audiences at the the theatre in Dunlop Street.  It was sold in 1807 and a part was converted to become warehouse space.  In 1822 it was sold again and became the Caledonian Theatre, with its cellar occupied by a rival showman, who opened the rival Theatre of Fancy there.  At this time, the Caledonian was the City's 'minor' house, used for musical entertainments, circus shows and equestrian dramas.

The Caledonian was damaged by fires in 1840 and 1849. A third fire in 1863 practically destroyed the building.   Six years later the premises erected in its place were demolished to make way for the new St Enoch Railway Station and the Theatre Royal was moved to Cowcaddens, on a site at the top of Hope Street.

The theatre moved to Cowcaddens in May 1867, taking possession of a new structure owned by James Baylis and built to designs by Charles J. Phipps, William Clarke and George Bell.  This theatre, which accommodated over 1500 patrons, was rebuilt in 1879 and again in 1895.  Following the death of Bayliss, Glover and Francis, former owners of the Dunlop Street theatre, were lessees of the Hope Street Theatre Royal from 1869 until the mid 1870's.  (These individuals were also lessess of the New Theatre in Kilmarnock.)

The theatre was bought by the Glasgow Theatre and Opera House Company in 1882, passing to Howard and Wyndham in 1891.

The increasing demand for music was supported the building of new concert halls (City Hall, 1841, and St Andrew's Hall in 1877) and the growth of choral and orchestral unions able to perform the most ambitious works of the day.

In the later decades of the 19th century several other theatres and music halls opened in Glasgow and adjacent burghs. Details of many of these venues can be found on the The Music Hall and Theatre History Website - arthurlloyd.co.uk

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


Dunlop Street
The Theatre Royal, opened at Dunlop Street in 1782, was renamed the Caledonian Theatre in 1822.
The name reverted to the Theatre Royal (initially the New Theatre Royal) after the destruction of the Queen Street theatre by fire, in 1829.  Original image in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.  [This version of the image is in the public domain.]   The stone carvings are by Mossman.

Dunlop Street
Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street ca 1863.  These premises were built 1839-40 and destroyed by fire 1863.  Restored after fire and reopened 1868.  Photograph by Thomas Annan ca   Original image in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.  [This version of the image is in the public domain.] Note the changes in the top storey.

Queen Street
The Theatre Royal on Queen Street, ca 1805.   The building was entirely destroyed by fire in 1829.  Original image in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.  [This version of the image is in the public domain.]

Hope Street
Theatre Royal, Hope St, from Renfrew St, ca.1960 [Public domain Image from Glasgow Forums.]

Theatre Royal, Dumfries

When Robert Burns first settled in Dumfries, theatrical performances were given in the old Assembly Rooms. By 1790, however, the actor manager George Stephens Sutherland made approaches to certain men of influence suggesting that the town should have a permanent theatre.

Dumfries's purpose-built theatre, probably the oldest surviving example of its kind in Scotland, was built to the design of Thomas Boyd ca.1753-1822. The theatre was designed in the classical style with an external portico. The auditorium had a pit, a dress circle of boxes and behind that a gallery. It could accommodate an audience of up to 550.  Since the opening in 1792 it has undergone various changes of use and alterations, including a partial remodelling by C J Phipps of London in 1876.  The alterations carried out by Phipps included the excavation of a new auditorium to accommodate 1000 spectators, the removal of the portico and the addition of a two-storey entrance bay which enclosed a vestibule and access stairs. The Theatre in Dumfries was granted a Royal Patent in 1810.   It subsequently became a cinema.

The Theatre or the New Theatre, seating between five and six hundred, opened on Saturday 29th September 1792.   The ERA reported on the opening production in their 24th of September 1876 edition saying:

'On the stage everything possible has been done to make the representations effective. A drop scene, painted by Mr Gordon, displays a scene on the Grand Canal, Venice, and magnificent scenery by Mr Walter Johnstone is painted. The house has cost nearly £3,000, the proprietor, Mr William McKie, of Moat House, having spared no expense in making this new Temple of the Drama answer modern requirements. Mr Fryer's first engagement for the new Theatre was with Mr J. H. Clynds, whose dramatic company appeared in Lord Lytton's celebrated comedy Money.  .   .   .'

'The company were enthusiastically cheered and called before the curtain. Between the comedy and the farce with which the entertainment finished - The Area Belle - an interesting part of the programme was performed by Miss Booth, who, with rare elocution, recited an appropriate address. On Friday London Assurance was played, and on Saturday Richard the Third, while this week The Two Orphans has been mounted on a scale of great magnificence.'

Robert Burns regularly wrote prologues for the performers to deliver on special occasions but the early years of theatre in Dumfries and in other Scottish towns could hardly be called indigenous.   Some contemporary commentators, such as the Scottish writer J C Dibdin 1856–1901, believed that this metropolitan domination was dangerously stultifying: 'No theatre in the kingdom, except those in London, produce the smallest novelty. If therefore [poor] performances obtain at the two [London] theatres, they go through the whole nation, and extend to Ireland, and Scotland, and therefore are sure, the source being contaminated, to poison the general taste.'

The season was limited, typically from late September through to the early New Year, coinciding with the presence of the Caledonian and Dumfries and Galloway Hunts, the Assizes and the Rood Fair in the region. The Edinburgh Theatre Royal’s seasons ran between January and July, and therefore groups of actors were free to tour the provincial theatres in the Autumn. Playing days were typically Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with programmes beginning on Wednesdays and being changed weekly. The Theatre opened at 6.00 pm, performances would start at 7.00 pm and often last until after 11.00 pm.  Prices ranged between 3s for the boxes, 2s for the pit, and 1s for the gallery.

Most of the actors in the early days were English or occasionally Irish, and had appeared (and indeed continued to appear) at the Theatre Royal Edinburgh and the other newly-built theatres throughout Scotland, with some enjoying the prestige of having played in London theatres such as Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the Haymarket. Scottish actors, such as Henry Erskine Johnstone, Harriet Murray Siddons and William Murray, were to emerge in the next generation.

Towards the end of the eighteenth Century and the start of the nineteenth, there were two other major players in the fortunes of Dumfries theatre    They were Stephen Kemble and his wife Elizabeth Satchell. Kemble belonged to the leading theatrical family of the age, although as an actor he could in no way match up to his brilliant siblings, his sister, Sarah Siddons, regarded as one of the greatest actresses of all time, and his brother, John Philip Kemble.  He did, however, became a pioneering theatre manager, and opened up ‘the Provinces’ to touring. In this venture he had the advantage of being able to call on his brilliant family to appear in his theatres outwith London. Indeed, Sarah Siddons was the first London actor of repute to break through the prejudice which regarded summer ‘strolling’, or starring in the provincial theatres, as a degradation. 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.

Stephen Kemble began his management of the Theatre Royal Newcastle in 1791 and branched out from there to manage other theatres in the north of England and in Scotland, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Dumfries.  Whilst Elizabeth Kemble was probably the most distinguished performer to appear on the Dumfries stage in the eighteenth Century, the pattern of engaging London ‘stars’ was to continue in later years: Dumfries audiences saw the young Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready, Samuel Phelps, G V Brooke and others.

Arthur Lloyd is known to have taken his Ballyvogan Company to the Theatre Royal, Dumfries in August 1891. And his father, Horatio Lloyd, also performed there in the 1830s and writes about the Theatre on several occasions in his autobiography.

[Text based, in part on the Guild of Players website, Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service, 'On Our Humble Dumfries Boards…' by Kate Kennedy, RCAHMS Records and The Burns Encyclopedia]

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

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


From The ERA, 5th August 1891
  Arthur Lloyd was a Music Hall Performer and a Playwright who had several Plays published, which he performed regularly with his own Comic Company.

The Queen's Rooms, Ayr

Late 18th century records for Ayr report an attempt by George Sutherland, manager of a touring company, to build a theatre in the town.  However, he was unable to find a suitable location and moved to Dumfries where he helped to establish the Theatre Royal in 1792.  It is assumed, but by no means certain, that any performances by Sutherland would have been in the Assembly Rooms or Ballroom associated with the Tontine Inn in the Main Street of Newton on Ayr, now the site of the Orient Cinema.

In 1796, a company gave performances in a school-room at the Wallace Tower. Beaumont's company played there in 1802, moving on in 1809 to the empty Gibb's soapworks beside the main gate of the former Dallbair House. The next company at the soap-work was managed by Montgomerie and Lacy.  Henry Erskine Johnston (1777-1845) ran drama there before moving to Content Street, to a building which later became a brass foundry.  By 1812, there were plans for a new theatre and the Content Street premises were abandoned.

Opening at Sandgatehead, in 1815, as the New Theatre or the Queen's Rooms, there appeared, in due succession, many of the great actors and actresses of the day.  Harry Johnston became part-owner and lessee of the new theatre (with the merchant, James Morris).  This theatre, later known as the Theatre Royal, accommodated 600, offering both drama and music.

Too small to have a resident company, the theatre was dependent on short seasons, usually between September and December, drawing on the stock companies in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  The Edinburgh company of William Murray with Mrs Harriet Siddons and the Glasgow Company under Seymour completed early seasons at this theatre. 

This building, which still stands at the top of Fort Street, continued as a place of entertainment until it's closure in the 1870's.  It is now the Baptist Church.   This Church was renovated in 2004.

No records of other theatre premises in Ayr have been found prior to the construction of  the Caledonian Theatre, which opened in a wooden building in Carrick Street in 1895.  This building was replaced by the Gaiety Theatre in 1902.   However, it is known that Ayr Town Hall was in use as a concert and music venue from the time it opened in 1881.  The new town-hall at Ayr, which has been erected at a cost of £30,000, was opened by the performance in the principal room of Handel's 'The Messiah.'

[Text based on James Morris, Recollections of Ayr Theatricals from 1809. RCAMHS CANMORE database, Ayr Carnegie Library Archives, Historic Scotland, Scottish Architect database and The Theatre Trust database.]

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Town Hall and Assembly Rooms, erected in 1830. The concert hall was added in 1878

Theatre Royal
Theatre Royal Ayr, with new entrance constructed in 2004.Photograph 2009, ©M.Bailey

New Theatre, Kilmarnock

It seems that drama came to Kilmarnock somewhat later than it was seen in other burghs although there appears to have been frequent concerts in rooms with the George Hotel.with regular appearances by Templeton and his family.

Adamson notes that the drama had several unsuccessful struggles to gain a footing in the town; he refers to premises in Back Causeway ca 1830 - 40, with the stables were converted into a basic theatre where players such as Edmund Kean, G.V.Brooke, Macready, Charles Vernon were engaged.   These premises were succeeded by a wooden theatre erected by Mr Scott near to where the railway arch now crosses Portland Street.

The Portland Street structure was replaced by a wooden building at the top of Langlands Brae, to be followed, shortly afterwards, by a more sophisticated structure on adjacent site.  This location was managed by Mr Edmund Glover. None of these ventures were successful, each lasting two to three years or less.

By the mid nineteenth century provisions for drama in the burgh were centred on the theatre under the railway arch in Back Street.  Opened by John Simpson and Mr Bostock, the costs were so great that Mr Bostock withdrew, leaving Simpson to wrestle with the concern as  best he might.   For several years Simpson struggled with adverse circumstances, tried many attractions, not the least of which was his engagement of Sir William Don, Mr Parry, Mr Mortimer Murdoch, G V Brooke.

The first substantial theatre in Kilmarnock was the New Theatre (later known as the Operetta House) in John Finnie Street.  The first substantial theatre in Kilmarnock, the Operetta House was opened in 1875, with space to accommodate as many as 1200 persons,  Like the earlier theatres in Kilmarnock, the Opera House had a few years of popularity, but this did not last and by the early years of the 20th century this house was dark.  The first lessees of the building were William Glover and George Francis, established theatrical managers at the Royal Theatre in Glasgow. The first show to be performed in the building was "Guy Mannering" by Sir Walter Scott

Section under development

[Text based on Adamson's Rambles Round Kilmarnock and The Glasgow Herald


The New THeatre or Operetta House opened in 1875

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