Theatres Royal  ~ Patent Theatres ~ England, Scotland and Ireland

Theatres in Scotland ~ 1800 - 2015
Restoration Theatre and the Royal Prerogative

Public entertainments, such as theatrical performances, had been banned under the Puritan rule in the Commonwealth. After he was restored to the throne, Charles II issued letters patent to Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, granting them the monopoly right to form two London theatre companies to perform 'serious' drama.  The letters patent were reissued in 1662 with revisions allowing actresses to perform for the first time.

Davenant established his company, the Duke's Company, in Lisle's Tennis Court in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1661, later moving to Dorset Garden in 1671. Thomas Killigrew established his company, the King's Company, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1663

The 'patent theatres' were theatres that were licensed to perform 'spoken drama' under the supervision of the Lord Chamberlain. Other theatres were prohibited from performing such 'serious' drama, but were permitted to show comedy, pantomime or melodrama.  Drama was also interspersed with singing or dancing, to prevent the whole being too serious or dramatic.

After problems under the direction of Charles Killigrew, Thomas' son, the King's Company was taken over by its rival, the Duke's Company in 1682. The two companies merged and the combined 'United Company' continued under Thomas Betterton at Drury Lane.

In 1695, after some disagreements, Betterton obtained a license from William III to form a new company at the old theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, moving to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1720. The two patent theatres closed in the summer months. To fill the gap, Samuel Foote's Theatre Royal, Haymarket became a third patent theatre in London in 1766.

Further letters patent were granted to theatres in other English towns and cities, including the Theatre Royal, Bath in 1768, the Theatre Royal, Liverpool in 1772, and the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1778.  These monopolies on the performance of 'serious' plays were eventually revoked by the Theatres Act 1843, but censorship of the content of plays by the Lord Chamberlain under Robert Walpole's Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 continued until 1968.

The provisions of the theatre legislation and the use of the royal prerogative applied in Scotland on a similar basis to the provisions operating outwith the city of Westminster and its environs. Between 1767 and 1820 several theatres were established under the provisions of the 1737 Act. These theatres usually took the style 'Theatre Royal', a name that is still common among contemporary Theatres.

In scotland, there were Theatres Royal in:

Edinburgh Shakespeare Square (opened 1767)  ~  Glasgow Dunlop Street (opened 1782)  ~  Edinburgh Broughton Street) (opened 1788) ~  Dumfries (opened 1792) ~ Glasgow Queen Street (opened 1805) ~ Ayr (opened 1815)  ~  Dundee (opened 1810)  ~  Perth (opened 1820) ~ Glasgow Hope Street (opened 1867).  

[Some links in this section take you to the Theatres Trust web site, others to sources relating to the specific theatre.]


Parliament, Scottish Theatres and the Licensing Act of 1737

As First Lord of the Treasury Robert Walpole was seen by many as too powerful; dramatists constantly attacked him and his Whig Party. He responded with the patent law of 1737 under which all theatres inside and outside London were deemed illegal unless they had a patent from the Lord Chamberlain. 

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

Tailor’s Hall Concerts and Theatre

It was common for performers and managers in the provinces and in London to find ways to circumvent the rules. 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.


Canongate Concert Hall and John Home

The Canongate Concert Hall opened in November 1747. The first offering was a concert followed by a performance of Hamlet.

John Home was an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland and a dramatist whose play Douglas was presented at Canongate in 1756. Set at the time of the Viking incursions into Scotland, the play tells the story of a long-lost son, Douglas. The play was performed in theatres throughout Scotland and England for many decades thereafter.

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. They published an Admonition and Exhortation that was read in all churches; an action that might be considered an 'act of theatre' in itself.  The text railed against the theatre as a 'pedlar of folly and vice'. Reverend Home was forced to resign, though he received great support from the public.

The Church of Scotland eventually gave permission to attend the theatre and it was not uncommon for Presbyterians to attend the theatre, particularly in Lent, as a means to show their disdain for popery.

The theatre successfully operated for another 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 that included Scottish judges. In June 1767, the first patent since the Licensing Act of 1737 was obtained by the Canongate Concert Hall proprietors.

The Cannongate theatre was sold to actor/manager David Ross shortly after the patent was obtained. In 1769, Ross opened his new Theatre Royal in Shakespeare Square, Edinburgh which became the main venue in the city. Some portions of the theatre at Canongate remained as part of the Edinburgh and Leith Brewery.

[Text based on an article by Kathleen Airdrie, Theatre and the Church of Scotland. Published at]

Other Links to Scottish Theatre History:-

Theatre in Glasgow 1  ~  Early Theatre in Glasgow  ~ Theatre in Glasgow 2  ~  Early Theatre in Edinburgh  ~ Theatre in Edinburgh 1  ~  Theatre in Perth  ~  Theatre in Dundee and Arbroath  ~  Theatre in Dumfries

Top  ~ Back to Theatre History Pages  ~  Return to Ayrshire Theatre Lists

Some Scottish Theatres

A small but neat theatre occasionally opens to gratify the admirers of dramatic representations; but the inhabitants being generally of a sedate turn of mind, it is but little encouraged.

Pigot's Ayrshire Directory, 1837.

Theatre Royal, Ayr
Ayr Theatre Royal today.  Photogragh ©M Bailey 2009

The Theatre Royal, Dumfries.

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