Old and New London, A Narrative of its History, its People and its Places.Illustrated with Numerous Engravings from the Most Authentic Sources. vol 6

Walford, Edward

1872-78

Lambeth (continued).-The Transpontine Theatres.

Lambeth (continued).-The Transpontine Theatres.

 

Ablegandae Tiberim ultra.--Horace.

 

Unlike Covent Garden, the , and other

West-end

houses, the

Transpontine

theatres have always been chiefly remarkable for spectacular or

sensational

performances : in a word, for such entertainments as appeal more to the eye than to the understanding; for, as may be easily imagined, their managers--in some of them, at least--have to cater altogether for a different constituency from that which forms the support of the old patent theatres, and generally those of the West-end. With reference to the morality of the transpontine theatres, Charles Knight wrote, in his , in :

Look at our theatres; look at the houses all around them. Have they not given a taint to the very districts they belong to? The Coburg Theatre, now called the Victoria, and the Surrey, what are they? At Christmas time, at each of these minor theatres, may be seen such an appalling amount of loathsome vice and depravity as goes beyond Eugene Sue, and justifies the most astounding revelations of Smollett.

Happily, matters have mended considerably since he wrote, and the vicinity of even a minor theatre is now by no means so absolutely and hopelessly depraved. Allusions to the transpontine places of entertainment are common enough in the writings of the last generation; and the authors of the

Rejected Addresses,

published in the year , in mockheroic style, attribute, of course in jest, the burning of so many of our places of amusement to the archenemy, Napoleon Bonaparte!

Base Bonaparte, fill'd with deadly ire,

Sets one by one our play-houses on fire.

Some years ago he pounced with deadly glee on

The Opera House, then burnt down the Pantheon;

Nay, still unsated, in a coat of flames

Next at Millbank he crossed the River Thames,

Thy Hatch,See ante, p. 392. O Half-penny! pass'd in a trice,

Boil'd some black pitch, and burnt down Astley's twice;

Then buzzing on through ether, with a vile hum

Turn'd to the left hand fronting the Asylum,

And burnt the Royal Circus in a hurry-

'Twas called the Circus then, but now the Surry.

Of the

Surrey

we have already written at length in a previous chapter it now remains for us to deal with the

Victoria

and

Astley's.

The Victoria Theatre, formerly called the Coburg, and in more recent times the Royal Victoria Palace Theatre, is situated in the , at the corner of the New Cut, and not far from the South- Western Railway Station.

The building of , which was commenced in , and was completed years afterwards, led to the erection of this theatre, which was originally called the

Coburg

,

in compliment to Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg (afterwards King of the Belgians), the husband of the Princess Charlotte. The stone was laid by the prince, by proxy, in , and the theatre was opened on Whit-Monday in the following May. No doubt, a desire on the part of dramatists and performers to escape from the vexatious restrictions then (and still) imposed by the Lord Chamberlain on theatres within his jurisdiction was largely instrumental in procuring the erection of this and of the . The builder of the structure was an ingenious carpenter, a Frenchman, named Cabanelle, who arranged it after the fashion of a minor French theatre, nearly circular in shape, decorating the interior with strong contrasts of colour. Few persons, in all probability, are aware that the foundations of the theatre are extensively composed of the stones of the old Savoy Palace in , which were cleared away in order to form .

The

Coburg

was built with a due regard to the character of the population by which it was surrounded, and was therefore designed for melodramas and pantomimes; and, on the whole, it has adhered pretty closely to its original purpose, under a variety of lessees and managers. Among the pieces performed on the opening night was

394

, based on the memorable appeal made by the brothers of Mary Ashford against her murderer, Abraham Thornton, the applicants' right to a

trial by wager of battle

having been acknowledged by the Court of King's Bench only a month previously. At the end of the season the public were told by the proprietor that it was his intention

to have all the avenues (roads) to the theatre well lighted, while the appointed additional patrols on the bridge road --and keeping them in their own pay--will afford ample security to the patrons of the theatre.

The public were also informed that the theatre was financially successful, though Tom Dibdin states that its opening was a

lamentable circumstance

to both its owners and the lessee of the Surrey; for that each speculation showed a loss of several thousands, whilst theatre in that neighbourhood might have reaped a large profit. Be this, however, as it may, it is worthy of record that amongst those personages who have appeared on the boards of the Coburg are to be reckoned Edmund Kean (who received for performing here nights in ), Booth, T. P. Cooke, Buckstone, Benjamin Webster, Liston, Joe Grimaldi, and G. V. Brooke, the

Hibernian Roscius.

In -with a keen foresight of the future successor to the Crown--the name of the Coburg was changed to that of the

Victoria,

in compliment to the young princess who then stood as heir presumptive to the throne, and the whole of the interior was altered and embellished afresh. In the June of the following year the great violinist, Paganini, performed here for a single night-his last public appearance in this country. A special feature of this theatre, for some years, was its

act drop,

which was neither more nor less than a huge looking-glass. It was lifted up bodily into the roof, where a large box-shaped contrivance was fitted up to receive it. Notwithstanding that the old

Vic

--for so this theatre was popularly called--has in former times numbered among its scene-painters such men as Clarkson Stanfield, the great marine painter, the place does not appear to have been a very fortunate speculation for its managers or lessees, several being ruined by it. [extra_illustrations.6.394.1] 

When this theatre opened its doors, upwards of half a century ago, it was in the presence of a

large and fashionable audience,

if we may believe the newspapers of the day. The piece performed on that occasion, which we have mentioned above, entitled , was described in the play-bills as an entirely new melo-dramatic spectacle, in which was to be portrayed the ancient mode of decision by Kemp fight, or single combat. There followed it a grand Asiatic ballet, and a new and splendid harlequinade (partly from Milton's ),

with new and extensive machinery, mechanical changes, tricks, and metamorphoses :

and the play-bills concluded with the comfortable assurance,

extra patroles are engaged for the bridge and roads leading to the theatre, and particular attention will be paid to the lighting of the same.

But the

fashionable

audience did not long continue; and the street lamps, the costermongers' lamps of the New Cut, and the vigilance of the metropolitan police, soon rendered unnecessary the

extra patroles

or the manager's

particular attention

being paid to the lighting of the surrounding thoroughfares. The old

Vic

for many years enjoyed a very doubtful reputation. It was the place of which Charles Mathews once wrote:

The lower orders rush there in mobs, and in shirt-sleeves applaud frantically, drink gingerbeer, munch apples, crack nuts, call the actors by their Christian names, and throw them orangepeel and apples by way of bouquets.

For many years it bore a terribly bad character for fatal accidents from crushing; and a false alarm of fire here caused the deaths of some or persons in . In a few years more, however, a change came, and on the night of the , a crowded audience beheld the last of the old Victoria.

It could be seen at a glance,

observes a writer in the

that the evening was

one

to be held in special fashion by the humble dwellers in the New Cut. A cherished institution, dear to them and their children, was doomed, and they had come to take a last fond look, and earn the right of narrating by the winter fire how they had seen the

Vic

proud in its glory and triumphant in its expiring moments. The increase of prices to the extent of threepence in every part of the house had no effect upon the gallery or the pit, so that the precautions taken by the management to open the doors at half-past

five

were quite necessary . . . A very laudable desire was felt to do all that could be done that the Victoria Theatre might end its days in peace, and pass to its rest with no fresh disaster on its conscience. The audience, overawed maybe by the thoughts which seized them, assisted to secure this result. There, ascending from gallery front into the dim roof, were the lusty roughs, short-sleeved, slop-clothed, and cropped as of yore; but no missiles came from their hands; no internecine warfare was carried on, to the mingled delight and terror of the beholders; no oaths resounded from side to side; no Bedlam was

let loose, as in the olden times when respectable West-enders would not have dared to enter the house without an unquestioned life assurance. The audience at the

Vic

has been made to answer the purpose of

awful warning

for many a long year, and we will do that of the closing night the justice to say that, composed undoubtedly as it was of persons living in the

Lambeth

highways and bye-ways, it was, on the whole, as decorous as that of any other house in the metropolis. The few cat-calls that some hardy and unfeeling youths at an early hour indulged in found no response; whistling even was at a discount; and the very children in arms stared wondrously at the dropscene, and rubbed their sticky little knuckles into their sleepy little eyes.

The theatre on this occasion was roused into a faint semblance of its former self when the foreboding strains of the overture heralded in

a Romantic Drama, entitled the

Trial by Battle

,

the chief merit of which was, as we have before stated, that it commenced the entertainment when the theatre was opened, on the . It was not likely there could have been a single person present on the closing night who was also present when the curtain rose for the time at the Coburg Theatre, albeit there were several who had seen themselves reflected in the famous mirror curtain, and who could remember the visit of the Princess Victoria and the house's subsequent change of name. The manager, Mr. Cave, offered a chastened, but still appropriate, play-bill for the last night, and engaged some well-known actors to grace the closing scenes.

Rob Roy

,

observes the writer quoted above,

though not of the bloody and ghostly type of play of which the

Vic

was the natural exponent, is so bold in its situations, so full of

Auld-Lang- Syne

sentiments, and so well seasoned with fighting material, that it could not fail to touch the heart of any genuine frequenter of the

Vic.

It is just a little naughty, too: at least, to the extent of a considerable amount of dram-drinking, a fair allowance of cursing and swearing, and a sly approval of lawlessness and contempt for the powers that be.

Rob Roy,

of course, found a host of sympathisers; and what with the capitally-sung songs, the sanguinary conflicts, the sentiment, and the final punishment of the villain

Rashleigh

--enacted, by the way, by of the

Vic's

regular performers,

a painstaking artist, with fine rolling eye, trembling hand oft raised aloft, strongly heaving bosom, and r's well rolled out from the inner depths

--the curtain fell to a thunder of applause that seemed to come from capacious and enthusiastic throat. The actors were summoned: they departed; and still the applause continued, until the appearance of Mr. Cave sealed the vociferous tongues. The managerial speech was short, unpretentious, and to the point. , thanks for the patronage he had enjoyed during his years of management, and then the pathetic statement --

This evening the curtain will drop for ever upon the Victoria Theatre.

In the next breath Mr. Cave was on with the new love before he was off with the old, inasmuch as he announced that in place of the

Vic

would arise a place of entertainment that would surpass

for magnitude and grandeur

anything the kingdom of Great and Ireland ever saw. The godlings shouted

hear, hear!

as knowingly as members of Parliament, on being informed that the best dramas of the period would there be exhibited before the audiences of the future, and broke out into a perfect whirlwind of applause when it was added that the new proprietors did not intend to destroy the speciality of the theatre. The Victoria was henceforth to be half melo-drama and half musichall. Mr. Cave then retired, full of honours; and, as the curtain fell, a mournful-voiced, bare-armed young man in the front row of the gallery audibly summed up the case thus:--

Ah! the poor old Wic! Pass the arf-an'--arf, 'Arry.

The following description of the closing scenes of the

poor old Wic,

from the pen of an eyewitness, may be read with interest :--

The audience required but little explanation beforehand as to the last dish of the farewell feast. The bridge over the rocks, the greasy moon overhead, and the smugglers in the foreground, told the entire story the moment the curtain was fairly up. In the

first

few sentences our dear old friend

Ongree

was introduced, closely followed by the equally familiar swarthy ruffian in sea-boots, with enough pistols about him to furnish a troop. Enter, also, a tall baron; next a tottering old man--the feeble father, upon whose only child the bold wicked noble has the worst of designs. In these smuggler bands there is always

one

buccaneer who plays the part of the repentant sinner, through whose honest treachery by-and-by vice--which is, of course, clothed in velvet and gold --is punished, and virtue-which, equally of course, goes in hunger and rags--is rewarded. The actor who undertook this character, an old stager in these parts, probably, was mildly requested to open his mouth by

one

section, and consoled by cries of

Brayvo Bradshaw-er!

by another. He was a weak brother from the smuggler's point of view, and soon got himself into trouble by such heresies as,

Never will I give my consent to bring a virtuous girl to infamy!

--a bit of oratory that drew

loud expressions of approval from the only drunken man to be seen among the

1,500

persons crammed into the upper regions. The

Vic

by this time was itself again. Shouts were answered by shrill whistlings, and the voices that

one

moment yelled

Go it, my pippin!

were the readiest, the next, to howl,

Turn him out!

Sentiment was thrown to the winds. The repentant smuggler's glib boast,

Though I am a poor smuggler, I am yet a man!

was decidedly gibed at, all approval being reserved for the unscrupulous villain--the tool of the baron --who, without any hesitation, swore he cared for nothing in the world so long as he got

the rhino.

The plotting of the village girl's abduction by the smugglers was a sore test of patience. The pit and other parts of the house admonished the occupants of the gallery to be quiet, but to no purpose. There was an under-tone of discontent which would not be allayed. The troubled waters were calmed by the sudden change of the music from the dirgeful to the thunder-and-lightning order of melody, such as precedes the opening of the trapdoor on Boxing-night, and the advent of a herd of demons. The expected tragedy not happening on the instant, the discontent waxed louder, yet not

The Old Coburg Theatre In 1820.

boisterous by any means. Mr. Cave seemed to think differently, for he shot like an arrow from the right wing, and rebuked the noisy portion of his patrons, hinting to them that the melo-drama had not been produced for larksome purposes, but to give them a taste of the ancient quality. A decentlooking man in the pit here made a remark, showing that he resented the extra prices which had been imposed; and Mr. Cave quietly reminded the grievance-monger that if he had been there when the play was

first

produced, he would have had to pay

three shillings

for his seat.

The piece hereafter proceeded with moderate interruptions only; but when the curtain fell and the theatre was cleared, there was a desolate look on the faces of the vast crowd that lingered outside--it might have been caused by the paltry number of deaths during the melo-drama; or by the fact that the publichouses were closed; or, peradventure, because the people had seen the last of the

Vic.

The old theatre, a few days later, was again opened; but the principal actor on this occasion was the auctioneer, whose rostrum was erected on the stage, amidst heaps of

properties

and other articles. The stage, with all its traps, fittings,

397

398

barrels, pulleys, &c., brought but . The building, however, was re-opened at the Christmas of the same year, under the altered and enlarged designation of the

Royal Victoria Palace Theatre,

its interior having been entirely re-constructed and handsomely decorated by a new proprietary; but its success was very transient, for in , it was again offered for sale by auction. The following description of the building we quote from the announcement of the sale :--

The approaches to the theatre are

six

in number, and afford ample and safe means by stone staircases for the rapid entrance and exit of crowded audiences, while the water supply is from

five

hydrants, attached to the high pressure main service, and

three

large cisterns. The interior arrangements are complete, and include the noble, lofty, and well-ventilated auditorium, of unique design, rising to a height of

50

feet, decorated in the Italian style, the walls being effectively lined with brilliant silvered plate-glass, and consisting of

twelve

large private boxes,

117

stalls,

119

balcony seats, with promenade to hold

250

more,

560

in pit, with promenade affording space for

400

more, and accommodation for

800

to

850

in gallery, thus affording, at present, accommodation for

2,300

persons, but with a judicious outlay it is calculated that additional sitting room may be obtained for

500

more visitors, thus giving a total audience of

2,800

persons. There are lofty, spacious, and appropriately-decorated refreshment-rooms adjoining the stalls, balcony, pit, and gallery, the whole being lighted by

500

jet burners, fixed to the roof, in a ring

96

feet in circumference. The proscenium is an elliptic arch, of handsome character,

38

feet

6

inches wide and

34

feet high. The stage is of considerable dimensions, giving an area of

3,849

square feet.

The

Vic

--or by whatever other name this theatre has been known has indeed had a chequered existence, and sad romantic tale at least is connected with it. A Miss Vincent, of its managers, married a poor actor; but his head was so turned by his good fortune, that he was taken straight from the bridal party at the church doors to a lunatic asylum; and Miss Vincent died not long afterwards.

If there was

one

place of entertainment-an institution it may be termed--more sacred to Londoners in particular, and provincialists in general,

observes a writer in (),

one

more presumably probable to have withstood the changes of time and fashion, less likely to have succumbed to a novel and not very classical style of dramatic entertainment, that place most certainly was Astley's. For, though the remodelled theatre in

Westminster Bridge Road

is still associated with the name of its founder, yet an Astley's without horses is as yet simply a misnomer, a shadow without a substance.

This famous theatre, or amphitheatre, dates from the year . It cannot, of course, be mentioned in the same category with the patent theatres of , Covent Garden, and the

little theatre in the

Haymarket

;

and perhaps it is inferior also in standing to Sadler's Wells, with which it is almost cotemporary.

Originally,

writes M. Alphonse Esquiros, in his

English at Home,

it was only a circus, started by Philip Astley, who had been a light horseman in General Elliott's regiment. . . . Astley's Amphitheatre, as it is called, though it has undergone various transformations since the death of its founder, is still (

1862

) a celebrated place for equestrian performances, exhibitions of trained ponies, elephants, dancing the tight rope, and even wild beasts, more or less tamed. I saw performed there a grand spectacle, in which appeared a lion that had killed a man on the night before. This painful circumstance, as may be believed, added a feeling of sadness and a species of tragic interest to the performance. The principal actor--I mean the lion-expressed no remorse for what he had done on the previous night; his face was calm and even benignant; he performed his part as if nothing had happened, and he followed the lionconqueror (Van Amburgh) through the various situations of the piece.

Mr. Frost, in his , gives the following account of the amphitheatre and its founder:--

Down to the end of the last century there are no records of a circus having appeared at the London fairs. Astley is said to have taken his stud and company to Bartholomew Fair at one time, but I have not succeeded in finding any bill or advertisement of the great equestrian in connection with fairs. The amphitheatre which has always borne his name (except during the lesseeship of Mr. Boucicault, who chose to call it the Westminster Theatre, a title about as appropriate as the Marylebone would be in Shoreditch) was opened in 1780, and he had previously given open-air performances on the same site, only the seats being roofed over. The enterprising character of Astley renders it not improbable that he may have tried his fortune at the fairs when the circus was closed, as it has usually been during the summer; and he may not have commenced his season at the amphitheatre until after Bartholomew Fair, or have given there a performance which he was accustomed to give in the afternoon at a large room in Piccadilly, where the tricks of a performing horse were varied with conjuring and Ombres Chinoises, a kind of shadow-pantomime. But, though Astley's was the first circus erected in England, equestrian performances in the open air had been given before his time by Price and Sampson. The site of Dobney's Place, at the back of Penton Street, Islington, was, in the middle of the last century, a tea-garden and bowling-green, to which Johnstown, who leased the premises in 1767, added the attraction of tumbling and ropedancing performances, which had become so popular at Sadler's Wells. Price commenced his equestrian performances at this place in 1770, and soon had a rival in Sampson, who performed singular feats in a field behind the Old Hats public-house. It was not until later, according to the historians of Lambeth, that Philip Astley exhibited his feats of horsemanship in a field near the Halfpenny Hatch, forming his first ring with a rope and stakes, after the manner of the mountebanks of a later day, and going round with his hat after each performance to collect the largesses of the spectators: a part of the business which, in the slang of strolling acrobats and other entertainers of the public in bye-streets and market-places and on village greens, is called doing a mob.

This remarkable man was born in 1742, at Newcastle-under-Lyme, where his father carried on the business of a cabinet-maker. He received little or no education--no uncommon thing at that time --and, having worked a few years with his father, enlisted in a cavalry regiment. His imposing appearance, being over six feet in height, with the proportions of a Hercules and the voice of a Stentor, attracted attention to him; his capture of a standard at the battle of Ensdorff made him one of the celebrities of his regiment. While serving in the army, he learnt many feats of horsemanship from an itinerant equestrian named Johnson, and often exhibited them for the amusement of his comrades. On his discharge from the army, being presented by General Eliott with a horse, he bought another in Smithfield, and with these two animals gave the open-air performances in Lambeth which have been mentioned.

Next to Lord Granby and the Duke of Wellington, the most popular hero, if we may judge from his occurrence on sign-boards, was General Eliott, Lord Heathfield. Larwood ascribes this popularity in London to a curious cause--the gift of his white charger

Gibraltar

to Mr. Astley. This horse, he remarks, performing every night in the ring, and shining forth in the circus bills, would certainly act as an excellent

puff

for the general's glory.

Philip Astley received his discharge from the army in , and exhibited in the country for about years, till he considered himself capable of appearing before a London assemblage of spectators. He then set up what he termed a Riding School-merely a piece of ground enclosed by a slight paling-near a pathway that led through the fields from Blackfriars to . The terminus of the South-Western Railway now nearly, if not exactly, covers the spot. The bill of performance that he issued here is as follows:--

ACTIVITY on horseback of Mr. Astley, Serjeant- Major in His Majesty's Royal Regiment of Light Dragoons. Nearly

twenty

different attitudes will be performed on

one

,

two

, and

three

horses, every evening during the summer, at his riding school. Doors to be open at

four

, and he will mount at

five

. Seats,

one shilling

; standing places, sixpence.

Early every evening Mr. Astley, dressed in full military uniform, and mounted on his white charger, took up a position at the south end of , to distribute bills and point out with his sword the pathway through the fields that led to his riding school. That it was a

school

in reality as well as name, we learn from the following advertisement:--

The True and Perfect Seat on Horseback

.-There is no creature yields so much profit as the horse; and if he is made obedient to the hand and spur, it is the chief thing that is aimed at. Mr. Astley undertakes to break in the most vicious horse in the kingdom, for the road or field, to stand fire, drums, &c.; and those intended for ladies to canter easy. His method, between the jockey and the

menage

, is peculiar to himself; no gentleman need despair of being a complete horseman that follows his directions, having

eight

years' experience in General Eliott's regiment. For half-a-guinea he makes known his method of learning (teaching) any horse to lay

(sic)

down at the word of command, and defies any

one

to equal it for safety and ease.

An information was soon lodged against Mr. Astley for receiving money from persons witnessing his feats of horsemanship, when, fortunately for him, George III. was riding over on a spirited horse, which proved restive and unmanageable even by the king, who was an excellent horseman. Astley happening to see him, came up, and soon convinced his Majesty of his skill in the managing of horses: the result was that he got rid of the information, and in a few days obtained a licence.

From the Astley saw that his performances were deficient in variety; so by energetic teaching

400

he soon made other excellent performers: his wife and the white charger. To make the most of the horse's performance, he interlarded it with some verses of his own composition. Introducing the animal, and ordering it to lie down, he would thus address the audience :--

My horse lies dead apparent in your sight,

But I'm the man can set the thing to right;

Speak when you please, I'm ready to obey-

My faithful horse knows what I want to say;

But first just give me leave to move his foot,

That he is dead is quite beyond dispute.

Moving the horse's feet.

This shows how brutes by Heaven were designed

To be in full subjection to mankind.

Arise, young Bill, and be a little handy,

Addressing the horse.

To serve that warlike hero, Marquis Granby. The Marquis of Granby, the popular military hero of the day.

Horse rises.

When you have seen all my bill exprest,

My wife, to conclude, performs the rest.

The riding school being uncovered, there were but few spectators on wet evenings; but, as a partial remedy for this drawback, Mr. Astley ran up a shed, for admission to which he charged . He was soon enabled to invest , as mortgage, on a piece of ground near . Good fortune followed. The mortgagor went abroad, leaving a quantity of timber on the ground, and, so far as is known, was never heard of afterwards. About the same time, too, Astley found on a diamond ring, worth guineas, that was never claimed by the loser. With this assistance he erected a new riding school on the piece of mortgaged ground ever since associated with his name. This place was open at the top; but next the road there was a wooden edifice, the lower part of which formed stables, the upper, termed

the long room,

holding reserved seats for the gentry. A pent-house partly covered the seats round the ride; and the principal spectators being thus under cover, Astley now advertised to perform

every evening, wet or dry.

We give on page views of this structure from Mr. J. T. Smith's

Historical and Literary Curiosities.

The entrance was reached by steps from the road, and a green curtain covered the door, where Mrs. Astley stood to take the money. To the whitewashed walls were affixed some pictorial representations of the performances; and along the top of the building were figures of horses, with riders in various attitudes: these were made of wood and painted. This new house was opened about the year , and of the bills relating to it states that

Mr. Astley exhibits, at full speed, the different cuts and guards made use of by Eliott's, the Prussian, and the Hessian Hussars. Also the manner of Eliott's charging the French troops in Germany, in the year

1761

, when it was said the regiment were all tailors.

About the same time, increasing his company, he was enabled to give more diversity to his entertainment; and of the most successful sketches which he introduced was that timehonoured delight of rustics and children, . Master Astley, then but years old, made his appearance, riding on horses. At this period Mr. Astley used to parade the West-end streets on the days of performance. He led the procession, in military uniform, on his white charger, followed by trumpeters; to these succeeded riders in full costume, the rear being brought up by a coach, in which the clown and a

learned pony

sat and distributed handbills. This, however, did not long continue, for Mr. Astley soon announced that he had given up parading,

and never more intends that abominable practice.

Whitefield never drew as much attention as a mountebank does,

writes Boswell, in his

Life of Johnson;

he did not draw attention by doing better than others, but by doing what was strange. Were Astley to preach a sermon, standing upon his head on a horse's back, he would collect a multitude to hear him; but no wise man would say he had made a better sermon for that.

Again, Horace Walpole, in a letter to Lord Strafford, dated , writes:--

London, at this time of year (September), is as nauseous a drug as any in an apothecary's shop. I could find nothing at all to do, and so went to Astley's, which, indeed, was much beyond my expectation. I did not wonder any longer that Darius was chosen king by the instructions he gave to his horse, nor that Caligula made his horse consul. Astley can make his dance minuets and hornpipes. But I shall not have even Astley now; Her Majesty the Queen of France, who has as much taste as Caligula, has sent for the whole of the

dramatis personae

to Paris.

When the London season was over, Astley removed his to Paris, a practice which he continued regularly for many years with great success. He next brought out a new entertainment, styled in the bills

Egyptian Pyramids; or, La Force d'Hercule.

It consisted in the now well-known feat of men supporting others on their shoulders, these again supporting more, the last, in their turn, supporting . This was long a very favourite and attractive

401

spectacle, and Astley erected a large representation of it on the south end of the riding school. He also named his private residence Hercules House, after this . The

Hercules

tavern and gardens, of which we have already spoken, were so called after this building; and the street in , now called , derives its name from the same source.

The centre of the riding school being still uncovered caused many inconveniences; and Astley, as early as the year , with a keen eye to the future, purchased, at a cheap rate, a quantity of timber that had been used as scaffolding at the funeral of Augusta, Princess Dowager of Wales. Later on, in , a further supply of timber was cheaply obtained by a clever on the part of Mr. Astley. It had long been the custom at the close of elections for the mob to destroy and make bonfires of the hustings; but Astley, mingling in the crowd, represented that as he would give beer for the timber, if it were carried to his establishment, it would be a more eligible way of disposing of it than by burning. The hint was taken, and with the timber thus obtained Astley covered in and completely remodelled the riding school, adding a stage, tiers of boxes, a pit, and a gallery. But as this was the attempt to exhibit horsemanship in a covered building, and the bare idea of doing so was at the time considered preposterously absurd, as a sort of compromise with public opinion, he caused the dome-shaped roof to be painted with representations of branches and leaves of trees, and gave the new edifice the airy appellation of

The Royal Grove.

Mr. Astley was now enabled to give his entertainments by candle-light; and of the pieces that he produced, however successful it may have been to the treasury, had a curious-sounding title, from an equestrian point of view; it figured in the bills as . The sensation caused by the discoveries and death of Captain Cook was then fresh in the minds of the people; and Astley, seizing upon the principal events connected with that tragic affair, placed them on the stage in such a manner that the piece was most successful, and formed a very important step in the ladder by which the quondam sergeantmajor was enabled to rise to fame and fortune.

It would appear, however, that Astley soon had a rival in the field; for Pennant writes in :--

In this neighbourhood are

two

theatres of innocent recreation, . . . of a nature unknown to every other part of Europe--the British hippodromes belonging to Messrs. Astley and Hugheswhere the wonderful sagacity of that most useful animal, the horse, is fully evinced. While we admire its admirable docility and apprehension, we cannot less admire the powers of the riders, and the graceful attitudes which the human frame is capable of receiving.

He goes on, in most prosy commonplace, to praise not only equestrian skill, but also the

art of tumbling

practised here, as

showing us how fearfully and wonderfully we are made ;

and very sensibly recommending every Government to indulge its subjects in such scenes as

preservations from worse employs, and as relaxations from the cares of life.

We have already spoken of Hughes's Circus, afterwards the , in our account of the .

Up to this time Astley had performed annually in Paris during the winter months; and it was partly with the view of giving up these visits to the French capital that he constructed the

Royal Grove;

but as the proprietors of the patent theatres raised formidable objections to Astley's winter entertainments and dramatic representations in , he was forced to continue his journeys to Paris. The breaking out of the French Revolution, however, put an end to Astley's Parisian performances; so, building a circus in Dublin, he carried on his winter campaigns in Ireland; and in he gave up the principal cares and management of the business to his son, whose appearance we have noticed above, and who had by this time become a handsome young man, as agile and graceful as Vestris.

In the following year, war having broken out with France, the Duke of York was sent on the Continent in command of the British army; and Astley, who had made himself very useful in superintending the embarkation of the cavalry and artillery horses, went with his royal highness. His old regiment, the Fifteenth, was in the same army; and Astley, knowing by experience the wants of actual service, presented the men with a large supply of needles, thread, buttons, bristles, twine, leather-everything, in short, requisite in mending clothes and shoes. He also purchased a large quantity of flannel, and setting all the females employed at the

Royal Grove

to work, they soon made a warm waistcoat for every man of the regiment; and in a corner of each garment there was sewn what Astley termed

a friend in need:

in other words, a splendid shilling. This patriotic generosity being duly chronicled in the newspapers

402

of the period, did not, as may readily be imagined, lessen the popularity of the

Royal Grove,

or the nightly receipts of cash taken at the doors of that place of entertainment.

In Astley was suddenly recalled from the Continent by the total destruction of the

Royal Grove

and adjoining houses by fire. Nothing daunted, he immediately commenced to rebuild it on a more elegant and extended scale, and at the following Easter opened the [extra_illustrations.6.402.1] , re-naming it the

Amphitheatre of Arts.

At the peace of Amiens, in , Astley went to Paris, and finding that the circus he had erected in the Faubourg du Temple had been used as a barrack by the Revolutionary Government, he petitioned
Bonaparte, then Consul, for compensation; and, greatly to the surprise of every , the petition was favourably received, and compensation granted. But scarcely had the money been received when hostilities again broke out, and all Englishmen in France were subjected to a long and painful deten. tion as prisoners of war. Astley, however, by a rare combination of cunning and courage, effected his escape to the frontier, disguised as an invalid French officer. But, though favoured by fortune in this bold escape, dismal intelligence awaited his arrival in England. His faithful wife was dead, and his theatre a smoking ruin, having been a time burned to the ground. The conflagration on this occasion extended to other

403

houses, and caused the death of young Mr. Astley's mother-in-law, Mrs. Woodham, and a loss to the proprietor of . Nevertheless, the gallant old sergeant-major again set to work to repair the losses he had sustained, and on the following Easter Monday another theatre was opened, this time as the

Royal Amphitheatre.

This amphitheatre is described by Sir Richard Phillips at some length, in his

Modern London,

published in .

Being rebuilt after being lately burnt down,

he writes,

it stands on the very ground on which Mr. Astley, senior, formerly exhibited feats of horsemanship and other amusements in the open air, the success and profits of which enabled him afterwards to extend his plan and to erect a building which, from the rural cast of the internal decorations, he called the

Royal Grove.

In this theatric structure stage exhibitions were given, while in a circular area, similar to that in the late theatre, horsemanship and other feats of strength and agility were continued.

 

Astley, when he started his riding school, had no other music than a common drum, which was beaten by his wife. To this he subsequently added a fife, the players standing on a kind of small platform, placed in the centre of the ring; and it was not till he opened the Royal Grove that he employed a regular orchestra. Although an excellent rider, and a great favourite of George III., old Astley was an excessively ignorant man. day, during a rehearsal a performer suddenly ceased playing.

Hallo!

cried Astley, addressing the delinquent;

what's the matter now?

There's a rest,

answered the other.

A rest!

Astley repeated, angrily;

I don't pay you to rest, but to play!

Upon another occasion, hearing a manager complain of the conduct of his actors, Astley said to him,

Why don't you treat them as I do

mine

?

--alluding, of course, to his horses-

I never give them anything to eat till after their performance is done.

Astley always kept a sharp eye on his

404

instrumental performers. evening he entered the orchestra in a rage, and asked of the leader why the trumpets did not play.

This is a

pizzicato

passage, sir,

was the reply.

A pizzy-what?

said Astley.

A

pizzicato

, sir.

Well, I can't afford to let them be idle; so let the trumpets

pizzicato

too!

Indeed, as an accompaniment to equestrian exercises, Astley always considered that loudness was the most desirable quality in music. And though he ever took care to have an excellent band, with a well-qualified leader, he, nevertheless, considered them more as an indispensable drain on the treasury than a useful auxiliary to the performance.

Any fool,

he used invariably to say,

can handle a fiddle, but it takes a man to manage a horse; and yet I have to pay a fellow that plays upon

one

fiddle as much salary as a man that rides upon

three

horses.

Such opinions, freely expressed, not unfrequently led to angry scenes, of which amusing anecdotes have been related.

On occasion, on the night of a new piece, as the curtain rose to slow and solemn music, Astley, who was in the front observing the effect, overheard a carpenter sawing a board behind the scenes.

Go,

said the manager to Smith, his rough-rider and aide-de-camp in ordinary,

go and tell that stupid fellow not to saw so infernally loud.

Smith, fancying that Astley alluded to the music, went at once to the orchestra, and whispered in the leader's ear,

Mr. Astley has desired me to tell you not to saw so infernally loud.

Saw!

retorted the enraged musician;

go back and tell him this is the very last night I shall saw in his infernal stables!

Of course, when the curtain fell, the musician's wrath was appeased by the mistake being explained.

At another time, Astley requested his leader to arrange a few bars of music for a broad-sword combat-

a rang, tang, bang;

one

,

two

,

three

; and a cut sort of thing, you know!

for thus he curtly expressed his ideas of what he required. At the subsequent rehearsal Astley shouted out to his stage-manager,

Stop I stop I This will never do. It's not half noisy enough; we must get shields!

simply meaning that the mimic combatants should be supplied with shields to clash against the broad-swords, causing the noise so excitingly provocative of applause from the audience. But the too sensitive leader, thinking it was his music that was

not half noisy enough,

and it was Shields, the composer, to whom Astley alluded, jumped out of the orchestra, and, tearing the score to pieces, indignantly exclaimed,

Get Shields, then, as soon as you please, for I am heartily sick and tired of you!

Although uneducated, old Philip Astley was an enterprising man, with a strong mind and acute understanding; he was remarkable for his eccentric habits and sundry peculiarities of manner; and he is said to have built, at different periods of his life, at his own cost and for his own purpose, no less than theatres. He was the founder of, or, at all events, of the earliest performers at the Olympic; and there is extant a print of Astley's trained horses, &c., performing there. He was particularly skilful in the training of horses. His method was to give each horse his preparatory lesson alone, and when there was no noise or anything to distract his attention from his instructor. If the horse was interrupted during the lesson, or his attention withdrawn, he was dismissed for that day, and the lesson was repeated on the next. When he was perfect in certain lessons by himself, he was associated with other horses whose education was further advanced; and it was the practice of that great

tamer of horses

to reward the animals with slices of carrot or apple when they performed well. In the same manner M. Franconi treated his horses in Paris.

Like Tom Dogget before him, the gallant old sergeant-major seems to have taken an interest in aquatic matters; at all events, we read in Strutt's

Sports and Pastimes,

published in :

Of late years the proprietor of

Vauxhall Gardens

and Astley, the rider, give each of them in the course of the summer a new wherry, to be rowed for by a certain number of watermen,

two

in each boat.

Astley lived to see another peace with France and to recover his property in Paris; for he died on the , in the year of his age, at his own residence in the Faubourg du Temple, and was buried in the well-known cemetery of Pere la Chaise. His son, who was always termed

Young Astley,

died in , in the same bed, in the same house, and was buried in the same grave as his father.

After the decease of young Astley the theatre was carried on by Mr. W. Davis, and appears to have been called for a time

Davis's Amphitheatre

on the play-bills, though with the people at large it never ceased to be

Astley's.

A melodrama, founded on the battle of Waterloo, was then among its chief attractions. Bonaparte was brought upon the stage face to face with Wellington, and made to utter very generous sentiments, and to do all sorts of generous things, which were loudly applauded by the galleries. But the public could not bear to have the old associations of the place disturbed even upon its play-bills, and the ancient name prevailed.

405

 

Astley is a veteran in scenic feats at his amphitheatre and pavilion,

writes Malcolm in his

Anecdotes of London,

about . But feats of strength and agility always shared the popular favour with horsemanship at Astley's; and among the most renowned performers in old Philip's days was Belzoni, who afterwards quitted the circus for the tombs of the Pharaohs and the Pyramids, and has left a foremost renown as an Egyptian explorer, as we have shown in our account of the . There was another strong man, the

Flemish Hercules,

whose real name was Petre Ducrow; he was the father of Andrew, destined in after years to become the proprietor of the theatre, and the most daring and graceful performing horseman the world has ever seen.

On the secession of Mr. Davis, the theatre was taken jointly by Messrs. Ducrow and West, under whose it became principally celebrated for its equestrian and gymnastic performances, pantomimes, and grand military spectacles, such as the , the , &c. In was exhibited here a sensational piece, entitled, , on which the observes:--

Here we have a scene from the circle of Astley's, so long the home of equestrian glory, the pride of the horsemanship of Ducrow. Ere-while burnt gloomily to the ground, the phoenix has now risen from its ashes, and the ancient palace of quadrupedal melo-drama again astounds its admiring inmates with examples of the wonderful instincts of horses, and the not less marvellous prowess of those biped actors who have trained them into obedience to the rein. Here is the true Surrey stud.

Sell it!

once asked the alarmed Ducrow;

Never!

Abandon it!

ejaculates Batty;

Never!

is his reply,

until children become mathematicians, and find me the square of my own circle while the horses are going round it!

Forsake it!

shrieks the dear delighted public,

Nay, never.

Nay! shout the people with indignant voices, And the stud echoes with a thousand nays (neighs)!

Ducrow had been of Astley's most famous riders. Mr. Disraeli, in a speech delivered at High Wycombe in , compared the then Reform Ministry of Lord Melbourne to this great horseman. He said, addressing his audience,

I dare say, now, some of you have heard of M. Ducrow, that celebrated gentleman who rides on

six

horses. What a prodigious achievement! It seems impossible; but you have confidence in Ducrow. You fly to witness it; unfortunately,

one

of the horses is ill, and a donkey is substituted in its place. But Ducrow is still admirable: there he is bounding along in spangled jacket and cork slippers I The whole town is mad to see Ducrow riding at the same time on

six

horses; but now

two

more of the steeds are seized with the staggers, and lo!

three

jackasses in their stead! Still Ducrow persists, and still announces to the public that he will ride round his circus every night on his

six

steeds. At last, all the horses are knocked up, and now there are half-a-dozen donkeys. What a change! Behold the hero in the amphitheatre, the spangled jacket thrown on

one

side, the cork slippers on the other. Puffing, panting, and perspiring, he pokes

one

sullen brute, thwacks another, cuffs a

third

, and curses a

fourth

, while

one

brays to the audience, and another rolls in the sawdust. Behold the late Prime Minister and the Reform Ministry! The spirited and snow-white steeds have gradually changed into an equal number of sullen and obstinate donkeys; while Mr. Merryman, who, like the Lord Chancellor, was once the very life of the ring, now lies his despairing length in the middle of the stage, with his jokes exhausted, and his bottle empty.

Grimaldi, whose father lived close by Astley's, in Stangate, was often engaged here as a clown. On occasion, Ducrow, while teaching a boy to go through a difficult act of horsemanship, applied the whip to him, and observed to Grimaldi, who was standing by, that it was necessary to make an impression on the boy.

Yes,

said Joe;

but you need not make the whacks (wax) so hard.

The amphitheatre, as it stood in Ducrow's time, is thus described in Allen's

History of Surrey,

published in :--

The front of the theatre, which is plain and of brick, stuccoed, stands laterally with the houses in

Bridge Road

, the access to the back part of the premises being in

Stangate Street

. There is a plain wooden portico, the depth of which corresponds with the width of the pavement. In front of this portico is the royal arms. Within the pediment in front of the building is

Astley's

in raised letters, and in the front of the portico, in a similar style,

Royal Amphitheatre.

Beneath this portico are the entrances to the boxes and pit; the gallery entrance is lower down the road, and separated from the front of the theatre by several houses. The boxes are approached by a plain staircase, at the head of which is a handsome lobby. The form of the auditory is elliptical, and is lighted by a very large cut-glass lustre and chandeliers with bell-lamps; gas is the medium of

illumination used all over the premises. There is

one

continued row or tier of boxes round the auditory, above the central part of which is the gallery; and there is a half tier of upper boxes on each side, with slips over them. The floor of the ride within the auditory is earth and sawdust, where a ring or circle,

forty-four

feet in diameter, is bounded by a boarded enclosure about

four

feet in height, the curve of which next the stage forms the outline of the orchestra, and the remainder that of the pit, behind which is an extensive lobby and a box for refreshments. The proscenium is large and movable--for the convenience of widening and heightening the stage, which is, perhaps, the largest and most convenient in London-and is terminated by immense platforms, or floors, rising above each other, and extending the whole width of the stage. These are exceedingly massive and strong. The horsemen gallop and skirmish over them, and they will admit a carriage, equal in size and weight to a mail coach, to be driven across them. They are, notwithstanding, so constructed as to be placed and removed in a short space of time by manual labour and mechanism.

Our readers will not forget that

Astley's,

as it was some half a century ago, forms of the

Sketches by Boz,

which made the fame, though not the name, of Charles Dickens as a young man known to the world.

It was not a

Royal Amphitheatre

in those days,

he wrote,

nor had Ducrow arisen to shed the light of classic taste and portable gas over the sawdust of the circus; but the whole character of the place was the same: the pieces were the same, the clown's jokes were the same, the riding-masters were equally grand, the comic performers equally witty, the tragedians equally hoarse, and the

high-trained chargers

equally spirited. Astley's has altered for the better-we have changed for the worse.

And then he proceeds to give a sketch of the interior during a performance in the Easter or Midsummer holidays, and the happy faces of

the children,

whom

pa

and

ma

have taken to witness the scene, including

Miss Woolford

and the other .

Thackeray, too, mentions this place in

The Newcomes.

Who was it,

he writes,

that took the children to Astley's but Uncle Newcome? I saw him there in the midst of a cluster of these little people, all children together. He laughed, delighted at Mr. Merriman's jokes in the ring. He beheld the

Battle of Waterloo

with breathless interest, and was amazed-yes, amazed, by Jove, sir!-at the prodigious likeness of the principal actor to the Emperor Napoleon. . . . The little girls, Sir Brian's daughters, holding each by a finger of his hands, and younger Masters Alfred and Edward clapping and hurraing by his side; while Mr. Clive and Miss Ethel sat in the back of the box enjoying the scene. . . . It did

one

good to hear the colonel's honest laugh at the clown's jokes, and to see the tenderness and simplicity with which he watched over this happy brood of young ones.

The theatre on this spot was burnt down in , when under the management of Ducrow, who died insane shortly after the fire, on account of the losses he sustained. He was buried, as we have already seen, at Kensal Green Cemetery, where a handsome monument is erected to his memory.

In October of the same year, the vacant site was taken on a long lease by Mr. William Batty, who, in the following year, erected at his own expense the present amphitheatre, which is much larger and more substantially built than any of its predecessors.

Very naturally, as we have observed at the commencement of this chapter, the transpontine theatres have always been the chief homes of the sensational drama and of eccentric exhibitions: and this is as true of Astley's as of the rest. Here, for instance, in , were exhibited Mynheer Wybrand Lolkes, the dwarf watchmaker of Holland, and his wife, who was just times his height; but as time has worn on

sensationalism

seems to have been triumphant. At all events, in the autumn of , Miss Ada Menkens here played to crowded houses; while other theatres, although possessing very good actors, were all but deserted. In the theatre was taken by Mr. Sanger, who had for a short time previously occupied the Agricultural Hall at for equestrian performances. Under this gentleman's rule the title of

Astley's

has disappeared from the bills as the name of the establishment, and in its place we have

Sanger's Grand National Amphitheatre.

But Astley's is Astley's still with the people, and the old associations of the place still remain, at all events in part, for elephants, camels, dromedaries, as well as horses, are still made to appear upon the stage in order to heighten the spectacular effect. Although the present theatre was constructed with both stage and circle for horsemanship, the latter has been discontinued since , when the theatre was remodelled by Mr. Dion Boucicault.

M. Esquiros observes pertinently, with reference to Astley's:

If asked what relation such a theatre

can have to the poetic drama, I reply, that it is the peculiar privilege of the great works of the human mind that they adapt themselves to circumstances. Mr. Cooke,

one

of the latest managers of Astley's Amphitheatre, had the idea of applying the resources and pomps peculiar to this theatre to Shakespeare's historical plays. He accordingly brought out here

Richard III

., and, for the

first

time, the hump-backed Richard was seen on the stage, surrounded by his staff on horseback, and himself mounted on that famous steed,

White Surrey,

whose name Shakespeare has immortalised. The noble animal marched bravely through the battle, and died with an air of truth that quite affected the spectators. Encouraged by this success, Astley's company next appeared in

Henry IV

. and

Macbeth

. I will not assert that Shakespeare's plays thus converted into equestrian pieces satisfled all artistic conditions; but when I look at the moral effect, I cannot but applaud the experiment. Astley's is the theatre of the people; here the East-end

[Transpontine?]

workmen, costermongers, and orange-women, come to seek a few hours of recreation after the fatigues and struggles of a rough day's toil. Shakespeare's plays-decorated rather than well performed, and hidden by processions and cavalcades, which, perhaps, denaturalised their character, but which, after all, were adapted to the instincts of a class of the population which lives specially on what strikes its eyes-at any rate allowed some portion of the poetical horizon to be brought within their view. In any case, and to say the least, they happily occupied the place of those dangerous performances which arouse in man nothing beyond the feeling of savage strength.

 
 
Footnotes:

[] See ante, p. 368.

[] This foreigner had constructed the stage of Drury Lane Theatre, and had also invented a peculiar kind of roof for large buildings, which was called by his name.

[] See Vol. III., p. 286.

[extra_illustrations.6.394.1] Play Bill of Royal Victoria Theatre, July 1833

[] See ante, p. 368.

[extra_illustrations.6.402.1] new house

[] See Vol. IV., p. 531.

[] See Vol. V., p. 220.

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 Title Page
 Preface
 Chapter I: Introductory -- Southwark
 Chapter II: Southwark (continued) -- Old London Bridge
 Chapter III: Southwark (continued) -- St. Saviour's Church, &c.
 Chapter IV: Southwark (continued) -- Winchester house, Barclay's Brewery, &c.
 Chapter V: Southwark (continued) -- Bankside in the Olden Time
 Chapter VI: Southwark (continued) -- High Street, &c.
 Chapter VII: Southwark (continued) -- Famous Inns of Olden Times
 Chapter VIII: Southwark (continued) -- Old St. Thomas's Hospital, Guy's Hospital, &c.
 Chapter IX: Bermondsey -- Tooley Street, &c.
 Chapter X: Bermondsey (continued) -- The Abbey, &c.
 Chapter XI: Rotherhithe
 Chapter XII: Deptford
 Chapter XIII: Greenwich
 Chapter XIV: Greenwich (continued) -- The Hospital for Seamen, &c.
 Chapter XV: Greenwich (continued) -- The Parish Church, &c.
 Chapter XVI: Greenwich (continued) -- The Park, The Royal Observatory, &c.
 Chapter XVII: Blackheath, Charlton, and its Neighbourhood
 Chapter XVIII: Eltham, Lee, and Lewisham
 Chapter XIX: The Old Kent Road, &c.
 Chapter XX: Newington and Walworth
 Chapter XXI: Camberwell
 Chapter XXII: Peckham and Dulwich
 Chapter XXIII: Sydenham, Norwood, and Streatham
 Chapter XXIV: Brixton and Clapham
 Chapter XXV: Stockwell and Kennington
 Chapter XXVI: St. George's Fields
 Chapter XXVII: St. George's Fields (continued) -- Bethlehem Hospital, &c.
 Chapter XXVIII: Blackfriars Road -- The Surrey Theatre, Surrey Chapel, &c.
 Chapter XXIX: Lambeth
 Chapter XXX: Lambeth (continued) -- The Transpontine Theatres
 Chapter XXXI: Lambeth (continued) -- Waterloo Road, &c.
 Chapter XXXII: Lambeth Palace
 Chapter XXXIII: Vauxhall
 Chapter XXXIV: Vauxhall (continued) and Battersea
 Chapter XXXV: Wandsworth
 Chapter XXXVI: Putney
 Chapter XXXVII: Fulham
 Chapter XXXVIII: Fulham (continued) -- Walham Green and North End
 Chapter XXXIX: Hammersmith
 Chapter XL: Chiswick
 Chapter XLI: General Remarks and Conclusion