Britannia Theatre

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Britannia Theatre
Royal Britannia Saloon and Britania Tavern
1913–1940 Gaumont Cinema
BritanniaPlaybill.jpg
c.1890 Playbill
Address Hoxton High Street
(now Hoxton Street)
Hackney, London
Coordinates 51°32′04″N 0°04′27″W / 51.534557°N 0.074279°W / 51.534557; -0.074279
Owner Sam and Sarah Lane
Designation Demolished
Type Theatre, melodrama and pantomime
Capacity 3000 seated and standing
Current use Block of flats (on site)
Construction
Opened Easter Monday 1841
Rebuilt 1858 Finch Hill and Edward Lewis Paraire
Years active 1840–1900 (circa)

The Britannia Theatre (1841–1900) was located at 115/117 High Street, Hoxton, London.[1] The theatre was badly damaged by a fire in 1900. The site was reused as a Gaumont cinema from 1913 to 1940, when this too was destroyed. The site is marked by a London Borough of Hackney historic plaque.

A typical night's entertainment would include 3–4 plays, with variety acts in the intervals between. Many Music hall acts would appear during the interval, and sometimes their acts were woven into the performance. The plays varied, from Shakespeare, Victorian melodrama and comedy. During the winter season pantomime was performed.[2]

Unusually for a theatre, food and drink were served in the auditorium, in the style of contemporary Music halls.[1]

History[edit]

Origins[edit]

Samuel Haycraft Lane was born in Lympstone, Devon in 1803. In 1821, he decided to escape the life of a fisherman and walk to London. After living hand to mouth and educating himself, with the help of a friend, William Brian, he encountered a troupe of actors who he had previously met on his journey. He helped the leader of the troupe, Jack Adams, to find premises for performance at the Union Tavern in Shoreditch. This hall catered for 500–seated and a similar number standing. Jack Adam's company performed a successful programme of drama, song, dance and acrobatics. Sam married Jack's daughter Mary, in 1835.[3]

The troupe always had ambitions to perform serious drama, and in 1839, the company performed Othello, breaking the law on theatrical performance, as they were not a Patent theatre. Lane lost his licence and paid a substantial fine.[4] With the increase in London's population, and the increasing popularity of live entertainment, the law was finally changed with the Theatres Act 1843.[5]

In 1840, Lane and his colleagues thought they had identified a loophole whereby performances could be offered without charge, with profits made from the sale of programmes, food and drink. The Britannia Tavern in Hoxton was identified as suitable premises. This was the former Pimlico tea gardens, an Elizabethan tavern and had a large hall attached, holding about 1,000 people.[6] The Royal Britannia Saloon and Brittania Tavern was opened on Easter Monday 1841 by Sam Lane. The theatre was a success. Sadly, private life was more difficult, Mary became pregnant, and slipped and fell at a rehearsal, both she and the baby died.[4] By 1858 having purchased the leases of surrounding properties, the theatre was rebuilt in larger form, with 3000 seats.[3] This building designed by Finch Hill, consisting of two circles, a pit and a gallery and had a reported record attendance of 4,790.[6]

The Britannia was notable for melodramas. These included The String of Pearls (1847), the first stage adaptation of the story of Sweeney Todd, written specifically for this venue by George Dibden Pitt.[7] The theatre had a resident dramatist, C.H. Hazlewood, who wrote many melodramatic spectacles for it, often based on successful novels of the time, including an adaptation of Lady Audley's Secret (1863).[1]

Britannia theatre in 1865[edit]

Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor to the theatre, and noted in the Commercial Traveller (1865):

c.1870 The Queen of Hoxton

Sarah Lane[edit]

Sam married Sarah Borrow (1822–1899) in 1843. She was the daughter of an old friend, William Borrow, who Lane had appointed to a managerial position in the Britannia. Sarah had begun her own career on the stage, at the age of 17, as a singer and dancer, under the stage name Miss Sarah Wilton. On Lane's death in 1871, Sarah, succeeded him as proprietor and manager, and continued until her own death in August 1899. She appeared regularly as principal boy, in the Britannia's annual pantomimes and in the annual benefit night, appearing in a final tableaux as The Queen of Hoxton. Sarah Lane made her last stage appearance at the Britannia's 1898 Christmas show, aged 76. Sallie was a well-respected and charitable member of the local community. Large crowds lined the route of her funeral procession from the theatre to Kensal Green Cemetery. Her estate was valued at a quarter of a million pounds, a significant sum in 1889.[9]

Britannia theatre in 1900[edit]

A review of King Doo-Dah, the Christmas pantomime, 1900, at the Britannia Theatre, appeared in the News of the World:

George Hook Lupino, c.1890

Lupino family[edit]

The Lupinos were a theatrical family who often claimed that their scion arrived in England in 1620, as a penniless refugee. George William Lupino was a puppetter and the family continued to earn a theatrical living becoming associated with the harlequinade at Drury Lane. George Lupino Hook (1820–1902) adopted the stage name Lupino from performing with the family[11] and was associated with the Britannia, performing in leading roles and taking the role of Harlequin in pantomime. A prolific man, reputed to have had 16 children, many became singers, dancers and actors, receiving their first experience in the company. The eldest son, civil registration as George Emanuel Samuel Hook (1853–1932) became both a clown and a prominent actor, amongst his grandchildren was the Hollywood actress Ida Lupino.[12] Lupino Lane was the son of Harry Charles Lupino (1825–1925), a favourite of Sarah Lane[9] and pursued a career in films and musical theatre.[13][14] Lupino Lane originated The Lambeth Walk, in the 1937 musical Me and My Girl'.[15][16]

End of an era[edit]

Soon after the 1900 pantomime, a serious fire damaged the building. The cost of bringing the building up to standard, forced the sale of the lease. It came into the hands of the Gaumont organisation, and became a cinema in 1913. The original theatre was demolished to make way for a modern cinema which was never built because of the war. In 1940 the nearby Toy Theatre [Pollock's Toy Museum], was destroyed in World War II by German bombing but the theatre building had already gone by this time.[4]

Legacy[edit]

LBH heritage plaque, now attached to modern flats

The Britannia theatre was unique amongst theatres of the time, for a number of reasons. Entry to the entertainment was always cheap, the income was made from sales of food and drink. There was an extraordinary continuity of management, the theatre was in the hands of the same family throughout its lifetime. The theatre also nurtured talent, many of the regular artistes were taken on at an early stage in their careers and remained with the theatre until retirement.[3] The theatre prospered with the increasing free time and prosperity of its audience, and declined with the introduction of the cinema and later, radio.

Author and critic Compton Mackenzie summed up the enduring legacy of the Britannia, in Echoes (1954):

The Britannia Theatre was the subject of a novel called Sam and Sallie: A novel of the theatre (1933) by Alfred L. Crauford. The Crauford's had a long association with the Britannia, and Alfred was one of Sarah Lane's many nephews.

Notable performers[edit]

  • Dan Leno actor and comedian[19]
  • Lupino Lane (actor and film director, actually great-nephew of Sarah Lane)
  • Vesta Tilley (male impersonator)
  • Arthur Lloyd (Scottish singer, songwriter, comedian)
  • Joseph Reynolds (actor)
  • George Barnes Bigwood (Resident low comedian, and occasional stage manager)[20]
  • James Anderson, a renowned Shakespearian actor of the time, was engaged at a salary of £180 a week in 1851.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Britannia Theatre Hoxton (Arthur Lloyd theatre history) accessed 20 December 2006
  2. ^ Playbills, productions and cast lists (Britannia Theatre Hoxton), in the Templeman collection of the University of Kent accessed 20 December 2006
  3. ^ a b c Crauford, Alfred L. Sam and Sallie: A novel of the theatre (London: Cranley and Day, 1933).
  4. ^ a b c The Making of the Britannia Theatre Alan D. Craxford and Reg Moore (extracts from Sam and Sallie at a family history website) accessed 21 December 2006
  5. ^ The Theatres Act 1843 (6 & 7 Vict., c. 68) (also known as the Theatre Regulation Act)
  6. ^ a b Ruling the Britannia Sian Mogridge 10 March 2008 Hackney Today pp 23
  7. ^ Robert Mack (2007) "Introduction" to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Oxford University Press.
  8. ^ The Uncommercial Traveller: Chapter IV: Two Views Of A Cheap Theatre" Charles Dickens (1865) accessed 20 December 2006
  9. ^ a b The Britannia comes to the Craxfords accessed 12 February 2007
  10. ^ The News of the World, London, Sunday, 30 December 1900, p.4e
  11. ^ Raymond Mander, Joe Mitchenson Pantomime : a story in pictures (London, 1973). In the 1881 census, the family are shown living at 50 Merrion Street, Leeds – as performers, with the middle name Lupino (RG/11 4536/28 pp.9).
  12. ^ Ida Lupino at the Internet Movie Database accessed 27 February 2008
  13. ^ Lupino Lane at the Internet Movie Database accessed 27 February 2008
  14. ^ Lupino Lane at the Internet Broadway Database accessed 27 February 2008
  15. ^ Me and My Girl (1939 BBC broadcast) at the Internet Movie Database
  16. ^ The Lambeth Walk (1940) at the Internet Movie Database
  17. ^ A reference to the London Blitz that would destroy the Britannia.
  18. ^ Mackenzie, Compton Echoes (1954), in Benny Green The Last Empires: A Music Hall Companion pp. 59 (Pavilion, 1986) ISBN 1-85145-061-0
  19. ^ Brandreth, p. 2
  20. ^ Bigwood maintained a large collection of music hall material, much relating to the Britannia. This is now in the University of Kent theatre collection.

Sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]