How to Build a Victorian Theatre
by Harry Pope.
The letter started
Dear Mr. Phipps,
We are a group of Eastbourne businessmen, and wish to attract visitors to our lovely resort town by providing them with entertainment. As you are a theatre designer with a famous reputation, we would be glad if you would consider this project.’
Charles John Phipps was born in Bath in 1835. He trained as an architect, so when the Theatre Royal was severely damaged by fire in 1862, it was quite an honour for such a young man to be given the commission to re-build it. His new design was such a success that he soon moved to London, with Theatre Royals at Nottingham and Brighton, then in 1867 he designed and built London’s Queens Theatre. No sooner had this opened than he was given the job of building another from scratch, this time the Gaiety. The Olympic Theatre followed in 1870, then the Vaudeville.
It would be easy to bog this article down with lots of boring dates and theatres, so I will carry on with the story to start in 1880. Eastbourne on England’s south coast was an elite resort, built by gentlemen for gentlemen. The majority of the town’s land was owned by one of two families, either the Davis Gilbert’s, or the Duke of Devonshire. The Duke had far more influence, but the tradespeople, especially those involved in welcoming visitors such as hoteliers, wanted to extend the nine week season. The pier already had a tent that held variety concerts every afternoon, and the Britannia pub had a 500 seat music hall attached to its tavern. Adjoining towns such as Brighton and Hastings had theatres, Eastbourne did not.
The Duke was approached, but he didn’t want the common element to come to stay, so refused to sell any of his land for entertainment purposes. The local businesspeople approached Mr. Phipps. ‘We don’t have a lot of money, sir, so it would help if you were to raise capital as well as design the theatre.’ Fortunately for them, he was a member of a London Freemasons Lodge, which had a distinguished roll call including the Prince of Wales. £11,000 was raised. As no land was available, other avenues were explored. The seafront Queens Hotel had been built in 1880, as had the Colonnades, which was a downmarket block of apartments one road back. A family owned 1850 built Aberdeen House, which view was blocked with the new building. They sold at a reasonable price. Demolition started on 2nd January 1883.
Opening night was 2nd August the same year, seven months from start to finish. Imagine the scene, smell the atmosphere. The gas lit auditorium had all the summer odours of 1,500 patrons who didn’t have a lot of bathrooms at home. The first three rows were all individual seats, the rest of the whole of the stalls was benches. There was a team of waiters who ran around filling glasses with beer and lemonade. These poorer patrons had their own side entrance, as well as toilets. Cubicles for ladies, urinals for men, the queues would have been long. Ornate pillars supported the upper floors, very little wood used in construction because of a spate of previous theatre fires had more stringent regulations for theatrical construction.
There was a separate entrance for the wealthier patrons who were in the dress circle. These were all individual plush seats, some of them sponsored or purchased so the same person could see all productions from the same seat. The smells and heat would rise to this level, so there would have been fresh flowers in ornate baskets in an attempt to keep these in check. Again there would be waiters, this time better dressed, to ferry refreshments.
There were four boxes, two on stage level that were accessed without having to mix with anyone else. Eight seats in each box, they would be velvet covered. The box had curtains to protect privacy, facing away from the stage so anyone could view their wealth to afford such an unobstructed view, but they would have to angle their seats to view the whole of the stage.
There were two more boxes above, accessed from the dress circle. Again, these had curtains, all four boxes had their own individual waiter. However, they had to share toilet facilities with those patrons of the dress circle.
The top level was for the very common, poor people, in an area called the Upper Circle. These were all bench seats, with a drop from the very back seats at the top of the theatre to the stage of 120 feet. Heady, superb view, the acoustics were so clear that patrons could hear anything occurring on stage. The patrons at this level were known to be aggressive of nature, segregated, little manners so instead of finding a bin for refuse, would chuck over the front row into the stalls below. The theatre had been designed to protect the Dress Circle customers, so the front of the Upper Circle was designed to be slightly forward above the Dress Circle. Anything discarded went straight down to the stalls.
That first night there were two plays, ‘A Fool and His Money’, and ‘The Steeplechase’. The evening was scheduled to start at 6.30pm, the second part at 9pm, but as people took so long to be seated, it over-ran. The second performance patrons were waiting in the street outside with their carriages, so it was complete chaos for a while, people mingling, not wanting to vacate, the toilets still occupied.
That was how the Theatre Royal, Eastbourne, was founded.