The Theatre was built by Tate Wilkinson on Hunslet Lane, just south of Leeds Bridge. It was a small plain brick building, roughly 40 feet by 86 feet, and according to the Leeds Guide of 1806, 'its form inconvenient, and utterly unworthy of the populous and flourishing town to which it belongs'.
Inside, the auditorium and stage were of equal size, divided by the proscenium arch. There was one circle of boxes, a gallery over the entrance vestibule, and the pit. Despite its small size, it could hold around 600 people. Facilities for the players seem to have been somewhat inadequate. Mrs. Jordan, a well-known actress, said that 'it was miserable and cold, half the upper part of it admitting the wind and the rain'. An advertisement in the Leeds Intelligencer tells us that that the theatre was 'elegantly illuminated by wax candles'.
In Leeds the theatre was only open during the summer, from May until the end of July. During the company's stay in Leeds they would perform three and sometimes four nights in the week. Doors opened at six o'clock, the performance beginning at about seven, and ending around 11 o’clock. The price of admission was: Boxes - 3 shillings, Pit - 2 shillings, Gallery -1 shilling. For half price, people were let in for the third act of the play. The Leeds Guide of 1806 says 'it would add to the credit of the manager to discontinue this system, as it has a tendency to disturb the more rational part of the audience, by the introduction of inebriated young men, girls of the town, and other disorderly persons.'
The Theatre opened with the play 'A word to the Wise' on 24th July 1771. Most of the plays performed were comedies, or comic operas, with usually two items each night, with an interlude of singing or dancing. Shakespeare was performed, as in July 1793, though probably much adapted from the original. Note that it is followed by comic duets, and then by a comic opera. The Evening certainly provided a wide range of entertainment! London theatres closed in summer, and famous actors and actresses acted with provincial companies. Mrs. Siddons visited Leeds on several occasions, as in 1786.
Pantomime was also performed, and there were also more unusual entertainments. In August 1824 a troupe of performing cats was advertised, along with a variety of other rather bizarre performances.
After Tate Wilkinson's death in 1803, his son John Wilkinson took over the management of the theatre, and he was followed by a succession of managers. At some time during this period the name was changed to the 'Theatre Royal'. The theatre went through a difficult time during the first half of the nineteenth century. It was small, falling into disrepair, and was sited south of the river, away from the town centre. The area around it became increasingly industrialised, and a less pleasant place to visit.
In 1863, the theatre was bought by John Coleman, who wanted to establish a new northern theatre circuit. Plays were performed by Coleman's own company, and also touring companies. The new railways made it easier for theatre companies to travel round the country. A variety of entertainments were put on ranging form drama to exhibitions of magic and illusion.
Coleman's management was very successful, but he was faced by competition when in 1864 Joseph Hobson built the Amphitheatre in Lands Lane. Coleman's response was to refurbish the interior of the old theatre, and it was decorated, the seats cushioned, and new scenery installed. In February 1865, the theatre staged the premiere of 'Its Never too Late To Mend', which was a great success, and became a favourite Victorian melodrama.
The Theatre continued to be successful, but Coleman wanted to build a new theatre nearer the town centre. He purchased land in Park Square, but could not get sufficient support to build his theatre. Instead he demolished the old theatre in Hunslet Lane, and built a new one, the 'New Theatre Royal and Opera House' which opened in 1867 with a production of Hamlet. Johnson's New Guide to Leeds describes it as 'replete with every modern appliance, both before and behind the curtain'.
The new Theatre Royal was open every evening. Mostly plays were put on by touring companies, such as the Haymarket company in 1868, and there was a pantomime at Christmas. But Coleman's new theatre did not last long. It was completely destroyed by fire on the night of 28th May 1875. Coleman could not afford to rebuild, so after a hundred years, the theatre in Hunslet Lane came to an end.
|Click images to enlarge|
Plan of the Theatre, 1847
Leeds Intelligencer, 23rd July 1771
Playbill for Hamlet
Mrs. Siddon's first night
Mr. Usher's stud of real cats
New Theatre Royal