Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

A Theatre for All Seasons: The Queen's Theatre, Hull, 1846-1869

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

A Theatre for All Seasons: The Queen's Theatre, Hull, 1846-1869

Article excerpt

Many years ago I undertook to give a conference paper, subsequently published (1), on the Hull Theatre Royal--a patent theatre on the York circuit, built in 1769--charting its development over the course of the nineteenth century via the large collection of contemporaneous playbills we had assembled in the Drama Department (now deposited in the university's Brynmor Jones Library). During my research I occasionally came across allusions to a rival Hull theatre, a former circus arena now calling itself the Queen's, which the patent house evidently regarded as a troublesome upstart and whose progress it made intermittent efforts to obstruct. I found myself increasingly intrigued by this parvenu establishment, and resolved one day to make time to look closely at its brief, highly chequered career--all the more closely for its never having received serious attention before. (The sole related study, Evolution of the Drama in Hull and District, published locally in 1927 by Thomas Sheppard, then director of the municipal museums, devotes only a few chatty pages to the subject, offering little sustenance to the theatrical historian.) Ample spare time came with my retirement, and I was able recently to spend many happy days on a systematic dissection of our playbill holdings and of parallel collections at the city's local studies library and the archive at Wilberforce House, upwards of a thousand Queen's bills in all. Taken together, and with further publicity material culled from microfilmed newspapers of the time, (2) they provide a singularly complete record of the theatre's activities under its various guises and sundry managers, one that strikes me as not only appealing to parochial interest but as shedding additional light on the state of provincial theatre in Britain during a period of critical change.

What was to become best known as the Queen's Theatre was built in Paragon Street, Hull, in the course of 1846, and it is listed in the 1851 General Directory of Hull and York, nestling cheek by jowl with the rival attractions of four hostelries, a Temperance Hall, a chapel, a hotel and the recently completed North-Eastern Railway station. Its progenitor and first proprietor was a local tradesman by the name of Stephen Kirkwood, who is duly accorded a benefit performance shortly after its opening--'in consideration of Mr S. Kirkwood's immense outlay in raising so magnificent a structure, and affording to the Public and his fellow-townsmen an opportunity of enjoying a cheap and intellectual amusement, not paralleled by any in the kingdom'. (1) He is described in directories of the time simply as a 'timber and raff merchant', though he must have been regarded as a burgher of note, for when in November 1848 a special performance was dedicated to the benefit of his widow, it was given under the patronage of the mayor of Hull, and at a benefit performance in the previous March he had been honoured, somewhat enigmatically, for 'his services in catering for public amusements for a series of Forty-five years'. (4) He is known to have had a hand in the building of an earlier circus arena called the Adelphi, which opened in 1827, but the wording of this testimonial would seem to suggest a history of munificence extending to more than one enterprise. Whatever its precise meaning, Kirkwood obviously knew enough about theatrical affairs to realize that in the immediate wake of the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 the time was ripe for further investment, and that there was scope for an extra place of entertainment in his home town. He was also canny enough to situate it at the western end of the town, as far away as possible from the Theatre Royal, the long-established home of the drama in Humber Street, and in an area towards which the community's centre of gravity, commercially and recreationally, would inexorably be drawn by its proximity to the newfangled railway.

No playbill is extant for the inaugural performance, but I have found a puff for it in the columns of the Hull Advertiser for 9 October 1846:

New Amphitheatre, Paragon-Street, Hull. … 
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