WATERLOO PLACE AND HER MAJESTY'S THEATRE.
"Hic alta theatris
Fundamenta locant."—Virgil, "Æn.," i.
St. James's Fields in the Time of Charles I.—St. James's Market—The "Mitre Tavern" and Mrs. Oldfield, the Actress—Hannah Lightfoot and
her Union with the Prince of Wales (afterwards George III.)—The "Hoop and Bunch of Grapes"—The Criterion Theatre and Restaurant—The "White Bear"—The "Piccadilly Saloon"—The Gallery of Illustration—The Parthenoa and Raleigh Clubs—St. Philip's Chapel—Charles Street—The Junior United Service Club—Waterloo Place—Catlin's American Indian Collection—The Guards' Memorial—Her
Majesty's Theatre—Supposed Origin of Operatic Performances—The First Opera House and its Struggles—Assumes the Name of "The
King's Theatre"—Prohibition of Masquerades—The First Oratorio ever performed in England—Walpole's Criticism upon Vaneschi's Opera
of Fetonte—Destruction of the First Opera House by Fire—Description of the First Theatre—The Theatre rebuilt—John Braham and
Madame Catalani—Management of the Theatre in the Time of George IV.—Reconstruction of the Theatre in 1818—The Italian Opera from
a Frenchman's Point of View—Triumphs of the King's Theatre—The Name changed to "Her Majesty's"—The "Omnibus" Row—First
Appearance of Jenny Lind—Sims Reeves and Catherine Hayes—The "Black Malibran"—Mdlle. Titiens—Piccolomini and Christine Nilsson—Destruction of the Theatre by Fire in 1867—The New Theatre—The Building advertised for Sale—Messrs. Moody and Sankey's Services.
Previous to the year 1560, the tract of ground
which we are about to traverse, and indeed as far
north and north-west as the parish of St. Marylebone, was a vast extent of fields. There were
no houses, excepting three or four in the immediate neighbourhood of what is now called Pall
Mall East. In the time of Charles I., the whole
of the district was unbuilt upon, and was known
by the name of "St. James's Fields." In the
middle of these fields stood a solitary dwelling,
called "Pickadilly," mentioned by Clarendon, in
his "History of the Rebellion," as "a fair house for
entertainment and gaming," with handsome gravel
walks and shade, and where there was an upper
and a lower bowling-green, whither many of the
nobility and gentry of the best quality resorted
for exercise and recreation. In Charles Knight's
"Old London" reference is made to a petition
from Colonel Thomas Panton, read in 1671, before
the Privy Council, setting forth that the petitioner
having been at great charge in purchasing "a parcel
of ground lying at Pickadilly," part of it being two
bowling-greens fronting the Haymarket, the other
lying on the north of the Tennis Court, on which
several old houses were standing, and praying for
leave to build on this ground, notwithstanding the
royal proclamation against building on new foundations within a certain distance of London. No
doubt the colonel must have had influential friends
about him, for we find that, "in consequence of
Sir Christopher Wren's favourable report, he obtained leave to erect houses in Windmill Street, on
the east corner towards the Haymarket, and also
in the two bowling-greens between the Haymarket
and Leicester Fields."
In the reign of Charles II., mention is made of
the Hay Market and Hedge Lane; but they were
at that time literally lanes, bounded by hedges.
In Faithorne's plan of London, published in 1658,
no traces of houses are to be found in the north,
except a single one, called the Gaming House, at
the end next to Piccadilly. In the upper part of
this district, on the north side of Jermyn Street,
and on the site now partly covered by the Criterion
Restaurant and Theatre and Lower Regent Street,
a market was established in 1664. Malcolm tells
that the market for all sorts of provisions was proclaimed "to be kept in St. James's Fields on
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays; and for all
kinds of cattle in the Hay Market, in the parish
of St. Martin-in-the-Fields." According to Gay's
"Trivia," St. James's Market was famous for its
supply of veal. From Pepys we learn that the
market owed its foundation to Jermyn, Earl of St.
Albans, whose name is still preserved in Jermyn
At the "Mitre Tavern," in the market, the mother
of the charming and accomplished actress, Mrs.
Oldfield, was living when the latter was quite
young. One day the girl was overheard reading
a play with so much power and expression, that Sir
John Vanbrugh obtained for her an introduction
to Rich, the patentee of Covent Garden Theatre,
by whom she was engaged. Here she soon made
herself a name, and became so popular, that she
obtained access to the first circles. She became
the mistress of General Churchill, a nephew of the
great Duke of Marlborough, by whom she had a
son, who married a natural daughter of Sir Robert
Walpole, and obtained the rank and precedence of
an earl's daughter. In the end Mrs. Oldfield had
the honour of a funeral in Westminster Abbey.
In the house which stood at the corner of Market
Street, in St. James's Market, at the shop of a linendraper named Wheeler, lived Hannah Lightfoot,
the early flame of King George III., and indeed, if
report may be credited, privately married to him.
The fair Quakeress—for such was Hannah—is said
to have contracted her marriage with royalty in
1759, in Kew Church. She afterwards married a
Mr. Axford, and died in obscurity.
The story of Hannah Lightfoot was thoroughly
sifted and discussed in the pages of Notes and
Queries, the conclusion arrived at leaving little or
no doubt as to the legality of her union with the
"The 'Hoop and Bunch of Grapes,'" says Mr.
Larwood, "was the sign of a public-house in St.
Albans Street (now part of Waterloo Place), kept,
at the beginning of the present century, by the
famous Matthew Skeggs, who obtained his renown
from playing, in the character of Signor Bombasto,
a concerto on a broomstick at the Haymarket
Theatre, adjoining. His portrait was painted by
King, a friend of Hogarth, engraved by Houston,
and published by Skeggs himself."
About the year 1815, some low and mean houses
that stood between the market and Pall Mall were
demolished, and these were soon afterwards followed by the market itself, in order to form the
broad and spacious thoroughfares of Lower Regent
Street and Waterloo Place. At the upper or
northern end of Lower Regent Street a junction is
formed right and left with Piccadilly. In that part
of Piccadilly lying to the east is the "Criterion"
Restaurant and Theatre. This handsome building,
which combines under one roof the advantages of
a restaurant on an unusually large scale, reading,
billiard, hair-dressing rooms, cigar divan, concerthall, ball-room, and theatre, was built for Messrs.
Spiers and Pond, in 1873, from a design by Mr.
Thomas Verity. The sum originally named as the
probable cost, exclusive of decorations and fittings,
was £25,000, but the actual expense to the proprietors, before the vast establishment was opened,
is said to have exceeded £80,000.
The "Criterion" has two façades; the principal
one, in Piccadilly, is of Portland stone, decorated in
the style of the French Renaissance. The doorway
is arched and deeply recessed, the arch being supported by four handsome bronze columns. Figures,
beautifully sculptured, representing the seasons, are
placed in niches above. The frontage in Jermyn
Street is of brick, picked out with Portland stone.
The great dining-room, capable of accommodating
200 persons, is on the right of the central vestibule; on the left is the refreshment-buffet, at the
south end of which is the smoking-divan. The
grand staircase leads to the ball-room, which occupies the entire width of the Piccadilly frontage.
The whole interior is richly decorated; mosaics,
parquetry, painted frescoes, mirrors, gildings, and
carvings, meet the eye in every direction. The
upper floor is occupied by kitchens and sculleries.
The right-hand entrance in Piccadilly leads to the
grill-room, also to the balcony and orchestra stalls
of the theatre, while the entrance to the amphitheatre stalls and parterre is from Jermyn Street,
the whole theatre being below ground. It will
accommodate 800 persons, and is fitted up in the
most luxurious manner. It was opened on the 21st
of March, 1874, with two new pieces—An American
Lady, by Mr. H. J. Byron; and Topsyturveydom,
by Mr. W. S. Gilbert. The company being an excellent one, and principally consisting of popular
favourites, and the two authors being equally well
and favourably known, the opening night was a
triumphant success, giving a favourable augury of
its future career. The entertainments since given
have been principally of the class known as opera
The "Criterion" stands on the site of an inn,
the "White Bear," which for a century and more
was one of the busiest coaching-houses in connection with the west and south-west of England.
Mr. Larwood, in his "History of Sign-boards," tells
us that at this inn Benjamin West, the future President of the Royal Academy, put up and spent the
night on his first arrival in London from America.
Here, too, he tells us, died Luke Sullivan, the engraver of some of Hogarth's most famous works,
and another engraver, Chatelain—the latter in such
poverty, that he was buried, at the expense of friends
who had known him in better days, in the poorground attached to St. James's workhouse.
A few doors to the eastward of the "Criterion"
stood for many years a house notorious from the
commencement of the present century as "The
Piccadilly Saloon," a house of refreshment and gambling, which was open nearly all night, and formed
a scene of dissipation which, even at that time, was
unparalleled in London. Its aristocratic patrons,
however, did not protect it from the fate which
awaits all such dens sooner or later, and it is now
a thing of the past.
On the eastern side of Lower Regent Street is a
large building, which till recently bore the name of
the "Gallery of Illustration." It was erected from
the designs of Mr. Nash, who intended it as a
residence for himself. It was used occasionally for
dramatic readings, and also for a class of amusements popularly known as "drawing-room entertainments." The northern wing of the building,
formerly the Parthenon Club-house, is now the
home of the Raleigh Club; the other portion of
the edifice (formerly the Gallery of Illustration) has
been converted into a restaurant, and bears the
name of the "Pall Mall." The long gallery was
decorated from a loggia of the Vatican at Rome.
St. Philip's Chapel, or, as it is often called,
Waterloo Chapel, on the opposite side of the street,
was built in 1820 from the designs of Mr. Repton.
The tower is a reproduction of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, at Athens. The front is adorned
with a portico, supported by four Doric columns.
The interior has the appearance of a public secular
assembly-room rather than of a church, being nearly
square, with a double gallery, supported below by
heavy piers, and above by Corinthian columns of
scagliola. The ceiling is formed of a double cove,
and is lighted from above.
Crossing Regent Street, and extending from St.
James's Square to the Haymarket, is Charles Street.
Here Burke was living in the year 1781, when he
received from a poor and friendless young man,
named George Crabbe, a letter asking for aid.
Burke read the note, and at once responded;
asked Crabbe to call on him; read, and admired
his verses. "From that hour," writes Mr. Serjeant
Burke, "Crabbe was a made man. Burke not only
relieved his more pressing necessities, but domesticated him in his own house, introduced him to a
large circle of noble and literary friends, afforded
him the inestimable advantage of his critical advice,
and, having established his poetical reputation to
the world, finally crowned the most ardent aspirations of his protégé by getting him admitted into
the Church." Such deeds of kindness deserve to
be recorded to the honour of the great orator.
Here, too, in 1806, the sculptor Chantrey, then
quite a young man, was living; and whilst residing
here he exhibited some of his early busts.
The Junior United Service Club, of which we
have already spoken in our chapter on "Clubland," stands at the corner of Charles Street and
Waterloo Place, which we now enter, was, like
Regent Street, built from the designs of Mr. Nash.
Some time after the death of the architect, the
New Monthly Magazine gave the following eulogium
on his memory:—"Whether the stranger traverses
the splendid line of Regent Street, the Quadrant,
and Portland Place, until he reaches the Regent's
Park—beautifully disposed, and laid out in walks
and groves, ornamented with sheets of water, dotted
with elegant villas, and encircled by rows of houses
of noble elevation, from classic architectural designs—or takes his way from Waterloo Place towards
Somerset House, and sees before him streets, and
places, and arcades, occupying the sites of the
filthiest courts imaginable, and finds himself in
front of the splendid parish church of St. Martinin-the-Fields—able to admire its beauties, because
cleared away from the wretched dwellings by which
it was surrounded—we think his first inquiry will
be—to whose taste genius, and enterprise, are
these improvements owing? He will be answered
by being told that they are all attributable to
the genius, energy, and talent of Mr. Nash, to
abuse and ridicule whom was the fashion of the
time in which he lived. This is the best answer
to the senseless cry raised against him by those
whose enmity arose from their jealousy of the estimation in which he was held by the munificent
monarch in whose regency and reign these wonderful changes in this part of the metropolis were
effected. Mr. Nash is in his grave; and, standing
in the midst of the vast alterations for which we
are indebted to him, we feel inclined to say, in the
words of Wren's epitaph, Si monumentum requiris,
On the eastern side was, in 1851, and for some
time afterwards, Mr. Catlin's American Indian
Collection, one of the most interesting and successful of the many exhibitions that have been
opened in London.
In the centre of Waterloo Place, facing the
Duke of York's Column, stands the Guards' Memorial, which was erected from the designs of Mr.
John Bell. It consists of a massive granite pedestal,
the front of which, some eleven feet from the
ground, is occupied by three bronze figures, representing a Grenadier, a Fusilier, and one of the
Coldstream Guards, "in their full marching costume, as they fought at Inkerman." These figures
are about eight feet high, and behind them are
placed their respective flags, thus forming a pyramidal group. The front of the pedestal is inscribed
with the word "Crimea." Upon this pedestal
rises a smaller one, having upon either side the
words "Alma," "Inkerman," "Sebastopol;" whilst
the back of this upper block of granite is ornamented with a pyramidal pile of cannon—the actual
broken Russian guns, burst and mutilated, as they
were found in Sebastopol—having beneath it this
inscription:—"To the memory of 2,162 officers
and men of the Brigade of Guards who fell during
the war with Russia, 1854, 1855, 1856." The whole
is surmounted with a bronze figure of Honour, with
her arms extended wide, and having in her hands
and on her arms wreaths of laurel; and immediately
beneath this figure is inscribed—"Honour to the
Eastward of Waterloo Place stands Her Majesty's
Theatre, or, as it is generally called, the Opera
House. The building occupies a vast space of
ground, with its eastern side in the Haymarket,
and extends north and south from Charles Street
to Pall Mall.
The species of dramatic performance which we
now style an opera, in which the various emotions
incidental to the action of the piece are interpreted
by the aid of music, vocal and instrumental, is
supposed to have originated with the Chinese.
Their dramas, almost interminable (a single representation of one being an affair of many nights,
and sometimes even of weeks), instead of being
declaimed in the natural voice, have been, from
time immemorial, delivered in a carefully intoned
recitative, mingled with songs. The first work of
this description produced in Europe was The Conversion of St. Paul, composed by an Italian artist,
Francisco Barbarini, and performed in Rome in
1470. England was at that period by no means a
musical nation; and it was not until about the commencement of the eighteenth century that, as Colley
Cibber writes, "the Italian opera began first to
steal into England, but in as rude a disguise as
possible, in a lame hobbling translation, with metre
out of measure to its original notes, sung by our
own unskilful voices, with graces misapplied to
almost every sentiment and action."
In 1704 a subscription was started by Sir John
Vanbrugh to build a theatre for this special purpose,
and £3,000 was raised in shares of £100 from each
of thirty persons, who, in addition to their interest
in the building, were to have an admission ticket
for life to all public entertainments given therein.
The foundation-stone was inscribed with the words,
"Little Whig," in honour of Lady Sunderland, the
most celebrated Whig toast and beauty of her day.
The theatre was opened April 9th, 1705, with an
Italian opera, The Triumph of Love, which was so
far from being a "triumph," that it was withdrawn
after having been performed three times before a
mere handful of spectators. Sir John Vanbrugh
and his associate Congreve, the dramatist, were
not long in retiring from a management so little
profitable to themselves, and the theatre was transferred to a Mr. McSwiney. The first Italian singer
who made his mark on these boards was Valentini,
who, on his first appearance, sang through his part
in his own language, the rest of the company
singing in English! The effect must have been
grotesque in the extreme, and may partially account
for the fact that, during the first twenty-five years of
its existence, the Opera House was but very poorly
supported, and was frequently made a subject for
satire in the Spectator and Tatler. Under these discouraging circumstances a subscription was raised
for its support, and £50,000 was thus obtained,
King George I. contributing £1,000 (afterwards
continued annually): from this time the theatre
assumed the name of "The King's."
THE YARD OF THE OLD "WHITE BEAR" INN, PICCADILLY, ABOUT 1820.
(From an Original Drawing by Shepherd, in the possession of J. G. Crace, Esq.)
In 1729, says Hughson, the Grand Jury of
Middlesex "presented" the fashionable and wicked
diversion called masquerade, and "particularly the
contriver and carrier on of masquerades at the
King's Theatre in the Hay Market, in order to be
punished according to law."
It appears that this species of entertainment has
never been truly popular in England. The first
masquerade given in London upon the foreign
plan, uniting, after the Venetian fashion, elegance
with rude mirth and revelry, was given by Henrietta,
the queen of Charles I.; but, as it was unfortunately
fixed for a Sunday, the populace in front of the
Banqueting House, Whitehall, loudly complained
of the profanation of the Lord's Day. A scuffle
ensued between the soldiers and the people, in
which half a dozen of the latter and two or three
of the former were killed.
The most splendid masquerade ever known in
England, as we learn from Colburn's "Kalendar of
Amusements," took place at the Opera House in
1717, and was provided by Mr. Heidegger. It
was allowed to exceed anything that had been
known in Italy or any other country. The masquerades formerly given at the Pantheon were very
celebrated. In 1783 Delphini, the famous clown,
got up a grand masquerade there, in honour of the
birthday and coming of age of the Prince of Wales.
The tickets were sold at three guineas each, yet
Delphini was a loser by the speculation.
In 1724 the Bishop of London preached a
sermon against masquerades, which made such an
impression, that orders were issued for their discontinuance. After the lapse of some years they
were again introduced. Some excellent reasons
for the renewal of the prohibited amusement
appeared in the Morning Chronicle, March 7, 1770.
We have already spoken of masquerades in our
account of Mrs. Cornelys' house in Soho Square.
The first oratorio ever performed in England
was Handel's Esther, which was produced at this
theatre in 1732, and followed, later in the same
year, by his Acis and Galatea. The opera must,
by this time, have made vast strides in the estimation of the public, as in the year 1734 we find
the famous Farinelli—at whom the newspapers of
the day directed many a pointed sarcasm—receiving
for the season a salary of £15,000, as well as a
free benefit, which realised an additional profit of
£2,000. Such, however, is the uncertain tenure
of the public favour, that scarcely two years later
Farinelli had the mortification of singing to a house
containing but £35.
PICCADILLY CIRCUS, FROM COVENTRY STREET.
Horace Walpole, in a letter written in 1747,
gives a piquant criticism upon Vaneschi's opera of
Fetonte. "It is," writes he, "in what they call the
French manner, but about as like it as my Lady
Pomfret's hash of plural persons and singular verbs
was to Italian. They sing to jigs, and dance to
church-music. 'Phaeton' is run away with by horses
that go a foot's pace, like the 'Electress's' coach,
with such long traces, that the postilion was in one
street and the coachman in another. Then comes
'Jupiter' with a farthing candle, to light a squib
and a half; and that they call fireworks. 'Reginello,' the first man, is so old and so tall, that he
seems to have been growing ever since the invention of operas. The first woman has had her
mouth let out to show a fine set of teeth, but it
lets out too much bad voice at the same time.
Lord Middlesex, for his great prudence in having
provided such very tractable steeds to 'Prince
Phaeton's' car, is going to be Master of the Horse
to the Prince of Wales; and, for his excellent
economy in never paying the performers, is likely
to continue in the Treasury."
In the year 1789 the usual fate of theatres
befell the Opera House, which was burnt to the
ground on the night of the 17th of June. The
fire was supposed to have been the work of an
incendiary, and suspicion attached to Pietro Carnivalli, the leader of the orchestra, who owed a
grudge to Signor Ravelli, the manager, for whose
benefit the performance was to have taken place
the evening after the catastrophe. The company
were at rehearsal when the fire broke out, and
the wife of Signor Ravelli owed her life to the
intrepidity of the firemen. In this conflagration
the favourite opera of La Laconda, by Paesiello, was
destroyed—score, separate parts, and all. It is said
that Mazzinghi, who then presided at the harpsichord, undertook to reproduce from memory the
whole of the instrumental accompaniments, and
this he did successfully. There still exists a print
of the original building, taken from a drawing made
on the spot by W. Capon, published in Smith's
"Historical and Literary Antiquities." It shows the
front of the edifice, much as it must have been
when built by Sir John Vanbrugh, in the reign of
George I. It was a dull plain building, not unlike
a Quaker's meeting-house. The front was "of
red brick, rusticated with good gauged work." It
had three circular-headed doorways, with three
windows of a similar shape above; in the second
floor, instead of windows, were three oblong recesses of a very heavy character, and the roof was
covered with black glazed tiles. The front was
thirty-four feet in width. Over the entrance-hall
was "Ridant's Fencing Academy," shown by a conspicuous notice in the print. On the piers below
are seen some handbills of the time, including the
name of Signor Rauzzini, and of Signora Carnivalli,
the wife of the man whose hand is supposed to
have set fire to the theatre.
The first stone of the succeeding structure, the
entrance to which is shown on page 216, was
laid in April, 1790, by the Earl of Buckinghamshire, the architect being Michael Novosielski.
The new theatre commenced its career under
weighty liabilities, for which it was by no means
fairly responsible, and of which there will be occasion to speak more in detail in our history of the
Pantheon. Chancery or the Insolvent Court generally terminated the career of its first half-dozen
managers, as, in addition to its hopeless load of
debt, the current expenses were so enormous as to
swallow up all the receipts.
The great English tenor, John Braham—as mentioned in our notice of the St. James's Theatre—made his début here in 1796, and rose at one step
to the height of public favour. The year 1806 was
distinguished by two great events in the history of
this theatre—the introduction of Mozart's music,
never before performed in England, and the début
of Madame Catalani. This marvellous singer, the
versatility of whose talents rendered her equally
admirable in a tragic or comic rôle, received the
sum of £15,000 for the season of 1809, her benefit
and the various concerts which she gave amounting
to £11,000 more.
Catalani is pronounced by Captain Gronow, who
well recollected her, the greatest vocalist that he
ever heard. He writes: "In her youth she was
the finest singer in Europe, and she was much
sought after by all the great people during her séjour
in London. She was extremely handsome, and was
considered a model as wife and mother. Catalani
was very fond of money, and would never sing
unless paid beforehand. She was asked, with her
husband, to pass some time at Stowe, where a
numerous but select party had been invited; and
Madame Catalani, being asked to sing soon after
dinner, willingly complied. When the day of her
departure came, her husband placed in the hands
of the Marquis of Buckingham the following little
billet—'For seventeen songs, seventeen hundred
pounds.' This large sum was paid at once without
hesitation, proving that Lord Buckingham was a
refined gentleman in every sense of the word."
"I visited Catalani in town," writes Cyrus
Redding, "and always found her the same elegant
and amiable creature, with the same sweet simple
smile and modest manners. She stood unrivalled
in her profession. As an actress she was by no
means remarkable; yet she looked so attractive on
the boards, that the audience forgave any little fault
of action. And then her voice was transcendent.
She sang in a private room more charmingly than
in the theatre. I had known her previously. Of
all the females attached to the opera, before or
since, that I have seen, she pleased me most. She
was a kind generous creature, without a particle of
pretension, an excellent mother, and exemplary wife,
wedded to a narrow-minded man, who sometimes
got her an ill name from his avarice. He managed
all her money transactions, and used to call her
'ma poule d'or.' I hear her now singing 'God
save the King,' with her heavenly voice and pretty
foreign accent, set off by a person, one of the
sweetest on the stage I ever saw. For mind she
was not remarkable; I never met with a singer of
either sex that was so. There was an openness
and candour about her quite charming. 'Monsieur
Redaing, I speak no language propre. I speak
one Babylonish tongue. I speak not my own
tongue, nor French, nor your tongue propre.'
"Her husband, before Junot entered Lisbon,
used to blaze away in the pit of the opera in a
dashing French uniform, speculating upon his future
poule d'or, which to him she afterwards most fully
proved. He was rarely invited with his wife to
the houses of people of consideration. A person
I knew, half a Roman, said one day to Catalani,
'My dear half-countrywoman, how did you come
to marry Valabreque?'—'I will tell you. I was at
Lisbon; the Portuguese are fond of music. Great
men, princes, and counts talk to me of love, and
a number of fine things, but none of them talk of
marrying. M. Valabreque talked of marriage—I
marry M. Valabreque.'"
Captain Gronow writes thus in his "Anecdotes
and Reminiscences:"—"When George IV. was
Regent, this theatre was conducted on a very
different system from that which now prevails.
Some years previous to the period to which I
refer, no one could obtain a box, or a ticket for
the pit, without a voucher from one of the lady
patronesses, who, in 1805, were the Duchesses of
Marlborough, Devonshire, and Bedford, Lady Carlisle, and some others. In their day, after the
singing and ballet were over, the company used to
retire into the concert-room, where a ball took
place, accompanied by refreshments and a supper.
There all the rank and fashion of England were
assembled, on a sort of neutral ground. At a later
period the management of the Opera House fell
into the hands of Mr. Waters, when it became less
difficult to obtain admittance; but the strictest
etiquette was still kept up as regarded the dress
of the gentlemen, who were only admitted with
knee-buckles, ruffles, and chapeau-bras. If there
happened to be a drawing-room, the ladies would
appear in their court dresses as well as the gentlemen; and on all occasions the audience of Her
Majesty's Theatre was stamped with aristocratic
elegance. In the boxes of the first tier might have
been seen the daughters of the Duchess of Argyle,
four of England's beauties; in the next box were
the equally lovely Marchioness of Stafford and her
daughter, Lady Elizabeth Gower, now the Duchess
of Norfolk; not less remarkable were Lady Harrowby and her daughters, Lady Susan and Lady
Mary Ryder. The peculiar type of female beauty
which these ladies so attractively exemplified is
such as can be met with only in the British isles:
the full round, soul-inspired eye of Italy, and the
dark hair of the sunny South, often combined with
that exquisitely pearly complexion which seems to
be concomitant with humidity and fog. You could
scarcely gaze upon the peculiar beauty to which I
refer without being as much charmed with its kindly
expression as with its physical loveliness."
The theatre was reconstructed, in 1818, by
Messrs. Nash and Repton, with great improvements. The interior was the first in England to
be modelled in the horse-shoe shape, so favourable
both for sight and sound. The dimensions were
within a few feet of those of the Grand Opera
House at Milan. The length from the front of the
curtain to the back of the boxes was 102 feet; the
extreme width, 75 feet; the stage measured 60 feet
in length and 80 in width. The edifice was of
brick and Bath stone, with a bas-relief on the Haymarket front representing Apollo and the Muses.
It was in this year that the music of Rossini was
first presented to the English public.
A French nobleman remarks, in a letter to an
English friend, in 1823—"I must acknowledge that
the whole universe does not offer a more splendid
coup d'oeil than that which is presented by the
Italian Opera in London on a Saturday night. The
beauty of the theatre, the richness of the decorations, the loveliness of the women, the variety and
brilliancy of their dresses and jewels, the blaze of
light, the number of distinguished characters who
are often found in the ranks of the audience, the
general appearance of wealth and prosperity, and
the total absence of all features of an opposite
kind, form altogether such a picture of gaiety and
magnificence as is indeed unrivalled."
From 1824 to 1840 the history of the King's
Theatre is that of a series of triumphs. Pasta,
Veluti (the wonderful male soprano), Sontag, Grisi,
Rubini, Tamburini, Lablache, and Mario successively appeared upon the stage; the five last
named, who were all in their zenith about the same
time, forming a brilliant constellation of talent unequalled before or since.
In 1837 the name of the theatre was changed to
"Her Majesty's," in honour of the accession of
Queen Victoria. The year 1841 witnessed the
"Omnibus" row, almost as famous in history as
the O. P. riots. The manager, Laporte, who had
long been at issue with several of the talented
quintette, who were the glory of his establishment,
and who had formed a clique against him, had
declined the further services of Tamburini. His
choice of a victim was determined by the fact that
he was enabled to replace the great baritone by
Coletti, a singer who had achieved a great success
at La Scala. But Laporte had miscalculated his
power. Madame Grisi, at whose fair shrine all
the jeunesse dorée of that day bowed down, induced
her aristocratic admirers to organise a disturbance,
which burst out on the appearance of Coletti in
the place of Tamburini. The omnibus boxes were
crowded with lords of high degree, foremost among
whom was a prince of the blood; and Coletti was
saluted with yells, hisses, and cries of "Off, off!"
"Tamburini!" "Laporte!" shouted with all the
force of aristocratic lungs; and finally the whole
party, headed by the scion of royalty, leaped upon
the stage, and the curtain fell on their shouts of
"Victory." Negotiations were subsequently entered
into with Tamburini, through the good offices of
Count D'Orsay, and the discarded baritone was
persuaded to overlook the affront and resume his
This battle royal is handed down to posterity in
the "Ingoldsby Legends," as "A Row in an Omnibus (Box):"—
"Dol-drum, the manager, sits in his chair,
With a gloomy brow and dissatisfied air;
And he says, as he slaps his hand on his knee,
'I'll have nothing to do with Fiddle-de-dee.
Though Fiddle-de-dee sings loud and clear,
And his tones are sweet, yet his terms are dear.
The glove won't fit!
The deuce a bit—
I shall give an engagement to Fal-de-ral-tit!'
"The prompter bow'd, and he went to his stall;
And the green baize rose at the prompter's call;
And Fal-de-ral-tit sang fol-de-rol-lol;
But scarce had he done,
When a row begun;
Such a noise was never heard under the sun.
Where is he?
He's the artiste whom we all want to see.
Bid the manager come!
It's a scandalous thing to exact such a sum
From boxes and gallery, stalls and pit,
And then fob us off with Fal-de-ral-tit!'"
The manager, being thus peremptorily summoned
by the audience—
"Smooth'd his brow,
As he well knew how;
And he walk'd on, and made a most elegant bow;
And he paused, and he smiled, and advanced to the
In his opera hat, and his opera tights. [lights,
'Ladies and gentlemen,' then said he,
'Pray what may you please to want with me?'
"Folks of all sorts, and of every degree,
Snob, and snip, and haughty grandee,
Duchesses, countesses, fresh from their tea,
And shopmen who had only come there for a spree,
Halloo'd, and hooted, and roared with glee—
None but he!
Subscribe to his terms, whatever they be!
Agree, agree, or you'll very soon see,
In a brace of shakes, we'll get up an O. P.!'"
M. Laporte, who must have had rather a hard
time of it among his imperious troupe, resigned his
uneasy throne in 1842, and was succeeded by Mr.
Lumley, who had long been his colleague.
The year 1847 was an eventful one for Her
Majesty's Theatre, which had been for more than
half a century the only temple of Italian opera in
London. Then took place the secession of Grisi
Mario, Persiani, and Tamburini, with the mighty
Costa, to the new Opera in Covent Garden; then
began the struggle to solve the problem whether
two Italian Opera Houses could be made to pay
in London—a vexed question, which seems hardly
settled even yet. The same year (1847) witnessed
also the first appearance of Jenny Lind, who had
been persuaded to break her engagement with
Mr. Bunn, the lessee of Drury Lane, in favour of
No words can describe the furore excited by this
far-famed lady from the night of her début until
the time when she finally quitted the stage. As
much as £30 was frequently paid for a stall on a
"Jenny Lind night." As Lumley tells us in his
"Reminiscences:"—"The newspapers teemed with
descriptions of wild scenes of 'crushing, crowding,
and squeezing; of ladies fainting in the pressure,
and even of gentlemen carried out senseless; of
torn dresses, and evening coats reduced to rags.'"
These triumphs were, however, partially counterbalanced by the result of an action brought-by
Mr. Bunn against the prima donna, for her breach
of contract with him. He laid the damages at
£10,000, and gained a verdict for £2,500—a loss
which fell entirely on Mr. Lumley, who had undertaken to bear the vacillating fair one scathless.
The operatic career, however, of the celebrated
songstress was as brief as it was brilliant; for on
the 18th of May, 1849, Jenny Lind made her last
appearance upon any stage, as "Alice," in Roberto
In 1850 the chief stars of the Italian opera at
Her Majesty's were native artists, Mr. Sims Reeves
and Miss Catherine Hayes. An attempt was made
in the same year to produce a sensation through
the introduction of the Black Malibran. The lady
bearing this pretentious title was Donna Maria
Martinez, a negress, who appeared in a divertissement called Les Delices du Serail, in which she sang
quaint Spanish melodies, accompanying herself on
the guitar. "Her songs," writes Lumley, "were
full of original charm, her execution excellent, her
voice sweet, pure, and true; but the whole performance was small almost to meagreness, and,
although it might well be regarded as a piquant
musical curiosity, it failed in any real power of
attraction." In 1852 Mdlle. Titiens, the only
worthy successor of Grisi in such parts as "Norma,"
"Lucrezia Borgia," or "Semiramide," appeared as
"Valentina" in Les Huguenots.
The year 1856 produced another "great sensation" in the young, charming, and high-born
Marietta Piccolomini, of whom Lumley writes:—"Once more frantic crowds struggled in the lobbies
of the theatre; once more dresses were torn and
hats crushed in the conflict. In what lay the
charm of this new fascinator of all hearts? It
would be difficult to tell, although this much is
undeniable, that she exercised an almost magical
power over the masses. The statistics of a
'treasury' are indisputable facts. Her voice was
a high and pure soprano, with all the attraction
of youth and freshness, not wide in range, sweet
rather than powerful, and not gifted with any perfection of flexibility. Her vocalisation was far
from being distinguished by its correctness or
excellence of school; to musicians she appeared a
clever amateur, but never a really great artist."
This fascinating little lady created an equal furore
in Paris, yet the French criticisms on her performance seem to agree with those of Lumley—as,
for example, the following:—"Mdlle. Piccolomini
sings with infinite charm, but is not a cantatrice.
She acts with talent, but is not an actress. She
is a problem—an enigma!"
Pecuniary difficulties having terminated Mr.
Lumley's long managerial career, Mr. E. T. Smith
became the lessee of Her Majesty's Theatre in
1860, to be succeeded, two years afterwards, by
Mdlle. Christine Nilsson appeared in 1867 with
great success; perhaps the only artiste who has
ever succeeded in realising to the full the poet's
exquisite conception of "Marguerite," in Faust.
This triumph was the last reserved for the old
"King's Theatre," which was once more destroyed
by fire on the 6th of December, 1867. At the time
of the catastrophe the Earl of Dudley, as assignee
of Mr. Lumley, was the lessee under the Crown,
on a lease terminating in 1891. In 1862 Lord
Dudley had sub-let the theatre to Mr. Mapleson
for twenty-one years, at a yearly rental of £8,000,
payable in advance. The earl was fully insured;
but Mr. Mapleson, who unfortunately was not so,
was a loser to the extent of £10,000. The great
organ, valued at £800, the chandeliers, scenery,
costumes, interior fittings, the whole of the musical
library, besides several invaluable manuscripts of
Rossini, were all destroyed. The origin of the
fire was never ascertained.
Lord Dudley having decided upon rebuilding the
theatre without loss of time, the site was cleared
early in 1868, and the works were commenced at
midsummer. The architect was Mr. Charles Lee,
and the contractors Messrs. George Trollope and
Sons, who undertook to complete their task in
forty weeks, under a penalty of £1,000 for every
following week in case of failure. This promise
was so strictly fulfilled, that before the end of
March, 1869, the new theatre, complete at ail
points, at a cost of about £50,000, was in a condition to open its doors to the public. The old
edifice having been considered deficient in stage
accommodation, care had been taken in the
present case to increase the size of the stage,
which had been effected, as it was stated, without
materially lessening the area of the auditorium.
There are four tiers of boxes in front of the stage,
and five tiers on either side; the space above the
fourth tier in front being occupied by amphitheatre
stalls, with a spacious amphitheatre behind them.
As in the case of Covent Garden Theatre, the partitions between the boxes are constructed in such a
manner as to be easily removed, so as to form
the ordinary dress circle of a theatre, if required.
Every possible precaution has been adopted to
reduce the risk by fire, throughout the whole of
the building, to a minimum. It is calculated that
the new theatre will accommodate about 1,800
for operatic, and 2,500 for dramatic performances.
So much stress had been laid upon the completion
of the new edifice by the contractors before the
commencement of the opera season of 1869, that
both the public and the press were daily speculating upon the probable date of the opening
night; when the Times of the 24th of March, 1869,
published a notice from the "Directors" of Her
Majesty's Theatre, to the effect that no performances would be given there during that season.
Great was the surprise and consternation at this
announcement, and higher still rose popular amazement when the solution of the enigma leaked out
by degrees. The construction of the interior is
such that, the greater part of the boxes and stalls
being held on lease, the expenses must necessarily
be in excess of the receipts, even in the case of
a full attendance every night. In 1874 the theatre
was advertised for sale by public auction; but it
does not appear that any sale was effected—at all
events, its doors have not been open to the public
excepting for a short time during the summer of
1875, when the theatre was hired for the "revival"
services of Messrs. Moody and Sankey.
Even the Italian Opera House has had its "ups
and downs"—its days of popularity and the reverse.
It went out of fashion, through the caprice of the
aristocracy of the day, in the reign of George II.,
the nobility supporting their own favourite house
in Lincoln's Inn Fields. What the Court then
patronised was but in ill odour with the rest of the
"The opera, on its first introduction into England," writes a well-known author, "divided the
wits, literati, and musicians of the age. By those
esteemed the best judges, the English language
was thought too rough and inharmonious for the
music of the opera; and by men of common sense
a drama in a foreign and unknown tongue was
considered very absurd. However, Addison, who
opposed the Italian opera on the London stage,
wrote the English of Rosamond, which seemed an
attempt to reconcile the discordant opinions. But
this, though a beautiful poem, is said by Dr. Burney
to have shown Addison's total ignorance of the
first principles of music."
ENTRANCE TO THE OLD OPERA HOUSE, 1800.