Monday, 7 March 2016

Bath Theatre and Extortion

In "The New Bath Guide, or Useful Pocket Companion; Necessary For all Persons residing at, or resorting to, this ancient and opulent City." published in 1762 we learn that:

"There are likewise two Theatres here; one situated on Orchard Street, which was built by subscription in the year 1750, by twelve of the inhabitants; the other was built by the late Mr Simpson, under his long-room; the lower part of the latter is exactly the model of Drury-Lane Theatre, and the stage is much wider than that at Orchard Street, At present this house is shut up in consideration of a yearly sum paid to Mr Simpson by Mr Palmer, who is now the chief proprietor of the Theatre in Orchard Street; where they perform (during the season) four times each week viz. Mondays, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday."

Simpson had created the Theatre in the basement of his Assembly Rooms to exploit the opportunity created by the demolition of Bath's first theatre built in 1705 by George Trim, after whom Trim Street is named, which stood at the corner of what is now Parsonage Lane. This was demolished in 1738 to make way for the Mineral Water Hospital.



In 1747 John Hippisley a successful actor on the London stage but born in Somerset suggested that Bath players and playgoers need and deserved better facilities than were provided by Simpson and his rivals in Kingsmead Street.

His proposal for a "regular, commodious theatre" was well received by everyone except the proprietors of the theatre at Simpson's Rooms, The site for the new theatre in Orchard street was chosen by John Wood,

Hippisley's sudden death created a crisis which was only overcome by the intervention of John Palmer, who a wealthy brewer and chandler he was father to the John Palmer who would become famous for his invention of the Mail Coach system.

The new theatre opened on 27th October 1750.

The Interior of the Orchard Street Theatre
There followed a period of intense commercial rivalry. A play performed at one theatre on one night would be put on at the rival establishment on the following evening or even the same night. The manager of Simpson's Henry Brown complained that his carpenter and machinist had been got dead drunk and abducted to Orchard Street. Brown himself was lured to work at Orchard street 2 years after making this complaint.

Nearly six-year on neither the new theatre nor the theatre at Simpson's was doing much more than covering their cost and John Palmer offered Simpson £600 a year to stop hosting performances. The last performance as the Rooms took place in 1756 with a performance of Henry VIII in a programme which included a farce called Harlequin's Vagaries.

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