“you go to plays! and what do you see there?…you see the devil’s children grinning at you“.
Safe to say with views like this, not everyone was a theatre fan when the first theatre opened in Leeds on the 24th July 1771.
Before 1771 Leeds had a few singing rooms in local pubs and visiting travelling players, but no permanent theatrical establishment for citizens to enjoy. This all changed in 1771 when Tate Wilkinson (who managed the York Theatre Circuit) opened a theatre in Leeds on Hunslet Lane. It was known as ‘The Theatre’ and there were a few reasons why Wilkinson wanted to build it. Firstly, it was a great location as it was situated halfway between the theatrical hubs that were London and Edinburgh. Secondly, he was having issues with a theatre in Newcastle and needed somewhere else for his troupe to perform in the summer season.
His company would perform in Leeds from May – July but received a mixed reception from the locals. There was a strong Methodist presence in Leeds during the 1800s and they were not what you would call advocates of the theatre scene; their strong criticism discouraged their flock from attending the theatre. Yet thankfully the theatre prevailed for over 100 years, and despite Leeds being labelled “the botany bay of actors” it still attracted impressive stars of the era including Mrs Siddons and Dorothy Jordan. The theatre performed 3 – 4 nights a week with a mixture of comedies, tragedies and Shakespeare.
Mrs Siddons the ‘Queen of Tragedy’ performed a number of times in Leeds, for example in 1788 where she played Lady Macbeth. She doesn’t appear to have enjoyed the experience as by the end of the run on the last performance she yelled to the audience “farewell ye brutes“.
This experience didn’t stop her returning though, and in 1796 she performed as Isabella in the Fatal Marriage:
The theatre struggled along for a few years falling into disrepair in the early 19th century, but under it’s last proprietor John Coleman things took a positive turn. To stand out from the theatrical competition growing in the city centre, Coleman took the bold move to demolish the theatre and to rebuild and rebrand it, reopening it as the New Theatre Royal and Opera House in 1867. Things were going well for the next few years until the scourge of many of a theatre reared it’s ugly head: fire. The glorious first theatre in Leeds created by powerhouse Tate Wilkinson and successfully brought back to life by John Coleman breathed it’s last on 28th May 1875.
A dramatic end to a resilient theatre that was responsible for introducing theatre to Leeds and bringing famous performers to the city for over 100 years.
What do you think of Leeds first theatre? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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‘Leeds Theatres Remembered’ by Robert E Preedy
David Harris, Tate Wilkinson’s Leeds: the early years of a provincial theatre (Leeds: University of Leeds, 1974)
Discovering Leeds: http://www.leodis.net/discovery/discovery.asp?page=2003218_251720608
“Leeds Theatre Past and Present: How has the theatrical heritage of Leeds influenced
the current landscape of theatre in the city?” By Dominique Triggs, University of Leeds Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship, 2014.
Theatres Through Time Heritage Trail – Leeds City Council & University of Leeds
‘Leeds nostalgia: Long history of Leeds theatres’ Yorkshire Evening Post https://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/leeds-nostalgia-long-history-leeds-theatres-645871
Sarah Siddons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Siddons