27 – Theatre Royal

The Old Theatre Royal: The Manly Era

By Lesley Phillips

Chesterfield’s theatre was built by the Corporation in 1786 on land to the north of the old Municipal Hall, between what is now New Beetwell Street and Theatre Yard. Over the years the building was let to a number of managers, and became known as the ‘Theatre Royal’ in the 1840s. It closed at the beginning of 1872, and a new Theatre Royal was later built in Corporation Street, now remembered as the Hippodrome.

The old Theatre Royal was a small Georgian theatre, with pit, boxes, and cheap seats upstairs in the gallery. There were chairs in the boxes, but all the other seats were long benches. Until gas was installed in 1830 it was lit by candlelight. Touring companies came to perform at Chesterfield during the race week, and sometimes there would also be a short winter season, and occasionally concerts and other spectacles. Government censorship limited what could be performed in the theatre, and even restricted the number of nights the theatre could be opened each year.

A typical evening’s entertainment at Chesterfield Theatre in the first half of the 19th century would consist of a drama, followed by a musical interlude with dancing, and concluding with a farce. Often there were new plays, fresh from a successful run in London. Old favourites such as Sheridan’s Pizarro, or the Spaniards in Peru were staged from time to time, and the plays of Shakespeare might also appear on the bill. Tickets for the box seats were 3 shillings, the pit 2 shillings and the cheap seats in the gallery 1 shilling (roughly the equivalent of £3 today), and the evening’s performance might last for up to four hours.

Like many provincial theatres, Chesterfield’s Theatre Royal fell into decline in the second half of the 19th century, as the building became dilapidated, it fell out of fashion, and lost its respectability. It also lost its audiences to competitors such as the assembly rooms, which were cleaner and larger, and the music halls where the price of admission might be returned ‘in liquor’. Chesterfield’s old Theatre Royal was at its most successful in the years 1818 – 1839, and 1846 – 1855 when it was let to two very able theatrical managers, Thomas Hill Wilson Manly and John Faucit Saville. It also enjoyed a brief renaissance in the 1860s, under the management of Chesterfield Amateur Dramatic Society.

The first of these two managers, Thomas Hill Wilson Manly, was born Thomas Hill Wilson, but like many in his profession assumed a memorable surname for the stage. He joined the theatrical company which toured the theatres in the East Midlands as the leading man, married the manager’s stepdaughter, and eventually became manager of the company. His ‘star turn’ was as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, a part which patrons of the theatre asked him to perform at Chesterfield on two occasions.

Actor Walter Donaldson described Manly’s style of acting in his memoirs ‘Recollections of an actor’ in 1865; “Manly repudiated all that eternal twisting about on the stage, grinning and bustle, which London comedians resort to.” This was echoed in a review of his performance as Shylock in the Derbyshire Courier, 13th October 1832, “Mr Manly’s performance is distinguished by its quietness – he does not “tear passion into rags”, – he imitates nature.”

Manly was said to be a strict but fair character, which were probably essential qualities to succeed in his chosen profession. At Chesterfield on one occasion he had to contend with a drunken fiddler named Fryer, who he turned out unpaid, and his notebooks also contain some disparaging remarks about some of the actors in his company. He wrote of one actor named Stanhope that he was “a mean looking little reptile”, and soon paid him off. He also dispensed with the services of a lad named Tye, as he was too “dull”. Walter Donaldson wrote that Manly was “A terror to those novices whom agents sent to fill the positions of experienced actors”, but that “He paid what he agreed for; he instructed the young actor in his profession, and where there was any dawning of genius, he encouraged it.”

It was Manly’s practice to engage one big star to play at Chesterfield for 3 or 4 nights, usually during the race week. Some of these stars have now faded into obscurity, but some have left their mark in the annals of theatre history.

Child star Clara Fisher was 10 years old when she played at Chesterfield in 1821, probably acting as a juvenile Richard III, a part for which she was famous. She later went to live and work in America and became a big favourite over there. In 1830 the famous actress Maria Foote appeared for two nights. She was a great beauty, although said to be an indifferent actress, and had become famous by the press coverage of her involvement in a breach of promise lawsuit. She made her final appearance on the stage in 1831 at the age of 33, before scandalising society by marring Charles Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Harrington and retiring to live at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire.

In 1831 Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who had had great success on the continent, performed for three nights; she later married the composer Hector Berlioz and was the inspiration for his ‘Symphonie Fantastique’. Two years later actor James William Wallack came to Chesterfield, following a successful tour of America. He later returned to New York and opened a theatre on Broadway named ‘Wallack’s’; and in 1835 the famous Miss Ellen Tree, one of the finest actresses of her day, came to perform in the theatre at Chesterfield for four nights. Tree later married Charles, the son of actor Edmund Kean.

Eclipsing all these stars was the tragedian William Charles Macready. ‘The Great Macready’ performed at the Theatre Royal, Chesterfield for three nights in 1834, and his performance is said to have attracted the attendance of the Duke of Devonshire. Macready had some connection with the local theatrical circuit, as his father, William Macready, had been manager of the theatre in Sheffield, and his mother Christina was born in Derbyshire. Manly knew the Macreadys, having written in one of his notebooks in 1821 “Macready, a cold, repulsive coxcomb – mean”. Whether he was referring to the father or the son is not clear.

Macready recorded his visit to Chesterfield in his diary:
21st September 1834
“Arrived at Chesterfield in the usual agony of anticipated playing, had my luggage carried to the Angel Inn, where the rooms offered me were tobacco-perfumed and dirty. I was at last driven to take refuge in the ball-room…”
22nd September 1834
“Walked round the market place, and so home by the church – examining the wooden spire, curious and unsightly, observed the date 1003 upon a porch. Laid out my clothes, sent for a play-bill and a History of Chesterfield – not very interesting. Wish to see Hardwick and Chatsworth if practicable. Read a little of Hamlet, which I acted to the dullest, most insensible audience, and among the most brutish I ever yet had to endure. I did my best, but occasionally felt the lethargy of the audience steal over me. My friend Horatio did everything at night contrary to what I had requested in the morning, but I think I never either looked or offered an ill-natured thing…”

Despite Macready’s poor opinion of the evening’s performance, the local paper, the Derbyshire Courier, was effusive with praise: “To see a good play, such as Hamlet, with the principal character so perfectly represented as it was by Macready, has ever been to us the highest, the richest intellectual banquet, the noblest repast that our mind can ever feast on.”
(Derbyshire Courier 27th September 1834 page 2.)

Despite the general decline in theatre attendances in the 1830s, under Manly’s management Chesterfield Theatre continued to draw good crowds. In October 1839, however, ill health forced Thomas Hill Wilson Manly into retirement, and he died in Nottingham on the 20th November 1840, aged 68. Along with his wife and several of his children, he had performed at the theatre in Chesterfield for almost 40 years, and his retirement marked the end of a golden era in the history of Chesterfield’s old Theatre Royal.

The research for this article was made possible by a bursary jointly awarded by the British Library, Cilip, and Libraries & Information East Midlands (LIEM).

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