Shakespeare at the old Theatre Royal – May 2016

Shakespeare performed by Children

May 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Newcastle has played host to the bard’s plays ever since – in more recent times, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed almost annually at the Theatre Royal by the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1977. Unfortunately, they will not be returning in 2016.

Our Theatre Royal Playbills (RB 792 (4282) – NEW) feature many notices for performances of Shakespeare at the old Theatre Royal on Mosley Street between 1770 and 1820, including this one by a Georgian/Victorian theatre sensation and her two sisters.

King Richard The Third playbilll (RB 792 (4282)–NEW).

King Richard The Third playbilll (RB 792 (4282)–NEW).

Clara Fisher (b.14 July 1811, London, died 12 November 1898, Jersey, U.S.) was an Anglo-American actress who inspired an enormous following in the United States. She made her stage debut in 1817, at the age of six, in a children’s adaptation of David Garrick’s Lilliput at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. Her performance in that and in excerpts from Richard III captivated the audience. She then began a 10-year period of touring up and down Great Britain, winning popular acclaim in a variety of child’s and adult’s roles.

By the time she and her sisters Amelia and Caroline started their three-night engagement at the Newcastle Theatre Royal on 17 May 1819, Clara would have been only seven years old. On the opening night, she played the leading role in  ‘Shakespeare’s Historical Tragedy, called KING RICHARD THE THIRD; Or, The Battle of Bosworth Field. Clara was known for her ‘breeches parts’ (men’s roles), including Hamlet on at least one occasion. At the Theatre Royal, her sister Amelia was Henry VI, and Henry, Earl of Richmond, was played by Caroline Fisher.

On the second night, she played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and then, on a lighter note, performed ‘A COMIC SONG. (IN CHARACTER)’.

The third, and supposedly final, night was Shakespeare-free.

Such was the success of the Fisher girls’ engagement that they were held over for an extra performance on Friday 21 May, 1819, performing ‘some of the best scenes from the most popular Plays . . .’. This included acts four and five of King Richard the Third, with the sisters reprising their ‘breeches parts’ of the previous Monday.

Fisher went to the United States in 1827 and made her debut in New York City that same year. She was a sensation – her name was given to babies, racehorses, stagecoaches, and steamboats – and she was regarded as America’s leading stage actress. Her last performance was in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1889.

This performance, and about 240 others, is promoted by notices in one volume of our Theatre Royal Playbills collection, a bound collection of ‘posters’ for the ‘old’ Newcastle Theatre Royal in Mosley Street. The bills were printed in 1819 and 1820, and are typical of the early nineteenth century –  i.e. very small compared to the modern-day concept of ‘posters’ –  and utilising revolutionary display typefaces which had begun to be manufactured in about 1810 for advertising.

Fittingly, the bill was printed by Edward Humble, at the Shakespeare Press. Humble was a respected local printer, and a proprietor of the County Durham Advertiser.

If you are interested in coming into the reading room to see playbill and others from the collection…

# This item is held within a volume of our Theatre Royal Playbills (Ref Code RB792(4282) NEW.

# You can place your order by linking to our request form. The reference code and title will be RB 792 (4282) – NEW – Theatre Royal Playbills.’

Newcastle Illuminated, 1814 – May 2014

Two hundred years ago this month, on the evening of 10th May 1814, the town of Newcastle was flooded with light in celebration of the defeat and abdication of Napoleon and his exile to Elba, perceived to signal the end of the Napoleonic Wars which had seen the country at war for more than ten years.

This broadside advertised the illumination event. It was seemingly well-organised by town officials who were anxious to preserve the peace and ensure safety, forbidding the letting-off of guns and fireworks and appointing Peace Officers to patrol the streets. Participants were also warned not to harass any Quakers who might abstain from the celebrations on religious grounds, being pacifists.

The event was universally held to be a great success. Local newspapers printed lengthy and effusively-worded accounts. The Newcastle Advertiser said, “At half-past eight o’clock in the evening the signal was given from the castle for lighting up, and, as if by magic, the whole town appeared in a few minutes one blaze of light”. People from all classes of society took part by lighting up their home or premises, “every one striving to excel his neighbour in testifying his joy at the return of peace, after a sanguinary war of unusual duration”.

All of the light displays were patriotic and many incorporated transparencies, pictures made from translucent paints on materials like calico, linen or oiled paper and lit from behind with candles.

Highlights included Messrs Farrington of the Bigg-market who filled the arched gateway in front of their warehouse with a large transparency of the Duke of Wellington attired as Mars, presenting Peace to Britannia; and Messrs Brumwell and Dobson, chemists, Sandhill who exhibited a large painting representing the inside of a laboratory and the Devil pounding Bonaparte to powder in a mortar. Mr Waters’ Floor-cloth manufactory was singled out as being especially brilliant, incorporating a giant lit image of an anchor, nearly 40 feet high. The doorway of the Theatre Royal was lavishly lit and occupied by the Newcastle arms with a Latin inscription which in translation means, “May Newcastle flourish into eternity, nourished by abundance and peace”. Also mentioned is a certain Mr Dobson, architect, of Mosley Street who displayed a transparency of Britannia seated, with the British Lion defiantly pacing the shore. Displays such as that at the Dun Cow public house on the Quayside, “a neat, though small transparency, exhibiting the Sailor paid off, and the Soldier returned to this wife and family” hint at the social and economic disruption that the Wars had brought.

It would seem the town officials’ precautionary measures paid off, as the Advertiser reported, “We did not hear of a single disturbance or accident”. According to the Chronicle, the only negative element to the proceedings was “the carelessness and indifference of the coachmen, who were driving the carriages of those who chose to view the exhibition of the evening in that manner; as, by their negligence, were often endangered the lives and limbs of the pedestrians.”

Of course, these celebrations would prove to be a year premature, as ten months later Napoleon escaped from Elba and reassumed power over France until his eventual defeat at Waterloo in June 1815.

Vestiges of old Newcastle and Gateshead – June 2011

Illustration of The Weavers or Carliol Tower and The Mechanics Institute
Illustration of The Weavers or Carliol Tower and The Mechanics Institute, 1878 from from Boyle, J.R. Vestiges of old Newcastle and Gateshead. 2 vols.
(Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Andrew Reid; London: Elliot Stock, 1890)
(Rare Books Collection, RB 942.82 BOY Quarto

In 1769 James Granger’s Biographical History of England was published with deliberately blank pages for the purchaser to customise. Thus grangerised entered rare books terminology. Extra-illustrated is a more user-friendly term which has come to be commonly used today. Typically, book owners have customised copies by adding engraved portraits and topographical prints but sometimes autograph letters, drawings, watercolours and other documents have been pasted in and this is exactly what W.B. Bond has done with his copy of J.R. Boyle’s Vestiges of old Newcastle and Gateshead (1890).

The publication is not as scarce as some other titles held in the Philip Robinson Library’s Special Collections: twelve other institutions are listed on COPAC as holding copies, from the National Library of Scotland, to the British Library and Trinity College Dublin. What make our copy unique are the two hundred and thirty engravings, watercolours and autographs which have been added. These include: autograph letters from historians and antiquaries John Hodgson, John Collingwood Bruce, W.H. Longstaffe, and Richard Welford; engraved portraits of King Charles II and Oliver Cromwell; a bookplate taken from a copy of Il Decamerone (1727), the title page of which had borne the inscription of musician Charles Avison; engravings of local views and landmarks, such as Alnwick Castle, Sunderland harbour, and Jesmond cemetery; and original watercolours depicting the Holy Jesus Hospital, an old house in Low Friar Street, almshouses in Westgate Street, Thomas Bewick’s workshop at St. Nicholas’ church yard, and more.

Two local watercolours have been chosen to illustrate this ‘treasure’: The Weavers or Carliol Tower and The Mechanics Institute, 1878 and The Temporary Bridge over the Tyne – August 17th 1875, both signed by W.B. Bond.

The Weavers or Carliol Tower and The Mechanics Institute, 1878 (above):
Newcastle was fortified in the Thirteenth Century and Carliol Tower, named after the De Carleiol family, was one of the seventeen towers which were features of the town wall. The discovery, by workmen in 1824, of a cannonball is evidence that it came under fire when the Scots stormed Newcastle in 1644. Less than twenty years after the violence of the English Revolution, or Civil War, the Weaver’s Company appropriated the tower as a meeting house. The tower was repaired and enlarged in 1821 but, like many of the town’s defensive towers, was demolished in the late Nineteenth Century. The foundation stone for The Mechanic’s Institute which adjoined Carliol Tower, on New Bridge Street, had been laid on 19th April, 1865. From 1866, it housed a library and was a venue for lectures on industrial developments and for delivering engineering classes. In 1880, The Mechanics’ Institute became part of the new City Library.

The Temporary Bridge over the Tyne – August 17th 1875 (below):
Bond has not specified the location of this temporary bridge over the Tyne. However, a temporary bridge existed whilst the Swing Bridge was being constructed and it is possible that this is what Bond painted, looking across the river towards Gateshead and St. Mary’s Church. The Roman Pons Aelius had first spanned the Tyne but it had been replaced by a mediaeval stone bridge. When this was destroyed by the flood of 1771, a new stone bridge was built in its place. Increased shipping resulted in that bridge being removed in 1866 and it wasn’t until 1876 that the Swing Bridge was opened. Thus, it is possible that the watercolour depicts the temporary wooden bridge at time when it had almost run the course of its usefulness and with the construction of the Swing Bridge glimpsed immediately behind it.

According to a manuscript annotation on a front endpaper, Bond inserted the additional engravings, watercolours and autographs whilst in San Sebastiano, Venice, 1913 and two items which had been addressed to him there are tipped in at the end of the second volume.

Illustration of The Temporary Bridge over the Tyne
Illustration of The Temporary Bridge over the Tyne – August 17th 1875 from Boyle, J.R. Vestiges of old Newcastle and Gateshead. 2 vols.
(Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Andrew Reid; London: Elliot Stock, 1890)
(Rare Books Collection, RB 942.82 BOY Quarto