Oxford History: George Street


The New Theatre, George Street, Oxford

The present New Theatre in George Street was designed by William & T. R. Milburn of Sunderland. It was built by Kingerlee in 1933 and has that date at the top of the building over its entrance. The photograph below shows the theatre's opening on 26 February 1934:

This opening souvenir brochure describes this new building with photographs and drawings, and gives the history of the two theatres preceding it.

The stage front of the present theatre measures 45 ft, compared to the 22 ft 6 in. of the previous one. When built it was the largest revolving stage outside London.

When Apollo Leisure took over the lease in 1997 the theatre was renamed the Apollo, but it reverted to the name of the New Theatre in 2003.

The three former New Theatres in Oxford

By 1829 there was already a theatre at the tennis court in St Aldate's (probably the one in Blue Boar Lane that was refurbished in 1831), so the New Theatre was not Oxford's first.

There were three earlier New Theatre buildings in all: the first in Oriel Street, the second in Red Lion Yard (1836–1886), and the third on the present site (1886–1933).

(1) Oxford's first New Theatre in Oriel Street (1833–1836)

(Apparently used again as a second theatre from 1857–1859)

On the evening of 1 July 1833 Oxford's a theatre opened in St Mary Hall Lane (now Oriel Street), presumably at the real tennis court. The following notice appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 13 July 1833:

Theatre opens in Oriel Street

This theatre in Oriel Street appears to have closed in 1836 when the Victoria Theatre opened to the north of George Street (see below). In Hunt's Oxford Directory for 1846 James Russell, tennis court, was listed at 11 Oriel Street, but there is no mention of the theatre.

(2) Oxford's second New Theatre or Victoria Theatre,
 to the north of the present site in George Street (1836–1886)

In 1836 the Victoria Theatre opened in Red Lion Yard, at the rear of the present New Theatre. It was nearer Friars Entry to the north than George Street to the south.

The 1876 map extract below shows exactly where it was situated, with Red Lion Square to the west. This theatre is still remembered today by the alleyway to the east, which is called Victoria Court.

Map showing Victoria Theatre in 1876

The following notice that appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on Saturday 2 July 1836 advertised the official opening of this theatre on the following Monday:

Opening of New Theatre

As the above notice shows, the original theatre had three entrances: (1)  to the Boxes from a door adjoining the shop at 9 Magdalen Street; (2) To the Pit was from George Street; and (3) To the Gallery from Red Lion Square.

By the 1850s, plays were forbidden during university terms, when concerts or music hall entertainments were held instead; and even in the vacations the Theatre Royal appears to have offered plays only at the Town Hall. W. E Sherwood, writing about Oxford in the 1850s, pointed out how ridiculous this was:

One advantage of the Long Vacation was that we were free to see dramatic performances. In term time all plays were strictly forbidden. It may possible have been a survival of the religious scruples of the Puritans, or it may have been fear of the attractions of the actresses whom the plays might bring here, but they never could obtain the permission of the Reverend the Vice-Chancellor for any performance of the kind. I don’t presume to question the wisdom of this, but on looking back on what they did allow I cannot but feel that the authorities of those days were adepts at straining at gnats and swallowing camels. The performances which were ‘permitted,’ and which took place at the wretched old Victoria Theatre, which stood where the New Theatre now is, were, as a rule, I can’t say second class, but third, fourth, or even fit hardly for the luggage van – things from the music halls, which were pretty low at that time — yet these were passed, whilst Shakespeare and Sheridan and other English classics had the door banged in their faces.

When the Vacation came this ban no longer had power, and the Right Worshipful the Mayor granted what his University colleague denied, and we had as a rule a theatrical company with us all the ‘Long.’ The performances were in the Town Hall, and were not generally very well patronized, so that naturally the company was never a very strong one.

In mid-September 1867 (when tickets were 6d. in the gallery and 1s. 6d. in the Pit, and a box cost 2s. 6d.) the programme was as follows:

  • Saturday 14 September: Fraud and its Victims, a review polka, and Whitebait at Greenwich
  • Monday 16 September: The Ticket-of-Leave Man, a review polka, and Good for Nothing
  • Tuesday 17 September: The Merchant of Venice and The Rough Diamond and Box and Cox
  • Wednesday 18 September: “a popular drama”; singing and dancing; and a new farce
  • Thursday 19 September: “a variety of attractive entertainments”
The Theatre Royal: a second theatre in Oriel Street from 1857

This theatre opened for a summer season each year (during the University's Long Vacation). Jackson's Oxford Journal reported on 25 July 1857 that the Theatre Royal was opening in Russell's tennis court there, and announced on 8 August:


On Monday evening last, Mr. Hooper, of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, late manager of the Olympic Theatre, and lessee of the Theatre Royal, Cambridge, commenced his campaign in Oxford for the present season at the Theatre in Oriel-street. The Theatre has been fitted up in the Tennis Court there by Mr. Jones, builder, of this city, with much taste, and with a due regard to comfort and convenience. The Theatre is lighted with gas, and in this department Mr. H. Floyd, of the High-street, has displayed considerable skill, by the adoption of side-lights, and some elegant chandeliers, which effect their purpose without interfering with a view of the stage from any part of the building. The proscenium and stage-fittings are highly creditable to the artists who have been employed upon them, and the orchestra includes some instrumental performers of no ordinary talent.

A long description of the programme then followed. The entrance to the Stalls and Pit was at 6 Oriel Street, and to the Gallery at the Tennis Court (No. 11). Performances were at 7.30pm each day. Prices were: stalls three shillings (half-price two shillings; pit two shillings (half price one shilling); and gallery one shilling (with no half-price), and season tickets cost three guineas each.

This second theatre building closed permanently at the beginning of August 1859. The real tennis court that was fitted up for the theatre is now the site of Oriel College's Harris Building (at the south-west end of Oriel Street). .

On Monday 8 August 1859 the Theatre Royal reopened in the Star Hotel in Cornmarket (later known as the Clarendon Hotel). Edward Hooper, the lessee of the Theatre Royal in Cambridge, announced in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 30 July 1859 that the Assembly Room at the hotel had been “so considerably enlarged as to enable him to form a complete THEATRE, affording accommodation and comfort to a numerous audience with Stalls, Boxes, Pit, and Gallery”, and that it would open on Monday 8 August. The architect was E. G. Bruton. The advertisement below, published in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 1 October 1859 shows a typical programme:

Theatre advert 1 Oct 1859

The Theatre Royal ceased to operate in the Star Hotel in October 1861.

By 1864 Edward Hooper opened the Theatre Royal (again during the Long Vacation only) in Oxford's old Town Hall. He died shortly afterwards, and his widow took over the sole management.

By 1868 the Theatre Royale summer season was held on premises behind George Street that were entered upon from 9 Magdalen Street.

On 9 March 1878 a damning survey by Captain Shaw of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on the “building known as the Victoria Theatre or Theatre Royal” was published in Jackson's Journal.

On 14 November 1885 Jackson’s Oxford Journal advertised a forthcoming auction under the will of the late H. Hatch, Esq. of “the valuable business premises, dwelling house, and theatre, known as No. 9 Magdalen-street, Oxford”, held by lease under Lincoln College. The theatre was described thus:

Also, the well-known “VICTORIA THEATRE” at the Back, approached from Magdalen-street by a long covered way, with additional approaches from Victoria-court and Red Lion-square, with a capacity for seating 700 persons.

(3) Oxford's third New Theatre, 1886–1933: earlier building on present site

Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College decided when Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1882 to 1886 that the Victoria Theatre should be closed and a new theatre built for the performance of plays by professionals, amateurs, and members of the University. Charles Oman, however, in Memories of Victorian Oxford recorded that Jowett “represented all that we disliked: modernism, advertisement, an autocratic pose”, and that

The elder generation particularly disliked his patronage of the theatre – he was the first to introduce the licensed drama into Oxford…. Jowett was a leading patron of the New Theatre in George Street, and sanctioned the formation of undergraduate dramatic societies. This has proved a doubtful boon….

A company was duly formed to raise money for a new theatre to be built which could be used by university and town players as well as by professionals. The site of the present theatre to the east of Gloucester Street (then occupied by The Terrace, a row of timber-framed houses with an ice-house behind) was chosen. Valters’ Directory for 1880 lists the following eight householders and businesses to the east of St George’s Church whose premises were soon to be demolished to make way for the New Theatre:


54: Thomas Munday
55: Thomas Smith
56: Samuel Brooks
57: W. Hosier, baker

58: W. Eldridge, ironmonger & gasfitter
59: H. Poulter, Foreman of the Local Board
60: F. Bates, news agent and tobacconist
61: Mrs Beckley

The theatre was designed by H. G. W. Drinkwater, and the following appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 17 October 1885:

A site for this building having been procured in George-street, at the corner of Victoria-place, the old houses and cottages have been pulled down, and the work is now being rapidly pushed forward. The house is designed to accommodate about 900 people, and is divided into stalls, inner circle, dress circle, and gallery. The principal entrance will be at the angle of the site leading into a vestibule of hexagonal form 22ft. by 14ft., from two sides of which doors lead to the corridor round the dress circle. At either end of this corridor access is gained to the stalls. The gallery entrance is in Victoria-place. A special exit is provided for each part of the house. The auditorium is well proportioned and spacious, having a width of 50ft. and depth of 54ft. from the proscenium, the height from the floor of the stalls to the ceiling being [blank] ft.; it will be lighted by a sun burner, and special arrangements will be made for ventilation. The proscenium opening is 24ft. wide, and the stage has a depth of 33ft. from the footlights. Fireproof construction will be adopted as far as possible, and every precaution against fire will be taken, by having water mains carried up to the top of the building in four different places with hydrants on each floor. The exterior of the building will be of white brick with Bath stone dressings, and is of a plain classic character. The work is being carried out from the design of Mr. H. G. W. Drinkwater, F.R.I.B.A., by Messrs. Wilkins and Sons, of Ensham and Oxford, who have contracted to complete the work by the end of next January.

The New Theatre Royal opened in February 1886. This photograph of 1908 shows that its size and shape was very much like that of the present building.

Jackson's Oxford Journal reported on 14 October 1893 on a new extension:

The directors, having secured a large piece of ground from the Corporation, are now making a considerable addition to the New Theatre by building a suite of dressing rooms, large scene dock, carpenter's shop, stores, and caretaker's house. The new wing will be shut off from the main building by double iron doors. The auditorium has also been considerably improved by adding one of Grundy's warm-air apparatus, by which they hope to make the theatre one of the most comfortable in the provinces. The work is being carried out by Mr. T. H. Kingerlee, under the superintendence of Mr. Drinkwater.

“Mr Grumpy”

“Mr Grumpy” text on back



Left: Advertisement postcard showing Howard Hodges (1865–1951) in a scene from “Grumpy”, performed at the New Theatre in March 1917

This earlier New Theatre of 1886 that stood on the present site was deemed inadequate by the 1930s. It closed on 25 February 1933 and was completely demolished, and the following year the present New Theatre opened on the site.

Wikipedia: New Theatre, Oxford (inaccurate)

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 23 November, 2023

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