Oxford History: George Street


The New Theatre, George Street, Oxford

New Theatre

The present New Theatre in George Street (above) dates from 1934.

The original New Theatre or Victoria Theatre, north of the present site (1836–1886)

The first proper theatre in Oxford had been opened in 1833 in St Mary Hall Lane (now Oriel Street), but three years later in 1836 this was replaced by the Victoria Theatre in Red Lion Yard, at the rear of the present New Theatre (nd nearer Friars Entry to the north than George Street to the south).

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

Map showing Victoria Theatre in 1876

The following notice placed in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 2 July 1836 announced the official opening of this theatre the following Monday:

Opening of New Theatre

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

At first plays were forbidden during university terms, when concerts or music hall entertainments were held instead. 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.

The earlier New Theatre on the present site, 1886–1934

By 1880 the Victoria Theatre was becoming shabby, and Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College (and Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1882, decided that it 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 Reminiscences 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, and the New Theatre Royal opened in February 1886.

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

PIctureOxon: Photograph of the former New Theatre in 1908

“Mr Grumpy”

Left: a scene from “Grumpy” performed at the New Theatre in March 1917 and issued as a postcard.

Below: the description on the back of the postcard

“Mr Grumpy” text on back

Horace Hodges (1865–1951), shown above, was a stage and screen actor who later appeared in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn.

The third New Theatre (1934–present)

In 1933/4 this theatre was rebuilt, and was known simply as the New Theatre.

This name lasted until 1997, when Apollo Leisure took over the lease and renamed it the Apollo. It reverted to the name of the New Theatre in 2003.

Wikipedia: New Theatre, Oxford

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 23 June, 2018

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