The New Theatre, George Street, Oxford
The present New Theatre in George Street dates from 1934.
The first proper theatre in Oxford was opened in 1833 in St Mary Hall Lane (now Oriel Street).
Three years later in 1836 this was replaced by the Victoria Theatre in Red Lion Yard, at the rear of the present theatre. (The alleyway to the east of the theatre is still called Victoria Court). The extract below shows exactly where it was situated, with Red Lion Yard to the west.
The following notice placed in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 2 July 1836 announced the official opening of the theatre the following Monday:
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 ompany was never a ver strong one.
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 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 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.
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.
Site of the New Theatre
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
Above: 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
Hodges (1865–1951) was a stage and screen actor
who appeared in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn