Oxford History: George Street

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The New Theatre, George Street, Oxford


The above photograph shows the present New Theatre in George Street at its opening in February 1934. This opening souvenir brochure describes this new building with photographs and drawings, and has links to the two theatres which preceded it.

There were two earlier New Theatre buildings, the first in Red Lion Yard (1836–1886) and the second on the present site (1886–1933).


(1) 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 and 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 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: 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.

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”

(2) The earlier New Theatre, 1886–1933

By 1880 the Victoria Theatre was becoming shabby, and Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College (and Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1882 to 1886), 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 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:

THE NEW THEATRE.
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.

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

THE NEW THEATRE
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.

PIctureOxon: Photograph of the former New Theatre in 1908

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

Left: a scene from “Grumpy”, which was 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


(3) The present New Theatre (since 1934)

In 1933/4 the New Theatre was rebuilt on the same site. It opened on 26 February 1934.

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

Wikipedia: New Theatre, Oxford (inaccurate)

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 6 June, 2021

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