The ‘New Theatre’
The citizens of eighteenth and nineteenth century Belfast were keen theatre and concert goers. The town boasted numerous places of amusements, such as The Vaults, The Millgate, The Music Hall, The Shakespeare and the New Hamonic Saloon. The variety of entertainment on offer was immense.
In 1793 another venue was added to the list of attractions for the Belfast populace. This was the ‘New Theatre’ on Arthur Street in the town centre. The building was placed on the site of a boathouse which had belonged to Lord Donegall, at the corner of Arthur Street and Castle Lane. During the construction an old roadway was uncovered which, it is believed, led to Belfast’s seventeenth castle, home of the Chichesters.
The New Theatre
The New Theatre was Belfast’s largest theatre or concert hall at the time, with a capacity for 1,100. It was built for Mr Michael Atkins, who had a long history of involvement in the Belfast entertainment industry. The land was leased from Mr John Holmes and Mr John Ewing at an annual rent of £66. The rental agreement also stipulates ‘four passes and tickets to the play shall be given to the land-lords on every night of entertainment’. The New Theatre opened its doors on Monday 25th February 1793 ‘with a favourite play and a farce’.
“Mr Atkins, with the utmost respect and gratitude, begs to inform the ladies and gentlemen of Belfast and its vicinity that the Theatre in Arthur Square will be open in the course of a few days. He flatters himself that, from his unwearied attention, he secured such a company as he humbly hopes will give general satisfaction”Northern Star 6th February 1793
The play-house provided for a range of clientele with light-hearted plays and Shakespearean tragedies as well as concerts. Well known performers such as Lee Lewes from Covent Garden, Edmund Keane and the young sensation from Newry, Little Miss Mudie all graced the stage here. While the famous Mrs Siddons gave her first Belfast performance at the Theatre.
Michael Atkins started his career as a singer and an actor, following in the footsteps of his father. In the 1760’s he is performing in various locations throughout Ireland including Belfast, Dublin and Newry.
In 1772 while lodging in Hercules Lane, he composed the music for a comic opera. He is also recorded as ‘a serious actor, harlequin, singer and dancer, a complete ‘all-rounder’.
However, by the 1780’s Atkins was the manager of the Mill Gate Theatre near Chapel Lane and then the Rosemary Lane Theatre. He assembled a strong company of actors including Anne Brunton from Dublin and Mr and Mrs Freeman from York. Structural defects with the Rosemary Lane property however, led him to establishing the theatre in Arthur Street.
“…a fair summing up of Michael Atkin’s career would be ‘when one door closes another one opens’. The New Theatre, which opened in 1793 and eventually became the Theatre Royal, was his fifth venue in an illustrious career”Jim McDowell, Beyond the Footlights, 2007
On 4th October 1771 Michael Atkins married Catherine Hutton in the Old Church in High Street. She was the daughter of jeweller but subsequently tried ‘her hand’ at acting, performing in Belfast, Cork and Derry. The couple had two girls and a boy. The children all appeared from time to time in the theatre company.
Michael Atkins retired in 1806 after more than 30 years in the ‘business’. The Atkins moved into rented accommodation above McKee’s sweet shop in Ann Street. Michael died on 15th April 1812 he is buried in the New Burying Ground in Clifton Street. The inscription reads:
‘Having strutted his hour upon the stage, he has finished the last scene in the Drama of Life’Michael Atkins Headstone
The New Theatre Changes Hands
In 1806 the theatre was sold to Thomas Ludford Bellamy and in 1809 to a Mr Talbot, who also had theatrical premises in Newry and Derry. The opening night, 27th January 1809, featured both a tragedy ‘Popular’ and a farce ‘Raising the Wind ’
In 1835 the business was bought by Mr Burroughs, who had formerly been an actor himself. The building was enlarged and new drop curtains installed as well as a gas-lit chandelier. Mr Burroughs had private boxes fitted and repainted the circle with colourful representations.
He provided a great assortment of amusements with a more ‘music hall’ feel. Some of these acts included singing star Miss Carr and comedian Mr Power and even a troupe of Bedouin Arabs! For some performances the audience were encouraged to come in fancy dress.
Subsequently, the Theatre changed owners rapidly and barely survived the next years as Belfast suffered through the Famine and a cholera outbreak.
“Business confidence was totally destroyed during and after the cholera epidemic of 1849, and the only thing that saved the Theatre in this and later periods was that it was leased to successive managers. Thus their various bankruptcies did not jeopardise the premises”Stewart McFetridge, Overture and Beginners Please
The Theatre Royal
In the early 1850’s the theatre became the Theatre Royal. This may have been a reaction to popular royalist sentiment after the visit of the English Queen Victoria to Belfast in 1849.
In 1863 the Theatre Royal was taken over by Yorkshire man Joseph F Warden. His opening night on 26th January 1863, was headlined by a new type of act – Prestidigitation by Professor Anderson ‘Son of the Great Wizard of the North’ The show featuring ‘gorgeous psychomanteum’ and the mysteries of second sight!
It is also interesting to note that in November 1866, Paganini, the famous Italian violinist, played at the Theatre Royal for Belfast audiences.
“Following a distinguished acting career and an extended managerial apprenticeship of several years, J F Warden ultimately became the lessee and under his direction the old theatre attained dramatic rank with many of the first theatres of the day”Stewart McFetridge, Overtures and Beginners Please
Joseph Francis Warden
Joseph Frederick Warden was born in 1836 in the port city of Hull in England. He began his stage career at the age of 18, appearing at Scarborough. The following years were spent touring and it was while he was in Edinburgh that he met and married Miss Jenny Bellairs.
Jenny, who was born in Norfolk, was the lead singer with a troupe called The Singing Chambermaids. She was also an accomplished comedienne. The couple continued travelling and spent a lot of time in Dublin before arriving in Belfast.
Even as manager of the Theatre Royal, the Wardens continuing performing on the theatre circuit. Joseph Warden was responsible for commissioning the Opera House in Derry and the Grand Opera House in Belfast.
Jenny and Joseph had two sons Frederick William and John Albert and one daughter Rose Kathleen. Joseph Warden died on 9th March 1898, aged 61, at his home Shakespeare House on Adelaide Park. Jenny passed away on 30th October 1912 aged 75, leaving an estate of £17, 202
The New Theatre Royal
After a few years of ownership, Warden decided to replace the existing building and in March 1871 he had the premises demolished to make way for an improved theatre.
The new theatre was almost twice the size and extended over the area previously occupied by the Shakespeare Hotel. The architect was 31-year-old Charles Sherry of Belfast. Unfortunately, Sherry was killed in an accident on the Holywood to Belfast Road on 9th April 1871 and never saw the project completed.
The theatre re-opened on 25th September 1871 with Douglas Jarrold’s five-act comedy ‘Time Works Wonders’. The front of the theatre was 107ft wide and its four storeys rose to a height of 80ft. It was constructed from Aberdeen, Cookstown, Whitehaven and Portland stone and embellished with sculptures from Shakespearean dramas. The following year the Dublin firm of James Dobson were responsible for the complete redecoration of the interior.
Theatre Royal Success & Disaster
The new Theatre Royal was great success, and the 2,200 auditorium was normally packed. Prices ranged from 6d for the gallery to 40 shillings for private boxes. A measure of its popularity was that the railways ran special trains to Holywood and Bangor at 11:15pm to leave theatre-goers home after the last performances.
However, disaster struck early on the morning of Wednesday 8th June 1881, when fire broke out at the theatre. All eight of Belfast’s manual fire engines attended the scene. When the steamer arrived jets of water were directed on the walls to try to prevent the fire spreading to neighbouring buildings. At about 10:00am soldiers from Victoria Barracks were drafted in to help fight the blaze.
The Theatre Royal was left a blackened shell. Adjacent premises were also damaged and stock destroyed. Many of these businesses were uninsured.
To help compensate the unemployed actors, a benefit was held in the Alhambra in North Street on 16th June 1881. The Working Mens Institute also held a charity concert to raise funds to replace the musical instruments lost in the blaze.
The Theatre Royal Rebuilt
With remarkable determination, Joseph Warden had the theatre rebuilt and amazingly it reopened on 22nd December 1881. The building was designed by C J Phipps and the work carried out by H & J Martin of the Ormeau Road at a cost of £16,000. A large water tank was installed at the top of the building to deal with any further fire outbreaks. The new venue had entrances on both Arthur Square and Castle Lane. Running along the front was an iron and glass porch constructed by Messrs George Smith & Co of Glasgow.
“Along the whole façade in Arthur-square a covered veranda or porch has been erected of iron and glass; so that the audience waiting for the opening of the doors will be protected when the weather is wet, and those coming in carriages will not have to cross a damp pavement previous to entering the theatre”The Era 1881
The interior of the theatre was described as ‘one of the most elegant, commodious, and substantial structures in the Three Kingdoms’. The floors of the vestibule were inlaid with marble mosaics from Venice. The ceilings were decorated with gilded cornices and richly painted in an Italian Renaissance style. The specially designed and manufactured wallpaper was in tones of deep red. Private boxes had fluted Corinthian columns and turquoise embroidered silk tapestry hangings. The decoration was overseen by the firm of Mr E Bell.
The new enterprise also boasted fire-proof stage curtains, specially patented armchairs with ‘lift-up’ seats, a refreshment saloon and cloakrooms and separate doorways so “…there will be no confusion or mingling of the audience to the two parts of the house” (The Era, 1881)
The Theatre Royal Re-Opens
The first night featured Lord Lytton’s comic play ‘Money’. Mr Barry Sullivan, a Belfast favourite, agreed to leave semi-retirement to star. Barry, the son of Irish parents had a distinguished career in England, Australia and America.
The new Theatre Royal was a prestigious and popular establishment. So much so that on Monday 3rd December 1894 regulations were introduced to ease traffic congestion in the Square.
‘Carriages shall not leave the line until called for, and having taken up passengers shall, without delay, depart by Corn market, Ann Street or William Street South. Carriages will not be permitted to leave by Arthur Street or Castle Lane and will be called forward by number and not by name. Tickets for this purpose supplied by police’
The Theatre Royal‘s reputation enticed many of the top artistes of the day to the town of Belfast. Lillie Langtry (1885), Arthur Lloyd (1893), Madam Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs Patrick Campbell (1905) and even Anna Pavlova and the Imperial Russian Ballet  all appeared.
End of an Era
However, a new form of entertainment was replacing the traditional stage shows – cinematography.
In 1915 the Theatre Royal was razed to the ground. The last performance on Wednesday 10th March, a Grand Complimentary Benefit, was packed to over-flowing.
“Operations have been commenced with the demolition of the Theatre Royal, the site of which is to be utilised for the erection of a picture house on a large scale”Building News August 1915
The Royal Cinema
The Royal Cinema opened on 16th December 1916. Its first showing was ‘The Misleading Lady’, a silent movie starring Henry B Walthall, Edna Mayo and Sidney Ainsworth.
The movie house lasted for 45 years and finally closed in 1961.
The Theatre Royal Site Today
Today the site is occupied by a Starbucks coffee shop. The theatrical glamour of the Theatre Royal is long forgotten.
For those interested in Belfast’s Music Halls and Theatres we would recommend this book:
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