- A Major London “Minor”: The Surrey Theatre 1805–1865
The history of London theatre from the Restoration well into the nineteenth century is arcane and convoluted. From the issuing of patents in 1660, giving only two theatre managements (initially those of Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant) official sanction to exist, to the Theatres Act of 1843 (in which Parliament effectively eliminated the monopolies), the right to stage legitimate drama—what in effect was a monopoly over the performance of plays and ultimately a restriction on the construction of new theatres—was under government control. Though attention to the various legal restrictions on theatres was frequently lax and sometimes virtually nonexistent, one result of the first major law passed to revise and tighten control, the Stage Licensing Act of 1737, in addition to strengthening government control and censorship of the theatre (which in effect lasted until its repeal in 1967), was the creation of what became known as minor theatres. These operations were meant to compete with the two major theatres royal, Drury Lane and Covent Garden (and, in the summer, the Haymarket), prior to 1843, by offering forms of entertainment outside the direct control of the Lord Chamberlain, the office charged with regulating and enforcing the 1737 Act.
By the mid-Victorian period a sizable number of playhouses scattered around London were successfully offering entertainments ranging from melodramas with musical scores to equestrian dramas, ballet, operas, and pantomimes. Among these were Sadler’s Wells (also known for its aquatic dramas), Astley’s Amphitheatre (the major home of equestrian performances), the Olympic, the Adelphi, the Coburg (better known by its later nickname, the Old Vic), the Strand, and the Standard, among others. Of this group, one of the most successful was the Surrey, which opened in 1782 as the Royal Circus at the southern end of Great Surrey Street (now Blackfriars Road), south of the Thames (and many of the potential customers of the Surrey had to be induced from the North Bank). For much of its history, the Surrey’s major competitors were the Old Vic, the Adelphi, and Astley’s Amphitheatre, three theatrical ventures that have received considerably more attention than has the Surrey. Though called “minor” (a result of their non-patent [End Page 554] status), these theatres were often anything but minor in terms of their success and popularity, especially with working-class and later middle-class patrons.
With William G. Knight’s study of the Surrey, despite its limitations and sparse citation of sources (many archival), this situation has been largely corrected. Knight’s original objective was “to compile a family history for private circulation” (xi), and hence he omits more precise documentation. In the course of investigating his family’s history since 1570, Knight discovered that his great-grandfather, Joseph Kerschner, was manager of the Surrey in the 1840s and his great-grandmother and her mother were in the Surrey’s chorus in the 1830s. As it turned out, this segment of his family’s story and its connection to the Surrey begins in 1805, just after the original theatre building was destroyed by fire, and ends just before fire again devastated the theatre in 1865. In order to place his family members in balanced perspective, Knight found himself writing a history of the Surrey, certainly with some prominent attention to his family members, but also with fair coverage devoted to names better known in the annals of the British stage, such as Joseph Grimaldi, William Charles Macready, T. D. Rice, Madame Vestris, and Andrew Ducrow.
The Surrey Theatre had a confusing history. To begin with, like most of the “minor” houses, it changed its name frequently, from the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy to the Royal Circus and Surrey Theatre, then to the Surrey Theatre, and a few years later, back to the Royal Circus and Surrey Theatre, before returning to the Surrey Theatre once more. For a brief time it was the New Surrey Theatre and, finally, in 1834, it...