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  • The Two Names of Newington Butts
  • Laurie Johnson (bio)

Edmond Howes wrote in his additions to John Stowes Annales (1631) that there had been a playhouse “in former time at Newington Buts.”1 But from the time scholars began to unearth the history of the London theaters, the playhouse that once stood a mile south of the Thames has remained an enigma. Edmond Malone did not list it among the theaters in “An Historical Account of the English Stage” (1790), even though he twice cites Howes in support of claims for the existence of other theaters.2 And even in his hastily inserted “Additions”—after he had pored over the papers of Philip Henslowe that had been found in Dulwich College Library—Malone dismisses as irrelevant to Shakespeare scholarship Henslowe’s list of performances by the Lord Admiral’s Men and Lord Chamberlain’s Men at Newington Butts in June 1594.3 In the first book-length study of the Elizabethan theaters, published more than a century after Malone’s “Historical Account,” Thomas Fairman Ordish reckoned on there still being no evidence of the existence of the Newington Butts playhouse but claimed that a case could be made based upon “inference.”4 While much has been done in the past hundred years to add to our stock of knowledge on the existence of this theater, most noticeably by Herbert Berry and William Ingram, many puzzles remain.5 Two questions relating to names, for example, hang over the Newington Butts playhouse: there is no agreement over the origin of the name of the location itself—whence the “Butts” in Newington Butts—and studies of the theater invariably concede that we have no way of knowing the name of the playhouse itself. Answers to both questions are to be found in the [End Page 192] public record: in the case of the origin of “Butts,” I will consider a Privy Council document that is readily available in the Acts but that seems to have passed unnoticed to date; regarding the name of the playhouse, I will point to where the answer has been hiding in plain sight in a lease document that has been cited by a number of scholars since Ingram brought it to light in his 1970 essay “The Playhouse at Newington Butts: A New Proposal.”6

The name “Newington Butts” refers to the area in which the road from Newington to Clapham (later designated as Newington Street and the Newington Causeway) once met the road from Camberwell to London (later, Walworth Road), creating a triangular junction. For a long time, it was presumed that the name of the area originated with the presence of archery butts in land adjacent to the junction. Daniel Lysons writes in his account of the Newington Butts area in 1792 that there “is little doubt” of this, but then his evidence consists of claims that archery was previously permitted in several fields around London based on patents by James I and Charles I, “by which those monarchs ordained that the butts, which had been destroyed in consequence of the inclosures, should be restored as they were in the reign of Henry VIII.” He adds a long footnote on an archery match Henry VIII put on at Windsor, featuring some three thousand London archers, but there is no reference to Newington in the information provided.7 Lacking any direct evidence, some scholars reject the archery explanation outright. Ida Darlington proposed instead that the word “butts” could refer to the irregular end of the triangular piece of land created by the juncture of the two roads, claiming that “a study of the very voluminous records relating to Newington has revealed no reference to the existence of archery butts there.”8

In many respects, Darlington’s work has been pivotal in renewing the acquaintance of modern scholarship with the historical presence of a theater at Newington Butts, but scholars who echo her claim that there is no mention of archery at Newington are at risk of taking her too literally at her word that she studied all of the records relating to Newington. One gap in Darlington’s study is the...


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