Early Newark Theatres

FIG_1___Milletts_2012_s
Fig.1: Newark’s first purpose-built theatre – now Millets ‘The Outdoor Store’ on Middlegate (Photographed 2013)

A look at venues around the town which have been  used for theatricals in the past.

Today, Newark’s theatrical needs are well provided for by the Palace Theatre on Appletongate, but, in the past, plays have been presented at a number of other locations around the town.

FIG_2___theatre___ground_plan_s

2. Sketch plan of Newark’s Middlegate theatre (date unknown).

Both the Corn Exchange (Castlegate) and the Town Hall (Market Place) have fulfilled the role at one time or another, and, in the early part of this century, Newark’s first cinemas – the Picturedrome on Sherwood Avenue and the Kinema on Baldertongate – often doubled as theatres, presenting short farces or variety acts.

 

What is believed to be Newark’s first true, purpose-built theatre, however, pre-dates all of these by well over a century. It was built in 1773 on Middlegate on the site now occupied by Millets, the Outdoor Store (Fig.1)

Middlegate Theatre

Although no illustrations of the original theatre building are known to exist, we can glean a certain amount of information from the building accounts (preserved in the Nottinghamshire Archives office) and contemporary descriptions.

3. A full evening's entertainment at Newark's Middlegate theatre, December 1825
3. A full evening’s entertainment at Newark’s Middlegate theatre, December 1825

 

We know, for instance, that work on the theatre was begun in November 1772 and that the final cost was £360 3s 2d – a price which included the cost of demolishing the previous building on the site.

A sketch plan of the theatre showing its location between the Duke of Cumberland public house and the butchers’ shambles behind the Town Hall also survives and is shown in Figure 2.

The first recorded play to be performed in the new building was staged in June 1773 when Mr Whitely’s Company of Comedians announced that they would perform six nights at the “new-erected theatre” in Newark on their way to Nottingham races.

Thereafter the building was incorporated (and, indeed, leased to) the Lincoln Circuit Theatre Company which toured theatres in the Lincoln, Boston and Grantham area. They gave an annual season at Newark lasting between six and eight

4. Advert for one of Thomas William Robertson's theatrical presentations at the Middlegate theatre, 1802.

4. Advert for one of Thomas William Robertson’s theatrical presentations at the Middlegate theatre, 1802.

weeks in November and December. At other times the building was let, probably for retail purposes.

Things progressed in this manner until 1803 when the building was subject to major alterations and enlargement.

Upon completion, one of the area’s early newspapers, the Nottingham Journal, commented: “The design and execution of the theatre cannot be too highly spoken of. It is truly elegant and Newark may now boast one of the handsomest Provincial Theatres in the kingdom.” (Fig. 3.)

During its 100-year history the theatre saw appearances by many famous actors and

5. Architect's drawing of the interior of Mr. Turner's proposed theatre in Imperial Buildings opposite Bridge Street, 1895.

5. Architect’s drawing of the interior of Mr. Turner’s proposed theatre in Imperial Buildings opposite Bridge Street, 1895.

personalities. Charles Kean appeared here as indeed did the noted politician, essayist and agriculturalist William Cobbett.  In the second volume of his Rural Rides Cobbett noted that, travelling from Lincoln, he arrived in Newark on the evening of April 23, 1830 and gave a lecture in the theatre to about 300 persons.

In local terms, however, possibly the most noteworthy person to appear at the theatre was the young Thomas William Robertson who went on to become the most celebrated and successful playwrights of late Victorian England.(Fig.4).

6. Design for proposed entrance to Mr. Turner's theatre in Imperial Buildings opposite Bridge Street, 1895.
6. Design for proposed entrance to Mr. Turner’s theatre in Imperial Buildings opposite Bridge Street, 1895.

 

The Lincoln Circuit, under the managership of successive generations of Robertsons, flourished until the late 1830s when, for no obviously apparent reason, attendances at Newark began to fall off.

As late as 1839 the Newark Times newspaper was commenting on the quality of the plays presented to the extent that  “…no one who visits it for the purpose of witnessing the performances can fail, not only to derive a rich fund of amusement and delight, but to leave it both wiser and better than he came”.

In the same article, however, it was noted that “…we are sorry to observe that the patronage which the Theatre has hitherto received has been by no means commensurate with the very great and praiseworthy exertions of the Manager to present entertainments of the most attractive and exceptionable [sic] nature”.

By May 1847 the opinion expressed in the local press was that “the inhabitants of Newark do not seem to have much relish for theatrical performances, as they are carried on to almost empty benches. One night, there were but six in the house, consequently there was no performance.”

In 1850 the theatre was sold at auction and converted into a house and shop with workshops at the rear. The shop eventually passed into the proprietorship of a Mr Welch who ran his ‘celebrated tea-pot grocery store’ there; the back

7. Sketch plan and estimates for proposed Arcade Theatre, 1898.

7. Sketch plan and estimates for proposed Arcade Theatre, 1898.

portions came to be used as a nail-making shop by Howitts.

The theatre building continued in existence until 1884 when it was partially demolished to allow for construction of the covered market (now the Buttermarket) behind the Town Hall. Even so, traces of the theatre may still be identified in the present Millets frontage on MIddlegate. (Fig. 1)

The ground-floor plate glass windows are, of course, modern but the three first-floor windows possibly date from alterations made after the 1850 sale. It has also been suggested that a considerable part of the present structure of the building, with its hipped roof, survives from the rebuilding of 1803, and perhaps even from the original building of 1773.

8. Frederick Atter's proposed Arcade Theatre, 1898. The building would have fronted onto Cartergate: the entrance to the Arcade may be seen on the right of the picture.

8. Frederick Atter’s proposed Arcade Theatre, 1898. The building would have fronted onto Cartergate: the entrance to the Arcade may be seen on the right of the picture.

Following the cessation of performances at Middlegate in 1850, Newark was, once gain, left with no proper theatrical venue.

Although the Town Hall and Corn Exchange occasionally presented plays, or at least stage productions, there was no regular venue where the itinerant companies that toured England could perform.

Newark’s rail link (via the Castle station) had opened in 1846, and in spring 1850 it was reported that “during the last winter the cheap trains to Nottingham have been more largely patronised than ever” as “large sections of the Newark public” were obliged to travel out of town in search of theatrical diversion.

This situation persisted for a number of years after 1850 with Newark almost entirely missing out on the rise in popularity of music hall and the re-emergence of serious contemporary drama that occurred in late Victorian England.

Newark's 'Theatre Royal' on Baldertongate.  Advertisement for a production of Shakespeare's Richard III - from the Newark Advertiser 5th May 1875, p1 c5

Newark’s ‘Theatre Royal’ on Baldertongate. Advertisement for a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III – from the Newark Advertiser 5th May 1875, p1 c5

In the mid 1870s (1875) reference is made to performances at a ‘Theatre Royal’ on Baldertongate (see advert, right), but as yet, no more is known of this.

 

By the 1890s, however, calls were beginning to be made for the establishment of a new permanent theatre in the town.

Imperial Buildings

The first of these schemes, dating from 1895, was put forward by a Mr Turner, an art dealer, who had plans drawn up for converting the upper floors of Imperial Buildings (now Boyes department store) into a combined theatre and concert hall. (Fig. 5)

The plans show that the entrance was to have been opposite Bridge Street (Fig. 6), complementing the grandeur of the Town Hall on the far side of the market place.

Inside, the theatre was to be 114ft long, with a cellar to be used as a public auction room.

This scheme failed to materialise and was soon eclipsed by a much more ambitious plan – to build a theatre across the road in Cartergate.

The Arcade Theatre

This scheme, for which a prospectus was issued in May 1898, was headed by a consortium of local businessmen including Mr Frederick Atter. It was he, together with his brother Charles, who had been responsible a year earlier for opening up and developing The Arcade.

Now, by promoting the construction of a fashionable theatre at the entrance to their development, the Atters hoped to realise their aim of making The Arcade the most exclusive shopping area in Newark. (Fig. 7)

The entrance to the theatre (Fig. 8) was to be to the left of The Arcade (on the site now occupied by a sweet shop on Cartergate) with the auditorium running behind the shops on the south side.

This location, commented the prospectus, could not have been better suited, lying as it did almost directly opposite the town’s main post office (then located at 15 Cartergate which later became Whistler’s Chemist).

Plans for the theatre were drawn up by architects Sheppard & Harrison of 17 Kirkgate, who also supplied detailed specifications for the internal fixtures and fittings.

Having entered through an impressive glazed porch, patrons were to reach the auditorium by a short passage with a box office, and ascending “a spacious and easy staircase.”

The main hall would contain 520 seats with a stage 30ft wide and 16ft deep. Behind the stage there were to be artists’ dressing-rooms, kitchens (for cooking when the theatre was being used for private functions), and a caretaker’s house.

Part of the cellar was to be used for the storage of scenery and props, and the remainder was to be fitted up as a drill hall.

The prospectus promised that the main theatre would be “supplied with the latest design of heating apparatus, and to ensure perfect ventilation and healthfulness the foul air will be carried through two openings in the ceiling assisted by patent air pumps.”

The floor was to be of pitch pine and polished for dancing.

Building costs were calculated at £3,000 and this was to be raised through an issue of 3,000 £1 shares.

The Atter brothers set the ball rolling with a subscription for 200 shares, and the other principal members of the consortium (the maltster William Deeping Warwick, seed and coal merchant W.E. Knight, and Cornelius Brown, editor of the Newark Advertiser) each pledged similar amounts.

With the confidence of many speculative Victorian entrepreneurs, the scheme was laid before the public and shares offered to anyone who wished to be part of what was heralded as a public improvement of no mean order.

Two months after the share issue had been launched, however, only 46 potential investors had come forward, and only 911 of the 3,000 shares had been sold. With such a disappointing response, clearly the scheme could not continue.

Three months earlier, when the prospectus had been released, the consortium confidently claimed that there “will never again be a more favourable opportunity to secure such a building on such an eligible site.”

Indeed, in retrospect, the Arcade Theatre must be classed as one of Newark’s great lost buildings.

 

Revised and expanded from two articles by Tim Warner which first appeared in the Newark Advertiser on 18th June 1993 and 25th June 1995 .  Reproduced by permission.