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Key dates, names and places in London's Theatreland, 1660-2004

17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20-21st Century

The 19th Century


18 th September: The Olympic Theatre (first called The Olympic Pavilion) is opened on Wych Street, Strand. The theatre was built for Philip Astley using timbers from the French warship Ville de Paris.

27 November: The Sans Pareil theatre on Adam Street (later to be the Adelphi) is built by merchant John Scott to showcase the talents of his daughter, an actress who goes on to write and star in most of the first shows performed there.

The Olympic in 1816
The Olympic in 1816
Covent Garden is destroyed by fire and rebuilt the following year in Neoclassical style, designed by Robert Smirke Jr. The re-opened theatre is taken over by John Philip Kemble who tries to increase prices and convert the top tier of the theatre into boxes for higher-paying patrons. He is forced to abandon his plans after rioters prevent any of his productions from being heard in the theatre for sixty-seven nights.
The rebuilt Covent Garden
The rebuilt Covent Garden

11 th May: The Royal Coburg theatre is built in The Cut, Lambeth. The Coburg will later be renamed the Royal Victoria, and survives today as the Old Vic.

Performance at the Royal Coburg in 1822
Performance at the Royal Coburg in 1822

The Sans Pareil theatre is bought by Messrs Jones and Rodwell and renamed the Adelphi, later known as the Theatre Royal, Adelphi. The name, from the Greek word for ‘brothers’, is in honour of the brothers Robert and James Adam, who built the complex of streets adjoining the theatre. The theatre will go on to show dramatisations of most of Charles Dickens’s novels, and later becomes known for its melodramas, the so-called ‘Adelphi Screamers’.


The Haymarket Theatre Royal is rebuilt by John Nash. Much of Nash’s
exterior still stands today.

Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 1821
Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 1821

Designer (and future pantomime writer) James Robinson Planché is taken on by Charles Kemble at Covent Garden to develop costumes and sets for a production of Shakespeare’s King John. His historically authentic designs will establish a trend in production design for Shakespeare plays throughout the century.


The actress and dancer Eliza Vestris becomes the first female manager of a London theatre when she takes over the Olympic. Under her management the theatre becomes known for its sophisticated décor, including box sets.

The Lyceum Theatre is destroyed by fire.

Performance at the Olympic
Performance at the Olympic
Comedian Benjamin Lionel Rayner opens Rayner’s New Subscription Theatre in a converted exhibition hall in the Strand. This will later be known as the Strand Theatre.

The Lyceum Theatre is rebuilt by Samuel Beazley. The façade and portico of this building survive today

14th December: John Braham, a celebrated tenor, opens the St James’s Theatre in King Street, financed from his personal fortune and designed by Samuel Beazley. The theatre opens with two farces and an opera in which Braham performs.
John Braham
John Braham

William Charles Macready, manager of Covent Garden, brings in the first regular use of lime-light on the London stage

W.C. Macready
W.C. Macready

Madame Vestris and her husband Charles Mathews take over the management of Covent Garden, where they form a successful partnership with James Robinson Planché, performing burlesques and pantomimes.

Masque at Covent Gdn
Masque at Covent Gdn

25th March: ‘Miss Kelly’s Theatre’, Dean Street, is opened by Fanny Kelly, who manages the theatre in conjunction with her acting school. It later becomes the Royalty Theatre after a number of name-changes.

The theatre suffers an early setback when elaborate stage machinery causes so much vibration that it is forced to close after only five days.

Fanny Kelly
Fanny Kelly

Actor and playwright Dion Boucicault scores his first great theatrical triumph at Covent Garden with London Assurance, directed by himself and Charles Mathews.


John Mitchell takes over the management of the St James’s Theatre and establishes a Theatre Francaise there, importing stars from Paris. The theatre flourishes, featuring the great French actress Rachel in Racine’s Phedre, as well as shows by P.T. Barnum.

Rachel as Jeanne d'Arc
Rachel as Jeanne d’Arc

The Theatres Act is passed abolishing the patents, following a campaign led by Charles Dickens, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd and others. The Act allows any theatre to perform plays, but places all theatres under control of the Crown and appoints a censor to decide what can and cannot be staged.


Covent Garden theatre closes following a decline in audiences, and reopens as the Royal Italian Opera House.

The Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden:
The Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden:

The Mogul Saloon is built on the site of the Great Mogul Tavern in Drury Lane, which has been associated with glee clubs and singing since the start of the 18 th century. It becomes a popular music hall, with several changes of name. This site will later become the Winter Garden Theatre.


The Mogul Music Hall is renamed The Middlesex Music Hall - though theatre-goers continue to refer to it as ‘the old Mo’.


18th March: The Panopticon of Science and Art, Leicester Square, a failing venue for scientific exhibitions, is taken over by E.T. Smith for ‘entertainments’. Smith renames it the Alhambra Palace and lets it to Howes & Cushing's Grand American Circus.

The Panopticon
The Panopticon

The Theatre Royal, Adelphi, is demolished, rebuilt and re-opens later in the year under the same name.

The Royal Italian Opera House at Covent Garden is rebuilt after another fire, by Sir Edward M. Barry. This theatre still stands today.


The Alhambra Palace is refitted with a stage fifty feet wide and seventy deep, and re-opens in December as the ' Alhambra Palace Music Hall'. It quickly becomes popular, and features the début of the trapeze artist Léotard.


Henry Irving has his first big success in Hunted Down by Dion Boucicault at the St James’s Theatre. Later in the year W. S. Gilbert has his first burlesque produced at the same theatre.

Henry Irving
Henry Irving

28th November: The Globe Theatre is opened on Newcastle Street.

The Strand Musick Hall is rebuilt by C.J. Phipps and reopened on 21 st December as the Gaiety. This theatre will show the first ever Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration , Thespis; or, the Gods Grown Old, in December 1871.


The Polygraphic Hall on King William Street, Charing Cross, is converted into the Charing Cross theatre by Messrs Bradwell and Field. It will later become Toole’s Theatre.


16th April: The Vaudeville Theatre opens on the Strand, designed by C. J. Phipps. It becomes well-known for light comedy and revues.

The new manager of the Alhambra Palace, Frederick Strange, re-opens the venue as a theatre showing light opera and ballet. He engages Georges Jacobi as composer and conductor.

29th October: The Opera Comique is opened on Holywell Street and the Strand. It backs on to the Globe Theatre, and the two become derisively known as The Rickety Twins because of their poor construction.


21st March: The Criterion Theatre, London’s first underground theatre, is built in the basement of the Criterion Restaurant which stands on the site of the 17 th century White Bear inn at Piccadilly Circus. The architect is Thomas Verity.

Detail of frontage: Criterion Theatre
Detail of frontage: Criterion Theatre

Richard D’Oyly Carte, manager of the Royalty Theatre, commissions Trial by Jury by Gilbert and Sullivan as part of a triple bill. The piece is a huge hit, and marks the start of the partnership between the two and their association with D’Oyly Carte.


Henry Irving takes over the management of the Lyceum Theatre. The theatre becomes famous for its association with him and Ellen Terry, which lasts until 1902.

Ellen Terry
Ellen Terry

Lyceum programme
Lyceum programme

15th October: The Comedy Theatre is opened on Panton Street, designed to show comic operas. The architect is Thomas Verity.

Comedian John Lawrence Toole, who has taken over the Charing Cross Theatre in 1897, has the building enlarged and re-opened as Toole’s Theatre.

The Savoy Theatre opens in Savoy Place, Strand, designed by C.J. Phipps. The Savoy is the first theatre to be lit throughout by electricity.


11th March: The Royal Avenue Theatre (later to be called the Playhouse) opens on Northumberland Avenue, designed by F. H. Fowler.

9th December: The Novelty Theatre (later to become the Kingsway after several name-changes) opens on Great Queen Street. Architect: Thomas Verity.

The Criterion Theatre is declared unsafe: the Metropolitan Board of Works declares the underground auditorium a fire risk and it is closed.

The Alhambra Theatre burns down.

The Strand Theatre is reconstructed by C. J. Phipps.

The Playhouse
The Playhouse

Fire at the Alhambra
Fire at the Alhambra

Frederick Strange re-opens the Alhambra with a greater emphasis on ballet, taking on the choreographer Carlo Coppi as Maître de Ballet. The theatre’s new programme of full-length ballets with music-hall acts as light relief proves extremely successful.

The Royalty theatre is reconstructed by Thomas Verity.


18th January: The Prince’s Theatre (later called The Prince of Wales) opens on Coventry Street, designed by C. J. Phipps.

The Criterion re-opens after alterations to improve fire safety. It becomes one of the first theatres to fit electric lights.

C J Phipps's plan for the Prince of Wales theatre
C J Phipps’s plan for the Prince of Wales theatre

The London Pavilion theatre, designed by Saunders and Worley, opens on Piccadilly Circus on the site of the old London Pavilion Music Hall.

The London Pavilion in the 1880s
The London Pavilion in the 1880s


17th October: The actor and comedian Terry Edward O.Connor opens Terry’s Theatre in the Strand, on the site of the old Coal Hole public house and music hall. The theatre is designed by Walter Emden, and opens with a very successful production of Pinero’s ‘Sweet Lavender’.

20th October: The Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, is opened; designed by C. J. Phipps. (This is not the same theatre as the current Shaftesbury, which is on a different site.)

17th December: The Lyric Theatre opens on Shaftesbury Avenue, designed by C J Phipps.


24th April: The Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross, is opened, commissioned by W. S. Gilbert and designed by Walter Emden and C J Phipps.

English production of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ takes place at Kingsway theatre

Emden 's design for the Garrick
Emden ’s design for the Garrick

31st Jan: The Palace Theatre opens on Cambridge Circus. Commissioned and influenced in its design by Richard D’Oyly Carte, it is designed as a home for English grand opera and until 1893 is known as the Royal English Opera House. It later becomes a very successful variety theatre.

13th March: Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ has its British premier at the Royalty Theatre, for a single performance. The producers avoided censorship from the Lord Chamberlain's office by forming a subscription-only Theatre Society, which included Thomas Hardy and Henry James among its first members. Critics are outraged at the play’s themes of incest, syphilis and euthanasia.

The Vaudeville is remodelled by its original architect, C. J. Phipps.

Interior of the Palace theatre
Interior of the Palace theatre

20th February: Oscar Wilde’s first great success, ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, opens at St James’s Theatre.

10th September: The Duke of York’s Theatre opens on St Martin’s Lane (known until 1895 as the Trafalgar Square Theatre). Architect: Walter Emden.

St James's Theatre in the 1890s
St James’s Theatre in the 1890s


Toole’s Theatre demolished for an extension to Charing Cross Hospital.


Her Majesty’s Theatre (first opened in 1705 as The Queen’s Theatre) has its fourth major reconstruction under new manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The architects, C.J. Phipps and Romaine Walker, almost entirely rebuild the theatre; their building still stands today.

Actor-manager William Terris, owner of the Adelphi Theatre, and a friend of Henry Irving, is murdered at the stage door of the theatre just before a performance by a former actor whom he had sacked.

The Alhambra Theatre is extended and a new ‘Grand Entrance’ added

Beerbohm Tree
Beerbohm Tree

16th November: The Wyndham’s Theatre opens on Charing Cross Road, commissioned by actor-manager Sir Charles Wyndham and built by W G R Sprague

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