Britannia Theatre

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Template:Infobox Theatre The Britannia Theatre (1841–1900) was located at 115/117 High Street, Hoxton, London.<ref name=Arthur>Britannia Theatre Hoxton (Arthur Lloyd theatre history) accessed 20 December 2006</ref> The theatre was badly damaged by a fire in 1900. The site was reused as a Gaumont cinema from 1913 to 1940, when this too was destroyed. The site is marked by a London Borough of Hackney historic plaque.

A typical night's entertainment would include 3–4 plays, with variety acts in the intervals between. Many Music hall acts would appear during the interval, and sometimes their acts were woven into the performance. The plays varied, from Shakespeare, Victorian melodrama and comedy. During the winter season pantomime was performed.

Unusually for a theatre, food and drink were served in the auditorium, in the style of contemporary Music halls.<ref name=Arthur/>



Samuel Haycraft Lane was born in Lympstone, Devon in 1803. In 1821, he decided to escape the life of a fisherman and walk to London. After living hand to mouth and educating himself, with the help of a friend, William Brian, he encountered a troupe of actors who he had previously met on his journey. He helped the leader of the troupe, Jack Adams, to find premises for performance at the Union Tavern in Shoreditch. This hall catered for 500–seated and a similar number standing. Jack Adam's company performed a successful programme of drama, song, dance and acrobatics. Sam married Jack's daughter Mary, in 1835.<ref name=Crauford>Crauford, Alfred L. Sam and Sallie: A novel of the theatre (London: Cranley and Day, 1933).</ref>

The troupe always had ambitions to perform serious drama, and in 1839, the company performed Othello, breaking the law on theatrical performance, as they were not a Patent theatre. Lane lost his licence and paid a substantial fine.<ref name=making>The Making of the Britannia Theatre Alan D. Craxford and Reg Moore (extracts from Sam and Sallie at a family history website) accessed 21 December 2006</ref> With the increase in London's population, and the increasing popularity of live entertainment, the law was finally changed with the Theatres Act 1843.

In 1840, Lane and his colleagues thought they had identified a loophole whereby performances could be offered without charge, with profits made from the sale of programmes, food and drink. The Britannia Tavern in Hoxton was identified as suitable premises. This was the former Pimlico tea gardens, an Elizabethan tavern and had a large hall attached, holding about 1,000 people.<ref name=Today>Ruling the Britannia Sian Mogridge 10 March 2008 Hackney Today pp 23</ref> The Royal Britannia Saloon and Brittania Tavern was opened on Easter Monday 1841 by Sam Lane. The theatre was a success. Sadly, private life was more difficult, Mary became pregnant, and slipped and fell at a rehearsal, both she and the baby died.<ref name=making/> By 1858 having purchased the leases of surrounding properties, the theatre was rebuilt in larger form, with 3000 seats.<ref name=Crauford/> This building designed by Finch Hill, consisting of two circles, a pit and a gallery and had a reported record attendance of 4,790.<ref name=Today/>

The Britannia was notable for melodramas. These included The String of Pearls (1847), the first stage adaptation of the story of Sweeney Todd, written specifically for this venue by George Dibden Pitt. The theatre had a resident dramatist, C.H. Hazlewood, who wrote many melodramatic spectacles for it, often based on successful novels of the time, including an adaptation of Lady Audley's Secret (1863).<ref name=Arthur/>

Britannia theatre in 1865

Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor to the theatre, and noted in the Commercial Traveller (1865): Template:Cquote right

Sarah Lane

Sam married Sarah Borrow (1822–1899) in 1843. She was the daughter of an old friend, William Borrow, who Lane had appointed to a managerial position in the Britannia. Sarah had begun her own career on the stage, at the age of 17, as a singer and dancer, under the stage name Miss Sarah Wilton. On Lane's death in 1871, Sarah, succeeded him as proprietor and manager, and continued until her own death in August 1899. She appeared regularly as principal boy, in the Britannia's annual pantomimes and in the annual benefit night, appearing in a final tableaux as The Queen of Hoxton. Sarah Lane made her last stage appearance at the Britannia's 1898 Christmas show, aged 76. Sallie was a well-respected and charitable member of the local community. Large crowds lined the route of her funeral procession from the theatre to Kensal Green Cemetery. Her estate was valued at a quarter of a million pounds, a significant sum in 1889.<ref name=Craxford><cite>The Britannia comes to the Craxfords accessed 12 February 2007</ref>

Britannia theatre in 1900

A review of King Doo-Dah, the Christmas pantomime, 1900, at the Britannia Theatre, appeared in the News of the World: Template:Cquote


Lupino family

The Lupinos were a theatrical family who often claimed that their scion arrived in England in 1620, as a penniless refugee. George William Lupino was a puppetter and the family continued to earn a theatrical living becoming associated with the harlequinade at Drury Lane. George Lupino Hook (1820–1902) adopted the stage name Lupino from performing with the family and was associated with the Britannia, performing in leading roles and taking the role of Harlequin in pantomime. A prolific man, reputed to have had 16 children, many became singers, dancers and actors, receiving their first experience in the company. The eldest son, civil registration as George Emanuel Samuel Hook (1853–1932) became both a clown and a prominent actor, amongst his grandchildren was the Hollywood actress Ida Lupino. Lupino Lane was the son of Harry Charles Lupino (1825–1925), a favourite of Sarah Lane<ref name=Craxford/> and pursued a career in films and musical theatre. Lupino Lane originated The Lambeth Walk, in the 1937 musical Me and My Girl'.

End of an era

Soon after the 1900 pantomime, a serious fire damaged the building. The cost of bringing the building up to standard, forced the sale of the lease. It came into the hands of the Gaumont organisation, and became a cinema in 1913. The original theatre was demolished to make way for a modern cinema which was never built because of the war. In 1940 the nearby Toy Theatre [Pollock's Toy Museum], was destroyed in World War II by German bombing but the theatre building had already gone by this time.<ref name=making/>


thumb The Britannia theatre was unique amongst theatres of the time, for a number of reasons. Entry to the entertainment was always cheap, the income was made from sales of food and drink. There was an extraordinary continuity of management, the theatre was in the hands of the same family throughout its lifetime. The theatre also nurtured talent, many of the regular artistes were taken on at an early stage in their careers and remained with the theatre until retirement.<ref name=Crauford/> The theatre prospered with the increasing free time and prosperity of its audience, and declined with the introduction of the cinema and later, radio.

Author and critic Compton Mackenzie summed up the enduring legacy of the Britannia, in Echoes (1954): Template:Cquote

The Britannia Theatre was the subject of a novel called Sam and Sallie: A novel of the theatre (1933) by Alfred L. Crauford. The Crauford's had a long association with the Britannia, and Alfred was one of Sarah Lane's many nephews.

Notable performers

  • Dan Leno actor and comedian
  • Lupino Lane (actor and film director, actually great-nephew of Sarah Lane)
  • Vesta Tilley (male impersonator)
  • Arthur Lloyd (Scottish singer, songwriter, comedian)
  • Joseph Reynolds (actor)
  • George Barnes Bigwood (Resident low comedian, and occasional stage manager)
  • James Anderson, a renowned Shakespearian actor of the time, was engaged at a salary of £180 a week in 1851.




Further reading

  • Crauford, Alfred L. (1933). Sam and Sallie: A novel of the theatre. London: Cranley and Day.
  • Playbills, productions and cast lists Britannia Theatre Hoxton, in the collection of the University of Kent

External links