The Story of a Theatre

This is reprinted from a booklet published with pictures along with the Ghosts article by the TRM volunteer staff and Friends group in the late 90's and early 00's to answer patrons questions about the Theatre Royal Margate's history. It was designed and produced on behalf of the TRM, by Veronica Cox & David Rankin, to help raise funds for ongoing renovation and improvement work to the theatre.


The Theatre Royal Margate, being a Georgian theatre is the second oldest in the United Kingdom and proudly boasts that it has the oldest stage, a record it took from a theatre in Bristol due to their stage being destroyed when they re-built the back stage area. This history gives the general story of the theatre from its beginnings up until the early 2000's.

The Early Years
1780's –1799

During the reign of King George Ill, Francis Cobb was a very influential Margate businessman; he was the landlord of the 'Fountain Inn', Kings Street, Margate as well as the head of Cobbs Brewery. Situated at the rear of the Fountain Inn was a stable that was being used as a theatre. This was rented to a retired Sea Captain called Charles Mate who already had control of a theatre in Dover. The cost of rent was £20 per year. Charles Mate decided to invest £200 and opened a new theatre on this site. A passage written around this time gives a good description of the atmosphere of the theatre:

"Notwithstanding the neighing of horses and yelping of dogs in the stable, over which the stage was built, the place overflowed with the best company. But the most remarkable part of the business was that the performers came to the front of the house in the public street in their tragic and comic robes with powdered heads and painted faces til they had a sufficient number of auditors to pay their nights expenses. It was like the circus procession of later times."

Sarah Baker, a woman from a theatrical background, was England's first woman theatre manager, she had brought her Company to Dover and in 1785 she approached Mr. Cobb and sought of him permission to open a theatre in Margate. Mr. Cobb however refused her request. Sarah was intent on having a theatre in Margate and subsequently in just over a month she had a wooden theatre erected at a cost of £500. Sarah opened for her summer season in July, the same month that Mr. Charles Mate opened his season. After three months, Mate found the competition too strong. Having lost interest and money in his theatrical venture in Margate he returned to his theatre in Dover.
Mr. Cobb was not best pleased with Sarah Baker. Local townsfolk, under the influence of Cobb, sent a petition with over 900 signatures to parliament, requesting a Royal Charter. The 'Margate Playhouse Bill' was introduced and the Royal Charter was awarded, the licensee would have the power to send Mrs. Baker back to Dover and prevent other rival Companies from invading Margate. The licensee would be permitted to give dramatic performances there from 1st May to October 31st every year and permitted to sell alcoholic drinks for 24 hours daily. The permit remained valid for one hundred and twenty five years! Good news indeed for Cobbs Brewery.

Charles Mate decided that he wanted to try again in Margate, so he formed a partnership with Mr. Thomas Robson, a singer from Covent Gardens, London. Charles Mate’s former Margate theatre was re-opened and renamed the 'Theatre Royal'. Both these men had ambitious plans to succeed in Margate and towards the end of 1786, their co-owned 'Theatre Royal' was closed and preparations were made for the building of a new theatre. The new site of the proposed theatre was to be on the East side of Hawley Square at the junction of Prince's Street, (now known as Addington Street). The land belonged to an estate and was purchased for the princely sum of £80. The cost of the theatre was approximately £4000. The 'flies' above the stage were built from ship timbers. Whether or not they are from Charles Mate's ship is not known. The first stone was set down on the 21st September 1786 and the following inscription was on it, "This is the first stone of the Theatre Royal laid in due form and attended by the brethren of Thanet Lodge, by the proprietors, Thomas Robson and Chas. Mate, on the 21st of September, 1786, on the reign of Geo.III"

Thomas Robson built for himself a dwelling on the west side of the theatre (some of the interior is still visible today) with the parlour being used as a box office and treasury.
On June 27th 1787, amid much ceremony, the Theatre Royal was opened. The first performances were "She Stoops to Conquer" and "All the Worlds a Stage" in which Charles Mate played the part of 'Diggory' - a character who paradoxically fancied himself as an actor! As of Mrs. Baker, her theatre building was carefully taken apart, transported by sea to Faversham, re-built and became part of the Canterbury Circuit.

Year: 1789
On the 15 of August, part of the theatre caught fire. The Kentish Gazette reported that it was quickly extinguished, but, in the panic that ensued, one of the actresses, Mrs. Twiddy, jumped from the stage and badly damaged her foot. This was the only recorded fire incident in the theatre's history.

Year: 1790
It is said that Thomas Robson and Charles Mate did not work effectively together since the creation of their partnership. Robson decided to sell his share of the Theatre Royal to a London actor by the name of Thomas King. Soon after this transfer of ownership, Mate sold his share of the theatre to one of the owners of Drury Lane, London for £2,200.

Year: 1792
A Mr. Wilmot Wells was instated as theatre manager, and was during this time he acquired a business share of the theatre. Soon other theatre shares were sold, which resulted in a total of 16 persons having a shared interest in the theatres.

Year: 1798
Mr. Samuel Russell, an actor, and shareholder in the theatre, became manager. Fellow theatre shareholders questioned his ability and Mr. Robert Copeland replaced him. Around this time, the actors and actresses endured very stressful conditions, as can be seen by the following narrative:

"The wardrobe is barely passable and the dressing room so distant from the stage as to occasion much delay between the acts and pieces, especially when change of dress is requisite. There is now an attempt to rectify this error in a corner of the stage about six to eight feet square but being a thoroughfare for players, scene shifters etc., its utility is rendered ineffectual. The scenery is excellent "

Year: 1799
Although there was no other theatre permitted in Margate at this time, another venue was becoming a very fashionable place for the gentry to take tea or coffee, to gamble or play Billiards. This venue was Bensons Assembly Rooms, attached to the Royal Hotel in Cecil Square. The Assembly Rooms had a Grand Ballroom measuring 90 feet by 40 feet, where concerts and Masquerade Balls were held, mainly during the months from May to September, which was also the Theatre Royal's season. To help fight off the competition, Samuel Russell, who was still manager at this time, decided that on certain nights the theatre would stage a Ball - similar to those at the Assembly Rooms - to attract those who were denied entry to the Assembly Rooms due to admission tickets being unavailable. Russell took the seats out of the auditorium so that the floor could be raised to the height of the stage. The entry fee was five shillings for dancers, two shillings and sixpence for spectators and one shilling and sixpence for those watching from the upper circle.

The Dark Years
1800 -1854

At the turn of the 19th century the Napoleonic wars in Europe began to have their effect on the Theatre Royal.

Year: 1803
The theatre was used as an auxiliary barracks for the military but re-opened the next season. On the conclusion of that season, Mr. Wilmot Wells had returned and was once again owner/manager of the theatre.

Year: 1805
Mr. Charles Diddler, another actor took over as temporary manager for the season until Wells resumed the management of the theatre, but audiences, and, with them, profits, were falling. At this time there was a famous actor who had taken London by storm. His rise to fame had been astounding and people in London's Covent Garden had even fought over seats to see him perform. His name was 'Master Betty'. Wilmot Wells decided to acquire his services for the Theatre Royal in an attempt to improve business. However, by the time Wells had secured him, he was past his prime and business remained slow.

Year: 1808
There was not a theatrical company in residence at the theatre.

Year: 1809
The theatre was quiet apart from the occasional charity production, such as those that were staged in support of the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital.

Year: 1810
A husband and wife team (the Saville-Faucits) took over the management of the theatre.

Year: 1811
Robert Copeland returned and managed the theatre until ill health ended his days as theatre manager. Copeland died in 1816.

Year: 1814
A gentleman by the name of Betterton became theatre manager.

Year: 1820
The Saville-Faucits became theatre proprietors and remained in this capacity until they parted company in 1825. She left with his surname and it appears that he took hers.
In the early 1820's, the theatre was busy with the advent of a succession of child actresses. The first, Clara Fisher, played Richard the III in the last act of Shakespeare's play, for two seasons, at the young age of just eleven. Many others succeeded her, including: Fanny Ternan, Mary Anne Heron and Jean Davenport. Nevertheless, this success for the theatre was to be short lived.
In 1829, 'Tivoli Gardens' was opened. The gardens included a large park with a concert hall, bowling green, archery ground, refreshment rooms, shady arbours, pleasant walks and a lake. Tivoli Gardens was so well patronised that the Assembly Rooms closed six years later - the proprietor became bankrupt. The Theatre Royal had a new competitor.

Year 1840
Saville was forced out of business due to the poor management of his employees and dwindling audiences.

Year: 1841
The theatre was used as a chapel, principally because no one would take it over.

Year: 1842
Mr. J.D. Robson, owner of the Royal Hotel, became a tenant and the theatre was re-designed and decorated. On the 23rd of July of that year, the theatre opened for business, with Master Betty's son, Henry Betty, in a play by Thomas Noon Talfourd (a close companion of the author Charles Dickens), entitled "The Athenian Captive". At the end of the 1842 season, Robson took his players to Sandwich. He returned with his players to Margate on Boxing Day and that evening, they staged the first pantomime at the Royal. Under the terms of the Royal charter of 1786, the theatre was not permitted to be open during the winter months from November to April. Robson had obviously flouted this rule and, as a consequence, ended his time as a manager.

Year: 1843
An Act of Parliament took away the privileges given to those holding a Royal Patent. The theatre lost its monopoly and was forced to compete, but it could now open all year round.
Robson, who had retreated to Canterbury, reinstated himself at the Royal to make preparations for the 1843 season. He lasted four weeks, probably due to the lack of custom, He returned to his hotel and the theatre was closed.

Year: 1845
The theatre remained closed until August, when it was re-opened by James Coombs. The theatre was initially packed with audiences keen to see plays such as "Pizarro" and "Jonathon Bradford", but by the end of that season the audiences had again reduced in number until one night, the 26th October, two actors did not appear and the scheduled play "Othello" could not be staged. Mr. Coombes tried to calm the audience and informed them that they would perform "The Review" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor". The former was performed; the latter was not, for, amid the jeers from a very disgruntled audience, Mr. Coombes had vanished along with the takings!
Miss Joyner, an actress, reopened the theatre. She assigned her leading man, Thomas Tyrell, as stage manager, but players found him to be a tyrant. Consequently the players rebelled and Tyrell left the theatre.

Year: 1846
In July of this year, the new manager of the Royal, Mr.T.S.Downton, promised audiences that things would change for the better.

Year: 1849
 By the summer, with mounting debts, Downton was forced to leave. Mr. Charles William Gill and his players took over the theatre but his reign lasted for only several days and again the theatre was closed.

Year: 1850
 Mr. Edwin Holmes, a playhouse owner, took over a lease of the theatre for two seasons, but he offered no new material for his patrons, subsequently lost money and left the theatre.

Year: 1853
Actor Edmund Saville (son of Saville the former theatre manager) became the licensee and was able to keep the theatre open all year. Unfortunately he failed to make any money from this venture.

The Thorne Dynasty
1855 - 1918

At the age of 42 years, Mr. Richard Thorne filled the position of theatre manager in 1855, and one of his first tasks was to redecorate the theatre. Richard came from a family connected with theatre management and acting.
A rather effeminate man, by all accounts, with a passion for gambling, he was known as 'Gentleman Dick'. The theatre now had a resident company. Richard’s eldest daughter, Sarah, at a mere 18 years of age, made her acting debut at the Theatre Royal Margate on 6th August of that year, as 'Pauline' in Lord Lytton’s verse drama. The audience loved her. Business at the Royal was set to improve.

Year 1858
Sarah soon became famous for her lectures, with the first one taking place on 20th October.
During this same year Sarah, whilst in Belfast, was romantically involved with a Scot, Thomas McKnight. They never married but Sarah called herself Mrs. McKnight. They had two children, Edmund & Elizabeth. However, the relationship failed and it is widely believed that this was due, in part, to Sarah's desire to pursue her theatrical career. Sarah returned to Margate with her two illegitimate children around 1867.

Year: 1859
Richard Thorne and his enormous family - six boys and four girls - made Margate their permanent home. The theatre prospered.

Year: 1861
Richard Thorne retires and Sarah Thorne became manager. She set about lovingly restoring the theatre and ensured the inclusion of cushioned seats for the audience for the first time in the history of the theatre.
Sarah's first acting role whilst as a manager was "Meg" in H.T. Craven’s play 'Meg's

 Diversion'. This was then followed by her famous address to the audience, in which she describes herself as "the captain of a ship that has just left the harbour and was spreading her sail in the breeze". The rent for the theatre was £135, 4 shillings, 0d. per year, which included a shop and the house in which Sarah resided when at Margate.

Year: 1874
The theatre was sold at auction to Mr. Robert Fort, a London Caterer, who invested £10,000 adding the front entrance, which now houses the Box Office, and bar. A coffee bar was also added in the Dress Circle. The auditorium was lengthened to 65 feet and the stage depth to 25 feet. The re-modelled theatre opened its doors to the public on the 10th of July, and looked very much as it does today.
The theatre was now constructed somewhat on the pattern of the old London Vaudeville Theatre. The Architect was J.T. Robinson, also designer of the 'Old Vic' and father in law to Frank Matcham.
Keble's Margate and Ramsgate Gazette described the theatre as: "One of the prettiest theatres we have ever seen. "
An issue of the Birmingham Daily Gazette dated 24th July read: "The lisping wag who conjectured the Isle of Thanet was so called because its air was 'tho thanitory' had at least reasonable grounds for hazarding the opinion. How thousands of our hard-working citizens would get through the toil of the year without their annual refresher at Margate it would be difficult to imagine "
Sarah found herself having to work with Mrs. Fort, who was also an actress. It was a difficult relationship and, as a result, Sarah left after having arranged to take the theatre from Fort for a short time prior to taking her company on tour. However, Fort's investment did not succeed in attracting new patrons to the theatre and the audience numbers dropped. Fort decided to lease the theatre to Mr. H.E. Davis, but he too could not succeed in tempting new patrons and after three months Davis left. The new leaseholder, Mr. Edward Price, renamed the Royal as the 'New Theatre and Opera House'.

Year: 1876
Edward Price left the theatre and took the theatre name with him. The theatre returned to its old name 'Theatre Royal'.
Mr. Frank Musgrove became the new leaseholder.

Year: 1877
The lease expired and the theatre returned to Robert Fort, who had to resume management because he could not find a tenant.

Year: 1878
The theatre was rented to Actor / Manager William Sidney. The last two weeks of the season saw the return of Sarah Thorne, and so too, did her beloved audience. So at the age of 40 years old, and without the hindrance of the formidable Mrs. Fort, Sarah took charge of her 'ship' and was once again at the helm.

Year: 1879
Under Sarah's management the theatre was flourishing. Sarah lived at 5 Hawley Square and began a School of Acting. However, this became such a success that she soon required larger premises in which to teach her 'pupes' as they became known. Street directories for the year 1885 show that 5 Hawley Square was unoccupied, and Sarah's name appears at number 38 'The Towers' Hawley Square.

Year: 1895
The Sarah Thorne Theatre Company was very successful and she secured a seven-year lease on the 'Opera House' situated in Chatham as well as a second home in this town.

Year: 1899
Sarah was dedicated to her work and her beloved theatres, including the Opera House, Chatham and continued to work despite pleas from her friends to rest when suffering with ill health. At the age of 62 years, Sarah died in Chatham on 27th February 1899. She had contracted influenza and never recovered.
After the death of Sarah, her son Edmund took over her estate and managed the Theatre Royal until 1918, when it is said that he lived a leisurely life for forty years until his death.
The Forts found a new tenant, Edward Michael, who held the lease for approximately six years. Prices were reduced to compete with the Hippodrome Theatre and 'radiators' were installed. Business spiralled into decline with the advent of 'Cinema'.

Year: 1914
The theatre closed to regular performances with only the occasional production being shown.
Identity Crisis
1915 - 1999

On September 1915 the theatre was closed to all types of performances.
The theatre was purchased by 'Bobby & Co.' Department Store and was used as a warehouse for a short time until it again became unused during the 1920's.

Year: 1930
Under the ownership of Mr. Samuel Wenter, a furniture dealer, the Theatre Royal was reopened to the public as a theatre on the 23rd of June. The opening performance was a play called "Murder on the Second Floor". Wenter then leased the theatre to Julian Bainbridge, where-upon it was used as a cinema to compete against a new Super Cinema that had formally been the Hippodrome Theatre. Bainbridge lost money and returned the theatre to Wenter.
A new activity was now to be found at the Royal, all-in wrestling.

Year: 1934
Once more the Royal returned to being a theatre. Casper Middleton and Pat Nye became joint managers, with Pat eventually becoming sole manager.

Year: 1937
The theatre was closed on the 4th September after a performance of a play entitled "Night Must Fall", which, under the circumstances, was quite befitting.

Year: 1939
New managers Peter Kelly and Thomasina Crosse take over, but, due to the advent of the Second World War, the theatre was closed for the duration of the conflict.

Year: 1948
The co-owners of the Royal, Richard Cross and Robert Butler re-opened the theatre and received a telegram wishing them success from King George VI. However, the newly re-opened Hippodrome Theatre was more popular and again the Royal could not compete.

Year: 1950
Mr. L. Steinberg purchased the Royal for his son Sidney who managed the theatre for three years.

Year: 1954
Mr. J. Baxter-Somerville acquired the Royal. He already had control of the Theatre Royal at Brighton and later he acquired the 'Lyric', Hammersmith, 'Queens' at Poplar and the 'Pavilion' at Torbay. A successful programme of repertory was established which lead to the formation of a Supporters Club with over 200 members. This, in turn, set up the original Margate Theatre Trust (NOTE: NOT ROYAL) who operated the theatre for Baxter-Somerville with moderate success until Television took hold.

Year: 1961
The 'Margate Theatre Trust', who were paying £800 per year rent, offered to buy the Royal for £5,500 from the Bank. It was refused!

Year: 1962
Sally Miles and Gerald Frow leased the Theatre Royal to form the ‘Margate Stage Company'. Unfortunately the serious plays closed the Royal in less than a year.

Year: 1964
Following the death of Baxter-Somerville, the Theatre Royal was sold to Mr. D.P. Chaudhuri for £8,000. The Daily Telegraph reported that 'Charlie Chaplin' appeared at the Royal in January 1964. He was 75 years old. However, it did not report why he was there or in what capacity.

Year: 1965
The sudden death of Mr. Chaudhuri brought about the full closure of the Theatre Royal, although it was saved from demolition by both becoming a Bingo Hall and being granted a listed building order. It had several owners including Tam McKenner who was responsible for considerable preservation work. During this period the theatre was upgraded to its current important listing of GRADE 2*.

Year: 1975
The December issue of the 'Stage' reported that Mr. Harry Jacobs had acquired the lease from the executors of the late Mr. Chaudhuri and that the theatre would continue to be used as a Bingo Hall.'"

Year: 1987
The Bingo Hall closed due to competition but it was vandalised when fire hoses were turned on and caused serious flooding. The Theatre did not sell at public auctions on two occasions.

Year: 1988
Mr. J Jackley headed a company who purchased the theatre for £ 100,000, re-opened it and staged several productions with 'Named Artists'. Despite good intentions, debts mounted and the theatre was forced to close again.

Year: 1992
With the support of the Theatres Trust and its Director, John Earl, plus the Equity Trust Fund, Kent County Council and Thanet District Council, the Margate Theatre Royal Trust and a local endowment fund 'The Castle Trust' bought the theatre from the previous owner. The task of obtaining the required licence to re-open the theatre fell to the 'Margate Theatre Royal Trust'.

Year: 1993
A 'Friends' group was formed and the Theatre Royal operated again, under a special club licence until funds could be arranged for the Trust to obtain a full entertainment licence.

Year: 2002
The Charity Commission disbanded the Castle Trust due to misadministration in 2002 and handed full ownership to the Theatre Royal Trust.

The Theatre Royal is again thriving under the watchful eyes of the Theatre Royal Trust and its current General Manager who now runs second to Sarah Thorne's 30 years of management. A mixed programme of professional and amateur productions is now staged all year round. There is a dedicated team of paid and unpaid staff who, alongside everyone else, are determined to restore this unique and historic theatre to its full glory. 

1 comment:

Lesley Cookman said...

Fascinating, thank you.