“And all the men and women merely players” said William Shakespeare in As You Like It. Most of us like to go to the theatre from time to time and we have several well established venues in this area. Bridport has the Electric Palace, the Arts Centre and The Lyric. Various church halls and village halls also host performances. This was not always so and outside the town strolling players may have performed in the open air, on village greens.
In the 18th and 19th century troupes of performers would visit Bridport from time to time setting up in fields or rented halls, like the Drill Hall. The Salisbury Company of Players travelled to Dorchester in 1792 and happened to stop in Bridport. One of their actors, Henry Lee and his wife left the company and set up their own company based in Barnstaple. They had a son, Henry Fitzherbert Lee who eventually changed his name to Herbert Lee, to avoid confusion. The touring company under Henry Lee came to Bridport again and his son, Herbert Lee married a Bridport girl, Charlotte Balston in the parish church on 3rd February 1823 according to Victor J. Adams in the Dorset Year Book. In 1826 Henry Lee built a theatre in Bridport, near the Bull Inn, partly in a wheelwright’s yard, in Chancery Lane which he named “The New Theatre (Drury Lane) Bridport”. The site of the theatre is now “Bartholomew Hall”. The theatre opened in December 1826 and a report stated that “it was crowded to excess by all the fashion of the town” for a production of Richard III in January. However the theatre then closed on 23rd February 1827 as the company went to Taunton for a season. They returned to Bridport in1831 and 1834 for six to eight weeks. Herbert Lee is believed to have taken over the Bridport theatre from his father in 1828.
The New Theatre (Drury Lane) was very small. Its total size was only 48ft. long by 21ft wide and 14ft high, which included a stage, dressing rooms, boxes, a pit, gallery and stage and audience door. The outside was of weatherboard with some good low stone walls. Heating and lighting were very basic and Lee’s Stage Manager described it as “the most wretched hole imaginable”. A plan of Henry Lee’s theatre appeared in Nine Years of an Actor’s Life, by Robert Dyer, 1833. I am indebted to Ron Bishop and the late John Jaggard, Bridport History Society members, for the details of the theatre. The ticket prices were 3s. in a box, 2s. for a seat on a bench in the pit and 1s. in the gallery. London prices were double these. Usually there were three performances per week with the programme consisting of two parts, beginning with a serious play and after the intermission, a farce or comic songs.
Lee also opened a theatre in Dorchester in 1828, where his company had previously played from 1791 and a renowned actor of the time, Edmund Kean had perhaps been “discovered”. The journal of Mary Frampton for 1814 includes a letter from Mr Wollaston writing “How happy the people of Dorchester may be….having had an opportunity of seeing the great Mr Kean”. This was after he became well known. Did he play earlier in Bridport? A plaque on the side of the Dorchester cafe “The Horse with the Red Umbrella” on High West Street states “Dorchester Theatre 1828 – 1843, Proprieter Charles Curme. George Curme Mayor 1845, 1886 – 87”. (Plaque noted by Bill Holden, Bridport History Society). In 1830 Henry Lee wrote of the theatre near the Antelope Inn Yard on the Trinity Street site, bearing a resemblance to the old theatre in Orchard Street, Bath. He believed this was where Kean played before his engagement in Drury Lane. Kean was also ordered to appear in Windsor Castle by George III. Florence Hardy wrote in 1930 that Kean had stayed with his wife and child at an inn called “The Little Jockey” on Glyde Path Hill. The child died there and was buried in Trinity Churchyard on 24th November 1813, the headstone reading “Howard, son of Edmund and Mary Kean”. Thomas Hardy was also interested in Kean and wrote in his Facts Notebook that he believed he had succeeded in finding where Kean had played “Octavian”, having met a Henry Davis who had been born in a house adjacent to the theatre.
Returning to Bridport, in 1835 Lee handed over management of his troupe to one of its members, Edward Dean Davis. Davis converted premises opposite Wykes Court House (now a car park) into a larger and improved theatre in 1836, installing gas lighting in 1843. Prices were reduced to 2s. in a box, 1s. in the pit and gallery 6d. Unfortunately the new building, mainly wooden, was burnt to the ground and following this tragedy the company did not return to Bridport.
In 1834 Bridport Town Hall had been used as an occasional theatre, as a playbill in Dorset History Centre describes. That “celebrated juvenile actor, Master B. Grossmith, but 7 years old” appeared in Travellers’ Trials and “Number Nipp, or the spirit of the Katskill Mountains”. Then with his brother he performed The Two Barbers. Boxes were 3s., the Pit 2s. with the gallery for servants and working persons at 1s. “Carriages to be ordered at half past ten”. How times change!
Bridport History Society meets on Tuesday 9th May at 2.30 pm in the Main Hall, Bridport United Church, East Street when Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard will discuss “Bridport 1700 – 1930”. All welcome, visitors fee £ 2-50.
Cecil Amor, Hon. President Bridport History Society.