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Sunday, 23 February 2020

Drury Lane Theatre burns down 24 February 1809

Drury lane Theatre on fire from Shakspere to Sheridan - a book about   the theatre of yesterday and today by A Thaler (1922)
Drury lane Theatre on fire from Shakspere to Sheridan - a book about 
the theatre of yesterday and today by A Thaler (1922)
Fire was a constant threat to Georgian buildings, especially theatres. Covent Garden theatre burnt down on 20 September 1808 and less than six months later, its rival, Drury Lane Theatre, suffered the same fate.

When did Drury Lane Theatre burn down?

Feltham’s The Picture of London for 1818 said:
On the twenty-fourth of February [1809], about eleven o'clock at night, the superb theatre of Drury Lane was discovered to be on fire, and though such a vast building, it was entirely consumed by four o'clock on the following morning.1
How did Drury Lane Theatre burn down?

According to Mrs Cornwell Baron Wilson’s Memoirs of Miss Mellon:
A fire had been left in the upper coffee-room at four in the afternoon, and there being no performance, all the servants were out of that part of the theatre; it is supposed that it ignited and caught the wood-work.2
The Picture of London for 1810 stated:
At a quarter after 11 o’clock at night, Feb 24, 1809, this splendid Theatre, the most magnificent perhaps in Europe, was enveloped in flames, and in less than one hour and an half the whole was an immense heap of ruins … In less than a quarter of an hour from the first discovery of it, the fire spread in one unbroken flame over the whole of the immense building, extending from Brydges-street to Drury-lane, and displaying a pillar of fire not less than 450 feet in breadth. The rapidity of the flames was such, that before twelve o'clock the whole of the interior from the extremity of the boxes in Brydges-street to the back of the stage, including a newly-erected building for the scenes, was in one tremendous blaze. Neither the burning of the Opera House, nor of Covent-garden, nor the late fire at St James’s, can be compared in terrific grandeur with this dreadful conflagration.3
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
Was it arson?

Some questioned whether the fire was an accident, judging it unlikely that rival theatres should have burnt down in such a short space of time. Boaden wrote in his Memoirs of Mrs Siddons (1827):
So speedy a coincidence, as it defied the doctrine of chances, and the probabilities of life, so in the breasts of persons suffering by the system of irregularity at that house, it begot a suspicion that the destruction of Drury Lane Theatre was wilful. One person was frequently named as the contriver of the whole mischief, and he, certainly, was a man who possessed the entire means in himself; but his very accusers could assign no motive to such an action.4
The Picture of London for 1810 said:
It has been fully ascertained that this melancholy catastrophe was occasioned by accident.5
How much was lost?

Wilson wrote:
In that short space of time, a theatre that had cost £129,000, and was not then completed, was reduced to one huge mass of ashes and rubbish.6
The Picture of London for 1810 valued the loss at rather more:
The building of this Theatre cost 200,000l; and the immense property of all sorts, in scenery, machinery, dresses, decorations, music, instruments, plays, &c of which nothing was saved, nearly amounted to the same sum. The wardrobe alone was valued at 40,000l. The whole insurance did not exceed 45,000l.7
Boaden wrote:
Some of the performers, among whom was my friend Charles Matthews, at a personal risk sufficiently alarming, thridded the suffocating maze of passages, and bore away their personal property. Mrs Jordan found some kind help in this disaster, and lost, I think, little or nothing.8
Financial disaster for Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan from A Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington (1893)
Richard Brinsley Sheridan
from A Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron
with the Countess of Blessington (1893)
The fire was a disaster, not least for theatre owner and manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He had borrowed extensively to finance the new, bigger theatre building – a building that was still unfinished when it was burnt to the ground. 

Ironically, the new theatre had boasted improved fire precautions. The Microcosm of London said:
In the roof of the theatre is contained, besides the barrel-loft, ample room for scene-painters, and four very large reservoirs, from which water is distributed over every part of the house, for the purpose of instantly extinguishing fire in any part where such accident is possible.9
The theatre was under-insured, and Sheridan faced financial ruin. Boaden wrote:
Sheridan had used his theatre as a store to deposit the spoils of office; and by this fire was destroyed the furniture, which adorned his house in Somerset Buildings, when he was for a short time Treasurer of the Navy. He was himself in the House of Commons when he received the disastrous intelligence; and he behaved with his accustomed fortitude. The sympathy of the House would have led the members to adjourn, but he refused such a personal compliment to his feelings; and only at the proper time could be prevailed on himself to repair to the neighbourhood of his ruin, where he sat out the last appearances of conflagration.
When the reader reflects upon the state of this great man's finances, the little hope he could entertain of his theatre's being rebuilt at all, or of its ever yielding an income to him again, if it were — and is told that neither his fortitude nor his pleasantry abandoned him, he may suspect that wit has a buckler more impassive than adamant, and think him an object of envy in every condition of his fortune.10
Old and New London’s account of the fire, published in 1878, wrote that the House of Commons did adjourn, despite Sheridan’s protests. It said:
He [Sheridan] went thither, however, in all haste, and whilst seeing his own property in flames, sat down with his friend Barry in a coffee-house opposite to a bottle of port, coolly remarking, in answer to some friendly expostulation, that it was ‘hard if a man could not drink a glass of wine by his own fire!’11
I wonder whether Sheridan was truly calm enough, in the face of financial ruin, to be so witty, or whether this story is apocryphal. It’s hard to tell, but I think it sounds like his wit, and it gives a light-hearted touch to an otherwise miserable story of ruin.

You can read more of Sheridan's wit here.

The disaster commemorated in verse

When Drury Lane Theatre was rebuilt, a competition was held for an address to be given on its reopening. One hundred and twelve addresses were submitted, of which only one could be successful. Horace and James Smith were inspired to write the extremely successful Rejected Addresses, twenty-one imaginary entries, parodying some of the greatest writers of the day, including Lord Byron, Dr Johnson and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis.

The story of the fire at Drury Lane, by Horace, in the style of Sir Walter Scott, was judged to be the best imitation. You can read the full poem, and all the other imaginary entries, on Project Gutenberg. Here are three excerpts:
Rest there awhile, my bearded lance,
While from green curtain I advance
To yon foot-lights—no trivial dance,
And tell the town what sad mischance
Did Drury Lane befall.
As Chaos, which, by heavenly doom,
Had slept in everlasting gloom,
Started with terror and surprise
When light first flash’d upon her eyes—
So London’s sons in nightcap woke,
In bed-gown woke her dames;
For shouts were heard ’mid fire and smoke,
And twice ten hundred voices spoke—
‘The playhouse is in flames!’
E’en Higginbottom now was posed,
For sadder scene was ne’er disclosed
Without, within, in hideous show,
Devouring flames resistless glow,
And blazing rafters downward go,
And never halloo ‘Heads below!’
Nor notice give at all.
The firemen terrified are slow
To bid the pumping torrent flow,
For fear the roof should fall.12
Notes
1. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818).
2. Wilson, Mrs Cornwell Baron, Memoirs of Miss Mellon, afterwards Duchess of St Albans new edition Vol 1 (1886).
3. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
4. Boaden, James, Memoirs of Mrs Siddons: interspersed with anecdotes of authors and actors (1827).
5. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
6. Wilson op cit.
7. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
8. Boaden op cit.
9. Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904).
10. Boaden op cit.
11. Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, London) Vol 3.
12. Smith, James and Horace, Rejected Addresses; or, The New Theatrum Poetarum (1879 - originally printed 1812).

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Boaden, James, Memoirs of Mrs Siddons: interspersed with anecdotes of authors and actors (1827)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
Smith, James and Horace, Rejected Addresses; or, The New Theatrum Poetarum (1879 - originally printed 1812)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, London) Vol 3
Wilson, Mrs Cornwell Baron, Memoirs of Miss Mellon, afterwards Duchess of St Albans new edition Vol 1 (1886)

3 comments:

  1. If a business burned down today, we would immediately question the owner's motive. But you say three things about Drury Lane that make arson seem improbably:

    1. The theatre owner and manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had borrowed extensively to finance the new, bigger theatre building.
    2. The theatre was under-insured so Sheridan faced financial ruin, not a financial windfall. And
    3. The painting showed the theatre hugely popular, packed to the rafters.

    What a tragedy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sure that Sheridan had nothing to do with setting the theatre on fire, but he was notoriously bad at paying his actors, so I guess it is vaguely possible that a disgruntled actor could have taken his revenge by destroying the theatre.

      Delete
  2. when did the globe theater in globe, arizona burn down?

    ReplyDelete