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Complete history

A black and white archive image of Sadler's Wells in 1935
Sadler’s Wells has had a rich and full history – this fascinating article by Al Senter takes you from 1683 to present day.

The author acknowledges the invaluable assistance gained from The Story of Sadler’s Wells by Dennis Arundell.

Part 1 – Taking The Waters (1683-1690)
Part 2 – ‘A Nursery of Debauchery’ (1699-1730)
Part 3 – A New Theatre for the People (1746-1790)
Part 4 – Comedy and Tragedy (1801-1825)
Part 5 – Lessons of Virtue and Moral Principle (1828-1900)
Part 6 – Light on the Horizon (1925-1945)
Part 7 – New Design for a New Millennium (1950-present)

Part 1 – Taking The Waters (1683-1690)

Audiences in the gleaming new Sadler’s Wells Theatre who slake their interval thirst with a traditional gin-and-tonic will have little idea of how beverages of varying strengths have shaped the development of this historic venue.

After all, it owes its very origins to the chance discovery of a well in the garden of the Musick House built by entrepreneur Richard Sadler. In addition to his other numerous business interests, Sadler was a Surveyor of the Highways and so in the summer of 1683 he gave orders that the gravel in the garden of the Musick house should be dug up for use in road construction. This largely rural setting had been celebrated for its wells during the Middle Ages and the water was believed to possess miraculous powers of healing.

The canny Sadler, quick to scent a business opportunity, trumpeted his wells’ amazing properties with the claim that the waters were effective against “dropsy, jaundice, scurvy, green sickness and other distempers to which females are liable – ulcers, fits of the mother, virgin’s fever and hypochondriacal distemper”. Dr. Morton, Fellow of the College of Physicians, recommended the waters to his patients and by the end of the summer of 1685, five or six hundred of London’s most fashionable people were sampling Mr Sadler’s wares. For his patrons’ greater diversion, Sadler added musicians, creating what a song of 1684 enthusiastically described as the Musick House’s “Sweet gardens and arbours of pleasure” filled with the airs of pipe, tabor and dulcimer.

Part 2 – ‘A Nursery of Debauchery’ (1699-1730)

Such refined divertissements, however, were not to last. Rival wells wooed the in-crowd away from Mr Sadler’s and soon the artistic policy was plunging downmarket. Topping the bill in May 1699 was The Hibernian Cannibal complete with buffoon’s cap. To the spectators’ great amazement, the Cannibal proceeded to devour a large and very live cockerel which he consumed feather, feet and all, with a side order of oats and all washed down with a pint of brandy. Nor was the audience drawn to such entertainments exactly the crème de la crème. One contemporary described them as “vermin trained up to the gallows” while The Inquisitor of 1711 characterised Sadler’s Wells as “a nursery of debauchery”.

The 1737 Licensing Act which confirmed the duopoly in drama of the Theatres Royal – in Covent Garden and in Drury Lane – was to have a profound influence on the evolution of Sadler’s Wells. For over a century – until the Theatres Act of 1843 – Sadler’s Wells was, strictly speaking, forbidden to stage any entertainment with dialogue incorporated into the musical content, although blind eyes were mostly turned to any breaches of the law, much to the chagrin of the Theatres Royal. In addition, the legislation had the effect of increasing the Wells’ traditional dependence on liquid refreshment as a means of drawing an audience – liquid with a much higher alcohol content than anything Mr Sadler’s wells could have supplied. The waters which were once touted as promoting health were now used in the brewing of beer. Here’s an advertising jingle of the day

“Haste hither, then, and take your fill. Let Parsons say whate’er they will, The ale that every ale excells Is only found at Sadler’s Wells.”

The actor Charles Macklin (1700-1767), a memorable Shylock, lago and Macbeth, remembered many a convivial night at the Wells.

‘Here we smoked and drank porter and rum and water as much as we could pay for, and every man had his doxy that liked it, and so forth.’

In the age of Hogarth, public drunkenness was rife and as Sadler’s Wells was compelled by the workings of the Theatres Act to operate almost as a drinking-establishment with entertainment attached, both stage and auditorium activities soon strengthened the venue’s louche and unsavoury reputation. A succession of managers came and went – some with the energy, imagination and vision to restore the Wells’ glory only for the theatre’s baser instincts to re-assert themselves.

Part 3 – A New Theatre for the People (1746-1790)

Since the Theatres Royal confined themselves to operating during the autumn and winter so Sadler’s Wells filled the gap in the entertainment market with its summer season, traditionally launched on Easter Monday. Thomas Rosoman, Manager from 1746 to 1771, established the Wells’ pedigree for opera production and oversaw the construction of a new theatre – at a cost of £4,225 – which opened in April 1765. A local poet, stung by snobbish condescension towards the Wells hit back in the mid 1770s.

“the nice coxcomb, and the beau Say all its phizgigs are so so. The entertainment’s horrid low May all such false refiners swing And every British spirit sing Of Sadler’s Wells. God save the King.”

But the implacable Public Advertiser was not to be mollified: “(It) exhibits a mockery of dramatic entertainment to crowded mariners and their red-ribboned Mollies,where the convivial pint of Portugal wine … wets the lips of the tar and his temporary wife.”

Since the area was still largely rural, footpads lurked in the shadows ready to pounce on homeward-bound audiences and deprive them of what little a night at the Wells had spared them. Accordingly, the manager made great play of advertising the fact that performances were scheduled for moonlit nights and even in 1793 hired a patrol of horse and foot to escort nervous patrons along the New Road as far as the Tottenham Court Turnpike.

On stage at this time was a decidedly mixed bag of attractions. In 1779 patriotic breasts swelled with pride when All Alive at Jersey or A Fig For The French was produced in order to restore national morale after a heavy British defeat in a sea-battle off Grenada at the hands of the French and Spanish fleets. This led to the Wells craze for rustling up topical entertainment based on the events of the day. Barely seven weeks after the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, the enterprising Wells management had conjured up Gaillic Freedom or Vive La Liberté, a stirring spectacle that won from the previously hostile Public Advertiser the enthusiastic review that: “…Finer scenes of greater effect have not been produced at any Theatre for many years”.

In addition to such stage magic, audiences were also diverted by a series of animal acts. In 1784, Scaglioni’s troupe of performing dogs led by Moustache, the canine matinee idol of his day, enacted The Deserter. In the following year, attractions including two horses dancing a minuet, the laughable singing duck and a learned pig whose repertoire included telling the time and distinguishing colours. Other topliners were accomplished rope-dancer La Belle Espagnole, strongman L’Hercule du Roi, the three-year-old Fairy of the Wells and, in 1795, two Indian chiefs of the Catauba Nation gave an exhibition of tomahawk, bow and arrow, war-song and dance. The appearance of the eminent Sarah Siddons on a syndicate managing the theatre drew this tart comment from the bluestocking Fanny Burney..

“so extraordinary a combination, so degrading a one indeed – that of the first tragic actress, the living Melpomene, and something so burlesque as Sadler’s Wells!”

Horrors indeed!

Part 4 – Comedy and Tragedy (1801-1825)

During this period Sadler’s Wells also provided a cradle for two of the era’s greatest performers. In 1801 Master Carey, a boy of eleven or fourteen, recited Rolla’s celebrated address from the Tragedy of Pizarro. He would grow into Edmund Kean (1787/90-1833) one of the greatest ever exponents of Shakespeare villainy. Twenty years earlier the infant Joe Grimaldi (1778-1837) had toddled the stage of Sadler’s Wells as a Dancer in an Easter entertainment in 1781. He would go on to enjoy many of his greatest successes at Sadler’s Wells, notably in the title role in The Wild Man or Water Pageant in 1808 which one critic hailed as “tragic expression and dumb show of the rarest excellence”. For all his gifts as a dramatic actor, Grimaldi is best remembered as the creator of Joey the Clown complete with the rouge half-moons on either cheek – another Grimaldi invention. One of his performances in July 1807 caused such hilarity that a deaf and dumb man in the audience recovered his lost powers of speech and cried out “What a damned funny fellow!” It was at Sadler’s Wells that Grimaldi made his final stage appearance on March 17th, 1828.

One of the more distinguished visitors to Sadler’s Wells at this period was the youthful poet William Wordsworth. In the Prelude, which was published posthumously, he recalls his visits to “half-rural Sadler’s Wells” where he saw:

“… giants and dwarfs Clowns, conjurors, posture makers, harlequins: Amid the uproar of the rabblement, Perform their feats.”

There were further excitements on April 2nd, 1804 when, with supplies drawn by the New River, the Water Theatre opened with the blockbuster, The Siege of Gibraltar. One member of the spellbound audience recalled that “a pause of breathless wonder was succeeded by stunning peals of continuous acclamation” and “firing a grand salute to the Audience, the latter seemed in an extacy (sic)”. Such was the success of the effect that members of the audience dived into the ocean, literally to test the water.

There was tragedy, however; on October 15th, 1807 when a drunken brawl was eagerly heralded by onlookers with a joyous “A fight! A fight!”. Those elsewhere in the theatre mistook the hubbub for ‘A fire! A fire!” and in the ensuing stampede, eighteen people lost their lives. The root cause of the accident was alcoholic excess but this did not deter anybody connected with Sadler’s Wells, according to a writer of the 1820s.

Interest in the Water Theatre eventually evaporated and other attractions proved just as fleeting, such as the Little Newmarket Races (July 1825) for horses under thirteen hands, as well as the Inflation and the Ascent from the grounds of a Balloon.

Part 5 – Lessons of Virtue and Moral Principle (1828-1900)

In reply to censorious critics, the management of 1828/29 insisted that their programme offered “lessons of the most virtuous and moral principles”. But Dickens, writing in 1851, was not convinced. He refers to the Sadler’s Wells of the 1830s in less than flattering terms.

“the theatre was in the condition of being entirely delivered over to as ruffianly an audience as London could shake together. Without, the theatre by night was like the worst of the worst kind of air in the worst kind of town. Within, it was a bear garden, resounding with foul language, oaths, catcall shrieks, yells, blasphemy, obscenity – a truly diabolical clamour. Fights took place anywhere, at every period of the performance.”

Nor was the artistic policy any less chaotic. Under the management of actor George Almar, Richard III was essayed by Master H. Smith, a crookback at the tender age of ten (1835). Six years later the play Jack Ketch was described by one exasperated critic as “the veriest mess of incoherent rubbish that was ever shot upon the plains of common sense”. Yet, just as Sadler’s Wells seemed at its lowest ebb, an unexpected champion arrived in the shape of distinguished actor-manager Samuel Phelps (1804-1878).

His advent coincided with the passing of the Theatres Act of 1843 which broke the duopoly in drama of the Theatres Royal and so Pheips was able to introduce a programme of Shakespeare to the Wells. His productions, notably of Macbeth (1844), Antony and Cleopatra (1849) and Pericles (1854), were much admired and by the time he left Sadler’s Wells in 1862 he had overseen productions of all but four of the canon.

For the next seventy years, however, the pendulum swung back in Sadler’s Wells’ disfavour. In December 1874 there was a plan to turn the site into bath wash-houses, in the following year lead was stolen from the roof and in June 1876, the theatre was reopened as The New Spa Skating Rink and Winter Garden to cater for the new craze of roller-skating. In January 1877, Professor Pepper introduced a Grand Science Festival in which the highlights included a lecture on Vibratory Motion. A new theatre may have opened in October 1879 but the only vibratory motion it experienced was the sound of the public taking steps in the opposite direction. Even the gas was cut off in January 1882. For the next thirty years several noted Music Hall performers – Florrie Ford, Champion, Marie Lloyd – graced the boards as did Roy Redgrave, founder of the theatrical dynasty. In December 1896 patrons were amazed by the moving pictures of the Theatregraph with film of Persimmon winning the Epsom Derby and a saucy vignette entitled The Soldier and His Sweetheart Spooning on a Seat – where was the Censor? It is understandable that in January 1914, S R Littlewood, theatre critic of The Daily Chronicle shook his head sadly over the forlorn Sadler’s Wells he dubbed “Poor wounded old playhouse”.

Part 6 – Light on the Horizon (1925-1945)

Yet once again Sadler’s Wells was to receive its salvation from an unexpected quarter. The redoubtable Lilian Baylis had been asked some years earlier by the actress Estelle Stead to intervene to rescue the ailing Sadler’s Wells. Miss Baylis had replied with a dusty “A madman’s dream. It’s ridiculous to think of adopting another child when one can’t provide for one’s own.” Nevertheless, by 1925, she clearly felt that her Old Vic was enjoying a healthy adolescence. In that year, as a result of her ceaseless labours, she invited The Duke of Devonshire to make a public appeal for funds in order to set up a charitable Foundation designed to buy Sadler’s Wells for the nation. Since the committee included such diverse and influential figures as Churchill and Baldwin, Chesterton and Galsworthy, Dame Ethel Smythe and Sir Thomas Beecham, it was not long before enough money had been amassed to buy the freehold. Designed by Frank Matcham, the new theatre opened on January 6th, 1931 with an appropriate production of Twelfth Night and a cast headed by Richardson as Sir Toby Belch and Gielgud as Malvolio. Sir John was not impressed, it seems. He later recorded his sour impression.

“How we all detested Sadler’s Wells when it was opened first. The auditorium looked like a denuded wedding cake and the acoustics were dreadful.”

Originally it was intended that Sadler’s Wells should mirror the Old Vic in offering a programme which alternated drama and opera and for a time productions trundled between Rosebery Avenue and the Waterloo Road every two weeks. However, it soon became clear that this policy was not only impractical, it also made dubious commercial sense since drama flourished at the Old Vic but lagged behind opera and dance in popularity at the Wells, despite an acting company under Tyrone Guthrie that in 1933/34 boasted Charles Laughton, Peggy Ashcroft, Flora Robson, Athene Seyler, Marius Goring and a very young James Mason. By the 1935/36 season opera and ballet were firmly in the ascendant and Sadler’s Wells Ballet with principal dancers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin under the inspired leadership of Ninette de Valois became the first truly British ballet company, despite the exotic noms de danse which British dancers of that era were seemingly compelled to adopt.

About this time Wendy Toye made her first appearance in the story of Sadler’s Wells. Later, to become a distinguished stage, film and opera director – her production of Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne and Orpheus in the Underworld with the can-can girls appearing a la Brigitte Bardot are fondly remembered by Sadler’s Wells regulars – Miss Toye was then a somewhat overawed teenager in the corps de ballet. Her pleasure at dancing as one of the pigeons in Ninette de Valois’ The Jackdaw and the Pigeons was a little dimmed when she had to be barred from the photographs because “I was too young to have a proper contract”. She remembers with a shiver the chill of rehearsals in The Wells Room and the irksome trekking between Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic at each cross-over date.

“Lilian Baylis had made sure that the two stages had identical measurements and I remember the sets being loaded into carts and taken by horse from one theatre to the other. Because of the need to fit in with the Old Vic’s dimensions, the Sadler’s Wells stage was really too small – especially for grand opera. You’d leap off the stage during a performance and bump your nose against the wall. We were once getting ready for a performance at the Old Vic when the actors started to arrive and we realised we were at the wrong theatre! Miss Baylis, of course, was always fund-raising. She’d go through the auditorium and talk to people as if they were family ‘Please give us some money my dears,’ she’d say. ‘A prayer would be nice but money would be even better’.”

To an extent Sadler’s Wells has always fostered that kind of community spirit.

“A First Night at Sadler’s Wells could be very glamorous,” says Miss Toye. “But you never felt that people came simply to be seen. There was real knowledge about and real enthusiasm for the work – opera or dance.”

For all her memories of great nights at Sadler’s Wells, Joan Cross singing Madame Butterfly, productions of Iolanthe, The Flying Dutchman and her own Orpheus in the Underworld, “we had three encores”, there is an even more potent association.

“I’ll never forget the smell of the size – the gluey substance which they used to paint on the back of the scenery to stiffen it. That will always mean Sadler’s Wells to me.”

Wendy Toye also has affectionate memories of the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes, staged at Sadler’s Wells on 7th June, 1945 – scarcely a month after VE Day. Featured well down the cast list was dancer Barbara Fewster.

“I played an urchin in Peter Grimes but luckily I wasn’t the one who had to do the scream when the boy fell over the cliff. We’d often have tea with Britten at a nearby cafe, run by a traditional Victorian spinster with an ancient mother in the background. She must have used up all her butter ration on the hot buns which we’d devour while Britten told us ghost stories. They were truly golden years at Sadler’s Wells. We were young and life was exciting – especially hiding underneath the stage from the buzz bombs.”

In the decades following 1945 Sadler’s Wells built itself a high reputation for opera and dance but with the departure of the Opera company to the Coliseum in 1968, it was increasingly felt that the theatre was able to play a pivotal role as a receiving house – both for foreign companies and those within the UK looking for a metropolitan shop-window. In addition, Sadler’s Wells, strategically positioned at some remove from the West End hot-house, was seen as the ideal launching-pad for artists at the outset of their careers.

Part 7 – New Design for a New Millennium (1950-present)

Accordingly the theatre played host throughout the 1970s to a rich diversity of attractions and Sadler’s Wells recaptured something of its traditional eclecticism. On Rosebery Avenue one could see everything from Handel Opera to the Black Theatre of Prague, to the Netherlands Dance Theatre with its controversial nudity. “We had more House Full notices (and sold more front stalls) than the theatre had seen for years”, recalled Douglas Craig, Sadler’s Wells’ Director from 1970 to 1980. Also gracing the stage during this period were Merce Cunningham, Marcel Marceau, the Kabuki Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Kodo Drummers from Japan.

With the opening of the Baylis Theatre in October 1988 with Denis Quilley and Nichola McAuliffe in the zany comedy, The House of Blue Leaves, it seemed as if the dream of a permanent theatre company was about to be realised but financial constraints soon torpedoed that ambition. The new theatre’s Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in style in January 1991, hotly pursued by revivals of The King and I starring Susan Hampshire, and of The Sound of Music, with Liz Robertson and Christopher Cazenove under the direction of Wendy Toye. In 1994 Ian Albery took over as chief executive. Babes in the Wood with Roy Hudd, Keith Barron and the peerless Jack Tripp as Dame revived the glories of Sadler’s Wells panto over Christmas 1994 and, with a surge of the artistic pendulum so typical of Sadler’s Wells, November 1995 saw Matthew Bourne’s maiden voyage of his interpretation of Swan Lake, a year before its sensational conquest of the West End.

On 30th June, 1996, the last ever performance was given at the old theatre before the bulldozers moved in. On St. Valentine’s Day the following February a more unusual ceremony took place when Ian Albery buried a time capsule under the centre stalls of the new building. Future archaeologists will puzzle over a motley collection of Sadler’s Wells objects which include a piece of the wooden floor from the de Valois Room, a copy of the original deeds of the land dated 1834, a conker from Lilian Baylis’ commemorative horse chestnut tree and a bus ticket of route 19.

The present theatre opened its doors in October 1998.