Canterbury has a long history of theatrical entertainment dating back to the Roman times. Between AD 80–90, a theatre was built in the St. Margaret’s Street area where spectators could sit on a gravel bank to enjoy the performances (weather permitting).1 In the 3rd century, a ‘D’ shaped, Flavian style (AD 201-300) theatre with a wet weather awning was built in the same location, which could seat around 3,000 - possibly the largest in the country.2

By Anglo Saxon times, the amphitheatre along with many of the other city’s buildings lay abandoned.

In the 7th century, Theodore of Tarsus, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 667-690, banned dressing up as stags or other beasts which was customary during the midwinter celebrations, seeing these public displays as peverse and ‘devilish’.3

By the 13th and 14th centuries, players attached to the court began to visit the city. King Edward I’s players performed in 1277, the ‘Black Prince’s in 1339 and the entertainers of Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III in 1356.4

By the sixteenth century, the good folk of Canterbury revelled in pageantry. The annual pageant of St. Thomas, in which billmen and bowmen marched behind a mechanical effigy of St Thomas which was mounted on a cart, was guaranteed to thrill its audience. Four boys, dressed as Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracythe, the four knights who had killed Thomas Becket, accompanied the effigy carring a leather bag of blood.5

In 1538, John ‘Bileous’ Bale, a former Carmelite friar who was famed for anti-Catholic vitriol, wrote ‘King John’, a piece of Protestant propaganda, which was performed at the court of Henry VIII. It is argued that it is the earliest historical drama in English.6 It was probably performed at St Stephens in 1538, the year in which Henry had ordered the destruction of the shrine of St Thomas.

After this, the pageant was reinvented as a Gog and Magog procession in the London tradition with St Thomas replaced by two terrible giants.

Theatrical performances may have filled the gaps left by the loss of pilgrims. In 1543 a miracle play was performed by players who were brought from London at an expense of 11. 3s. Sd. and in 1546, the Prince’s Players performed to the Mayor and Corporation at the Hall of a Hundred Beds, part of the Cheker of Hope, which was a former pilgrim inn.7

In May 1560, it was rumoured that John Bale, who was living in the city, was staging a satirical play about the friars with schoolboys from the local grammar school.8 Bale died in Canterbury three years later.

The pageant of St Thomas returned in the reign of Mary I but disappeared once again in the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth’s Men performed twice in Canterbury.9

Christopher Marlowe, spy and playwright, was born at 57, St George’s Street in 1564 and attended the King’s school from 1578 before moving to Cambridge and later London. In 1592, he visited Canterbury to see his play ‘The Jew of Malta’ performed at the Guildhall.10

Whilst staying in the city, Marlowe got into a fight with a tailor, William Corkine, at the Cheker of Hope Inn. The inn which also served as a theatre venue, had a galleried courtyard and could accommodate up to 100 pilgrims. It is mentioned in the fifeenth century ‘Tale of Beryn’ a Middle English addition to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Corkine claimed that Marlowe had attacked him ‘with staff and dagger’ but Marlowe claimed that Corkine was the aggressor. In the end they seem to patch things up, as the case was dropped.11

John Lyly, novelist and playwright, whose father owned the ‘Splayed Eagle’ near Canterbury Cathedral, may have been born in the city c.1553. He ran the first theatre in Blackfriars, London and was known for his euphuistic style, which was emulated by another Canterbury playwright, Stephen Gosson.

Gosson was christened in St.George’s parish and educated at the King’s School, where Lyly may also have attended. None of Gosson’s plays survive, but he later became vehemently opposed to the theatre, writing ‘The School Of Abuse, Conteining a pleasant invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters and such like Caterpillars of a Commonwealth’ in 1579 which he addressed to courtier and poet, “Master Philip Sidney, Esq”. In it he argued that the theatre ‘fostered social evils’ and that ‘every Wanton and his paramour, every man and his Mistresse, every John and his Joan, every knave and his queane’ were corrupted there.12

Strolling players, who did not enjoy the patronage of nobility (or a King’s school education), toured fairs performing acrobatics, songs and juggling. They were classed as ‘vagabonds’ and subject to the laws of each town. When the Plague struck in London in 1603, the London theatres closed and actors fled to the towns of Kent bringing their plays (and their plague with them).

During the English Civil War (1642 – 1646) theatre stopped all together and after the war, the Puritans banned theatre. It was not until the Restoration in 1660 that theatre was revived.

Restoration playwright and author, Aphra Behn, (or Eaffrey Johnson), who was born in Harbledown around 1640, wrote ‘The Forc’d Marriage’ for the Duke’s Company under Thomas Betterton, which was performed in London in 1670. The Duke’s Company was one of two theatre companies (the other, King’s) allowed to perform complete dramas after the Restoration. Behn wrote more than twenty plays including ‘The Amorous Prince’ (1671) and ‘The Young King’ (1679).

A theatrical performance of her book Oroonoko or the Royal Slave, was adapted for the stage by Thomas Southerne and performed at the Theatre at the Crown Yard, on the High Street, Canterbury on Feb 14 1726, although no reference was made to its original author.13 Two months later, Mr Keregan’s Company of Comedians performed the Restoration tragedy ‘The Rival Queens or the Death of Alexander the Great’ (1677) at the same theatre. It was written by Nathaniel Lee, who had written a poem ‘On the Death of Mrs. Behn’ in 1689.14

Canterbury was the setting for Edward Ravenscroft’s 1694 comedy The Canterbury Guests: A Bargain Broken which opens with the arrival of Alderman Furr, a citizen of London and his daughter and neice who are looking for an Inn which has the best entertainment. He is recommended The Three Kings and the Old Kings Head by Justice Greedy, but two innkeepers suggest their own inns, The Star and The Rose and regale the Alderman with details about their superior beverages, meats and ‘civil entertainment’. One claims his wine ‘will make a cat speak, a Judge deaf and dumb, an old Man get Children or bring a Dead Man to-life again’.15 In spite of their promises, Justice Greedy complains of “wamblings” in his stomach as the innkeeper has overpromised and under-delivered.

The Canterbury Guests which included incidental music composed by Henry Purcell does not appear to have been performed in Canterbury and the promised entertainment was only of the gastronomical variety. The Star Inn near St George’s Gate dates from 1689 and The Rose from 1692 so it would appear Ravenscroft had local knowledge.

Theatrical performances continued to delight Canterbury audiences throughout the eighteenth century. In 1729, Pinchbeck’s Grand Theatre of the Muses, a machine with scenes and music, plied the streets of Dover, Sandwich and Canterbury offering a different kind of street entertainment.16

However, by 1737, the Licensing Act or ‘Gagging Act’ restricted the production of plays. Censorship was introduced by the Lord Chamberlain and his examiners, to root out anti-government sentiment and this practice continued until 1843 when the act was modified by the Theatres Act. To avoid prosecution, players interspersed scenes with melodrama, burlesque, song and dance. On 1 August 1739, the Company of Comedians from the Royal Theatres in London performed ‘The Committee: Or, the Faithful Irishman’ at the theatre in Canterbury to which was added a new pantomime entertainment in Grotesque characters.17 Two weeks later, the comedy ‘The Tender Husband; Or Accomplished Fools’ was performed at the Theatre, Canterbury with entertainments of singing and dancing.18

In 1752, ‘Canterbury Smith’, who had taken over Kentish theatres in 1751 from Perry’s ‘Company of Comedians’ hired Roger Kemble, strolling player and actor to perform at Canterbury’s theatre. It was here that Kemble met Fanny Furnival, a widowed actress, who was noted for having performed the role of Hamlet. She took the name “Mrs Kemble”, although it is unlikely the couple married.19

Roger Kemble later married Sarah Ward, and was the father of Sarah Siddons, the celebrated actress who played at the Theatre Royal Margate; John Philip Kemble who was considered England’s finest actor; and Charles Kemble, who performed the office of Examiner of Plays, under the Licensing Act.

In 1770, Mr Perry of Convent Garden Theatre was head of a summer company at Canterbury Theatre, a rickety wooden building in the Buttermarket outside Christchurch Gate. On 9 June 1773, in a new prologue, written for the opening of the season in Canterbury, Mr Perry said:

‘Happy once more to tread this well-known stage, where I have strutted in my Infant Age - When Perry’s Sons, Years twenty past almost, Oft play’d the Scene of Hamlet and the Ghost, Oft weild the Truncheon in the Tragic Scene. In Great Tom Thumb was Master Perry seen! Growing to riper Age, pursued the Art, And sought Acquaintance with each manly part. Till now, some four Years past a Plan I drew, Engag’d this House once more to strut ‘fore you. You, whose applause had fir’d my Infant mind; By you inspir’d the Buskin’ troop, I join’d.’

Mr Perry speaks of the cruel blows he had received at the hands of “Dame Fortune” but hopes to revive his career on the stage that made him.20 This cruel blow was probably as the result of the bad press he received at Covent Garden when a disgruntled theatre-goer on asking who was on stage, exclaimed “Perry! By G__ I wish it was MUM.”21

In April 1780, ‘The Oaks or The Beauties of Canterbury’, written by Canterbury pastry cook and mantua maker, Elizabeth Burgess was performed at Canterbury’s Theatre. It was printed at her own expense and survives in full. The Buttermarket theatre was also used by Sarah Baker who opened her own theatre in Orange Street in 1789, after the Pavement Commissioners tore down the old building.22

Sarah Baker, who built four theatres in Kent, was able to entice new actors from London to join her company, such as Edmund Kean, Thomas Dibdin and Charles Incledon. In 1801, Sarah Baker secured the famous Mrs Dora Jordan for two nights at the Canterbury Theatre, but she was severely criticised for the hike in ticket price to four shillings.23 Members of Sarah Baker’s company were Mr.John Sloman, Mr. Smollett; both who wrote and performed songs in between acts. Mrs Baker’s daughter, also Sarah, married Mr. William Dowton, an actor who had joined Mrs Baker’s company in 1791.24

Etiquette in the theatres was sometimes wanting and in 1807, “a wanton act of atrocity” occurred at Canterbury when a man threw a quart glass bottle into the pit hitting a servant of Lord Cranley. The audience beying for retribution shouted ‘throw him over’ but he was quickly arrested and put in the Westgate Gaol.25

After the death of Sarah Baker in 1816, her son-in-law, William Dowton ran the theatre, attracting big names such as Joseph Grimaldi, the famous clown. On Tuesday, May 6th, 1817, Grimaldi, played ‘Bob Acres’ in Sheridan’s five part comedy, “The Rivals”. Grimaldi sung one of his best loved songs; ‘Tipitywichet’, before playing ‘Scaramouch’ [sic]26 in “DON JUAN or the Libertine Destroyed”. In his memoir, edited by Charles Dickens it is noted that Grimaldi’s ‘gains’ were larger and his effort less, when he performed in the provinces. 27

Dowton also allowed amateur performers to use the theatre for their own private theatricals and in January 1817, the gentlemen amateurs of Charlton Place near Canterbury performed for the benefit of the widow of Alderman Salmon.28

The theatre sets were painted by the young Thomas Sidney Cooper, before he began his formal training as an artist.29

Thomas Sidney Cooper’s love for the theatre continued and in the late 1850s, he paid for the refurbishment of the concert rooms in the Canterbury Guild Hall, which had been built around 1180, with pale blue paper decorated with gold stars, gilt mouldings and white pilasters.30 Two years later, he was persuaded by John Baker and Sir Frederick Ponsoby Fane (later Earl of Bessborough), of the Old Stagers, to build a new theatre in the city. The Theatre Royal, under the management of W.E. Mills, opened in September 1861.31

On November 4th, ‘For one night only’ Charles Dickens read six chapters of David Copperfield at the Theatre Royal. The report of Dickens’s visit in The Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette was slightly ambivalent about the talents of the great man, as the journalist asked whether there were six chapters of David Copperfield ‘worthy the elaborate reading bestowed on them by their author.’32 The reporter also observed that ‘his box audience was very large, but the pit and gallery folk have yet to appreciate the great novelist.’ The Kentish Chronicle was less ascerbic, describing the house as ‘fully and fashionably attended’.33

Two years later in October 1863, Richard Thorne, Lessee of the Margate Theatre, booked the Canterbury Theatre Royal for his Powerful Dramatic Company.34 He was the father of Sarah Thorne, who later became the manager of the Theatre Royal in Margate and is best known for opening the first acting school in England, which later moved to Chatham.

Almost thirty years later, in August 1891, Sarah Thorne booked the theatre for three nights for a performance by Ellen Terry of Nance Oldfield in Charles Reade’s comedy.35 Ellen was was one of the most famous actresses of her day. Later that year, Henry Irving unveiled a memorial to Christopher Marlowe in the Buttermarket, revealing how proud Canterbury was of its theatrical heritage.

In 1898, the ‘Sarah Thorne Dramatic Company’ presented Dion Boucicault’s ‘The Flying Scud’ at the Canterbury Theatre. In the play, the hero, Tom Meredith, the villain Grindley Goodge, the comic lead, Nat Gosling and Katey Rideout obsessively follow the fortunes of the eponymous racehorse, and its preparation for the Epsom races. It is from this play where the phrase “I’ve got to see a man about a dog” comes.36

As well as visiting theatre companies, the theatre was used by amateur groups such as The Old Stagers and the Rifle Volunteers.

In 1913, the Theatre Royal was refurbished by Mr S. Lipman of the Empire Kinematograph Theatre.37 It eventually closed on 30th January, 1926 and was sold to the Lefevre brothers.38

Other theatre and entertainment venues operated during the Victorian era, for example the New Music Hall, located behind no.12 and no.13 on St Margaret’s Street which ran from 1854-1888. Music halls became particularly popular after the relaxation of the licensing laws in 1843. On May 8th, 1876, a Strange and Wilsons Aetherscope adaptation of a Christmas Carol was performed at the hall. The aetherscope was a cabinet in which things and persons disappear: ‘It is pretty certain that they do not leave the cabinet, yet when an individual is inside and the door is opened he is invisible and there is no sign of the space he is occupying.’39 The show then toured Sheerness and Dover, amazing audiences with its ghostly apparitions.

On 8 June 1911, Mayor Francis Goldney Bennett opened the Electric Theatre at 49, St Peter’s Street with its mosaic pavement and glass canopy lit with incandescent lights. As he heralded in a new age of theatre, Goldney praised the exterior which was in keeping with “the old architecture of the city” with its Tudor oak panels but also spoke of the importance of keeping pace with the times, predicting that “picture shows” or silent movies were here to stay. Thanking the theatre owners, Goldney owned that although he did not wish to be thought as a “kill joy”, he was grateful that they had promised the City Council not to put on performances on Sunday, as everyone needed at least one day of rest.40

In January 1916, under the management of Mr A. Dobson, four reels ‘brimful of exciting incidents’ were shown over the New Year period, including ‘A Society Woman’s Ordeal’ (an appealing story of a society woman’s sacrifice), ‘His Lucky Vacation’, ‘No flirting allowed’ and ‘Wiffles in Wartime’, a story about a hen-pecked husband. Wiffles, an endearing buffoon, was the creation of Pathe Freres and seems to have featured in several films, as Canterbury was treated to ‘Wiffles in a Musical Vein’ just under a week later. This programme was followed later in the month by ‘The Exploits of Elaine’(part six), ‘The Rounders’ featuring Charlie Chaplin, ‘The Professional Diner’ and ‘The Ascent of Mont Blanc’.41

By August 1936, it was known as the Odeon Hall and run by Captain (Percy) Julian Bainbridge, as The Canterbury Repertory Theatre. Bainbridge promised plays by first-class authors including George Bernard Shaw, Galsworthy, Priestley and Noel Coward etc. Bainbridge had run theatres in Whitby and South Shields, as well as worked at the Leicester Square Theatre before taking a lease on the Royal Theatre, Margate in 1931. However he complained that “competition from the talking pictures and the fine weather of 1931-2” led to poor sales and he filed for bankruptcy in 1934.42 In February 1936, Bainbridge set up a Repertory Theatre in Tonbridge where he, his wife and daughter Hazel all performed in the productions. Hazel went on to have a screen career acting in Middlemarch (1968), Great Expectations (1967) and David Copperfield (1974). Bainbridge gave up the Tonbridge Reportory Theatre in 1938, but continued in Canterbury for a little longer before moving on to his next venture.

In 1949, as the city recovered from devastation left by the bombing raids of the second world war, the Marlowe Theatre opened on St Margaret’s Street, in an old cinema, near where the original Roman theatre had been. The stage was improved and soon the theatre was able to attract acts such as the Ballet Rambert.43 Sir Ernest Pooley who visited the theatre in 1950 said: ‘It is most important if we are going to be a truly civilised and truly artistic nation that we learn by degrees to wean people back from the picture theatre to the living stage.’44 The theatre was subsequently demolished in 1981 and a second Marlowe Theatre opened at The Friars where it operated for 25 years. This was demolished in 2009 to make way for today’s Marlowe on the same site.

As well as the theatres, the city has also played host to other arts and culture venues. The Princess Alexandra Music Hall and Penny Theatre operated between 1750 and 1903 in a 17th century building with a minstrel’s gallery at 30-31, Northgate. A plan to turn it into a museum of amusement machines was turned down by the council in 1982.45 Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, it acted as a popular venue for jazz, folk, rock and blues bands.

The city remains a vibrant centre for theatre with its annual Canterbury Festival, amateur dramatic groups such as the The Canterbury Players and the arts and culture programmes at its three universities.

This article was published: 7 August 2023.


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