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At The Royalty Theatre, Wellclose Sq

November 4, 2016
by Julian Woodford

It is my pleasure to introduce the last of four features written by Julian Woodford, celebrating the publication of his biography of East End gangster & corrupt magistrate, Joseph Merceron, The Boss of Bethnal Green. Email to book a free ticket for Julian Woodford’s lecture and signing at Waterstones Piccadilly next Tuesday 8th November.

John ‘Plausible Jack’ Palmer as Count Almaviva

In the eighteenth century, vested interests and heavy-handed licensing laws restricted the production of drama outside the Drury Lane, Covent Garden and Haymarket Theatres. These ‘Patent Theatres’ were aggressive in protecting their monopoly and penalties for transgression were severe. But, in 1785 a leading Drury Lane actor and consummate self-publicist, John ‘Plausible Jack’ Palmer, decided to put the law to the test by creating his own theatre, the Royalty. Controversially, he chose to  site it in Wellclose Sq, Shadwell – serious drama was coming to the East End!

The logic behind Palmer’s choice of location was twofold. First, the East End held a huge and hitherto untapped potential audience. Yet, more importantly, Wellclose Sq lay within the Liberty of The Tower of London, meaning it was outside the jurisdiction of either the City of London or the County of Middlesex. This, argued Palmer, granted freedom from the restrictions of the Patent licensing laws, provided he obtained a licence from the magistrates of the Tower Hamlets and permission from the Constable of the Tower.

The Royalty Theatre was designed and built by John Wilmot, County Surveyor for Middlesex and – conveniently – brother of Davy Wilmot, senior Tower Hamlets magistrate. At its completion in 1787, the theatre, seating some 2,600 people, was reportedly as impressive as its West End rivals, possessing ‘an elegant lightness’ and ‘constructed of the very best materials,’ with galleries ‘infinitely superior to any belonging to the various theatres in the kingdom.’

Things quickly started to go wrong. Plausible Jack decided to push his luck by opening on 20th June 1787 with a production of  As You Like It – a play restricted to the Patent Theatres by licensing guidelines. The owners and operators of the Patent Theatres, led by the politician-playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and backed by the Middlesex County magistrates, protested fiercely and intimidated several of Plausible Jack’s cast into withdrawing at the last minute by threatening never to employ them again.

Yet, because of the Royalty’s location, the Middlesex magistrates’ right to intervene was dubious. Nevertheless, their opposition was such that it was only when Plausible Jack threw the opening night as a benefit for the nearby London Hospital that he was able to go ahead. For the people of the East End, a new theatre on their doorstep was a cause for great celebration and they flooded to Wellclose Sq in their thousands. Plausible Jack himself took the lead role of Jaques and the next day’s papers reported that ‘we were never witness to such repeated and universal bursts of approbation.’

Despite his initial success, the threats to Plausible Jack and his fellow players were sufficient that he dared not provoke the authorities further. After the opening performance, the Royalty closed briefly before reopening with a repertoire limited to pantomime and other light pieces. Plausible Jack was ruined. After a spell in a debtors’ prison, his career never recovered and he died onstage in Liverpool in 1798. ‘Plausible Jack’ lived up to his nickname to the end, since the audience believed his collapse to be part of the act.

Davy Wilmot could have been forgiven for having divided loyalties when his fellow magistrates strove to close down the Royalty which had been designed and built by his own brother, and situated almost in his own back yard. At this time, he was also facing other difficulties too. One of his official roles was as Treasurer of the Parish of Bethnal Green, a lucrative position which Wilmot had milked for years through a series of corrupt schemes. Recently, a young upstart named Joseph Merceron, a twenty-three-year-old rent collector and son of a Brick Lane pawnbroker, had poked his nose into Wilmot’s accounts and was raising awkward questions about the destination of monies collected for the poor.

The young Merceron was developing an insatiable appetite for money and power. Seeking to establish a power base in the government of the East End, he was already sufficiently confident to try his hand against the ageing magistrate. If Wilmot was at the the opening night of the Royalty Theatre on 20th June 1787, in the audience for As You Like It, he might have caught a prescient glimpse of his own fate in Shakespeare’s lines. Before too many weeks would pass – thanks to the malevolent influence of Joseph Merceron – ‘the justice, in fair round belly with good capon lined’ would be on his way to retirement, ‘the lean and slipper’d pantaloon’ and, within just two more years, ‘sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything.’

Arena of the Royalty Theatre, 1815

The foundation stone of the Royalty was laid on Boxing Day, 1785

Bollards on the pavement in Ensign St, Wellclose Sq, mark the site of the theatre – they are marked RBT for Royal Brunswick Theatre, the later name for the Royalty

A poem celebrating the achievement of John ‘Plausible Jack’ Palmer

The fate of the Royalty Theatre, later known as the Brunswick Theatre in 1828 (Courtesy East London Theatre Archive)

The site of the Royalty Theatre in Ensign St, Wellclose Sq, today

You may also like to read more about Wellclose Sq

The Lost Squares of Stepney

In the Debtors’ Cell, Wellclose Sq

David Mason, Wilton’s Music Hall

or these other East End theatres

At Shakespeare’s First Theatre

At the Curtain Theatre

At Goodman’s Fields Theatre

At the City of London Theatre, Norton Folgate

At the Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel

At the Royal Cambridge Theatre

At the Eagle Theatre, City Rd

5 Responses leave one →
  1. November 4, 2016

    Great stories.
    What brought about the the awful and tremendous fall of the Brunswick Theatre?

  2. Richard Pascoe permalink
    November 4, 2016

    As Caroline asked , what brought the house down ? Well closed after that !
    Interesting as usual , well done !

  3. November 4, 2016

    The theatre burnt down in 1826 after a fire, presumably caused because the gas lights on the stage had not been properly extinguished. Nice article today, Valerie

  4. Shawdian permalink
    November 7, 2016

    Known as the ‘Illegitimate Theatre’ what a farce would make for an excellent play itself. Credit to him for trying, but as my Shaw would tell you, The Chamberlain’s of Theatre were real old sticks in the mud with strict laws as tough as old John Palmer himself. It is quite fitting he went on to die on stage, just like many of our wonderful Comedians such as Tommy Cooper as he performed and Leonard Rossiter as he waited to take his call, and many others who followed in the tradional Comedians footsteps. I suppose you could say ‘it is they who got the last laugh’.

  5. Peter Holford permalink
    December 12, 2016

    By chance I’ve come to this several weeks later by a different route. Researching my family history I found out that my 1st cousin 3 times removed was the builder of the theatre that collapsed in 1828. His name was George Pound and he gave testimony to the enquiry. The gist of the argument was that the brickwork was of the highest standard (he was bound to say that) but that the 100 ton iron roof was installed before the brickwork was completely set. That in itself was possibly surmountable but it seems that they started installing fittings that were secured to the roof and hauled up.

    George had invested 50% of the capital – a huge amount which was the legacy of his father, George Richard Pound, who had built properties across the East End and north London. Unsurprisingly George jnr was declared bankrupt shortly afterwards.

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