The term ‘West End’ goes hand-in-hand with the bright lights, beautiful theatres and glittering stars of London’s Theatreland: the world’s largest theatre district and the capital of British commercial theatre. However, it was only in the final decades of the nineteenth century that ‘West End’ became synonymous with the showbusiness industry that now dominates this world-famous area of London.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the future did not look bright for London’s theatre industry. Theatrical entertainment was strictly controlled by the Licensing Act of 1737, which permitted only ‘patent theatres’ to perform spoken drama. All other theatres were restricted to the performance of musical works. Under the censorious gaze of the Lord Chamberlain, London theatre was suffering, both as an art and as an industry. Lack of fair competition led to a decline in the quality of performances. As a consequence, audiences dwindled. Unable to attract much private investment, smaller theatres often had to cope with inadequate performance spaces and backstage areas, with poor accommodation for audiences.
So what changed? What caused Westminster’s theatres to dispense of the dirt floors and rough bench seating of yesteryear, and transform into glittering palaces of entertainment?
The introduction of the Theatres Act of 1843 was a major milestone, as it permitted all theatres to present spoken drama, and effectively brought the monopoly of the patent theatres to an end. This opening-up of the market coincided with a rapid rise in the urban population, as industrialisation brought large numbers of people to the capital. With a swelling population hungry for entertainment, investment came flooding in from speculators, who sought a stake in this revitalized industry.
Capital investment allowed theatres to make substantial improvements to their buildings. Luxury and comfort offered audiences a place of escapism away from the dirt and bustle of the rapidly industrialising city, and were undisputed seat-sellers. The nineteenth century was also a boom period for the building of new theatres, with particular intensity in Westminster. When Shaftesbury Avenue was opened in the 1880s it became the focus of intensive theatre building, shifting the heart of London’s West End from the Strand to the area west of Charing Cross Road.
Looking through the Theatre Collection at City of Westminster Archives Centre, it is astounding to see how this boom in architectural improvements and building transformed the West End theatre-going experience. In the auditorium, rectangular galleries were replaced by horseshoe-shaped balconies and the orchestra pit was lowered below the level of the stalls, improving the view of the stage. Such changes to the interior architecture led to the migration of affluent theatre-goers from the galleries to the stalls, for a closer view of the action. Thus today, the cheapest seats are ‘in the Gods’, while the most expensive tickets are sold for the stalls.
Toilets, cloakrooms and saloon bars are other aspects of the theatre-going experience that we take to granted today, but were in fact nineteenth-century innovations. By 1900, London’s theatre scene had been transformed into a national attraction, drawing in crowds from far and wide for an evening ‘up West’.
On Thursday 27 September, actor and producer Marc Sinden will be visiting Westminster Reference Library to talk about the ‘Great West End Theatres’. It’s a great opportunity to hear an expert talk about the fascinating topic of London’s Theatreland, so don’t miss out!
The Theatre Collection at City of Westminster Archives Centre is another great way to get to grips with the history of the West End stage. Pay us a visit to get a close-up look at historic theatre programmes, playbills, actor portraits, and theatre plans.