18th September 1809. Not What It Seems.
Covent Garden Theatre is the 4th to occupy the site which originally contained the theatre of John Rich (1731-2).
The second theatre was opened Today in 1809 after the original building was destroyed by fire the previous year.
However the opening was marred by rioting which broke out during a performance of Macbeth owing to an increase of prices. Feisty!
The riots were notable for the hiring of the Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza to deal with the trouble makers, but in the event they didn’t disperse until 2 am.
The Bow Street Runners were called but only made matters worse.
The Riot Act was read but lawyers from the safety of the boxes urged the complainants on and a few days later a coffin was carried into the theatre: ’Here lies the body of the new prices which died of whooping cough on 23rd September 1809 aged 6 days’.
However the riots were to last sixty-four days, after John Kemble had increased costs so 6 shilling boxes (6/0d) cost 7 shillings (7/0d) and Pit and Third Tier went from 3/6d to 4/0d. (1)
The foundation of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden lies in Letters Patent by Charles II to Sir William Davenant in 1660 to open one of two ‘Patent Theatres’ (Duke’s Company).
After Rich’s 18thc theatre, two later structures were to burn down, the first on 1808 and the second as in the picture above in 1856.
After which conflagrations the House, as a building, survived until 1938 when the Royal Opera House Co. Ltd., was wound up and a year later Covent Garden Properties stated unless a ‘more satisfactory arrangement could be made it would be putting the site up for letting or sale.’
War intervened and it was leased to Mecca as a Palais de Danse. In 1944 Les Boosey and Ralph Hawkes (music publishers), acquired a lease for The Covent Garden Opera Trust, whose first show was Sleeping Beauty on 20th February 1946.
The Labour Government threatened compulsory purchase, but The Ministry of Works took a 42 years lease, the Company becoming The Royal Opera House Company.
In the late 1990.s the whole site was developed with the Opera House being reinstated as before in its classical magnificence.
So what you see today when you visit Covent Garden off the Strand, is a building on a site which since the time of the 18thc has in essence had four buildings on it. All of which belies the appearance of a majestic colonnaded building which looks as though it is contemporaneous with the Athens Parthenon.
(1) There had been previous riots in 1762 over threatened price increases. Prices in shillings and pence (d), the cost of which would rule out the lower classes.
british-history.ac.uk/survey-london v 35.