Dover’s theatrical connections go back at least to the days of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) when his theatre company, known as the King’s men’, visited the town. At the time, it is believed, Shakespeare was writing King Lear. It was seeing Dover’s Hay Cliff that gave him the inspiration for the scene in the play when the blinded Earl of Gloucester, who intends to jump off the cliff, asks Edgar to lead him to Dover, (Act IV Scene I). Following the success of King Lear, the cliff was renamed Shakespeare Cliff. At that time performances would have been outside or in specially converted rooms or barns. Dover’s first recorded designated theatre opened in Pierce’s Court, close to Market Square, in 1785.
On 15 October that year, the Fector banking family opened a small theatre in the former Assembly House, close to present day 157 Snargate Street. This was under the management of the youngest son, William Fector (1764-1805), and by all accounts, the beauty and fashion of the town and country ‘fretted their hour upon the stage’. The theatre was described as a small and elegant and the first production was a tragedy, The Siege of Damascus, in which William played Phocias, the lead part. The theatre was crowded and the production was given rave reviews, including in the Times of 19 October 1785. In the article, William Fector’s acting ability was likened to the famous actor, David Garrick (1717-1779), when he was the same age.
The cast also included Thomas Mantell – the six times Mayor of Dover between 1795 and 1824. Although his acting ability was not particularly acclaimed his wife, former actress Ann Oakley, more than made up for this. Further, it was her renowned beauty, set off with a white and rose costume, that caught the eye of the London critics. Over the next four years, there were a number of other productions most receiving equal rave reviews. For reasons, as yet unclear, William Fector ceased to receive any mention after 1788, even his death in 1805 went unreported and by which time the theatre had long since closed.
On 22 November 1790 a larger, purpose built theatre was ‘erected by a company of gentlemen, who advanced the money in £50 transferable shares.’ The site became 33 and 34 on the seaward side of Snargate Street not far from New Bridge and was referred to as the Assembly Rooms. The theatre was very popular and the venue was also used for the town’s grandest balls, major social functions and dinners.
Robert Copeland was appointed the manager and lived on the premises. He also managed theatres at Sandwich and Deal as part of his ‘Dover Theatre Circuit’ enterprise. In 1802, he took over the running of the ailing Theatre Royal, Margate but it was the time of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) and the theatre was requisitioned by the army for barracks. An astute businessman, Copeland negotiated a deal whereby the Dover theatre was given the Royal accolade and approved by the Duke of Clarence, later William IV (1830-1837).
In 1801, Copeland’s daughter Fanny was born in the Dover theatre and by the time she was two, she was acting on the stage. When she was 16-years old, Fanny was an accomplished actress appearing at the Haymarket, London where her career took off. In 1822, Fanny married Edward Fitzwilliam and in 1830, she took over the management of Sadler’s Wells. Having conquered the London stage she turned her attention to the United States and quickly added that country to her conquests – Fanny was paid more than any other actress at that time! However, her career came to an abrupt end on 11 September 1854 when she died of cholera. Fanny was buried in Kensal Green, London.
Following Copeland, there were a number of managers of Dover’s Royal Theatre, one of which was Frederick Fox Cooper. On 10 September 1842 he aroused national interest when well-known comedians of that time, Fitzjames and Gladstone, had their hair cut off in Dover gaol! It would appear that the theatre was not doing particularly well and Cooper could not pay his performers. They went on strike and during an argument Messrs Fitzjames and Gladstone hit Mr Cooper who called the police and both were arrested.
In court, the following morning, Fitzjames was fined 10-shillings (50p), which he did not have. Within two hours, the money was raised but in the meantime both men were kept in the gaol where their heads were shaven. With righteous indignation they loudly complained of ‘other indignities were inflicted upon them.’ On release, the two men took legal action against Mr Coulthard – the Dover gaoler. The Mayor of Dover, Edward Poole was also the Chief Magistrate and he dismissed the case. The local press supported the action but throughout the country, the decision was condemned!
Not long after the theatre closed and an advert appeared in the local papers, signed by John Boyton, stating that it could be hired by the day or the week for any public purposes. It was hired by South Eastern Railway Company to celebrate the official opening of their London and Dover railway line via Folkestone that took place on Tuesday 6 February 1844. For the event, all the paraphernalia required for theatre productions were stripped out and that afternoon 300 gentlemen sat down to dinner. In the gallery were the ladies who were ‘crammed in’ and due their hooped skirts found it difficult to partake of the meal! In 1858, the Assembly Rooms/theatre was disposed of by public auction. The purchaser was B Browning who extended the building and re-opened it as the Clarence Saloon. At the time the Clarence Hotel, later the Burlington Hotel, was in the process of being built.
Meanwhile, in 1839, the Apollonian Hall and Tavern was built on the seaside of Snargate Street. In 1846, Henry Stone (1805-1892), who had previously been the faithful servant and confidant of John Minet Fector junior, took charge of the Hall. Including a gallery, it only seated eighty people nonetheless, it was particularly popular with the military fraternity in the town.
The Hall was a venue for balls, dinners, auctions, political rallies, seminars and lectures and occasional theatre productions until the Connaught Hall was built in 1883. Charles Dickens particularly liked the Apollonian when giving his public readings. However, because it was so small it quickly became crowded and in 1861, people were turned away. Among them was Snargate Street draper, John Agate and his family and he wrote an angry letter to Dickens. In response, Dickens’ apologised and it would seem that Agate was delighted with the letter as he put it on display in his shop window!
Henry Stone was elected to the Town Council for the Pier Ward in 1868 and in 1886, he was elevated to the Aldermanic Bench. Six years after Stone died, in 1892, the British Association held their conference in Dover at venues across the town. One venue was the Apollonian Hall. However, the days of its popularity were over and in September 1929 it was demolished in a dock redevelopment scheme.
On the same side of Snargate Street was Wellington Hall, which ran through to Northampton Street – approximately, where Braderlei Wharf car park is today. It was originally Squiers Bazaar established in 1811 and in all respects was similar to the Apollonian Hall and eventually became a cinema. Wellington Hall was the first to provide ‘talkies’ in Dover – the film was Mother’s Boy.
Queen’s Hall, at the junction of the then Last Lane and Queen Street, was originally an old malt house. Philip Papillon had purchased the malt house in 1708 for Presbyterians who radically altered and adapted it into a chapel. This closed in 1769 but was taken over by preachers of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connextion and was virtually rebuilt in 1782. In 1802, the chapel was given the Congregationalists who again altered and enlarged the building and then named it the Zion Chapel. On 7 September 1904, the chapel was taken over by a Baptist congregation and it was then sold to the Electric Picture Theatre, who opened it as the Queen’s Hall. Initially it was a theatre and conference hall before being converted into a cinema. Later the building became Took’s leather works and finally an amusement arcade before it was demolished in 1974 to make was for an aborted Market Square scheme.
In the Market Square, the Alhambra Music Hall opened in 1864. Later it became the Phoenix Tavern and Music Hall and in 1890, the licensee was Harry Kemp Spain, a Dover Freeman. About 1894 Jacob Englemann from Birmingham was appointed under manager. He then left to take over the Lion Hotel, Elizabeth Street, which was very successful under his stewardship. In 1897, W.H. Gillett was given the contract by Messr Chever to rebuild the theatre and it opened later that year as the Empire Palace of Variety.
At the time the theatre boasted of having the ‘best London artists’ and ‘electric light throughout.’ The prices of seats ranged from 6d to 10shillings. From 12 June 1899 and at a rent of £150 per annum, Jacob Englemann took up a seven year lease in partnership with Edward Randall. They purchased the fixtures and effects for £1000, of which £400 was provided by Englemann, and the remainder by Randell. However, on 6 March 1900, Randell was adjudged a bankrupt and absconded. Englemann borrowed £400 to acquire Randall’s share and a brochure dated 1901 gives the prices of admission as Private Box from 10s 6d, Grand Balcony and Lounge 2 shillings, Stalls 1 shilling, Pit 6d. The doors opened at 19.30 and performances commenced half-an-hour later. Patrons were admitted, at half price, to the Grand Lounge at the interval.
In November that year Englemann was declared bankrupt. His liabilities amounted to £1,196 18s 10p, estimated assets £459 1s 6d, giving a deficit of £737 17s 4d. The causes were given as ‘Bad trade in consequence of the fine weather and the absence of troops from Dover.‘ In 1910 the theatre was renamed ‘The Palace and Hippodrome Southern’ and during World War I (1914-1918) it was let, free of charge, by brewers Leney and Company, to the East Surrey Regiment. Re-opening in 1920 as the Palace Theatre, the economic depression severely hit sales and in 1926, the theatre closed and remained empty. The building was destroyed by enemy action on 23 March 1942 during World War II (1939-1945).
At the end of the 19th century, Dover was one of the wealthiest towns in the country and Snargate Street was the hub of both the towns’ retail sector and the home of the Royal Clarence theatre – the renamed Clarence Saloon. Charles Stewart bought the theatre early in 1886 and quickly secured the patronage of Dovorians who loved music hall entertainment. It was said that Charles was one of the best MC’s in the country and in April 1887 was presented with a walnut chairman’s hammer.
In 1890 he tried to open on a Sunday for a recital of sacred music and charging for admission. The Working Men’s Lord’s Rest Day Association threatened vigorous legal action and the project was abandoned. The theatre was, not long after, put up for sale and in 1894 was bought by Charles Pavely who installed Charles Stewart as manager. Two years later Pavely put the theatre on the market.
The Dover Tivoli Company owned by C J Bayliss and Thomas Grover, who were later joined by C D Phillips, bought the theatre. All three men were listed bankrupts nonetheless, they decided to demolish the old building and rebuild. The building was gutted and the internal structure was designed by C J Phipps (1835–1897), the well-known designer of many principal theatres in England. Renamed the Tivoli, it had four private boxes, 500 seats in the stalls, circle and gallery. There were five bars – one at each level, a front bar and a stage bar and was built by Harry Richardson of Dover at a cost of £15,000. Under the management of Charles Stewart, the theatre opened on 14 June 1897 with the original cast of the hit London musical comedy by Harry Greenbank and Sidney Jones, ‘The Geisha’. However, the play was not a success as the audience preferred vaudeville.
At the time, the owners were more interested in gaining wealthy backers having issued 2,000 shares at £1 each, very few of which had sold. By January 1898, the company showed liabilities of £4,942 with hardly any liquid assets. The Official Receiver was called in and the Company went into liquidation.
What happened next – See Theatres Part II
Theatres Part III looks at Dover’s amazing Amateur Theatre Groups
First Presented: 13 April 2014