Today in London’s theatrical history: Old Price Riots begin, 1809.

As we commented in a previous post London’s eighteenth/early nineteenth century theatre audiences were often rowdy, unruly, fond of breaking down the supposed line of separation between performer and spectator. They often disrupted plays or actors they took a dislike to, organised themselves to resist attempts to control them and impose order and quiet, and violently objected to any rise in ticket prices…

The most famous struggle that erupted from this disorderly audience was the Old price Riots, which began on 18 September 1809. Over sixty-seven nights of protest at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, often collectively referred to as the OP war, crowds protested against a rise in seat prices, a reduction of the size of the gallery (all working class people could afford), and the increase in the size of private boxes taken by the rich.

The audience divided themselves into the supporters of the cheaper ‘old price’ tickets, the ‘OPs’, and those who supported the management, the NPs.

As the name ‘Old Price’ suggests, the riots were sparked by the dissatisfaction of London’s theatregoers with the new price of admission to the theatre. As had been the case throughout the eighteenth century, these theatregoers believed in the common ownership of theatre prices, and were prepared to act to defend low prices as a matter of principle. “Theatre protest was intertwined with long eighteenth-century multi-class metropolitan political expression and theatre-going in this period was not the passive, solemn experience we take for granted today. In these lively, volatile metropolitan spaces the justification for and exclusiveness of new theatre pricing regimes, the resentment of theatre monopolies, and the suspicion of impositions along class lines had been issues before”… in the 1763 Half-Price Riots at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the 1755 Drury Lane riots against Garrick’s Chinese Festival… 1743, 1750, 1770, and 1776 saw comparable, violent protests at Drury Lane…

Theatre in the 18th century played an entirely different social role than it does today – open to all classes, it addressed them and catered for them… The theatre was hugely popular in late Georgian Britain: every fair-sized town had a theatre; schools, the armed services, different trades, aristocrats and gentry all had their own amateur groups. There was no assumption that visiting the theatre was, or should be, an elite activity. The opposite view, in fact, prevailed – there was a conscious and widespread feeling that it was and should be open to all, and almost that it was a service, that should be open to everyone, rather than being a money-making concern.

The auditorium of a Georgian theatre was encircled with tiers of enclosed seats known as boxes, with a gallery above. The gallery was the cheapest; the first row of the boxes the most expensive. The floor of the theatre was furnished with simple benches and called the pit. The best view of the stage was from here, and it was only later that theatre managers realised that they could put the most expensive seats there and call them the stalls.

Theatre programmes often started at about 6.30pm and could go on until after midnight. The main play was preceded by songs, dances and perhaps a tightrope walker or juggling act, with a shorter play (usually a comedy) at the end. The scenery was spectacular, particularly for pantomimes, and often painted from eye-witness drawings. Tickets were half price if you came at the interval.

In London there were two Theatres Royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (the ‘major’ theatres). They were the only two royal patent theatres sanctioned to stage five-act spoken word drama within Westminster, even though, in reality, the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction extended to the whole of London and its environs. In the 1790s Drury Lane was completely rebuilt and Covent Garden renovated. Both were enlarged to seat approximately 3,000 people.

In December 1808 Covent Garden burned down, with a loss of thirty lives, the destruction of Handel’s organ and much scenery and costumes. Forced to fund an entirely new theatre, the management solicited donations from the rich – including £10,000 from the Duke of Northumberland – and borrowed extensively. More space was devoted to boxes for richer patrons, the most expensive private boxes being luxurious with curtains. They hired the top soprano, Angelica Catalani, at an enormous fee to attract wealthier patrons. Prices in the gallery remained the same, but had a restricted view.

While Covent Garden was being built, the other major theatre, Drury Lane, also burnt down (in March 1809). Covent Garden was now the only theatre permitted to perform plays.

A crowd of thousands was waiting to get in to the theatre when it opened on 18 September 1809. Perhaps only a quarter managed to do so. But many were there not to spectate – they had grievances, and were determined to air them. These included “the removal of the cheapest section of the house, the one shilling gallery, to a ‘pigeon hole’ on high; the expansion of private boxes and the enclosure from prying eyes of areas only affordable to the elite; and the cessation of sales of half-price tickets after the third act, a custom that had hitherto opened up the theatre to a multitude – if not the very poorest – of Londoners and made the space egalitarian in its usage.” Added to this, rumours of financial mismanagement and embezzlement, anger that increased prices seemed to be paying for expensive foreign actors as lead players…

When the theatre’s actor-manager/owner John Kemble, appeared on stage, he was received with applause, but when he began to speak he was drowned out by roars, hisses and hoots whistles, shouts, calls, songs, and stamps which continued right through Macbeth.

Magistrates were called from Bow Street magistrates’ office to read the Riot Act, which would have allowed them to force the crowd to leave. The crowd did not disperse promptly, only a few were removed, and, as they had begun, the audience closed their performance with stirring renditions of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ But a debate began as to whether a paying audience could legally be ordered to disperse.

After the disruption of the opening night, Bow Street officers patrolled the corridors of Covent Garden Theatre (this lasted into the new year). Invited in by the Theatre’s doorman, James Brandon, they were tasked with keeping order and removing anyone disrupting the plays.

But the disturbances continued. The OPs arrived with ‘musical’ instruments – frying pans, tongs and a dustman’s bell, and performed the ‘OP dance’, a kind of wild welly dance, on the benches, accompanied by shouts of ‘OP!’ Horns and bells were sounded.

Kemble closed the theatre for six days to allow a neutral committee to decide on the prices. But they supported the new prices, so when the theatre re-opened the OPs returned with banners, placards, songs and chants. Running races along the benches and mock fights were started, and the ‘OP rattle’, (satirically inspired by the rattle watchmen carried) used to drown the actors out.

Policing became a crucial issue. Many OPs were arrested, night after night, and prosecuted privately by the theatre staff… There was a close relationship between the theatres and the Bow Street magistracy. Bow Street had become central to the state’s maintenance of public order and morality, in an era when the French revolution had sown a fear of radicals and of the disorderly working classes had among the British establishment.

Heavy policing and repression of rights became, if anything, more of a central issue as the weeks of Old Price protest went on. By October, the Ops were rioting “not because of an increase in admission price by itself but rather because of a perceived affront to their freedoms and associated customary rights as ‘Free-Born Englishmen.’”

For their part, the authorities began to see the OP riots as more even of a threat than the Gordon riots (according to Attorney General Vicary Gibbs, who intervened to support the Theatre’ position, denounce the OPs as rioters and label the dispute ‘the greatest riots that had every disgraced the Metropolis.)

By early October 1809, anyone found in possession of or using horns or bells within the theatre to be arrested; as was anyone distributing handbills among the audience, and soon, outside the theatre,

OPs repeatedly changed tactics so as to avoid arrest, and, in response, officers amended their grounds for arrest. Arrests in the pit, the corridors, the gallery, the one-shilling gallery, and the private boxes of Covent Garden Theatre continued unabated. As the protest moved into November 1809, men and women were brought before the Bow Street magistrates charged with having caused or incited disturbance, riot, and tumult for singing ‘God Save the King,’ using rattles, blowing whistles, gesturing, walking about, sneezing loudly, and wearing the words ‘O.P’ or ‘N.P.B’ (No Private Boxes) in their hats.

When arrested, men and women were brought to Bow Street, and there the magistrates expressed themselves by demanding bail. Bail ranged from £100 to £500, plus sureties.

With this kind of noise going on throughout the performance, Kemble employed boxers to throw people out. This back-fired however: when the doorkeeper, Brandon, detained a well-known radical barrister, Henry Clifford, he was found guilty of false arrest. This gave the advantage to the OPs, and although Kemble had originally vowed not to give in, by 14 December 1809 he had met Clifford for dinner and agreed peace terms. The following night Kemble apologised for raising the prices, and for employing the boxers. Charges against the rioters were dropped. The OPs had won.

It would be too simplistic to frame the Old Price Riots in terms of class struggle. More accurately “a multi-class rejection of perceived elite chicanery was a crucial feature of the OP war.”

Just as those from every class attended the theatre, so OPs were drawn from all classes. Apprentices, clerks, both skilled and unskilled workers, business and professional men and even an earl’s daughter were among those arrested throughout the two and a half months of riots.’

However the theatre’s location was perhaps crucial. Many of the OPs lived near to the theatre, in Westminster, an area then known for its radical ethos, fond of electing radical MPs and constantly teeming with riotous mobs and home to pubs full of debating reformers…

A common idea of what kind of space the theatre was, and for who, lay at the heart of the riots. “Private boxes, for example, were novel, constructed zones of ambiguity whose mechanics – private, hidden, aloof, seemingly beyond reproach – upset values the OPs saw as central to London theatregoing, to see and to be seen in a public theatre, open exchange, and the equality of all under the law.”

In some ways this aspect reflected the conservative and reactionary aspects of the Old Price campaign. While there was an egalitarian spirit, it was also balanced by a dose of moral judgmentalism – private boxes were opposed as being set up to encourage infidelity. The OP campaign also brought up bilious gouts of anti-semitism and xenophobia – ‘foreign’ talent hired to adorn the Theatre, and the hiring of some jewish boxers to act as bouncers, were seized on and turned into additional outrages to be protested. So in some ways the OPs wanted to be seen, and can be viewed, as patriotic defenders of the status quo – “a multi-class public suspicious of novelty”.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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