Monday, 24 February 2014

Fire at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

The theatre in the Georgian era was a bustling, vibrant place. Scandalous, exciting and truly entertaining, it was not without its risks. In 1808 the Theatre Royal Covent Garden burned to the ground and debris from the fire very nearly took its Drury Lane counterpart with it. Luckily, on this occasion, disaster was averted and no doubt those involved in the theatre breathed a sigh of relief. However, fate was not done with the theatre, and fire would once again come to Drury Lane.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane had opened in 1794 and, mindful of the risk of fire that was ever present in Georgian theatre, it is little wonder that its owner,  Richard Brinsley Sheridan, took precautions against such disasters. Water tanks were installed above the auditorium and an iron safety curtain was erected, leaving the builder, Henry Holland, confident that no conflagration could occur.


The fire at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, seen from Westminster Bridge, 1809
The fire at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, seen from Westminster Bridge, 1809

Unfortunately, well-laid plans rarely turn out as expected and on 24th February 1809, fire took hold of the Theatre Royal. Sheridan was in the House of Commons as the flames rose higher at his playhouse and when the House adjourned in response to reports of the catastrophe, he objected to this interruption of matters of public importance, believing that parliamentary business should take precedence.  

Nevertheless, upon leaving the Commons he went straight to Drury Lane and there watched his theatre burn. With no hope of saving the building he enjoyed a glass of port in the company of a friend, commenting as he sipped his drink that he should be "allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside." The fire ruined Sheridan, sending him spiralling deeper and deeper into debts from which he would never escape.

4 comments:

  1. I love the history of London's West End. The theatres have so much to offer in terms of history, mystery, intrigue and diabolical stories (ghostly and otherwise). Such a shame that someone who obviously had such a love of the art should be ruined in spite of taking all those precautions.

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    1. Unfortunately, Sheridan had a bit of a blind spot when it came to protecting his own finances!

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  2. He was pretty well bankrupt a couple of years before that. I wonder if the theatre was insured.....

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    1. It was, but for far less than its value.

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