Fascinating evolution of London’s West End explored in online talk – now available to watch

On the evening of Monday March 1st, the Streatham Society hosted a very interesting online talk by Professor Rohan McWilliams entitled “London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District, 1800-1914” 

Detailing the evolution of the area as a shopping and entertainment destination, there were a number of fascinating changes which the area went through in the nineteenth century to become an early version of what we still recognise today as the West End.

I was surprised to hear that one of the most important developments were the provision of ladies’ lavatories. Something that the West End theatres could certainly still do with a lot more of, over a century later!

We also learned where the colonnades which originally lined Regent Street were removed to – and why they had to be removed in the first place!

Fascinating glimpses of an evolution which embraced panoramas, music halls, and so much more, this was an enlightening way to spend an hour.

You can enjoy a recording of the talk which is now available here  

Thanks to the Streatham Society for yet another interesting talk.

Catching Up with…….Richard Smedley, theatre historian and author of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOSEPH SMEDLEY

NEWS: Nottingham residents will be interested to know that Richard Smedley is talking about Joseph Smedley (and his book) in a free event at the Theatre Royal Nottingham on Tuesday June 18th at 1.00pm, booking is not necessary, so do go along to enjoy a fascinating lunchtime in the company of this engaging and knowledgeable speaker. Details here 

Born in Nottingham, Richard Smedley started working as a youngster backstage at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, working his way up as call boy, dresser, stagehand, stage doorkeeper, finance assistant and then Finance Director and later General Manager.

Early retirement has given Richard the chance to pursue his love of theatre history, and his research work has won the Theatre Research Society’s Kathleen Barker Prize for his book, The Life and Times of Joseph Smedley, which is a fascinating chronicle of regional theatre in the nineteenth century, and the Smedley family’s influences upon the theatrical profession.

Utilising detailed and intricate research, Richard vividly portrays the world of UK touring theatre in the first half of the nineteenth century when his namesake, Joseph Smedley was an actor and theatre manager who toured theatre shows to the people of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Rutland and further afield.  It is a time of strolling players where family played a strong role to fill many of the roles required on stage. Joseph also built his own theatres, and at his height controlled a circuit of thirty theatres. Striving to elevate the low reputation of the theatrical profession, he practised what he preached, becoming known for his honesty and fairness to all. It’s a book filled with all the colour and characters of travelling players of almost 200 years ago, and as such it’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in the geographical areas covered or theatre history in general.

Thanks for talking with me, Richard, Can I first ask you what sparked the idea for the book?

When my mother and I visited the Minster town of Southwell in north Nottinghamshire  we came across a plaque on a building in the town centre identifying it as previously having been a theatre managed by Joseph Smedley. I had never heard of him, but given our shared surname and my interest in theatrical history, I decided to dig into his life, purely out of curiosity. The more I found the more interested I became, and it went from there.

How long has it taken to write?

Five years, give or take, for the research and writing; plus another year or so to polish, edit, proof and publish.

It seems that the research was very widespread. How did you approach this?

At first it was basically a scattershot approach to find material where I could. However I was fortunate in that many of his papers had been lodged in the Lincolnshire Archives in Lincoln by Joseph’s direct descendant, with whom I got in touch. Thanks to his kindness and knowledge I gained access to the original material of the copies in the Archives, and much more. Eventually, having realised that there may well be enough material to write a book, I worked out a means of telling Joseph’s story in a chronological way, and this very much steered the way in which I approached my further research. However, doing research can become quite expensive, as a lot of it meant travelling some distance. For example, I did a lot of research in Wakefield, where Joseph owned the theatre for a time; Bradford, Northallerton, London, etc. As I exist on an occupational pension, I was only able to do the research that I could afford to do in any one month. This is one of the reasons the book took so long to write. I was fortunate though, in being awarded the Kathleen Barker Prize by the Society for Theatre Research, in recognition of the value of the research I was doing, which helped to stretch my resources.

You mention that Joseph built a theatre at Sleaford. Was there a particular reason that he chose to build there? Is the theatre still standing/in use?

From his earliest days of touring, Joseph appeared in Sleaford, and he had friends there, including a man called Obbinson, whose father had acted in a small company based at Sleaford. Obbinson fils was a well-known businessman in the town, with whom Joseph entrusted his income while away on tour, i.e. rents from the hire of the theatres he had leased, and rooms hired out, etc. At some stage Joseph decided to domicile his family there, perhaps because it was more central to his touring arrangements. Joseph had financial interests in several theatres that he visited on tour, sometimes buying shares in them. The theatre at Sleaford, however, he had built entirely at his own cost, (£478) which opened in March, 1826, and another theatre in the town of March in Cambridgeshire, costing £611, which opened in October of the same year. The building in Sleaford is still standing, and is in use again as a theatre for the community, although it has in the meantime undergone several ownerships and changes of use.

You say that Joseph started out in Robertson’s theatre company and then branched out on his own. So was there a rivalry between the two?

No, I don’t believe so, in fact I think the opposite. As a member of the Robertson’s Lincoln Theatre Company and its circuit, Joseph had been popular with both audiences and fellow cast members alike. Joseph then married Melinda who seems to have been mentored by the Brunton family while at Norwich, one of whom was now married to Robertson himself. This was proven by Joseph’s and Melinda’s first child being named Melinda Brunton Smedley. It appears that they took the good wishes of the Robertson company with them when they set out on their own, and it would have been most unlike Joseph to have left with ill-feeling in any case. The dates Joseph and his company played were smaller towns and villages than those on the Lincoln circuit, and wider afield, and did not therefore affect Robertson’s business directly, although it may have had an indirect adverse effect when audiences started to drop, and the Lincoln Theatre and its circuit suffered financial reverses and Robertson was jailed for debt in 1816.

Both Robertson and Smedley staged a similar type of theatrical entertainment, and of similar quality except that Robertson was inclined to try and boost ticket sales by importing famous actors. I have no doubt that they kept in touch with each other, and I am sure that Joseph continued to visit Lincoln. Unfortunately, Joseph kept no diaries or written records to confirm this, in the way that Tate Wilkinson had; but then Joseph didn’t worry about how he would be viewed by future generations.

You also say that Joseph’s aim was to elevate the profession from its then lowly status and to do so by leading by example. This included treating people well and fairly and by building his personal reputation and “brand” as we might call it today. What in your opinion was Joseph’s most lasting legacy to the theatrical profession?

I am not sure. Certainly he did try to elevate his profession, but from the bottom rung of the ladder. Something that Irving managed 40 years later by leading from the top of his profession. We must remember that Irving started as a strolling player too, and would also have been aware of how poor a reputation his fellow players were held in the eyes of the public. That Joseph managed to build such a good reputation for quality of acting, probity, sobriety and moral rectitude amongst his company can only be met with approval.

In addition, Joseph was considered as having been successful. Yes, he suffered as others did by having the takings stolen, or got depressed at poor attendances, but he seemed to weather such storms more easily. His granddaughter also wrote of her memory of him as being “well-off”. In these matters he was perhaps no different to other managers of similar circuits in other parts of the country. But I doubt that there were many who managed two circuits totalling over 30 theatres in 5 counties, although even this is not necessarily unique. Neither was he alone in battling against Evangelistic anti-theatre rhetoric. Theatres were closing as a result of this new brand of Puritanism; Chesterfield was forced to close in 1838, Oswestry in 1850, Richmond converted to wine cellars and an auction room in 1848; but most of these were after Joseph had left the stage.

I think if anything, he should be remembered for introducing and keeping high standards of production and despite extreme opposition in varying forms, continued to entertain and attract largely agricultural and rural audiences who might have otherwise been deprived of such theatrical fare. What is also interesting is the way he, and many other managers of the time, utilised the services of his growing family to fill some of the roles in the repertoire, and it is interesting to see how they grew up. Curiously, given his own past, Joseph absolutely insisted that none of his daughters were to marry an actor!

So, you may ask, why did I write it? I can only refer to something Iain Mackintosh, theatre historian and expert on Georgian Theatre wrote: ‘if it adds to our knowledge of the theatre of the period, then it is worth it’. I hope I have succeeded in this at least.

I am sure that some of our readers may be thinking about buying your book, and would be interested to know a little more. What would you like to say to them?

I would say that if they have an interest in theatre history they might enjoy it. If they are from, or know, South Yorkshire, the area known today as Humberside, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, East Anglia, Leicestershire, or Rutland, then they may be interested in the book from a local history perspective. Throughout, I have tried to discuss the challenges that faced Joseph in his work, and the people who impacted on it, and the changes in culture that affected him, so it is also has an element of social history too, not least in relating how Friendly Societies grew, and the popularity of Freemasonry during this period.

Without giving too much away, were there any big surprises uncovered in your research?

Certainly, there are surprises, not all of them happy. I gained much pleasure whenever I discovered something new, or was able to correct an error in something, because it felt that I had moved the story on somehow. Early on, I spoke with CMP Taylor, a historian, who wrote about Joseph as part of her history of the Wakefield Theatre, and indeed wrote his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Apart from that part of her book not following a chronological timeline, which was confusing, she wrote about the Duke of Newcastle’s visit to see Joseph’s Company when at Worksop, when he paid for the whole audience at that performance to celebrate Queen Victoria’s accession. By going back and reading the Duke’s diary entries for the period, kept in the Manuscripts and Special Collections Department of Nottingham University, I was able to correct, and add to, the information contained in her book, as well as getting a first-hand account of the evening from him. A small pleasure to be sure, but nevertheless a reward for diligence.

Where can people buy the book ?

You can find it at Amazon here

You can also order it from good bookshops or from other on-line retailers:

Softcover: ISBN 978-1-912562-84-8

E-book: ISBN 978-1-912562-85-5

Thank you for talking with me, Richard, and I hope that your book continues to be a great success.

EVENT NEWS: Nottingham residents will be interested to know that Richard is talking about Joseph Smedley (and his book) in a free event at the Theatre Royal Nottingham on Tuesday June 18th at 1.00pm, booking is not necessary, so do go along to enjoy a fascinating lunchtime in the company of this engaging and knowledgeable speaker. Details here