In our previous article about Heaton’s Shakespearean heritage, we showed that, in the late 1870s, Heaton was home to an important local theatrical figure at the time when a number of streets in the area were given names connected with the bard. But we also claimed that this part of Newcastle’s connections with the Royal Shakespeare Company itself go back much further than the 1970s when the RSC’s made Newcastle its third home and its actors began to stay in digs in the east of the city. Here’s why:
On Saturday 21 December 1895, it was announced in the ‘Newcastle Courant‘ that the ‘accomplished and popular Shakespearian actor, F R Benson‘, had laid the foundation stone of a new theatre in Heaton the previous Tuesday.
Francis Robert Benson wasn’t local. He was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1858 and after studying at New College, Oxford, he immediately took to the stage. Benson’s first recorded appearance at the Theatre Royal was in 1881, before he had officially turned professional, when he performed with the company of Charles Bernard and Miss Alleyn. Soon afterwards, Benson started his own company. From the outset, he concentrated on Shakespeare.
Surprisingly it seems that until 1864 (the year in which, you may remember, George Stanley our ‘tragedian‘ had served on the Newcastle Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, made an impassioned plea to be allowed to practice his own art in his own building and put on his own tribute to the bard) there was little interest in putting on Shakespeare’s plays in the town of his birth. Stratford did, however, put on a successful festival that year, promoted and bankrolled by Edward Flower of the brewing family, who happened to be mayor at the time. The success of the commemoration gave momentum to attempts to raise money to build a theatre in the town specifically to put on the plays of its famous son, an appeal that was scoffed at by influential commentators in London, but officially supported by many in Newcastle including the council itself.
The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford upon Avon opened its doors and launched its first Shakespeare Festival on 23rd April 1879, the year, you may remember, in which the plans for Heaton’s own memorial to Shakespeare, our ‘Shakespeare streets’ were first submitted.
In 1886, Frank Benson became the director of the Stratford Festival, which was effectively the forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Nevertheless he continued with a gruelling touring schedule.
Early in 1893, Benson played Richard III at the Theatre Royal with a temperature of 104 and what turned out to be typhoid. After the show, he collapsed on the train back to Stratford and was seriously ill for several weeks, missing that year’s Stratford Festival.
The Grand Theatre, where Benson laid the foundation stone, was, by the time of its opening, recognised by the press as being in Byker, although, on the north side of Wilfred Street (just west of where Morrison’s is today), it was only a couple of hundred yards away from the boundary with Heaton. It was designed by William Hope of North Shields and built by the firm of Samuel Ferguson Davidson. Both men were Freemasons, who specialised in theatre work, often in partnership, not only in the north east but much further afield.
Samuel Ferguson Davidson was from Heaton. We know that, in 1895, he was living at 53 Falmouth Road. Samuel was a Temperance campaigner as well as a Freemason. He worked on theatres as far away as Birmingham and Margate and, locally, perhaps most notably on Spanish City in Whitley Bay. He died on 12 February 1964, aged 97.
The Grand Theatre, Byker, was described as a very fine building, which could seat 2,500 people. The principal entrance was surmounted by an imposing turret, which you can see above. Inside the main entrance was a spacious vestibule. There was a large handsome marble staircase to the circle. The tip-up chairs were upholstered in ‘terracotta plush’.
The stage was large and could accommodate the largest shows, hence its suitability for Benson’s Shakespearean productions. It also had ‘a commodious suite of dressing rooms on each side fitted with every convenience for the comfort of the artistes’ which would no doubt also appeal.
The Grand was established, owned and managed by Weldon Watts, an Irishman who had previously managed the Theatre Royal in Sheffield and the Queens Theatre in Gateshead
Seven months after laying the foundation stone of the Grand, Fred Benson, brought his production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ to its opening night, which took place on 27 July 1896. Below is a silk VIP programme for that performance for which we are indebted to John Moreels of Photo Memories Organisation.
Local critics were rather sniffy about the liberties Benson took with the text but conceded that the comedy had been well received by the audience, which must have comprised many people from Heaton, including from our Shakespeare streets, from which it was only a couple of hundred yards or so via the Elizabeth Street underpass below the railway.
The performance was just the first of Byker’s own Shakespearian festival that week. Benson’s company also put on ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘As You Like It‘, with ‘Richard III‘ played al fresco at the Sandyford Park home of a Dr Gibb (See the Comments to this article for more on the interesting Dr Gibb).
Benson was back at the Grand in December 1899. His company had been at the Theatre Royal performing ‘Macbeth‘, the play famously considered by actors to be unlucky, when a disastrous fire destroyed the interior of the theatre and with it most of the company’s costumes, props and scenery as well as personal effects. They say in the theatre that the show must go on. So Frank Benson dashed to London to source replacements and the management of the Grand Theatre, Byker offered it as an alternative venue, not the last time Newcastle’s East End was to help out the Stratford company.
Services to Shakespeare
Benson’s contribution to the cause of Shakespeare can hardly be overestimated and was formally recognised a hundred years ago during the commemorations for the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. He was playing Julius Caesar in front of an audience of nearly three thousand people, which included King George V and Queen Mary, when a telegram finally reached Benson informing him that he was to be honoured with a knighthood. A royal aid was informed that the message had just been received, a sword was sent for and Frank Benson was knighted on stage still wearing the blood-stained robes and ashen make-up of the dead Caesar.
The Royal Shakespeare Company evolved out of the Shakespeare Festival that Benson ran in Stratford between 1888 and 1916. The debt that the company owes to him is acknowledged by a set of stained glass windows in the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
The Grand, after struggling for many years to be profitable as either as a theatre or a cinema, finally closed its doors on August 1954. But Heaton got its own theatre in 1960, when The People’s moved here.
In 1961, the RSC itself was formed. The story of Shakespeare at the People’s and its ongoing links with the RSC is another story!
Can you help?
If you have memories of the Grand or can provide further information about anything mentioned in this piece, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing email@example.com
This article was written by Chris Jackson and researched by Chris Jackson, and Peter Walker, as part of Heaton History Group’s project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.
We are interested in connections between Heaton and Shakespeare through its theatres, past and present; writers, actors – and of course, the famous brick Shakespeare on South View West.
We are also researching and writing about some of the people who have lived in the ‘Shakespeare Streets’: initially, we are looking at Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm, Mowbray and Warwick Streets plus Stratford Grove, Stratford Grove Terrace, Stratford Grove West, Stratford Road, and Stratford Villas.
If you would like to join our small friendly research group or have information, photos or memories to share, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org