Tag Archives: People’s Theatre

Heaton! the writer’s update

With the world premiere of his play ‘Heaton!’ at the People’s Theatre now little over three months away, things are hotting up for the writer, Heaton History Group member, Peter Dillon. The show is a multimedia production and Peter has been filming scenes that you’ll see on a big screen behind the stage. He takes up the story:

‘Film making takes you to some interesting places, and I don’t necessarily mean the upper reaches of the Amazon, or somewhere in distant Nepal, but rather in our own back yard.  Unless I was making films (for  ‘Heaton!‘ and the ‘Brains, Steam and Speed’ exhibition at the People’s Theatre in July) I’d never get to see the engineering splendour inside the Siemens heavy machinery shop on the Fossway or even on a smaller scale the dusty cave like interior of the upholsterers on Cardigan Terrace.  Not a big one for gyms, I doubt I’d have been shinning up the stairs of Gold Star (courtesy of Raj and Wendy) on Heaton Road. Off to the Morpeth Gathering, where we captured the exhilarating Heaton based Tynebridge Morris Dancers giving their all in the procession down Newgate Street.  Luckily we caught the best of the weather: as the dancers approached Bridge Street, the rain began.

Another recent highlight, thanks to the present owner Ann Brough, a visit/recce to Holeyn Hall, Wylam,  the mansion where Charles Parsons and family lived during arguably the engineer’s most productive years at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  It was a thrill to enter the impressively large hallway and looking up the grand stairway to see a framed photograph of the Turbinia on the high seas.  Arrangements were made to film in the hall’s grounds and at what’s locally known as Parsons’ Pond for a short film featuring Charles Parsons and his daughter, Rachel, which will play in the exhibition.

Onto Neville Hall, the Mining Institute on Westgate Road to shoot filmed scenes for ‘Heaton!’ and also Lord Armstrong, in the form of People’s Theatre actor Andrew De’ath, for a film about the Shieldfield born entrepreneur, another one for ‘Brains, Steam and Speed’.

Heaton Production - Armstrong at Cragsidecj

The grand Gothic library was the site of one of Armstrong’s speeches and doubles perfectly for both a Cragside interior and a gentleman’s club, where a couple of architects and an engineer discuss Ove Arup’s involvement in the construction of Sydney Opera House. They say the camera doesn’t lie – it lies (on behalf a greater truth, we hope) all the time.

Another exciting development of ‘Heaton!’ (July 17 – July 21: the box office is open. Book your tickets now!) are the number of the show’s principle characters’ relatives, who have emerged – members of theatrical entrepreneur, George Stanley and structural engineer, Ove Arup’s families – and who hopefully will be attending.  Not forgetting the intrepid work of Ruth Baldasera from Siemens, who is raising money to restore Charles and Lady Parsons’ grave at Kirkwhelpington – not too late to contribute.

Ruth has now tracked down Lily Callender, a female employee who worked at the Cremona Toffee Factory  and in the Parsons coreplate and insulating shops: in the latter it was so hot they had to work barefoot.

Here’s hoping the show and the exhibition help unearth even more fascinating events and characters from Heaton’s history.’

 

Heaton! The Show

Heaton History member, Peter Dillon, has written a play that’ll be a must see for anyone interested in Heaton and its history. Luckily for those of us still living in the neighbourhood, we won’t have to catch a train to London’s West End or even traipse into town. It’ll be performed at Heaton’s own People’s Theatre. But if you don’t live locally, now’s the time to start calling in favours and bagging the spare rooms and sofas of your Heaton friends and relations.

And if you encounter a film crew over then next few weeks, it might not be another episode of ‘Vera”. It’ll probably be Peter, the writer, on location.  He explains:

‘Once a script is ready for the actors to rehearse it’s usually a sign for the writer to take a back seat.    Of course the text will change & develop– all the way to ‘curtain up.  Meanwhile…… the Heaton! draft delivered there’s time enough to put my feet up and  ponder the sights of the allotments from my office window.

No, not a bit of it.  With my film head on, I could strangle the writer.  He’s gone and written a number of film extracts both dramatic and documentary.  So the tasks continue: crews to contact, facilities and locations to visit, actors to wrangle and the whole machinery of film making kicks in.  Anyone know a penny farthing rider, who’d impersonate George Waller on film?  Thankfully, the answer’s yes, Michael Stout from Durham.  A motor cycle, circa 1910, anyone?  Thank you, Jon Hill.

George Waller on Penny farthing

George Waller will appear in Heaton! at the Peoples

Then I’m reminded of the famous film producer, coming to the end of his career, who was asked what he considered the most important element essential in the production of a film, replied, “After a good script, the catering.  Like an army a film crew marches on its stomach.”  So what about a caterer?  Yes, again.

Up early one morning to catch Mark Armstrong, the Factory Manager at Siemens, who is taking me on a tour of the Heaton Works – C.A. Parsons in its day.  We stand on some cobbles, the only  remains from Sir Charles’s day.  Problem is the view’s less than inspiring, and we head off to the Heavy Machinery Shop.  Bingo! This massive shed houses an impressive number of lathes, turbines and industrial hardware that on film will give a sense of muscularity to the scene in which Parsons returns to the Fossway factory.  

Siemens in the form of Mark, Ruth Baldasera, who has made a study of the Parsons’ family and is behind the drive to repair Charles and Lady Katharine’s grave at Kirkwhelpington, and Geoff Horseman have been extremely supportive of Heaton! and a great help.

Next, the Mining Institute and their fabulous library, a grocer on Chillingham Rd,  and, if the rain and snow ever relent, Grounsell  Park for Heaton Stannington vs Darlington etc……

Lyric cinema 1936

Heaton! will be performed in the People’s Theatre, itself a historic local landmark

Come and see the show at the People’s Theatre; July 17 – 21, and all will be revealed.’  

Book here

 

 

 

George Stanley introduces ‘Heaton!’

You may have noticed that, in July, the People’s Theatre is putting on a play called ‘Heaton!’ It’s been written by Heaton History Group’s very own Peter Dillon and will feature some of the figures from Heaton’s history that you may have read about on this website, alongside some new characters you don’t yet know. Over the coming months, we’ll be inviting some of them to tell us more about themselves and the show.

First up is George Stanley, the tragedian and impresario who you may remember founded the Tyne Theatre and who, we believe, played a big part in the naming of Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’ . Over to George:

GeorgeStanley

Welcome one and all – For many years now I’ve petitioned Newcastle Council for a licence to run a theatre in this fine city, and with a persistence matching rain they’ve regularly turned me down.  Well, the days of petitions, the pleading letters, chaining myself to the Town Hall railings are over. No more begging.  Instead –

SHOWTIME!

Now or never, I’ll be showcasing my ingenuity, my refusal to take no for an answer, my stagecraft, my indefatigable personality, my thespian artistry……..all of these virtues and more will be on show in July, yes JULY!  July 17 – July 21st to be precise – and the Box Office is open!

I’ve teamed up with those very good folks from the People’s Theatre to put on an all dancing, all singing entertainment to delight and inform the burghers of Heaton, and indeed far beyond.  

 I’m entitling the said theatrical extravangza, HEATON!

The show will feature some of the finest citizens of the borough that have ever lived, walked, and breathed in the Tyne’s fresh air.  Sir Charles Parsons himself and the Turbinia  from the Heaton Works on the Fossway, the good Lady Parsons, an engineer in her own right, the redoubtable Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell, Hotspur Street’s intrepid reformer, Ove Arup, born on Jesmond Vale Terrace, who built Sydney Opera House, a domestic servant, and Colin Veitch, Captain Supremo of Newcastle Utd and co-founder of the People’s Theatre. 

They’ll all be there, so why not you…………..Oh, and not forgetting, someone who might be called the juvenile lead, name of Freddie.  A dubious character, whose blog it’ll be my displeasure to introduce next time –

The dates of this not to be missed epic, once again, are Tuesday, JULY 17 – Saturday, JULY 21

And if this superior example of the performing arts fails to persuade the Council to grant me a theatre licence, I’ll have to settle for a One-Man Show at The Hoppings.  Now we wouldn’t want that, would we…….

A must for all Heaton History Group members, family, neighbours, friends and hangers on, we’re sure you’ll agree. Find out more and book tickets here.

Not only that: the show will be accompanied by an exhibition called ‘Brains, Steam and Speed: 250 years of  science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton’, brought to you by the schoolchildren of Chillingham Road, Cragside, Hotspur and Ravenswood Primary Schools and Sir Charles Parsons School, Heaton History Group’s research team and Shoe Tree Arts, who put on the ‘Under the Fields of Heaton’, mining heritage arts events a couple of years ago. This is thanks to another award from Heritage Lottery Fund. Oh, and there will be music and song in the foyer too!

 

To Heaton for Love: an artist’s life

What do the present queen and her 16th century namesake; Vivien Leigh (in the roles of Cleopatra and Blanche DuBois); scenes from Romeo and Juliet and these ‘builders’ have in common?

 

lawrencebuildersbankofeng1087-a4web

‘The Builders’ by A K Lawrence Copyright: The Governor and Company of the Bank of England

 

A clue – naturally, there’s a Heaton connection. No, nothing to do with The People’s Theatre but, yes, the answer is arts related. They were all depicted by a notable artist who spent part of his life in Heaton. Not Kingsley Place’s John Gilroy (though he too painted the Queen) nor John Wallace (landscapes were more his forte) but a painter still more lauded in fine art circles. You may not have heard of him but you may well have seen his work.

Early life

Alfred Kingsley Lawrence was born in Lewes, Sussex on 4 October 1893, the third son of Fanny Beatrice and Herbert Lawrence, a solicitor. His father, however, died, when Alfred was only around a year old and when the boy was just three years old, his mother remarried  George Giffin, a customs officer.

By 1901, while Fanny continued to live in Lewes with the children (by now there was a younger half brother, George junior too), her husband seems to have relocated to Newcastle (We don’t know why.) and was living in Roxburgh Place in Heaton.  The family eventually followed, although one of Alfred’s older brothers, Frederick, had died in 1906, aged 14 in Sussex.  By 1911, they were living in Sandyford.  Alfred, now 17, was a ‘civil engineer’s clerk and student’.

He was, in fact, a student at the King Edward VII School of Art, Armstrong College, where his teachers included Professor Richard Hatton, who was soon to found the Newcastle University gallery which still bears his name. A local newspaper article in 1925 said that ‘not since the[ school of art] was founded has a student displayed such conspicuous talent or worked so consistently and with such conspicuous talent as a student of painting’.

Alfred won the John Christie scholarship, aged 18, in 1912; the School Medal for the most brilliant student in his year in 1913 as well as Silver Medal s awarded by the Royal College of Art in both 1913 and 1914. In the latter year, he was also awarded a Royal Exhibition Scholarship tenable at the Royal College of Art in London.

But by now the country was at war.

Heaton wife

It was apparently while at the King Edward VII School of Art that Alfred met his future wife, Margaret Crawford Younger, a Heaton lass. Margaret was the daughter of Robert Younger, a marine engineer, and his wife, Catherine, who lived at  42 Heaton Road. The family were very comfortably off: the 1901 census shows a governess lived with the family, presumably to home school the four daughters.

By 1911, Robert had retired: local trade directories now refer to him as a ‘Gentleman’ and no occupations are listed in the census for the daughters, now aged between 21 and 27. Alfred married Margaret on 26 June 1915 and joined his wife at his parents in law’s on Heaton Road (by now known as Elmire House), although mostly he was away from home.

War Service

In 1914, he had voluntarily joined the Northumberland Fusiliers’ 19th battalion (2nd Tyneside Pioneers), which was posted to France in 1916. Alfred, a Second Lieutenant, was mentioned in despatches in January 1917, most likely for his actions during the latter stages of the Battle of the Somme. Upon discharge in 1919, he resumed his scholarship at the Royal College of Art. He won a travelling scholarship to Italy in 1922 and in 1923 won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which allowed him to study in Rome for  three years. Paintings by Lawrence during this period and during his military service can readily be found on line. Influenced by his time in Italy, he often painted classical themes.

Success

From this point on,  commissions came thick and fast and Alfred’s adopted city was among the first in the queue. The Hatton Gallery owns two works ‘Male Nude’ and ‘Female Nude’ painted in 1922 (hopefully they’ll be on display when the gallery reopens later this year) and his magnificent ‘The Building of Hadrian’s Bridge (Pons Aelii) over the Tyne, c122’ is in the Laing. (But not on display at the time of writing).

When next you’re in London, head to  St Stephen’s Hall in the Houses of Parliament,where you’ll find his ‘Queen Elizabeth Commissions Sir Walter Raleigh to Discover Unknown Lands, 1584’ and to the Bank of England, which commissioned a group of large oil paintings, of which the above work is one.

In 1930, Lawrence was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and in 1938 he became a Royal Academician, a huge honour for an artist. The photograph below shows the Academicians selecting works for the 1939 summer exhibition. AK Lawrence is nearest the camera on the right. The president, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens is holding a letter D, which stands for ‘doubtful’ (for inclusion in the exhibition).

 

lawrenceakroyalacademypl008609

Royal Academicians, 1939 Copyright: Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Lawrence himself exhibited in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition almost much every year from 1929 until his death, a period of almost 50 years.

His ‘Study for Leda’ was presented to the Queen as part of the institution’s coronation gift in 195 3 and is now in the Royal Collection. His painting ‘Elizabeth II at the State Opening of Parliament 1962’ is in the Parliamentary Art Collection.

Character

In the 1920s, the young Alfred was described as ‘shy of temperament but studious and painstaking, with sound and erudite knowledge and the crowning gift of imagination. He has high ideals and his conception of art, particularly in the employment of the figure, is lofty and virile’.

Lawrence’s entry in the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’  refers to his great interest in the theatre and suggests that that he might have been a successful professional actor ‘particularly in heroic roles. He was a tall, dignified man with a resounding voice, a stalwart in debate, forthright in his adherence to traditions and rather grand in his renderings of Shakespeare (We wonder, did Lawrence,  before he left Newcastle for London,  see his Heaton neighbour, Colin Veitch, play Falstaff in  the People’s first Shakespeare production in 1921?)… he was a stickler for the correct use of words…strongly against the use of photography or substitution for good draughtsmanship’.

The article also states that Margaret, with whom he had been married since their days on Heaton Road during WW1, died in 1960, after which ‘AK’, as he was known, became a rather solitary figure. Their son, Julius, had emigrated to New Zealand.

Legacy

Alfred Kingsley Lawrence died suddenly on 5 April 1975 at his London home. His legacy is his art, however.

In addition to the works already mentioned, Lawrence paintings and drawings are in the collections of National Portrait Gallery; Victoria and Albert Museum;  Imperial War Museum;  Scottish National Portrait Gallery;  National Trust; Queens College, Cambridge; Guildhall Art Gallery; Royal Society;  Royal Air Force Museum and many other collections, both public and private. Digital copies of many of those in public collections can be seen here.

As recently as April 2015, A K Lawrence’s classically inspired ‘Persephone’ (1938) was the Royal Academy’s ‘Object of the Month’ and in December of the same year, the ‘Daily Telegraph’ illustrated an article about the government owned works being hidden from public view with a Lawrence painting.

And now, at last, Heaton, where he found love, has paid tribute to him.

Acknowledgements

This article was written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Research was carried out by Joe Chipchase, Christopher Durrans and Chris Jackson.

Can you help?

If you know more about Alfred Kingsley Lawrence or have photos of him or works by him that you’re happy to share or if you know of any other eminent artist with a Heaton connection, we’d love to hear from you. Either click on the link below the article title to post direct to this website or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org.

The People’s Shakespeare

On 20 June 2016 (with perfect, even poetic, symmetry, the very day on which this year’s midsummer solstice will fall), actors from the People’s Theatre, Heaton, will take to the stage at Stratford upon Avon for the first time, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company, in a performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. They will perform an encore the following night.

The troupe has already played the parts of the ‘mechanicals’ (Nick Bottom, the weaver; Peter Quince, the carpenter; Snug, the joiner; Francis Flute, the bellows-mender; Tom Snout, the tinker and Robin Starveling, the tailor), the comic characters who perform a play within the play, to critical acclaim at our own Northern Stage. But The People’s connection with Shakespeare goes back almost 100 years and, although the theatre company wasn’t based on this side of the city then, Heaton was nevertheless already centre stage (if you can forgive the pun) and has remained deeply connected to both the theatre group and the bard.

Veitches of Heaton

The People’s was founded in 1911 by members of the Newcastle branch of the British Socialist Party to raise money to fund their political activities and enable them to pay the rent on their meeting rooms at the corner of Leazes Park Road and Percy Street. (Today you’ll find Tea Sutra Teahouse in what was to become the new company’s first home).

The first meeting of around half a dozen interested members was dominated by one family: 32 year old telephone engineer, Norman Kidd Veitch, and his wife, Edith, who lived at 19 Stratford Grove Terrace, Heaton and, Norman’s younger brother, Colin Campbell Mackenzie Veitch and his wife, Minnie, who lived just around the corner at 1 Stratford Villas. Fittingly both couples lived in what we now call Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’, a group of roads with connections to Shakespeare, the story of which goes back to the 1864 celebrations of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

Colin was, of course, a professional footballer, still fondly remembered as Newcastle United’s most successful captain in the Edwardian era, during which the club won three Football League Championships and graced Wembley six times in seven years, at a time, of course, when FA Cup semi-finals weren’t played there, and the first League Cup was still fifty years away.

Colin Veitch

Colin Veitch

But there was much more to Colin Veitch than his football talent, immense though that was, as shown by his presence at that inaugural meeting of the Clarion Dramatic Society, as it was then called. Sometime between the initial meeting and the society’s first dramatic performance on 11 July 1911, Veitch captained Newcastle United, the holders, in the 1911 FA Cup Final (which they lost 1-0 to Bradford City after a replay at Old Trafford) but he was by now approaching 30 and in dispute with Newcastle United, and so although it was only the outbreak of WW1 which brought the final curtain down on his playing career, he was ready for new challenges.

Colin Veith's commemorative plaque

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The Veitches, as well as being keen socialists – Colin was a founder member and later chairman of the Association Football Players Union (now the PFA) and turned down the invitation to stand as a Labour MP – were all lovers of the arts. Minnie was a star of Newcastle Amateur Operatic Society, where Colin, Norman and Edith were members of the chorus; Colin wrote music and conducted; Edith and Norman both wrote plays, a number of which were performed by the Clarion and later The People’s, so what started as an income generator for the British Socialist Party soon took on a life of its own.

From the beginning, the Clarion were ambitious. They performed the works of George Bernard Shaw, the eminent contemporary – and socialist – playwright.  They also performed Ibsen, Galsworthy, Chekhov and other great playwrights. As Norman Veitch said: ‘ If we are going to murder plays, let us murder the best’.

In 1920, the company invited George Bernard Shaw to see them perform. Shaw replied ‘I wouldn’t travel so far overnight in a railway train to meet Shakespeare himself’ but come he did on 25 April 1921 to see the company perform his play ‘Man and Superman’, with Colin Veitch playing the part of Old Malone.

The People’s Shakespeare

The next and final play of the landmark 1920-21 season was ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’,the Clarion’s first Shakespearean production. Colin Veitch was Falstaff, Minnie and Edith merry wives. Norman Veitch later wrote that ‘it was a jolly and inspiring performance’.

That summer, the Clarion was renamed The People’s Theatre and Shakespeare became a staple: ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, ‘Coriolanus’, ‘Cymbeline’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Henry IV Part 1’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’,  ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘Othello’, ‘Pericles’, ‘Richard II’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Troilus and Cressida’,  ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and T’he Winter’s Tale’, were all performed before the company moved to Heaton.

People’s in Heaton

The People’s Theatre was based in a disused chapel in Rye Hill from 1930 but by 1953 the company recognised it had outgrown the premises and they set their sights on their own arts centre. A public appeal was launched in 1955 at a luncheon attended by Sir John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft. Eventually by 1959 a suitable building was found and enough money was in the bank to start to convert it into a theatre.

Lyric cinema 1936

Entrance to the Peoples 2013

The soon to be refurbished People’s Theatre

 

The building was the recently closed Lyric Cinema, next to the Corner House on Stephenson Road (the Coast Road). It reopened as a theatre on 24 September 1962, with Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman’ (of course!) and the season appropriately ended with the People’s first Shakespeare performance in Heaton, a Christmas production of ‘Twelfth Night’. The official opening by Princess Alexandra followed on 20 October 1964.

The company continued to bring new Shakespeare plays to Heaton audiences eg Henry IV Part 2 (1965), Richard III (1967), Henry V (1981) but soon there was an even more exciting development, which cemented the east Newcastle relationship with Stratford which had begun with Frank Benson’s company in 1895.

RSC at the People’s

The RSC had made Newcastle its third home in 1977, bringing productions annually from Stratford to the Theatre Royal and the Gulbenkian, but in 1987 and 1988 they needed a third venue and so actors such as Jeremy Irons and Brian Cox trod the People’s boards.

The second season will always be remembered for a particularly gory production of ‘Titus Andronicus’, after which reports of fainting audience members even  made the pages of ‘The Sun’!

The RSC returned to Heaton in 2004 when the Newcastle Playhouse (now Northern Stage) was undergoing refurbishment. It’s an honour for both the People’s and Heaton for our own theatre company to be able to accept a return invitation to Stratford twelve years later in this most special of seasons for both theatres. There’ll be a few charabancs of Heatonians heading down to the midlands in June. It would be lovely to welcome members of the RSC back to our own soon to be even more fantastic theatre before too long.

Sources

The main sources used in researching this article were:

Chris Goulding ‘The Story of the People’s’

Norman Veitch ‘The Peoples’

http://www.ptag.org.uk/about-us/history.html

http://www.colinveitch.co.uk/

where you will be able to read much more about The People’s Theatre and Colin Veitch respectively

Can you help?

If you have memories of the People’s or any performances or readings of Shakespeare in Heaton 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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Shakespeare 400

This article was written and researched by Chris Jackson, 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. See:

A Road By Any Other Name

The Grand Opening

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 Heaton Park Road, Stratford Grove, Stratford Grove Terrace, Stratford Grove West, Stratford Road, and Stratford Villas. See:

Colin Veitch’s Twelve Days of Christmas

George Waller: world champion cyclist

George Waller: life as a champion

More to follow!

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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

The Grand Opening

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.

NPG x96407; Sir Francis Robert ('Frank') Benson as 'Romeo' in 'Romeo and Juliet' by Alexander Bassano

Frank Benson as Romeo by Alexander Bassano, half-plate glass negative, 1886, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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.

Stratford remembers

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.

Grand opening

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.

image

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.

image

Programme from the Grand Theatre, Byker’s opening performance

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.

Postscript

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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Shakespeare 400

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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

A Road by Any Other Name

On 20th June 2016 in Stratford upon Avon, amateur actors from The People’s Theatre, Heaton will appear in a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ alongside professionals from the Royal Shakespeare Company. That performance, a reprise the following night and five nights at Northern Stage in March, will form part of the national commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and is a great honour for our local and much loved theatre company.

The People’s Theatre has links with the RSC going back many years. The Stratford company made Newcastle its third home back in the 1970s and the People’s has come to the rescue three times (1987, 1988 and 2004) when an extra venue was needed for one reason or another. But these are far from Heaton’s earliest connections with the ‘immortal bard’ and we’ve decided to explore some of them as part of our own contribution to ‘Shakespeare 400’.

 The Name of the Roads

The most obvious references to Shakespeare in the locality are a group of streets in the extreme south and west of Heaton: Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm and Mowbray are all Shakespeare characters, as well as historical figures. And immediately north of them are Warwick Street and the Stratfords (Road, Grove, Grove Terrace, Grove West, Villas). But could the literary references be coincidental? Perhaps it was the real life, mainly northern, noblemen that were immortalised? Why would a housing estate, built from the early 1880s for Newcastle workers and their families, pay homage to a long-dead playwright. It’s fair to say our research team was surprised and delighted at what we found.

Two documents, one in Tyne and Wear Archives (V273) and one in the City Library, provided the key. Firstly, in the archives, we found a planning application from Alderman Addison Potter of Heaton Hall and his architect, F W Rich (who later designed St Gabriel’s Church). Their plans show Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm and Mowbray Streets, pretty much as they look now, but bordering them to the south is Shakespeare Road! No doubt now about the references. (Thank you to Tyne and Wear Archives for permission to use the images below.)

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Plan of roads near Bolingbroke Street showing Shakespeare Road

Not only that but Lennox, Siward, and Umfreville Terraces also appear. You’d be forgiven for not immediately getting the Shakespearian references there but Siward is the leader of the English army in Macbeth; Lennox, a Scottish nobleman in the same play and Umfreville, we’ve discovered, has a line which appears only in the first edition of Henry IV Part II but, like many of the others, the real person on which he was based has strong north east connections. Clearly the inspiration for the street names came from one or more people who knew their literature and their history.

Shakespeareroadplan3ed

But two sets of plans were rejected by the council for reasons that aren’t clear and, within a year, Addison Potter seems to have sold at least the leasehold of the land to a builder and local councillor called William Temple. Temple submitted new, if broadly similar, proposals. Building work soon started on the side streets but the previous year, Lord Armstrong had gifted Heaton Park to the people of Newcastle and the road to the new public space took its name. And nobody lives on Lennox, Siward or Umfreville Terraces either: they became Heaton Park View, Wandsworth Terrace and Cardigan Terrace.

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Bricks stamped with Temple’s name can still be found in the area. This one is displayed in his former brickyard on the banks of the Ouseburn.

But why Shakespeare? Whose idea was it? A newspaper article, dated 21 May 1898, in Newcastle City Library provided our next clue. A former councillor, James Birkett, was interviewed: ‘Mr Birkett himself occupied a cottage on the land which is now known as South View. There were another cottage or two near his, but they had nearly the whole of the district to themselves’. It continues ‘In front of them was the railway line, and behind was the farmhouse of a Mr Robinson. This house stood on the site now forming the corner of Heaton Park Road and Bolingbroke Street, and one of its occupants was Mr Stanley, who for many years was the lessee of the Tyne Theatre’.

The Tragedian

Further research showed that George William Stanley had a deep love not only of drama but of William Shakespeare in particular.  He was born c 1824 in Marylebone, London. By 1851, Stanley described himself as a ‘tragedian‘ (ie an actor who specialised in tragic roles).

By 1860, he was in the north east. The first mention we have found of him dates from 28 July of that year, when he is reported to have obtained a licence to open a temporary theatre in East Street, Gateshead. A similar licence in South Shields soon followed. Later, we know that he opened theatres in Tynemouth and Blyth.

In 1861, he was staying in a ‘temperance hotel’ in Co Durham with his wife (Emily nee Bache) and four children: George S who is 8, Alfred W, 4, Emily F, 3, and Rose Edith Anderson, 1. He now called himself a ‘tragedian / theatre manager’.  And he had turned his attention to Newcastle, where attempts to obtain theatre licences were anything but straightforward.

In June 1861, Stanley applied for a six month licence for theatrical performances in the Circus in Neville Street. He argued that one theatre (the Theatre Royal) in Newcastle to serve 109,000 people was inadequate; he promised that the type of performances (‘operatic and amphitheatre’) he would put on would not directly compete with existing provision; he produced testimonials and support from local rate payers; he gave guarantees that alcohol would not be served or prostitutes be on the premises. But all to no avail. The Theatre Royal strongly objected; an editorial in the ‘Newcastle Guardian’ supported the refusal. Appeal after appeal was unsuccessful. Stanley continued to use the wooden building as a concert hall and appealed against the decision almost monthly.

In October 1863,  George Stanley made another impassioned speech, in which he begged to be allowed to practice his own art in his own building. He concluded: ‘I will not trouble your worships with any further remarks in support of my application, but trust that the year that witnesses the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, will also witness the removal of any limitation against the performances of the plays of that greatest of Englishmen in Newcastle’.  The Bench retired for thirty five minutes but finally returned with the same verdict as before.

GeorgeStanley

George Stanley, tragedian and theatre manager

Tercentenary

Despite his latest setback, George Stanley started 1864 determined to mark Shakespeare’s big anniversary. In the first week of January, he played Iago alongside another actor’s Othello in his own concert hall. ‘Both gentlemen have nightly been called before the curtain’.

The following week, a preliminary public meeting was held to hear a dramatic oration ‘On the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’ by G Linnaeus Banks of London, Honorary Secretary to the National Shakespeare Committee, and to appoint a local committee to arrange the celebrations in Newcastle. Joseph Cowen took the chair and George Stanley was, of course, on the platform. And it was he who moved the vote of thanks to Mr Banks for his eloquent address.

Unfortunately the festivities were somewhat muted and overshadowed by Garibaldi’s visit to England. (He had been expected to visit Newcastle that week, although in the event he left the country somewhat abruptly just beforehand). There was a half day holiday in Newcastle on Monday 25 April ‘but the day was raw and cold and the holiday was not so much enjoyed as it might otherwise have been’ and  a celebration dinner in the Assembly Rooms, ‘attended by about 210 gentlemen’, was the main event. A toast ‘In Memory of Shakespeare’ was proposed, followed by one to ‘The Dramatic Profession’. George Stanley gave thanks on behalf of the acting profession.

Stanley continued to pay his own respects to the playwright. He engaged the ‘celebrated tragedian, Mr John Pritchard’ to perform some celebrated Shakespearian roles, with he himself playing Othello and Jago on alternate nights.

Tyne Theatre

In October 1865, Stanley’s wooden concert hall was damaged and narrowly escaped destruction in a huge fire that started in a neighbouring building. His determination to open a permanent theatre intensified and he had found powerful allies. On 19 January 1866, it was announced that an anonymous ‘party of capitalists’ had purchased land on ‘the Westgate’ for the erection of a ‘theatre on a very large scale’. They had gone to London to study the layout and facilities of theatres there. It was said that George Stanley would be the new manager.

In May of that year, in a sign that relations between Stanley and the Theatre Royal had at last thawed, Stanley performed there ‘for the first time in years’. And soon details of the new Tyne Theatre and Opera House began to emerge.  Joseph Cowen, with whom Stanley had served on the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, was among the ‘capitalists’.

Cowen was a great supporter of the arts and an advocate for opportunities for ordinary working people to access them. He was incensed at the council’s continued blocking of Stanley’s various theatrical ventures and offered to fund the building of a theatre in which Stanley’s ‘stock‘ ( ie repertory) company could be based.

The opening been set for September 1867 but a licence was still required. Stanley applied again on 31 August. The hearing was held on Friday 13 September before a panel of magistrates which included Alderman Addison Potter of Heaton Hall – and this time Stanley and his influential backers were in luck. Just as well as it was due to open ten days later. And it did, with an inaugural address by George Stanley himself.

Despite his earlier claims that the Tyne Theatre wouldn’t compete with the Theatre Royal, Shakespeare was very much part of the programme in the early years: ‘As you Like It’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘King Lear’… But it was soon acknowledged that there was room for two theatres in Newcastle. Stanley soon found the time and the good will to play the role of Petruchio  (‘The Taming of the Shrew’ ) at the Theatre Royal. He continued to manage the Tyne Theatre until 1881.

Heaton House

It was while still manager of the Tyne Theatre that Stanley moved to Heaton. His first wife had died in the early ’60s. He had remarried and with his second wife, Fanny, still had young children.

Heaton House, as we have heard, stood on what is now the corner of Heaton Park Road and Bolingbroke Street and the Stanley family were living there from about 1878.

The map below is from some years earlier (Sorry it’s such a low resolution. We will replace it with a better version asap) but gives a good impression of the rural character of Heaton at this time. In the top right hand corner of the map, is Heaton Hall, home of Alderman Addison Potter, one of Stanley’s few neighbours and the owner of the farmland on which Stanley’s house stood. Remember too that Potter had been a member of the panel that finally approved Stanley’s theatre in Newcastle.

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Memorial

Potter and Stanley would surely have discussed matters of mutual interest. So while we might not know exactly how the naming of the streets on the east bank of the Ouseburn came about, we can surely assume that George William Stanley, actor, tragedian, Shakespearean, passionate promoter of theatre and neighbour of Potter at the time, played a part. It might have taken almost another twenty years and the name ‘Shakespeare Road’ didn’t make the final cut but Newcastle finally had the long-lasting tribute that George Stanley had wanted for the Shakespeare’s tercentenary.

By the early 1880s the area looked very different. William Temple had developed the fields to the south and west of Heaton Hall;  Heaton House had been demolished and Bolingbroke Street and Heaton Park Road stood in its place; George Stanley had moved back to London.

Stanley would probably be surprised to know that his Tyne Theatre is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary; proud of the People’s Theatre‘s participation in the national commemorations a hundred and fifty two years after his own involvement and delighted that Shakespeare lives on in Heaton.

Can you help?

If you can provide further information about anything mentioned in this article please,contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Shakespeare 400

This article was written by Chris Jackson and  researched by Chris Jackson, Caroline Stringer and Ruth Sutherland, 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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org