Sheffield Shakespeare Club
The Lyceum and ” the Theatre” otherwise known as the Royal
The first purpose-built playhouse, the Theatre, opened in 1777. A self-selected group of Sheffielders (mostly men, but some women) financed the construction of the building, and there were originally 34 subscribers. Located virtually the same spatial position as the present-day Crucible.
Georgian Theatre was a mix of Theatres and both professional performances in pubs and amateur clubs such as the Spouting clubs. The spouters clubs started around 1780 but started to dwindle around the 1830s, all classes enjoyed amateur theatricals in the Spouters Clubs which were generally held in taverns. As well as crossing social boundaries, the phenomenon crossed and tested boundaries between professional and not-for-profit performers.
A famous play in 1786 called the Apprentice by Arthur Murphy ridiculed the Spouters clubs.
Gargle: Would you believe it, Mr. Wingate, I have found your son went three times a week to a Spouting club.
Wingate: A spouting club, friend Gargle! what’s a spouting club?
Gargle: A meeting of prentices, and clerks, and giddy young men, all intoxicated with plays! and so they meet in public houses and there they repeat speeches. and alarm the neighbourhood with their noise, and think of nothing but of becoming actors.
Wingate: You don’t tell me so! a spouting club! zookers! They are all mad!
Reverend Thomas Best, as soon as he arrived in 1817 began an almost one man campaign against “theatrical amusements” He continued to preach an annual sermon for the rest of his life. 47 sermons in all.
“If the amusements of the Theatre dishonour God, or tend to lower our reference for his authority, and lessen our
regard to his will;-and lessen our regard to his will;-if they are directly calculated to confirm and increase man’s natural unconcern respecting the salvation of his soul;-and if they weaken and counteract the influence of the Bible, and encourage opposite principles and a contrary practice; if all this be the direct tendency and actual effect of Theatrical Amusements, then we must come to the conclusion-that they are an “evil,” which we are not to approach, or appear to sanction; it will follow by necessary consequence, that no Christian, acting upon his processed principles, can, and that no professed Christian who desires to act upon his principles, will attend them.”
In 1818 around sixty people got together and formed the Shakespeare Club and met either in the Tontine Inn across from the Old Town Hall or round the corner at the Angel Inn. Both long gone. It is said this was an
act of rebellion against the Reverend Best. Possibly, but the principal organisers of the club were not people who usually were associated as rebels. Many worked in the courts of the Old Town halls as lawyers and magistrates. Others were Surgeons, Merchants, Iron masters and at least a couple of Master Cutlers. Many were not Anglican, but non-conformist from the Upper Chapel, and perhaps that is why they were openly rebellious despite their social position. Although Best was more concerned with the poorer classes his sermons patronised all. The Shakespeare club was not only an act of rebellion but also an attempt of ensuring quality in the theatre. Theatre performances were often “spoiled” by mixing lowbrow popular melodramatic plays with the classic plays. In later years Harvey Teasdale better known for his more bizarre theatrical achievements tried in vain to introduce more of the classical theatre into his programmes but instead ended up playing a man from Manchester who could not speak in a melodrama and a monkey.
“For those who are not sensibly alive to the merits and beauties of Shakespeare, I feel pity . For those who can appreciate him, and yet endeavour to vilify him and destroy him , I feel contempt.”
There is also other attractions to the Shakespeare club than rebellion against the clergyman, which is obvious from the venues they picked, both the Angel and the Tontine were renowned for their good food and their hospitality. And reading the account of their annual meetings there would seem to be a lot of toasting going on. It’s easy to see why the club ran for over 10 years with its mixture of rebelliousness, chance to read Shakespeare, and have a great party each year. The only mystery is to why it stopped. There is no sign in the 1829 newspaper article of enthusiasm dying down.
On Wednesday the members of the Sheffield Shakespeare Club celebrated their eleventh anniversary at the Tontine Inn, under the presidentship of Luke Palfreyman, Esq., supported by G. Reedal and E Barker, Esq., as vice presidents. The Club consists of upwards of 90 members, and about 70 gentlemen , including visitors sat down to dinner.
Sermons on the amusements of the stage. Preached at St. James Church, Sheffield. -by the Rev T Best, A. M 1731 (can be found in Google library , many of Best’s sermons also to be found in Sheffield’s archives)
“A defence of the acted drama in a letter addressed to the Revd Thomas Best MA, of Sheffield” by F B Calvert (now of the Theatres Royal, York and Hull). Hull. 1822.
Proceedings of the Sheffield Shakespeare Club from its commencement in 1819 to January 1829 by a member of the club. printed for the editor , by H. and G. Crookes, Cliff’s court, High Street 1829. (can be found in Google Library)