Guest post by the Museum of London

Visiting the Past: London Theatre in 1800

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astleys_250If you wanted to go to the theatre in London in 1800, you had two choices: you could go to see a formal play at a licenced theatre, or go to one of the city’s many illegitimate theatres.

At the start of the 19th century London’s theatres were divided by law. Two London theatres had royal patents, which allowed them to stage “legitimate drama” like Shakespeare and classical Greek plays. But Londoners also wanted to to see melodramas, music, and sensational performances on stage. London’s other, so-called “illegitimate”, theatres were happy to oblige.

Astley’s Ampitheatre was a popular choice with Londoners. It got around the theatre laws by concentrating on spectacular and daring performances instead of formal drama. Astley’s was south of the river, not far from where Waterloo Station is now. At the start of the 19th century, this meant it was on the edge of the city. Astley’s had plenty of space to keep horses, and had a reputation for its amazing equestrian melodramas. One of its most popular performers was Andrew Ducrow, who was brave and skilful.


London’s theatres were expensive to run, and there was a great deal of competition for audiences. Playbills like these were used to advertise entertainment, giving exuberant descriptions of different acts.

War HorseAs time went on the law was relaxed. By the middle of the 19th century the law was changed, and theatres had more freedom. Nowadays London’s theatrical landscape is more diverse, and plays can move between London’s theatres. War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are two examples of successful plays that have been performed in more than one London theatre.

Today, London has a thriving theatre scene – take a look at what’s on.

A guest post by the Museum of London as part of our Visiting the Past series. More London history next week.


  1. knelistonie says:

    If you can get it, the “Every Night Book, or Life After Dark” which was published in 1826, will give you as a friend a splendid & civilised overview of who played how well in which London theatre.