On This Day: The Old Price Riots, 18th September 1809

In my On This Day posts, I have covered protests about a wide range of issues, from the right to vote, through police brutality, to anti-fascism. I have never written a post about a riot over the cost of theatre tickets…until now. On the surface, the Old Price Riots might be the most superficial protest in London’s history. However, when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the rioters were defending a lot more than a cheap night out.

In late Georgian Britain, theatre was incredibly popular. It appealed to people across the class spectrum; from the very richest to the very poorest, everyone went to the theatre. In London, there were only two theatres licensed by central government to perform spoken drama; Covent Garden and Drury Lane (otherwise known as the major theatres). Other theatres (known as minor theatres) were licensed locally and relied on singing, mime, and visual spectacle to attract audiences. Within the space of a few months in 1808, both Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres burnt down. When the new Covent Garden Theatre opened a year later, it was perceived as pandering to elites and not protecting the accessibility of British theatre in the way that the major theatres should. The result was three months of protest that ended in almost total victory for the rioters.

14New_Covent_Garden_Theatre

The new Covent Garden Theatre in 1810 (Source: Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, New Covent Garden Theatre (1810), Plate 100 of Rudolph Ackermann, The Microcosm of London; or, London in Miniature (1808-10, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, U of Toronto), 1: 262-63).

In the early hours of the morning on 20th September 1808, the Covent Garden Theatre caught fire. The flames were fierce, and in just 3 hours the entire theatre, as well as valuable costumes, sets, scripts, and sheet music, was destroyed. The cost of the rebuild was huge, despite donations from wealthy supporters, and when the new theatre opened on 18th September 1809, several changes had been made to try and attract a more wealthy audience and recoup the cost of reconstruction. Prices were raised, a public gallery was converted into private (very expensive) boxes, and the top gallery (where the very poorest theatre-goers sat) had been converted into ‘pigeon holes’, from which only the legs of the performers could be seen. In addition, the celebrated soprano singer Angelica Catalani had been hired at great expense. To theatre-goers, these changes were seen as undermining the accessibility of British theatre, pandering to elites, and disenfranchising the middle and working classes.

On opening night at the new theatre, the performance was supposed to be MacBeth, with Shakespeare’s tragic hero played by John Philip Kemble, who was also the manager and part-owner of the theatre. However, the performance was drowned out by the audience who shouted, cheered, sang, and generally made a nuisance of themselves throughout. Kemble called the local magistrates to try and disperse the crowd, but it was not successful. The magistrates did not intervene again; there was debate over whether or not it was legal to kick out theatre-goers who had paid for their ticket.

22Cruikshank_Acting_Magistrates

A cartoon by George and Isaac Cruikshank showing the first night of the riots. The magistrates are on stage appealing for calm, and Kemble stands behind them (Source: The British Museum).

The riots continued for the next 67 nights. The protesters, who quickly began to call themselves OPs (Old Pricers) embraced theatricality by adopting tactics such as banners and placards, singing, dancing, racing, mock fights (all of which went on during the performances), and the production of fake money and OP medals. As riots go, they were quite civil; violence and property damage was minimal. They were very effective, however, in disrupting the normal running of the theatre and demonstrating just how important audiences were for the success of British theatre. Kemble and the other owners simply could not defeat them; every tactic they tried (such as hiring boxers to throw rioters out of the theatre) resulted in failure and humiliation. Eventually, they backed down, returning the prices to pre-fire levels, reducing the number of boxes and firing Catalani. On the night of 15th December Kemble publicly apologised to the theatre audience; a placard was unveiled in the pits that read “we are satisfied”.

25CruikshankOPDance

A cartoop by Isaac Cruikshank depicting ‘The OP dance’. The rioters’ tactics were theatrical and non-violent (Source: Isaac Cruikshank, The OP Dance. Plate 5. Well-heeled Ops. Frontispiece, The O.P. Songster for 1810 (© The British Library Board, 11798.a.23.[7.])

The riots were not completely positive, however. There were strong elements of xenophobia and nativism. The rioters used anti-Semitic rhetoric, and made much of Kemble’s Catholicism in their criticism of him. There was also a sense that British theatre was inherently superior to foreign theatre, which tied into the criticisms of Catalani, who was Italian. The OPs believed it was the responsibility of Covent Garden, as a major theatre, to protect traditional British drama from the ‘foreign’ types of drama that were proving so popular in the minor theatres, such as opera, melodrama and pantomime. As such, the OP riots helped to reinforce dichotomies such as high/low art, spoken word/spectacular drama, and native/foreign drama.

At first, the Old Price Riots can look like Londoners being cheapskates. However, when looked at more closely, they highlight issues of class and xenophobia in a period when the city was changing dramatically. That being said, I dread to think what the OPs would make of the price of a West End theatre ticket today!

Sources and Further Reading

Mulhallen, Jacqueline. “The Old Price Riots of 1809: Theatre, Class, and Popular Protest.” Counterfire. Last modified 12th November 2012, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.counterfire.org/history/16136-the-old-price-riots-of-1809-theatre-class-and-popular-protest

Robinson, Terry F. “National Theatre in Transition: The London Patent Theatre Fires of 1808-1809 and the Old Price Riots.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. No date, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=terry-f-robinson-national-theatre-in-transition-the-london-patent-theatre-fires-of-1808-1809-and-the-old-price-riots

Wikipedia. “Old Price Riots.” Last modified 12th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Price_Riots

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