HISTORY OF HORNCASTLE THEATRE
Extracts from ‘Treading the Boards’ by Neil R Wright
(Actors and Theatres in Georgian Lincolnshire)
In Georgian Lincolnshire the purpose built playhouses were smaller than modern venues and had virtually no front of house space. The Horncastle theatre, being in a converted barn was much larger than most at 94ft by 42ft. The auditorium was about 52ft long and the backstage about 42ft, separated by a proscenium arch 25ft wide.
At this time, Horncastle was a growing town and its population rose from 2015 in 1801 to 2622 in 1811. A temporary theatre existed here by February 1796 when Collier and Huggins’ company performed Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like it’ to raise funds for the benefit of the poor. It was in a threshing barn, later used as a warehouse in Dog Kennel Yard off St Lawrence Street just to the northeast of the Market Place, and it had a pit and gallery. That building was converted into a proper theatre and in February 1811 was referred to as the ‘New Theatre, Horncastle’ where Huggins’ company performed between 21 February and 9 March. It continued in use until 1836 and the appearance of the building clearly showed it was the conversion of a warehouse into a theatre; the structure survived until the 1970s.
Huggins and Collier were performing in Lincolnshire even before taking over Butler & Kings’ theatres. On 9 February 1796 they put on Shakespeare’s As you Like It at Horncastle as previously mentioned.
The Huggins’ circuit included theatres in the smaller towns of mid-Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and southwest Yorkshire. When the company closed in 1830 it was said that they were visiting Pontefract and Barnsley as well as the original Gainsborough, Louth, Horncastle, Mansfield and Worksop theatres. Louth and Horncastle were considered the best in Messrs Huggins and Clarke’s circuit and in 1829 their season at Horncastle lasted six weeks. On 21 February 1811 Huggins’ company put on a performance at the ‘New Theatre, Horncastle’, which was the improved playhouse in Dog Kennel Yard.
Joseph Smedley left the Lincoln Company and set up his own troupe in partnership with a Mr Clarke about whom practically nothing is known.
When Huggins’ company was disbanded in 1830 Smedley added Gainsborough, Horncastle and Brigg to his itinerary, and in 1835 he took at least four towns in south-west Yorkshire
Smedley never established a regular annual pattern of visits. From late October 1833 Smedley was at Gainsborough, then Grimsby, and in early 1834 moved to Alford, Spilsby, Horncastle, Sleaford and Bourne; it seems he stayed about a month at each place. In contrast a year later, from January to May 1835 he was at Holbeach, Melton Mowbray, Gainsborough and Brigg. In January 1839 Smedleys’ company was at Gainsborough and would then proceed to Grimsby, Alford, Spilsby, Horncastle, Brigg and Boston., a similar itinerary to 1833 but different dates.
Smedleys’ company survived until the late 1830’s despite the general decline in theatre going but the end was near. Horncastle theatre was visited in 1839, but in November of that year the Stamford Mercury reported:
…dramatic taste appears to have become quite extinct at Horncastle. The theatre at the place, after remaining closed for three years, is at length abandoned by the proprietor, and the materials employed in fitting up the interior have been consigned to the hammer of Mr Weir (an auctioneer)
Bruce and Bullen’s company was first referred to just after Smedley had disbanded his own company in 1840. They performed plays that had been chosen with taste and worthy of the best patronage including Shakespeare, Colman, Garrick and others. In October 1842 they were attracting full houses at Spilsby (population 1,457 in 1841). A Mr Melvin from Liverpool had joined their company to take the lead in King Lear and other Shakespearean plays. They then went to Alford, Louth and Horncastle. The contents of the theatre in Horncastle had been sold off some time before but the building stood until the middle of the twentieth century, so it would still be the most convenient venue for Bullen and Bruce in 1842. They were patronised by the leading families of the town and neighbourhood, and ‘their exertions gained them esteem and respectable encouragement’. That season ended 22 February 1843 with a benefit for Mrs Bullen.
Many theatres were closing in the 1860’s or changing useage. Many endured years without any theatrical use, but could be opened up if a company arrived in town, as appears to have been the case in Sleaford and Horncastle for some time, and Spalding was not dissimilar. The building that was Horncastle Theatre in Dog Kennel Yard survived for well over 100 years after its closure as a playhouse. In 1859 it was purchased for conversion to a British School but was only used as such from 1863 until 1876. There was then some attempt to reinstate it as a theatre, but by that time there were other halls in the town. It was instead sold in 1877 for £305 to Alfred Healey for a malt kiln. In 1976 it was still standing and was in use as a vehicle repair shop by Achurch & Sons, agricultural engineers, but it was demolished a few years later and the site is now part of a supermarket car park.
HHHS thanks Mr Wright for permission to use these extracts.
Horncastle was famous, or infamous, for its vast numbers of public houses and beer-houses in the early 19th century. Mr. G. Cross obviously felt that they were sinful establishments when he penned this poem in 1845. Can you find them as you walk through the town?
There are thousands caught in that trap called malt,
And hundreds now wounded are ready to halt;
Churches and chapels are temples for prayer,
But Satan's head agent attends on them there.
There are forty five places now in this town,
That are licensed to sell, by the Queen and the crown;
There are only five places of worship to find;
Do they stop this great evil, debasing mankind?
If they are lords, there are many kinds,
For over their doors you see many signs;
There is the King and likewise the Crown,
And beggars are made in every town.
There is the Queen and likewise her Head,
Where many I fear to the gallows are led;
There is the Angel and also the Deer,
Destroying the health, in every sphere.
There is the Vine and likewise the Fleece,
The fruit is bad throughout the whole piece;
There is the Royal Oak, likewise the Woolpack,
And many they have caus'd to carry rags on their back.
There is the White Hart, likewise the Cross Keys,
And many they have sent far over the seas;
There is the Lion and hundreds he's slain,
And still it's no warning for them to refrain.
There is the Bull, likewise his Head,
His horns are so strong, he can gore you quite dead;
There is the Ship that never sets sail,
But sends men to prison and keeps them in jail.
There is the Hare and the Hounds which never did run,
And many have been hang'd for the deeds they have done;
There is the Black Horse, likewise the Old Plough,
And many they have robb'd of their pigs and their cow.
There is the New Inn and the Rodney they say,
Have sent many to prison their debts for to pay;
There are two Fighting Cocks, which never can crow,
Where men often meet, to break Gods holy law.
There is the Swan, that never could fly,
But where is the name that will not have to die?
If on a sick bed you long are confin'd,
Do you ever expect that such men will be kind?
Horncastle can boast the first Dispensary in Lincolnshire, opened in 1789 at 2 St Mary's Churchyard. It serviced the poor until 1866 when the 2nd larger Dispensary opened in North Street. This was renamed the War Memorial Hospital in 1924 in memory of the local fallen in WW1.
The Wong is a Scandanavian term for pasture or common land and used to be owned by the Manor of Horncastle until it was given to the people by Edward Stanhope MP. There are still sheep and cattle pens that were used in the beast fairs. It is located on the south side of town near Cagthorpe.
The first Workhouse was built in 1736 next to the Dispensary in St. Mary's Churchyard. The second very imposing Workhouse is in Foundry Street. This became the county's children homes in 1933, later referred to as Holmleigh. Please see the section on Holmleigh Children's Home in the History section of the website.