Theatres Through Time: Tate Wilkinson

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Leeds has a long and rich theatrical history, stretching back to at least 1722, when Ralph Thoresby noted, in his diary – and with some disapproval! – the appearance of a group of players in the town. The collections and books available in our Local and Family History department pay tribute to the depth of that history, providing a comprehensive overview of the many theatrical spaces and personalities that Leeds has played host to. With a history encompassing such diversity of people and locations, many might feel (at least this writer does) that a defined starting point or focus is required before attempting to make sense of that past.

One useful starting point would be the figure of Tate Wilkinson. Wilkinson was first an actor and then, most famously, a theatrical manager who opened the first permanent theatre in Leeds, based on Hunslet Lane and fittingly known as The Theatre or the Leeds Theatre; one of several such establishments Wilkinson operated in Yorkshire and which encompassed what is known as the ‘Yorkshire Circuit’. The Theatre was opened in 1771 and Wilkinson remained connected to it until his death in 1803. Much has been written about Wilkinson and the Theatre; and, rather than repeating the known facts again, we shall instead direct interested readers to our Discovering Leeds website to find out more.

Tate Wilkinson
Tate Wilkinson

What we can do, however, is highlight some of the relevant playbills and books available. Most obvious is the aforementioned playbills, of which over 200 from the Wilkinson era can be viewed here in the Library. You can see some selections from that collection in this previous blog post, or browse our Leodis playbills collection for a wider selection (simply select ‘The Theatre’ and narrow the search to playbills between 1781 and 1803).

A selection from the 200+ playbills during the Wilkinson era. This includes the earliest playbill at the Central Library, from 1781
A selection from the 200+ playbills during the Wilkinson era. This includes the earliest playbill at the Central Library, advertising a production of ‘School For Wives’ that took place during May of 1781

Readers can also find out more about Wilkinson’s story in his own words: the Library holds a first edition of his 1790 Memoirs and a facsimile copy of his comprehensive 1795 The Wandering Patentee: Or, A History of the Yorkshire Theatres, From 1770 to the Present Time. An index to that last four-volume book is also available. Anyone wanting to go even deeper will find texts such as The Yorkshire Stage: 1766-1803 and The Theatrical Manager in England and America: Player of a Perilous Game of great interest.

The title page of Wilkinson's Memoirs
The title page of Wilkinson’s Memoirs

And that’s just scratching the surface of the books and other materials which can help you gain an insight into this fascinating subject – click on the image below to view a research guide listing many other theatrical collection items available in the Central Library.

theatre research guide

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