The First Leeds Panto?

To mark the forthcoming Christmas week, Librarian Antony Ramm offers a short investigation into the first pantomime performed in Leeds…

In 1986 a reader of the Yorkshire Evening Post asked a simple question:

What “records” were consulted for this answer is not made clear, but a previous article on the history of pantomime in Leeds offered a likely suggestion: the writings and collected notes of local historian and polymath, Alf Mattison. Mattison, who was affectionately known as ‘Old Leeds’ by his colleagues in the city’s tramways department, possibly knew more about the history of his hometown than anyone who ever lived.

At least that’s the impression one gets from exploring his voluminous collection of local historical and antiquarian material available at our Central Library. Among that collection is a whole sub-series of material relating to the history of theatres in Leeds – a particular passion for Mattison; and, buried within that set of notebooks, lecture scripts, and newspaper cuttings is a pretty-definitive sounding answer to the question posted by J.Ingle of Otley:

That cutting, then – from Mattison’s regular ‘Diary of a Yorkshireman’ series in the local press – states that the first pantomime performed in Leeds took place in 1772, was entitled ‘Harlequin Sorcerer’ and was performed by the company of the legendary Tate Wilkinson at his The Theatre on Hunslet Lane, just one year after it opened.

The Theatre on Hunslet Lane. More detail about this venue is available on our Discovering Leeds website. 

Strangely, a manual search of the Local and Family History local newspaper-microfilm collection threw up no mention of that particular performance – but the Leeds Intelligencer did record a performance of a pantomime called ‘Harlequin Salamander‘ [italics added] on July 14, 1772: the first advert or mention of any pantomime found in the local press during that search. It’s possible, of course, that the two plays are one and the same – Mattison does note that Sorcerer existed “with variations in title” between 1772 and 1793.

Leeds Intelligencer, July 14 1772

Either way: further searching of local press from the 18th-century revealed that the 1772 performance was not, in fact, the first performance of a pantomime in Leeds. Five years prior to 1772, on the 6th of January 1767, ‘Harlequin Salamander’ was performed at the “CONCERT-ROOM” in the Rose and Crown Yard (long-since demolished and replaced by the Queen’s Arcade). Most likely, the concert-room referred to was situated within the Rose and Crown Inn; a pub of uncertain vintage, though undoubtedly in existence from 1757 at the very least – according to Mattison, in his ‘Chronicles of Old Leeds’ series of newscuttings:

Cutting from Mattison’s ‘Chronicles of Old Leeds,’ Volume 1, p.2

Mattison also records, in another cutting from the same ‘Chronicles of Old Leeds’ series that the Rose and Crown Inn “was used for theatrical productions – usually without Royal Patent, the licence to perform.” That is to say: the concert room was supposed to be for musical entertainment only, with the Royal Patent required to perform plays for profit. In a pleasing display of the Yorkshire entrepreneurial spirit, however, the publican of the time got round this by only charging the audience for their seats for the music; the plays were free.

c.1887 View of the Rose and Crown Yard looking across Lands Lane to King Charles Croft. The larger of the two gas lamps is outside the Theatre Royal, the proprietor of the day was Jos. Hobson. The Rose and Crown Public House was a coaching inn, also known as ‘Binks Hotel’ after the landlady, Maria Binks. The Rose and Crown Yard was replaced by the Queen’s arcade designed by architect, Edward Clark of London and opened in 1889. It linked Lands Lane with Briggate. From www.leodis.net

On the date in question, then, the play being performed was The Beaux Stratagem – to which was “added, a PANTOMIME ENTERTAINMENT never perform’d here, call’d The Witches; or, Harlequin Salamander ” – the same title we find in the 1772 performance, when it was also said to have been “never perform’d here”…!

Leeds Intelligencer 6th January 1767

Interestingly, Allardyce Nicoll reports in his monumental A History of English Drama (6 vols) that ‘Harlequin Salamander’ was also performed in York in February of 1766 – could it be that the Leeds performance was given by the same travelling group of players?

Either way, by the close of 1767 the Rose and Crown’s dominance as the venue for theatrical performances was ended, when the New Concert-Hall opened on Vicar Lane in December of that year (the exact location on Vicar Lane is unknown):

Programme, first night at New Concert Hall, 1767

And, just four years after that venue opened…Tate Wilkinson thrust his way to the front-row of provincial theatre management by opening his The Theatre, thus making Leeds “the most important town outside London in the world of drama.” (The quote is from a newspaper article by Ian Danby, preserved in Mattison’s ‘Chronicles of Old Leeds’). The stage was quite literally set for the spectacular future development of theatre – and pantomime – in Leeds.

In that story, the Rose and Crown Inn most usually figures as little more than a footnote; a brief preamble before Wilkinson hits the scene. And, by the early 20th-century, the pub had disappeared from the map of Leeds’ revellers.  Alf Mattison recorded one of his final visits to the tavern in a newspaper article of 1904, which rather fittingly and poignantly focuses on the Inn’s last festive gathering. Mattison’s piece is worth quoting at some length, as a reminder that this time of year is as much about remembering the past as it is looking forward to the future; and as a implied reflection on the human cost behind the opaque, technocratic-utopian language of ‘development’:

The season of Christmas usually finds one in a retrospective frame of mind. Among other memories of a local past, I recall the last Christmas the old Rose and Crown hostelry experienced in its long and historic career e’er its shutters were closed for ever, consequent upon one of the many improvements Briggate, Leeds, has undergone within the last decade.

It was Christmas Eve, I repeat, and, conscious of its impending doom, the parlour of the Rose and Crown mustered a goodly company of its old frequenters on this occasion, bent on doing a last homage to the hostelry to which they had all such treasured associations.

The Yule logs blazed up the wide chimney – emitting a warmth truly grateful to each new-comer as he entered from the inclemency of the streets. It was a wild night, the wind went grumbling and howling through the streets of the town, but the snow led the van. People might have borne with the wind, but the snow was too much for them. It was a fine sight to witness, in its driving headlong career, in its infuriating rage.

As each new-comer entered, “mine host” extended a cheery, seasonable greeting, though I could not fail to detect a tremor in his voice, due no doubt, to his impending retirement from a role he had so faithfully upheld for many, many years…

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