The Royal Circus was first opened on the 4th of November 1782 by Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin. The Royal Circus burnt down on several occasions and was eventually rebuilt and reopened as the Surrey Theatre in April 1810.
An excerpt from “The Romance of London Theatres” by Ronald Mayes:
In 1771, a “strong man” and a prominent equestrian performer opened an exhibition and riding school in opposition to Astley, who began his managerial career owning a circus on a piece of waste ground near the Westminster Bridge. Twelve years later Charles Hughes, the “strong man,” entered into partnership with Charles Dibdin, the song writer, and raised a building costing fifteen thousand pounds, near the obelisk in Blackfriars Road, which was opened under the name of the Royal Circus. Equine and canine drama was produced there.
The original idea was to make the house a school for actors. Among the sixty members we find several who were destined to loom large in the theatrical world, for example, Mrs. Charles Kemble and others. The ballet master was Grimaldi, the Father of the inimitable “Joey.”
An early handicap to the success of the house was the opposition of the Surrey magistrates to theatrical amusement, who closed the place as an unlicensed building. The devotees of the theatre, however, offered such resistance to these measures that the Riot Act had to be read and the military called out. The house obtained a licence and was re-opened a few months later.
The Royal Circus not only introduced equine performers to the London stage, but also had the honour of being the first place at which canine actors appeared. The actors owning the animals being called “dog-stars.” These actors always travelled in pairs, one playing the hero and other the villain. The former was always attended by his faithful “Dawg,” who at the end of the turn, at a given signal, sprang at the throat of the Villain, around which was a thick pad covered with a red cloth, invisible of course, to the audience. The dog did not let go until the bad man of the piece had expired in great agony.
In 1803, the Royal Circus shared the usual fate of theatres by being burned down, and it was rebuilt and opened the following year with the same style of entertainment. In 1809, William Robert Elliston, who had won his laurels at the patent houses, became manager, and converted the place into a theatre. Elliston paid a rental of over two thousand pounds per annum and turned the stables into saloons and the arena into a pit. He retired in 1814 when he transferred his energies to the Olympic, and the house was again turned into a circus.
Note: The Surrey became a circus again until a certain Thomas Dibdin reopened it as a theatre in 1816.
Opposite: 128 Blackfriars Rd
London SE1 8EQ
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