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Covent Garden- The Origins of the West End Theatre

theatre engraving

When Charles II, was restored to the Throne in 1660, he was quick to restore the Theatre which he had enjoyed in France. But London since the days of Shakespeare had expanded out to the west and it was now here, in the rich and fashionable suburbs, that Theatre found its new audience. Charles granted patents for two theatres, thus setting the foundation for London's theatreland.

The first patent was granted to Thomas Killigrew, who had joined Charles on his exile in France, and who opened the first Theatre Royal in a converted Tennis Court in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Three years later the Theatre mmved to its present location at the corner of Russell Street and Catherine Street and the old site has since disappeared under the late 19th century road of Kingsgway.

One of the greatest innovations which Charles brought with him from the French Theatre was the introduction of professional actresses. The first on the English Stage was probably Margaret Hughes who appeared as Desdemona in Othello in 1660; but the most famous of this first generation is and was undoubtedly Nell Gwyn. Eleanor Gwyn is perhaps the greatest rags to riches character of the English Theatre. Born in 1650 of poor parentage she spent much of her childhood earning whatever she could serving drinks in the bawdy houses of Covent Garden. At the age of 13 she apparently moved out into the market to sell oranges and was almost immediately 'discovered'; she made her debut here in 1665 in Dryden's Indian Queen.


Next Punch and Judy at Covent Garden



Two years later, Samuel Pepys attended a performance of 'The Maiden Queen, a new play of Dryden's, mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit; and the truth is there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again, by man or woman... So great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girl, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the motions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her'.

The greatest admiration however came from King Charles himself, with whom Nell retired from the stage to become his 'official mistress'. Nell called him his Charley the third as her two previous acquaintances had both also been called Charles - Hart and Buckhurst. It was said that 'Nelly was eased of her virginity by Mr Hart at the same time as Lord Buckhurst sighed for it... But his majesty carrying off the prize, we must leave her under Royal protection'