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The University of Southampton

Killings and kidnappings: fascinating tales of London’s early theatres highlighted by new online database

Published: 3 February 2011Origin: English
London, Abram Booth, c. 1599

A wealth of documentary evidence relating to theatres and society in early-modern London has for the first time been brought together online, in an international project led by the University of Southampton.

Professor of English at Southampton, John McGavin, has directed research to find and transcribe historical texts relating to eight early theatres north of the Thames, which operated outside the capital’s city walls. The online database, Early Modern London Theatres (EMLoT), has been created as part of this research project, in collaboration with King’s College London, and contains many of the transcribed documents.

A fascinating insight into theatre life

“The website allows you to see what direct use has been made in books and other texts over the last four centuries of pre-1642 documents relating to the theatres in Middlesex and Westminster,” says principal investigator, Professor McGavin.

He continues: “This gives a fascinating insight into many aspects of 16th and 17th century theatre life and its place in society. The site is very flexible, allowing the user to pull together documents which are interlinked by common themes or events to help with their investigations. It shows how we got our information about the early theatres, from whom and when.”

Dr Jessica Freeman, of the department of English at the University of Southampton, has spent three years locating and transcribing the early records of the period, while Tanya Hagen and Chris Hicklin from Records of Early English Drama in Toronto (REED) have covered the period from 1642 to the present.

Dangerous times

The process of creating the EMLoT site, which was largely funded by a £370,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), has brought many tales of London theatre life to light. Among these are examples of dangers for performers, such as the kidnapping of child performers and rioting at theatres.

Records show in 1575 that a chorister of St Pauls was ‘stolen’, presumably by a rival group, prompting the Privy Council to call for action against the suspects. In another example in 1631, the King’s Revels company at Salisbury Court demanded the return of its boy actor, who had been put into service by the King’s Men group at Blackfriars Theatre.

The database contains a number of references to violence at the Cockpit or Phoenix Theatre in Drury Lane, during riots by apprentices in London on the 4 March 1617. Several people were killed before apprentices entered the theatre, defaced it, cut up performer’s clothes, and burned books. The following day a letter was sent from the Privy Council to the Lord Mayor asking for an inquiry to be set up to ‘examine and punish’ the offenders.

A resource for learning and teaching

The EMLoT database was designed and created under the direction of co-investigator John Bradley at the Centre for Computing in Humanities at King’s College London. It includes a Learning Zone devised for senior school pupils and university students, sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Teachers planning lessons can select a particular historical topic and explore the database for documentary evidence. There is also a tutorial on the 1617 riots at the Phoenix Theatre which shows how this event was represented in a succession of documents of different ages using a timeline.

The SSHRC, along with the British Academy, also supported the bibliographic research and editing of documents in Toronto.

There are now plans to extend EMLoT to cover theatres on the South Bank of the Thames, such as the Globe Theatre, which are now considered part of London, but as with the theatres of Middlesex and Westminster, were originally outside the city limits.

The Early Modern London Theatres website can be found at:  (Internet Explorer 7+)

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