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The Queen sat in the Royal Box alongside Prince Philip and other guests in 1958

Royalty at The Grand

In September 1858, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert paid a visit to Leeds. One hundred years later, in October 1958, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip also made a trip to the city.

In the wake of the Platinum Jubilee, this article explores both royal visits a century apart, and how the theatre links them both together.

Written by Megan Glanville, Making History: Archive Collaborations student at the University of Leeds who has been working with West Yorkshire Archives to uncover stories from our collection.

Queen Victoria’s first visit to Leeds came in 1858 to officially open the newly-constructed town hall, and it was also the first time that the city had received a royal visit. Leeds had seen major expansion following the industrial revolution, and the city was now booming. Other places visited during the stay included Woodhouse Moor, where 26,000 Sunday School children sung her hymns.

Joining her on the visit were her daughters, Princesses Helena and Alice, and husband Prince Albert, who certainly had something to say on what the city was missing. He remarked that Leeds needed a ‘first-class theatre’ and that ‘nothing was more calculated to promote culture and raise the tone of the people’ than this. However, nothing became of this comment as it came during a time in which there were a number of pious nonconformists who feared the ‘insidious influence of theatrical entertainments’.

Nonetheless, twenty years later, in 1878, Leeds Grand Theatre opened its doors for the first time, and Prince Albert’s offhand comment is often credited for the construction of the venue. 

An etching of Queen Victoria's visit to Leeds in 1858

Queen Victoria's royal visit to Leeds in 1858. Credit Leeds Libraries and Archives Services

By the 1950s, the theatre was thriving and an important part of Leeds culture. However, shows came to an abrupt halt upon the death of King George VI. The Yorkshire Evening News reported on 7th February 1952 that those who had booked seats for pantomimes the previous night would either receive full refunds or would be able to later rebook their seats for later performances. The following year, the Yorkshire Evening Post reported on 30 May 1953 regarding plans for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation the following week and how organisers across the country wished to put on shows that would be memorable to people as part of that week’s events. At the Leeds Grand that week, Betty Ann Davies was to star in The Third Person.

As 1958 rolled around, it was now a hundred years since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s historic visit, and a new royal trip to Leeds was scheduled. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were to visit the city in October of that year, and whilst it wasn’t their first time since the coronation, a visit to The Grand was in the diary. They were there to help celebrate the Leeds Centenary Music Festival and stayed at Harewood House for the duration of their trip.

Whilst at the theatre the royal couple enjoyed a showing of Handel’s Samson by the Covent Garden Opera Company on 17 October alongside the Princess Royal, her son Lord Harewood, the Prince and Princess of Hesse, the Countess of Harewood, and the Hon. Gerald and Mrs Lascelles. The cast included Jon Vickers as the title character and Joan Sutherland as an Israelite woman.

Samson Souvenir Programme - 1958

The programme cover of the 17 October 1958 showing of Samson, highlighting the royal presence of the evening. Credit: Leeds Heritage Theatres, West Yorkshire Archive Service, WYL762/105/51

The atmosphere in the theatre for the royal showing was abuzz, as Marie Hartley and Joan Ingleby wrote in their book The Wonders of Yorkshire: ‘Evening dresses shimmered beneath fur stoles. Diamonds, pearls, and medals glittered. Laughter and talk filled the auditorium. As the hands of the clock moved to 7 p.m, voices took up a whisper: “She’s coming!” The audience rose to its feet. Silence fell. Smiling and resplendent as a fairy princess, Queen Elizabeth II stood in the royal box’. 

While Leeds saw two royal visits a hundred years apart, they were joined together by the notion of theatre. What was once Prince Albert’s wish for the city later came true, and was enjoyed by his descendants a century later.

The Queen Visiting the cast of Samson after the performance in 1958

Queen Elizabeth II arrives to meet cast members of Samson alongside Prince Philip. Credit Leeds Heritage Theatres, West Yorkshire Archive Service