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Proposed Architect Drawing of The Grand frontage from 1877, with people in Victorian dress outside on the street

The Opening of The Grand

Leeds Grand Theatre opened on Mon 18 November 1878 with a triumphant production of Much Ado About Nothing. Designed by architect George Corson (assisted by James Robertson Watson), The Grand was truly a ‘labour of love’ which broke records and theatre norms upon opening. 

As we have delved into our archives, we have uncovered first-hand accounts of the extravagant opening night from The British Newspaper Archive. These excerpts show a fascinating insight into how the building looked upon opening and the spirit of the crowd, plus our infamous inaugural manager – Wilson Barrett.

Written by Bryony Jameson

‘On Monday night, in the presence of an audience composed of the wealthy, rank, and intellect of Leeds, the Grand Theatre was opened by Mr. Wilson Barrett, the appointed manager and lessee. The works of the theatre were commenced in October of last year, so that it has taken thirteen months to build. Its cost has been over £60,000.

From the front row of the orchestra stalls to the back seat of the gallery there is not a seat from which a good view of the stage cannot be obtained. The pit is very commodious and comfortable, and the architects seem to have recognised the fact that to the pit the manager must look for a large amount of the support given to him. The pit has often been described as the backbone of a theatre, and therefore the probable patrons of this portion of the house have been considered in every possible way.

The dress-circle, with its wide passages and its crush room, is arranged on a scale of comfort hitherto unknown in a provincial theatre, and the upper circle and balcony stalls also form capital points for seeing and hearing all that passes on the stage. The acoustic properties of the building are admirable. The entire theatre is calculated to seat 2,600 persons with perfect comfort to everybody, and there is standing room for 200 more. All the approaches are wide and spacious, so that on even the busiest nights there need be no crushing or inconvenience.’

Hull Packet, 22 November 1878

Architects Drawing of Leeds Grand Theatre from 1877

Architects Drawing of Leeds Grand Theatre from 1877, Credit West Yorkshire Archives, WYL762

‘Mr Barrett, on the rising of the curtain, addressed the audience from the stage. When the vociferous cheering with which he was received had ended, he said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, – I heartily welcome you to this, one of the finest, if not the finest theatre in Europe. That cheer of yours makes me feel rather like the naughty boy who got a prize by mistake. This magnificent theatre was built not by me, but by the enterprise of your townsmen, and by the architects, Messrs. Corson and Watson.

I am sure you will feel at your ease when I tell you that if this theatre were crammed to suffocation there is sufficient room in the passages and staircases to accommodate every soul that comes into it. And not only is this so, but every passage and every staircase is fireproof. If a fire were to break out where I am now standing, every man present would have time to light his cigar, give his arms to his lady love, and saunter pleasantly out of the theatre.

And not only is the building commodious and comfortable in front, but every care has been taken of us poor actors behind the curtain. In a few days we shall be not only comfortable, but in a state of luxury. Too often the theatre dressing-rooms are worse than cattle pens. They are mere hoardings and orange boxes knocked together, and are draughty, and comfortless; and yet the actor, perhaps chilled with cold, his dress soiled, and his temper soured, is expected to step out of those places on to the stage, the embodiment of cheerfulness it may be, and at all events he must look like a gentlemen. It is difficult to do (cheers and laughter). But here we get rid of those difficulties. Every actor has a comfortable dressing-room and in that room are hot air pipes entirely under his own control. If he is to represent an African he can get up his temperature to the proper pitch – (laughter) – and if he has to represent an Icelander there is a cold bath upstairs where he may get himself down to the freezing point (renewed laughter).

Wilson Barrett and the Opening Night playbill for Much Ado About Nothing

Left: Wilson Barrett photographed in 1882 by Alexander Bassano (Credit National Portrait Gallery), Right: Much Ado About Nothing opening night playbill from 1878 (Credit Leeds Libraries - Playbills Collection)

This is, I honestly believe, the first theatre in Europe for convenience, and the credit of it belongs to the architects, Mr. Corson and Mr. Watson, and Mr. Corson will pardon me for saying that to Mr. Watson it has been a labour of love. Mr. Corson’s genius you can see in every corner of the building, but had not Mr. Watson made this a labour of love, and thrown his whole heart and soul into it, we should not have been here this evening (loud cheers).’

Hull Packet, 22 November 1878

‘Leeds is a great centre, rapidly improving in matters of taste and cultivation, eminently musical, and therefore there can be no reasonable doubt but that such a population ought to be quite able to support two well-conducted Theatres.’

‘We think, in inaugurating such a Temple of the Drama, Mr Wilson Barrett exercised a wise discretion in selecting a Shakespearian play, and with Shakespeare, on Monday last, the “Grand” Theatre, Leeds, was opened to the public, and, as might have been expected, the house was a brilliant one.’

‘The comedy of Much Ado About Nothing was the opening attraction. Miss Fowler, specially engaged, gave a bright and piquante performance as Beatrice. The Benedick was Mr Wilson Barrett, who played with ease and finish. Mr Barrett and Miss Fowler were called before the curtain at the close of each act. The other parts were in good hands. The much-wronged Hero was prettily played by Miss Cissy Graham, Mr Blakeley made an amusing Dogberry, and Mr Clitherow played Verges with great skill. The piece was really beautifully and elaborately mounted, every scene was a picture, and the dresses were superb. Mr Barrett subsequently informed the audience that there had been no rehearsal, and we have, notwithstanding, to record that the comedy was played without single hitch or mishap. At the close of the comedy Mr Barrett again addressed the audience on his position and prospects as Manager of this great undertaking.’

‘One of the most important events in the annals of Leeds, whose inhabitants are certainly to be congratulated on having in their midst one of the noblest theatrical institutions in this or any other country.’

The Era, 24 November 1878

Leeds Grand Theatre on opening day in 1878 and today, 2022

Leeds Grand Theatre on opening day in 1878 and today, 2022. Credit Leeds Heritage Theatres and West Yorkshire Archive Service

Leeds Grand Theatre Buildings Fund

As a Grade II listed building, we want to preserve Leeds Grand Theatre for future generations, making it more accessible, sustainable, and comfortable; everything we do will enhance your experience as a customer. All donations will be fully invested in ongoing projects, including improved access facilities, changing our lighting to LED, and investing in a new Flying system.

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