The Britannia Theatre was a large theatre in the Hoxton area that operated between 1841–1900. Run on the style of a Victorian Music Hall, the Britannia was a popular and cheap venue amongst locals from the East End of London. Charles Dickens was amongst its visitors and wrote about the theatre.
The Britannia started life as a ‘saloon theatre’ built by Samual Lane behind the Britannia Public House. Lane had previously met up with some actors and staged drama, but fell foul of the law surrounding Patent Theatres. With some colleagues, Lane thought he could circumvent the rules by not charging for admission, but making revenue on the sale of food and programmes. He identified a site on an old Elizabethan tavern in Hoxton that had a hall attached, holding around 1,000 people.
Opening on Easter Monday 1841 the Britannia Saloon was an instant success and considered to have been one of the most important ‘saloon theatres’ of its period. Following the abolition of Patent Theatres in 1843, the Britannia maintained low prices, making it a popular venue for the relatively poorer residents of London’s East End.
With continuing success, in 1858 Lane commissioned the noted theatre and music hall architects Finch Hill & Paraire to build him a new theatre with a horse-shoe shaped auditorium holding around 3,000 seats. The new theatre opened on 8 November 1858 and was noted for its melodramas. Its is said that the theatre achieved a record attendance of 4,790 on one occassion.
Charles Dickens and the Britannia Theatre.
Magnificently lighted by a firmament of sparkling chandeliers, the building was ventilated to perfection. The air of this theatre was fresh, cool and wholesome. It has been constructed from the ground to the roof, with a careful reference to sight and sound in every corner, the result is that its form is beautiful and that the appearance of the audience as seen from the proscenium with every face in it commanding the stage and the whole is so admirably raked and turned to that centre, and is highly remarkable in its union of vastness and compactness. The stage itself and all its appurtenances of machinery, cellarage, height and breadth are on a scale more like the Scala at Milan or the Grand Opera at Paris than any notion a stranger would be likely to form of the Britannia Theatre at Hoxton, a mile north of St Luke’s Hospital in the Old Street Road. The Forty Thieves might be played here and every thief ride his real horse; and the disguised captain bring in his oil jars on a train of real camels and nobody be put out of the way. This really extraordinary place is an achievement of one man’s enterprise and was erected on the ruins of an inconvenient old building in less than five months at a round cost of five and twenty thousand pounds.
The Britannia Theatre suffered a large fire in 1900, badly destroying the building. The prohibitive cost of rebuilding the venue up to a modern standard forced the sale of the lease and the building was sold to the Gaumont organisation, who converted it into cinema from 1913. In 1940, bombs dropped during London Blitz of World War II further damaged the building and the Britannia was demolished a year later.
The theatre was located at what is now 115/117 High Street, Hoxton, in the London Borough of Hackney. The site is now occupied by housing, The site is marked by a London Borough of Hackney historic plaque.