Portable Theatres in Wales, 1843-1914
By Cecil Price. The National Library of Wales Journal, Volume IX/1 1955.
Extracted on to the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales
These are selected extracts from this article and are intended to bring out the flavour of a theatrical life that the participants regarded as the then modern successor of the "old strolling tradition". [Gareth Hicks Feb 2002]
Source notes where extracted are shown as [ italics].
The period 1843-1877
Portable theatres were sometimes tents, sometimes collapsible wooden booths, and sometimes a combination of wooden walls with a tilt or canvas top.Their common characteristic was that they could be dismantled easily , and carried from place to place on carts or railway wagons.
A property of this kind consisted of more than the usual theatrical furnishings, this is made plain in the will of one owner of a portable ;
"I give and bequeath all my Waggons, Theatrical Dresses, Scenery and Stages, Living Van, Pit , Gallery, Coverings, Frontings, Paintings, and the whole of the Articles and Things forming my large building, now known as "Latimer's Mammoth Theatre", to my dear wife".
[ A copy of the will of John Latimer, dated 13 /4/1858, is now in the possession of Mr R V Ebley. Latimer's portable had its headquarters at West Bromwich, but it played in Wales on several occasions. It concluded a profitable season at Wrexham in November 1852 [The Era, 14/11/1852]. He moved on to Oswestry; ' Mr Latimer, though wanting in great histrionic ability, brings considerable industry to his aid, and having surrounded himself with a tolerable company, we hope he may have a profitable season'. A play-bill of 11/4/1865 advertises a new local drama, called The Maniac of Chirk Castle, at Latimer's, Wrexham [By-Gones, 28/9/98]
The day of setting up or pulling down was a very busy one requiring strict rules and regulations by the owner, such as
"Any party coming intoxicated to the building , or pulling down, or to perform, to be fined his night's salary ; for the second offence, to be discharged."
"All ladies to assist in mending the tilt."
[ See Cecil Price, The Regulations of a Nineteenth Century Portable Theatre, Theatre Notebook, vol 4, 1949]
Some of the largest portables could hold 2000 spectators, and could put on quite as an elaborate spectacle as the smaller permanent theatres. Their overheads were low, as was the price of admission. They avoided towns where stock companies played and sought audiences in the villages and townships of the new industrial areas. They saw themselves as the provincial representatives of the London " penny gaffs" and this name was indeed used for them in the Welsh centres they played.
[ For the resemblance, see James Grant, Penny Theatres (from Sketches in London), Society for Theatre Research, Pamphlet Series no 1, 1950/1]
These 'nomadic Thespians' were sometimes accused of 'murdering the Queen's English', a charge which had good basis when a troupe was composed of Cockneys who could not get engagements as the London "penny gaffs".
[ Merthyr Telegraph, 25/6/1864]
This amusing incident demonstrates the point ;
In 1852 the Monmouthshire Merlin describes the appearance at Pontypool Magistrates Court of one Henry Mangley, who was charged with assaulting a James Attis ' a brother professional'. Under the caption ' The Actors; A Small Performance' are details of their pleas;
"Complainant ; Yer verships, the day next Pontypool fair, this 'ere Caliban comes up and hits me sich a precious von hin my hy, that I sees forked lightning in no time. I vent down on my marrows, hin course; and hafore I can hascend again, vy he ins to precious 'air like a currycomb, and pitches hinto me a rum 'un, and no mistake.
Defendant ; O, I pleads guilty, on my 'onour, but I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word would harrow up etc. In short, the spoons. the spoons. O, my prophetic soul, my uncle."
Allowing for some exaggeration in the writing, we may conclude that the standard of English spoken at this particular booth was not of the highest.
[ Even at the commencement of the twentieth century, the standard was sometimes low. See Maud, Gill, 'See the Players', 2nd ed Birmingham, 1948]
Entertainments at the portables were said to contain much vulgarity and sensationalism [ Merthyr Telegraph, 17/9/1864], the actors were able to make a direct and intimate appeal of the kind also found in the musical hall. Their audiences were unsophisticated, liked broad jokes, rude wit and violent action. They had come to enjoy themselves, they warmed their hands on open braziers and satisfied their appetites by roasting potatoes or chestnuts. They also satisfied their instincts by applauding the heroine and hissing the villain. They liked the older sort of programme, shortened tragedy or melodrama, a farce, some songs, recitations, and dances. They wanted their money's worth.
The portables only became common in Wales after the passing of the Theatres Act of 1843 which excluded booth and tent theatres from the licensing requirements.
The owners were nominally under the control of the local magistrates but were actually free to give their entertainments as they pleased while a fair or race meeting lasted.
Many a portable visited Welsh fairs of the period.
At the Llandaff May Fair of 1842 'wild beasts, actors and peepshows allured many a votary of fun and frolic' [ Merthyr Guardian, 21/5/1842]
In 1846, theatrical booth at Newport race-course drew even more attention when a high tide surrounded it with water. [ Merthyr Guardian, 12/9/1846]
In 1877, Llangyfelach Fair presented 'merry mummers and mimics, musicians and mares'.[ The Cambrian, 9/3/1877]
This piece from the Brecon County Times in May 1867 describes the scene at Abergavenny May Fair ;
"The general appearance of the fair is much the same as at other places ; there is the usual confusion of tongues, gingerbread stalls, toy stalls, nut stalls, with the importunate invitations to 'taste and try before you buy' ; there is a confused hubbub of sounds , comprising a very tempest of dissonance from neighbouring ballad singers, the customary squeaking of penny trumpets, ringing of bells.....We pass on to the centre point of attraction--the showyard. There [in company with the pugilist's tent] is a strolling theatre, the aspiring Rocci [sic] of which are taking a preliminary promenade prior to retiring to satisfy the ardent cravings of the lovers of the drama. There they are in all the faded glory of trusseted grandeur strutting up and down their limited stage with all the pomp and circumstance of monarchs, princes, knights and gay cavaleros. They can treat you for a nominal charge of three-pence, with a most exacting tragedy on the most approved 'blood and sawdust' principle ; can beguile the tears of romantic young noodles.....".
Magistrates and industrialists "believed that a poor man's evenings would be better spent in a (portable) theatre than a beer house" [ The Era, 20/11/1870, this is the remark made by the Chairman of the Brentford Magistrates to Edward Wildman]. It was true that the actors often followed tradition by pitching their theatre near an Inn, but they did at least keep men for some hours 'from the drink' and helped to combat one of the greatest social evils of the day.
Inside the portable theatre the audience would hear many a sermon in dramatic form against ' the bottle'. They would also hear repeated the sentiment 'Industry is the foundation of every virtue' [ Drunkeness and idleness were the worst habits of 'a very imperfectly instructed and demoralised population']. They would sympathise with orphans, castaways, erring daughters, loving parents. They would watch sensational scenes, sword combats, and wild farce. They would go away chastened , stirred , amused ; they would not be in the riotous mood associated with the tavern.
The magistrates actively encouraged the players because they helped to preserve public order.
All the portables originally came into Wales from England. Some went home very soon; others crossed and recrossed the border for several years. Some companies quarrelled amongst themselves and split into rival bands. A few managers built up circuits of Welsh towns and remained in Wales for the rest of their lives.
There are also instances of managers leaving the permanent theatre for portables when the latter began to decline and they sought audiences in the new industrial areas.
A good example of this is Bruton's company between 1850 and 1856, after being the lessee of Hereford, Gloucester and Merthyr theatres, Bruton sought patronage at Nantyglo. A description of his visit is interesting because it shows the kind of audience that could be found if the actors would only leave their usual circuits, and venture into the new industrial areas;
"Henceforth, let no critic say that the Nantyglonians are behind the age --- let no man pronounce them tasteless; for here, even here in the mountain gorge where the eternal roar of blast furnaces and the vulcanian toils of strong-armed men, are for ever going on, have we found hundreds hastening to witness the performances of a veritable actor whose Hamlet was every inch a prince...................(part omitted)..............................the assembly room at the Greyhound Hotel filled early and the assembled company was found to be a respectable and attentive one. The excellent 'Blaina Philharmonic Band' was in attendance and pleasantly filled up the time before the curtain was raised......Two or three comic songs followed with another laughable piece. All this is not to be forgotten for many a year in the locality." [ Monmouthshire Merlin, 14/5/1852]
Clearly, Bruton had fitted his theatre into a room at the Greyhound, and was so pleased with his reception that he returned the next year. In the same year (1854) he opened at Blaenavon and Ebbw Vale, also Neath, by when he was using a tent. [ Monmouthshire Merlin, 4/8/1854, 25/8/1854; The Cambrian, 22/8/1854]. The following year they were at Aberavon, Pontypool and Blaina, and played the Christmas season at Tredegar, and their trapeze artistes were particularly appreciated. The last record of them is in 1856 at Brynmawr, [ The Era, 28/1/1855, 9/3/1856] they presumably then returned across the border.
The company managed by the brothers Jennings played in Wales between 1869 and 1877, be it in a hall or portable."In a manner seldom seen at Tredegar " these actors produced Macbeth, The Octoroon, and, Alone in a Pirate's Lair, at the Temperance Hall [ The Era, 24/1/1869].They played at Rhymney, were described as 'the most talented theatrical company that ever came among us'. [ The Era, 7/7/1872]. Even standing room was unobtainable at Merthyr in 1872. Visits followed to Aberdare, Llanelly and Carmarthen [for 3 months] ; and Neath in 1875. The article has the quotes " Mr Noakes was as funny as ever", and a detailed description of Julia Jennings's performance as Hamlet.[ Merthyr Telegraph, 17/12/1875]
The Jennings company then played at Aberdare, Brecon and Blaina but returned to England in 1877 and with their connection with Wales ended were next seen were at Hereford Cattle Market and at Evesham with their portable.[ The Era, 1/4/1877, 28/7/1878] Their clown Noakes soon opened up on his own account and worked part of the same Welsh circuit.
The Holloways had a circuit in Warwickshire and occasionally crossed the border. Eight members of the family (with five other actors) played Abersychan and Pontypool in 1865. The company included a brass band. [ The Era, 17/9/1865, 1/10/1865]. They were at Blaina and Aberdare Workmen's Hall in the same year. [ Merthyr Telegraph, 24/3/1866, The Era, 21/1/1866] They returned to Wales 10 years later, played Llanidloes in 1876 when T Holloway advertised for extra staff , this is a slightly edited version of what he said;
"Wanted, for Holloway's Portable Theatre, Gent. for Heavies, Juvenile Gent., and Low Comedian [to sing between the Pieces]. Terms, shares or salaries, low. Letters to be addressed to Mr T Holloway, Theatre, New Town, Montgomeryshire. A Couple of Good N...... send lowest terms " [ The Era, 10/9/1876, 29/10/1876]
They were also at Newton and Knighton in 1876, Newton again in 1878. The latter venue saw the tragic death of Holloway's children who were suffocated whilst asleep by the fumes from a coke fire.[ The Era, 27/10/1878, 3/11/1878] In 1909 they are again in the news when Horace Holloway's portable theatre was destroyed by fire at Flint.[ The Portable Times, 1/6/1909]
John Hord's name became synonymous in the South Wales valleys with the old portable theatre. he spent over 20 years in S Wales and was long remembered there after his death. He is first mentioned in 1856 when he was the manager of a company who visited Pontypool;
"Pontypool. Mr J Hord closes his unique portable theatre on Tuesday next. The company consists of Mesdames Moreland, Ford, Smith, Palmer, Young, Loosmore & Miss Hord ; Messrs J Palmer, F Jones, Stuart, Loosmore, S W Thomas, Strutt and J Hord. The company proceed from here to the Theatre Royal, Merthyr Tydfil, to open on Boxing Night." [ The Era 21/12/1856].
Hord's 'Cambrian Theatre' played Merthyr in 1857 and returned to that thriving town every November of the next 17 years. From a stay of one month they extended the season year by year and by 1865 it lasted for 6 months . [T he Era, 29/11/1857]These Merthyr seasons are of great interest for they reveal the kind of entertainment provided by the best of the portables and the great welcome that greeted them whenever they appeared in the town.
This advertisement of a week's performances appeared in 1862;
"Theatre Royal, Market Place; They are come !
Hord's Double Company of Comedians, comprising Thirty first-class artists, gorgeous ward-robe, magnificent scenery. Splendid act drop ; A View of Constantinople. The True Passport of Public Favour ; Talent & Respectability. Look at the Names !
Gentlemen ; - Mrs W Hamilton, of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, and Royal Prince's Theatre, Leeds ; Mr A Cassando of the Theatre Royal, Newcastle ; Mr T Hearne, of the Theatre Royal, Cork and Plymouth ; Mr W Lewis of the Theatres Royal, Wednesbury, and Boston ; Harry Eddy of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, London ; Mr T Hoare, inimitable clown and pantomimist ; Mr F Vernon of the Exeter Theatre; Mr C Mayers, of the Bradford and Halifax Theatres ; Mr S Macdonald of the Theatre Royal, Glasgow ; Mr C Manges, clarionet and violin secondo ; Mr J Manges, first violin and cornet ; Mr T Manges, trombone and basso. and Mr J Hord, The funniest, yet most refined Comedian and Comic Singer!
Ladies ;-- Mrs C Manges, of the Theatre Royal, Glasgow ; Mrs W Lewis, of Wednesbury & Boston Theatres ; Mrs W Rollings, of the Theatre Royal Edinburgh & Leeds ; Mrs Hamilton, Liverpool & York Theatres ; Miss E Hord ; Miss Harne, Cork & Liverpool Theatres ; Mrs Cassandro, Theatre Royal, Newcastle ; and the old favourite....Mrs J Hord."
The Merthyr Telegraph reported that for these performances ' the house was crammed , and the old comedian [ Hord] did not fail to produce shouts of applause'. [ Merthyr Telegraph, 8/11/1862, 15/11/1862].
Hord's six monthly season at Merthyr took place between November and April ans saw the presentation of a wide variety of plays, and he was always ready to put on anything that had a local or topical appeal, these included;
- Simon Lee, or the Murder near Carmarthen
- Will Pontypridd
- The Blind Witness of Aberdare
- The novelty of an unnamed Welsh play is mentioned and it is asssumed it was in the Welsh language which poses the question of who acted in it ?
- Under the Gaslight
- Breakers Ahead
- Captain Kyd
- Meg Murnoch
- Dick Turpin and Tom King
- Raby Rattler
- The Innkeeper of Abbeville
- The Maniac Lover [ of which the Merthyr Telegraph of 2/12/1865 said " ' A more finished piece of declamatory acting we rarely remember...................................it kept the audience in breathless attention]
Every Christmas from 1866 , at Merthyr, Hord put on a pantomime, these included Ye Babes in the Wood, Ali Baba, Aladdin, and Jack and the Beanstalk. [ Merthyr Telegraph, 6/1/1866, The Era, 6/1/1867]
A feature of Hord's arrangements was benefit nights for individual "old stagers" of the company. In March 1866 a military spectacle called The Battle of Waterloo was the chief attraction, 'the local 12th Rifle Volunteers gave effective aid' [ Merthyr Telegraph, 24/3/1866].
The most interesting of the benefits programmes was in March 1870 for Mr & Mrs Summerfield. The Rose of Castile and The Russian Boy were accompanied by songs of 60 years earlier. Summerfield himself recited The Death of Nelson; and a youth gave Young Norval in character; the portables clung to the old traditions.[ The Era, 13/3/1870]
In 1865 there were complaints in the press that Hord's entertainments " were prolonged to unseasonal hours" and also about boisterous behaviour of juveniles and involving 'the rougher part fo Mr Hord's audience'. [ Merthyr Telegraph, 21/10/1865]. At Neath, his theatre was described in 1858 as being 'nightly thronged with applauding visitors'. [ The Cambrian, 17/9/1858]. But a year later his request for a licence was refused despite being backed by a number of first class testimonials. [ The Cambrian, 7/1/1859]. Elsewhere, an allegation of " pandering to the vitiated tastes of the uneducated" was made. [ Brecon County Times, 21/11/1868]. Contempt and admiration were oddly mixed in reports of their performances. [ The Cambrian, 24/8/1860, 31/8/1860]
Criticism may be levelled at Hord's plays and audiances but he undoubtedly attracted large crowds to his theatre and enjoyed great personal popularity for 20 years. In the area bounded by Pembroke Dock on the west and by Abergavenny on the east, his company acted in over 15 centres.
'Johnny' Hord 's management ended in 1875, he was easily the most interesting and significant figure of this period.
#The Cambrian theatre went on for a few years, eventually splitting, from 1870 , into two groups, one of these was under Colin Manges and the other under Peter Warren.
Manges saw profit to be derived from plays on Welsh themes, he presented Llewelyn the Last Prince of Wales in Dowlais in 1872 and at Bridgend he put on The Miser of Newport and also The Last of the Welsh Bards. It is suggested that this was in response to a perceived " development of national feeling " in Wales.
The best known of these plays with Welsh appeal was put on by Peter Warren, entitled The Maid of Cefn Ydfa by J C O'Dowd, [ The Era, 1/5/1870] it was 'an entirely new Welsh historical drama in three acts' seen for the first time at Aberdare in 1872 and became very popular. Warren called his playhouse "the Welsh Model Theatre" and travelled with it from Pembroke to Pontypridd.
In 1874 Manges went out of business and Warren had difficulty maintaining his connections. This was a difficult period for the portables, partly because touring companies began to act throughout the country and they couldn't match the latter's standard or novelty. In place of Carmarthen, Pembroke and Aberdare, Warren sought audiences in 'Pandy, Aberavon and Pontlottyn. But his actors began to drift away from him and he was having to advertise for entire companies for particular venues. He was finished by 1879, old age, poverty and the new touring companies were the portables greatest enemies..
#the above section re the Cambrian Theatre has been severely curtailed compared with the original article.
Old age, poverty and the new touring companies were the portable companies' greatest enemies. Performances at the portable theatres had many short comings, but they were willingly overlooked by people who delighted in the gusto of the actors and the strong sense of community among the spectators. The players appealed to an audience that was very little different from that of the later music halls. These performances were not for the sensitive and the refined, they were mainly for working men and their wives, for people untouched by Methodism or notions of delicacy.
They undoubtedly brought a touch of brightness and colour into many drab lives.
The period 1877-1914
The managers of portables now had two courses open to them, either settle down in one of the towns of their circuit and set up a permanent theatre ; or , retreat to the smallest towns and villages as yet unvisited by the touring companies.
Few chose the first alternative, lacking in capital, but one of the best known of these was John E Noakes who had been a "hard working comedian" at Jennings' Star Theatre. He set up his own Star Theatre at Carmarthen in 1877 and visited in the summer months for some years, the names of the cast for one of his nights there were [ from a playbill now at Carmarthen Museum]
- Gentlemen; Glover, Harwood, Selby, Holland, J E Noakes, Morgan.
- Ladies ; Mrs Hoffman, Mrs Plackett, Miss Crane
His portable theatre was well known throughout South Wales, but his main 'stands' were at Carmarthen, Llanelly and Neath. At Christmas 1883 at the Star Theatre opposite the Station, Neath, it was arranged that all residents of the Cottage Homes, the Workhouse and the reformatory were to be admitted free. [ Western Mail, 21/12/1883]
The original article contains an extensive list (almost 50 different plays) of the repertory of this company at Neath in August and September 1889, a strong indication that the stock pieces of the past 50 years were still given at the portables.
Noakes was so pleased with the patronage he received at Llanelly that he built a theatre there, The Royalty Theatre which could hold 1500 people.
Noakes was a common name in the older portable theatrical world, this one, John E Noakes, died in 1910.
He is sometimes confused with Sam Noakes. The latter was first mentioned at Pentre in 1881 when he attended the police court and asked the magistrates for permission to take his portable from Pentre to Trealaw. When asked where he intended to set it up he replied ' Near the booth of the Salvation Army', his application was refused. [ Western Mail, 5/7/1881]. He also appeared in Pontypridd, Rhymney and Blaina. He may have moved from Brynmawr into England as no further reference to performances by him after 1882 in Wales was found by the author.
Another name in portables was Edward Ebley, his "Theatre of Varieties" performed in Wem and Wrexham in 1879, [ The Era, 26/1/1879, 28/9/1879] and in Hay in 1880. He was at Dowlais in 1883 and 1886, Maesteg 1896, Pontypool 1904, and Bridgend 1906. To retain the goodwill of the small towns they usually gave a performance for some local charity which included ; the widows and orphans of the Tondu disaster; the sufferers from the Garth (Maesteg)colliery accident ; the District Nurses of Mountain Ash ; the Cottage Hospital at Bridgend. No less interesting is the statement that when there was a lockout in one of the mining valleys , Mr Ebley supplied food to the miners for a week.
At Dowlais, Maesteg and Bridgend, the Ebleys erected their portable in the Market Place ; at Blaenavon, their site faced the Town Hall ; at Pontycymer, navvies were employed to dig out a pitch near Ffaldau ; at Pentre, the actors played on some waste land opposite the Woodfield Hotel. Between 1904 and 1906 they were found visiting Pontycymer, Penarth, Pontypool, Senghenydd, Caerphilly, Tonyrefail, Kenfig Hill and Bridgend.
They were popular wherever they went, 'In our village Ebley's Theatre was first favourite and there was always intense excitement when the whisper went round --Old Ebley is back again. [ Glamorgan County Times, 25/4/1942]. The actors and actresses of this company were well loved figures in these towns. Forty years later, a writer recollected these heroes and heroines of his youth.
"I was a stage struck youth and we used to prowl around the van on a Sunday afternoon seeking to catch a glimpse of our adored heroine. Judge our surprise and dismay when we discovered a rather old and wrinkled woman.
The leading actor was a gentleman by the name of something Henri, a man of fine physique and appearance with a good carrying and resonant voice. He too was a fine actor. Our standard of acting was not very high in those days, because we had not seen anything of a really first class nature. The villain was George Moreland, as good a villain as I have seen.....William Ebley, Ted's brother, was in the cast as well as Ted himself, and there were two other members of the family, Sophie and Fanny, sisters......
The conquering comedian of those days was Tommy Gough, a short and stodgy young man. He and Sophie were a couple par excellence, and were responsible for fits of irrepressible laughter whenever they appeared together.......He was a good comic singer. One of his favourite songs was about a holiday at the seaside , with the refrain ---
But never more ! never more !
Shall I be seen on the golden shore,
Paddling my tootsies in the golden foam;
The next time I wash them,
I'll wash them at home.
........We had three hours entertainment for threepence. In nine months Elbey's company must have put on 200 different plays. The first play I ever saw them in was The Rocking Stone of Pontypridd....the second was Llewelyn, the Last of the Welsh Princes. Other plays included Proof...... Maria Marten, Dumb Man of Manchester, The Octoroon.... Twm Shon Catti. The Maid of Cefn Ydfa, Faust, Hamlet, Merchant of Venice. The Bells.......
The company could not afford to stage new plays because the royalty (about £3/3/0) a performance) was prohibitive." [ Free Press and Rhondda Leader, 25/7/1936]
The actors were expected to know their lines in a hundred and fifty plays, but for benefit nights and other special occasions, all parts would have to be learned again.
'Excommunication from membership of the chapels was both threatened and put into effect' in the case of some of those who attended Ebley's Olympic Theatre causing him to print the following notice on his playbill;
"Mr Ebley wishes to impress upon his patrons that every play which he produces has been personally supervised by him, and that anyone visiting the Theatre, even for the first time, will find that every feature of vulgarity has been eliminated from the text which would be calculated to displease the most fastidious mind. His only wish is to place before the public Plays which not only appeal to men's hearts, but will leave a lasting impression upon them, and if he only succeeds in making one bad man think , he will then be worthy to join the ranks of those inspired apostles who, by their purity teaching, help to keep the universe together." [ in the possession of Mr R V Ebley]
Some of the opposition to the portables was caused by the behaviour of " a noisy aggressive breed of young pitworkers, who would start a fight on the slightest provocation". [ Glamorgan County Times, 25/4/1942. ].Ted Ebley saw to it that the worst offenders were thrown out, and one occasion the manager walked down from the stage , banged the heads of two contestants together, then clambered back on to the platform and resumed his part.
There was another kind of patron whose behaviour could be embarrassing ; 'elderly busom woemen whose reactions were often violent. One of them grew so worked up that she shrieked execrations at the villain and hurled missiles at him. ' [ Glamorgan County Times, 25/4/1942]
Another company was Mrs Hannah Orton's who played in Monmouthshire from 1883 onwards. She ended up in a dispute with the Abertillery UDC over whether she could erect her wooden theatre in Crumlin, this arose from the objection of the Sunday School Union. She lost the struggle and was ordered to leave the district within 5 weeks (during which period she was permitted to perform). [ South Wales Daily News, 24/9/1897]
Another example of the antagonism of religious bodies towards portables is well represented in the following report
"At the meeting of Ogmore and Garw Council on the 13th........ the Free Churches of Gilfach Goch petitioned the Council to refuse licences to portable theatres and thus 'aid the Church of God in improving the moral tone of the district' ......An application for such a licence at Gilfach Goch was deferred in order that the prevailing opinion of the locality might be ascertained." [ South Wales Daily News, 14/1/1903]
In 1908 the Stage Year Book made a note of the towns where the portables might not be welcomed for one reason or another. These included Abercarn, Carmarthen, Porth.
The travelling days of the portables were numbered.
The way in which they accepted this situation and turned it to their own advantage is illustrated in the history of another well known portable theatre , that belonging to the Haggars.
William Haggar didn't come into Wales until late in the C19 but soon made some useful connections. His 'home stand' was at Market Yard, Aberdare, but he travelled through South Wales playing with his company at places as far removed as Haverfordwest and Abergavenny. At Porth his theatre was erected in front of the Llwyncelyn Hotel; at Tonypandy, in the Pandy Field ; at Llwynypia, in the Partridge Field ; at Ferndale, on the Salisbury ground. Its nearness to the public houses gave the nonconformists cause for complaint.
William Haggar had been a cabinet maker earlier, and was able to bring considerable skill to the erection of his theatre. His method was;--- frame poles were set up and were followed by the ridge, and the side posts bolted to the rafters. The sides and roof were filled in with shuttered boards. When the playhouse was burned down at Neath, the Haggars procured more timber and set to work on a Monday morning to refashion and rebuild, they opened again the following Saturday night. [ Mr Ernest Meadows].
The William Haggars, father and son, who both owned portables, [ News Chronicle, 16/41949, Free Press and Rhondda Leader, 2/5/1942] were always willing to tour the halls of South Wales whenever that course would pay them better than travelling with the portable theatre. The same adaptability is seen in the way in which they turned from giving plays to providing cinema shows.
Early in the C20 William Haggar contacted Gaumont and his company was used to make film versions of The Sign of the Cross, The Maid of Cefn Ydfa and Twm Shon Catti. They were processed by Bromhead Bros but Haggard kept the sole rights of showing them in South Wales. By 1909 he was called "the well known bioscope entertainer" and in 1910 he purchased the Royalty Theatre, Llanelly [ Llanelly Star, 25/6/1910, 5/11/1910] for use as a hall giving variety entertainment including bioscopes. Over the next 2/3 years he had purchased and set up " a spacious theatre at Merthyr", Haggars Electric Palace at Aberdare, and Haggar's Theatre and Bioscope Palace at Pontardulais.[ Llanelly Star, 30/7/1910, The Stage Year Book, 1912]
The Great War brought portable theatres to an end. Actors joined the army, managers went over completely to bioscope shows.
The portable theatre was the last refuge of the strolling player.
The 'old showmen' had brought an entertainment that was raw but full of vitality, a personal appeal, a local flavour.
It was replaced by a technical process, a large scale organisation, an impersonal machine.
The long history of the strolling player was at last ended.
Footnotes from the final page of the article;
- It is interesting to find that one manager of a portable did not settle down as a bioscope entertainer. He was John Johnston whose 'Prince of Wales Theatre 'visited Neath Great Fair for many years before the Great War. As early as 1891, they gave The Bleeding Nun and other plays there.[ The Era, 25/7/1891]. This manager continued to travel with the fairs and became an ordinary showman.
- I have omitted the portable theatres of Almond and White (at Aberdare, Treorchy, Pontypridd, Ystrad, 1871-2); and of John Allen. The latter attracted attention at Blaenavon and Brynamman. Mr W H Taylor of Blaenavon tells me that it was erected in the Lion Square, and was known as the 'Blood Tub'. Its best known plays were The Dumb Man of Manchester, Maria Marten, and Wallace, the Untameable Lion ( a creature without a tooth in its mouth). Mr Richard Morgan, of Lower Brynamman, says the Allen's portable was burned down when playing at Brynamman, 1895-6. It held about 500 people, and had previously played at Ystalyfera. There were eight very competent actors in the company.
- Most of my material is drawn from newspaper references, and I wish to thank my wife for helping me to search many files. I am also grateful to Mr Anthony Davies of the News Chronicle who appealed to his readers for their reminiscences of these old theatres.
University College of Wales