The Theatre Royal – Australia’s oldest continually operating live theatre

Where theatrical performances were enjoyed by the light of sperm whale oil lamps and theatre goers could enjoy a tipple in the tavern underneath. Through name changes, alterations, additions and a fire, Hobart’s Theatre Royal has survived the ravages of time.

Sometimes it’s not until we receive a query about a certain topic that we realise what treasures our collections hold. While searching for archival material on the Hobart Theatre Royal I came across photographs, pamphlets and scrap books – valuable sources of information for anyone wanting to research this iconic theatre.

TAHO: CB47/7/1/338 – Photograph – Theatre Royal, Hobart – exterior from front circa 1863

Theatrical performances became popular in Hobart Town in the 1820’s. At that stage, makeshift theatres such as the courthouse, pubs and taverns provided the venues in which dramatic troupes could perform. The entertainment in these venues became so popular that the idea of securing a dedicated building began to gain momentum.

John Mezger, a prominent colonist of the day, built a small theatre into his public house on the corner of Liverpool and Argyle Streets and called it the ‘Argyle Rooms’.

” We understand the Theatre is about to be removed to the large and commodious premises in Argyle Street, now called ‘The Theatre Royal, Argyle Rooms’…There are boxes, pit and gallery and the accommodations are equal to 500 persons…” The Tasmanian 10th Jan. 1834

This became a  venue for theatrical performances and a meeting place for a committee of interested citizens. They began discussing the need for a dedicated Theatre and decided that the only way this was going to be built was for each citizen to become a shareholder and contribute twenty pounds each.

With the money raised, the consortium purchased a block of land on Campbell Street owned by Lawrence Reed, a minor port official. The size of the land purchased was quite extensive as this map from our collections reveals:

A capture from Sprents Map, TAHO: AF393/1/24 showing the extent of the land purchased

The shareholders then called for tenders to build, and they used the advice of the Colonial Engineer, J.L. Archer. Amongst the tenders was a plan proposed by Peter Degraves, already well known in Hobart Town as the founder of the Cascades Brewery, a trained engineer and owner of ship building yards with an interest in architecture and design.

The design stipulations reveal the snobbery of the times:

” The interior, stressed Degraves, was arranged ‘with a view to the due classification of the several orders of society and well ventilated throughout.'”  ‘A History of the Theatre Royal Hobart, from 1834’ by Michael Roe (1965)

The laying of the first foundation stone on the 4th of November, 1834 was a huge affair as the Colonial Times reported:

” There were at least a thousand individuals present to witness the ceremony, and all the vessels in the harbour had their colours flying, in honour of the occasion. The stone was laid by John Lee Archer, Esq. Civil Engineer, and during the lowering of the stone, the band struck up the National Anthem of ‘God Save the King’; and at that moment too, a rocket was fired, which was the signal to be given to the shipping in the harbour, for the firing of their guns, which they continued to do, at stated intervals, till nearly sun set.” Colonial Times 11 November 1834

Between 1837 and 1857 the theatre was altered and improved, and the facade of the theatre as we know it today was completed.

Volume of bound plans titled “Victoria Theatre – Hobart, opened about 1837, now Theatre Royal – Original Drawings of Alterations, William Coote & E. B. Andrews, Architects” undated, plans signed by R. Lewis & Charles Tripptree. TAHO: NS699/1/1

Various letters and newspaper articles tell us the Theatre was furnished sparing no expense:

“…there are on each side four private boxes, and a tier of boxes above. The pit is spacious; there is no gallery…the house will contain about 600 persons…the ceiling is a dome and is highly ornamented with the fern tree leaf…the outer circle of the dome, which is a rich scroll border of crimson and gold.” Sydney Monitor 14 December 1836

and this…

“The stage is a capital piece of workmanship and not a nail has been used in putting it together, it contains eleven traps for different business. It is forty five feet wide by forty feet deep, with ten feet reserved, if required, for the purpose of erecting a gasometer for lighting the house”  The Sydney Gazette, 13 Dec. 1836

Notebooks and memories recorded tell us that the original dome would have been a site to behold:

“The central dome of the roof over the stalls was of a rich cerulean blue…but that dome was definitely a very rich deep turquoise greeny blue – not pale blue, not sapphire blue, not sky blue – and scattered over it were golden stars…” Excerpt taken from a correspondence file from Freeman, Yuncken files (architect, Melbourne)

The Theatre Royal celebrates its 180th birthday on the 6th of March 2018

For more information about theatre in Tasmania:

Wallpaper fragments discovered in 1985, tentatively associated with renovations in 1856, 1862, 1882, and 1889 TAHO: CB47/5/1/1
TAHO: CB47/7/1/380 Photograph – Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier – 1948

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Author: Leanne

Leanne is an archivist with the State Library and Archive Service

2 thoughts on “The Theatre Royal – Australia’s oldest continually operating live theatre”

  1. Enjoyed reading this! Came across it when researching on the Oliviers in Australia,1948 Old Vic Tour. Can you please contact me regarding the last picture you’ve posted. I would like to know what it is and where I can see it.

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