At the turn of the 19th century several of Southwell’s barns and larger homes would host theatrical performances. A teenage Lord Byron took part in one, a production of ‘The Weathercock’, at the Assembly Room where the Saracen’s Head now stands. Byron had previously performed in the village at Burgage House, near Burgage Green. He would visit the Leacroft family there on school holidays, when staying with his mother at Burgage Manor. With his friends, Julia Leacroft among them, Byron converted Burgage House’s drawing room into a makeshift theatre where they performed their theatrical pieces. The Leacroft family were assuming young Julia would marry Byron but he had other ideas, explaining in a poem that he no longer loved her, and leaving, never to return, after being challenged to a duel by her brother John.
By 1816 Southwell had its own theatre, a building of two large rooms on the Market Place junction of King Street and Queen Street, formerly used for Southwell’s arms. It all changed after Joseph Smedley was granted a licence to perform. Smedley, who would visit the theatre every other summer for six weeks until the mid-1800s, was a former actor who married an actress and they formed a touring theatre company. In the mould of Mr Vincent Crummles in Charles Dickens’ ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, Smedley managed a troupe of actors that featured members of his family. The Smedley Traveling Company of Actors toured market towns and listed the small theatres of Newark and Southwell amongst their 30 venues across five counties. Typical performances would consist of a domestic comedy or melodrama followed by a couple of songs before ending with a farce, the Smedleys playing most of the key roles in their repertoire of acts.
The theatre was reached via an alleyway which ran down the side of Manchester House. Southwell’s theatre was said to be ‘neatly fitted up and fully competent’. Three shillings would get you a box, half price for children, with two shillings for the pit. Tickets were bought in advance but, if you were lucky, a shilling on the door could secure a place in the gallery. The scenery was always elaborate and, by the late Georgian era, included mechanical devices, helping to give the effect of a stormy weather.
Similar theatres had a reputation for drunken rowdiness but Smedley’s insistence on sobriety and good behaviour – and his vision for a “school of eloquence, a Temple of the Arts” – helped Southwell’s theatre maintain its respectability and quality. By 1837 Joseph Smedley had passed the theatre’s management to two actors, Rogers and Mosley, but Smedley’s 40-year role as a theatre manager provided the venue’s golden years. Nottingham born Richard Smedley (there’s no evidence of a family connection) used archived papers and playbills relating to Smedley’s company for his 2018 book ‘The Life and Times of Joseph E Smedley’. Richard worked as a young backstage hand at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, Nottingham, making his way through a variety of roles before becoming the Finance Director. After years of managing theatres in London, including the Victoria Palace, the Apollo, and the Palladium, he returned to the Royal Centre as General Manager.
Back in 1881, Southwell’s theatre was inherited by the Loughton family. Alfred Loughton, a local celebrity, lived there until his death in 1953. Loughton was a skilled violin-maker, whitesmith, bell-hanger, moth collector, gas-fitter and inventor of the ‘Southwell Cycle’, but he was best known as a multi award-winning photographer and published the book ‘Pictorial Southwell’. Loughton photographed George Bernard Shaw outside the theatre’s entrance in 1930. There’s a plaque on the wall where the Irish playwright and Nobel Peace Prize winner had stood.
In recent years the Grade II listed building received a boost when it was restored by the Tinley family. They converted and reopened the premises as ‘The Old Theatre Deli’ and host the occasional performance in the large room upstairs. The Old Theatre is one of England’s few remaining Georgian theatres.