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I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Three

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The Old Price Riots, 1809

We tend to think of consumerism and direct consumer action to rectify a perceived wrong as being fairly recent phenomena but the Old Price Riots which engulfed the new theatre at London’s Covent Garden in 1809 show that it was nothing new. At the turn of the 19th century theatre was extremely popular and audiences would be made up from a cross-section of all the classes. Tickets were priced to suit all purses, although the cheaper tickets often afforded the theatre goer a restricted view.

In London there were only two theatres at the time – Covent Garden and Drury Lane – that were licensed to perform plays; the other London theatres could only put on performances involving song, dance and acrobatics. On 20th September 1808 the Covent Garden theatre burnt down – 30 people lost their lives and Handel’s organ together with much of the scenery and costumes were destroyed. A public subscription was raised to fund the building of a new theatre but the reconstruction was so opulent, modelled on the Acropolis with four fluted columns which were the second tallest in Europe, that the monies raised were insufficient to meet the total cost.

John Kemble, the manager, had only one option – to raise the admission prices. The price of admission to the boxes rose from 6 shillings to 7, for the pit from 3s 6d to 4 shillings and worse still, the third tier, which had previously been reserved for the hoi polloi, had been converted into private boxes, available to rent at £300 per annum. The only prices which remained unchanged were for the gallery but if you sat there, all you could see were the actors’ legs.

The theatre reopened on 18th September 1809 with a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, by which time the theatre at Drury Lane had burnt leaving Kemble’s show as the only authorised play in town. A large crowd of theatregoers had assembled, only around a quarter of whom could gain admission. Kemble appeared on stage initially to some applause but this soon turned to boos, hisses and hoots. The play was drowned out and magistrates were called to read the Riot Act. This had little effect – only a few of the audience left, the rest entertaining themselves with renditions of Rule Britannia and God Save The King.

On following nights the disturbances continued with the protesters, who by this time had begun calling themselves the Old Price, drowning out the thespians by banging frying pans and tongs and ringing a dustman’s bell. At one performance they paraded a coffin bearing the legend “here lies the body of the new price, which died of the whooping cough on 23rd September 1809, aged 6 days”.

Kemble closed the theatre for six days, trying to work out what to do. He decided not to reduce the prices but, as an extra security measure, to employ some boxers to eject miscreants. But the protesters returned, carrying banners and placards, chanting, singing songs and using a watchman’s rattle which became known as the OP rattle. They staged races along the seats and staged mock fights. The boxers ejected a few but chose to feel the collar of a radical lawyer, Henry Clifford. He took Kemble and the boxer to court and secured a conviction for false arrest.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Kemble caved in and on 14th December 1809 agreed peace terms. Boxers would no longer be employed, prices would return to their old level and all charges against the rioters would be dropped. It was not until 1843, however, that the patents of the major theatres were abolished and the other London theatres were free to perform what they wanted.