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Williamson Square - A place of entertainment

Williamson Square, originally known as Willamson Field, has been a place of entertainment from the 15th century. It was a gathering place for troupes of itinerant jugglers, troubadours and orators.  There were regular complaints to the City Fathers that those entertaining were attracting an unruly element and causing disorderly behaviour in the area.  

Georgian houses in Williamson Square. A good painting of middle class homes
in the city centre near Tarleton Street. 1868.

Williamson square 1859

Front Elevation of the original Theatre Royal

The original Theatre Royal was part of  Williamson Square from 1771 but it was far from an ideal location for the venue, theatre-goers would often complain not only about the mud at the entrance to the theatre but the fights and loutish behaviour of sailors and prostitutes in the immediate area.

In 1802, the building was demolished and in its place the distinctive curved lines of the  New Theatre Royal graced Williamson Square attracting thespians from all over the country.

The Theatre Royal with the curved frontage most people remember

Theatre Royal Liverpool
The great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean appeared on-stage in 1815 and two years later the world famous clown Grimaldi was the star.  Grimaldi's clowning turned to tragedy when his son was killed in a brawl outside the theatre and it was apparent that the square's reputation for violence and disorder had not gone away.  Some years later, a mediocre actor named George Cook was barracked by the audience in the theatre and is remembered for his acidic riposte which was all the more cutting for having more than a ring of truth about it.  The actors words have remained memorable far more than any of his performances.  Dripping with venom, Cook's reply to a stunned audience concluded with the words  " Every brick in your dirty town is cemented with a Negro's blood !! "

During Victorian times, Charles Dickens, Irving, Paganini and even Blondin, the famed tight-rope walker, all appeared at the New Theatre Royal along with a certain player of the era called Junius Brutus Booth who was famous for his serious acting roles. 

Union Cold Storage

In 1896, The New Theatre Royal closed down and the building became the Union Cold Storage Company which ingeniously converted the old building into a cold storage unit where for many years massive slabs of ice could be seen by anyone who cared to peer into the Arctic- cold rooms. 

The Liverpool Playhouse Theatre in Williamson Square originates from 1866 when it was  a music hall, and in 1911 developed into a repertory theatre. As such it nurtured the early careers of many actors and actresses, some of whom went on to achieve national and international reputations. Architectural changes have been made to the building over the years, the latest being in 1968 when a modern-style extension was added to the north of the theatre. In 1999 a trust was formed, joining the management of the Playhouse with that of the Everyman Theatre.

The theatre was designed by Edward Davies, and opened in 1866. It replaced an earlier theatre called the Star Concert Hall. The present theatre was originally named the Star Music Hall. In 1895 its name was changed to the Star Theatre of Varieties. The theatre was improved in 1898 by Harry Percival with a new auditorium and foyer, and electricity was installed. In 1911 the Liverpool Repertory Theatre Limited was established, with Basil Dean as its "controller and producer". The company could not afford to build a new theatre, and bought the Star Theatre for £28,000 (£2,410,000 as of 2013). This made it the first repertory in Britain to own the freehold of a theatre. The company spent a further £4,000 (£340,000 as of 2013) on redesigning and modernising the theatre. The auditorium and the basement foyer were redesigned by Stanley Adshead, the Professor of Civic Design at the Liverpool School of Architecture. The theatre was renamed the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, and in 1916 renamed again, as the Liverpool Playhouse. Minor structural alterations were made to the theatre in 1961 and in 1966. In 1968 a modern-style extension was added to the north of the theatre to accommodate new foyers, bars, dressing rooms and a workshop. In the 1990s the theatre company went into liquidation, but in 1999 the Liverpool and Merseyside Theatres Trust Limited was established as a charity, and the theatre re-opened. It is managed jointly with the Everyman Theatre by Liverpool City Council.

Playhouse Theatre 2013

On 14 March 1975 the theatre was designated by English Heritage as a Grade II listed building. In its description, the National Heritage List for England quotes the Architects' Journal of 1968 which says of the older section that it is

"significant as an early and rare work by one of the pioneers of the Liverpool School of Architecture, in the Grecian style favoured by the school at that date",

and of the newer section that it is

"a brilliant concept, joyously realised, which exploits asymmetrical volumes and ever varying spaces yet achieves unity and also balance with the adjoining Victorian fa├žade".

In the Buildings of England series the architectural historians Richard Pollard and Nikolaus Pevsner say of the newer section that it is "a spectacular composition" which creates an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation, exactly right for a theatre foyer".


Liverpool Central Library
Liverpool Records Office

By Robert F Edwards

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