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Exeter Theatre - Waterbeer Street

Page updated 15 May 2009

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1749 - 1787

In 1749, the Exeter Theatre was opened in Waterbeer Street behind the Guildhall, roughly on the present day site of the 'Looking Forward' bronze, and the old police station in the Guildhall Centre. This theatre, presented productions between October and April each year, seldom repeating a play, and giving a huge variety of entertainment for the local population. Robert Trewman, proprietor of Trewman's Exeter Flying Post had a share in the Exeter Theatre, as well as Andrew Brice who ran the the Old Exeter Journal.

At this time, it was illegal to charge for admission to a public performance without a licence, and the theatre was unlicensed. The Exeter players had an agreement with Andrew Brice, who agreed to produce little printed packets of what was claimed to be tooth-powder for 2s, worm-powder for 1/6d and corn plaster for 1 shilling. Presenting the packet at the box office would gain the holder admission to the performance, while the worthless contents had been disposed of in the street. The local Methodists took over the theatre for a while, much to the annoyance of Brice and other supporters, who worked to reclaim the theatre back from the Methodists. Brice published a poem defending the players and attacking the Methodists, whom he named 'The Play-house Church', or 'New Actors of Devotion.'

A Newton St Cyres born Exeter physician and poet, Hugh Downman contracted a chronic complaint forcing him to early retirement, and to amuse himself with his own literary efforts. His second play, 'Belisarius' was performed at the Exeter Theatre in 1779, but did not do well, but in 1781, his third play 'Editha' performed for seventeen nights. He became a prolific poet and he established a literary society in the city.

In 1783, William Dowton appeared on the stage at Exeter and went on to play Drury Lane in 1787, and an inscription, was placed by one of the managers, Mr J Foote, in Barnstaple Old Church to Elizabeth Burton an actor, which states:

"... Comedian, Formerly of Drury Lane, But late of the Exeter Theatre; Who exchanged time for eternity. ..."

The first manager was a Mr Kennedy who may have also run theatres in Plymouth and Portsmouth. Later Mr Foote, who was a local butcher purchased a part share in the theatre from a Mrs Pitt. He then bought out the other share in the theatre from Mr Jefferson.The last manager at the theatre was Richard Hughes, who was a wealthy gentleman and who went on to build the New Theatre in Bedford Street. At this time, Waterbeer Street was named Theatre Lane.

Police station, Waterbeer StreetThe police station with the corner tower was the site of the Exeter Theatre.

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