Page updated 15 May 2009
In 1787 the Exeter Theatre was replaced by the New Theatre which was built by Richard Hughes in what was then, the new development of Bedford Circus. He also had interests in theatres in Weymouth Truro, Guernsey, Penzance, Dartmouth and Sadlers Wells.
It was situated on the site of what was the old AA building of Farnum House, and now a part of Princesshay. The theatre became a great success with productions such as The Merchant of Venice with Edmund Keane in 1811. The Penny Cyclopædia of 1851 stated 'One of Kean's best engagements was at Exeter, where his salary was £2. a week, for which he not only played the leading characters in tragedy, comedy, and farce, but Harlequin in the usual pantomime and the monkey in 'Perouse'.
Then disaster struck - on 8 March 1820, between the hours of 2 and 3am, the first of what would be three theatre fires, in Exeter, destroyed the building. By the time the fire appliances from the insurance companies arrived the flames were burning through the roof, which, collapsed with a crash into the building. Within an hour the whole theatre and its contents had been consumed, while hot sparks were carried towards houses in Southernhay, causing the fire fighters to direct their hoses towards them to prevent them catching alight. The proprietors were not insured, while the performers lost their costumes and other property. It was hoped that a public subscription would raise enough to alleviate the hardship of those affected by the fire.
In later years an oft repeated quote from an article by Lord William Lenox on the accident was "Our conversation then turned upon the burning of the Exeter Theatre. 'Ay,' said Hook, 'That's quite theatrical–enter a fire; exit a theatre.'" Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor 1864.
Sources: The Penny Cyclopædia 1851, Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor 1864, and the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi.
The New Theatre in Bedford Street - the rear of Southernhay West is in the background.
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