The Theatre in Jersey 1778-1801

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The Theatre in Jersey


This article by Raoul Lempriere was first published in the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise in 1981

On 14 November 1778 a meeting of the States was held in the Royal Court House in the presence of the Lieut-Governor and under the presidency of the Lieut-Bailiff who was assisted by eight other Jurats, the Crown Officers, the Deputy-Viscount, the Dean, Rectors and Constables.

Theatrical licensing

One of the subjects upon which the Assembly deliberated was the licensing of theatrical performances. Bearing in mind that the unregulated presentation of plays was harmful to the young people who took part in them, and to society in general, and that similar licence was not permitted in any well-ordered community, the States deemed it necessary to control their presentation.

Accordingly it passed an Act forbidding anyone to present any theatrical piece or farce for money or other consideration unless the permission of the Chief Magistrate and of the Royal Court had been first had and obtained, which permission would be granted for a reasonable time and limited or refused as they might deem appropriate. Anyone who failed to obtain the necessary permission would be liable to a fine of two hundred livres for each contravention, half of which was to be paid to His Majesty and half to the General Hospital.


It was ordered that the new Act should be proclaimed in the customary manner in the Market Place as well as in the parishes, so that no one could plead ignorance of it. This Act would appear to be the basis of the practice which has been followed ever since that time of heading entertainment advertisements with words indicating that the Bailiff has given his permission for the particular entertainment advertised to take place.

Although the necessary permission was generally forthcoming, it would appear not always to have been so for in La Gazette for 12 January 1788 appeared a letter signed "Un Patriot" in which the writer asked why it was that in Jersey actors were not allowed to perform.

One of the most rewarding ways of obtaining information regarding the history of the theatre is to search the files of old newspapers. There may be found advertisements of theatrical productions, criticisms of performances and much other information regarding theatres, plays and players. Unfortunately, in Jersey there were no local newspapers until 1784. In that year a Jerseyman, Mathieu Alexandre, set up a printing press in the Island and published the first local newspaper or magazine, a monthly called Le Magasin de l'Ile de Jersey.

This publication ceased in 1785 and in the same year Alexandre started printing and publishing ‘’La Gazette de l'Ile de Jersey’’, which was to survive under various managements until well into the nineteenth century. A further newpaper, Le Soleil de l'Ile de Jersey, was published between 17 November 1792 and 30 June 1798.

However, it is principally from the pages of La Gazette that the information contained in the remainder of this paper has been obtained. La Gazette was published weekly on Saturdays and consisted of a double quarto sheet. By modern standards it is very dull, consisting merely of information regarding the States, the Royal Court and a certain amount of local and foreign news, the latter often months out of date.



From the point of view of the social historian its chief interest lies in its third and fourth sides, which are filled with sundry small advertisements and notices which yield all manner of interesting information, and it is mainly here that particulars regarding the theatre are to be found.

The second reference to the theatre in Jersey and the first in a local newspaper appeared in the issue of Le Magasin de l'Ile de Jersey for April 1785. It took the form of an article entitled Sur les Comediens, the writer of which signed himself L'Ami de la vertu.

After commencing with some rather pompous remarks on good manners and the mistaking of licence for liberty, he went on to state that these sentiments were prompted by the desire of some people to see a company of players in the Island. He continued by expatiating on the disasters which would befall the inhabitants should such a thing ever happen, among which he enumerated the acquisition of a taste for dissipation, debauchery and disorders of all kinds.

Both the patriot mentioned earlier and a similarly anonymous correspondent quoted in a later issue of La Gazette held a contrary opinion, at least so far as young amateurs were concerned. The former stated that he waited for the day when the young puppies and gallants of Jersey would prefer the satisfaction of reciting eloquently a scene from the great Corneille, and from the awe inspiring Crebillon, to the pleasure of paying a pretty compliment to a lady or tying their cravats fashionably. While the latter expressed the view that performing plays would distract young people from frivolous and harmful amusements, and at the same time teach them to speak well in public, improve their manners, give them a certain turn of mind and an easiness of bearing, all of which would be infinitely useful to them.

The preamble to the Act of the States of 1778 declared that the unlicensed presentation of plays manifestly tended to confirm the young people engaged therein in softness and idleness prejudicial to themselves and to society in general. This implies that, at that time, plays were presented in Jersey by amateurs, as the States would only have concerned themselves with the well-being of local youth. Therefore it is not surprising that the first mention of players in the Island which is to be found in ‘’La Gazette’’ for 16 December 1786 relates to a club of amateur gentlemen limited to twelve in number who proposed to present during the season several productions by the most celebrated playwrights.

An 1831 picture of the Royal Square. The building on the right contained the Long Room, the first place in Jersey known to have been used for theatrical performances


The first professional company known to have visited Jersey was that of a Frenchman by the name of Desroches, which stayed in the Island from March to May 1788. It was followed in the latter month by that of another Frenchman by the name of Le Febvre, which was not a theatrical company in the ordinary sense, but rather a company of what would be known today as variety artistes.

La Gazette described them as "une troupe de varietes amusantes". Signor Coda, an Italian, brought a company of child athletes, jumpers, wrestlers and the like, to the Island towards the end of April 1790. They stayed for about two weeks during which time they gave daily performances. Included in the troupe were a five-year-old Dutch boy and a nine-year-old Prussian girl.

From May to July 1792 there was an English company in Jersey, and there were one or more English companies in the Island between May and August 1793. In May the name of the head of the company was Fisher. In March 1795 there is again mention of amateurs. Amateurs were also performing in April and May 1796. In June and July of that year there was another English company in Jersey, this time led by Henry Lee. Between July 1796 and 31 December 1801, no references have as yet been found regarding theatricals in the Island. Nothing is known of Desroches, Le Febvre, Coda and Fisher, although the last name is heard of in the theatre in England around this time. However, with Henry Lee the case is different as he was well-known in English provincial theatrical circles at the end of the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century and has an article devoted to him in the Dictionary of National Biography.

He was born, apparently in Nottingham, on 27 October 1765. Soon after coming of age he went to London to take up acting. After spending some time as a provincial actor he joined James Shatford in the management at Salisbury in 1790. Ultimately he owned and managed theatres at Taunton and elsewhere, and it was with his own company that he visited Jersey in 1796. He brought Mrs Lee (formerly Miss Keys) with him to the Island and her benefit was given on 30 July at the Theatre Royal.

Lee published seven literary works, of which the best known is Caleb Quotem and his wife! or Paint, Poetry, and Putty!, a farce. He published his reminiscences under the title Memoirs of a Manager, or Life's Stage with new Scenery at Taunton in 1830.

In La Gazette for 1O May 1788 it is stated that M Desroches' company would play that evening for the last time, and it was reported that they would return to Jersey during the following winter. It would seem that they never came, perhaps it was the unsettled state of affairs in France which prevented them. In any event, they were the last French players to perform in the Island until after the Napoleonic Wars.

Beggar's Opera, one of the first works performed in Jersey

First theatre

The first place known to have been used as a theatre in Jersey was the Long Room above the Corn Market on the west side of the Market Place. This information is to be found in La Gazette of 23 March 1788, which states: "La salle de la comedic est sur les halles a grain, au bas de la place publique". The Long Room is also known to have been used for a charity performance given by amateurs on Saturday, 28 March 1795. According to John Wesley, who preached there on Tuesday 28 and Wednesday 29 August 1787 "it conveniently" accommodated between five and six hundred people. This estimate would seem somewhat high and may be accounted for by overcrowding caused by the fame of the speaker.

It is impossible to determine whether the Long Room was the place refered to as Theatre Royal in various advertisements which appeared between 14 July 1792 and 30 July 1796. If it was, then it had a gallery, for among the prices of admission to be seen in several newspaper advertisements are those for what is described as "la petite galerie".

If the Long Room and the 'Theatre Royal' were not one and the same building, then it would be most interesting to know where the latter stood, and if any part of it remains standing. From the information at present available, such a building would not seem to be the same as that opened as a theatre by James Shatford at Regent Road on 4 August 1802.

At the time about which this paper deals, a fair used to be held every year in the parish of St John during the month of June. Fisher took his company to perform there in 1793 and it was stated in La Gazette that he proposed to have a tent sufficiently commodious to accommodate a large number of spectators and that it would be possible for those who attended the fair, when they became tired of walking about, to visit the play and to rest and amuse themselves at one and the same time. Lee likewise took his company to perform at the fair in 1795, which they did on Wednesday, Friday and Monday 22, 24 and 27 June.

The first play known to have been performed in Jersey was L'Amant Bourru, which was followed in the same programme by Le Medicin Malgre Lui. Both were presented by Desroches on Monday, 25 March 1788. On the following Saturday a criticism of the performance appeared in La Gazette. It was a favourable report but ended on a note of reproof. The writer recommended the company to be careful to reduce the use of double meanings and expressions which brought a blush to the cheek, stating that the licence of the previous century was not acceptable "dans un siecle aussi eclaire comme celui-ci".

Most of the pieces performed in Jersey in these latter years of the eighteenth century are entirely forgotten. For instance: The Midnight Hour, or The War of Wits by Elizabeth Inchbald, Bon Ton, or High Life Above Stairs by David Garrick, The Maid of the Mill by Isaac Bickerstaffe and lnkle and Yarico by George Colman the younger. However, there are some notable exceptions such as several of Shakespeare's plays, The School for Scandal by R B Sheridan, performed on Saturday 12 May 1792, and The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, performed on Tuesday 20 August 1793. It is significant to note on the matter of language that the two plays known to have been performed by amateurs in 1795 and 1796 were both French, Alzire and Merope, tragedies by Voltaire.

The first newspaper advertisement relating to the time and place of performance appeared in La Gazette of 23 March 1788. The first such advertisement to be headed "By permission" appeared in La Gazette’’ of 11 December 1790 in connection with a magic lantern performance. The programme, presented by a M Belon, included scenes of the French Revolution and a number of other "Pieces mouvantes"; also a young man singing several songs accompanied by an instrument. The exact form of words employed in this case was "Par permission du chef magistrat". Down the years the form used has varied. In the nineteenth century the title and names of the Bailiff of the time were usually added.

School for Scandal


Playbills are first mentioned in an advertisement of 17 August 1793. The prices of the seats remained constant at 48 sous and 24 sous. The price of seats in the gallery, when there was one, were 3 livres 12 sous. Le Febvre's variety and Coda's child athletes commanded lower prices, the former 24 sous and 12 sous and the latter 12 sous, 6 sous and 3 sous for children.

Tickets for the theatre and other similar shows were obtainable from the following at different times: Jean Le Boutillier, baker (1790); Thomas Hamon, innkeeper (1790/91); Jacques Jolin, Broad Street (1792); G Atkins, baker, King Street (1792); and Philippe Lys, innkeeper, Market Place (1792). In the case of the charitable performance given by the amateurs in 1795 the tickets were obtainable from the Churchwardens of St Helier, Philippe Janvrin and Louis Poignant.

The tickets for the similar performance given by the amateurs in 1796 were obtainable from Clement Hemery, Philippe Janvrin and Elie Durell. In the case of the first mentioned performance there was a uniform charge of 36 sous; in the second there is no mention of price. The first reference to a benefit performance was on Saturday 14 July 1792. It was for a Mr Fothergill who was billed to jump over a barrel of cider during the farce-pantomime The Life and Death of Harlequin, which formed the second half of the programme. There were usually three performances a week, either on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The starting time was sometimes 6 prn; sometimes 7 pm

In response to the advertisements and playbills came the audiences whose "livres" and "sous maintained the various companies of players and enabled the amateurs by means of occasional performances to bring help to the poor and needy.

These audiences were drawn from the Ttown of St Helier and its immediate vicinity, but no doubt sometimes playgoers would come from further afield. Henry Lee made a special effort to obtain support from those who resided in the country by undertaking, on request, to have tickets delivered to country residents. While Mrs Lee, in the advertisement which gave notice of her benefit, particularly solicited the presence not only of the ladies and gentlemen of St Helier but those of St Aubin as well.

William Shakespeare
Isaac "Jonathan Swift" Bickerstaff
Richard Sheridan
David Garrick
Henry Fielding
Elizabeth Inchbald

Wooden benches

When inside the theatre, be it the Long Room or some other building, the members of the audience, seated on wooden benches, would have talked before the play, between the acts and scenes and different pieces, of the same sort of things as the members of a present day audience discuss. And year by year and month by month the principal topic of conversation would have changed. At one time it would have been of France and the terrible happenings of the revolution, brought home more forcibly to those living in Jersey by the presence in the Island of a large number of royalist refugees; at others it would have been of some event in the wars in which Britain was engaged almost continuously throughout those years.

Like nowadays the audiences would have been drawn from different walks of life. There were 'the quality' consisting of the officers of the garrison and of the militia and their ladies, as well as the local gentry sitting either in the little gallery or the better seats. At one time or another the ticket sellers Jean Le Boutillier, Thomas Hamon, Jacques Jolin, G Atkins and Philippe Lys and their wives would have been among the audience, no doubt on the strength of complimentary tickets. When the charity performances were given the Churchwardens of St Helier's Church and a number of the congregation, together with the relatives of the players, would have been present to lend their support. If the forecast contained in an advertisement of 23 March 1788 came true, on Monday the 25th of the month, the audience at the theatre contained a number of ladies, both charming in appearance and delightful in disposition.

But no doubt,as stated earlier, the majority of the playgoers consisted of the good citizens of St Helier and their wives. Some who attended the theatre would have seen the leading players in the great playhouses of London; some would have been familiar with provincial theatres in different parts of England. There would have been others who were seeing a play for the first time and entered the theatre with eager expectancy. They would have gazed with wonder at the lighted stage watching intently as the actors played their parts and the plot unfolded. When the play was over they would have come away either disappointed or more likely captivated by this new found entertainment.

The applause at the end of a performance having died away, the audience would have melted into the night. If there was no moon, some would have carried lanterns to light them on their way for the streets were dark, rutty and uneven. The pale light of a candle or lamp might have been seen through an occasional uncurtained window as playgoers wended their way homeward along the little narrow streets; home to bed perhaps to dream of some character from the play just witnessed, Mme Desroches in the part of a marquise or of another member of her husband's company in the part of the Comtesse de Sancerre, or of Sir John Falstaffe, or of Lady Teazle or of Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum. As such dreams passed and the characters drifted into oblivion so these shades of the theatre in the eighteenth century conjured from a few brittle and yellowing pages of La Gazette and other old records fade swiftly away and the curtain falls on the early years of the theatre in Jersey.


The dates of references to the theatre which appeared in La Gazette between 16 December 1786 and 30 July 1796, the nature of the company and the name of the manager.

16 Decemmber 1786 Amateurs
23 March 1788 French Company Desroches
29 March 1788 Desroches
10 May 1788 Desroches
17 May 1788 French Variety Company Le Febvre
24 May 1788 Le Febvre
24 April 1790 Coda - Continental Child Athletes
1 May 1790 Coda - Continental Child Athletes
11 December 1790 French Magic Lantern Show, Belon
24 December 1790 Belon
15 January 1791 Belon
5 February 1791 Belon
5 May 1792 English Company
12 May 1792 English Company
26 May 1792 English Company
2 June 1792 English Company
9June 1792 English Company
14July 1792 English Company
25 May 1793 English Company, Fisher
3 August 1793 English Company probably not the same as came earlier in the year
10 August 1793 English Company probably not the same as came earlier in the year
17 August 1793 English Company probably not the same as came earlier in the year
28March 1795 Amateurs
30 April 1796 Amateurs
7 May 1796 Amateurs
4June 1796 English Company, Henry Lee
11 June 1796 Henry Lee
18 June 1796 Henry Lee
9 July 1796 Henry Lee
30 July 1796 Henry Lee

Works performed

A list of works known to have been performed in Jersey between 25 March 1788 and 4 June 1796

Date Play Author
25 March1788 L'Amant Bourru Jean Baptiste
Le Medicin Malgre Lui Poquelin de Moliere
5 May 1792 The West Indian Richard Cumberland


12 May1792 The School for Scandal Richard Brinsley Sheridan
The Poor Soldier
26 May 1792 Douglas or The Noble Shepherd John Home
The Midnight Houror The War of Wits Elizabeth Inchbald
2 June 1792 Child of Nature Elizabeth Inchbald
Bon Ton or High Life above Stairs David Garrick
9 June 1792 King Richard the Third William Shakespeare
The Virgin Unmask'd or An Old Man Henry Fielding
Taught Wisdom
12 June 1792 The Provok'd Husband or A Journey to London John Vanbrugh completed by Colley Cibber
High Life Below Stairs James Townley
14 July 1792 Maid of the Mill Isaac Bickerstaffe
The Life and Death of Harlequin Probably anonymous
A Wife at her Wits End Possibly a sub-title
3 August 1793 The West Indian Richard Cumberland
The Midnight Hour or The War of Wits Elizabeth Inchbald
6 August 1793 Robin Hood or Sherwood Forest Leonard Macnally
All the World's a Stage Isaac Jackman
8 August 1793 Love in a Village Isaac Bickerstaffe
Bon Ton or High Life above Stairs David Garrick
10 August 1793 Romeo and Juliet William Shakespeare
13 August 1793 The Highland Reel John O'Keefe
15 August 1793 Macbeth King of Scotland William Shakespeare
17 August 1793 BusyBody Susanna Centlivre
Midas Kane O'Hara
20 August 1793 The Beggar's Opera John Gay
22 August 1793 Henry IV or The Humours of Sir John Falstaff William Shakespeare
28 March 1795 La Tragedie d'Alzire Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire
2 May 1796 La Tragedie de Merope Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire
4 June1796 Inkle and Yarico George Colman the younger
The Virgin Unmask'd Henry Fielding
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