Curtain Up in Clerkenwell | Pioneering Venues

From mystery plays and “blood tubs” to Shakespeare and Sadley’s Wells – EC1 has always been a key player in London’s theatrical scene. Local guide John Morgan revisits the area’s most historic and pioneering venues.

There is a plaque in Fortune Street, near the Barbican, that is easily missed. It marks where the Fortune Theatre once stood and provides proof that Clerkenwell once rivalled Southwark (home of the famous Rose and Globe theatres) as a draw for entertainment-seeking Londoners.

The Fortune was built in 1600, a time when the biggest crowd pleasers were cock-fighting, bear-baiting and public execution – all of which Clerkenwell could also offer. Plays soon became popular but theatres were frowned upon by the authorities, who saw them as the cause of unnecessary gatherings and health hazards for spreading the plague. This is why London’s great stages could all be found outside the City wall, far from any regulation.

The plays themselves were subject to censorship and had to be licensed. This often involved performing them to the Master of the Revels, who was based in Clerkenwell in the early 1600s. So the likes of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson would have come to EC1 to see him.


The Fortune sat between Whitecross Street and Golding (now Golden) Lane. Unlike the many-sided Globe, it was square, and it had a statue of the Roman goddess Fortuna at its entrance (although no toilet facilities). It was opened as a business venture for the manager, impresario Philip Henslowe, and his son-in-law, Edward Alleyn, Elizabeth I’s favourite actor.

Henslowe owned the Rose theatre in Southwark but that had started to lose custom to the Globe, which was a larger, more modern theatre. The Fortune was intended to replace the Rose as the home of The Admiral’s Men, the company of actors for whom Alleyn was the leading light. Their arch rivals were Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the main performers at the Globe.

To advertise performances, flags of varying colours were flown on the building: black for a tragedy, white for a comedy and red for a history. Play-goers used to put a penny in a box to gain entrance for standing, and two pennies to sit in the first or second gallery. When the performance started, the boxes were removed to a secure office for safe keeping – hence the term “box office”.

Though things went well for the theatre, ultimately it didn’t live up to its name. It was destroyed by fire in 1621 and closed for two years, forced to shut down in 1642 on account of the civil war, and demolished in 1661.


Although the Fortune was mainly jostling with the Globe, it also had competition much closer to home: the Red Bull theatre on St John Street. It started as an inn that put on performances in its yard but, in 1604, the yard was converted into a large-capacity amphitheatre, attracting thousands of visitors to its rowdy “blood tub” evenings, which mostly featured spectacles involving fire and the devil.

It put on plays, too, including premieres of works by Christopher Marlowe, John Webster and Thomas Dekker. And it wasn’t daunted by a ban on its performances by the Puritans in 1642 – it seems to have carried on by advertising its shows as “rope-dancing”, among other things. It was twice raided in the 1650s, with the actors being arrested and their clothes and props confiscated.

Unlike the Fortune, the Red Bull survived the civil war and reopened formally after the Restoration in 1660. But it, too, suffered a decline. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he went to see All’s Lost by Lust by William Rowley there. He recorded that there were no more than 100 people in the whole house and that the performance was “poorly done”, with “much disorder”.

By 1663, the Red Bull was reduced to putting on shows of fencing and prize-fighting. And in 1666, the Great Fire finally saw to its end.


But the demise of the Red Bull and the Fortune did not crush Clerkenwell’s theatrical aspirations. In the latter part of the 17th century, when the area was known as a rural retreat, people would come here to enjoy the spas and some leisure time. It was around one such spa that a theatre arose; one that, despite many ups and downs over the years (it has been rebuilt five times), still survives to this day.

Sadler’s Wells began life as a “musick house” in 1683. Soon after, the owner, Richard Sadler, opened it as a spa – a result of digging up the drive and finding a spring – and it thrived under his keen promotion. By the start of the 18th century, however, people were losing interest in “taking the waters”, preferring liquid refreshment of a much stronger kind, and so more general entertainment was provided: singers, wrestlers, dancing dogs, jugglers, tight-rope walkers and acrobats.

Operas also thrived there, in addition to the ever-popular low-level entertainments, thanks to the management of Thomas Rosoman in the mid-1700s. It was on his watch that a new theatre was built, in 1765. And by the beginning of the 1800s, Joseph Grimaldi took the limelight as Sadler’s’ star performer. He is known as the original clown, and 2012 happens to mark 175 years since his death.

After this, the theatre sank twice into decline, only to be rescued each time at the eleventh hour. Its first saviour, in the mid-1800s, was the actor Samuel Phelps, who put on many Shakespeare plays there. Its second, in the 1930s, was Old Vic manager Lilian Baylis. Under her control, Sadler’s gained a reputation for opera and dance.

When the building we know today opened in 1998, it was the most technologically advanced theatre in London. And as the UK’s leading dance house, Sadler’s continues the tradition in EC1 of entertaining Londoners and visitors alike.

John Morgan belongs to the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides’ Association, which runs weekly historic walks in the area.

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This year’s Clerkenwell Design Week gives visitors a taste of another of the area’s historic cultural venues. Paying tribute to the story of Thomas Britton, “The Small Coals Man” (see the Post, issue 2) – a charcoal merchant who, in 1678, converted a room in his stable block in Jerusalem Passage into a world-class concert hall – design studio Aberrant Architecture is bringing to the festival a specially made tiny travelling theatre, sponsored by estate agents Stirling Ackroyd. It will tour St John’s Square and Clerkenwell Green, staging mini performances to as many people as can fit into it. Unlike Britton’s “musical club”, it can’t promise Handel on the organ but members of the audience can expect three very EC1 things: interesting surroundings, amusing entertainment and a rich sense of history.