On the bill tonight Ladies & Gentleman

There has been a theatre at Sadler’s Wells for more than 300 years. And in that time, it’s seen a lot more than just dramatic goings-on — everything from the brilliantly bizarre to the downright criminal. Archivist Carys Lewis, who is spending a year charting its colourful past, reveals some of the highlights


In the early nineteenth century, there was a craze for marine-themed plays, performed using real water on stage, for added realism. So manager Charles Dibdin Junior decided to rebuild the Sadler’s stage to include a large water tank. The ambitious plays put on there — such as a re-enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar — were so popular that Sadler’s became Britain’s leading aquatic theatre, and remained so until the 1820s. It was usual for members of the audience to jump in at the end of performances, to test that the water was real, and for members of the cast to bathe as well as to act in the tank. Since it took 12 men 12 hours to fill, the filthy water was changed only once every three weeks…


Among the many unusual appearances at the theatre was Signor Spinacuta and his performing monkey, Le Chevalier des Singes, in 1768. Their novelty act was marketed as “The curious and uncommon performances of a monkey” and a poster from the archive shows Le Chevalier doing some incredible things: walking and dancing on a tightrope and doing tricks using poles, hoops and even a wheelbarrow. In fact, “incredible” is the word — the drawings probably include a fair amount of artistic licence and the monkey is thought to have perhaps been a small child in costume. It was common then for children to perform at Sadler’s from a very young age.


Another popular performer at Sadler’s was the Little Devil (real name Paul Redige), who danced on the tightrope in the 1780s. According to a newspaper advertisement, he would “dance with wooden shoes; then, without the pole, kick a half-crown piece into a drinking glass upon his head; then exhibit the tricks of the hat, stick and hoop”. It was common for whole families to work on the stage at this time, and the Little Devil’s presumed wife, who went by the name La Belle Espagnole, was in the same trade, as was their son, Paulo, who is described as a “clown to the rope”. Tragically, the Little Devil met his end on stage, and it wasn’t while he was ropedancing at Sadler’s. He was playing the role of Harlequin, at the nearby Spa Gardens in 1793, and jumped head-first through a window — but the stage-hands forgot to hold out the carpet to catch him.


One of the theatre’s most legendary figures is Joseph Grimaldi, the first modern British clown. A Londoner of Italian origins, he lived on Exmouth Market and is the reason why clowns are known as “Joeys”. He made his professional debut at Sadler’s, dancing with his sister in 1781, when he was only two years old; he went on to perform there until his retirement nearly 50 years later, in 1828. Grimaldi was popular with audiences for his pantomime roles and comic songs (his most famous being Hot Codlins, about an old lady apple-seller who gets drunk on gin). He would have the audience in fits of laughter and was, in fact, so entertaining that — as a newspaper report of the time claimed — a deaf and dumb sailor had his speech and hearing restored during a performance.


One of the most intriguing items in the archive is a pamphlet describing a murder at Sadler’s Wells. On 14 August, 1712, a lieutenant called Waite and a lawyer called French visited the theatre. As they drank in the gallery, Waite grew jealous of his friend, who was speaking to a woman, and a fight began. Waite gave French a “box o’ the ear”, swords were drawn and Waite received a fatal wound. French was sent to Newgate prison for his crime. Fittingly, the theatre then seized on the dramatic potential of the scandal and turned it into a play called The Ruby Ring, Or The Murder at Sadler’s Wells. This production transformed what was described as “a cruel and barbarous murder” into a “romantic, local, legendary drama in three acts”.