Bath Masonic Hall
Improvements have been made to Bath Masonic Hall, a building synonymous with great actors, as Reginald Simmonds reveals
Walking with the greats
Bath is the second most popular tourist
destination in the United Kingdom, second
only to London, but few tourists get to see
one of its most interesting buildings – the
But television viewers will be able to
catch a glimpse inside this beautiful and
historic building in a series being prepared
by the architectural historian Dan
Cruikshank, entitled Britain’s Best Buildings,
to be transmitted on BBC TV in the
autumn. Viewers will be able to vote for
As the address implies, until the 18th
century the site on which the Bath Masonic
Hall stands was the orchard of the
Benedictine Abbey, of which only the
beautiful Bath Abbey church of St Peter
and St Paul remains.
But in 1748, John Wood the elder, the
architect who designed much of Bath, chose
the site for a new theatre to satisfy the needs
of this developing cultural centre.
John Wood chose the site because at that
time it was conveniently close to the heart of
the city. He was actively involved from the
start, and drew up plans for a theatre:
‘sixty Feet Long and forty Feet Broad: it was
to Front Westward to Orchard Street: and the
Front was to have consisted of Rustick Basement,
supporting the Dorick Order: Expence of Building
it was computed at about one thousand Pounds’.
The designs are believed to have been
carried out by Thomas Jelly, an architect
who later built the King Edward’s Grammar
School in Broad Street, Bath.
The theatre opened its doors for the
first time on 27 October 1750, under the
management of John Palmer, with a
production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part
II. During the early years, further plays by
Shakespeare and others by Dryden, Otway,
Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, as
well as several Restoration comedies, were
Charges for admission were hardly cheap.
A seat in a box would have cost three
shillings; a place in the pit was two shillings;
and admittance to the upper gallery cost
1s 6d in the front and 1s at the rear.
Those playgoers referred to as ‘persons
of the first quality’ usually sent servants to
occupy seats during the late afternoon,
arriving themselves at about 6.30pm, for
the rising of the curtain. Playbills of the time
announced that ‘Ladies and gentlemen are
desired to send their servants to keep places
by half an hour after four o’clock’.
A contemporary report states that these
menials often behaved badly in the theatre,
talking loudly and shouting vulgar
irrelevances to each other across the
During the 1760s, Palmer continued to
make improvements to the building and,
with the full support of the Corporation, he
applied to Parliament for a Royal Warrant,
sending his son – another John Palmer – to
London to present the petition.
It was granted by a special Act of
Parliament in 1768. At that time only
Covent Garden and Drury Lane enjoyed
this privilege and were entitled to call
themselves ‘Theatre Royal’. The Theatre
Royal, Bath was the first theatre outside
London to be accorded this honour.
John Palmer junior continued to guide
the Orchard Street theatre to new pinnacles
of acclaim and success. Performers such
as John Henderson and Sarah Siddons
delighted Bath audiences until they were
lured to London.
In 1785, three years after Sarah Siddons
returned to Drury Lane, John Palmer was
appointed Comptroller-General of the Post
Office, and relinquished his responsibilities
at the Orchard Street theatre.
He bequeathed the proprietorship of
the theatre to two long-serving actors in the
company, William Keasbury and William
Wyatt Dimond. Keasbury had served as
manager under Palmer, and Dimond was
an accomplished actor who played many
roles – Sheridan had told him personally
that he performed Joseph Surface in the
School for Scandal ‘in a manner more
consistent to my own ideas when I wrote
the part, than anybody else’.
A unique setting for a Royal Arch Chapter|