The following is an extract from David Kidd and Jean Stokes' new book 'The People's Roman Remains Park', an account of the 1875 excavations of the Roman Station on the Law in South Shields, as well as the first publicly owned archaeological park now known as Arbeia. This segment is from the first chapter and focuses on South Shields' cultural links with the Roman era, most notably Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar at the Alhambra.
Sam Siddall the sole proprietor of the New Alhambra and Amphitheatre Royal Music Hall wasn’t interested in antiquarian discussions about the Roman name of South Shields or the interpretation of obscure ancient texts giving details of the allocation of units of the Roman army to long forgotten forts along Hadrian’s Wall but he knew a good thing when he saw one. The New Alhambra which opened on Monday 31st August 1874 was, as he never ceased to boast, the biggest and best theatre outside London and it needed an attractive and exciting programme to keep it filled. So, for Sam, a ‘grand revival’ of Shakespeare’s Roman play Julius Caesar was an obvious way to cash in on the Roman fever that gripped South Shields during the summer of 1875.
The Alhambra, recently rebuilt from an earlier wooden hall, could accommodate 4000 people and had a glamour that belied its position next to the glassworks in the back streets of a northern industrial town at the Mill Dam. It had none of the architectural pretensions of its rival, South Shields first theatre, the elegantly classical Theatre Royal in King Street, but it was more than twice the size of the Royal and a very different operation; part theatre, part music hall, part circus and wholly spectacle and entertainment. The Alhambra was a plain brick building but its main entrance, lit by two huge lamps set in a wall of glazed white bricks that shone with reflected light on dark northern nights, promised wonders inside.
Patrons on the opening night of the 31st August 1874, when 4,200 people packed into Mr. Siddall’s new theatre, were not disappointed. The Alhambra seemed like a royal palace to the crowd who had never seen such luxury. Its interior was lit by six cut glass chandeliers fully seven feet long, there were private boxes supported by white Corinthian columns topped with raised figures trimmed with gold, and the seats in the boxes and dress circle were upholstered with the best scarlet velvet cloth. Long mirrors on either side of the white and gold classical proscenium arch doubled the size of the huge hall which had its own orchestra made up, Sam Siddall claimed, of the best musicians in the North East. In many ways Sam Siddall and his grand Alhambra Theatre symbolised the growth and ambition of the new town of South Shields. Before the industrial revolution Shields was a place apart known only for its burning spoil heaps (a byproduct of its historic salt panning industry) and ballast hills. A potent combination of deep coal mining, iron shipbuilding, and railways made Shields a Victorian boom town which like the Alhambra grew from nothing to massive proportions.
As a boy Sam was apprenticed as a fitter in West Yorkshire before moving to South Shields to work in one of the many engineering works along the river. the town had few facilities for its growing population and Sam saw the chance to make his fortune by moving into show business and building his first music hall, a simple wooden hall which grew into the Alhambra, South Shields’s biggest public building, which brought the community together and made them proud of their rather ramshackle boom town. South Shields needed to find its identity quickly, so the discovery of the Roman remains on the Lawe was a heaven sent opportunity to build civic pride and recover thousands of years of ‘lost’ history in one summer: a fact which the excavation committee led by Rev R E Hooppell, headmaster of the new Marine School and Robert Blair, a local solicitor, seized with both hands.
The Alhambra’s production of Julius Caesar, the first for 22 years, had no pretensions to historical accuracy, but it was a spectacle that filled the great hall with paying customers to the delight of Sam Siddall and his company. Shakespeare’s text was heavily cut to allow for frequent changes of costume and scenery, including specially painted backcloths which were a feature of productions at the Alhambra, while the actors made loud and melodramatic speeches that captured the attention of the huge audience. There was something Roman about the design of the Alhambra as in addition to a conventional stage it had a circus ring 40 feet in diameter in the centre of the hall and its performances regularly featured trapeze artists and circus acts together with ballets, singers, popular farces, and novelty acts.
Sam had originally planned a season of four ‘fashionable’ Shakespeare plays for the summer of 1875 – King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, and Othello (listed as Iago) – to build the Alhambra’s reputation as a serious theatre. He added Julius Caesar to the programme when the extent of Roman mania gripping Shields became obvious as this chance to place his theatre at the centre of the latest popular enthusiasm which was bringing thousands of visitors to the town was too good to miss. Admission prices at the Alhambra started at 3d (3 old pence) rose through 6d, 9d and 1s (shilling) to the best seats at 2s. The production of Julius Caesar was of no financial benefit for the excavation committee as there is no evidence that a collection was taken or money received into Robert Blair’s office, which was the centre of the fundraising campaign for the excavations. Sam wasn’t the only businessman in South Shields who was aware of the visitors flocking to the excavations. The proprietor of the fashionable Criterion Restaurant in Ocean Road was soon advertising it as convenient for the Roman remains as were most of his competitors while, without a hint of irony, the speculative builders whose developments on the Lawe threatened the destruction of Shields ’Roman heritage advertised their properties as being ‘near the Roman remains in the most interesting part of town’. Approaching the much enlarged Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum on the Lawe today, the successor of the original People’s Roman Remains Park, the fort still advertises its presence in neighbouring streets and terraces named after Roman Emperors and Empresses.
Like the Roman station on the Lawe the Alhambra fell in flames only to rise again from the ashes. The huge hall was destroyed by a massive fire in the early hours of Saturday 27th April 1878. The alarm was raised by officials at the railway station just after midnight as the flames lit up the low clouds of a dark wet night like the promise of an early dawn. The building was empty after the last performance and no one was injured in the disaster, but the performers who lost all their possessions were very distressed and Sam Siddall was comforted by the crowds who gathered to watch the Alhambra’s final spectacular performance. He was heard to say the building was only half insured but his business survived and he built another hall on the site (The Grand) and filled it with scenery and costumes bought from the Royal Grecian Theatre in London, before he emigrated to New Zealand in the 1880s with his wife and family, one son four daughters who all appeared on the stage.
The book will be available direct from the publisher Harton Village Press (£15 including post and packing) and can be ordered by emailing co author firstname.lastname@example.org
David Kidd is a trustee of The Coble and Keelboat Society and runs the Society’s twitter account. He was born and brought up in South Shields and his Granda worked for the Tyne Improvement Commission at Howdon Yard. David remembers going on the Ferry with the old man who told him to always stand next to the life raft because a ferry once sank, and a lot of men were drowned. He never found out the ferry’s name and thought it was just a story but now he believes it must have been a folk memory of the Gipsy Queen. David studied Art part time at Newcastle Polytechnic while working for a bank in Newcastle and later became a teacher. He is now retired.