A rare legal document signed by Samuel Butler, who founded The Georgian Theatre Royal in 1788, has come to light in an office clearance over 230 years after the date it was drawn up.
The handwritten document, which was signed by Butler in 1789, was found in the stronghold of the old offices of the solicitors Hudsons, Hart & Borrows on Queens Road in Richmond.
It has been donated to the theatre’s archive by the family of the late Alan Meehan, who was a principal at the firm before its closure in 2020.
The theatre occupies a unique position in theatrical history being the UK’s oldest working theatre in its original form.
It was built by actor-manager Samuel Butler who was responsible for building and running eight theatres across the North of England.
It is the only one to have survived and today is a vibrant community playhouse as well as an important heritage and tourist attraction.
Relatively little is known about Butler – who would walk his actors between the venues sometimes covering distances of up to 48 miles a day. He was born around 1750 and died in 1812 and by all accounts was a well-respected company manager.
“It is because we have so little information about Butler that this document is so important,” said Jim Brown, member of the theatre’s board of trustees with responsibility for archives who has made a transcript of the document.
“The handwriting in itself is beautiful and the document provides a fascinating insight into the day-to-day business practicalities that he must have been involved with, alongside acting and managing his troupe of players.
“It is remarkable that it has survived over the centuries and was residing just a stone’s throw away from the theatre building.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Meehan family for donating it to our archive where it can be preserved as part of the theatre’s unique history.”
The document itself relates to a dispute with a neighbour of the theatre, Mr Thomas Simpson.
It appears that Butler had laid timber upon the wall of Mr Simpson’s stable granary and taken slates off the roof.
These were replaced by Butler along with ‘leaden gutter’ but they were considered to be of an ‘inferior value’. The document is a signed agreement that Butler would, if required, remove the offending timber and “amend, repair and keep in good order repair and condition” the roof and gutter.
He also agreed to pay Thomas Simpson and his heirs the annual sum of six pence (old) as a way of making amends for the “encroachment and trespasses”.
The document then charts 13 payments made between 10 September 1791 and 7 September 1803.
These dates may indicate occasions when Butler was in Richmond, adding to existing knowledge about when the company was in residence. The dates tend to coincide with race meetings at the town’s Georgian racecourse, which is when Butler would typically open the theatre to capitalise on the extra footfall in the town.
Celia Meehan said: “The family is pleased to be able to pass on a document of such great significance to the Theatre and therefore to the history of Richmond.
“Alan was a solicitor in Richmond at Hudsons, Hart & Borrows for 50 years and this is a fitting legacy to his long-standing involvement with the town and its people.”
The document will now form a valuable part of the theatre’s extensive archive and further study will be undertaken to see what further light it can shed on the buildings around the Theatre at that time and their usage.
As part of the popular Georgian Theatre Experience visitor attraction, guided tours take place on the hour, Monday to Friday between mid-February to the end of October.
These enable members of the public to go behind-the-scenes of this historic playhouse and find out more about life in 18th century England, as well as the lives of the actors themselves.
For further information, please visit: www.georgiantheatreroyal.co.uk/tours/theatre-tours or call 01748 825252.