A fragment of 16th-century pottery found on the site

Love’s Labour Found: Shakespeare’s First Playhouse Confirmed

9 March 2009

Plans announced to build new theatre on site confirmed as London’s first purpose-built playhouse

The location of London’s first purpose built playhouse, called The Theatre, built in 1576 by James Burbage, has been confirmed by Museum of London Archaeology following investigation of the site, currently a disused warehouse, in Shoreditch, Hackney.

Shakespeare wrote and performed at The Theatre between 1594-7 and Romeo and Juliet was almost certainly premiered there.

Findings from the current excavation are the remains of what is believed to be the inner wall of the polygonal theatre. There was probably no outer wall but a series of brick piers supporting the upper floors. A sloping gravel surface uncovered by the Museum’s archaeologists would have been the yard in which audiences stood, exposed to the elements. The direction of the slope suggests that the stage is likely to have stood just south of the current site. Finds within the yard include a fragment of 16th-century pottery featuring the image of a man with beard and ruff.

An archaeologist cleaning the brick remains

In 1597 following a disagreement between the Burbages and their landlord, the wooden structure was dismantled and taken south of the river to become part of The Globe theatre.

As Museum of London Archaeology prepare to cover the remains following the excavation, plans to build a new theatre on the site have been announced by The Tower Theatre Company, one of London’s leading non-professional theatre organisations. The trustees of the theatre company are planning to create a 21st century equivalent of the original theatre, a no frills, hardworking place of entertainment.

It is hoped that the planning process will begin in April 2009. An architect has designed a building which preserves the historic remains in situ, and both Hackney Council and English Heritage have been encouraging in the preliminary phases of this exciting project. If the plans are approved by Hackney Council, The Tower Theatre Company Trustees will  launch The Theatre appeal to raise £3.3 million to build the new playhouse, which will be both a home to the Company and a local  arts resource. £1.9 million has been raised to date, and a further £1.7 million secured towards this exciting project.

View of the site

Commenting on confirmation of the origins of the site, Penny Tuerk, Chairman of The Tower Theatre Trustees said; “We have a unique opportunity both to preserve the heritage of The Theatre and develop a modern space for small-scale arts and theatre in Hackney. It is a very exciting project and our vision is to create a modern-day venue for all to enjoy”.

Jack Lohman, Director of Museum of London said: “The work of Museum of London Archaeology brings together past and present in a unique and vital way, connecting us to Londoners who continue to speak through the centuries. This extraordinary find offers a tantalising glimpse into Shakespeare’s city, and the proposed theatre development on this special site seems a fitting way to harness the energy and spirit of a place that is so central to the story of London and Londoners.”

For more information and images please contact Tim Morley on 020 7814 5607 or tmorley@museumoflondon.org.uk.

Note to editors

  1. Museum of London Archaeology has been providing professional archaeological services to the property industry and academic community for the past 30 years, as an independent division of the Museum of London, one of world’s largest museums of urban history. Meeting the requirements of the planning process efficiently and cost-effectively, Museum of London Archaeology designs innovative projects that lead to a greater understanding of our past. At any one time Museum of London may have around a dozen excavations going on across London. www.museumoflondon.org.uk
  2. The Tower Theatre Company has been entertaining audiences for over 75 years. Operating with only two paid employees, it has given thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to get involved in putting on high quality drama. We stage up to 18 shows a year usually in central London, although we have just recently completed the run, at the Minack open-air theatre in Cornwall, of our 1,365th production. Remarkably, we are entirely self-supporting and receive no grants for day-to-day expenses.  Our forthcoming fund-raising campaign will be aimed purely at securing the remaining capital cost of building the project.  For further information about the Tower Theatre Company, please visit www.towertheatre.org.uk (external link)
  3. The  Trustees of the Tower Theatre Company are  registered as The Tavistock Repertory Guarantors Ltd (charity registration no. 219947), which exists  to promote the arts and education and support The Tower Theatre Company, one of the UK’s leading non-professional theatre companies, which has given thousands of people the chance to be involved in every aspect of theatre during its 77 year history. The plans for The Theatre site focus on providing a versatile and accessible resource for Hackney and provide valuable rehearsal, performance and exhibition space for the smaller scale arts in central London.