Sadler’s Wells was a performing arts area located in Clerkenwell in the outskirts of London. Named after Richard Sadler, who opened a musick house there in the late 17th century, the region boasted well water thought to have medicinal qualities.
Sadler was prompted to claim that drinking the water from the wells would be effective against “dropsy, jaundice, scurvy, green sickness and other distempers to which females are liable – ulcers, fits of the mother, virgin’s fever and hypochondriacal distemper.” -Wikipedia
Six theatres have stood at this site since Sadler built his first theatre. A second theatre, Sadler’s Wells, was constructed in 1765, which attracted summer theatre goers (the Theatre Royal offered performances only in the fall and winter.)
In the early 19th century, Sadler’s Wells began to offer aquatic spectacles. The construction of a large tank (90x24x3 ft) in 1804 by Charles Dibdin covered the entire area of the stage. It was flooded with water that was pumped from the nearby New River at the cost of 30 pounds per annum. This renovation allowed for the theatre to be used for naval melodramas, a popular theme, one imagines, in the days of the Napoleonic Wars and tales of Admiral Nelson’s heroism. The Siege of Gilbraltar, an ambitious spectacle, deployed 117 model ships created by the Woolwich Dockyard shipwrights and riggers, who used a scale of one inch to a foot in exact imitation of the slightest details, including the rigging. Children were cast as drowning Spanish sailors, and could be seen struggling in the waves.
A beautiful drop scene that filled up all the area of the proscenium showed the English fleet drawn up in battle against France and Spain. The enormous painting was used to entertain the audience during a delay while preparations were made behind stage. In order to alleviate 20 minutes of boredom between scenes, the stage slowly rose to nearly the roof of the theatre in full view. A second water tank was built on the theatre’s roof to simulate waterfalls. (With the lack of temperature control in the 19th century and windows in the main area, one can imagine that the theatre’s interior developed a powerful moldy smell in the heat of summer!)
The behavior of the theatre goers at Sadler’s Wells left much to be desired. As early as 1711 it was observed that members of the audience were publicly drunk, and their behavior boorish and loutish. Karl Philipp Moritz, a German traveler in England in 1782, described in his travel diary the audience in a typical British play house. Not only was the crowd rowdy between scenes and before the performance (making a “noise and uproar”), but there was a constant pelting of orange peels, for oranges were “tolerably cheap”.
Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders and English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up…I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one. Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat. – Karl Philipp Moritz
If the Sadler’s Wells theatre audience had a particularly rowdy reputation compared to theatres in central London, one can only imagine how truly awful the experience was. The theatre slowly lost its lustre during the first half of the 19th century, for it was located in the rural outskirts of London. Without street lights and an organized police force, travel at night was dangerous, and patrons of the theatre were provided escorts as they traveled back to central London.
Pinero’s play Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ (1898), portrays Sadler’s Wells as outmoded by the new fashion for realism. The theatre declined until, by 1875, plans to turn it into a bath house were proposed and, for a while, the new craze of roller skating was catered to, as the theatre was converted into a roller-skating rink and later a prize fight arena. The theatre was condemned as a dangerous structure in 1878. – Wikipedia