‘Mr Bridgeman will exhibit several Equilibres…and likewise perform the Ladder Dance…’ Arris’s Gazette Dec 9th 1754
Birmingham, the ‘second city’ of modern Britain, was a fairly insignificant town in the 18th century. Northbound coach routes from London passed through Worcester, Lichfield and Shrewsbury, lending them status and perhaps explaining why natives of these towns - Tomlinson, Garrick and Johnson - were active in the capital and achieved national fame.
But things were changing. Through Erasmus Darwin’s friendship with Matthew Boulton, the subsequent formation of the Lunar Society at Soho House in Handsworth and Baskerville’s innovations in printing and typography, Birmingham began to emerge on the economic and cultural map. Advertisements in local newspapers portray a vibrant dance and performance milieu, both on the stage and in the dancing schools, catering for members of the social elite now assembling in the town.
Attracting an audience, a challenge for all unlicensed theatres in the 18th century, proved particularly testing for provincial theatres, since the most celebrated performers and repertory works were generally not of local origin. So what might Boulton or Baskerville have witnessed had they attended the local theatres and who was performing?
This paper investigates the 18th century Birmingham dance and theatre scene, as seen through the local press, offering some fascinating insights into its repertoire, performers, its reflection of the local community’s artistic taste and its connection to the London scene.