Theatre Royal - 1700s
1785 was a very prosperous time in Waterford and with that prosperity came a rise in demand for entertainment. A group of Waterford’s leading citizens and merchants came together to build Assembly Rooms and a Theatre. Designed by local architect John Roberts who also became one of the proprietors. The Mayor traditionally had use of the ground floor and events took place in the Assembly Rooms and Concert Hall upstairs.
The Assembly Rooms opened for Balls on August 4th 1785 and entertainments of all sorts followed – fancy dress soirees, plays, concerts and card games. The cost of attending a Ball was 5s 5d. for Gentlemen and 3s. 3d. for Ladies. Tea was available for the price of 6d. The Card Room was made available to Ladies and Gentlemen on Sept. 18th 1785 and cost “One British Shilling” to attend. The main play of the opening evening was Shakespeare’s popular five-act comedy As You Like It, followed by a presentation of Arthur Murphy’s two act farce The Citizen. Music on the evening was provided by Charles Clagget of Dublin. Top of the bill was the famous opera singer from England, the soprano Elizabeth Billington. Among the highlights of the opening season was a breakfast for Prince William Henry who later became King William IV.
As there was not enough money to build everything at once the Ball Room, which we now refer to as The Large Room, was finished in April 1788. However the relationship between the client and the architect did not always go well as noted in the minutes of a meeting from that time to instruct ”that an orchestra be erected at the upper end of the great ballroom” and that is what the upper gallery was used for in those days. John Roberts would not have approved as the gallery compromises the proportions and symmetry of this marvellous room. It would not be the first time that the client and the architect fought over ”aesthetics versus practicality” in this building and would not be the last. The original ballroom was green but in the first years of the 19th century it was changed to pink as it was felt that would be a better colour to show off the ‘ladies and the lights’.
During the rising of the United Irishmen a decade later in 1798 the government thought it prudent as a precautionary measure to move elements of the Regiment of Guards and the North Cork Militia into the city of Waterford and the soldiers were billeted here in the Assembly Rooms. We know this from the minutes of June 1799 where the treasurer, a Mr. Newport was requested to object in the strongest possible terms about the loss of income to the theatre by virtue of the fact that it was “precluded from having any public entertainment during the whole season”.
Famous artists from all over the world played here including Angelica Catalani from Italy, Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish Nightingale and Catherine Hayes the famous Limerick born Prima Donna from La Scala, Milan. Daly’s Dublin Theatre Royal company performed regularly as did Charlotte Melmoth an 18th century English actress.