The Savoy Theatre, located next to the Savoy Hotel just off the Strand in the West End, was the first public building in London to feature electric lighting.

Built to the designs of CJ Phipps and decorated by Collinson and Locke, its construction was instigated and financed by Richard D’Oyly Carte with the specific intention of hosting WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan‘s operas.

Opening on 10th October, 1881, the first show at the new premises was Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, which had been previously playing at the Opera Comique. It continued to solely show Gilbert and Sullivan’s works until 1886 when a falling out led to the end of the partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan.

The theatre subsequently hosted comedic operas by other composers as well as productions of Shakespeare (Henry Irving was among those who trod the boards here in the early 20th century).

It was rebuilt in just 135 days in 1929 and the new premises featured an exterior designed by Frank Tugwell and interior designed by Art Deco expert Basil Ionides.

A fire caused considerable damage in 1990 after which the theatre was again renovated, this time under the guidance of the theatre’s then chairman Sir Hugh Wontner and architect Sir William Whitfield, with the public areas returned to how they had looked under Tugwell and Ionides’ scheme from the 1920s. It reopened in July, 1993, with a Royal Gala performance by the English National Ballet (Diana, Princess of Wales, was among those in attendance).

Now owned by the The Ambassador Theatre Group, the Savoy these days it shows a range of different productions. It’s currently hosting Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5: The Musical. For more, see www.thesavoytheatre.com.

PICTURES: Above – Neon sign for The Savoy Theatre advertising a previous production with the hotel and theatre entrance (Loren Javier/image cropped/licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0); The Savoy Theatre with a Westminster City Council Green Plaque commemorating it being the first public building with electric lighting in London (David Adams).

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At one time the grandest of medieval townhouses in London, the history of the Savoy Palace, also known as the Palace of the Savoy, goes back to at least the 13th century.

A mansion was built here by Simon de Montfort, the ill-fated Earl of Leicester, in 1245. Following his death, it and the land between the Strand and the Thames were gifted by King Henry III to Peter, Count of Savoy, and it was renamed the Savoy Palace (apparently originally spelt Savoie).

The uncle of the king’s young wife Eleanor of Provence, Peter had accompanied his niece to London for her wedding to the king at Canterbury Cathedral on 14th January, 1236, and decided to stay. In 1241, the king named him the Earl of Richmond and in 1246 granted him the land upon which the property was built.

After being briefly given to a religious order, Queen Eleanor gifted the property to Prince Edmund (“Edmund Crouchback” – a term referring to his entitlement to wear a crusader’s cross, not a hunchback), the 1st Earl of Lancaster and younger brother to King Edward I.

It was subsequently occupied by Edmund’s successor earls and, later, dukes. Among the ‘guests’ to visit the palace during the 14th century were the French King Jean (John) II, held there for three years following his capture by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years War in 1356.

Interestingly, as the property of the Dukes of Lancaster, the precinct around the palace was considered part of County Palatine of Lancaster (created in 1351), meaning that the rule of the dukes was applied here instead of that of the king – a situation which remained in place until the 1800s.

The palace eventually became the property of John of Gaunt, the 2nd Duke of Lancaster and third son of King Edward III. The richest and most powerful man in the kingdom (he was all but king in name during the younger years of King Richard II in whose name he ruled), Gaunt’s home was said to be sumptuous.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that it become a focus of the rebels during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 (it had been attacked unsuccessfully a few years earlier). They attacked and destroyed the property, razing it to the ground. (The story includes the tale that 32 men drank themselves to death after becoming trapped in the cellar while the palace burned).

The site, however, continued to be referred to as that of the Savoy and in the early sixteenth century King Henry VII, by order of his will, financed the founding of the Savoy Hospital on the site for the poor people (the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy is a relic of this building – see our earlier post here). The hospital closed in 1702 and was later demolished (we’ll deal with this in more detail in a later Lost London post).

The site, which stands on the north side of the Thames just west of Waterloo Bridge,  is now occupied by the salubrious Savoy Hotel (the entrance of which is pictured above) and the Savoy Theatre, which, like the hotel, was founded by impressario Richard d’Oyly in the 1880s (the theatre was the first building in the country to be entirely lit by electric lighting).

The name of the Savoy Palace is also remembered in street names around the site including Savoy Street, Savoy Hill, Savoy Steps, Savoy Way and Savoy Place.

What’s in a name?…Strand

October 10, 2011

Now one of the major thoroughfares of the West End, the origins of the roadway known as the Strand go back to the Roman times leading west out of the city.

Later part of Saxon Lundenwic which occupied what is now the West End, it ran right along the northern shore of the Thames and so became known as the Strand (the word comes from the Saxon word for the foreshore of a river). During the following centuries the river was pushed back as buildings were constructed between the road and the river, leaving it now, excuse the pun, ‘stranded’ some distance from where the Thames flows.

Sitting on the route between the City of London and Westminster, seat of the government, the street proved a popular with the wealthy and influential and during the Middle Ages, a succession of grand homes or palaces was built along its length, in particular along the southern side.

All are now gone but for Somerset House – originally the home of the Dukes of Somerset, it was built in the 16th century but rebuilt in the 18th century after which it served a variety of roles including housing the Navy Office, before taking on its current role as an arts centre. Others now recalled in the names of streets coming off the Strand include the Savoy Palace, former residence of John of Gaunt which was destroyed in the Peasant’s Revolt, and York House, once home of the Bishops of Norwich and later that of George Villiers, favorite of King James I (see our earlier Lost London entry on York Watergate for more).

After the aristocracy decamped further west during the 17th and 18th centuries, the road and surrounding area fell into decline but was resurrected with a concerted building effort in the early 19th century (this included the creation of the Victoria Embankment which pushed the Thames even further away) which saw it become a favorite of the those who patronised the arts, including the opening of numerous theatres. Among those which still stand on the Strand today are the Adelphi and Savoy Theatres (this was apparently the first in London to be fitted with electric lights and sits on a site once occupied by the Savoy Palace).

Among the other landmarks along the Strand are the churches of St Mary-le-Strand (the present building which sits on what amounts to a traffic island) dates from 1717 and was designed by James Gibbs, and St Clement Danes, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1682 (it is now the Central Church of the Royal Air Force). The Strand is also home to the Victorian-era Royal Courts of Justice (it boasts more than 1,000 rooms), Australia House (home of the oldest Australian diplomatic mission), the Strand Palace Hotel (opened in 1907) and Charing Cross Railway Station.