The Old Price Riots of 1809 were caused by rising prices at the new Theatre at Covent Garden, London, after the previous one had been destroyed by fire. Covent Garden was one of two “patent” theatres in London in the 19th century, along with Drury Lane. When Drury Lane was burned down, Covent Garden became the premiere theatre in that time. The riots lasted three months, and ended with John Philip Kemble, the manager of the theatre, being forced to make a public apology.
The OPs protested against the rise in seat prices, the reduction of the gallery (where the poor watch the play), and the increase in the size of richer patrons’ private boxes. Those who preferred the old price (OPs) opposed those who supported Kemble and the management (NPs). The protest continued for 62 days. The riots occurred in the pits, though people in the private boxes joined in. The OPs claimed the poor had as much right to view a play as did the wealthiest of the Realm.
Georgian theatres had three very distinct areas from which to take in a play. The floor of the theatre held simple benches and was called the “pit.” Those in the pits were usually the most discriminating of the theatre goers. They had the best views of the stage. Surrounding the pits were tiers of enclosed seats (boxes). The gallery was above the tiered seating. A theatre goer experienced the main play, songs, dances, some sort of “circus” act, and a short comedy. If one entered the theatre at the interval, he could be admitted for half price.
The major theatres of the time were Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Known as Theatres Royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane sent scripts to the Lord Chamberlain for approval. As both theatres had seen major renovations in the 1790s, they could seat some 3000 people.
The minor theatres had a burlesque type of atmosphere. These lesser theatres put on “musicals” – songs, dances, acrobatics. If a scene was acted out, dialogue was written out on scrolls and the actors mimed the action. These “musicals” were known as burlettas. Local magistrates licensed these lesser theatres. Whereas, the Theatres Royal could not perform plays with politically biased scripts, the lesser theatres could and several plays depicts events in France were seen upon their stages. The minor theatres put on extravaganzas to draw in crowds.
Thirty lives were lost in 1808 when Covent Garden burned to the ground, but Covent Garden came back strong. Management borrowed money from their rich patrons, most importantly £10.000 from the Duke of Northumberland. Angelica Catlani, a renowned soprano, was hired to attract customers. The Acropolis was the model for the theatre’s design. Luxurious boxes were added for the wealthy patrons, but these boxes limited the view from the gallery. The prices increased from six shillings to seven shillings for the boxes and three and six to four shillings for the pit and the third tier. The gallery price remained the same, but the new gallery was so far up and the rake so steep that the audience (crammed into so called ‘pigeon holes’) could only see the legs of the performers.
All of this would have been well and good except for a second tragedy. In March 1809, Drury Lane also burnt down, leaving Covent Garden as the only theatre permitted to perform plays. Covent was to reopen on 18 September 1809. Macbeth was to the opening play. John Kemble stepped upon the stage to a round of applause, but when he began his opening speech, members of the crowd began to hiss and hoot and yell. Eventually, magistrates were called to read the Riot Act to the crowd, demanding that the group disperse to be arrested. The majority of the audience remained in place. They sang “God Save the King” and “Rule Britannia.”
The fracas continued on subsequent nights. The OPs brought their own special form of ammunition: pots and pans to bang together, musical instruments, bells, etc. If you have heard of the Harlem shake or gangnam style, you will find it amusing to know the OPs also came up with a welly dance, usually performed on the benches and followed by boisterous shouts of “OP!”
A committee met over a six-day period to discuss the new prices, but when the committee supported the price change, the riots resumed with a vengeance. The OPs staged mock fight scenes, raced about the theatre, carried banners and placards and sang song while the legitimate actors attempted to say their lines. Kemble, the theatre manager, hired boxers to throw the ramble rousers out or have them arrested. When one of Kemble’s “bouncers” arrested Henry Clifford, a well-known radical barrister, Kemble was found guilty of false arrest.
On 14 December 1809, Kemble had agreed to terms with Clifford. He announced a return to the previous prices. All charges against the rioters were dropped. The British government feared the rioters might take on more weighty causes such as the price of bread or an unpopular war with France, but no attempt to organize for other causes occurred.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 finally addressed whether the minor theatres had a right to perform plays. In 1843, the patents for the Theatres Royal were abolished. However, that did not solve all the problems. The “lesser” theatres went for the quick buck. The repertoire was not inspiring. These theatres encouraged middle class audiences.
Without their monopoly on “legitimate” drama, Drury Lane and Covent Garden could not remain solvent. There were just too many seats to fill to turn a major profit. Covent Garden burned down a second time in 1856. Instead of replacing Covent a second time, the Italian Opera House took its place.
The books Theater and Disorder in Late Georgian London (Oxford University Press, 1992, by March Baer) and A People’s History of London (Verso, 2012, by Lindsey German and John Rees) have excellent sections on the riots and the conditions which brought them about.
There is a great article on the OP Riots at Counterfire.