A Short History of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, York St Sydney
Here we take a wide side-track from the story of our magicians, to examine the history of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, not so much in relation to its performers, but looking at the building itself. In the later part of this page are numerous illustrations which should be of interest.
While researching this circumstance, I found considerable difficulty in locating information on two main themes: Firstly the insolvency issue, of which I have found no mention in any of the standard reference works on Sydney Theatre. Secondly, the question of exactly where the Royal Lyceum Theatre was located; while its general position somewhere between King and Market Streets was frequently noted, it took a lot of digging in order to establish the full detail. While it may be that these things have been noted previously (and I would be glad to be corrected on any errors), they have been found only with some difficulty; so it is hoped that these notes, while rather over-detailed and pedantic, will add something to the published, very complicated, history of this Hotel/Theatre.
For the purposes of the story, the heading, “Royal Lyceum Theatre” has been chosen because it relates to Signor Recanati. In fact, it should be taken to encompass all the circuses, hotels and theatres which belonged to the site.
On July 26, 1845 (1), Thomas Murphy announced that he had opened “the above capacious and excellent hotel”, formerly known as the ‘Donnybrook Hotel ’ run by Mr. Martin Gill, and licensed as far back as 1831.
The new name of the hotel was the Adelphi Hotel, York-street, Sydney.
The fact that the hotel, and the theatres which were later attached to it, were mutually dependent makes it difficult on occasion to separate the licensee of the hotel’s operations from someone who may have been the lessee of the theatrical venture. Various histories, for example, state that John Malcom had “the licence” for the Adelphi as early as 1850, yet official records for the hotel (2) say that the licensee was Thomas Murphy; leaving Malcom as the “Sole Proprietor”, the title he used in advertising; certainly as an important figure in the Adelphi’s history. Malcom’s official listing as licensee comes on May 5, 1855.
There is also a disconnect between what was officially recorded as the Hotel name (2) and the name being advertised for the theatre; for example in 1855 the Theatre was advertising as the “Royal Lyceum” while publican’s licences were still recorded under “Adelphi Hotel” until 1856.
A Timeline of the Hotel and its Theatres (2)
1831- 1843 The official licensee of a hotel named either “Donnybrook” or “Donnybrook Fair” was one John McLaughlin, sometimes spelled as McLaughlan or McLachlan. In 1836 his death was announced by the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, (Saturday October 8, 1836) “DEATHS - At his residence, York-street, on Monday evening, Mr. John McLaughlan, License Victualler. Deceased was an old and respectable Colonist, and was numerously attended to his grave.” Bridget McLaughlin, presumably his widow, then became the licensee through to 1843. While there is no particular mention of the use of the back yard of the large site, it is reasonable to assume that it was given over to stabling.
We find a tongue-in-cheek article concerning the Donnybrook, in The Australian October 17, 1839:-
1844 - Martin Gill was licensee at the Donnybrook Hotel
1845-1853 - Thomas Murphy took over the license, renaming the hotel as the Adelphi Hotel. (3)
1850 - October – (4) Publican John Malcom opened the Royal Australian Equestrian Circus, performances directed by John Jones and Edward La Rosiere in the rear yards of the existing Adelphi Hotel. Malcom had spent a considerable sum, though the arena was roofless and the neighbourhood regarded as “not of the sweetest.” Horsemanship, tumbling and rope dancing were the entertainments licenced for display, in one of Sydney’s formative circus venues, and probably the most important and successful uses of the site.
1851 - A more complete amphitheatre was completed, named Malcom’s Royal Australian Circus. It was capable of seating 1000 people, being 54 feet long by 30 feet wide, with an interior roof height of forty one feet, with a new roof, side boxes and a pit.
1852 – The theatre, now named Malcom’s Royal Australian Amphitheatre, had a dress circle, pit, and stage.
1853 (to 1855) - John Malcom now listed (3) as licensee of the Adelphi Hotel, though he was clearly active with the Amphitheatre prior to this date.
1854 – From April through June (5), Jon Malcom advertised, separately, both the Adelphi Hotel and the Amphitheatre for sale, along with the stud of horses, the reason being given as “protracted ill health”.
The theatre was renamed as the Royal Lyceum Theatre and opened on October 23. Malcom had again re-modelled, expanding the capacity to 1,900 with a larger pit and new boxes, and adding a proscenium. In December 1854 Malcom was also advertising the availability of horses for hire at Malcom’s Livery Stables, York Street.
1855-1856 - Edward Harrison listed as licensee of the Adelphi Hotel . There is no mention of Augustus Leopoldt in the records, but see (2) for confirmation that Malcom’s licence had been officially transferred to Leopoldt..
On March 31, 1855, Augustus Leopoldt went into insolvency and the contents of the Hotel were sold off, April 23, along with some wardrobe assets of the theatre. In this period there was no further advertising of theatrical performances. The full story of magician Signor Recanati and the insolvency of Augustus Leopoldt can be found here.
December 26, 1855 – Royal Lyceum Theatre announced to reopen, with “extensive alterations and improvements”.
1856 - Margaret Canavan listed as licensee of the Adelphi Hotel at April 15. (3)
1856 (to1858) - At September 2, Isaac Solomon listed as the licensee of the “Lyceum Hotel” or “Our Lyceum Hotel” (3)
The theatre was effectively rebuilt, retaining only the exterior walls. This was a conventional theatre structure of 82 by 56 feet, with a pit, stalls, a tier of boxes and eventually an upper circle and promenade, deeper stage, and backstage & green room facilities. (2)
It opened on July 14, 1856 under the management of H. T. Craven and W. H. Stephens. Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer opined,
1858 - John Keenan listed as licensee of the Lyceum Hotel in May and July 1858, but by April 24, 1860 the listing had reverted to Isaac Solomon. (3)
1867 - Alexander Habbe and W. J. Wilson converted the theatre into a ballroom, but by 1869 had reverted to usage as a theatre which, to confuse the issue further, they briefly named The Adelphi.
Up until 1873 the theatre was again used on occasion as a circus, and also as a “Café Chatant”, literally a ‘singing café’, or a venue mid-way between a cabaret and a music hall. (2)
1873 - Actor W. B. Gill took over the lease, renovating and renaming the theatre as the Queen’s Theatre, which name, thankfully, it kept through to 1881. The renovations left the theatre with just one circle and the stalls, though with a higher roof.
1874 – Actor Edmund Holloway took over the theatre for a short time. On September 29 an explosion of the gas used in the lime lighting caused the cancellation of a performance, and the audience “wreaked their vengeance by breaking up some of the pit fittings , tearing down the gas-pipes and seats, and creating wild disturbances” . (7) Their reward for this was to be given free tickets for the next night!
The next lessee was Samuel Lazar, who brought the iconic James Cassius Williamson and Maggie Moore to Sydney for the first time, with their hit show, “Struck Oil.”
1875 - After triumphs in the South, J. C. William had sailed for Sydney in February 1875 to show under the management of Samuel Lazar at the Queen’s Theatre. Lazar, arriving in Sydney, discovered that refurbishments he had promised to the theatre had not been started. (8) Lazar wrote,
“When I arrived I can assure you the sight of that theatre gave me a shock. It was a little bit of a dirty wooden place, with a low roof and one circle. It had been used as a café chatant, and everywhere evidences of the habitues were visible. The rail around the circle had been kicked into any, or rather no shape, and the whole theatre was in a state of dilapidation. Hopelessly impossible it seemed to give a decent performance, especially since that part of York Street was lighted by three lamps only, and was a by no means inviting thoroughfare.”
However, by March 12, Williamson was able to write that Lazar had made excellent progress:- “When last I wrote I was just arriving in Sydney to have a look at the theatres. They were both in an awful dilapidated condition, the one we were to play in “The Queen’s” being particularly low and dirty with a bad reputation … however, Lazar took hold of it and in nine days made a very pretty little theatre of it, about like Maguire’s new Theatre (San Francisco) although not quite so handsome.”
The renovations and star attractions did not make the Queen’s into a viable venue, however, and it continued to struggle with intermittent usage. Some histories state that the name “Royal Albert” was used, but no evidence of this can be found, most references being a mis-reading of the Royal Albert in Tasmania, or a possible “Albert Hall” located in Market Street Sydney.
1882 - due to growing concerns about the disastrous safety record of theatres, (9) particularly in relation to fire, a Royal Commission of Inquiry was established ‘into the Construction of Theatres, Public Halls, and Other Places of Public Amusement or Concourse’. As part of that inquiry, the Queen’s Theatre was declared unsafe, and its fate was sealed with immediate effect.
Sydney Morning Herald, August 2 1882 - “The closing of the Queen's Theatre on Monday night appeared to come with a somewhat painful abruptness to those immediately concerned, and yet it is an act that had been long pending, and had been regarded by those best qualified to judge as of urgent necessity. The place was ready for a conflagration or a collapse at any moment. It was in fact tinsel and trappings upon rottenness, unhealthy and unsafe, and only useful as a means of making money at the risk of a terrible disaster. .... The old Queen's Theatre stands condemned because it must be pulled down. It has gone too far for repairs.”
Origins and Timeline References
Location of the Royal Lyceum Theatre (and related venues)
In most of the standard reference works on Sydney Theatre or Circus history, the Royal Lyceum (and any of its various names!) is generally mentioned only as being located in York Street, Sydney, between King and Market Streets. One document places it on the Western side. In this section we bring together a number of maps and illustrations which do not appear to have been linked previously.
This area of York Street in the mid-1800s was fairly much on the edges of the Sydney township, and it was widely considered to be not the most salubrious of places. In 1851 the population of Sydney was around 39,000 growing rapidly to 200,000 in 1871 due to the influx of hopeful gold-diggers after 1852.
From Joseph Fowles’ detailed guide of “Sydney in 1848”:- “York Street is a short street, running north and south, parallel with George Street, extending from the south entrance of the Military Barracks [Barrack Lane today], to the old Burial Ground [where the Town Hall is today], and is intersected at right angles by King Street West and Market Street; from its central position it might be expected to possess more importance than it actually does; but when the contemplated improvements in the Barrack Square (the whole of which is about being laid out for sale) are completed, it will become a leading thoroughfare, and the value of property in this locality will be consequently much enhanced…. The remaining houses in this portion of York Street, are characterised by no remarkable architectural beauty, but occupied by a business-like class of persons diligently engaged in their several avocations.”
‘Bell’s Life’ of July 22, 1854 advertised the Constitution Hotel as ‘York-Street, Opposite Malcom’s Circus’. Sands Directory for 1858-59 shows the Constitution Hotel at 94 York Street.
Advertising in the Herald of September 13, 1854, P.G. Chisholm (Brass Worker and Gas Fitter) mentioned that his establishment at 62 York St was adjoining Malcom’s Royal Circus.
In a book published in 1862, “Or the Way of the World” by Frank Foster, is appended a Colonial Directory (1857?) which predates the beginnings of the ‘Sands’ city directories. On page 365 is the reference “Hotels - Lyceum Hotel, 84 York-st”.
This leads us to confirm (5) in the City of Sydney archives for 1858 and 1861, 84 York Street was registered as a Public House under Isaac Solomon.
It cannot be assumed that modern-day street numbering is identical. Today’s 84 York Street seems not to exist amongst the shambolic and non-consecutive numbers marked on modern maps. Google Maps places number 84 directly on the intersection of Market and York Streets. Looking at the image from “Dove’s Plans” of 1880 (below) indicates a street number of 54, not 84.
Turning to old city maps and street guides, there are a number of illustrations which give us the actual location of the site, on the Western side of York Street, closer to the corner of Market and York.
A ‘City Section’ map showing, in the centre, the names “Eliz. & Bridget McLaughlin” and also the name “Augustus Caesar”. CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER SIZE.
City of Sydney archives (Maps) http://www.photosau.com.au/CoSMaps/maps/pdf/CSSP/Section_27.pdf
From Joseph Fowles’ “Sydney in 1848” we are fortunate to have illustrations of York Street, clearly identifying the “Adelphi Hotel and Squatters Home” in the upper image. To its left is “Hensley, fancy bread and biscuit baker”. Market Street is towards the left of this image, and on the corner of Market and York (lower left of this image) is the Harp & Shamrock tavern illustrated in the 1849 drawing below.
A full ebook of “Sydney in 1848” with line drawings is available fro Project Gutenberg at
A coloured drawing by John Rae, of the view from Market Street looking north towards King Street. CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VIEW.
The drawing is marked as 1842, but is more likely to be 1849 according to the State Library, since other drawings in the collection are of post-1842 buildings. The “Harp and Shamrock” tavern at front right matches the Fowles 1848 illustration. The Adelphi Hotel would be just past the tree on the left
From the Dixson Galleries , State Library of New South Wales
A section of an excellent “City Details” map from 1855, showing the Western side of York Street, Market Street at right (South). The pink area in the centre is marked “McLachlan – circus”, somewhat outdated since although the Circus was relatively recent, the McLaughlans had not held the licence for the hotel since 1844. Note the site next to it is Hensley’s, a bakery (see 1848). CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VIEW
A lithograph for the auction of a property next to the theatre, and showing the “Site of Queen’s Theatre.” Given the name of the theatre and the advertised sale date March 13, this sale should have been in either 1873 or 1879.
Section of ‘Dove's Plans of Sydney, 1880. City of Sydney archives; full hi-res copy at
Photograph of Queen's Theatre c.1870s from State Library of New South Wales
[the attribution for this photo states 'Queen's Theatre 35 York Street' which does not match the evidence]
Modern-day view of York Street looking from the intersection of Market Street, northwards towards King Street. The theatre would have been just past the (Westpac) tower building.