The Theatre Playhouse


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
3-5 New Inn Broadway, 5-15 New Inn Yard, 86-96 Curtain Road, Hackney, London, EC2A 3PZ


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Statutory Address:
3-5 New Inn Broadway, 5-15 New Inn Yard, 86-96 Curtain Road, Hackney, London, EC2A 3PZ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Hackney (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


The buried deposits of The Theatre of 1576-77 and some buildings associated with the C12 Holywell Priory revealed during archaeological investigations.

Reasons for Designation

The remains of The Theatre, constructed in 1576-77 and dismantled in 1598, and some medieval structures of Holywell Priory, are scheduled for the following principal reasons: * Historic importance: a monument of national (arguably international) historic importance for its association with important figures in the nation's literary history including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Richard Burbage. The remains of the medieval Holywell Priory contribute to the historic importance of the monument; * Literary significance: it is believed that Shakespeare's Hamlet (c1599-1602), and Marlowe's Dr Faustus (c1592), considered by some to be his masterpiece, and both highly important late-C16 literary pieces, were first performed at The Theatre, flagging the importance of the monument in the development of English literature; * Survival: buried archaeological deposits pertaining to the north-east quadrant of The Theatre, including foundations, the yard, ingressus (internal entrance) and a possible kiosk, which incorporates medieval fabric of Holywell Priory, are preserved in situ; the rest of the monument is projected to survive beneath the existing buildings and structures on the site; * Documentation: historic leases support and augment the archaeological findings, giving details on land ownership and leasing, and the construction, form and demolition of The Theatre; * Rarity: one of only four sole-purpose Elizabethan playhouses thought to survive as archaeological monuments in London and the earliest known to have been polygonal in shape; * Fragility; the recorded and projected buried archaeology of The Theatre are fragile and vulnerable to redevelopment; * Potential: the potential to discover further structural remains of The Theatre and artefacts is high, further informing on The Theatre’s structural composition, our understanding of playhouse buildings in general and the lives of the people who attended them for their leisure; * Period: the Elizabethan playhouses are a distinct monument type of the period, found only in London; * Typological Group value: The Theatre is closely associated typologically with those playhouse remains already scheduled, The Rose and The Globe on Bankside; the dismantled parts of The Theatre were used in the construction of The Globe in 1599.


The great playhouses of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages are monument types known only in London. These iconic building types are physical representations of new innovations and thinking in science and literature, entertainment and leisure, trade and global exploration and socio-economic and cultural shifts of that age. The association of the buildings with notable figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson affirm their cultural importance.

Before the construction of permanent venues, plays, playing and players would have operated in halls, inns, courts and private dwellings. The drive towards the construction of permanent theatres may well have been instigated by the 1572 ‘Act of the punishment of vagabonds,’ which stated that “Common Players in Enterludes & Minstrels, not belonging to any Baron of this Realme or towards any other honourable Personage of greater Degree……..shalbee taken adjudged and deemed Roges Vacaboundes and Sturdy Beggers.” The punishment for disobeying the Act was to be ‘'grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about.'’ The Act, therefore, required each travelling company of players to be licenced by one or two judicial dignitaries or great nobles. Royal patronage, indeed, was a major aim of the companies. The 1572 Act served the companies well: it authorised the better players to pursue their profession, and in establishing a patronage system there was then the financial backing to construct permanent venues, where profits were more readily accessible. London was clearly the place for such business ventures, as not only were most of the patrons and players based in and around the City, but the biggest audiences were there as well.

Locating the playhouses outside of the City of London placed them outside of its jurisdiction as the theatres and arenas were thought to encourage licentious behaviour. Beyond the square mile, there was an increased availability of affordable land with a greater development potential. Thus, all of the playhouses were located outside of the City: in Whitechapel and Newington Butts (see below); in Cripplegate (the Fortune; no remains of which have been identified to date); Shoreditch (the Theatre and Curtain) and Southwark (the Globe, Rose, Swan and Hope).

The earliest of the outdoor playhouses, the Red Lion in Whitechapel (1567) and at Newington Butts near Elephant and Castle (1576) were developed from or within the confines of existing buildings, were rectangular or square, and were possibly intended to be temporary, not permanent, structures. No archaeological evidence survives from the playhouse at Newington Butts, but recent work in the autumn of 2015 at the Red Lion site has uncovered a series of post-holes which may be associated with the building.

The first of the polygonal playhouses to be built was The Theatre, in 1576-77, the design inspired by classical Roman theatres. These buildings were permanent, timber-framed structures, with three tiers of galleries and an open yard into which extended a raised stage. Social division was inherent in the layout and the creation of ‘boxes’ for the wealthy and nobility. The excavated examples of the playhouses, the Rose, Globe and The Theatre, share certain characteristics. They were built of wood on brick foundations, with thatch or tile roofing material. The inner walls consist a solid masonry construction, intended to take the bulk of the building’s load, with the outer walls set upon intermittent, masonry pads. The main entrances are accessible to main roads, with the stage directly opposite. Once within the playhouses, a sloping yard faced the stage. From the yard, access could be gained to the galleries, for a fee, through opposing internal entrances, or ingressi. Little evidence, as yet, has been produced of the backstage areas.

The site of The Theatre has long been identified as being within the outer, north-west corner of the Holywell Priory precinct. The Priory of St John the Baptist dominated medieval Shoreditch from its establishment in c1127. The main buildings of the priory lay between Shoreditch High Street on the east and the fields of Finsbury to the west with the southern gate in Holywell Lane. South of the gate lay the prioress’s pasture, known as the Curtain. The Great Court, the outer area of the priory, was where the more secular and ancillary buildings were situated: the barns, granaries, a mill house, bake and brew houses. The C15 Great Barn was situated on or immediately adjacent to the priory wall at the western side of the Great Court at what is now the junction of Curtain Road and New Inn Yard. Later lease and court documents refer to the Theatre as propping up the northern wall of this already dilapidated building.

Following the Dissolution, in 1539, the priory precinct was divided into three main portions, one parcel of which was eventually mortgaged to Christopher Allen and his son Giles. In 1576 Giles Allen leased part of his property to James Burbage, who intended to construct a new playhouse on the site. The terms of the lease between Allen and Burbage are detailed and survive in various documents. The description of the land leased to Burbage includes a variety of buildings in different uses and occupancies, some of which were buildings associated with the priory outbuildings. This included the millhouse, a well, buildings occupied by shoemakers, weavers, gardens, the Great Barn, a pond and stables. The archaeological remains of the Priory bakehouse and brewhouse, apparently reused in the Theatre’s structure, were discovered during archaeological excavations on the site. The picture presented in the lease documents is of a rectangular plot of land with buildings fronting east and south, with an area of open land in the yard area behind the buildings and barn. To the west, the land was bounded by a brick wall, which presumably refers to the original priory precinct wall, now the eastern side of Curtain Road.

Burbage’s lease was for 21 years from 13 April 1576. In the terms of the lease, he was to pay an annual rent of £14 and an additional £200 repairing the existing buildings on the site. This was to include the maintenance of the western brick wall and also the shoring up of the Great Barn. The costs of constructing The Theatre were substantial, and to meet these Burbage entered into a business arrangement with his brother-in-law, John Brayne, who already had interests in the Red Lion playhouse. The arrangements between the two were subject to long running legal disputes, arguments and family feuds that are in part documented in numerous court records. Financial problems dogged the property for many years, so much so that plays were put on before the building was complete, so that profits could be rolled into the final stages of construction, and the playhouse was mortgaged more than once. Despite financial concerns, The Theatre was a popular venue from its opening on 1 August 1577. There are no contemporary descriptions of the playhouse, but it is known from references in various legal sources that it consisted of a timber-framed structure with a tiled roof, with some ironwork, and that lead, brick, lime and sand was used in the construction. There were three galleries, at least one of which was divided into upper rooms where the audience could sit or stand. There was a theatre yard in the centre, and an, '‘attyring house or place where the players make them readye,'’ which at the Globe contained a dressing area, prop rooms, the musician’s gallery and internal passageways.

There were a number of playing companies associated with The Theatre. The first to have residence was Leicester’s Men, of which Burbage was a member, who were established in 1572. Other incumbents included the Queen’s Men, in the 1580s and the Admiral’s Men in the early 1590s. It is likely that the first performance of Marlowe’s 'Dr Faustus' was at The Theatre. By 1594, however, the Lord Chamberlain’s Company were established at the playhouse, probably headed by Burbage’s son Richard Burbage, who was a leading actor of the times. Also in the company was William Shakespeare; 'Hamlet' was very probably first performed here, in 1596, with Richard Burbage as the lead.

With the lease on the property due to expire in 1597, negotiations were held between Allen and James Burbage’s sons, Cuthbert and Richard, as to the continuation of the agreement. Disputes were held regarding monies owed, and in late December 1598 the Burbages dismantled the Theatre. This was in accordance with the terms of the original 1576 lease, which allowed Burbage to, '‘take downe and carie awaye part of the saide new building.'’ The brothers, along with the carpenter Peter Street, who later was employed to erect the Fortune and Hope playhouses, moved reusable parts of The Theatre south of the Thames, to Bankside. The raw materials were re-used to part construct their new theatrical venture, the Globe – they did '‘take and carrye awaye from thence all the wood and timber ther of unto the Bankside in the parishe of St Marye Overyes and there erected a new playe howse wth the said Timber and wood.'’

Very soon after The Theatre was dismantled, the site was occupied by a series of buildings fronting New Inn Broadway and New Inn Yard. The general Shoreditch area was part of the City expansion in the C17 and C18 with terraced houses and later, in the C19 with light industrial use coming to the fore. This mixed character continues to the present day.

The buried archaeological remains of The Theatre, and some of the Priory buildings, have been exposed during a number of archaeological investigations and are preserved in situ. The excavation work at 4–6 New Inn Broadway was carried out in advance of the determination of a planning application (2009/1683), for the erection of a 4 storey building for use as a theatre. The development proposals included the retention and display of the archaeological remains within the development area, as well as display of some of the more significant and interesting artefacts recovered from the excavations.

The foundations of the new building were carefully designed to have a minimal impact on significant remains. The bulk of the site area was reduced to a level of 13.60m OD, above that of the Theatre remains and pile locations were targeted to areas already disturbed, or around the north and west perimeter where there are deposits of less significance. The pile positions in the area of the ancillary theatre structures, including the former brew house, were excavated in advance through the entire archaeological sequence. A subsequent planning consent for a six storey building on the site uses the same lower floor and foundation layout. Archaeological field and desk based assessment works in the above site and at 86-90 Curtain Road/1-5 New Inn Yard and 7-15 New Inn Yard, have shown that there are localised basements immediately to the west and south of The Theatre. Beneath nos 7-15 New Inn Yard, it is likely that a small segment of the outer perimeter wall of The Theatre will have been truncated, but in the yard to the rear (north) of the properties, where the structural remains of The Theatre and Priory buildings were exposed, the archaeological sequence is very likely to be intact.


PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS The monument includes the buried deposits of The Theatre of 1576-77 and some buildings associated with the C12 Holywell Priory revealed during archaeological investigations. A 5m buffer zone has been added to the extent of scheduling for the protection and preservation of the monument.

The archaeological remains were discovered during archaeological investigations at 4–6 New Inn Broadway and 7–15 New Inn Yard, by Museum of London Archaeology. Natural brickearth levels are generally encountered at c12.50–13.00m OD, with the present ground surface in The Theatre area at between around 14.20–15.00m OD. On average, archaeological remains are reached immediately below surface level at about 13.20m OD.

DESCRIPTION It is clear that some of the medieval buildings in the area continued in use following the Dissolution. On the eastern side of the site at 4–6 New Inn Broadway were several buildings, including a two storey tenement probably that mentioned in the Burbage lease, with the Priory brew house adapted and reused. Remains relating to Holywell Priory were revealed beneath the deposits of The Theatre. In addition to the brew house, the bake house fronting onto New Inn Broadway, numerous ovens, and floor surfaces were discovered. Of note was a floor made of reused Westminster tiles that defined the entrance to an unknown building in the priory Outer Court, sealed beneath The Theatre yard. A truncated medieval wall was found underneath the existing basement of 86–90 Curtain Road surviving to a depth of c12.43m OD. From this evidence it is clear that remains from the medieval period which may have a direct association with The Theatre can survive under the present basements in places, although they will have been truncated. The remains of the north-east quadrant of The Theatre itself and associated features and structures have been identified during archaeological works at the 4–6 New Inn Broadway site, exposed and recorded by Museum of London Archaeology in several investigations from 2008–2011. The outer wall of The Theatre is represented by two pier bases, one of brick and one of ragstone, that mark the position of the wall and which would have supported the timber superstructure. The brick pad was truncated to a depth of c13.40m OD. Approximately 3.8m to the south of the outer piers are the north side of The Theatre’s inner foundation wall. This consists of a brick foundation wall and a truncated square foundation pad that would have supported one of the structure’s main upright timbers, marking the division of one of the internal bays. Several other fragments of the substructure were recorded on the same alignment, some 5m long in total, which together allows for a curved reconstruction of the inner wall. A clay deposit with a distinct angled edge is at the western end of the foundation wall, which probably defines the north-eastern corner of the stage.

Adjacent to the square foundation pad to the east is a short section of brick floor, thought to mark the northern ingressus or entrance to the galleries from the yard. The bricks themselves show little sign of wear, which has led to the interpretation that they formed the base for a short flight of wooden steps. Assuming that steps were at a 45 degree angle the size of the brick flooring allows for 4 equal steps of 8”, and places the floor of the wooden galleries within The Theatre structure at 2”9’ (84cm) above that of the yard. The playhouse yard itself is a gravel surface sloping towards the south, which abuts the inner wall. A drip gully, showing the overhang of the Theatre roof to be 9”, is evident and has parallels with the excavated example at the Rose in Southwark.

In addition to the remains of the actual playhouse structure, numerous other features directly associated with The Theatre survive. On the eastern side of the 4–6 New Inn Broadway site a well preserved cobbled surface was recorded at 13.20m OD. This external surface, which contained ragstone, flint, sandstone and half a mill stone, was probably composed of material reused from the medieval precinct from within the footprint of the playhouse. A drain was set on an alignment perpendicular to the conjectured outer wall of The Theatre, running towards New Inn Broadway, and is thought to have taken water from a down-pipe connected to guttering on the roof out to the street, preventing rainwater damage to the outer wall.

To the north of the cobbled surface the priory brew house building was still in use and adapted to function as part of The Theatre operations. Modifications included the reconfiguration of the building, with new internal walls, doors and the insertion of a possible ‘kiosk’ structure. Artefacts from within the pebbled floor surface of the building included a thimble, a scabbard fitting and a roll of copper wire, lace chapes, pins and a costume bell, all of which would have been used in dress or costume making, and which suggests that the former brew house was a backstage costume store or workshop.

The overall interpretation of the site allows for the playhouse to be reconstructed as a 14-sided polygon with an external diameter of 22m. The remains compare very well with The Rose playhouse, which has been more fully excavated, and which is based upon The Theatre design. Theatregoers would have entered the playhouse venue from the east, the present New Inn Broadway, into a cobbled yard area. They could then go straight into the playhouse, the stage would have been facing the main entrance, and remain in the yard or use the ingressus to access the galleries and upper floors. Alternatively, the theatregoers could have turned to their right into the former brew house and kiosk area. Pottery from the internal yard surface included a fragment of a black-glazed red ware mug, a type often associated with beer, which may have been available from the kiosk area. Further behind, a door led from the old brew house into the yard to the north of The Theatre, but this may have been a private area reserved for actors and other staff. The archaeological findings support the documentary records which state that The Theatre was demolished in 1598, and also that the superstructure was systematically removed and taken to Bankside to be used in the construction of The Globe.

EXCLUSIONS The following are excluded from the scheduling, but the ground beneath them is included: the buildings above the remains, including their foundations and basement slabs where they exist: the modern overburden beneath the buildings: all external surfaces and the modern overburden beneath them. The basements to 11-15 New Inn Yard and the ground beneath it, where archaeological investigations indicate that no remains of the monument survive, are also excluded.


Books and journals
Bowsher, Julian, Shakespeare's London Theatreland: Archaeology, History and Drama, (July 2012), 55-62
Stabler Heritage. London's Elizabethan and Jacobean Playhouses and Bear Baiting Arenas. January 2016
The Theatre: 7-15 New Inn Yard, Hackney. Museum of London Archaeology Evaluation Report. 2014


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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