The Opera Comique Theatre was rapidly constructed in 1870 and opened in October of that year with a French company led by the veteran French actress Pauline Virginie Dejazet. It occupied a site in the East Strand, standing back to back with the old Globe theatre (not to be confused with either Shakespeare's or Seymour Hicks Globe). These two buildings were so notoriously poorly built that they were known colloquially as "The Rickety Twins", both being hastily erected with the probable intent of staking a compensation claim from the expected forthcoming redevelopment of the surrounding area. Both were indeed demolished in 1899. The theatre was reached by long, narrow tunnels leading from three thoroughfares, which earned it the nickname of "Theatre Royal, Tunnels", and which could have posed a considerable danger in the event of an emergency evacuation.
For a time it became the temporary home to the reknowned Comedie-Francaise theatre company which had fled Paris to escape the Franco-Prussian war, and was taken over in 1877 by Richard D'Oyly Carte, who secured a lease from it's then owner, the Earl of Dunraven, intending to use it principally as a base for his company performing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and a number of their masterpeices were first performed there.
Carte also drew in a small group of investors to form a new management company, 'The Comedy Opera Company (Limited)', to provide financial backing for his ventures, in return for which the investors would receive a share in the profits. Initially, things went well, but then an extended period of poor attendances almost led to the closure of the theatre, a situation which was only averted by the players, at their own suggestion, taking a cut in salaries. Things began to pick up, and at last the directors were making money. "H.M.S. Pinafore" was produced from the latter end of May, 1878, and was a great success. An insufferably hot summer led to another downturn, but numbers picked up again as the cooler weather arrived. Even so, takings over the christmas period having been very poor the previous year, the directors then decided that that would be an opportune time to close the theatre for repairs. When it opened again in February, business was better than ever, and the directors were at last making copious amounts of money - with the net result that, despite the ups and downs, in the first eighteen months of operation the directors of the Comedy Opera Company did realise considerable profits, some estimations putting the sum as high as £16,000.
But then a rift arose between the Comedy Opera Company directors and Mr. D'Oyly Carte over the profit sharing arrangements for Pinafore. The terms of the agreement allowed D'Oyly Carte a run of seven weeks during which he would become the sole manager of the production and be entitled to retain the whole of the profits. This period was due to begin from August, 1st, 1879, and meant that the directors would be excluded from a share in the profits just when they had reached their highest levels. Consequently, the directors were keen to vary the terms of the arrangement and sought to gain power in this respect by applying to the Chancery division of the High Court for an injunction to restrain Mr. Gunn, who was acting in locum tenens for Mr D'Oyly Carte, from continuing in the receipt of money taken at the doors of the Opera Comique.
When that application was denied, however, D'Oyly Carte's legal rights under the contract being quite clear, the directors next resolved to put on a rival production of the piece, and for that purpose secured the tenure of the nearby Imperial theatre. For this they needed the sets and costumes, for which they themselves had paid, that were currently in use by the company at the Opera Comique (and the securing of which would have provided the additional advantage of preventing D'Oyly Carte, at least temporarily, from continuing his production). Here again, however, D'Oyly Carte had legal precedence on his side - it being generally stipulated in the legal covenants in all theatrical leases at that time that the theatrical properties of all pieces produced at a theatre became the property of the theatre landlord - in this case Mr. D'Oyly Carte!
Not to be put off, the directors resolved to recover what they considered was their property, if necessary by force. On the night of 31st July, 1879, the last night before D'Oyly Carte's sole tenure was to begin, three of the directors, Mr. Collard Augustus Drake, Mr. Edward Hodgson Bayley and Mr. Frank Chappell, together with the company solicitor, Mr. Cecil Chappell, in company with about two dozen hired ruffians, descended upon the theatre during the performance for that very purpose. As they came in through the outer stage door of the theatre they were met by Mr. Richard Barker, the Earl of Dunraven's agent who held the Lord Chamberlain's licence for the theatre. The stage-doorkeeper, who had been unable to block the mob's passage, then asked Barker whether these people were to be permitted on the premises - to which Barker replied "Certainly, the directors; but no one else."
One of the directors then exhorted the crowd of ruffians "Now then, boys; now's your time." Barker, concerned to prevent a disturbance which might have precipitated fatal consequences in the packed theatre, then braced himself in the inner doorway to prevent their further passage but was roughly thrown to the ground, sustaining injuries to his back and left side for which he subsequently required medical treatment. Mr. Chappell then demanded that Barker stand aside and allow the removal of the properties. Barker responded that he would not do so and indeed would protect his employer's property to his utmost ability. He was then struck from behind and almost fell down the stairs as the mob rushed passed intent about their business.
A scuffle then ensued between the stage-hands of the theatre and the gang of roughs, causing a great commotion which almost led to a dangerous panic in the auditorium. Only the timely intervention of Mr. George Grossmith in explaining the situation avoided the panic, and the audience sat listening in fascination as the riot continued behind the scenes for some time until, eventually, the interlopers were driven from the theatre empty handed.
Legal proceedings followed upon these events, and on August 12th, 1879, the instigators of the riot were called to account for their actions before a magistrate at the Bow Street Police Court, charged with creating a riot and assaulting Mr. Richard Barker. Much evidence was heard from both sides before the proceedings were adjourned to be resumed on the following Friday. On that occasion, Mr. Montagu Williams, for the presecution addressed the magistrate, and said that, with permission, he would withdraw the summons, the defendants having given apology and made offer of compensation to Mr. Barker, and an agreement having been reached to end all litigation as to "H.M.S. Pinafore." The learned magistrate accepted the request, stating he was satisfied that the defendants were sorry for their actions and added that the less said about the matter the better.
What made these events so dangerous was the construction of the theatre itself. Not only was the interior claustrophobic with poorly designed stairways, but the only exterior access was via three long narrow tunnels leading in from three thoroughfares. Any panic among the audience in these circumstances would almost certainly have led to significant loss of life in the crush that would inevitably have followed. Moreover, as is made abundantly clear by the author of the article reproduced here, their activities showed scant gratitude or regard for the performers, whose sacrifice of a significant portion of their salaries during a difficult period had enabled the directors to turn a potentially loss-making venture into a highly lucrative one (their suggested earnings of £16,000 was a tremendous sum in those days). Having first repaid this loyalty by causing the performers to be put out of work at Christmas (for which they would not have been paid), their subsequent actions then threatened to put them out of work altogether - not to mention the very real risk that was posed to their physical safety. It is difficult to imagine such an event as this happening today.
A tragedy did strike at the Opera Comique the following year, when six year old Benedict Tacagni was taken ill on March 20th, 1880, the last day of the season of the "Children's Pinafore" in which he had been midshipmite. He was diagnosed with 'acute rheumatism' and died six days later. During his illness he drifted in and out of delirium and it was stated that whilst in that state he constantly sang snatches of songs from 'Pinafore'. Indeed, the last audible sounds from his lips before his passing were the lyrics of "for he is an Englishman".