When the RE were on board the Thames City in 1859,
one of the ways they passed the time was with the creation of the
"Theatre Royale" - an amateur theatrical company.
Captain Luard made available popular London farces, one-acts and plays
for the use of the Men. The
Officers and the Men used popular existing plays, performing all the
roles and making and painting the scenery, among them the British farce
Box and Cox.
These plays were so well received that before the Men
landed in British Columbia, a subscription had been started by them for
the Building of an RE Theatre for the Detachment Troupe.
The Men, busy with the clearing and building of the
Camp, still found time and money to complete the work on the Theatre and
at the completion of the RE work year in late October as the weather
precluded any more exterior work, the RE went into Winter quarters and
the rehearsals began.
They officially opened
their Theatre with a Ball on the 26th of December, 1859.
"...On Monday, the Non-commissioned officers gave
a Ball at the theatre, that they have erected by private subscription
amongst themselves, which went off very well, to which most of the
inhabitants received an invitation..."
January, 1860 - The Weekly British Colonist
This appears to be the
first review of the RE Dramatic Club in BC.
The members of the Dramatic club of the Royal Engineers gave two
performances in this theatre on the evenings of the 25th and 26th of
January. On both occasions the house was filled to excess, the citizens
having availed themselves of the almost general invitation extended by
the members of the club to attend. The performances passed off to the
entire satisfaction of the audience, the performers having acquitted
themselves of their various roles in a very successful and creditable
manner, showing a decided improvement on their first entertainment.
Friday evening's programme concluded with Ethiopian minstrelsy, and,
although their first attempt at anything of this kind, created a great
deal of laughter by their conundrums, jokes, lectures, etc., after which
the audience dispersed highly pleased with the evening's amusements.
- 2nd February, 1860 - The New Westminster Times
Each year, as the work
ended due to door weather, the RE Dramatic Club would head into
rehearsals and would then give a Season's worth of performances.
At this institution on Friday evening the 8th Inst., the
Dramatic club of the Royal Engineers gave one of their theatrical
entertainments. The house was filled both with civilians and
soldiers . The performances commenced by the presentation of the
romantic drama in two acts entitled "Ben Bolt". The principal
characters in this piece were Ben Bolt, Ivan Ironlink and Reuben
Rags, sustained respectively by Messrs. Osment, Rylatt and
Woodcock. The latter gentleman as Reuben Rags was highly amusing ,
and received from the audience his due need of applause. He adds
to his other accomplishments that of comic singer, and is quite a
favorite with the audience generally, frequently setting them in a
broad grin by his ludicrous representations. The former gentlemen
played their roles very successfully, showing that considerable
attention and study had been bestowed on the parts. Between the
pieces a number of songs and glees were sung by several of the
members of the Glee club, followed by a dance, by Mr. Colston. The
evening's amusements closed with the laughable farce of "Box and
Cox". Captain Luard in the character of Box and lt. palmer in that
of Cox, were decidedly entertaining and played with a good deal of
spirit throughout the piece, giving the impression on the minds of
the audience of their possessing a very fair conception of the
play. Doctor Seddall as Mrs. Bouncer was rather in the background,
having very little room for displaying himself to advantage. He
however, acquitted himself in the character assigned to him very
well. It is hoped he will have something more prominent where he
will in fact have more room to spread himself. We cannot close
these remarks without expressing our thanks to the club for not
having forgotten us in issuing the invitations.
-13th February, 1861 - The British Columbian
In March 1861 Lady
Franklin and her niece Miss Cracroft visited the Royal Engineer's camp
at New Westminster. During their visit the acting contingent of
the Royal Engineers put on two plays, "Ben Bolt and "Sent to
the Tower." Miss Cracroft recorded a description of the
evening in her journal:
most amusing thing was the women, men in disguise of course, with, as
it happened, the gruffest voices you can imagine! Ben Bolt's
Lady love covered up his whiskers with long black curls, but not
withstanding was certainly no type of feminine grace. The other
woman was a wife & mother and wore a cap - moreover she was not
apostrophized by a love, as in the other case. I fancy these men
do all the female parts, having shaved their moustaches for the
purpose! The scenes are all painted by one of the soldiers &
very well they are done, especially the drop scene, an Italian
view. The orchestra numbered seven instruments & very well
they played. At the end of the first piece some of them slipped
out, as they were the singers. They first gave us "Here in
Cokol Grot" which they sung beautifully, without
accompaniment. The curtain fell & a hornpipe began & on
the curtain rising again, Mr. Hankin bounded on the stage in a full
sailor's costume (all white and blue), flung down his hat, folded his
arms, & danced his hornpipe BEAUTIFULLY. You can imagine the
reception he got from the astonished audience."
Royal Engineers in British Columbia, by Beth Hill, p. 89.
A review of the performance
given for Lady Franklin.
Royal Engineer's Dramatic Club
This popular Club gave a special entertainment on Saturday night
in honor of lady Franklin. The Theatre was crowded, and the performance
went off well. We have not room to criticise the different parts, but
would mention the names of Woodcock, Turnbull, Colston, Rylatt and
Franklin, as having aquitted themselves with great credit.
-21st March, 1861 - The British Columbian
The British Columbia,
December 5th 1861
Royal Engineer Theatre - This Theatre was opened on Monday
evening last for the FIRST time this season with the Drama by
Geo. Almar, Esq., entitled "The Charcoal Burner or The
Dropping Well of Knatesborough" and the favorite
Commedietta, entitled "Advice to Husbands". We
regret that our small space does not admit of giving detailed
description of the performance but we think only give utterance
to the general sentiment of all who were present, when we say
that all the characters were well sustained, and all the
performance, as a whole, highly credible to all concerned.
Several songs and Glees were sung during the evening, the
rendering of which were exceedingly good and elicited loud and
frequent encores. The building itself is fitted up in a
style which will bear a favorable comparison with any similar
institution on the Pacific coast, without any exception; and
when we consider the expense to which the Royal Engineers must
have gone in thus fitting up their theatre, we think they are
entitled to the highest praise. There was a large audience
present, at least one half were civilians, and who must see
themselves under the debt of obligation to the Engineers for
thus providing the means of an occasional evenings intellectual
amusement, during the winter season.
To give an idea of
the size of the RE Theatre, this article in The British Columbian from
the 2nd of December 1862 might serve as an illustration.
THEATRE-- This pretty little Theatre was opened for the season
on Friday evening. The attendance was very large --
and the performance was a complete success.
was especially well played. We regret our inability to avail
ourselves of the kind invitation to be present, but have been
informed by a number of gentlemen that much of the playing was
superior to anything they had ever witnessed by Amateurs. The
Royal Engineers certainly deserve much credit for their
unceasing and most successful endeavors to amuse the people of
this city, and we look forward to many a pleasant evening in the
R.E. Theatre during the long winter evenings.
Columbia - 13th Dec 1862
Dramatic - The second Dramatic entertainment of the season was
given last evening by the Royal Engineers' Club. The beautiful
drama entitled "Don Caesar De Bazan" was most
successfully played to a very good house. The leading characters
were very well sustained.
As Don Caesar, Corporal Howse was most
successful, carrying the audience with him all through. Serjeant Osmet made a capital Charles II of Spain, and was exceedingly well
dressed. J. Turnbull took the character of the old Marquis de Rotondo for which he was splendidly dressed, and which he delineated
in the most happy manner.
The more prominent character of Don Jose (the
King's Minister) was very well rendered throughout by W. Deas, and
C. Sinnett made a most charming Lazarillo. The ladies - perhaps we
ought to have mentioned them first - Serjeant Rylatt, as Maritana,
and J. Meade as Countess de Rotondo, performed their parts very
A number of songs and a farce entitled
"Cool as a cucumber" closed the evening's entertainment.
Royal Engineers Theatre
On Wednesday evening the members of the Royal Engineers' Club gave a dramatic
performance for the benefit of the Royal Columbian Hospital Fund, on which
occasion the pieces performed were Douglas Jerrold's Domestic Drama of "The Rent
Day" and Poole's amusing farce "Deaf as a Post".
The Rent Day is too well known to need much description. It may suffice to
recall its features to those not present if we say that the interest centres in
the endeavours of Martin Reywood (W. Deas) to keep the farm of his forefathers from
the grip of the unjust steward, Old Crumbs ( W. Harvey) of his absentee
landlord. There are various complications introduced, owing to the discovery
made by two highwaymen that the steward is an "ex-minion of the moon" for whose
apprehension there is a reward of 50 Pounds. Owing to the power they
consequently possess over Crumbs, they obtain permission to enter the Squire's
house, where they propose to rob a guest. The guest is saved from their attempt
on his property by the courage and devotion of Rachel Heywood, Martin's wife (R.M.
Rylatt) and proves to be the absentee landlord himself, Squire Grantley.Of
course, with so powerful a Deus ex machina, everything is easy. Martin keeps his
farm, the unjust steward is dismissed, the highwaymen punished, and, as the old
fairy tales conclude, everybody lives happy ever afterwards. We would
particularly notice the acting of R.M. Rylatt as Rachel, W. Deas, W. Harvey, and
H. Dransfield, whose drolleries in the character of Bullfrog, an appraiser and
creature of Old Crumbs, were very amusing and well rendered.
The plot of the farce is very simple. Tristram Sappy (J. Woodcock) is engaged
to be married to Miss Sophy Walton. This young lady, as is not uncommon to young
ladies, we believe, prefers a lover of her own choosing. Captain Templeton (J.
Turnbull) to the husband of her father's selection. Thus favored the captain
introduces himself at the inn where Sappy is entertaining at supper his future
wife and her father, and by pretending to be "deaf as a post" induces an amusing
series of mistakes, the ill consequences of which fall on the head of the
ill-fated Sappy. He effects a compromise with the author of the mischief, and
resigns his fiancee to the fortunate Captain. Sally Mags (R.M. Rylatt)
chambermaid at the inn, delivered her sneers at Sappy and his meanness in the
matter of fees to chambermaids, with great relish and effect. The appearance of
R. Colston in the interlude, dressed as a ballet girl, created perhaps more
laughter than anything else in the evening. There is so much caricature in the
mere fact of a man being dressed in the short gauzy skirts of a fille be ballet,
that the real excellencies of his dancing may not have been quite appreciated.
-21st March, 1863 - From The British Colonist.
Royal Engineers' Theatre
The Dramatic Company of the Royal Engineers Club gave their last
entertainment on Wednesday evening, forming the ninth of the series with which
we have been amused during the winter season.
On this occasion were presented "The Sergeant's Wife" and "The Artful Dodge".
The former is of the style which Mr. Wilkie Collins delights to terrify us with.
An old house in the centre of France is the scene of operations, where Dennis
(W. Deas) and his confederate rob and murder any unsuspecting travelers who may
fall in their way. The particular attempt at murder with which the audience is
concerned of course fails, owing to a rescue at the last moment. Lisette (R.M.Rylatt)
played her part with great care and skill, but it must have been difficult to
struggle with the natural weakness of the play.
The farce of The Artful Dodge was more successful, as it deserved to be. The
Hon. Frederick Fitz-Fudge (R.M.Rylatt) was so well played that it gives cause
for regret that so good an actor should be forced by the exigencies of the
Company to assume women's parts, the difficulties of which are necessarily
great. J. Woodcock, as Demosthenes Dodge was as funny as usual, reasoning so
ably and clearly on the social advantages of dodging, ie., swindling, that we
feared for a moment the moral perceptions of the audience might be blunted. The
author, Mr. E.L. Blanchard, is a well known burlesque and pantomime writer,
accordingly the dialogue bristles with puns, which were generally well
delivered. We would, however, venture to suggest to Mr. Hughes for his next
appearance that he should eat his breakfast, and not send it away un-tasted as
he did. By doing so he certainly destroyed the vraisemblance of the part, and
failed to give complete effect to some of the turns in the dialogue.
In dismissing this notice we must tender one word of thanks to the RE Club
for the amusement they have afforded us and our fellow citizens during the
winter; amusement that would be acceptable anywhere, and is particularly so in a
town like ours - at present too small to encourage the continued presence of any
professional caterers for the public.
- 2nd May, 1863 - From The British Columbian
Engineers Club and Library -
persons having any claims on the R.E. Club or Library, are requested to
send them to the Secretary as soon as possible.
Camp, New Westminister, October 13, 1863
We sincerely regret having been prevented attending the entertainment given
by the Royal Engineers' Club at their Theatre on Tuesday evening, especially as
we understand it is designed to be the closing performance. We learn that the
audience was very large, and indicated the utmost satisfaction. The piece played
upon this occasion was, "The Farmer's Story, or the Broken Heart", followed by
two farces, entitled, "A Pleasant Neighbour", and "Two Heads are better than
We only very imperfectly give utterance to public sentiment when we say that
this community generally feel deeply indebted to the RE Club for the numerous
entertainments given during their stay in this place. At very great expense in
time and money, to themselves they have spared no pains to afford rational
amusement; and so general have been their invitations to the citizens that their
beautiful little Theatre might almost be said to have been thrown open to the
public. The proficiency, too, to which these amateurs have attained is really
something wonderful. We have witnessed many of their performances with far
greater satisfaction than those of professional players. We shall miss them
sadly during the approaching winter nights.
-24th October, 1863 - The British Columbian.
The Royal Engineers’ Theatre is the third building from the right with
the chimney in the centre of the roof.
Photograph courtesy the New Westminster Museum Archives
For more on the theatrical endeavours of the Royal Engineers please see
Royal Engineers, 1858–1863: Theatrical Entertainment for and by the
Patrick B. O’Neill