“I think you are in my seat sir”: A Row in the Dress Circle

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Today if you decide to go to see a West End show, concert or play you will always buy tickets, usually in advance, and sometimes on the door. The tickets will indicate where your seat is and that seat is yours regardless of whether you choose to sit and watch the performance of spend the entire evening propping up the bar. We might imagine it was ever thus but this story from October 1855 reveals that while you might pay to access a certain section of the theatre buying a ticket did not necessarily guarantee a particular seat.

Henry Burroughs and William Horner had decided to spend a night at the Drury Lane Theatre. They had paid to sit in dress circle and had occupied seats in one of the boxes there. They’d arrived around seven o’clock but at some point after that had gone down to the bar for some refreshment. When they returned (at about nine) with a friend they found two men sitting in their seats.

They politely asked the newcomers to leave but were (just as politely) rebuffed:

‘If the box-keeper says they are yours, we will give them up’, William Burt (one of the two occupants) replied, otherwise he was staying put. The theatre assistant (the ‘box-keeper’) was called over but assured them that no one had asked him to mind the gentlemen’s’ seats. Nor had any of the theatre-goers in the neighbouring seats. As far as William Burt (and his friend Seymour, a City solicitor) the seats were vacant and they were entitled to sit there.

Burroughs and Horner thought otherwise however and one of them leant foreword and grabbed Burt by his shirt collar, pulling his head back. His companions joined in and a fight broke out between the five men. The theatre erupted into chaos and the playhouse’s inspector was summoned. With some difficulty all the men were arrested and led away so the performance could continue in peace.

The next day Burroughs and Horner, ‘smartly-dressed young men’, were presented at Bow Street Police court to answer for their actions. They complained that they were the victims in all this: they’d only vacated their seats for a ‘few minutes’ and others had unfairly occupied them. They’d politely requested them to leave but they hadn’t. The row was regrettable but not entirely their fault.

Inspector Hancock from the theatre said he’d never had such a dreadful disturbance in all his four years of service. Nor was it normal for the box-officers to reserve seats in the outer circle, you took your chance and the men should have asked others to keep their seats for them while they sought refreshment. Mr Jardine the sitting magistrate agreed. While the fight had involved all five of them it was Burroughs and Horner that had started it and so he fined them 40s each, which they paid.

So next time you are sitting in a West End theatre make sure you are sitting in the right seat but if someone is in yours, be careful to ask the attendant to make them move.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 21 October, 1855]

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