Tucked into an Indian diary of Charlotte, Lady Canning was an unexpected find – a playbill advertising the entertainments offered at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre during Christmas week 1857. If you had sixpence to spare, you could find yourself in the upper gallery, while for a guinea (a gold coin, minted in Great Britain between 17th century and 19th century) you could be in the comfort of one of the boxes.
On offer was a national military spectacle called Storming and Capture of Delhi. A series of scenes in three acts, it was described as being “…founded upon the present events in India”. The play covered the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the relief of the siege of Cawnpore (Kanpur) and its violent aftermath, and finally the assault on Delhi and its capture by British troops.
Dramatised news production
These events played out from May 1857 to September 1857, Delhi being retaken by the British on September 20, 1857. The play opened in London on November 25, 1857, scarcely two months later. Portraying current events, it served as both popular entertainment and dramatised news production.
Situated on Westminster Bridge Road in London, Astley’s Amphitheatre opened in the 1770s. It burned down and was rebuilt three times – in 1794, 1803 and again in 1841. The space was enormous with a pit, gallery and viewing boxes and a large circular arena in addition to a stage.
It was rather like a cross between a circus and a theatre. The Illustrated London News in 1843 described the newly rebuilt Astley’s Amphitheatre as an octagonal structure, richly decorated with columns, hangings, chandeliers, and a stage measuring 75 feet x 101 feet. No expense had been spared on its rebuilding. Circus proprietor William Cooke leased the amphitheatre from 1853 to 1860 and revived its popularity. The venue became famous for equestrian displays, including adaptations of Macbeth and Richard III performed on horseback.
Storming and Capture of Delhi was written by the dramatist Charles A Somerset, about whom very little is known. In the 1861 United Kingdom census he was 66-year-old, unmarried and an “author dramatic”, originally from Bath.
He was one of several lodgers at 2 Pitt Street, Southwark. This is almost certainly the same Charles Somerset living in Devonshire Street, Lambeth in 1841, who is described as a “writer”. He had been writing for the stage since the 1820s. A check of the British Library catalogue reveals a wide repertoire from historical drama Bonaparte in Egypt, comic operetta Good Night Monsieur Pantalon\, farce The electric telegraph, or, the fast man in a fix to pantomime King Blusterbubble, and the demon ogre.
The spectacle on show during the winter of 1857-’58 had all the hallmarks of an Astley’s production. There were live animals, including troupes of trained horses as well as real Indian buffalo, zebra and elephants.
According to the reviews, “The compiler of the drama…has not encumbered the action with a complex plot or sentimental story but given a rapid succession of stirring scenes…”. These included daring chases on horseback, stage combat including firing musket rounds, and comic interludes such as British troopers donning women’s bonnets to confuse the enemy. There was even a romantic sub-plot involving Mathilda, a General’s daughter and Frank Phos Fix, an artist and volunteer Hussar.
In addition to individual items like the Storming of Delhi playbill, the British Library holds a significant collection of approximately 234,000 playbills dating from the 1730s to the 1950s. Some have been digitised, and many are being made available via the Into the Spotlight project.
The author is a Cataloguer at India Office Records.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives Blog.