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The unbelievable history of the Bristol Old Vic – the building that refused to close

A unique story of incredible luck and human defiance is explored in our next Theatres in Crisis feature

Bristol Old Vic
© Philip Vile

Our Theatres in Crisis series has shown that some of the nation's most popular and famous theatres have all had moments in their history when they faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Whether structural, financial or medical, like the one we find ourselves in now, the venues have all defied the very real threat of closure and fought to stay open.

To face one of these crises would be bad enough but the Bristol Old Vic has surely one of the most fascinating histories of any venue in this country. Building changing hands, disease, fires – since opening in 1766, the theatre has seen and survived the lot with the backing of its audiences and patrons. In these strange and unprecedented times, the people of Bristol have once again come together to support the theatre. Here's to hoping that the Old Vic's next 250 years are not quite as dramatic as the ones that have already past.

Influenza outbreak in 1782

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Old Vic's heritage team uncovered a rather poignant notice from June 1782 that was placed on the doors of the theatre. It announced the temporary closure of the venue as one of the acting companies had been afflicted with influenza. Almost 250 years on, the theatre has had its upcoming productions axed by the coronavirus but it is humbling to know that the Old Vic has faced these trials before and survived.

Bristol Riots of 1831

In 1831, riots raged in the streets around the Old Vic. Hundreds of people were protesting against the rejection of a reform bill that would have seen Bristol, and other provincial towns like Manchster and Birmingham, given more representation in the House of Commons. Fires blazed in Queen Square, only a stone's throw from the theatre, which could have had catastrophic consequences but thankfully the Old Vic was saved because it was set back and protected behind two terraced houses. Funnily enough, these properties also hid the theatre from authorities when it was first illegally opened in 1766 - surely these houses ought to have a plaque of some kind by now.

Building sold in 1942

28 January 1942 is something of a Sliding Doors moment in the life of the Bristol Old Vic - it is the date the leaseholders sold the building at auction in just seven and a half minutes. In the aftermath Bristolians, including theatre historian Kathleen Barker, fought tooth and nail to save the venue. With generous donations from the public and support from the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts (CEMA, which also featured in our Birmingham Rep article), the theatre was purchased back and its future as a performance venue was secure. Somewhere in a parallel universe, the building is the UK's most beautiful warehouse.

Theatre almost closed in 2007

With the Bristol Old Vic's long history, it is worth recognising that the theatre has faced crises in the very recent past and one moment in 2007 brought the company together like no other. The theatre had been forced to announce its closure to the public as a result of financial difficulties and a building in desperate need of refurbishment. The response from Bristolians was incredible – allegedly 1000 people came to a public meeting called by Dick Penny, the theatre's newly-voted executive chairman. The people spilled out of the theatre and onto the street. The sensational new building was re-opened in 2012 and a new era for the Bristol Old Vic began.

This article was made possible thanks to the knowledge and generosity of Amy Spreadbury, the Bristol Old Vic's Heritage Engagement Manager.

For donations to the Bristol Old Vic, please visit their website.