Answers to Questions


Wells Pavilion Theatre Company




Did your ancestor visit this portable theatre?

Any Hertfordshire references to portable theatres would be welcome.

WELLS, Ware, 1885-1890

February, 2008

Lynn Morris (lyndy_snowbird31 @t of Thrapston, Northamptonshire, writes: I am researching my family history and have found in census returns for 1891 and 1901 that two of my ancestors married women from Ware and Amwell in Hertfordshire.  also checked free BMD for marriages. The family name is Wells, George Wells married Susan Bowman from Ware in Q3 1888 and Frank Clement Wells married Alice Wallis from Amwell in Q3 1888, (although the latter couple didn't marry in Herts).  The two men were brothers.  George and Susan's first child Leonard was born in Ware in 1888.  Their sister Margaret Daisy Wells also married in Ware but to a man from Rushden, Northamptonshire by the name of Samuel Denton in Q4 1886.

My question to you is this, our family had a travelling theatre company usually known as the Wells Pavilion Theatre Company or Wells Portable Theatre, and were very hard to track, but must have stayed in Ware Hertfordshire on numerous occasions.  I wondered if you have any way of finding out about the whereabouts of this theatre during the later part of the 1880's, say from 1885 - 1890.  Did you have particular feast days, fairs, carnivals etc where showmen gathered, as our theatre has been known to be in the same place as fairgrounds at times.  They often posted theatre bills in shops and other useful areas, they produced silk programs for some of their performances and were known for putting on plays and shows including Drama, Comedy, Shakespeare, and Musical Items.  When in towns some of them stayed in lodging houses or Inns and the rest of the family stayed in caravans on suitable pieces of land.  Most of the actors and musicians were family members and the whole thing was managed by my gt gt grandfather Joseph Wells.

I am trying to find anything such as newspaper items, memorabilia or advertisements to suggest the theatre was in your area about those times.  Sometimes they rented theatre buildings and stayed for a few months and other times they moved with fairs etc and built there stage on the backs of wagons under the 'tilt' with the help of local carpenters and only stayed a few days. 

I would be very grateful for any help you can provide or any suggestions as to where I might search next.

Lynn also provided some images relating to the theatre and the following silk programme, which was apparently given to people who were sent complementary tickets, refers to the mayors of St Albans and Hertford being patrons,

Silk Programme for  The Lady of Lyons

Looking at the list of patrons I note that W. White, Mayor of St Albans probably is an error for  Samuel Moncton White [i.e. M. White becomes W. White], who was elected Mayor of St Albans for a year in November 1882 and again in November 1884 - so the theatre probably visited St Albans in 1883 or 1885. Alex P. McMullen is listed as a Hertford councillor in Kelly's 1886 Hertfordshire Directory, and as and Alderman in the 1890 Directory - so was probably the Mayor in between - and the theatre presumably visited Hertford then.

If it is known the places the theatre visited it should be possible to identify Mayor E. Latimer Greene - and hence identify the town and at least an approximate date. [A check suggests he was not mayor of a town in Hertfordshire.] [June 21012: Anthony reports he was the Mayor of Stratford upon Avon in 1891-4]

Lynn also provided a photocopy of a newspaper article, published circa 1955, which reports the memories of a Mrs Jesse Bird who had taken juvenile parts many years before. The relevant parts are:

Maggie Well, Joseph's youngest daughter in the title role of a melodrama called "The Female Detective"

A Line of wagons trundling into the High Street one morning in the 1880s brought Rushden [Northamptonshire] its first theatre. On an open piece of ground ... carpenters set to work putting up the portable playhouse of the Wells Pavilion Theatre Company. The stage was built on wagons with a supporting pole at the back. It stood in the Rectory garden. In the covered auditorium were plush-lined walls and plush seats, with both stalls and boxes - price 6d and 1s. And every night for three months Rushden packed in to enjoy a repertoire ranging from Shakespearean tragedy to Victorian melodrama. ...

The Wells Pavilion was always a family affair. It grew from one of the "penny gaffs" of the fairground. Joseph Wells ... brought the portable theatre some 75 years ago circa [1880] and took his family - three generations of them - on tour. It was one of the biggest theatres of its kind. In these days of patronage it boasted a list of patrons "too numerous to mention." ...

There was a different programme for every night of the three month run. "Hamlet" took its turn with musical comedy and melodramas were the favourites. Lord Lytton [of Knebworth]'s "The Lady of Lyons, or Love and Pride," and "Ten nights in a Bar Room" ... were typical attractions. But best of all was "Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn." The story is told by Mrs Bird that a performance of "Maria" by the  Wells Company actually closed down Sangers Circus one night when the two shows were on at the same time. A five piece orchestra accompanied the entertainment - first and second violin, piano, cornet and piccolo.

Twice the Wells Pavilion came back to Rushden. ... Three rival portable theatres also visited Rushden about the same time - Demay, the Whitney Company and Harry Farris. Some 50 years ago [circa 1905] the Wells Company amalgamated with Harry Farris and the old Pavillion Theatre was sold somewhere in North Wales.


Knowing what king of "animal" the theatre was, and the fact that it might have been in St Albans in 1888, I decided to have a quick scan through my collection of photocopies of the Herts Advertiser to see if by chance I had copied something about the theatre "by accident". To my surprise I found the following brief entry.

Excelsior Theatre. Mr. G. Barnes made an application on Thursday for permission to erect the above theatre in Hatfield-road for six weeks. Mr. Barnes was instructed to renew his application at the next Sessions.

Herts Advertiser, 21st January 1888


G Barnes Travelling Theatre

Laurence van Kleek (vk3 @t wrote: I found entries in The Stage July - Sept 1889 showing that he was in St Ives, Hunts in July, Biggleswade in August and Watford in September. He was advertising for leading gent, also responsible to sing between, artists and leading lady & gent. He was to be in a town near London after 16 August. Not much I am afraid but the thing that struck me was that I could not find any reports of performances in The Stage, just his ads. I guess that their reporting did not include portable theatres?

I also have been trying to follow another portable theatre - of Charles Belmore [real name Charles Belmore Clifford] whose ads also appeared in The Stage but no reports of performances. He was also in St Ives in August 1886 & July 1889 and also in Downham Market October 1887 to January 1888. Ads described his set up as Belmore's Portable Theatre, Daventry June 1888 & Belmore's Pavilion July 1888..

Obviously it is the wrong theatre - but it demonstrates that mobile theatres were visiting St Albans in 1888. Perhaps more importantly it reminded me that they need to be licensed as places of public entertainment under the Theatres Act 1843.

Scanning about 5 years I saw no other reference to a portable theatre or to a circus - but as my sample must be much less than 1% of the paper over this period - and the collection was made with other interests in mind this is not surprising. The search showed regular reports of local charity events and the occasional visiting actors for short performances at St Albans Town Hall and other permanent venues. One entry, while relating to a visiting performance in a permanent licensed hall, suggest one other type of official record which would be relevant to a travelling family troop.

A Juvenile Performer. - At the City Sessions on Thursday, application was made to the magistrates (Messrs. H. J. Toulmin and A. F. Phillips), on behalf of Mr. Sidney Herberte-Bazing, a dramatic manager, who is coming to the County Hall on March 24th, 26th, and 27th, for permission for a child under the age of ten years to appear on the stage in an entertainment. The applicant said the child would be about eight or nine years and was travelling in the care of her mother.

The matter was adjourned in order that a medical certificate as to the state of the child's health might be produced.

Herts Advertiser, 10th March1894


A first sight looking for information and ephemera relating to the theatre, and its performances, is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it would seem that the theatre company could be considered to be a large extended family moving around together. I carried out a quick (and incomplete) search of the 1881 and 1891 censuses for some of the members of the theatre, and combined with the information above came up with the following provisional list of locations:

[In the following table The Era entries were added in June 2012, and are discussed below.]

Date Place Source Notes
October1879 Droitwich, Worcestershire [Lynn] Thomas Young married Emma Wells. Could the troop have been there then? Members of the troop may have witnessed the marriage.
August 1880 Atherstone, Warwickshire 1881 census Blanche Young born - troop may well have been in the town. Birth certificate will give date of birth.
26 December 1880 Rushden, Northamptonshire The Era Joseph Wells, Theatre, Rushden, near Hyam Furries, Northamptonshire
4th April 1881 Market Square,  Stony Stratford, Bucks 1881 census Three caravans parked in the Market Square, The first held Joseph Wells (Theatre Manager), his wife and two daughters (Jane and Margaret) and James Gibson (property man). The second held Thomas Young (Artist), his wife and 8 month old daughter. The third held John Clements and his wife (musicians). [Other members of the troop may well have been boarding in the town - further research is needed.]
Jan/Mar 1882 Swadlincote, Derbyshire 1891 census & FreeBMD Victor Young born - troop may well have been in the town. Birth certificate will give date of birth.
31 March, 1883 Worksop, Nottinghamshire The Era J Wells, Lyceum Theatre, Cattle Market, Worksop, Notts
5 January 1884 Boston, Lincolnshire The Era J Wells, Portable Theatre, West-street, Boston, Lincolnshire
Jan/Mar 1884 Horncastle, Lincolnshire 1891 census & FreeBMD Margaret Young born - troop may well have been in the town. Birth certificate will give date of birth.
30 August 1884 Skegness, Lincolnshire The Era J Wells, Portable Theatre, Skegness
1885? St Albans, Herts Silk Programme W. [M?] White, mayor of St Albans listed as a sponsor - so presumably the troop visited when Moncton White was Mayer (1883 and 1885).
20 February 1886 Enfield, Middlesex The Era J. Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Enfield Hotel, Enfield
8 May 1886 St Albans, Herts The Era Wanted, Gent for Lead; Lady & Gent for Responsible; First Violin; and also a Pianist, Terms, Shares, J Well, portable theatre, St Albans
15 May 1886 St Albans, Herts The Era Wanted, Lady and Gent for Responsible Business, Other vacancies filled. Apply J. Wells, Portable Theatre, St Albans, Herts
4 September 1886 Hoddesdon, Herts The Era WANTED, Ladies and Gentlemen for Responsible Business. Those that Sing and Dance preferred. Also a good Pianist. J. Wells. Pavillion Theatre, Hoddesdon, Herts
Oct/Dec 1886 Ware, Herts FreeBMD Samuel Denton married Margaret Wells. Could the troop have been there then? Members of the troop may have witnessed the marriage. Certificate will give a precise place and date.
???? Rushden, Northamptonshire Press cutting The theatre is said to have visited Rushden on three occasions.
2 April 1887 Waltham Cross, Herts The Era WANTED, a Leading Lady to join at once. Also Lady and Gent for Responsibles. Business terms. Shares. Houses checked. Extra for Lead. Apply J Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Waltham-cross, Herts
1887?? Hertford, Herts Silk Programme Alex P. McMullen, mayor of Hertford listed as a sponsor - so presumably the troop visited when he was mayor. It should not be too difficult to find out the year(s) her was mayor.
7 May 1887 Enfield, Middlesex The Era J Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Enfield Town, Middlesex
July/Sept 1888 Wycombe, Bucks FreeBMD Frank Wells married Alice Wallis. Could the troop have been there then? Did. members of the troop may have witnessed the marriage. Certificate will give a precise place and date.
4 August 1888 Maidenhead, Berks The Era J Wells, Pavilion Theatre, The Moor, Maidenhead, Berks
July/Sept 1888 Ware, Herts FreeBMD George Wells married Susan Bowman. Could the troop have been there then? Did. members of the troop witness the marriage. Certificate will give a precise date.
July/Sept 1888 Ware, Herts FreeBMD Leonard Wells born - troop may well have been in the town. Birth certificate will give date of birth.
16 August 1890 Kettering, Northhamptonshire The Era G. Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Fleur-de-Lis, Kettering
30 August 1890 Kettering, Northhamptonshire The Era G Wells, 20 Channing Street, Kettering, Northamptonshire
25  October 1890   Loughborough, Leicestershire The Era G. Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Loughborough
29 November 1890 Loughborough, Leicestershire The Era G. Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Loughborough
28 February 1890 Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire The Era G. Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Notts
1891-4 Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire Silk Programme Mr E Latimer Greene was mayor of Strafford upon Avon in 1891-4
5th April 1891 Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire 1891 census George Wells (professional actor) was parked in a travelling van on waste ground near Outram Street, Sutton in Ashfield, with his wife and 2 year old son. Thomas Young (professional comedian) was parked in a second van with his wife and three children. Several other members of the troop (Frank Wells & Samuel Denton & families) were noted in lodgings - but there were almost certainly more I did not discover,
8 August 1891 Whittington Moor, Derbyshire The Era G. Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Whittington Moor, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire
20 August 1891 Brampton, Derbyshire The Era Messrs Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Brampton, Chesterfield
17 September 1892 Chesterfield, Derbyshire The Era Messrs Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Chesterfield, Derbyshire
15 October 1892 Chesterfield, Derbyshire The Era Messrs Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Chesterfield
29 October 1892 Mansfield, Nottinghamshire The Era Messrs Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Mansfield, Notts
5 January 1895 Nuneaton, Warwickshire The Era Messrs Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Nuneaton, Warwickshire
4 July 1896 Ripley, Derbyshire The Era Messrs Wells, Pavilion Theatre, Ripley, Derbyshire

You may well be able to add further lines to the above table from information you have already gathered. Some of the dates and places need confirming by buying the relevant birth or marriage certificates. It is possible that the troop was always around for the marriages - particularly if both bride and groom were members of the troop. Births may be less certain - but almost certainly indicate the general area where the troop was based. By looking through the complete census returns for Stony Stratford in 1881 and Sutton in Ashfield in 1891 you will almost certainly find other members of the troop in caravans or in lodgings (sometimes identified by occupation) and this may suggest other locations for marriages and births. You could also look to see if you could trace the theatre (or its predecessor/successor) by looking at the 1871 and 1901 censuses. (I haven't done this, but in looking for John Clements I noted that he was in lodgings in Wales in 1871.)

One problem, of course, is that you will get a large number of leads to many different parts of the country, involving different records offices, etc. and how far you go depends on how much effort you want to put into the research. On the other hand there could be a number of museums which have, for example, posters or other ephemera in their collections about which they know virtually nothing. For instance they may not know that it involved a portable theatre. I am sure they would be happy to provide you with a copy in return for information on the nature of the theatre troop.

Links to Portable Theatres

Portable Theatres in Wales, 1843-1914, by Cecil Price. [online text]

Miscellaneous Records on Portable Theatres 1880-1909 at the University of Wales at Swansea.

Ann Featherstone is currently researching popular entertainment outside London in the 19th & 20th century, including the portable theatre. [contact]

I could make many more suggestions but at this stage I would suggest that you concentrate on the Hertfordshire connection. You have three datable events linked to Ware (from birth/marriage certificates), and pointed to visits to nearby Hertford and also to St Albans. Wycombe is not far over the Hertfordshire border into Bucks and Northamptonshire is not too far away. It may well be that for reasons linked to the short days and inclement weather, portable theatres had an "off season" in the same way a circuses. If so the theatre would have needed a winter base where they could maintain their equipment, prepare new plays, etc., and it may well be that this base was in Hertfordshire - possibly near Ware.

This looks like a very exciting project and I would be delighted if you could keep me informed of progress.

Lynn commented: Although you haven't really told me much that I didn't already know about the people involved, i.e. births marriages etc, you have given me some food for thought and a few leads to follow up that I had not thought off.  And incidentally Thomas Young married Emma Wells, they married in Droitwich on October 15th 1879.  I have a copy of their marriage certificate.  Frank Clement Wells actually changed his name from Joseph Wells sometime between 1881 and 1891.  By 1901 census most of the Wells family were out of the theatre and had gone their separate ways.  We are now trying to trace family of the younger members of the family to see if we can make contact with any living relatives.  I must admit I hadn't thought of looking for other members of the theatre in 1901 to see if any of them were still in the business then, or where they may have settled, if not.

I am glad you found it useful. I included information you already knew because I feel that the answer will help other people to research their mobile families - and in order to serve as an example it is necessary to include enough background information.

March, 2008

Having never investigated licensing records (beyond noting some as reported in local newspapers) I decided to find out how they worked - starting with an attempt to local the court records the Excelsior reference quoted above - which could suggest where one might look for records of the visits of the Wells portable theatre to Hertfordshire. Having failed to find any reference to Portable Theatres on HALS online catalogue I wrote to them for advice and got the following very helpful reply.

A brief reading of the Regulation of Theatres Act 1842 (a copy of which is held here, in the Archive Reading Room) indicates that, outside London, applications for theatre licences needed to be made to a special sessions consisting of at least four justices.  When granted the licence had to be read publicly by the clerk of the court.  Fees for the licences were not to exceed five shillings per calendar month.  The act goes on to say that licences could only be granted to the manager of the theatre.  No specific mention of portable theatres or circuses was found.

The newspaper quotation you supplied is consistent with the need for licences to be obtained from “Sessions”.  This leaves the problem of ascertaining which Sessions dealt with the business of issuing theatrical licences.  By the date you are interested in both the Liberty and City of St Albans Sessions appear to have merged with the County Quarter Sessions.  A search of the contemporary manuscript indexes to the Licensing Committee minutes and the Quarter Sessions Minute Books [Refs: QSCeB and QSB respectively] reveals no reference to theatrical licences.  There is a slim chance that some trace may be found in the Sessions Rolls themselves [Ref: QSR].  However these are not indexed for the period you are interested in and would require lengthy searching, which you would of course be welcome to undertake here.

A more likely avenue for research would be the records of the Petty Session Divisions.  Based on the newspaper reference you have supplied and your stated topographical area of interest it may be as well to begin with the records of the St Albans City Division.  The following may well help to confirm how G Barnes of the Excelsior Theatre obtained his licence and then give an idea of what might have been the ‘normal’ procedure.

· Court Register 3 Jun 1886-27 Aug 1890 [PS21/1/1]
· Court Minutes 26 May 1887-30 Apr 1890 [PS21/2/8]
· Minutes of special meetings of city justices concerning licensing matters 4 Nov 1902-8 Feb 1951 [PS21/10/7]

Other separate records are held for the divisions of Hertford Borough, Hertford County, and Ware [Refs: PS9, PS10 and PS18].  Full catalogues to these records may be viewed online via the Access to Archives website

Although not able to offer a definitive answer to you enquiries it is hoped that some of the above will add grist to the mill of your research.

Please contact us again if we can be of further assistance. More information about our service, including our research services, can be found at our website

June 2012

The discovery that the Wells family advertised for vacancies in their theatre in The Era has provided a lot more locations, and suggests that they started in the Midlands, and only came to Hertfordshire and neighbouring counties for a few years during the 1880s, before returning to the Midlands.

 There was one other interesting advertisement spotted in the paper on 4 January 1896:

TO BE LET. Star Pavilion, Waltham Cross, Herts. First-class Portable Scenery, Large Stage, Gas, Wood Roof. Holds 600. To let to Ministrel or Variety Troupes, One, Two, Three or Six Nights. Rental Only. Big population. Vacant. Monday, Jan 6th, and onwards. Address. W. H. Patterson, 56 First Street, Chelsea, London

It may be just a coincidence - or perhaps the company rented the actual theatres - and this was the one they had used when they were playing in the Hertfordshire area.

If you can add to the information given above tell me.

November 2010   Information from Luarence