The Theatre’s Hidden Secrets

henry rutley1. Henry Rutley, First Theatre Manager

Henry Rutley established the first Theatre Royal on the site it is today. He was a well-known public figure and was recognised for establishing a respectable theatre of good repute for the middle classes, much in contrast to the previous Theatre Royal in Old Portsmouth. He was well respected by local businessmen and his employees, and was seen and recorded as a family man.

It seems that Rutley liked to keep a secret, rather a big secret. The woman he presented as his wife – Elizabeth Rutley – he had never married. Her real name was revealed in his will (a copy of which was found in the archives); Elizabeth James Peeke, Spinster, to whom he left everything but his life assurance policy. Her address was shown as 66 Commercial Road or Ashlar House, the same address they both had been living at for years as Mr and Mrs Rutley.

But that’s not all. A child lived with the Rutleys who the theatre employees all thought of as their daughter – Viscinia, and it seemed he did little to dissuade this image. She was actually daughter to neither of them, and was in fact Elizabeth’s sister’s daughter, taken under her care. Viscinia Bowers (her real name) married from Ashlar House in 1873 and she was then described as Rutley’s niece in the local press, and he gave her away. Her wedding to ‘eminent English tenor’ William Henry Tilla was reported as a very lavish affair, and in this act of raising Viscinia as his own child, Rutley had given her a far better future than she would have had otherwise.

2. Theatre Suicide Herbert ralph

Herbert Ralph had come into the service of Portsmouth Theatres Ltd in 1914 to the Princes Theatre, and transferred as Acting Manager to the Theatre Royal in 1917 on a salary of £5 per week. He was responsible for the payment of staff wages and received the money each week for the payment of the Health and Unemployment Insurance and his work was recorded as ‘absolutely satisfactory.’ Herbert Ralph was still the Acting Manager at the Theatre Royal in 1923.

On the afternoon of the 7th November 1923, Herbert Ralph locked himself in his office, sat at his desk and shot himself in the head; the cause of death was recorded as ‘shock and hemorrhage from a self-inflicted bullet wound in the brain with a revolver; suicide whilst of unsound mind.’ He was found “lying prostrate on the floor of his office with his head in a pool of blood” by Sidney Walters, shot deadSecretary of Portsmouth Theatres Ltd, shortly after 3pm. He was at that time still breathing but died not long after. Ralph had apparently been sitting at his office chair when he shot himself in the right temple, the bullet exited through his left temple and struck the office wall. The gun used was a .445 Webley Revolver which was not registered in the borough, so Ralph must have brought it with him from London. About two years previously Ralph had shown the gun to Charles Peters, the Musical Director of Portsmouth Theatres Ltd, telling him it was for protection against violent robbery.

It seems that Ralph had been fiddling the company’s books; there was about £360 shortage in the insurance money going back to 1921. At an earlier meeting Mr Arthur Farlam, Inspector under the Ministry of Health, found that the theatre’s National Health and Unemployment Cards were not stamped up to date, and an appointment had been made for 3pm on the day of Ralph’s suicide to check that that had been put right. The coroner returned a verdict that Ralph had committed suicide whilst of unsound mind, and that in his opinion the fear of the deficiency of the money coming to light that day had caused him to take his life.

A Post Office Savings Bank Deposit Book found in Ralph’s belongings at Ralph’s room in Madden’s Hotel, Station Street where he was living showed a balance of 5s 11d, so he hadn’t stashed the money away – we can only speculate where it had gone.

3. Attempted Suicide

Actor John Allen, who was performing with Hector Ross’ repertory company at the time, had been charged with persistently importuning for immoral purposes in Western Parade on June 20th 1958. To save the theatre from harmful publicity, he decided to take his own life on June 29th by gassing himself in his dressing room. He left a note explaining, “I feel the publicity of my death will do the theatre less harm than the publicity of this case.”
He was found in the dressing room by the wardrobe mistress who smelled gas coming from his room, but she did not investigate because she thought someone was making tea. She return 35 minutes later with the night watchman and his assistant and broke down the door and found Allen on the floor with a rubber tube leading from a gas connection to his face. Allen’s letter also said that he would leave his clothes and belongings to the repertory company;financial worries
“as some recompense for the trouble I have caused.” Mr Allen had one previous conviction for importuning in London in 1948, but his defending lawyer said he had friends to go to in London, and would have no difficulty in getting another theatrical engagement.

4. Did you know…..

  • The Trades Union Congress Meeting was held at the Theatre Royal in September 1920 to discuss the nationalization of coal mines and the imminent miners’ strike.
  • This was not the first time the theatre had been used as a political venue; during an anti-suffragette meeting held at the Town Hall many protesters had turned up, and the theatre opened its doors to them for their own meeting.
  • The first ever live cookery performance in England was on stage at the New Theatre Royal in 1951. Unfortunately as it was raining was the house wasn’t very good!
  • It is possible that the first ever performance of a British rock ‘n roll band was on our stage too– Tony Crombie and His Rockets performed in 1956 and played their hit single “Teach you to Rock” which is considered to be the first British rock and roll record