Although the present day theatre is the sixth building on the site since 1683, its long standing life in Clerkenwell has seen the performance theater through all the fads and fashions of the day, including a pleasure garden and spa spot. Taking its name from a former owner Sadler and its presence between two chalybeates, the location was formerly a monastery.
During the Regency Era, Sadler’s Wells saw many fine and famous actors treading its boards; from Kean to Grimaldi, the rowdy crowds in the pits flocked to see popular dramas and farces. The “suburban theater” as a contemporary called it was famous for burlettas, musical interludes, and pantomimes. The fact that the location was not the most fashionable address prompted management during the early 19th century to provide escorts to central London for patrons.
In 1804, an immense tank was installed under the stage to help it assume an aquatic theater, with the first performance being the Siege of Gibraltar “where real vessels bombarded the fortress.” (Old and new London: a narrative of its history, its people and its places …, Thornbury et al). The water feature was so popular, a scene painter Thomas Greenwood coined a little ditty:
By 1823, the aquatic spectacles were abandoned for pony races (Little Newmarket Races in 1825), and a variety of other efforts as the ownership and management continued to change hands. According to a wonderful guidebook from 1832:
It was closed for a time in the mid 19th century until it was rebuilt in 1879. By that time, Islington was becoming swallowed by London’s sprawling cityscape.
Today, Sadler’s Wells hosts the ballet and other theatrical events and is no longer a suburban location, but very much in the thick of the city.