‘The most remarkable conflagration known here for many years’, so wrote Rev George Young in his book, ‘A Picture of Whitby and it’s Environs’.
Fire was not unknown in old towns, with the dangerous mix of wooden construction and naked flames, but the burning of Whitby’s theatre, on Friday 25th July 1823, was by all accounts a large one.
The building, sometimes dignified with the title of Theatre Royal, stood on Brunswick Street, then called Skate Lane, at the end of Newton Street.
From the painting, the building was tall, at least four storeys, and this was a prominent position; the fire would have been seen all over the town, and looks to have attracted a large crowd.
Young tells us there were four fire engines in the town, two kept on Church Street, and two on Bagdale; these were not like modern engines, but more like large hand pumps, and probably almost useless against such a major fire.
This original painting, now in Whitby Museum, was owned by Dr English and was painted by a young George Chambers.
On the reverse of the painting is an inscription by the artist. Chambers tells us that the fire broke out between 3 and 4 in the morning, the inside was completely burnt out, including the equipment of the strolling company of Mr Scott’s pantomime players then in residence. Mr Scott was a sword-swallower who used 2 ½ feet long steel swords.
George Chambers was a pupil of John Bird and went on to be an eminent marine painter. This is an important early work by this man, as he was only 20 when he painted the theatre fire and sadly died in 1840 aged 37 after prolonged ill-health.