Durham town’s population in the middle of the eighteenth-century is estimated to have been between 4,000 and 5,000. Much local life-centred around the bishops, deans and prebendaries associated with the town’s cathedral. William Hutchinson‘s second volume of the History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham published in 1785 contains 320 pages dedicated to the city and its immediate surroundings. George Allan ‘the Antiquary’ of Darlington’s grandson, Robert Henry Allan moved to Durham and in 1824 published his Historical and Descriptive View of the City of Durham and its Environs upon which later town guides have relied. However, the records of eighteenth-century social life in Durham are relatively limited. There was no local newspaper and the history of the theatre in Durham has never been written.

The earliest record of Thomas Bates’ Durham Theatre Company performing in the town appears in an advertisement in the Newcastle Journal in the form of a playbill for a performance of Nathaniel Lee’s ‘Theodosius: or the Force of Love’ at the Durham theatre in Drury Lane on 18 July 1763. To ensure as large an audience as possible, the company visited Durham in July during race week and the playbill states that performances began each night “as soon as the race is over.”

As few records of Durham town’s theatre appears to have survived it has been necessary to seek out new sources of information. Many male actors were also freemasons, and as masons were meticulous record keepers lodge minute books provide a useful source of information. The visits of the Durham Company to the town for race week are indicated by the minute books of Durham’s Marquis of Granby Lodge. These records show that between 1773 and 1802 the company visited Durham between March and June with the exception of only one year, 1795.

Stephen Kemble made his first appearance at the Marquis of Granby Lodge in 1800 when he became a subscribing member. This is the year he bought the Durham company and thereafter attendance by actors becomes sporadic as Kemble did not prioritise performances in the town. The actors make regular appearances again after William Faulkner and Charles Anderson sub-leased Kemble’s Durham company theatres in 1806. James Field Stanfield’s name first appears in the minute books in an entry for 17 March 1789 at a Master’s Lodge, which was held in a room at the house of George Nicholson in Old Elvet which he rented to the masons. There were eleven Durham masons present including the bookseller Pennington who sold tickets for the theatre from his shop in the marketplace.

After announcing his semi-retirement, Stephen Kemble moved to Durham and served as the Grand Master of the Marquis of Granby Lodge.


Image by Unknown, Durham, date unknown