As a provincial centre, assize town and important regional market, York became a major hub of sociability for the North in the eighteenth century.  There are records of strolling players visiting York from the beginning of the century but a permanent theatre company was established in the city for the first time in the 1720s by Thomas Keregan who arrived with a company from Norwich. This company was later managed by his widow Mrs Keregan who saw off a challenge from the London comedian Joseph Arthur and later passed the ownership to Joseph Baker who developed a well-organised circuit that included Beverley and Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire and extended as far north as Newcastle upon Tyne. Therefore, by the late 1760s when the protégé of Samuel Foote, Tate Wilkinson, took over the management of the York Theatre to develop what the contemporary theatre historian Robert Hitchcock called “as respectable a theatrical situation as any out of London” he was building on almost fifty years of provincial theatrical tradition.

In Pleasures of the Imagination the historian John Brewer argues that the provinces “followed metropolitan fashion” and “the theatre repertory mimicked that of the London houses”; however, this was not always the case in the northern counties. Wilkinson highlights examples of local audience taste that defined performance choice and set dramatic standards in the York company theatres which specifically rejected metropolitan tastes. “I applaud the judgments of those who decide for themselves” he declared, “and who do not let the name of London deprive them of their senses.” Plays that were “in vogue in London” that “did not suit the humours of the audience” at York and Hull included The Follies of a Day and The Spanish Barber. Whereas Hugh Kelly’s A Word to the Wise was damned in London and well received in Wilkinson’s playhouses. The town’s well-established local theatrical tradition is exemplified by the fact that two highly influential northern theatre-managers, Samuel Butler and Sarah Ward, were both York-born.


Image by Unknown, View of the City of York from the River Ouse, 1779