The Old Price Riots
(also sometimes referred to as the O.P.
or OP riots
) were caused by rising prices at the new Theatre at Covent Garden
, after the previous one had been destroyed by fire. The riots lasted three months, and ended with John Philip Kemble
, the manager of the theatre, being forced to make a public apology.
On December 20
, the original Covent Garden Theatre
was destroyed by a fire along with most of the scenery, costumes and scripts. The damage was estimated at £150 000. However, a public subscription
was introduced by the Duke of York
and King George III
, which contributed £19 000.
The new theatre opened on September 18, 1809. The cost of constructing and furnishing the building, however, was so high that the management was forced to raise the prices from six shillings to seven for the boxes, from 3 shillings and sixpence to four shillings for the pit, and the third tier, usually reserved for the public, was converted into private boxes at a rent of £300 per year. The gallery price was unchanged, but people inside could only see the legs of the performers.
On the opening night, riots broke out during a performance of Macbeth and continued throughout the play. At the end, the audience refused to leave so Kemble sent for the Bow Street police, but this only made the situation worse, and the rioters did not disperse until 2AM. After the first night, the rioters only came in at half price time, and the inside of the theater was covered with banners and slogans.
At one point, a coffin was carried in with the message "Here lies the body of the new price, which died of the whooping cough on 23 September 1809, aged 6 days". The riots were to last another 64 days. However, unlike earlier riots, no damage was done to the theater and the whole affair was done in a "spirit of fun".
Kemble issued an apology and the situation returned to normal, until he tried to maintain half the number of private boxes at the start of the next season - the riots started again, forcing him to withdraw his plan.
Daniel Mendoza and the Old Price Riots
In an attempt to quell the rioters Kemble hired the Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza
and his associates to contain them. This tactic misfired and resulted in increased violence, as shown in the contemporary caricature
by Isaac Robert Cruikshank
, Killing No Murder as Performing at the Grand National Theatre
. Mendoza can be seen at the centre, utering the words 'Down down to H--l with all OPs & say twas Dan that sent thee there.'
Mendoza, who had lost his championship in 1795 and was now in his mid forties, was already semi-retired; he had turned down a return match against Lee in 1807 saying that he was devoted only to teaching the sport. It seems that his participation in the OP Riots also lost him following with his supporters amongst the poorer folk of London, who now saw him fighting on behalf of the 'toffs'. Some of Mendoza's biographers therefore see the incident as a turning point in his popularity, although he still gave occasional demonstration bouts.
There had been previous riots in 1762
when the management of Covent Garden Theatre had threatened to raise seating prices.