Guide to Sadler’s Wells

This guide to Sadler's Wells gives you the low down on the origins, history, development and personalities behind one of the UK's finest venues. Peter Gray reports.

This guide to Sadler’s Wells was written in 2019.


If contemporary dance is your thing, then Sadler’s Wells should be right at the top of your list of places to visit. The theatre, situated in leafy Islington, has a long history of staging top quality productions, with a distinguished list of luminaries making their debut at the venue.

The current building, the sixth theatre on the site, was opened in 1998. It consists of a main auditorium (with space for 1500 visitors) and the 150 seater Lilian Baylis Studio. The latter was designed for more intimate performances and younger audiences.

One of the earliest recipients of National Lottery funding, the current incarnation of the theatre cost £54 million pounds to build. The building opened on 11th of October 1998 with a performance of Lolanthe by the Rambert Dance Company.

If you were thinking of watching a production at the venue, then you’ll need to read our definitive guide to Sadler’s Wells first.

The Name

The name of the venue references the local chalybeate waters. The springs, which were discovered in 1683, became a popular tourist attraction in England after the Restoration.

Natural springs were highly prized in 17th century England for their medicinal properties. The waters were said to have countless health giving benefits. This popular belief was given even greater credence by a doctor Guidott in 1698. The doctor of “physick” wrote an account focusing on  “the new mineral-waters lately found out at Islington treating of its nature and virtues: together with an enumeration of the chiefest diseases which it is good for, and against which it may be used, and the manner and order of taking of it.”

Opinions like these helped transform what had until then been a niche interest into something approaching a national obsession. From that moment on, taking the waters became a matter of necessity, with Londoners prepared to travel hundreds of miles to visit a particularly highly regarded spa. That being the case, it is hardly surprising that towns like Cheltenham and Bath grew extremely rich because of the practice.

In Islington, meanwhile, Dick Sadler was proclaiming his newfound spa water a cure for everything from jaundice to ulcers. True or false, the wells quickly proved a hit.  

The 1st Theatre

First Sadler's Wells Theatre

Sadler began construction of a “Musick House” shortly after discovering the spring. The venue, which opened in 1683, was only the second theatre to be opened in London after the restoration. The first was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

With such illustrious competition it was no surprise that Sadler’s Wells struggled for many years. Noting that the Royal theatres operated during the autumn and winter only, however, Sadler’s Well’s capitalised on the situation by launching a summer season. It proved a great hit and the theatre’s summer programme is still a highlight of the theatre’s annual calendar.

Thomas Rosoman

Concerns about immorality led to the closure of the theatre in 1745. Fortunately, at that point, the building fell into the hands of Thomas Rosoman. Rosoman’s experience managing the New Wells, a venue which shared many similarities with Sadler’s Wells, meant that he was the perfect person to restore the fortunes of the theatre in Islington. 

Alongside his partner Peter Hough, Rosoman reopened the theatre in April 1746. Under the pair’s direction, Sadler’s Wells began to offer a much more varied offering, with the regular diet of dancers and musicians supplemented for the first time by opera. Productions like The Fate of Narcissus ensured that the initiative was a resounding success. The theatre going public welcomed the change and Sadler’s Wells began to attract bigger stars and larger audiences.

 In 1765, flushed by his success, Rosoman made his boldest move yet. He engaged builders to rip down the old wooden theatre, piece by piece. In its place, Rosoman commissioned a larger theatre, fashioned completely out of stone. The new building cost £4425. A huge sum for the day.

Rosoman’s impact on the theatre is commemorated in the name of a small road which runs behind the modern theatre. Rosoman Street is a small acknowledgement of the theatre manager’s contribution to English theatre.

Charles Dibdin

A shareholder and manager at Sadler’s Wells, Dibdin was eager that the theatre explore new ideas. He is best remembered for perhaps his boldest scheme of all. In 1804, drawing on a ready supply of water from the nearby New River, Dibdin replaced the main stage at Sadler’s Wells with an aquatic stage, centred on a massive tank of water!

The tank allowed the theatre to explore the then popular medium of “aqua drama”. The now antiquated genre saw theatre companies recreate some of the most famous naval battles in history in hastily converted performance spaces.

The genre was popular in the 19th century in England, France and the United States however the experiment at Sadler’s Wells was fraught with difficulties. These included the problem of audience members climbing over the balcony and jumping into the water!

Sam Phelps and the breaking of the Theatre Monopoly

The passing of the Theatres Act in 1843 brought to an end the monopoly which had restricted the production of drama in England to the Theatre’s Royal.

Sadler’s Wells, under manager Sam Phelps, responded with an ambitious programme of works, which included several productions of Shakespeare plays. In the space of ten years, the theatre produced highly regarded performances of Macbeth (1844), Antony and Cleopatra (1849) and Pericles (1854). 

Roller Skating Days

By the end of the 1860s, with the era of the aquatic drama coming to an end and Sadler’s Wells becoming increasingly unfashionable, the theatre went into a long period of decline.

To arrest the slump, plans were announced to turn the venue into a bath house. The plans didn’t come to fruition but the theatre did enjoy short stints as a roller skating rink and a prize fighting arena.

The 4th theatre – Music Hall Days/The Coming of Cinema

After a brief period of closure, the theatre reopened in 1879. This was the age of Music Hall and for a time the genre gave the theatre a new lease of life. Household stars like Marie Lloyd and Harry Chapman were just two of the stars to grace the theatre in the period.

In 1896, Sadler’s Wells was converted into a cinema. It was one of only three venues in London where Londoners could experience the new technology. However, the change could not halt the venue’s gradual decline and the Sadler’s Wells closed again in 1915.

Lilian Baylis

No guide to Sadler’s Wells would be complete without mentioning this lady.

Baylis was born into a musical family. Her mother Elizabeth had been a successful pianist, while her father Newton was a renowned Baritone. The family home in Marylebone was constantly full of music and hence there was never any doubt as to what Lilian would do when she grew up. As a young girl, she determined to master the violin. In order to achieve her ambition, she enlisted the help of distinguished violinist John Tiplady Carrodus. The lessons paid of and the young Londoner was soon proficient on the instrument.

The Baylis family moved to South Africa when Lilian was a teenager. The family group, the Gypsy Revellers, had been engaged for a nine month tour of the country, and the family moved to Africa to take up the opportunity.

The family enjoyed Africa and decided to remain in the country once the tour had ended. Lilian was soon back in London however, after falling ill and requiring specialise treatment for the condition.

Once back in the capital, Lilian took up a position at the Old Vic. Her aunt Emma Cons had founded the theatre in 1880 and Lilian joined the organisation to provide clerical support. Discovering that she had a natural aptitude for the work, Lilian quickly rose in the organisation, soon becoming acting manager. When Cons passed away in 1912, Baylis took over the management of the theatre.

Her tenure proved one of great success for the theatre, with Baylis building on the work of her aunt in bringing affordable theatre to the masses.

The 5th Theatre

By 1925, Baylis was searching for a venue for her productions north of the river. In order to achieve this, Baylis began a campaign to reopen the then derelict Sadler’s Wells. With the help of the Duke of Devonshire, a public appeal was begun, and within a relatively short period of time, enough money had been amassed to buy the freehold of the theatre.

The Fifth Sadler's Wells Theatre

In 1931, six years after the campaign had begun, the new Sadler’s Wells, with a building by architects Matcham & Co, had opened. The opening night saw a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with John Gieldgood and Ralph Richardson.

Alongside the drama and opera departments, the new theatre also included a repertory ballet company, with the distinguished ballet teacher Ninette de Valois heading up the new group.

Under Baylis, Sadler’s Wells underwent a great renaissance which saw many of the greatest names in dance perform at the theatre. This included Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin.  

The theatre’s drama company was also thriving. Under the artistic director Tyrone Guthrie, Sadler’s Wells hosted performances by such luminaries as Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike and Michael Redgrave.

In 1924, in acknowledgement of her colossal contribution to the Arts in Britain, Baylis was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford University. It was just recognition for her towering achievements. Baylis died thirteen years later, at the age of 63. In 1994, Sadler’s Wells opened The Lilian Baylis Studio in honour of one of their greatest patrons.

The 6th Theatre

An interior at Sadler's Wells

Guide to Sadler’s Wells – seating

The main auditorium has three blocks of seating – Stalls, First and Second Circle. Views of the stage are generally in the stalls and First Circle but views from the Second Circle seem a bit distant.

The back rows of the stalls (rows N-S) are partially obstructed by the overhang from the First Circle. Rows L-M in the First Circle have the same problem with the overhang from the Second Circle.

The Peacock Theatre

When Sadler’s Wells initiative work to build its new theatre in 1996, the company moved to the Peacock Theatre. The theatre is owned by the London School of Economics, but the venue is shared by both the university and the theatre company.

Once work was completed on the new Sadler’s Wells in 1998, the company moved back to Islington but the decision was taken to keep using the Peacock for dance performances. The Rat Pack played at the theatre in 2002, and Doldrum Bay premièred there. The London School of Economics use the theatre during the day while Sadler’s Wells the space during the evening.  evening dance

Swan Lake

We couldn’t write a guide to Sadler’s Wells without mentioning Swan Lake, either! Sadler’s Wells has played host to countless incredible performances over its three hundred year history, however, one of the most influential was Sir Matthew Bourne’s dazzling reinterpretation of Swan Lake. The production, which had its premiere at the theatre in 1995, featured an all male cast. This caused much controversy at the time as the ballet had up until that point been traditionally danced by young female ballerinas. However, the show proved a great success, going on to become the longest running ballet in the West End.

Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to Sadler’s Wells theatre. To finish, we thought that we’d leave you with a taste of the theatre’s forthcoming events.

Spring Season 2020

For more infomation on the theatre, please click here.

If you’d like information on theatre events in London, please click here.


-London's Best Theatres-
What: historic arts venue
Notable for: where do we begin?
Where: Islington
Website: Sadler's Wells