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The Norwich Company of Comedians

Posted on: 20th April, 2019

The 200 For 200 Sponsored Walk involves a route drawn out by two of our main walkers, Tony and Dawn. It follows the historic route of the Norwich Company of Comedians of which William Wilkins (Theatre Royal’s architect) was a proprietor. Want to know more about the Comedians? Here’s some fun information from our Heritage Officer Clare who has been looking deep into the history of the theatre, it’s owners, patrons and performers.


The first reference to the group of actors who were to form the main part of the Norwich circuit appeared in 1726. For a decade, they went by the name of ‘The Duke of Grafton’s Servants’; a patron of the company in early 18th century.

Bury St Edmunds had been a regular stop on the East Anglian circuit of the Norwich Company of Comedians more than a century before Theatre Royal was built in 1819. There’s a quote from James Winston in 1805 that illustrates the typical route:

The year is made out thus: first, Yarmouth, then Ipswich, [for the races] a distance of fifty-three miles; forty-three more to Norwich (for the Assizes); back to Yarmouth, twenty-two; then to Stirbitch [sic Stourbridge Fair in Cambridge], eighty-six; to Bury, twenty-eight; Colchester, twenty-two; to Ipswich again [for Christmas], eighteen; to Norwich, forty-three; Lynn, forty-four; back again to Norwich, forty-four; and again to Yarmouth, twenty-two; making in the whole a very pretty twelvemonth tour’.

There were other circuits in the country (centred around Bath, Bristol, Lincoln, Nottingham, York and Edinburgh), but the Norwich circuit was considered one of the better ones outside London. Before many towns had their own playhouses, performances were often put on in makeshift tents, booths or barns. In 1733 there was mention of the Norwich Company of Comedians performing ‘at the playhouse in Risbygate Street’ (which was probably a galleried Inn). After a fire in 1608 destroyed many of the most important buildings in Bury, it was decided to rebuild the Market Hall (a timber framed building) – and in 1734 the Corporation decided to make the upper floor of the building into a playhouse. Ten years later the Corporation asked Robert Adam to remodel the building – his design included carvings of comedy and tragedy masks and musical instruments and still stands on the Cornhill today (now Betfair).

James Smith was the manager of the Norwich Circuit theatres for the Wilkins family from 1814-1839, acting in many of the productions. The Wilkins family had owned shares in the Norwich Circuit of Theatre since 1768 and his father (William Wilkins senior) took overall control of all the theatres on the circuit around 1799 (I might have to check that).

The company travelled from theatre to theatre in a convoy of vehicles carrying scenery, costumes, props, crew and musicians and tried to time their visits to coincide with events in the towns – for example the races in Ipswich or the annual fair in Bury St Edmunds which was centred around Angel Hill and took place in late September (and could last for several weeks – depending on the weather).

The company had a number of set roles including:

First Tragedian

First Light Comedian

Heavy Man (ie villain)

Second Heavy Man

First Low Comedian

Second Low Comedian

First Old Man

Second Old Man

Walking Gentleman


First Tragedy Lady

First Comedy Lady

First Singing Lady

Second Singing Lady

Old Woman

Call Man

First Carpenter

Second Carpenter


The Norwich Company of Comedians was dissolved in 1843.


If you would like to sponsor Tony, Dawn, Margaret and the other walkers as they follow the path of the Comedians, head on over to the JustGiving Page!

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