Prescot is a small town in West Lancashire. It seems rather poverty-stricken and certainly is not a tourist destination, much less a place that those who are interested in the Tudor theatre might think worth visiting. In fact, many people have probably never even heard of it. However, Prescot holds a secret. In the 1593, a purpose built playhouse opened here – the first outside London.
Prescot was a poor place even then. Less than ten years earlier in 1586, the vicar of the town, Thomas Meade, had written: Ther is in this poore towne of Prescote one hundred and five severall families, amongst which there be scarce xx (20) that be able to help themselves without begging. So, at first, it seems puzzling that Richard Harrington chose to build a theatre here, on the south-west corner of the Town Moss.
Harrington was the tenant of Prescot Hall. He was the brother of Perceval Harrington who was a steward to the Earls of Derby and it is this connection that begins to make sense of his venture. The Derby family of Knowsley Hall, just four miles from the town, were patrons of The Playhouse. They were a wealthy family, descended from Thomas Stanley, the stepfather of Henry VII. Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby, like other Tudors lords, kept his own company of players, Derby’s Men, who often entertained at Knowsley Hall as well as performing in London and at court for Queen Elizabeth I. His son, Ferdinando Stanley was also a patron of the theatre and had his own
players, Lord Strange’s Men, the troupe with which William Shakespeare had a close association. Other players also visited the Derby houses in Lancashire and the Derby Household Book records performances by Leicester’s Men (July 1587), Sir Thomas Hesketh’s Players (December 1587), the Queen’s Men (October 1588, July and September 1589, and June and September 1590).
It was perhaps around this time that the idea for a purpose built playhouse, rather than performing in the halls of the Derby houses at Knowsley, Lathom and New Park took hold. It may have been Ferdinando Stanley who was driving force behind the building of The Playhouse. Plague in London meant that his Men were given a travelling licence in 1593 and they may have been the first players to perform at Prescot. This was the same year that the 4th earl died and Ferdinando became the 5th Earl of Derby, and also the same year that Catholics abroad offered him support to usurp the throne of England. However, Ferdinando died in mysterious circumstances soon after, and it may have been his brother William, the 6th earl and a playwright himself, who saw the completion of the theatre. The players who had been Lord Strange’s Men became the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the Lord Chamberlain was the husband of Ferdinando’s sister) and this company included William Shakespeare.
The site of The Playhouse is now occupied by a brick built building known as the Flatiron. Apart from the site of the theatre, nothing is known of its construction although it may have resembled The Globe in London.
In 2007, the Shakespeare North Trust organised a campaign for the building of a new Playhouse at Prescot. An application for National Lottery funding was unsuccessful at that time, but plans are ongoing for the development of a theatre built to the same design as The Cockpit in Whitehall (the site which is now occupied by numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street), designed by Inigo Jones in 1629 for the Court of King James I. If the plans go ahead, it will be the only replica of this indoor Jacobean theatre in the world and will complete the triangle of places associated with William Shakespeare – Stratford, London and Lancashire.
You can read more about William Shakespeare’s links with Lancashire in my novel