T WAS a grand night in the throbbing port and the dung from many horses steamed in the chilled air as the carriages of the toffs rolled over the cobbles, past the alleys where the cutpurses stared like rats, awaiting their moment.
The gentlemen checked their fob-watches in the gaslight, for this was a night to be on time.
The good-time gals slipped on their garters. Spivs looped their thumbs around their braces.
And all the talk was of the splendid entertainment to come in the brand new musical hall, which was the envy of the country.
Poorer people, too, were there, stepping out in gaudy imitation of "the quality", with feathers and toppers and brocade waistcoats, all affecting hoity-toity accents. Gathered outside were the barrow boys and flower girls along with the dancers, fire-eaters, match-sellers and acrobats and other buskers, hoping to earn a few coppers.
In the hurry to enter the auditorium, the crowds probably didn't notice the exquisite pattern laid by Italian masters of mosaic in the floor between the two ticket kiosks .
It's still there as a reminder of that night 140 years ago when the New Star Music Hall, now the Liverpool Playhouse, was opened in Williamson Square.
"What a night it would have been," says Steve Binns, MBE, Liverpool's community historian, who specialises in the Victorian age. "It was Boxing Night (St Stephen's Day), a real time of high excitement. There would have been a hubbub of activity out there with conjurers and people selling everything - oranges, ginger beer, chestnuts. You can imagine braziers burning for the chestnuts and the smell."
At 7pm sharp the curtain rose behind the proscenium arch revealing a large stage, where Madame Tonnelier, a prima donna from Italian opera, opened the proceedings with a rousing version of the National Anthem, lustily supported by a choir, led by the tenor, Mr J Busfield.
In fact, there was to be a strong Italian theme to the proceedings with a medley from Vincenzo Bellini's opera, Norma, sung by Madame Tonnelier and a Mrs D Saunders. The orchestra's pianist and musical director was Signor G Operti, formerly pianist to King Victor Emmanuel of Italy.
This could have reflected the bonds with Italy emphasised by the large numbers of Roman Catholics in Liverpool. Musicians, skilled craftsmen and precision engineers from Italy were regular visitors.
The admission charges tell us that the class system was well established in Liverpool in the early Victorian age. A reserved seat in the balcony was one shilling and six old pence (7½p), a seat on the balcony was one shilling (5p) while one in the main hall was sixpence (2½p).
The semi-circular auditorium held 2,000 people and was 90ft long (27 metres), 64ft (19 metres) wide and 60ft (18metres) high.
Although there were rows of seats in the stalls, the greater part of the space downstairs was filled with tables and chairs in partitioned areas, served by waiters. The more expensive chairs were covered in red leather and the tables and partitions were made from polished mahogany.
It was a sumptuous setting. Mirrors and glasswork highlighted the paintings on the wall reaching to the elaborately decorated ceiling and the most advanced gas lamps illuminated the whole scene, as people thronged around the two large bars selling a wide variety of wines, spirits and delicacies.
The building had been designed by Edward Davies, a distinguished Liverpool architect and built by Haigh and Company in just five months at a cost of £22,000. The glorious front is much the same today as it was on December 26, 1866, when the master of ceremonies (or chairman) with the waxed moustache raised his gavel to announce the first acts at the New Star Music Hall.
Liverpool was then the fastest growing port in Britain, having prospered greatly from trans-Atlantic trade. The population had increased from 286,000 in 1841 to 462,000 in 1861.
It would not be made a city until 1880, but there was great ambition in the merchant class and this spread to the arts and popular entertainments and other fields of endeavour.
The town was on the up and this was also reflected in the health and housing of the people, which had been gradually improving since the 1840s when thousands of Irish people came here to escape the potato famine, many of them carrying diseases.
Significant breakthroughs had been made with the appointment in 1847 of Dr William Duncan as Britain's first medical officer of health, the year after Kitty and Thomas Wilkinson, who had introduced wash-houses as a means of combating disease, were made superintendents of the public baths in Upper Frederick Street.
Certainly, the highfalutin' tone of the bill to open the theatre was in sharp contrast to the bawdy tradition of entertainment in the town. In the original design of Liverpool, granted its Royal Charter by King John in 1207, there was Juggler Street (later High Street) along with Water Street, Dale Street, Castle Street, Chapel Street and Tithebarn Street.
Strolling players had been a regular feature in the port since the Norman invasion, but were regarded as little more than rogues and vagabonds unless they were attached to a noble household. Some were even sent to places of correction, where they could be whipped or branded with an R (for rogue) on the left shoulder.
However, in his fine history of The Liverpool Stage (1996), Harold Ackroyd noted that the status of entertainers improved in 1571 when the burgesses agreed to license the troupes of minstrels, actors and clowns, the variety bill of the age. A condition of this acceptance, however, was that their acts should not give offence to the monarch or mayor. The authorities were as sensitive to the mockery of the masses then as they are now.
Innkeepers realised that entertainers would pull in more trade. Halls were set aside for singers, musicians, poets, jesters and so on. In the smaller establishments such "turns" would perform on a stage in the dining and drinking rooms. It was the start of music hall.
But legislation, originally intended to prevent itinerant evangelists preaching within five miles of established churches, had been used to prevent unlicensed theatres trading in the same area. Its relaxation in 1843 led to the opening of dozens of new venues across Merseyside.
In the early 1800s one of the most popular venues in Liverpool was the Star in Williamson Square, where the proprietor Jem Ward held "harmonic evenings". Under a later owner, these became free because the business was so good from the sale of steaks, chops and wine.
More and more people were drawn to the nights at this and other venues.
Songs were adaptations of the old minstrel numbers like All Around My Hat and Polly Perkins of Paddington Green. Songs by Stephen Foster, such as the Camptown Races and The Old Folks at Home, crossed the Atlantic, gaining a bigger following as Liverpool became a staunch follower of the Confederacy in the American Civil War.
But the enormous hit in 1866 was Champagne Charlie, co-written by Albert Lee and George Leybourne, the biggest star of the day who would dress as a toff to perform the song.
In 1866, the Star, then owned by Emmanuel Braham, was taken over by David Lazarus, who closed it on July 2 to build the New Star Music Hall.
The first night might have seemed rather high-brow, but it soon settled into music and comedy, becoming one the country's top venues.
In 1872, Lazarus left the theatre and its was taken over by Isaac Fineberg, his son Harris and Noah Lees.
In 1895, the theatre was sold to the Liverpool Palace of Varieties with Harris Fineberg continuing as manager. After extensive modernisation, it flourished under the new name of the Star Theatre of Varieties, reopening 110 years ago with a vaudeville company of 13 acts, but it was later to change its bills to "blood and thunder" melodramas.
In 1911, Fineberg sold it to Liverpool Repertory Company, which became the Liverpool Playhouse nine years later, being for many years most distinguished repertory theatre in the country.
It remains a haven for serious drama, resisting the descent into celebrity "culture".
A theatre changing through the decades
ROBERT LONGTHORNE has been with the Playhouse since 1978, being its building development director for the past three years.
"The outside of the building you can see today is pretty much the same as in 1866," he says.. "There have been some minor changes over the years, but basically this is what they built. The building changed hands a couple of times and inside and on one occasion they did a major rebuild internally, creating the three levels which we have today.
In 1911, the repertory company removed the old beer cellars under the auditorium and created what is now the stalls bar area, so that patrons had a better entrance into the auditorium. The interior was redesigned."
Standing between the ticket kiosks in the old entrance, Robert admires the mosaic floor. "It is a beautiful mosaic," he says.. "I particularly like the colouring with the quite vivid blue in the under-star which is repeated on the border. The star is the symbol of the original music hall.
"The theatre holds 700 now, but it would have held many more in those early days."
The Playhouse is the oldest repertory theatre in England. Robert Donat, Michael Redgrave, John Thaw, Sheila Hancock and Anthony Hopkins are among those to have performed there, as well as Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as child actors early last century.
Writers there have included Alan Bleasdale, Chris Bond, Bill Morrison and Willy Russell, whose acclaimed Blood Brothers began there.