John Edmund Noakes and The Royalty Theatre

During the 1800s, a portable theatre was the only place people in a town could see drama, comedy, farce and Shakespeare. In the late 1800s, Llanelly was one of these places. These travelling portable theatres catered for the poorer class of people who could not get to the big theatres in the city. The portables had pre-planned circuits, but it was not an easy life for them to move from place to place, mostly due to the poor road conditions. These travelling theatres were made of wood, canvas and tent poles, so in those days the theatre had to be dismantled, which could take up to a day to complete, then moved by horse drawn wagons, hand carts or even on foot. They had a proprietor who took charge of all things theatre, performance, directing the building and dismantling of the wooden theatre, hiring and firing, and sometimes painting the scenery and acting. John Edmund Noakes, was in charge of his portable theatre company that travelled around Britain especially Wales. John was a comedian with the Jennings Company, who travelled around Wales. When Jennings went back to England, John took over their circuit, which included Pontypool, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Llanelli and many other towns. Around the 1890s, John set up his wooden theatre called The Star Theatre at 'Fairfield’s' in Llanelly, now the present day site of the council's office, Ty Elwyn. John appeared to like Llanelly and the people, so after a while, he decided to purchase the old Falcon House site on the corner of Water Street and Market Street where he built the permanent building The Royalty Theatre. The site is now occupied by the Tinopolis television studio.

The following are press cuttings, recording these events:

We learn on excellent authority that Mr J. E. Noakes, proprietor of the portable theatre that visits this place yearly has acquired a prominent site in the centre of town for the erection of a hall which is to furnish accommodation for about 1500 people. If Mr Noakes will build this hall, the inhabitants of Llanelly and district will feel indebted for his enterprise. [a]

Mr J. E. Noakes, a popular Welsh comedian, has purchased the premises known as the Falcon House Llanelly, and will convert them into a theatre and public hall to accommodate over a thousand people. The theatre will be opened next spring

The plan of the imposing commodious theatre is now being completed for Mr J. E. Noakes. The popular comedian came before the local licensing committee of the County Council on Thursday 16th inst. Mr Griffiths said he had examined the Royalty and found it to be well and strongly built... Mr D Evans proposed the licence be granted. [b]

Johnny Noakes’s portable theatre was well known throughout South Wales, but his main stands were at Carmarthen, Llanelly and Neath. At Christmas 1883 he presented a pantomime at the Star Theatre opposite the station at Neath. All residents of the cottage homes, the workhouse and reformatory were to be admitted for free. [c]

Quite recently, it was established beyond doubt that, SOSPAN FACH, Llanelly’s now famous war-song, and a ditty, which is invariably sung at sporting events in the Principality where Welshmen gathered together, was sung for the first time at Johnny Noakes Theatre. This is the true story as it came from a Llanelly women, who does not want to be named. “Over 40 years ago, she said, a man named Mr Noakes owned a wooden theatre in the vicinity of the site now occupied by Llanelly Town Hall, where theatrical companies performed. One day Noakes entered the York Hotel close at hand and talked with Mr Owen Rees of Lakeland road, who carried on a drapery business in London”. “I knew them both well, and as Mr Rees composed verses, Mr Noakes asked him in my presence, “Can’t you write something catchy as a popular number for a pantomime, to be produced at my theatre?” Mr Rees while still at the Hotel, wrote the first verse Sospan Fach, and it was sung for the first time in the pantomime at the Noakes theatre in Llanelly, therefore welsh history owes it to Mr Noakes’s travelling theatre. [d]

When Johnny Noakes died in New Mills, Derbyshire, in 1910, many good tributes where paid to Mr Noakes. (The ERA*, noted John as a Welshman, even though he was born in Boston, Lincolnshire.)

An old time welsh comedian has passed away in the person of Mr John. E. Noakes, who succumbed to a long illness at New Mills Derbyshire at the age of seventy. Johnny Noakes as he was familiarly called, was some thirty years a shining light in the land of the leek, and at Llanelly he was responsible for the erection of the Royalty Theatre. He and his family were held in the highest respect wherever they went. [e]

Mr J. E. Noakes Old-Time Carmarthen Comedian

Old-time South Wales theatre-goers will learn with regret of the death of Mr John E. Noakes, the well known Welsh comedian, who succumbed to a long illness at New Mills, Derbyshire, at the age of 70 years. “Johnny Noakes,” as he was more familiarly called, was some 30 years a shining light in the local theatrical world, and at Llanelly he was responsible for the erection of the Royalty theatre.

Mr Noakes toured towns in South Wales and Monmouthshire with a portable theatre, staying as long as six months in one place at time. He was a versatile and clever comedian, and was want to appear nightly in different characters.

Quite of the “old school” of actors, he was a man of great energy, and it is beyond question that he would have made his mark in any first class theatre, but he preferred to travel with his own stock company, which was invariably a combination of actors and actresses, and he and his family were held in the highest respect wherever they went.

Carmarthen was a favourite town visited by Mr Noakes, and he always made a long stay at Carmarthen, being exceedingly well patronised nightly. Several of Mr Noakes's family married Carmarthen people, and in this way his connection with the old town is of more than an ordinary interest. [f]

Glowing tribute to a travelling Mummer Noakes was one of the old schools of travelling mummers, his portable theatre was held in the most affectionate regard by the toilers in the out of the way places of Wales, and other parts of the United Kingdom. It is pleasant to have such excellent testimony to a gentle showman’s memory.

There are various ways of achieving fame, Johnny Noakes was not born great, nor was his greatness thrust upon him, but his fame was of a character which has earned for him a place in the minds and affections of perhaps even more people than to the hearts of whom greater men have found their way. He was merely an actor, 'a barnstormer', or as an old unrepeated statute would have it, a vagabond!', but he will nevertheless, be kindly remembered by thousands of people, the winter of those discontent, he on many occasions turned to glorious summer. Not only South Wales but in other parts of the country, in towns where properly appointed theatres were not in existence and where they were, his portable play-house was welcomed with enthusiasm which today seems hard to understand. [g]

John Edmund Noakes died on the 17th March 1910, and was laid to rest in an unmarked pauper’s grave in St George’s Church In Newmills, Derbyshire. A single memorial stone marks the pauper’s graves area, along with a name plaque inside the church, “bringing a note of dignity to all those buried there”. [h]

Notes and Citations

[a] Unknown newspaper cutting 1891
[b] The ERA*, Llanelly 22nd of August 1891
[c] The Western Mail, 21st of December 1883
[d] Llanelly Guardian 24th December 1934 & Press cutting from family records.
[e] The ERA, 23rd April 1910
[f] The Carmarthen Weekly Reporter 22nd April 1910
[g] The South Wales Weekly Argus, Circa 1910
[h] Information supplied by the Reverend Friar John Baines, Vicar of New Mills, Assistant Diocesan Director of Vocations.

* The ERA (1838 to 1939) was a British newspaper that covered theatrical and sporting events.

Sincere gratitude goes to the Reverend Friar John Baines, Vicar of New Mills, Derbyshire, for all his time, and assistance in supplying the information on the last resting place of Johnny Noakes.