24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down

Celebrated playwright Richard Sheridan was sitting at a table in Covent Garden quaffing port, when a friend came running up and asked what on earth he thought he was doing.

“A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside”, quipped Shreidan. For a stone’s throw away on Catherine Street, his Drury Lane theatre was in flames – and with it, all Sheridan’s hopes of ever paying off his debts.

But it wasn’t just the money – the theatre represented the playwright’s illustrious career. It was where, as a young man in 1775, he had had his first taste of fame, with the success of his first play, The Rivals.

The following year, Sheridan and two friends negotiated to buy out David Garrick’s half in the theatre. The famous actor agreed a sale price of £35,000 – a huge sum. But Sheridan was only able to stump up £1,300 in cash for his share. The rest he had to borrow. Two years later, the trio bought Drury Lane outright for another £35,000.

And of course, moving in fashionable circles hardly comes cheap. Sheridan continued to take on debt. It was time, he thought, to enter politics.

In 1780, Sheridan became the MP for Stafford. He followed the usual campaign protocol of buying the necessary votes at five guineas each. By law, that gave him protection from his creditors – a privilege he enjoyed for 32 years.

Meanwhile, the theatre, which had been designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built in 1674, was showing its age. Sheridan had the building demolished and rebuilt from scratch. It reopened in 1794, but it would only stand for 15 years until that fateful day in 1809 when it burned down. And with the theatre went Sheridan’s principle source of income.

Things got even worse when, three years later, Sheridan lost his parliamentary seat. Thanks to the fire, he couldn’t afford to buy another one, and he was now at the mercy of his creditors. They hounded him until his death in 1816.