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Licensing Act 1737

Licensing Act 1737
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to explain and amend so much of an Act made in the Twelfth Year of the Reign of Queen Anne, intituled, "An Act for reducing the Laws relating to Rogues, Vagabonds, sturdy Beggars, and Vagrants, into One Act of Parliament; and for the more effectual punishing such Rogues, Vagabonds, sturdy Beggars, and Vagrants, and sending them whither they ought to be sent," as relates to common Players of Interludes.
Citation10 Geo. 2. c. 28
Royal assent21 June 1737
Other legislation
AmendsVagrants Act 1713
Repealed byTheatres Act 1843
Status: Repealed
Text of statute as originally enacted
First page of the Licensing Act of 1737, which established the office of Examiner of Plays

The Licensing Act 1737 (10 Geo. 2. c. 28) is a former Act of Parliament in the Kingdom of Great Britain, and a pivotal moment in British theatrical history. Its purpose was to control and censor what was being said about the British government through theatre. The act was repealed by the Theatres Act 1843, which was itself replaced by the Theatres Act 1968. The Lord Chamberlain was the official censor and the office of Examiner of Plays was created under the Act. The Examiner assisted the Lord Chamberlain in the task of censoring all plays from 1737 to 1968. The Examiner read all plays which were to be publicly performed, produced a synopsis and recommended them for licence, consulting the Lord Chamberlain in cases of doubt. The act also created a legal distinction between categories of "legitimate theatre" and "illegitimate theatre".


The function of censorship of plays for performance (at least in London) fell to the Master of the Revels by the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The power was used mostly with respect to matters of politics and religion (including blasphemy). It was certainly exercised by Edmund Tylney, who was Master from 1579 to 1610. Tylney and his successor, George Buck, also exercised the power to censor plays for publication.[1][2] The Master of the Revels, who normally reported to the Lord Chamberlain, continued to perform the function until, with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, stage plays were prohibited.[3] Stage plays did not return to England until the Restoration in 1660.[4] During the creation of the Licensing of 1737, Robert Walpole was the standing Master of the Revels[5]: 4 

Purpose of the Act

Laws regulating theatre in the early 18th century were not strictly enforced.[5]: 13–22  People had free rein to say anything they wanted through theatre, including all their troubles with the government.[5]: 3–5  Free speech in theatre was seen as a threat to the government, facilitating the spread of revolutionary ideas.[5]: xi  The act enhanced government control and censorship.[5]: 4–5 

Examiner of Plays

In addition to reading plays and writing Reader's Reports for the Lord Chamberlain the Examiners were expected to visit theatres to ensure their safety and comfort and to see that the Lord Chamberlain's rules were carried out with regard to the licences. They were also required to appear at subpoenas in law cases relating to licensing, and to examine Play Bills.[6] From 1911 Examiners were required to write reports on plays for the Lord Chamberlain.[7] A copy of the play script and Reader's Report were held by the Lord Chamberlain's office and are now held by the British Library in the Lord Chamberlain's Plays collection.

In the years 1922–1938 when The Earl of Cromer was the Lord Chamberlain nearly 13,000 plays were licensed, an average of 820 a year; under 200 plays were refused a licence, an average of 12 per year.[6]

There were 21 Examiners of Plays between 1738 and 1968.[6][8]

Date Examiner Notes
1738–1778 Chetwynd, William
1738–1749 Odell, Thomas Deputy Examiner
1749–1781 Capell, Edward Deputy Examiner
1778–1824 Larpent, John Assisted by his wife Anna Larpent
1824–1836 Colman, George Known as 'Colman the Younger'
1836–1840 Kemble, Charles
1840–1857 Kemble, John
1857–1874 Donne, William Bodham
1874–1895 Pigott, Edward Frederick Smyth
1895–1911 Redford, George A.
1911–1913 Brookfield, Charles Joint examiner with Redford for one month in 1911
1913–1920 Bendall, Ernest Alfred Joint Examiner 1914-1920
1914–1936 Street, George Joint Examiner 1914-1920

Senior (Sole) Examiner 1920-1930

Joint Examiner 1930–1936

1930–1953 Game, Henry Joint Examiner 1930-1936

Senior Examiner 1936-1953

1931–1968 Jones, Rev. Albert Evans Welsh Reader
1936–1958 Dearmer, Geoffrey Examiner 1936-1953

Senior Examiner 1953-1958

1937–1968 Heriot, Charles Examiner 1937-1958

Senior Examiner 1947-1968

1952–1963 Troubridge, Lt-Col. Sir St Vincent Assistant Examiner 1952-1963
1958–1965 Coles, Maurice Assistant Examiner
1964–1968 Kyrle Fletcher, Ifan Assistant Examiner
1965–1968 Harward, Timothy Assistant Examiner

The Examiners had a variety of qualifications and experience for the position. Edward Pigott (1824–1895) was a journalist on the Daily News and had an extensive knowledge of European literature and languages.[9] George Redford (d. 1916), a playwright, resigned his post in 1913 to become the first president of the British Board of Film Censors.[6][10] Ernest Bendall (1846–1924) had been a clerk in the Paymaster-General's Office for 30 years retiring in 1896 to become a journalist and drama critic for several London newspapers.[6][11][12][13] Charles Brookfield was an actor, playwright and journalist.[14] George Street was an essayist, novelist and playwright.[15][16] Henry Game (d. 1966) trained as an artist, was an amateur actor and was known for his knowledge of the theatre.[17] Charles Heriot (d. 1972) was an actor and producer.[6][18] Sir St Vincent Troubridge (1895–1963) was in the military as well as being a theatre historian.[19][20] Ifan Kyrle Fletcher (d. 1969) was a theatre historian and antiquarian bookseller.[21] Timothy Harward studied theatre and literature at university, becoming a theatre journalist for the Irish Times and lecturer at Regent Street Polytechnic.[6]

See also


  1. ^ "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/3821. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Buck was granted "a portion of the powers previously vested" in the Church Court of High Commission, to license plays for publication. Dutton, p. 149.
  3. ^ "September 1642: Order for Stage-plays to cease", British History Online, accessed 6 November 2014
  4. ^ Baker, p. 85
  5. ^ a b c d e Liesenfeld, Vincent J. (1984). The Licensing Act of 1737. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-09810-0.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Johnston, John (1990). The Lord Chamberlain's blue pencil. London: Hodder & Stoughton. pp. 46–57, 119–125, 265–266. ISBN 978-0340525296. OCLC 59148445.
  7. ^ Dominic, Shellard; Nicholson, Steve; Handley, Miriam (2004). The Lord Chamberlain regrets-- : a history of British theatre censorship. London: British Library. p. 25. ISBN 978-0712348652. OCLC 57430574.
  8. ^ Bucholz, R.O. (2006). "'Chamber Administration: Examiner and Deputy Examiner of Plays, 1738-1837', in Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 11 (Revised), Court Officers, 1660-1837". British History Online. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  9. ^ "Death of Mr. E.F.S. Pigott". The Era. 2 March 1895. p. 9.
  10. ^ "Death of Mr. G.A. Redford". The Era. 15 November 1916. p. 15.
  11. ^ "Joint Examiner of Plays". The Sphere. 19 July 1924. p. 17.
  12. ^ "Mr. E.A. Bendall". The Times (London). 15 July 1924. p. 16.
  13. ^ "Obituary". Sheffield Daily Telegraph. 15 July 1924. p. 10.
  14. ^ "Mr Charles Brookfield". The Times (London). 21 October 1913. p. 11.
  15. ^ "Mr George Street". The Times (London). 2 November 1936. p. 19.
  16. ^ "Cues and comments". The Stage. 5 November 1936. p. 9.
  17. ^ Dearmer, Geoffrey (9 June 1966). "Mr Henry Game". The Times (London). p. 16.
  18. ^ "Mr Charles David Heriot". The Times (London). 22 November 1972. p. 18.
  19. ^ "Sir St. Vincent Troubridge". The Times (London). 18 December 1963. p. 12.
  20. ^ Marriott, R.B. (27 June 1968). "For the benefit of the player". The Stage: 8.
  21. ^ "Mr I.K. Fletcher". The Times (London). 3 January 1969. p. 8.

Further reading

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Licensing Act 1737
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