Theatres Lost and Saved

This exhibit tells the story of the changing fortunes of Britain's theatres over the last 100 years, and the role Theatres Trust has played in protecting theatres for everyone

Palace, East Ham (c. 1917)Theatres Trust


The nineteenth century saw a boom in theatre building that was fuelled by unprecedented urbanisation and economic prosperity. Unlike the smaller, less ostentatious venues that had come before them, theatres of the Victorian and Edwardian era could often seat thousands of spectators and sported lavish décor. But by the 1950s theatre attendance was in decline, as audiences transferred their affections to film and television. In the following decades many long-standing theatres were demolished to make room for modern developments. The destruction continued, despite growing public opposition, until an Act of Parliament created the Theatres Trust in 1976. Over 800 theatres were lost between 1914 and 1976, but since then, the Trust has worked to protect theatre buildings and to champion the past, present and future of live theatre.

Oxford Music Hall, London (1912) by Hazell, Watson and Viney Ltd.Theatres Trust

Early losses

Theatres began disappearing long before the 1950s. In 1926 the Oxford Music Hall was demolished after serving London’s Oxford Street theatregoers for 65 years. It was originally opened by Charles Morton, who became known as the ‘Father of the Halls’ for his success in popularising music hall.

Oxford Music Hall, London (1904) by Wilkes & CoTheatres Trust

Oxford Music Hall

Like many theatres of the nineteenth century, the Oxford was twice destroyed by fire, but was re-built on each occasion to a high standard; a third internal renovation was carried out in 1893 for conversion to a variety theatre.

By the 1920s, following a run of unsuccessful productions, it was forced to close. The building was demolished and replaced by a Lyons Corner House, which is currently occupied by a clothing store.

Lyceum Theatre, Newport (c. 1906)Theatres Trust

Demolitions of the 1950s - 1970s

As the twentieth century progressed, so too did the rate of theatre demolitions. The widespread desire to modernise Britain led owners to seek out opportunities to rid themselves of struggling, antiquated buildings. The effects of fire, war, and an increased variety of leisure activities available to people all provided opportunities for developers to replace performance venues with more lucrative endeavours.

Theatres throughout the UK were lost.

Grand Theatre, Plymouth (c.1915)Theatres Trust

Grand Theatre, Plymouth

Plymouth Grand Theatre opened its doors on 26 December 1889 with a performance of Cinderella, or The Desperate Demon’s Direful Doings and Cupid’s Careful Cautious Cooings. This commenced with the line, ‘You little imps, what’s all this row and riot…? I’ll knock your heads off if you do not keep quiet’. The show proved so popular that demand outstripped supply and many hopeful spectators were turned away.

Although in its heyday the Grand attracted stars such as Henry Irving and Charlie Chaplin, it suffered from the competition of other theatres in the area, and was turned into a cinema shortly before the First World War. In 1941, bombing damage closed the theatre, and although plans were made to restore it to its former glory up until the 1950s, it was sold in 1963 and demolished to make room for a block of flats. Today, all that remains is the derelict adjacent public house that shared its name.

Theatre Royal, Leicester (1950)Theatres Trust

Theatre Royal, Leicester

In Leicester, the last two years of the 1950s saw two of its longstanding landmarks demolished. First to fall was the Grecian-inspired Theatre Royal, which opened in 1836 and maintained theatrical performances throughout its 120 year existence. The interiors featured gilt ornaments, festoons of flowers and exotic birds, and a grand brass chandelier. When closure was first threatened in 1956 an appeal was launched but to no avail: the last performance was staged on 1 June 1957, and the building was demolished the following January. A bank now stands where the theatre once was.

Palace, Leicester (early twentieth century)Theatres Trust

Palace, Leicester

Two years later came the destruction of the Palace Theatre, which was designed by Frank Matcham, Britain’s most prolific theatre architect. Built in 1901, the Palace was the largest regional theatre at the time and could hold 3,500 spectators. For years it hosted both variety acts and films, but by the 1950s the repertoire had shifted to singers, comedians and, eventually, striptease. In February 1959 it was announced that the theatre was to close, and within weeks it had been sold and demolished.

Frank Matcham (c. 1900)Theatres Trust

Frank Matcham

Frank Matcham (1854-1920) was the architect of more than 80 theatres - and worked on many more - during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period considered as the golden age of theatre building. He was responsible for many prominent theatres including the London Coliseum, London Hippodrome, Hackney Empire, Blackpool Grand, and the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Some of his theatres were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s, but around 50 that he designed or contributed to survive to this day, the majority now protected as listed buildings.

Chiswick Empire (c. 1915)Theatres Trust

Chiswick Empire

Designed by Frank Matcham in 1912 in the neo-classical style, the Chiswick Empire was an impressive building which sported a sliding roof that delighted audiences despite its tendency to rain dust upon spectators. Fire broke out within the first year of operation, but the building was quickly restored, and the Empire went on to survive two world wars.

Site of Chiswick Empire (1989) by Eric KriegerTheatres Trust

In 1959 the council sold the Empire building to developers, who demolished it and within weeks had built an office block in its place. A local paper recorded that ‘the Chiswick Empire died with dignity’, noting that after the last performance the ‘darkened theatre was deserted, alone with its memories’. Although sentimental, these lines indicate the high regard paid to the Empire by the local community.

Chatham Empire (c. 1913)Theatres Trust

Chatham Empire

Chatham’s Empire Theatre opened in 1912 and was one of Frank Matcham’s last works. Choosing to reflect Chatham’s status as a naval town, Matcham gave the theatre a nautical design which included a copper pinnacle in the shape of a ship atop a dome that crowned the 80 foot high façade.

Chatham Empire (c. 1920)Theatres Trust

The Empire operated primarily as a variety venue, but in the 1950s new owners chose to replace the stalls seating with tables and chairs for a 'European-style' cabaret. This proved unpopular with locals, and in March 1960 the decision was made to close the theatre. The Empire’s end came sooner than expected when unpaid electricity bills saw the power cut off two days early, and the sold-out final shows were never performed. Two years later the building was sold to developers, and the demolished Empire was replaced by a government office.

St James's Theatre, London (c. 1900) by EFATheatres Trust

High Profile Losses

Whilst theatres across the UK were being demolished at a startling rate, it was the destruction of two high-profile London venues that caught public attention and caused a national outcry. The twin losses of the St James’s Theatre and the Granville Theatre of Varieties raised grave concerns about the fate of theatrical buildings. Though fifteen years apart, together these cases laid the foundation for the creation of a Theatres Trust in 1976.

St James's Theatre, London (1911)Theatres Trust

St James's Theatre

When John Braham, a famed opera singer, first proposed the construction of a theatre on the site of an old hotel-turned-warehouse, he faced significant opposition from the owners of adjacent properties and competing West End theatres. Despite their petitions, the St James’s Theatre was built in just six weeks and opened in 1835 – although the exterior was not completed until the following summer. Various alterations to the building were made over the next 70 or so years. Initially slow to prosper, the theatre found success in the later nineteenth century and early 1900s, but was hit by considerable damage during the Second World War.

St James's Theatre, London (mid twentieth century)Theatres Trust

The decision in 1957 to demolish the St James's Theatre and develop the site was controversial from the start, but despite a national campaign led by Vivien Leigh that garnered support from the likes of Winston Churchill, the demolition went ahead, and the theatre was replaced with offices. It seemed that nothing could be done to save the theatre.

St James's Theatre, London (early twentieth century) by EFATheatres Trust

The following years saw the creation of a Council for Theatre Preservation in 1958 (under the patronage of the Society for Theatre Research), publications in 1959 by Richard Findlater and the Arts Council calling for better protection for theatre buildings, and in 1962 the formation of the Theatres Advisory Council, which monitored theatre buildings and did much to raise awareness of their plight. As the 1960s progressed, the country was beginning to realise that theatres required special protection.

The Granville, Walham Green (c. 1905)Theatres Trust

Granville Theatre of Varieties

The destruction of the Granville proved a turning point in the fight to preserve the nation’s theatres. Designed by Frank Matcham, the theatre opened in 1898 and was located in a cramped space on Fulham Broadway. Following the decline in popularity of variety after the Second World War, the theatre was converted to a television studio and from 1955-68 adverts, dramas and gameshows were filmed there.

Site of Granville Theatre of Varieties, Walham Green (1989)Theatres Trust

After standing empty for three years, the local council gave permission for the Granville to be demolished and replaced with a modern block. Protests from the Fulham History Society were ignored until the wrecking crew revealed the beautifully preserved blue and gold interiors to the world, prompting widespread disbelief that nothing could be done to halt what was now perceived as cultural vandalism. The Greater London Council immediately initiated a thorough examination of all surviving old theatres in London, and the Save London’s Theatres Campaign was launched.

Theatres Trust Act (1976) by Her Majesty's Stationery OfficeTheatres Trust

Formation of Theatres Trust

In 1976, following the outcry over the Granville Theatre’s demolition, the Theatres Trust Act was passed into law.

1959 Richard Findlater calls for the creation of a National Theatre Trust in a paper for the Fabian Society

1962 Theatres Advisory Council established

1971 Loss of Granville Theatre of Varieties leads to the establishment of the Save London’s Theatres Campaign

1975 David Crouch, MP for Canterbury, agrees to present a Private Members Bill

1976 Bill is backed by all parties and receives Royal Assent on 22 July

1978 Act extended to Scotland in the Theatres Trust (Scotland) Act

Dominion Theatre, London (1929) by Ernest CoffinTheatres Trust

Theatres saved

The newly-created Theatres Trust’s objective was to ‘promote the better protection of theatres for the benefit of the nation’; local authorities were now required to consult the Trust on planning applications ‘involving any land on which there is a theatre’, and still must do so today. In the forty years since the Trust was established, it has been involved in many cases of theatres at risk. It has advised on renovations, refurbishments and changes of use, and sought to protect theatres from neglect and demolition.

Fortune Theatre, London (c. 1980s) by Theatres TrustTheatres Trust

Fortune Theatre

An early success for Theatres Trust was London’s Fortune Theatre. This was the first completely new theatre built in the West End after the First World War. The work of Ernest Schaufelberg, it represented a radical departure from the Matcham school of design.

In 1982, plans were made to demolish the Fortune and replace it with office blocks and a smaller basement theatre, but local organisations joined forces with the Trust to oppose it and planning permission was refused. Susan Hill’s thriller The Woman in Black has played at the Fortune since 1989.

Dominion Theatre, London (1929) by Ernest CoffinTheatres Trust

Dominion Theatre

Today the Dominion Theatre is perhaps best known as the former home of Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You. However, in 1989, there was a real risk that one of the country's largest theatres could be lost forever.

The owners sought to develop the site of the theatre into a high class tourist hotel and offices, but Theatres Trust canvassed professional organisations and rallied its supporters to object to the planning application. Planning permission was refused and the building is now protected under Grade II listing.

King's Theatre, Southsea (c. 1910) by J. Welch and SonTheatres Trust

The King's Theatre, Southsea

The King’s Theatre was built in 1907, designed by Frank Matcham, and survived the heavy bombing of Portsmouth during the Second World War. But by the 1990s the theatre was in steady decline: as revenue and audience numbers fell, so too did the physical condition of the building. By 2000, with the end of the lease looming, many feared that the council would choose to demolish the theatre. Local supporters formed Action for Kings Theatre Restoration (AKTER) and, with the help of Theatres Trust, were successful in saving the theatre for the town. Since 2001 £2 million has been spent on restorations and the theatre is thriving once more.

Town Hall Theatre, Shanklin (c. 1930s)Theatres Trust

Shanklin Theatre, Isle of Wight

Built in 1934, this theatre replaced an Institute for local residents which had previously sat on the site.

In 2010, with the support of Theatres Trust and English Heritage, the theatre was granted Grade II listed status. This provided protection from demolition and Theatres Trust supported the Friends of Shanklin Theatre to take the venue over from the local council which was considering alternative uses for the site.

Mechanics' Institute, Swindon (2008) by Theatres TrustTheatres Trust

The Work Continues

Today, Theatres Trust uses its ‘Theatre Buildings at Risk Register’ to monitor and raise awareness of theatres at risk of demolition, insensitive development, change of use or neglect.

Mechanics' Institute, Swindon (c. 1900)Theatres Trust

Swindon Mechanics' Institute

One building that has been on the Trust’s Theatre Buildings at Risk register for a number of years is the Grade II* listed Mechanics’ Institute in Swindon. Today, groups may seek to reclaim at-risk public institutions by transforming them into community hubs, but the Swindon Mechanics’ Institute can boast that it has served the community since its construction in 1855.

Built in the Tudor Gothic style, the Institute was originally created for workers on the Great Western Railway and housed a theatre, market, library, and health clinic for the use of those who would otherwise have had little access to such services.

Today, the Mechanics' Institution Trust hopes to restore the building to include a theatre and cinema for the local community.

Map of Theatre Buildings at Risk (2016)Theatres Trust

Can you help?

In 2016, there are 36 theatres throughout the UK on the Theatres Trust’s Theatre Buildings at Risk Register. Theatres Trust works with many community groups, theatre owners and local authorities to help secure a future for these buildings. Please join our campaign to save them.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created as part of Theatres Trust's Open up! Archive Project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Project interns:
Danielle Boldero
Sharni Lockwood
Francesca Mackenzie
Hannah Manktelow
Michael Rodgers

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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