Blog

Posted by: mike on Apr 16, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureFun PalacesLatest

Theatre Royal, Nottingham

The classical portico of Nottingham’s Theatre Royal has dominated the streetscape since it was built in 1865:  http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/514-theatre-royal-nottingham.

Originally designed by the prolific and prestigious Victorian theatre-architect Charles John Phipps (1835-1897), it was modernised in 1896-7 by the more famous Frank Matcham (1854-1920), who at the same time built the new Empire Palace Theatre for what shortly after became Moss Empires partly on what had been the site of the Theatre Royal dressing-rooms.

There are stories of artistes straying into the wrong backstage-area, particularly after Moss Empires took over the Theatre Royal in 1924.

The Empire was also the site of Ken Dodd’s stage debut, as Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, “Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter”, in 1954.

The Empire closed in 1958 and was demolished eleven years later for road-widening.  At a time when Nottingham City Council were planning and building the ultra-modern Playhouse as a repertory theatre, there was talk of demolishing the Theatre Royal also and building a replacement touring house elsewhere.

In fact, the Theatre Royal lingered on, becoming so decrepit that eventually the D’Oyly Carte company refused to appear because of the state of the backstage areas.

In 1977 the City Council purchased the County Hotel, on the opposite side of the Theatre Royal building to the former Empire, and commissioned Renton Howard Wood Levin to restore Matcham’s design, except for the proscenium arch and adjacent boxes, within Phipps’ auditorium envelope.

Subsequently, in 1980, Renton Howard Wood Levin built from scratch the magnificent Royal Concert Hall behind the Theatre Royal.  The two auditoria work in tandem [http://www.trch.co.uk], with the Playhouse operating at the other side of the city centre:  http://www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk/whats-on.

Nottingham has a proud claim to have been at the forefront of the late twentieth-century revival of live performances in provincial towns and cities.

Posted by: mike on Apr 2, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (2013):  balcony

Since Phil Robins took ownership of the former Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield, he’s tidied up the interior so that at last it’s possible to see the entire auditorium from the back of the stalls or the back of the balcony.  The stage remains a forest of scaffolding until the stage-tower roof is made weather-tight.

When the Sheffield Antiques Quarter Christmas Market took place at the Abbeydale I was asked to show people the auditorium, a privilege that gave me opportunity to learn more about the building.

Insurance restrictions meant that visitors were not allowed on the stage or in the circle, so I provided a PowerPoint sequence showing the angles that weren’t accessible.

Talking to people who visited the cinema regularly from the 1950s to the 1970s suggested that there were at least four colour schemes over the years:

* pale and deep cream and gold from the opening in 1920
* pale green and gold sometime up to the early 1950s when Cinemascope was introduced
* white or cream until at least the end of the 1960s
* the current blue, claret and cream by the beginning of the 1970s

There may have been other colour schemes that only a paint analysis will reveal:  planning documents indicate, for instance, that a major refurbishment took place in 1928 and Clifford Shaw, in Sheffield Cinemas (Sheffield Cinema Society/Tempus 2001) p 101, shows a monochrome image of a decorative scheme that dates from August 1949.

I’m told I was introduced on the PA system as the Abbeydale’s “resident historian”, which led a friend to enquire if I had a flat in the projection room.

He’d no reason to know that in the late 1970s there was a flat in the projection suite after A & F Drake Ltd took it over as an office-equipment showroom.  Later in the day I met a lady who had lived in the flat for a couple of years.

She said that her dad and his mate had spent a night in the auditorium seeking ghostly presences.  The only presence that appeared was her cat.

Oddly, even later in the afternoon a lady asked me about the psychic history of the Abbeydale.  I had to say I didn’t know there was one, but I was able to point her towards the only accredited haunted cinema, the Don on West Bar, which still exists:  [see http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/26559 and   http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com/2010/10/don-picture-palace-sheffields-historic-city-centre-cinema].

People were reassured to know that Phil’s plan to use the Abbeydale as a climbing centre won’t damage the listed interior:  all the climbing installations will be free-standing.  Indeed, one climber, a regular visitor to Phil’s existing centre, The Edge [http://www.sheffieldclimbing.com], said he was looking forward to sitting in the circle with a cup of coffee watching other climbers.

The next opportunity to see the interior of the Abbeydale Picture House will be at the Sheffield Antiques Quarter Spring Fair on Sunday April 27th 2014, between 12.00 noon and 3.00 pm.

Posted by: mike on Feb 2, 2014

Category:Liverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Forum Cinema

At the north end of Lime Street, on the opposite side to the Futurist Cinema, is the much more imposing former Forum Cinema, designed for the ABC circuit by William R Glen and Ernest A Shennan and opened in 1931, “one of W R Glen’s finest”, according to the Theatres Trust website:  http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/2102-forum-liverpool.

This splendid Portland stone building occupies a corner site corresponding to Lewis’s department store at the other end of Lime Street.

Its fine interior, described by some writers as “semi-Atmospheric”, was a celebration of the possibilities of indirect lighting using Holophane reflectors with a sunburst light-feature in the ceiling.  On each side of the proscenium are curious relief panels, supposedly Venetian though one includes a recognisable representation of the Chrysler Building.

The architects contrived to squeeze a big auditorium, originally 1,835 seats, into a constricted space 150 feet × 75 feet, by creating a huge balcony seating 750 and placing the projection ports high above the rear circle with a throw of 146 feet.

Such a narrow auditorium was less than ideal for wide-screen films, and when the Forum was tripled in 1982 a false ceiling was inserted from the balcony front so that the proportions of the proscenium were lost.

It finally closed in January 1998 with a showing of Casablanca at 50p per seat and has remained unused.  Although (or perhaps because) it’s listed Grade II, the various proposals for the building have so far come to nothing.

But at least it’s still intact.  This is how it looked in 2007 – http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/theatres-cinemas/15532-forum-cinema-liverpool.html – and, photographed by someone who can’t hold a camera still, in 2011:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3H2GdMiLkqo.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 29, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Lime Street

As Liverpool city-centre regenerates, the remaining patches of neglect stand out more clearly.

The east side of Lime Street has been neglected for years, and yet the stretch between the Crown and the Vines pubs includes a spectacular landmark building that still, somehow, remains in one piece.

The Futurist Cinema, originally the Lime Street Picture House, was the first purpose-built cinema in Liverpool, opened in 1912.  It was the first to show sound movies, in 1926, three years before The Jazz Singer at the Olympia, West Derby Road.  It converted to Cinemascope in 1954 without interrupting performances, and at the end of its long history it was the only place in Liverpool fitted with Sensurround for the film Earthquake (1975):  [http://www.in70mm.com/newsletter/2004/69/sensurround/about.htm].

It closed in July 1982 and has remained empty and untended ever since.  Kim Ryan’s film of the Merseyside film-maker Alex Cox revisiting the Futurist shows the interior in 2008:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2_JRTwP4J0.  An April 2013 news article raises the question of whether the building is beyond saving:  http://www.clickliverpool.com/business/business-news/1218614-back-to-the-future-futurist-building-set-for-revamp.html.

The campaign to save at least the façade of the Futurist is at http://thefuturistcinema.wordpress.com.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 23, 2014

Category:Fun PalacesLatest

Futurist Cinema, Scarborough

Reputedly the largest remaining single-screen cinema auditorium in Britain, with 2,150 seats, the Futurist Cinema, Scarborough closed its doors on Sunday January 5th 2014:  http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/main-topics/general-news/scarborough-s-futurist-theatre-closes-as-saviour-is-sought-1-6354622.

It was built in 1921 to designs by Frank Tugwell. The stage was first extended for live performances in 1957 and two years later the proscenium was widened.

In 1968, when the stage-area was further enlarged by the impresario Robert Luff to accommodate The Black and White Minstrel Show, the elaborate classical white faience façade was hidden behind plain cladding which has not worn well.

It would be optimistic to say the place has an uncertain future.  In fact, the chances of its survival don’t look favourable.

The chartered surveyor Mark Rothery described the building as “past the point of saving for refurbishment” in 2010, and English Heritage has twice declined to list it.

The Borough Council’s report by Kate Wafer and Jennifer Hadley (March 2013) identified these practical disadvantages to the building:

* small stage in relation to the size of the auditorium
* small box-office and bar-areas in relation to the size of the auditorium
* inadequate wing-space
* limited backstage get-in
* small orchestra pit

The lessee since 2002, Barrie Stead, has estimated that refurbishment would cost at least £5 million, and regeneration would need at least £250,000 pa revenue subsidy.

Its owners, Scarborough Borough Council, have promised to mothball the building for three months to allow the Save Our Futurist campaign [https://www.facebook.com/savethefuturist and http://www.savethefuturist.co.uk/contact/4580371634] to present a £3 million business plan to regenerate the existing auditorium:  http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2014/01/scarborough-council-close-futurist-theatre-operator-negotiations-fail.

Despite the submission of a 4,000-signature petition in November 2013, the fact remains that for the moment no-one has produced a practical plan for the site as an alternative to the Council’s plans for demolition and redevelopment.  An apparently separate e-petition shows 870 signatures:  http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/main-topics/general-news/scarborough-s-futurist-theatre-closes-as-saviour-is-sought-1-6354622.

Time is short.  It’s a tall order to persuade the local politicians to stall their plans and give the Futurist a further chance of survival.

Posted by: mike on Jan 18, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Vines Hotel

The Vines Hotel, next door to the Adelphi, is a sister pub to the splendid Philharmonic Hotel on Hope Street, designed by the architect Walter Thomas.  It’s a little later than the Phil, opened in 1907, so its mahogany, copper, glass and plaster interior has a distinctly Art Nouveau feel.

Alcohol has been served here since 1823, and the present building takes its name from its late-Victorian licensee, Albert B Vines, who came to the site in 1867.

Because of its location at the end of Lime Street the Vines has traditionally been noisier than the Phil.  Indeed, one reviewer [http://www.yelp.co.uk/biz/the-vines-liverpool] comments,–

The Vines will usually give you a fairly rockin’ Friday, Saturday and indeed Sunday evening provided what rocks you are karaoke and somebody's grandmother pinching your arse.

Architectural-history enthusiasts may choose to visit for breakfast.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 14, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesCemeteries, Sewerage & SanitationLatest

Liverpool Philharmonic Hotel gentlemen's lavatory

One of the great Liverpool experiences is having a drink – or perhaps more than one drink – in the Philharmonic Hotel (1898-1900) on the opposite corner of Hope Street to the Philharmonic Hall from which it takes its name.

This palace of a pub is the result of a partnership of the architect Walter W Thomas and Robert Cain’s Brewery during the great boom in public-house building at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Thomas was well-funded and fortunately placed to call on the formidable design-skills of the Liverpool University School of Architecture and Applied Art and of the Liverpool craftsmen who executed the decorative schemes of the interiors of the great ocean-liners.

The exterior is an odd combination of Scottish Baronial and Art Nouveau, with elaborate iron gates by the German-American artist H Blomfield Bare, who also designed the repoussé copper panels inside.

The interior scheme was co-ordinated by George Hall Neale and Arthur Stratten, who employed Charles J Allen to produce the distinctive plaster caryatids and atlantes in the billiard room (the former modelled by his friend Mrs Ryan), the Irish plasterer Pat Honan and the stone-carver Frank Norbury.

The gentlemen’s lavatories at the Philharmonic Hotel are not to be missed.  Indeed, the protocol is that any respectable lady customer can request any respectable gentleman customer to check the coast is clear so she can admire the marble, the mosaic and the brass-work of this palatial pissoir.

John Lennon declared that one of the disadvantages of fame was “not going to The Phil any more”.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 10, 2014

Category:Liverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesLatest

 

Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

I once booked a Cinema Theatre Association Liverpool tour primarily on the strength of seeing On Golden Pond on the big screen at the Philharmonic Hall.

The Philharmonic Hall is a 1937-9 rebuild, replacing a predecessor of 1846-9 which had been burnt down in 1933.

It’s a very fine Art Deco auditorium, designed by Herbert J Rowse whose other distinguished Liverpool designs include India Buildings, Martin’s Bank and the ventilation shafts and other structures for the Mersey Tunnel.

The 1,700-seat auditorium has a continuous rake of stalls seats with horseshoe boxes and a balcony:  the suspended ceiling has troughs containing indirect lighting fittings.

It’s the home of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Choir and Youth Orchestra, which together have an outstanding history of performance dating back to the foundation of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society in 1840:  http://www.liverpoolphil.com.

The CTA was attracted to this temple of serious music was to hear the three-manual Rushworth & Dreaper concert organ, which is fitted with tremulants, a feature commonly found in theatre-organ specifications.

Though lacking the drums, chimes and whistles of a conventional cinema-organ it was clearly intended for use in film presentations as well as taking its place in the classical repertoire.  Its console is mounted on a revolving lift, and can be played from below stage or in full view of the audience.

Even more unusual, and unmissable if you’re a serious cinema buff, is the seven-ton rising proscenium, now apparently the only example in working order anywhere in the world:  http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Liverpool/PhilharmonicHallLivepool.htm#screen

This cinema screen, complete with footlights and curtains and fitted with integral sound speakers, rises from the stage-floor in three minutes, uniquely transforming the concert hall into a movie palace before the eyes of the audience.

That’s an experience you can only have at the Philharmonic.

The very last 35mm performance at the Philharmonic takes place on April 30th 2014.  The choice of film is subject to an e-poll at http://www.liverpoolphil.com/13653/events-film-comedy-amp-events/public-vote-the-last-ever-35mm-film-at-liverpool-philharmonic-hall.html.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 25, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (2013)

I reported in July 2012 that the Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield had been bought by Phil Robins, the owner of The Edge [http://www.sheffieldclimbing.com/index.php], an indoor climbing centre near to Bramall Lane football ground.

Phil showed me round the Abbeydale last month and allowed me to photograph the improvements he’s so far made while making the building secure and weather-tight.

The two major changes he’s made are to lower the iron safety-curtain to its proper level, so that it can be seen in its entirety for the first time for many years, and to remove the partition that divided the balcony from the rest of the auditorium when the Abbeydale was used as an office-equipment showroom.

At present, therefore, it’s possible to see the entire auditorium space as it existed in the mid-1950s.  The only feature that is not original is the false proscenium that was inserted when Cinemascope was installed.  The sides of the narrower original 1920 classical-detailed proscenium are visible, but not the top which, according to the opening-night description in the Sheffield Independent, displayed “a chaste panel of Grecian figures on a background of pale blue”.

The original decorative scheme was pale and deep cream with gold;  the 1920s proscenium is now a faded pale green trimmed with gold, and the rest of the auditorium is a strident concoction of blue, claret and cream.  (The lighter colours now visible may, of course, be tempered with nicotine.)

Phil intends to restore the interior space as far as possible to its original state, and to install free-standing climbing equipment which will not affect the listed decorative features.

The Sheffield Antiques Quarter is running a Christmas Vintage Market in the Abbeydale Cinema car-park on Sunday December 8th between 11.00 am and 5.00 pm.

There will be an opportunity to see the interior of the Abbeydale Cinema from the stalls, though the rest of the building is inaccessible because of insurance restrictions.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2013

Category:Fun PalacesLatest

Funny Girls, Blackpool

In the summer of 1939 Blackpool ignored the possibility of war.

The huge new Art Deco, 2,920-seat Opera House auditorium opened in the Winter Gardens, starring George Formby Jnr (who was paid £1,000 a week) in a review entitled Turned Out Nice Again.

A short distance down Dickson Road the Odeon Cinema, designed by W Calder Marshall for Harry Weedon, opened on May 6th 1939.  Its capacity of 3,088 made this the largest auditorium in the company’s chain, bigger even than the flagship cinema in London’s Leicester Square:  it cost £82,500.

This was one of the relatively few 1930s Odeons intended to have an organ, a magnificent five-manual Compton instrument, big enough to stand comparison with the Wurlitzers in the Tower and Winter Gardens.  Oscar Deutsch disapproved of theatre organs:  he thought they were a waste of money. 

As it happened, the Odeon organ was not delivered until after war broke out, and was apparently bombed in the railway sidings at Blackpool.  Eventually, in 1946, the Conacher organ from the Ritz, Southend, was installed.

The Blackpool Odeon was tripled in October 1975 and closed in 1998.

It stood derelict for some years, until Basil Newby recreated it magnificently as Funny Girls, refreshing the meaning of the expression “holiday camp”.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 21, 2013

Category:Fun PalacesCountry Houses

Stanford Hall Theatre, Nottinghamshire 3

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire, Theatre wing

The Stanford Hall estate on the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border has been in limbo ever since the Co-operative College moved out in 2001.  Two developers have successively raised schemes to finance the restoration of the hall and its grounds by constructing houses and apartments in the park, and both have come to nothing.

Its long history is both complex and sensitive – owned by two successive gentry families, a Burton brewer, the eccentric furniture millionaire Sir Julien Cahn and latterly the College.  In particular, Sir Julien’s external additions – various sporting facilities and a fully-equipped private theatre – have been greatly valued by the local community during the years that the College ran the place.

In 2011 the Duke of Westminster bought the Stanford Hall estate as a future base for the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre, which supports members of the armed services and civilians as they recover from traumatic injuries.

This work currently takes place at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Epsom, Surrey, but this facility is no longer capable of expansion, though the need continues to grow:  casualties now survive injuries which would have been beyond recovery even ten years ago.

Stanford Hall is considered ideal for this new purpose because of its Midlands location, its tranquil environment and the space for magnificent new facilities which need not overpower the historic landscape.

Members of the local community have expressed concern about the future of the Stanford Hall Theatre, which Sir Julien built in 1937 as a venue for his private conjuring shows.

There’s a potential conflict between the desire of local groups for access to the theatre such as they enjoyed in the days of the Co-operative College and the needs of the Defence and Rehabilitation Centre, which will make active use of the theatre and requires higher levels of security than were ever needed by the College.

The proposed physical alterations to the Theatre, primarily to provide level access for wheelchairs, seem relatively benign:  a wrap-around block will provide much better access to the auditorium, and Sir Julien’s top-floor bedroom suite for his private cricket team will be stripped out to reduce loading on the outer walls.  I can find no mention in the planning application of the bomb shelter beneath the auditorium rake.

The plans don’t appear to stretch to a full restoration of the theatre facilities and the Wurlitzer organ, and this has exercised a consortium of local amateur-dramatic societies:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/dukes-scheme-rings-down-the-curtain-8449399.html.

Let’s hope that the heroes and the thespians can live amicably together.

Posted by: mike on Sep 8, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Former Big Wheel Café, St Michael-on-Wyre

Former Big Wheel Café, St Michael-on-Wyre, Lancashire

Regular clients on Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times tours are used to finding that the tour contains more than the outline promises.

This isn’t simply perverse marketing:  sometimes opportunities arise at the last minute, too late to advertise, and I like to have a reputation for providing more than it says on the tin.

The guests on the Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage (July 10th-15th 2013) tour were mystified to be taken to see Judith Hunter’s conservatory next to her caravan-site in St Michael’s-on-Wyre, a few miles inland from Blackpool.

I told them they would see perhaps the only surviving relic from the Blackpool Winter Gardens’ Big Wheel.

The Big Wheel, along with the Empress Ballroom, was the Winter Gardens manager Bill Holland’s response to the arrival of the Tower in 1894.

The Ballroom was a great success, and provoked the Tower Company to embellish their assembly room into the Tower Ballroom.

The 220ft-high Big Wheel of 1896 largely failed to compete with the higher, simpler Tower, except in one respect:  in quiet periods (there were many) young men escorting young ladies sometimes bribed the attendant to hold the Wheel for a time when their carriage was at the top.

When the Tower Company took over the Winter Gardens in 1928, almost their first act was to dismantle the Wheel.

The thirty carriages were auctioned off as garden sheds and summer houses, and Judith’s was bought by Miss Edith Swallow, the first matron of Blackpool Orphanage, to serve as a holiday home for the orphan girls.

For some years Judith used it as a café but now she keeps it for private use.

Other Big Wheel carriages have disintegrated in recent years – one in Poulton-le-Fylde, another in Cleveleys – and there’s a rumour of a remaining survivor in Garstang.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 25, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesBirmingham's Heritage

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Birmingham’s Town Hall was the centre of its musical life from its opening in 1834 until 1991, and the home base for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from its inauguration in 1920.

When Sir Simon Rattle became Principal Conductor & Artistic Adviser in 1980, and Music Director from 1990, he made it his business not only to develop the orchestra further but to provide it with a better home.

He had told Russell Johnson, head of the acoustic consultants Artec of New York, that “If I am ever involved in a new concert hall, you will design it...”

And they did.

Symphony Hall is primarily a concert hall which can be adapted for conference use, with 2,200 seats, 63m long, 31m wide and 22m high.  The seating is tiered, with 877 on the main floor, 347 on the first gallery-tier, 291 on the second and 485 on the third.  At the rear of the platform there is seating for a choir of up to two hundred.

The design combines traditional materials and sophisticated technology to provide flexible acoustics for every musical genre from chamber music to the most ambitious orchestral and choral works.  It has sliding acoustic control banners to reduce reverberance, an adjustable reverberation chamber above and behind the stage fitted with twenty concrete swing-doors each weighing approximately eight tons to vary the volume of the auditorium by up to 30% and a 42-tonne acoustic canopy.

Its reverse fan shape is based on traditional opera houses and concert halls, with the audience stacked in tiers in a narrow chamber.

Russell Johnson advocates using wood “...similar to that of a violin”.  The perimeter walls of the Hall are one foot thick, and much of the acoustic quality comes from this sheer weight of materials.

Ironically, this masterpiece of modern acoustic design stands only 35m from the busiest rail tunnel in Britain, running under Monument Lane to the southern approach to New Street Station.  In fact the Hall is located as far away as possible from the railway line.  (A proposal to create further space by moving the Crown public house across the canal was rejected.)  The railway tracks were relaid with rubber-lined sleepers, and the silence of the Hall is protected by noise-insulating piles and mountings designed by Ove Arup & Partners.

Like its predecessor, the Town Hall, it was incomplete when it was opened.  The front pipes and casework for the Klais organ were installed in time for the opening by HM Queen Elizabeth II on June 12th 1991;  the organ itself – the largest mechanical-action instrument in the United Kingdom – was inaugurated in 2001.

Now the two halls run in tandem, providing the city of Birmingham with an unrivalled diet of musical experiences.

Take a look at what’s on – the variety is astonishing:  https://www.thsh.co.uk.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 6, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesHumber HeritageFun Palaces

White Horse Inn, Beverley

When I was an undergraduate at Hull University in the late 1960s, what passed for debauchery was a trip on the train to Nellie’s at Beverley.

Once I’d ascertained that Nellie’s was in fact a pub – I was mindful of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945), which tells of men who went to the Bear Flag Restaurant for a sandwich – it became, and remains, a favourite.

This famous and memorable hostelry has medieval timbering but has been radically altered in and since the eighteenth century.  It belonged to St Mary’s Church (which stands at the opposite end of the street) probably from 1585, and had become an inn by 1666.

It seems to have changed little since the tenancy was taken on by a sadler, Francis Collinson, in 1887.  Mr Collinson bought the inn in 1927, and after his death it was run by his son, William, and after his death by three of William's sisters, Nellie (after whom it is now popularly known), Ada and Dorothy, who maintained the ancient tradition of opening their private kitchen to drinkers during the evening, serving from a table beside the hand pumps and washing up with hot water from the coal-fired range.

After the three sisters died in rapid succession during 1975-6 the White Horse was sold to Samuel Smiths of Tadcaster:  under this new ownership the nineteenth-century fittings and gas lighting are lovingly preserved, but not the brick wall that served as the original gents’ lavatory.

There is a grandiose unofficial website at http://www.nellies.co.uk/abt.htm.  It has a link to the masterly site of Beverley’s chimney-sweep, http://jethro.biz, which is classic example of internet style and enterprise.  Take a look, even if you don’t have a chimney, aren’t getting married and don’t live in Beverley.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 15, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Morecambe Odeon Cinema

Two things intrigue me about the former Odeon Cinema, Morecambe.

Opened in 1937, it’s an absolutely typical product of Oscar Deutsch’s house-architects, the Harry Weedon partnership, featuring a Moderne fin-shaped tower and a quirky projecting exterior corridor, clad in brick and cream faience.  It seated 1,084 in the stalls and 476 in the circle:  http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/6067.

I’m puzzled that it stands some distance from the seafront, so that it was never part of the sequence of promenade crowd-pullers, the Alhambra, the Winter Gardens and the two piers, in the days when Morecambe attracted crowds.

It stands on Euston Road, near to the less prominent of Morecambe’s two stations.

I’m also interested to know what state the interior is in.

It now earns its keep as a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom showroom for Homemakers 1st Stop:  http://www.thehomemakers.co.uk.

As soon as you walk in, through what would have been a side exit, it’s clear that you’re standing in the stalls, with the curve of the balcony overhead, but a suspended ceiling hides the auditorium space.

The lady behind the counter told me she’s never actually been in the circle, which is blocked off, but she’s been told that the projection box remains intact.

Long may it remain so.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 13, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Morecambe Devonshire Hall

In the back streets of Morecambe’s West End, usefully employed as a specialist community centre, lies a long-forgotten music hall.

The Devonshire Hall was built in 1899, seating eight hundred people, two hundred of them in the balcony.

It consists of a ground-floor that must always have been shops, and at first-floor level a flat-floored auditorium.

Dangerfield’s General Entertainment Guide (1901) informs potential letting clients of “Has no dramatic license [sic];…  Platform permanent 14 by 12 deep with electric footlights;  Terms one night 40s, a reduction made for a longer period;  Extras electric light per meter;  Has dressing rooms”.

The building was divided in the 1930s, the upper floor used a snooker hall while the ground floor became a paint factory.

In 1996 it became a music centre and rehearsal space, The Hothouse, for More Music, a community music and education charity founded in 1993:  http://www.moremusic.org.uk.

The first phase of renovation by seven architecture [sic] [http://www.sevenarchitecture.co.uk/projects/category/id/1/project/2] was completed in 2011.  The fine original timber and steel roof remains in situ but is invisible and inaccessible above a suspended ceiling.

The not-for-profit occupiers have put the building to excellent purpose – http://www.thevisitor.co.uk/news/morecambe-and-district-news/more-music-announced-as-chosen-charity-1-5471446 – and given it a better chance of survival than most of Morecambe’s entertainment heritage has had.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 11, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Alhambra Theatre, Morecambe

The Alhambra Theatre, Morecambe, the location of Laurence Olivier’s performances as Archie Rice in the 1960 film The Entertainer, still exists though its interior has gone.

A major fire in 1970 completely destroyed the auditorium, including its roof, though the stage-tower remains.

When the shell was rebuilt the Dutch gable of the façade was removed and the proscenium opening was bricked up.

According to Tony Parkinson [‘Morecambe’s early cinemas’, Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin Vol 46, No 5 (September/October 2012), p 5] the interior of the fly tower remains intact.

The Alhambra was designed by the local architect Herbert Howarth as a music hall and opened in 1901.
 
Because it replaced the former West End market (1889), its ground floor was given over to shops and market stalls, with the auditorium at first-floor level.

Built at a cost of £50,000, it was a financial liability from the start.  The leader of the consortium that built it, Alderman Gardner, filed for bankruptcy in 1911 with liabilities of £62,257 12s 6d.

A new company took it over in 1919 for £50,000 and invested a further £30,000 on replacing the market stalls with twenty lock-up shops, replacing 700 of the 2,000 chairs with tip-up seating and installing a £,3,000 organ.

In 1927 it became a cinema full-time, and when sound was installed in 1930 it was renamed the Astoria.

It remained closed throughout the Second World War, and reopened in 1946 as a theatre.

After the 1970 fire the auditorium-space became a night club.  At present it’s closed.

There’s a compilation of clips from The Entertainer, with an oddly inappropriate music track, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrP-5BvYM68.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 10, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Blackpool Winter Gardens Empress Ballroom

Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens, Blackpool

The great rival of Thomas Sergenson, Blackpool’s late-Victorian theatre impresario, was William Holland (1837-1895), “the People’s Caterer”, who first made his name managing the Canterbury Music Hall, Lambeth [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canterbury_Music_Hall].

Bill Holland was employed by the Winter Gardens Company specifically to counter the competition from Sergenson.

Against the opposition of a number of Winter Gardens directors, including the chairman, Dr Cocker, Bill Holland proposed and carried through the construction of the huge Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham and built in nine months flat at a cost of £9,098.  It opened with a D’Oyly Carte production, The Yeomen of the Guard, on June 10th 1889.

As part of the same project, Frank Matcham redesigned the Winter Gardens Pavilion in the form of a proscenium-arched theatre.

Holland promoted an all-day admission charge of 6d which included operatic ballet spectaculars directed by John Tiller.  Fixed budget catering also appealed to thrifty Blackpool holidaymakers:  “One Shilling Dinner and One Shilling Tea.  Plenty of Everything.  Help Yourself!” 

Bill Holland apparently owned an old grey parrot, which he had trained to say “Going to see Bill Holland’s ballet?”  For the Winter Gardens, he initiated The Great Parrot Scheme:  he bought a hundred parrots, each in a cage marked “Blackpool Winter Gardens – Two Shows Daily”.

The birds were lined up in rows four deep and trained to repeat the grey parrot’s message and were allegedly placed all the leading hotels and restaurants of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The total investment in the Opera House and associated extensions cost the Winter Gardens Company approximately £14,000:  gross receipts trebled between 1887 and 1891 to £36,000 and the dividend reached 8%.

In response to the opening of the Tower in 1893, Bill Holland persuaded the directors to install electric lighting throughout the Winter Gardens at a cost of £3,307, and to pay an additional £975 to buy out Dr Cocker’s 1875 covenant against dancing, so that he could plan the Empress Ballroom, designed by Mangnall & Littlewood of Manchester (who shortly afterwards built Morecambe’s Victoria Pavilion), with a barrel-vault roof, a balcony promenade and a proscenium stage. 

The Empress Ballroom was at the time one of the largest in the world, 189ft × 110ft, with a dancing-area of 12,500 square feet.

The Art Nouveau decorative scheme included plasterwork by J M Boekbinder and twenty-eight Doulton tile panels of female figures symbolising jewels by William J Neatby.

It opened in 1896, the year after Bill Holland’s death.

The Tower Company paid him a posthumous compliment by refurbishing their somewhat functional Assembly Hall as the sumptuous Tower Ballroom.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 27, 2013

Category:Manx HeritageFun Palaces

Falcon Lift, Douglas (2009)

The Isle of Man is an astonishing repository of archaic technology that has survived against the odds.

Only now, after fifty years of neglect, is the Cunningham’s Camp Escalator being dismantled as dangerous.  I trust that the admirable Manx Museum will rescue as much of its parts as possible to restore as a static exhibit sometime in the future.

Another relic lingers on Douglas seafront, high up on the cliffs.

The Falcon Lift was constructed in 1927 by William Wadsworth & Co of Bolton to connect a hotel and dance pavilion with the promenade:  http://www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/towns/douglas/fcliff.htm.

It was the second lift on the site:  an earlier funicular on a different alignment, built in 1877, had been transported to Port Soderick at the far end of the Marine Drive in 1898.

The existing Falcon Lift isn’t a funicular with two balancing cars.  It’s simply a lift, and it’s been sitting at the top of its track since the hotel closed in 1990:  http://www.hows.org.uk/personal/rail/iom.htm.

It’s simply not possible to preserve everything that might be interesting, but for the moment the Falcon Lift remains, like much else on the Isle of Man, because no-one has seen the need to get rid of it.

For details of the Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 16, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Blackpool Grand Theatre

Blackpool’s oldest theatre, the Theatre Royal, has now gone, destroyed by fire in 2009: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/BlackpoolTheatres/TheatreRoyalBlackpool.htm.

In the late nineteenth century its lessee was Thomas Sergenson, who ran a stage-production of Ellen Wood’s East Lynne – “Dead!  Dead!  And never called me mother!” – for twenty-five summers.

He was a smart businessman and made enough money to purchase a plot of land in 1887 to build a Grand Theatre.

He initially erected a row of shops with a temporary circus building behind, until it became apparent that he held a prime site between the Winter Gardens and its new rival the Tower, which was started in 1891.

Accordingly, he commissioned Frank Matcham to complete the Grand Theatre auditorium at a cost of £20,000 and opened it on July 23rd 1894, two months after the Tower opened, with Hamlet, starring Wilson Barrett.

By 1901 Sergenson had bought out his business partners, and he sold the theatre to the Tower Company on December 23rd 1909 for £47,500.

Like so many Victorian theatres, the Grand was threatened with demolition:  in 1972 it was planned to demolish it to make way for a department store.  It was restored, after vociferous public protest, first as a bingo house, and then sold for a quarter of a million pounds to its present owners, the Grand Theatre Trust.  It was reopened as a theatre by HRH the Prince of Wales on May 29th 1981.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 7, 2013

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Cleethorpes Pier

Some time ago I wrote a Facebook entry about my local butcher’s disappointment when he visited Cleethorpes for the first time in decades.  The place wasn’t what it used to be, he said, fifty years ago.

Shortly afterwards, my friend Marion remarked how much the children at her grandson’s primary school had enjoyed a day in Cleethorpes.

Apparently the school is in a fairly deprived area, and some of the kids had never actually been to the seaside.  It proved impossible to get them off the beach:  the sand and the sea were all they wanted.

That’s the magic of the seaside, yet Cleethorpes is entirely a commercial creation, the unlikely joint enterprise of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, who had built the line out to Grimsby to exploit the fish docks, and the dons of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who owned 56% of the land enclosed by an Act of 1842 that specifically allocated to them 2½ acres of coastline.

The railway to Cleethorpes was opened in 1863:  in August that year 40,000 Primitive Methodists attended a tea meeting, three-quarters of them arriving by train.

By 1892 the railway company owned the entire foreshore between Grimsby and Cleethorpes.  George Dow, the railway historian, declared that Cleethorpes was one of the best investments the MS&L possessed.

Like most British seaside resorts, Cleethorpes is indeed a shadow of its former self, though you can by a quirk of railway geography get a train there direct from Manchester Airport.

Cleethorpes’ most successful sons are the actor, Patrick Wymark (1926-1970), and Rod Temperton (born 1947), member of the band Heatwave and writer of – among much else – the title track of Michael Jackson’s album, Thriller (1984).

Posted by: mike on Mar 17, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Plaza Cinema, Handsworth, Sheffield

Plaza Cinema, Handsworth, Sheffield (1984)

Former cinemas are selling like hotcakes in Sheffield at the moment.  Recent articles have featured the Adelphi, Attercliffe and the Abbeydale.

The Plaza Cinema, Handsworth, which has for years now been Rileys ten-pin bowling and snooker hall, is up for auction with a guide-price of £95,000+:  http://www.markjenkinson.co.uk/auctions/tuesday-19th-march-2013/display/Rileys%20Snooker%20Hall,%201%20Richmond%20Road,%20Handsworth,%20Sheffield%20-%7C-967#lot.

Designed by a local architect, Bernard Powell of Woodhouse, who was until 1921 the Handsworth Urban District Council surveyor, the Plaza shared characteristics with the recently demolished Ritz, Parson Cross – an unspectacular exterior hiding a thoroughly modern Art Deco interior.  Bernard Powell provided a squat tower which originally carried the name ‘Plaza’ in neon, visible across the neighbourhood.

The only time I’ve visited the Plaza, when it was a bingo club in the 1980s, the foyer was virtually intact, an imitation Odeon-style essay in fins and wavy plasterwork.

The auditorium had been divided at balcony level, and was difficult to visualise.  The Cinema Treasures website [http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/25976] describes a colour-scheme that could have been awful but might have been elegant – orange merging to light buff with a royal-blue dado.

The Plaza isn’t listed, so it’s under the radar of conservation groups.  It’s likely that if the modern interior fittings were stripped back the original space would be revealed.  Whether that’s an asset for redevelopment depends on the vision and the intentions of the new owner.

It would be no surprise if the place was bulldozed.  But it might yet turn out to be a building worth keeping.

Posted by: mike on Mar 1, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Blackpool Opera House

Blackpool’s Opera House is the third on its site – a lavish art-deco design by Charles MacKeith, with two balconies and a total seating-capacity of 2,920.  The full stage-width is 110 feet, with a proscenium opening of 45 feet.

The opening-ceremony on July 14th 1939 was performed by Jessie Matthews, who was appearing in I can take it at the Grand Theatre just down the road, with an organ-recital including a duet by Horace Finch, the Winter Gardens’ resident organist, and Reginald Dixon.

The stage show included a train-wreck scene incorporating a full-size replica of the Royal Scot locomotive.

The first variety bill at the reopened Opera House starred George Formby Jnr (who was paid £1,000 a week) in a review entitled Turned out nice again.

The Opera House was the venue for the first Royal Variety Performance to take place outside London, in April 1955.

When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remarked what a fine building the Opera House was, the company chairman Douglas Bickerstaffe commented, “Ay, I suppose so, although it’s nobbut an annexe to t’Tower.”

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 30, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Harwich Electric Palace

The survival of the Electric Palace, Harwich is an example of serendipity approaching the miraculous.

This tiny 308-seat picture house, opened on November 29th 1911, was one of hundreds built across Britain in response to the requirements of the Cinematograph Act (1910), which outlawed travelling picture shows and dangerous conversions of pre-existing premises in order to prevent fires and panic.

Designed by the 26-year-old Harold Ridley Hooper of Ipswich, it was commissioned by the East Anglian showman, Charles Thurston.

Built on a backstreet plot vacated by a recent fire, its most prosperous days were 1914-18, when Harwich was a teeming naval base surrounded by army camps.

Thereafter the Palace struggled against bigger and more modern rivals and an inter-war shift of population away from the docks into new housing in Dovercourt.

When it converted to sound films with The Singing Fool on March 10th 1930 the Palace gained a Western Electric system that was superior to those used at the Regent and the Empire cinemas in Dovercourt.

Though it never fully recovered from the damage caused by the 1953 East Coast Flood, it was the entertainment tax, particularly punitive for a small auditorium, that drove the Palace out of business.

It closed on the night of Saturday November 3rd 1956.  Its lessee, Major Bostock, instructed the manager simply “to lock the door and leave it locked”.

And so it remained, vandalised and stripped of anything of value, colonised by stinking feral cats but still with the tickets in the paybox machine, until it was discovered in 1972 by Gordon Miller, a Kingston Polytechnic lecturer running a field-study programme in Harwich.

He enlisted the support of Mrs Winifred Cooper, chairman of the Harwich Society, and one of his former students, David Atwell, who was then in the midst of writing Cathedrals of the Movies (1980), the first serious textbook about cinema architecture in Britain.

The nascent Harwich Electric Palace Trust gained as its first patron Sir John Betjeman, which no doubt helped things along.

To the fury of Harwich Borough Council, who wanted the site for a car park, Gordon Miller’s campaign got the Palace listed, and with increasingly powerful support and favourable media attention the building was cleaned up, restored and reopened as a cinema on its seventieth anniversary, November 29th 1981.

It was one of the very first cinema-preservation projects in Britain, and it remains a delight to visit:  http://www.electricpalace.com.

The Cinema Theatre Association’s magazine, Picture House No 37 (2012) reproduces Gordon Miller’s extensive survey and historical account of the Palace, written in 1972 to support the application for listing.  It’s a bulky read, but fascinating and copiously illustrated:  http://www.cinema-theatre.org.uk/pichouse.htm.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 27, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Apart from being great fun, the Pleasure Beach has a long, proud history as part of Blackpool’s entertainment culture and as a hugely successful business dedicated, in the words of its former director, Leonard Thomson, to “separating the public from their money as painlessly and pleasurably as possible”.

Leonard Thomson was the son-in-law of one of the co-founders of the Pleasure Beach, William George Bean, who brought an American Hotchkiss Bicycle Railway to Blackpool’s South Shore in 1895 and collaborated with a Yorkshire meat-trader, John W Outhwaite, to import other rides from Coney Island to set up a permanent fairground on what had previously been a gypsy encampment.

Their ambition was to create, in the words of W G Bean, “…an American Style Amusement Park, the fundamental principle of which is to make adults feel like children again and to inspire gaiety of a primarily innocent character”.

In 1906 they contracted for an electricity supply from the Tramways Department, which meant that the rides could operate into the evening, which in turn increased the traffic on the tramway.

When the Corporation widened the Promenade across the site in 1913, Bean and Outhwaite secured an advantageous agreement that no amusement facilities or tram services would be permitted further south for fifteen years.

Their price for varying this agreement when the trams were extended to Starr Gate in 1926 was that all trams made a compulsory stop at the Pleasure Beach, and those trams terminating there showed the destination “Pleasure Beach” rather than “South Shore” – providing free advertising that continues to this day.

When Leonard Thompson died in 1976 his widow Doris became Chairman and their son, Geoffrey Thompson, Managing Director.  Mrs Thompson made a point of testing each new ride as recently as 2002 when, aged 99, she rode the Spin Doctor.

Geoffrey Thompson ran the company until his death at the age of 67 in June 2004:  his mother died, aged 101, shortly after her son’s funeral.

The company is now operated by Geoffrey’s children, Amanda and Nicholas Thompson.

The Pleasure Beach website is at http://www.blackpoolpleasurebeach.com/home.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Dec 28, 2012

Category:Fun Palaces

Southport Garrick Theatre

Bingo has been a great benefactor of Britain’s historic auditoria.  Without the rise of the bingo industry in the 1960s a great many exciting buildings would have disappeared when television overtook the cinema as the most popular means of entertainment.

Mecca maintains the former Garrick Theatre, Southport, in superb condition, and the building continues to earn its keep at the south-west end of Lord Street.

It was built on the site of the 1891 Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham, which had been destroyed by fire in December 1929, and opened on December 19th 1932.

Matcham’s theatre seated two thousand, and the Southport architect George E Tonge designed its replacement as a live theatre, with a fifty-foot-wide proscenium, seating 1,600.

Tonge devised an interesting mix of theatrical tradition and thirties modernity.

The exterior is a lively essay in jazzy modernity, with tall windows of zigzag glazing and a sweeping corner feature punctuated with stepped verticals.  On the Lord Street façade an open colonnade carries a concrete moulding depicting a violin and a saxophone, flanked by the classical masks of comedy and tragedy.

The auditorium is pure Art Deco, with four practically useless boxes beside the proscenium and a frieze of sunbursts with musical notes and dancing figures.

When the Essoldo cinema circuit bought the Garrick in 1957, they used the follow-spot operator’s perch in the ceiling as a projection box, despite the severe angle which necessitated tilting the 37-foot screen on the stage below.

Southport was already well-provided with cinemas:  apart from the first-run Odeon and ABC there were already four others, and Essoldo quickly returned to a mixed programme of film and live shows, which in turn gave place to bingo in 1963.

Conversion to a bingo club entailed levelling the stalls floor to meet the stage, removing the stalls seating and installing a staircase from the stalls to the balcony.  Otherwise, this fine auditorium is largely intact.  The stage-tower is concealed from halfway up the proscenium, and the wings-space is brought into the club.

As such, the building is virtually intact.  It’s in excellent condition, warm and welcoming, and well-loved by its patrons.  All thanks to bingo.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 5, 2012

Category:Fun Palaces

Morecambe Midland Hotel

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe (1933) – an unlikely building in an unlikely setting – is one of the finest examples of Streamline Moderne (late Art Deco) architecture in Britain.  Its heyday lasted barely six years, until the outbreak of war.  After that, it became progressively difficult to operate, until it was rescued, sumptuously renovated and reopened in June 2008 by the developer Urban Splash.

Its railway-owned predecessor dated back to 1848, to the very beginnings of the resort that became Morecambe, and the Promenade Station was constructed in 1907 specifically to bring trains as close as possible to the hotel’s front door.

By the early 1930s the old hotel was badly out of date, and in January 1932 the directors of the London Midland & Scottish Railway approved plans to replace the 1848 building with “a building of international quality in the modern style”, designed by Oliver Hill (1887-1968) on a budget of slightly less than £72,000.  The new building rose from the lawn of the old hotel, which was subsequently demolished.

Oliver Hill was at the height of his career in the 1930s:  after starting out designing picturesque Arts & Crafts cottages, he embraced the visual potential of the Moderne style, of which his best designs, in addition to the Morecambe Midland Hotel, are the partially-built Frinton Park Estate in Essex (1934-6) and the house Landfall (1938), near Poole in Dorset.

His attributes were an eye for unifying architecture with decoration, and his adventurous use of materials such as concrete, chrome and vitrolite.  The result was a building that, in the words of the Architectural Review, “rises from the sea like a great white ship, gracefully curved”.

Hill’s brief for the Midland Hotel enabled him to recruit the best available decorative artists while maintaining full control of the building’s aesthetic programme.

The sculptor and designer Eric Gill (1882-1940) designed and carved for the façade two Portland stone seahorses in the form of the celebrated Morecambe Bay shrimps, a ten-foot Neptune and Triton medallion above the central staircase, a bas-relief, Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa, and a map of North West England, painted in oil by his son-in-law Denis Tegetmeier.

In the circular café were originally murals by Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) of the seaside by day and by night.  These quickly deteriorated, and one mural was reconstructed by London Weekend Television set-designers for the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot in 1989.

The floor of the entrance hall was embellished with a mosaic seahorse and circular, wave-patterned hand-knotted rugs by Marion Dorn (1896-1964), who also worked on the Berkeley, Clarides and Savoy Hotels in London and the Cunard liner Queen Mary.

The new hotel opened on Wednesday July 12th 1933, and quickly attracted celebrities in search of luxury and privacy within easy reach of London, performers from the Winter Gardens and other theatres, and Yorkshire businessmen who commuted by railway club carriage to Leeds or Bradford through the summer months.

It’s interesting that the LMS Railway thought it worthwhile to cater for the most affluent members of British society in the north of England.  After the war and nationalisation the British Transport Commission could hardly get rid of it fast enough.

There are images of the Midland Hotel as it stood before Urban Splash took it on at http://www.abandoned-britain.com/PP/midlandhotel/1.htm

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 18, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Morecambe Winter Gardens

What is now called Morecambe Winter Gardens isn’t in fact the Winter Gardens at all.  It’s the Victoria Pavilion, built in 1897 alongside the original Winter Gardens and Empress Ballroom of 1878.

The original complex began as the People’s Palace, built for the Morecambe Bath & Winter Gardens Company to provide entertainment, baths and an aquarium, on the lines of the Scarborough People’s Palace & Aquarium (1875-7) and the Great Yarmouth Aquarium (1876).

The Victoria Pavilion was designed by the Manchester-based practice Mangnall & Littlewoods which had already designed the Morecambe West End Pier and Pavilion in 1895-6, and were then working on the Central Pier Pavilion and the Hotel Metropole at the same time as the Victoria Pavilion.

The Winter Gardens closed in 1977, and the adjacent Ballroom was demolished in 1982 on the specious grounds that the replacement development would finance restoration of the Pavilion.

In fact it didn’t:  the Friends of the Winter Gardens were formed in 1986 and its current owners are the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust Ltd [http://www.thewintergardensmorecambe.co.uk/home], established in 2006 to take on the huge task of making the theatre fit to earn its own living once more.

It’s a magnificent building, inside and out, listed Grade II*, and one of the few remaining Victorian structures in a resort that has not stood the test of time.

The Theatres Trust identifies it as “a rare type, probably now unique” – a large-scale concert-party auditorium, very broad in relation to the width of the proscenium and the size of the stage.

It was used as a location for the Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer in 1959.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 7, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Ravenscar

Ravenscar is the highest point on the Yorkshire coast between Scarborough and Whitby.  Until the end of the nineteenth century it was simply called Peak.

Peak House, latterly Raven Hall, was built in 1773 by the owner of the local alum works, Captain William Childs.  He bequeathed it to his daughter Ann, widow of the Dr Francis Willis (1718-1807) who treated King George III in his apparent insanity.  Their son, Rev Dr Richard Willis, was a notorious gambler and a reputed smuggler.  There is an enjoyable tale of the estate being lost on a bet over two lice crossing a saucer:  in fact, it was mortgaged by Mr William Henry Hammond, who foreclosed and took over the property in 1845.

W H Hammond went to inordinate lengths to sponsor a railway link between Scarborough and Whitby, though he died in 1884, three months before the line opened.

The railway was absurd:  gradients of 1 in 39 and 1 in 41 meant that locomotives often stalled and had to take a run at the summit.  Hammond insisted that the track ran through his estate in a practically unnecessary tunnel.  Passenger trains from Scarborough to Whitby had to reverse to enter both termini.

In 1890 Hammond’s daughters sold the estate to the Peak Estate Company for £10,000, and by 1895 the house was extended and converted into a hotel “replete with every modern convenience”, and the surrounding land was laid out as a holiday resort of 1,500 building plots with roads and mains drainage and a public water-supply.

The North Eastern Railway was persuaded to rename the station “Ravenscar” in 1897 and to provide a passing loop and second platform.  Regular land-sales were held from 1896 onwards, for which free lunches and special trains from the West Riding towns were provided.

In fact, barely a dozen houses were ever built.  One sad boarding house, clearly intended as part of a terrace, stands in the fields that would have been the Marine Esplanade.  On one occasion the station waiting-room blew away in a storm.

The Ravenscar Estate Company apparently went into liquidation in 1913, but sales were continued until after the Great War.  Building a seaside resort seven hundred feet above sea level was perhaps not a good idea.

Still, from time to time, hopeful descendants of the original purchasers appear at Ravenscar clutching deeds they have found among family papers:  their reactions on seeing their inheritances are, by all accounts, uniform and entirely understandable.

The railway, which closed in 1965, now forms part of the Cleveland Way trail:  http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ClevelandWay/index.asp?PageId=1.  Ravenscar is also the terminus of the celebrated Lyke Wake Walk:  see http://www.lykewake.org.

However you get there, don’t miss tea at the Raven Hall Hotel [http://www.ravenhall.co.uk] with a log fire and the view across to Robin Hood’s Bay.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 4, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

North Euston Hotel, Fleetwood

We’ve purposely located the Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage (July 10th-15th 2013) tour at the North Euston Hotel, Fleetwood [http://www.northeustonhotel.com],– not only for its comfort and quietness but because it’s significant in the history of the Lancashire coast.

Its name indicates that it was once the northern terminus of the railway from London’s Euston Station, at a time when George Stephenson proclaimed that no locomotive would ever manage the climb over Shap to the Scottish border.

The town of Fleetwood was planned and named by Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood (1801-1866) as the transhipment point between the Preston & Wyre Railway, which opened in 1840, and the steamer service to Ardrossan which was connected by rail to Glasgow.

This worked fairly well until what we now call the West Coast Main Line opened over Shap in 1847.  By that time Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood had gone bankrupt, and though Fleetwood harbour in time served other purposes, its railway remained forever on a branch line from Preston.

The grandly curving hotel was designed by Decimus Burton as part of Fleetwood’s intended holiday resort.

The hotel’s first manager, a Corsican called Zenon Vantini, was responsible for the first railway-station refreshment-room, at Wolverton, and ran the Euston and Victoria Hotels in London.

Opened in 1841, it was eventually bought by the War Department a School of Musketry for Officers, and reopened in 1861 as the Euston Barracks.

Vantini took a lead, in conjunction with the first vicar of Fleetwood, Rev Canon St Vincent Beechey (son of the painter William Beechey), in founding the Northern Church of England School in 1844.

This school later took the name Rossall School [http://www.rossall.co.uk] after it leased and then bought the Rossall Hall estate from Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood.

Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood died in such poverty that his estate could not pay for his funeral.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 30, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Savoy Hotel

My 1960s grammar-school education was enlivened by the headmaster’s obsession with the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan, which provided our only experience of practical drama.  Shakespeare was for classroom study;  any play written after 1900 was to be seen in the professional theatre.

I didn’t understand for years why the G&S canon is referred to as the “Savoy operas”.

The reason, of course, is that the promoter of these odd survivals of Victorian show-business was Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), who used the capital he accumulated from the first collaborations of William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) to build a brand-new theatre on the land between the Strand and the Thames Embankment, ground which had been the site of the medieval Savoy Palace, of which the chapel still survives.

He named his new venue the Savoy Theatre.  When it opened in 1881 it was the first building in the world to be entirely lit by electricity, though limited generating capacity meant that the stage itself was lit by gas for the first couple of months.

D’Oyly Carte’s other theatrical innovations included free programmes, queues, numbered tickets and tea at the interval.

The Savoy Theatre was built on the profits of Trial by Jury, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and Patience, which transferred from the Opera Comique to open the Savoy Theatre.  Gilbert & Sullivan’s first work for the new theatre was Iolanthe.

It seems that the profits of The Mikado provided the capital for D’Oyly Carte to build the Savoy Hotel (1889), which boasted no less than 67 bathrooms, “ascending rooms” between each floor and “speaking tubes” communicating between floors.

When the hotel was enlarged in 1903 its main entrance transferred to the Strand, and the theatre-foyer was moved to the hotel courtyard, so that the audience enters at a level higher than the top of the proscenium arch, descending to their seats by stairs and corridors which are partly beneath the roadway of Savoy Court, the only roadway in Britain where vehicles drive on the right.

Rupert D’Oyly Carte, Richard’s son, had the entire theatre remodelled in 1929 in an uncompromisingly modern manner by Frank A Tugwell and Basil Ionides – a splendid confection of silver and gold, autumnal fabrics and concealed lighting.

This was the venue for the 1941 première of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

During a renovation in 1990 a fire destroyed the entire auditorium.  The terms of the theatre’s insurance required that Tugwell and Ionides’ design should be meticulously reinstated, and so it reopened in 1993.  The architect, Sir William Whitfield, added a further storey, so that now the 56-ft stage-tower is surmounted by plant rooms and a leisure-centre with a swimming pool.

The hotel was closed in 2007 for a comprehensive renovation that took until 2010.

The stories and the personalities attached to the theatre and the hotel are endless.  My own favourite is of the actor, Richard Harris (1930-2002), a long-time resident, who was carried out of the hotel foyer on a stretcher on his way to his hospital death-bed, shouting to passers-by, “It was the food!”

There is a comprehensive history of the theatre in Kevin Chapple et al, Reflected Light:  the story of the Savoy Theatre (Dewynters 1993).

To see what's on at the Savoy Theatre, go to http://www.savoytheatre.org.  The Savoy Hotel website is http://www.fairmont.com/savoy.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 30, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesHistoric YorkFun Palaces

Blue Bell, Fossgate, York

When my mate Richard and I have a day out together there’s always a problem period around late afternoon, when we struggle to find something to do.  The shops and tourist places start to close down, and it’s too early to dine in style.

In York recently we sandwiched the National Railway Museum between coffee, lunch and afternoon tea, and then spent an hour in the small but enriching York Art Gallery [http://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/Page/Index.aspx].

Thanks to the Good Beer Guide [http://www.camra.org.uk/gbg] we came upon the Blue Bell, 53 Fossgate – easily missed, and unmissable.

It’s an utterly unremarkable-looking place until you step inside.  It has a bar and a smoke-room, neither big enough to swing a cat in, board-panelled from floor to ceiling.  There’s a real fire and a splendid choice of beers.  The old cliché about stepping into someone’s front room is entirely apt at the Blue Bell.

It seems odd that the Blue Bell is listed II*, until you read the English Heritage list description:  http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1257825.

Like many buildings in the streets of central York, the Blue Bell and no 54 next door have a timbered core, here dating back to the middle of the seventeenth century.  The jettied timber fronts were cut back and refaced sometime in the late eighteenth century.

At the end of the nineteenth century, when no 53 became the Blue Bell, an embossed front window was installed.  Since then, very little is changed:  the list description, without specifying a date, describes it as “the last C19 pub interior in York to survive intact”.

This is probably because it was continuously owned by the same family for almost a century until 1993.

Like the more famous “Nellie’s”, the White Horse Inn in Beverley, East Yorkshire, the Blue Bell has survived all the vicissitudes of the licensed trade through the twentieth century, so that it’s now a tiny treasure, an unlikely jewel in the crown of the historic heart of York.

And it’s a particularly good place for what in Yorkshire we call a “sneck-lifter”.  “Sneck” is the latch of a door or gate.  When you lift the sneck, literally, it lets you into warmth and hospitality.  When you sip your first pint (and your second), you’re ready to enjoy the next few hours.

Update:  Evidence that a quiet night is virtually guaranteed in the Blue Bell is to be found in this article in the Daily Mail (March 22nd 2013):  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2297549/The-Blue-Bell-York-axed-national-beer-guide-discriminates-non-regulars.html

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 3, 2012

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

 Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (1984)

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (1984)

The Sheffield Star reported in June 2012 that the Abbeydale Cinema, which has been run as a not-for-profit community venue, was threatened with closure:  http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/money-woes-could-spell-final-curtain-for-sheffield-theatre-1-4698498.

I drew attention to the Abbeydale in a blog-article some time ago [Iron curtain at the Abbeydale] because of its rare surviving iron safety-curtain, complete with 1950s advertisements for local businesses.

At that time, a Friends group were restoring it as a venue for amateur drama and other community uses:  http://www.abbeydalepicturehouse.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=81&Itemid=115.

There are some fine interior views at http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php/53993-Abbeydale-Picture-House-Sheffield-08-09-07.

A further article in the Star at the end of October reported that the building had been sold for £150,000.  The then unnamed buyer dismissed the possibility of running as a theatre as "not financially viable", but said, "It's a lovely facility.  The intention is to bring it back into public use."

The new owner is in fact Phil Robins, who runs The Edge, an indoor climbing centre near Bramall Lane football ground.  He announced in January 2013 his intention to seek planning permission to adapt the building for climbing, bouldering and a multi-gym.  His scheme restores the interior space to its 1975 condition, and will be known as The Picture House.

Sheffield has only two listed cinemas:  the other one is the Adelphi, Attercliffe, which has been mothballed for years.

It'll be interesting to see what happens next at the Abbeydale.

Posted by: mike on Jul 1, 2012

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Ritz Cinema, Parson Cross, Sheffield (1988)

Ritz Cinema, Parson Cross, Sheffield (1988)

Sitting innocuously in the midst of Parson Cross, Sheffield’s largest housing estate, the former Ritz Cinema, an Art Deco masterpiece stood unknown, neglected and without a purpose until it was demolished at the end of January 2013.

It was built in 1937 on the site of Toad Hole Farm to serve a brand-new community.  The Parson Cross council estate covered the green fields with well-appointed houses for fortunate working-class families who had previously struggled with inadequate housing in the Victorian inner city.

The Ritz was designed by the well-reputed Sheffield architectural practice Hadfield & Cawkwell, with a restrained brick exterior and a sensational art deco auditorium which looks for all the world like the inside of a typewriter.

In its early days the Ritz was almost the only entertainment facility, apart from pubs and working-men’s clubs, on the estate.  There is a wartime photograph of the manager, Bernard Dore, sitting with his front-of-house staff in front of a “House Full” sign looking thoroughly satisfied with the state of business.

Between 1962 and 1966 the Ritz gradually went over to bingo, and was for many years run as an independent operation by Mr David Chapman.  He once told me that his business rested on being the only place in Parson Cross that ladies could go for entertainment without their husbands.

When I ran a Sheffield Cinema Society visit to the Ritz Bingo Club in 1988 the operating box (or projection room, to those of us who don’t belong to the industry) was intact.  Apparently the deeds of the building included a covenant requiring it to remain capable of reverting to cinema use.

Bingo finally ended at the Ritz sometime soon after 2001, since when it has stood empty and become vandalised.

The last record of its condition that I can find is an urban explorer’s report from 2009 at http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=46046.  The projectors were still in place, but trashed.  "Speed" declares in his or her report an intention to return and put them right.

The Ritz deserved a much better fate.  It was a victim, not only of economic forces, but of the ungenerous and uninformed process of listing twentieth-century buildings in Sheffield.

Sometimes it seems as if listing is a process of creating rarities rather than protecting the historic-buildings stock for future evaluation and resuscitation.

To see something of the sorry catalogue of missed opportunities among the buildings of Sheffield, see Huntsman’s Gardens, Picture palace bites the dust, Rue Britannia Praised with faint damns, and – still a cause to fight – No use for St Cecilia's.

Posted by: mike on Jun 28, 2012

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, Sheffield (1985)

Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, Sheffield (1985)

When my mate Richard and I have our regular weekday evening putting the world to rights in whichever local pub is not having karaoke or a quiz night, towards the end of the night we phone our ETA to Lee or James, fish-friers of distinction, and go to the Norwood Fish Bar, 411 Herries Road (0114-242-4127) for our supper, freshly cooked and timed to perfection.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s Lee or James on duty:  the food is invariably top quality.

The Norwood Fish Bar is a shop-unit in an utterly unremarkable block that has been a Tesco supermarket since the early 1970s.  Before that, the site was the Forum Cinema, Southey, one of a series of huge 1930s cinemas built on Sheffield’s then new northern council estates.

(Someone on the council was clearly a literature lover.  There are roads named after Chaucer, Wordsworth, Keats and so on.  Sheffield folk, as is their habit, choose to pronounce “Southey” to rhyme with “mouthy”, just as when a pub or street is named “Arundel” – after the home of the city’s ground-landlord, the Duke of Norfolk,– it's always accented on the second, not the first syllable.)

The Forum was built by and for the Sheffield construction company M J Gleeson Ltd, who constructed the surrounding houses and appear to have had some kind of deal to build the adjacent shops as well as the cinema.

The architect was George Coles (1884-1963), a specialist cinema designer best known in London and the south-east for the Gaumont State, Kilburn, and a series of Odeons including the Odeon, Muswell Hill.

The Forum opened on September 17th 1938 and was closed on May 31st 1969.  It’s illustrated at http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/25709

A couple of miles away, its sister cinema, originally the Capitol, Sheffield Lane Top, also by George Coles and built for M J Gleeson, survives as a carpet showroom.

The Capitol was due to open the week the Second World War broke out, so it stayed closed under the national ban on gatherings for entertainment until September 18th 1939, when it opened with Angels with Dirty Faces, starring James Cagney.

The opening-day description in the Sheffield Star refers to the cream faience dressing highlighting the brick exterior and the tubes of red and green neon on the canopy and the tower fin which inevitably remained switched off until 1945.

The Capitol subsequently became the Essoldo in 1950 and ultimately the Vogue in 1972, by which time it was one of only three remaining suburban cinemas in Sheffield.  It closed on October 4th 1975.

Its interior was always very plain, understated, faintly neo-classical in style, with alcoves and statues long concealed behind timber facing.  It’s not an outstanding building:  neither it nor the Forum would ever have been seriously considered for listing.

Nevertheless, the Capitol appears still to earn its keep and to lend a little distinction to an ordinary streetscape.

Even though the tower fin has been reduced in height, presumably for structural reasons, it’s a more attractive structure than the architecturally illiterate 21st-century block of flats that has been built alongside.

Posted by: mike on Jun 9, 2012

Category:Manchester's HeritageFun Palaces

Manchester Piccadilly Gardens (2009)

Manchester Piccadilly Gardens (2009)

It amuses me when highly respectable historical and amenity societies report the activities of urban explorers.

Those risk-taking, law-bending, under-the-wire investigators of derelict and inaccessible structures are distinguished by their principles – “take nothing but photographs;  leave nothing but footprints” – and the quality of their photography.

They must be a great annoyance to property-owners who would prefer their empty and neglected spaces to remain unvisited and to become forgotten.

For conservationists and architectural historians, however, it’s very useful to have assiduous and athletic enthusiasts reporting on the web the current condition of endangered sites of heritage importance.

I repeatedly visit Manchester, and yet hadn’t given a second glance to the Primark store in Piccadilly.  It was originally Lewis’s, described by Clare Hartwell in the Pevsner Architectural Guide, Manchester, as “a huge untidy Baroque pile” built by J W Beaumont & Sons in 1915 and extended by the same architects in 1929.

Clare Hartwell says it was the biggest department store in the provinces when it was built.  Lewis’s stores aspired to bring the splendour of London department stores to the major provincial cities [see Losing a Liverpool legend:  Lewis's department store].

The Primark chain only uses the lower floors of the Manchester building, and above the snowline lies a sleeping treasure – Lewis’s ballroom:  http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=68769.

Posted by: mike on May 31, 2012

Category:Fun PalacesExploring New Zealand

Embassy Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

When I visited the Wellington Decorative & Fine Arts Society to present my Fun Palaces lecture in February 2011 my host, David Carson-Parker, showed me the Embassy Theatre, a restoration-project in which he had been involved.

The Embassy was originally and appropriately called the “De Luxe”.  It was designed by the New Zealand architect Llewellyn E Williams (1884-1967) for the theatre entrepreneur William Robert Kemball (1881-1969), and opened on October 31st 1924.

It was and is a notably distinguished building on a corner site facing Courtenay Place, four storeys high with an impressive classical frontage.  The grand tiled foyer and staircase remains:  originally the auditorium consisted of stalls and a generous balcony.  The stage was suitable for live performances and there was an orchestra pit, which was later used to house the console of a Wurlitzer organ and is now the second screen, the aptly-named Cinema Deluxe.

The De Luxe passed to another New Zealand cinema magnate, Robert Kerridge, who renamed it the Embassy.

In 1960 it was equipped with a wide screen for 70mm projection, and in the 1970s the auditorium was converted to a single rake by building out from the balcony front, so that the stalls space could be used for other purposes.

A 1991 project to convert it as a home for the Royal New Zealand Ballet came to nothing, and there was a risk that the Embassy would be lost.

To resist this possibility the Embassy Theatre Trust was formed in 1995.  In conjunction with the Wellington City Council, the Trust bought the building in 1997 and restored it to greater glory.

It re-opened in time to host the world premiere of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King (2003), the final part of his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  As such, it now holds a place in the history of New Zealand film, and well as New Zealand cinema.

When David showed me round on a quiet summer Sunday morning, my first reaction was – what a splendid place to have coffee and read the Sunday papers.  You can eat and drink at Blondini’s Café & Bar, and indeed take your refreshments into the auditorium, which consists of the original balcony and a few additional rows beyond the balcony front.

The refurbished auditorium has all the comforts and amenity that contemporary filmgoers expect.  Behind the modern screen, however, the original proscenium and ante-proscenium remain in faded pale blue, grey, pink and gold.

David tells me there’s a scheme to make this original decoration visible from the auditorium.

When we showed images of it to the Wellington DFAS audience, people were astonished to discover that it still existed, and delighted to find that there’s more to the Embassy than meets the eye.

There is a detailed description of the Embassy Theatre at http://www.historic.org.nz/TheRegister/RegisterSearch/RegisterResults.aspx?RID=7500&m=advanced.  If you need to know what’s on at the moment, the website is at http://www.eventcinemas.co.nz/cinemas/the-embassy.aspx.

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2012

Category:Fun PalacesExploring New Zealand

St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

Wellington, the largest city in New Zealand’s North Island, came close to losing its most attractive and comfortable theatres in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Now the Opera House, the St James and the Embassy provide a thriving cultural repertoire which enriches the city centre.

The city is currently marketed as the "capital of cool", but it might easily have been left out in the cultural cold.

I was given privileged access to the St James Theatre, known in the entertainment industry as “Jimmy’s”, thanks to the manager, Bob Foot, and my Wellington host, David Carson-Parker.

Its initial claim to fame is that it was the first steel-framed, reinforced concrete theatre in the world when it was constructed in 1912 to the designs of Henry Eli White (1876-1952), a prolific New Zealand theatre architect, for the impresario John Fuller, who had operated an earlier theatre on the site.

Its ornate auditorium is embellished with plasterwork by William Leslie Morrison, who used his grandson as a model for the cherubs.  (I wonder what angst the lad suffered when he grew into his teens and went with his mates to see shows at the St James.)

The St James Theatre closed in 1987 and became the focus of a furious conservation row between a developer, the Chase Corporation, and local campaigners, with Wellington City Council in the midst.

Eventually in 1993 the city council bought it and restored it as a venue for the New Zealand International Arts Festival and a home for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, extending into the adjacent property to provide a café and bar, “The Jimmy”.

If Wikipedia is to be believed [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._James_Theatre,_Wellington] the St James hosts a wonderful company of ghosts – a Russian performer called Yuri, a wailing woman and wheezing Stan Andrews.

None of these were in evidence when Bob, David and I toured the building from top to bottom on a sunny summer morning.

They couldn’t show me the auditorium of the rival theatre across the road, the Opera House (William Pitt, 1911), because a lighting rehearsal was in progress, so I have to return when I’m next passing by.

The St James Theatre and the Opera House, long-time rivals, are now under co-ordinated management, operated by Positively Wellington Venues:  http://pwv.co.nz/our-venues/st-james-theatre.  To see what's on, go to http://www.stjames.co.nz.

Posted by: mike on Mar 25, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Kinema-in-the-Woods, Woodhall Spa

Photo:  Janet Miles

The March/April 2012 edition of the Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin mentions the forthcoming ninetieth anniversary of the Kinema-in-the-Woods, Woodhall Spa – one of the most eccentric and evocative film-going experiences in England.

The Pavilion Cinema opened in a converted cricket pavilion in 1922 and only later became known as the Kinema-in-the-Woods.  It has always retained the original Greek spelling, derived from the word for ‘motion’.

The building started out as a cricket pavilion, and because the roof supports are integral to the structure, films have always been shown by back-projection of surprising clarity.

According to a 1937 advertisement, “while furnished with comfortable plush seats, deck chairs and cushions are provided for those who appreciate them”.  The deck chairs on the front six rows were priced at 1s 6d, threepence dearer than the best fixed seats in the house.

The Kinema was operated for half a century by its founder, Major C C Allport:  when he applied for his fiftieth licence in 1972 the magistrates waived the fee.

By the 1980s it had become a precious survival, and its next owner, James Green, installed the Compton organ from the Super Cinema, Charing Cross Road, to provide concerts in addition to current-release movies.  Its console is mounted on the lift from the former Regent Cinema, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent.

Now there is a second screen, Kinema Too, opened in 1994, to complement the original auditorium and offer a wider variety of films.

Woodhall Spa is an unlikely spot to see first-release movies.  But after all, Woodhall Spa is an unlikely spot.

The history of the Kinema-in-the-Woods can be found in Edward Roy Mayor, The Kinema in the Woods: the story of Woodhall Spa's unique cinema (J W Green Cinemas 2002) and at http://www.thekinemainthewoods.co.uk/history.

Posted by: mike on Feb 22, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureManx HeritageFun Palaces

Douglas IOM Gaiety Theatre

A couple of years ago I was invited to the Gaiety Theatre, Douglas to see the Douglas Choral Society’s production of Les Misérables, which is not my favourite piece of musical drama.  After three hours of Gallic posturing and carrying on (which theatre-folk refer to as The Glums, in tribute to the 1950s radio-programme Take It From Here), I commented to my host, my Isle of Man friend John, that though it wasn’t my favourite show I imagined we’d seen the best theatrical production on the Gaiety stage for at least ten years.

The Gaiety is a delightful theatre, one of Frank Matcham’s best survivors.  Dating from 1900, the heyday of the Manx tourist boom, it has superb fibrous plasterwork by De Jong & Co, extravagant house-tabs dripping with ropes and tassels, and the only surviving example of a Corsican trap – an essential requirement for Dionysius Lardner Boucicault’s melodrama, The Corsican Brothers (1852), which doesn’t often get an airing.

This gorgeous jewel of Victorian entertainment struggled for years to earn its keep as a cinema, and was rescued by the Isle of Man Government in 1971.  It might have been pulled down, but was restored in 1976.  It’s by far the most attractive cultural venue on the island, and it serves local communities and holiday visitors in conjunction with the adjacent Villa Marina [see Manx Mighty Wurlitzer].

Early this year John’s then-teenage son, Matthew, texted me to ask if he needed to see Miss Saigon.  Yes, I said, most definitely.  Indeed, I said, I’d get on a boat to see it if it was performed by the Douglas Choral Society.

Miss Saigon (1989) is the follow-up work to Les Misérables (1980), and was Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s second successful assault on the West End and Broadway.  It’s based on Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.  It’s a Kleenex job.  Complete with helicopter.

So I enjoyed a captivating evening in Frank Matcham’s stalls, watching the best of Manx theatrical talent pull out all the stops.  Rebecca Lawrence (Kim), Jonathan Sleight (Chris), David Artus (Engineer), Alex Toohey (John) and Kristene Sutcliffe (Ellen) gave performances which were utterly indistinguishable from the professional theatre, and they were backed up by scores of on-stage, back-stage and front-of-house workers.

What more could anyone ask of a Saturday night? – Matthew’s twentieth-birthday dinner at the excellent Coast Bar & Brasserie of the Claremont Hotel [http://www.sleepwellhotels.com/hotels/isle_of_man/claremont/restaurant.htm], the best show in town in a Frank Matcham theatre, and walking home along the gently curving Loch Promenade looking out to Douglas Bay.

This is what Dr Johnson meant by “the harmless stock of human pleasure”.

The Gaiety Theatre website is at http://www.gov.im/villagaiety.  The Douglas Choral Union is at http://www.douglaschoralunion.im/index.php.

The Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a tour of the Gaiety Theatre and a demonstration of the Villa Marina Wurlitzer next door.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 11, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Great Yarmouth Regent Theatre

I’m indebted to Ian Hardy, of Great Yarmouth Borough Council, for prompting me to seek out the former Regent Theatre on Regent Street, now Mecca Bingo.

Tracy Utting, the Manager, was very willing to allow my Norfolk’s Seaside Heritage tour-group to visit before the club opened, and her colleague Kerry took great trouble to show us as much as possible of the historic parts of the building.

The Regent has a sophisticated classical façade, with huge Ionic columns and a Diocletian window;  within is an impressive staircase, now altered, the former café with an extensive plaster frieze of putti and garlands, and the auditorium is decorated with rococo plasterwork, with boxes supported by cast-iron columns.

It was built in 1914 for Francis Holmes Cooper, a Wisbech estate-agent who owned a chain of theatres and cinemas across East Anglia, most if not all of them designed, like the Yarmouth Regent, by Francis Burdett Ward.  It closed as a cinema in September 1982, and ever since has operated as a bingo club.

The bingo industry has proved a magnificent custodian for so much of Britain’s entertainment heritage.  From the Blackpool Grand Theatre to the Wakefield Opera House, from the Grade I Tooting Granada Cinema in South London, still operating as a bingo club, to the magnificently restored Stockport Plaza Cinema – any or all of these might not have survived without the proceeds of bingo to keep the building going.

Kerry, as she showed us everywhere from the boxes to the basement (still containing an industrial-sized stove for the café above), remarked that very few people other than club members ever set foot in the building.

Yarmouth people may have forgotten it exists.  If and when the bingo moves on, the Regent will need a new purpose.

It’s too good to lose.

Mecca closed their operation at the Regent "at the end of 2011".  It reopens as Stars Showbar and Nightclub in April 2014:  http://starsgy.co.uk

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Feb 9, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Great Yarmouth, former Royal Aquarium

The Hollywood Cinema on Great Yarmouth’s seafront commemorates a time when local businessmen hoped to make money out of people watching fish.

Yarmouth entrepreneurs hoped to build on the success of the Brighton Aquarium of 1872 by offering “aquaria exhibitions, combined with attractions of a more special and amusing nature” which meant restaurants, billiard rooms, croquet lawns and a skating rink in what a modern journalist described as “a grotesque mock Gothic cathedral of leisure”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, less than half the required £50,000 capital was forthcoming, and the London promoters of the Great Yarmouth & Eastern Counties Aquarium Company pulled out, leaving local shareholders to lower their sights and open a more modest facility which failed to attract visitors.

A contemporary commented that “wretched management was not an unimportant factor”:  the magistrates’ refusal of a drama licence was unhelpful;  apart from watching the fish which – to be fair – included sharks, giant crabs, conger eels, turtles, porpoises and octopi, with crocodiles, alligators and seals in large ponds, the entertainments on offer were the skating rink, military bands, refreshments and a reading room.  The Prince of Wales visited in 1881.  The place closed down in 1882.

The building reopened as the Royal Aquarium, extended at the cost of a further £10,000, in 1883.  The major asset of the reopened building was its new manager, an Edgware Road caterer, John William Nightingale.  He engaged such crowd-pulling celebrities as Sir Ernest Shackleton, Oscar Wilde, General William Booth and David Lloyd George.

There’s clearly limited demand for gazing at fish.  The Scarborough People’s Palace & Aquarium of 1875-7 [see Scarborough’s Rotunda] ultimately became an amusement arcade.

J W Nightingale became a power in the Great Yarmouth entertainment industry:  by the time of his death in 1911, he had purchased the Royal Aquarium, bought and replaced the old wooden Britannia Pier and also owned the Theatre Royal, the Royal Assembly Rooms and the Royal and Victoria Hotels.

In 1925 the Aquarium tanks were stripped out and a second “Little Theatre” auditorium added.

In a further refurbishment in 1970, the remaining evidence of the original Aquarium decoration briefly came to light.  In what had been the Grand Saloon, 193 feet by 60 feet, Doulton tiling depicting freshwater birds on one side and sea-birds on the other was found in situ, and a bread-oven was discovered in the basement, extending thirty feet under Euston Road.

When I ran the Norfolk’s Seaside Heritage tour in September 2011 I asked the manager, Paul Allen, if there was any possibility of seeing these remains.

Understandably he was disinclined to rip up the floorboards on a Saturday morning.

One day in the future, when this long-lived building is adapted to yet another use, vestigial remains of its original purpose will once again see daylight.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 27, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Llandudno Marine Drive & Lighthouse

The connection between Llandudno and Alice in Wonderland is never knowingly undersold – http://www.wonderland.co.uk/llandudno and http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/tauspace/llandudno.htm and http://www.attractionsnorthwales.co.uk/news/324/llandudno-s-connections-with-alice-in-wonderland – even though it’s entirely spurious.

Dean Henry Liddell, father of the real Alice, purchased an unpromising plot on the West Shore from the Mostyn Estate and built an elaborate Gothic villa which he called Penmorfa, “the end of the shore”.

The house was completed in 1862:  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was inspired to write Alice in Wonderland by a boat-trip on the River Isis near Oxford on July 4th 1862, and completed his manuscript in February 1863;  there is no record of him visiting Llandudno during that period.

This didn’t prevent the construction of the white-marble statue of Alice, unveiled by David Lloyd George in 1933.  Strenuous attempts to protect this twee souvenir from vandalism eventually led to its removal to the middle of a lake:  http://www.northwalesweeklynews.co.uk/conwy-county-news/local-conwy-news/2011/06/30/llandudno-s-alice-in-wonderland-statue-to-moved-to-a-safer-location-55243-28963871.

There’s a much better story about Alice Liddell than anything to do with Lewis Carroll.

When the Liddells first came to Llandudno the only route around the Great Orme was a precipitous walkway called Cust’s Path, built in 1856-8.  This was so vertiginous that when he came to stay at Penmorfa W E Gladstone had to be blindfolded and led to safety by Dean Liddell and his family, including Alice.

Cust’s Path was adapted for road vehicles between 1872 and 1878 as the four-mile Marine Drive.  Building it wiped out the last remaining cave-dwelling on the Great Orme, occupied by Isaiah and Miriam Jones.  Isaiah was famous for having attempted to fly using seagull’s wings attached to his arms:  his wife nursed him to a full recovery and he lived into his eighties.

She lived to the age of 91, dying in 1910, and protested that having brought up thirteen children in a cave she disliked the more modern accommodation she was given in compensation for her eviction.  From her Welsh name, Miriam yr Ogof, “Miriam of the Cave”, her many descendants are still nicknamed ’R’ogo.

You can ride round the Marine Drive in a vintage coach [http://www.alpine-travel.co.uk/vintagecoaches.htm], drive round it on payment of a toll, or walk.  Half way round is the Rest-and-be-thankful Caféhttp://www.restandbethankful.net.

You can even stay at the Lighthouse, built by the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board in 1862 and now a sumptuous bed-and-breakfast guest-house:  http://www.lighthouse-llandudno.co.uk.

Near the western end are the fragmentary remains of what was called Gogarth Abbey but is in fact the thirteenth-century palace of the Bishop of Bangor, Anian, his reward from King Edward I for baptising his eldest son, the first English Prince of Wales and later King Edward II.

Dean Liddell’s Penmorfa, which for years was the Gogarth Abbey Hotel, was demolished, despite protests, after a botched restoration attempt, in 2008:  see http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/2008/11/20/llandudno-s-alice-in-wonderland-house-to-be-demolished-55578-22298706 and http://www.greatorme.org.uk/Trail13.html.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 25, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Llandudno Grand Hotel & Pier

Llandudno Pier is one of the finest unspoilt British piers, and it’s always been my favourite because it’s the one I remember, as a child, still in use for its original purposes.

Seaside piers were, after all, primarily landing stages, which quickly gained an entertainment function because they offered landlubber holidaymakers the experience of being out at sea without the inconvenience of sea-sickness.

The main section of the Llandudno Pier by the engineer James Brunlees, 1,200 feet long, opened on August 1st 1877.  The Baths, Reading Room and Billiard Hall alongside were reopened as the Baths Hotel in 1879, and a spur was added linking the Pier to the promenade in 1884.  Alongside this the Pier Pavilion, a huge glass structure 204 feet long and between 84 and 104 feet wide, was opened in September 1886.  Its basement contained a swimming pool 160 feet by 48 feet, then one of the largest in existence.

The Baths Hotel was replaced in 1900 by the existing Grand Hotel, designed by James Francis Doyle.  The Pier Pavilion, having stood derelict in the ownership of a developer who famously didn’t develop, was destroyed by fire on February 13th 1994:  [See http://llandudnoandcolwynbay.blogspot.com/2009/07/pier-pavilion-llandudno.html and http://llandudnoandcolwynbay.blogspot.com/2009/08/exploration.html].

When we stayed in Llandudno in the 1950s one of the highlights was a paddle-steamer trip from Llandudno Pier to Menai Bridge and back on one or other of the Liverpool & North Wales Steamship Company steamships, St Tudno or St Seiriol [http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/LNWSS3.html].

The trip, which we did on more than one occasion, included chugging round the enigmatically inaccessible Puffin Island, with its mysterious hill top tower, and gazing from Telford’s suspension bridge at the beached wreck of HMS Conway.

Puffin Island [Ynys Seiriol] was part of the Bulkeley family’s Baron Hill estate, of which the derelict Palladian house by Samuel Wyatt is illustrated at http://www.welshruins.co.uk/photo2076816.html and http://www.urbexforums.co.uk/showthread.php/10992-Baron-Hill-Mansion-Beaumaris-Jan-2011.

The tower forms part of the remains of one of the stations on the semaphore telegraph system that brought news of incoming ships from Holyhead to Liverpool [see Frank Large’s detailed study, Faster Than the Wind: A History of and a Guide to the Liverpool to Holyhead Telegraph (Avid 1998)].  More details of the island, and the opportunity to take a close look at it, are at http://www.photographers-resource.co.uk/locations/Routes/Islands/LG/Anglesey/Puffin_Island.htm.

What we knew as HMS Conway was originally HMS Nile, launched in 1839 and used as a Liverpool-based training vessel until, while being towed through the Menai Strait in 1953, she grounded and broke her back.  She was eventually destroyed by fire three years later.  A detailed account is at http://www.hmsconway.org/RootFolder/Assets/Home_Page.htm.

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company maintained a tenuous steamer service to and from Llandudno Pier, and the celebrated PS Waverley and MV Balmoral made occasional visits until the landing stage was declared unsafe in 2007.

Nevertheless, the Pier itself appears to be in good order, and it’s an essential part of the Llandudno experience to stroll to the end of the pier, watch the fishermen and have either a cup of tea or an alcoholic drink in the bar, very much as the Victorian patrons would have done 130 years ago.

Descriptions of Llandudno Pier are at http://www.piers.org.uk/pierpages/NPSllandudno.html and http://the-pier.co.uk/llandudno-pier.

Blog-articles about other piers are at Last resort in YorkshireStars on the streetEnd of the pier showExploring Australia 10:  St Kilda and Wasting asset.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Llandudno North Shore

Llandudno is a beautifully unspoilt Victorian holiday resort because the freeholds are still largely owned by the Mostyn Estate, which dictated the layout, the width of the streets and the height of the buildings, and has never allowed razzmatazz on the seafront (or anywhere else, for that matter):  http://www.mostyn-estates.co.uk/history.htm.

In the 1830s, before anyone even thought of building a holiday resort, it could have been a replacement for Holyhead.

At the beginning of the age of steam railways, there was a problem in speeding up the Irish mails that went by horse-drawn stage-coach along Thomas Telford’s road across Anglesey because the Admiralty insisted on a high-level bridge over the Menai Strait. 

George Stephenson seriously suggested drawing railway carriages by cable across Telford’s suspension road-bridge of 1826, which couldn’t cope with the weight of even the earliest locomotives.

The St George’s Harbour & Railway Company proposed a rail-served new port, to be called St George, beside the Great Orme.  This would bring the journey-time from London to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in good weather to 19½ hours, and avoid the need for a high-level railway bridge to cross the Menai Straits.

A rival scheme to avoid Anglesey was proposed between London, Worcester, Bala, Ffestiniog, Tremadog and Pwllheli to a port at Porthdinllaen, the only safe haven on the north-west coast of the Lleyn peninsula.  The Porthdinllaen Harbour Company, originally established in 1804-8, apparently still exists:  its premises on what would have been the harbour-front now belong to the National Trust:  http://www.walesdirectory.co.uk/Towns_in_Wales/Porth_Dinllaen_Town.htm.

Neither scheme gained much favour:  the Railway Magazine of October 1838 argued that if Irish ferries had to pass Holyhead they might as well also pass Ormes Bay and sail directly into Liverpool.

Both schemes were rejected by a Treasury Commission in 1839-40, which accepted the Admiralty’s uncompromising view that Ormes Bay and Porthdinllaen were alike “mere roadsteads”.

So instead, the Mostyn estate developed the flat land between the Great and Little Orme promontories from 1849 onwards as a holiday resort which became known, after the church of St Tudno on the headland, as Llandudno.

It’s perhaps as well:  the idea of carrying the Irish mails through Wales via a harbour named after the English patron saint was, at the very least, tactless.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2011

Category:Manx HeritageFun Palaces

Cunningham’s Douglas Holiday Camp Escalator, Isle of Man

Margaret, one of the guests on the recent Liverpool’s Heritage tour, asked me out of the blue what I knew about Dodd’s holiday camp at Caister, Norfolk.  Absolutely nothing, I had to admit.

I promised to check it out, and found that I’d missed an important landmark in the history of twentieth-century British holidays.

John Fletcher Dodd was a 44-year-old grocer and magistrate and a founder-member of the Independent Labour Party who bought a couple of acres of land on the Norfolk coast to set up the Caister Socialist Holiday Camp in 1906.

This was by any standards a spartan affair – teetotal, segregated and entirely tented (though wooden chalets appeared from 1912, and a later picture shows fifteen Great Yarmouth tram bodies lined up on the cliffs, open-toppers which must have been ideal for sunbathing).

The entertainment consisted of camp-fire sing-songs and lectures from such figures as Keir Hardie and George Bernard Shaw.  There were blanket bans on alcohol, mixed bathing, swearing and children under two.

Over the years, the regime softened and the socialist ethic was moderated.  John Fletcher Dodd stayed firmly in charge until he died, aged ninety, in 1952, the year after the camp reopened post-war.  It’s still in business as Caister Caravan Holiday Park:  http://www.haven.com/parks/norfolk/caister/index.aspx.

Its centenary produced a plethora of celebratory news features in the Daily Express [http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/395/CARRYING-ON-CAMPINGCARRYING-ON-CAMPINGCARRYING-ON-CAMPINGCARRYING-ON-CAMPINGCARRYING-ON-CAMPINGCARRYING-ON-CAMPINGCARRYING-ON-CAMPINGCARRYING-ON-CAMPING], the Daily Mail [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1200465/Torremolinos-aint-Holiday-snaps-bygone-age-bonny-babies-knobbly-knees-holiday-camps-Fifties-Britain.html], the Daily Mirror [http://www.mirror.co.uk/advice/travel/2006/01/07/hi-de-hi-comrades-115875-16556808], The Sun [http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/travel/38427/Tons-up-for-holiday-camps.html?print=yes] and the Black Country Bugle [http://www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk/News/Happy-Campers-who-caught-the-holiday-bug-2.htm], among others.

Though Dodd claimed to be the founder of the British holiday camp, there was an earlier pioneer in the Isle of Man.  Joseph Cunningham was a Presbyterian baker from Liverpool who established a tented camp for single men only at Howstrake, on the newly-opened electric railway line, in 1894.

After a devastating storm in 1903 Joseph Cunningham relocated to a five-acre site in Little Switzerland, in Upper Douglas, where he provided 1,500 eight-man tents and a dining pavilion.  The regime was teetotal and the camp was largely self-sufficient, growing its own fruit and vegetables and maintaining its own herds of cows and pigs.

To the annoyance of Douglas hotel and boarding-house proprietors, the tented camp was rated as agricultural land, so the entire property was valued at only one-seventh the value of a forty-room boarding house.  Joseph Cunningham justified this by arguing that his thousands of visitors could not otherwise afford to visit the island and yet contributed significantly to the summer-season economy. 

Cunningham himself could afford to fly his own monoplane between the wars, taking off and landing at a field near the camp.

Cunningham’s Camp survived into the post-war period, but the site is now redeveloped.

A surviving curiosity is the Cunningham’s Douglas Holiday Camp Escalator, installed in 1920, duplicated in 1938, and abandoned in 1968.  To practical purposes a sedentary paternoster, this noisy device to give campers a lift from the promenade operated free of charge until 1963.  It is still in position, and is illustrated in Charles Guard’s video/DVD, More Curiosities of the Isle of Man (Manx Heritage Foundation 2004) [http://www.dukevideo.com/General-Interest/DVD/Isle-of-Man/More-Curiosities-of-Isle-of-Man-DVD.aspx].

Update:  A press-release in February 2013 announced the imminent demolition of the chairlift:  http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/isle-of-man-news/cunningham-s-holiday-camp-chairlift-to-be-scrapped-1-5375099.

For details of the Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 7, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Britannia Music Hall, Sheffield (1984)

Britannia Music Hall, Sheffield (1984)

The surviving mid-nineteenth century music halls in the UK can almost be counted on one hand – Wilton's [see The handsomest hall in town and Theatrical roots] and the Hoxton Hall in London, the Old Malt Cross and the Talbot (now Yates's Wine Lodge) in Nottingham, the City Varieties in Leeds and the Britannia in Glasgow.  Sheffield had a couple of surviving examples until the 1990s, and one of them at least was worth saving.

In the second half of the nineteenth century West Bar, which runs along the valley floor below the hill on which the town centre had grown, was what the journalist Steve McClarence described as "the Shaftesbury Avenue of the Sheffield working man".  Here stood the Surrey Music Hall, which burnt down spectacularly in 1865, the Bijou (which survived as a tacky cinema into the 1930s), the London Apprentice (demolished in the 1970s) and the Gaiety, of which fragments survived until it was demolished c2000 to clear space for the Inner Ring Road.

The Gaiety in its heyday was owned by Louis Metzger, a pork-butcher.  He kept a musical pig called Lucy who, if plied with beer, would sing – as indeed a pig owned by a pork-butcher might.

The Britannia Music Hall on West Bar stood literally next door to the former police- and fire-station that is now the South Yorkshire Fire Police Museum[http://www.firepolicemuseum.org.uk].  Built on the back-land behind the older Tankard Tavern, it dated from around the mid-1850s, and was superseded by bigger, better and more central variety theatres in the 1890s.

Incredibly, it survived as a bathroom showroom, intact but altered with a floor built across the proscenium and a lift-shaft at the back of the auditorium, and was described in detail by historian Andrew Woodfield in 1978.  When I first encountered it in 1984 it was Pink Champagne, providing wedding goods and, it appeared, a venue for wedding receptions.

In February 1988, by which time it was operating as Harmony Wedding World, Ian McMillan and the late Martyn Wiley broadcast their BBC Radio Sheffield Saturday-morning show from the Britannia and an actor called Stuart Howson (whose great-grandfather had managed the Regent Theatre in the east end of Sheffield) gave the final performance, a couple of verses of a Victorian ballad, 'The best of the bunch'.

Later the building became Door World and then, just as Sheffield City Council prepared to put a preservation order on it in 1992, it went up in flames and was quickly demolished.

There was much hand-wringing by the Council, the Hallamshire Historic Buildings Society, the Theatres Trust and the site-owners, West Bar Partnership who (in The Stage, April 4th 1992) "expressed regret".  The fact remains that conservationists have to win every battle, while the developer only has to win one.

The space where the Britannia stood is now used for car sales.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 5, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Wilton's Music Hall 2

Wilton's Music Hall, exterior (1985)

Wilton's Music Hall, described in the previous article [see The handsomest hall in town], stands in a corner of London that you'd never imagine is steeped in theatrical history.

Beside the railway viaduct from Fenchurch Street Station is the site of the very first London Theatre, built in 1577 and twenty years later surreptitiously dismantled by William Shakespeare's company to be re-erected as the Globe Theatre on the Southwark side of the river.

In Leman Street stood Goodman's Fields Theatre, opened in 1729 and closed in 1742, where David Garrick (1717-1779) made his London debut as Richard III in 1740.  In Wellclose Square, the actor John Palmer (c1742-1798) ill-advisedly built the Royalty Theatre (1787) without a licence:  it became the East London Theatre before it burnt down in 1826.

Nearby in Ensign Street there are a series of innocuous-looking Grade II listed bollards inscribed with the monogram RBT.  This commemorates the Royal Brunswick Theatre which collapsed in February 1828, shortly after the opening night.  Charles Dickens' account of this disaster can be found at http://anengineersaspect.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/collapse-of-brunswick-theatre-february.html.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 3, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Wilton's Music Hall

At the gym I sit on the exercise-bike, retarding the ageing process and idly watching the music-video channel on the flat-screen TV.  Much of the footage is pretentious twaddle, but it's entertaining to spot the locations used.  Recently I noticed some dramatically lit, high-powered dancing going on around barley-sugar columns that could only be Wilton's Music Hall, in Grace's Alley, Tower Hamlets, built in 1858 behind an earlier pub called the Prince of Denmark, otherwise known as the Old Mahogany Bar.

Like many music halls, Wilton's auditorium was built on back-land behind an existing pub.  Invisible from the street, it was, and is, entered through the pub frontage in a terrace of five houses.  John Wilton intended his spacious hall to be used purely for variety entertainment:  the proscenium is set high above the auditorium floor and there is no wing-space to speak of.

The helical twist 'barley-sugar' columns support the balcony of one of the few surviving pub music-halls of the mid-nineteenth century.  Its bombé-fronted balcony is decorated with papier-mâché gilded leaves and flowers.  The original flat floor was gently raked after a serious fire in 1877, yet it was clearly originally intended for patrons to sit at tables to drink, rather than in seated rows to watch.

Like most such halls it closed shortly after the passing of the Metropolis Management Act of 1878, which tightened the licensing requirements for auditoria, and it became a Wesleyan Mission Hall from 1888 to 1956 and then a rag-warehouse.

It was rescued by the Greater London Council ten years later, and a series of restoration schemes gradually brought it back to life.  Richard Attenborough used it as a location in Chaplin (1992) in a scene where Geraldine Chaplin plays her grandmother, Hannah.

Now it is in the care of the Wilton's Music Hall Trust, with a varied diet of entertainments and a full diary of private bookings, including music-video shoots.  Their website http://www.wiltons.org.uk includes full details of what's on and an excellent virtual tour.

Update:  The Ancient Monuments Society Newsletter (Autumn 2012) reports that Wilton's Music Hall has been awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £1,641,800.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 8, 2011

Category:Liverpool's HeritageFun Palaces

Liverpool Everyman Theatre (1978)

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool (1978)

Almost opposite Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral stands – for a short while longer – an undistinguished building of huge cultural importance.

The former Hope Hall, a nonconformist chapel of 1837, after many transformations, became the Everyman Theatre in 1964.  This was the cockpit of artists, writers and playwrights in the great wave of Liverpool’s prominence that followed the success of the Beatles.

The poets Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, the playwrights Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell, and a cluster of actors including Bernard Hill, Anthony Sher, Julie Walters and the late Pete Postlethwaite were associated with the building before and after a further rebuilding in 1975-7.  The premieres of Willy Russell's John, Paul, George, Ringo...and Bert (1974) and Shirley Valentine (1986) took place at the Everyman Theatre.

The building was also celebrated for its Everyman Bistro, founded in 1970 by Paddy Byrne and Dave Scott in the basement.  Here was as good a buffet as you could find in Liverpool, and a convivial atmosphere without rival.

Now the Everyman is to be replaced by an entirely new building and you can watch the process, day by day, at http://www.everymanplayhouse.com/content/Home/AboutUs/NewEveryman/LiveCam.aspx.  Sooner or later, you’ll see the queue for the reopening.

Sarah Horton and Ronnie Hughes’ film tribute to the Everyman Bistro is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EibgxJnWMKU&feature=player_embedded.

The opening season at the new Everyman begins on Saturday March 8th 2014 with Twelfth Nighthttp://www.everymanplayhouse.com/show/Twelfth_Night/1031.aspx.

Posted by: mike on Aug 27, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightFun Palaces

Blackpool tram 147

When I last stayed in Blackpool for a birthday celebration we took a walk along the North Pier at dusk.  On the way back to the promenade I ended up in conversation with two siblings, Richard, who was twelve but looked sixteen and had lost a tooth in a rugby match, and Natalie, eighteen, who was about to read medieval history at a university of her choice.

Natalie, who’s grown up down south and whose immediate family usually holidays abroad, was fascinated by the unfamiliarity of being in the great working-class resort of the north-west.  I pointed out that the Tower is a vertical pier – sturdy engineering topped with a fairy-tale structure five hundred feet above the sea.  When it opened in 1894 anybody with a few pence in their pocket could stand nearly five hundred feet in the air, an experience otherwise only accessible by balloon.

When we returned to the promenade a tram glided past, one of those huge double-deckers gleaming with light.  I mentioned that Blackpool had one of the first electric street tramways in the world, dating back to 1885.  At least as important, in historical terms, is the fact that the Corporation tramway department pioneered the development of Blackpool’s greatest stroke of municipal acumen.

To mark a royal visit in 1912, the tramway electricians were asked to festoon the promenade with coloured lamps, which drew so many extra visitors that from 1913 onwards, interrupted only by two wars and the General Strike, the Illuminations, as they were called, extended the Blackpool season by anything up to two months, adding to the prosperity of landladies, hoteliers and shopkeepers, enhancing the profits of the railway companies and subsidising the municipal rates from the increased profits of the trams themselves.

It made practical sense, during the busy summer season, for tram engineers to work on the Illuminations, while all their vehicles were needed on the road, and the autumn visitors kept the trams busy to the end of October.  Eventually, a separate Corporation department was established to run the Illuminations, and until the establishment of the National Grid, Blackpool had to buy additional power from Preston Corporation, because their own generating works couldn’t cope with the extra load.

As I pointed out to Natalie, when people go to see the Blackpool Illuminations, they’re doing something essentially Victorian – admiring electricity.

Details of this year’s Illuminations are at http://www.blackpool-illuminations.net.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 13, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureManx HeritageFun Palaces

Queen's Pier, Ramsey, Isle of Man

The Isle of Man used to have a thriving holiday industry.  Well into the twentieth century the island was regarded as more exclusive than the Lancashire resorts of Blackpool and Morecambe, not least because it cost more to reach it.

The Manx holiday economy disappeared astonishingly quickly at the end of the 1960s, and the island economy has since been reinvented.  Tourism survives, up to a point, and many visitors to the island bring their motor-bikes.

It's a pity that one of the grandest mementos of the Manx seaside, the Queen's Pier at Ramsey, has been steadily neglected for twenty years.

Designed by Sir John Coode and constructed by Head, Wrightson & Co of Stockton-on-Tees between 1881 and 1886 at a cost of £40,752, it extended 2,241 feet out into the bay.

A new landing-stage was added in 1899, and before the First World War the pier brought around 35,000 visitors a year from what Manx people call "across".

It ranks highly as a historic and engineering monument among the surviving seaside piers of the British Isles, particularly for its unusual cruciform steel piles [www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=572].  There is a collection of images of the pier at http://www.geograph.org.uk/search.php?i=21927278.

The contractors' three-foot gauge tramway was kept for a hand-propelled baggage van to load and unload passenger steamers.  In 1937 a small petrol locomotive was introduced, and in 1950 this was supplemented by a passenger railcar.

The steamer service stopped in 1970 and though the tramway continued until 1981, after repeated vandalism the pier closed completely in 1991.

In 1994 Tynwald, the Manx Government, decided to mothball the pier, and in the same year the Friends of Ramsey Queen's Pier was formed to safeguard and promote the pier as an asset and a national monument.

It's no accident that on the Friends' website [http://www.queenspier.org], three quarters of the chronological history is given over to the post-1994 controversies over whether to restore the pier or demolish it.

Now, as an indication of positive intent, Tynwald has voted £1,800,000 for minimal maintenance to safeguard the structure for future restoration.

It's a start...

The most romantic evocations of this wasting asset come from the photographer Ray Collister:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/isleofman/hi/people_and_places/newsid_8345000/8345154.stm.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes visit to Ramsey with time to see the Queen's Pier.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 10, 2011

Category:Sheffield's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Sheffield Fat Cat

The Fat Cat is a Sheffield legend:  http://www.thefatcat.co.uk/86index.htm.  It’s not the only award-winning real-ale pub in the city – there’s another round the corner on the next street – but it was the first, and it has a special place in the affections of beer-drinkers.  It welcomes anyone who enjoys civilised traditional conviviality and home-cooked food within easy access of public transport – so you don’t have to drive home (though there’s ample car-parking if you do).

There was a Kelham Tavern on the site by the 1830s.  After the street was named Alma Street to commemorate the Crimean battle of 1854, the pub was renamed the Alma Hotel.

The exact date of the present building is unclear:  it’s of straightforward artisan construction, with a traditional bar inside.  Though it has been extended, the only significant architectural alteration is the blocking of the original corner entrance door.

For many years it was crowded by surrounding housing and the noise and dirt of heavy industry.  Now it’s much quieter.

The saving of the Alma Hotel was Stones’ Brewery’s failure to implement 1952 planning permission to extend the building, doubling the number of bedrooms to eight and creating an open-plan interior.

Because the building survived intact while the local community contracted, it was an ideal location for Dave Wickett and Bruce Bentley’s scheme to reintroduce traditional beers to Sheffield.  They gave the building its current name when they opened in 1981 serving beers from independent breweries.  The first pint was pulled by the much-loved Sheffield football legend, Derek Dooley.

Their policy has proved durable and enormously successful:  good beer well served, home-cooked food ranging from carnivore to vegan, no piped music or gaming machines.  (There is a Monday quiz-night, when for lack of a microphone Stephen the quizmaster flits between rooms shouting the questions and answers.)

Dave Wickett became sole owner in 1989 and began brewing beer behind the pub the following year.  Within ten years he built the Kelham Island Brewery next door, and now you can find his beer in real-ale pubs across the country, and buy bottles in Waitrose.

Dave Wickett died, aged 64, on May 16th 2012:  http://www.thestar.co.uk/community/real-ale-legend-who-revitalised-city-dies-64-1-4554900.  The Fat Cat is a memorial to a man who added a great deal to the sum of human happiness.

Posted by: mike on Jul 21, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Grand Hotel, Scarborough

The Grand Hotel, Scarborough dominates the resort’s South Bay.  Its eggcup domes provide an unmistakable skyline, and the wedge-shaped plan, built into the cliff-side, enables it to overlook both the South Bay and the Valley.

Designed by Cuthbert Brodrick, the architect of Leeds Town Hall and the Leeds Corn Exchange, it belongs to the first generation of British hotels on the American pattern of public rooms combined with suites and bedrooms.

Brodrick provided an elaborate top-lit central hall and staircase, and the coffee-room and drawing room each measured 110ft × 80ft with bow windows facing South Cliff and the Spa.

Nikolaus Pevsner characterised its style as “Mixed Renaissance...[with a] touch of Quattrocento...a High Victorian gesture of assertion and confidence, of denial of frivolity and insistence on substance”.  It cost £66,000 to build and opened in 1867.

Legend has it that Brodrick contrived the design to include four towers to represent the seasons, twelve floors for the months, 52 chimneys for the weeks and 365 bedrooms for the days of the year.  If so, it’s a measure of the opulence of the place that the modern configuration, with en-suite facilities, provides 382 bedrooms.

Nowadays the Grand is “grand” in the Yorkshire sense.  After years as a Butlin’s hotel it now belongs to the Britannia chain which owns, among others, the Liverpool Adelphi [see Adelphi adventures].  As such it offers budget accommodation in palatial surroundings, with sometimes interesting dissonances.  The last time I walked in the PA system was playing Gene Pitney’s 1964 hit ‘Twenty-four hours from Tulsa’.

In recent years the Grand Hotel has had some unfortunate publicity.  The building now wears a vast hairnet because, apparently, the mating cries of the seagulls disturbed the guests.  In other places, the reverse might have been the case.

The Wikipedia entry is interesting, but its neutrality is disputed:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Hotel_(Scarborough).  For the moment, the entry carries a health warning.  As well it might.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 19, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras Station (1977)

Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras Station:  grand staircase (1977)

 St Pancras Renaissance Hotel (2011)

 St Pancras Renaissance Hotel:  grand staircase (2011)

How very satisfying to see the former Midland Grand Hotel [see Midland Grand] finally restored and fully operational as the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which opened in May 2011.

And what a pleasure to be shown round by the Hotel Historian, Royden Stock.  Royden has been associated with the building throughout its recent restoration, and has an unrivalled archaeological knowledge of the building.

I learnt from him, for instance, that English Heritage insistence that the grand staircase should be restored to its 1901 decoration, red with gold fleur-de-lis, obscures the much lighter original scheme, cream with a dado rail and scroll decoration to echo Skidmore’s ironwork.

He also reports that what were thought to be iron spandrels underneath the stair-treads are in fact fibrous plaster, which makes me wonder whether George Gilbert Scott would ever sanction such deceit, or whether they too date from 1901.

There is, oddly, no photograph of the staircase dating before 1901.

The original stair carpet was, unsurprisingly, unusable and a sample length woven to the original colours proved wildly garish because it was designed for the original cream colour-scheme, so the fitted carpet that stretches three floors up and down the staircase and reappears elsewhere in the building is newly woven to the faded colours of the original.

There’s an inevitable tension in taking a historic tour of a working hotel.  Royden Stock is adept at circumnavigating ongoing events to show visitors on any particular day as much of the building as possible.  He can’t, of course, provide access to the private apartments on the Euston Road wing of the building.  The smart advice, from a man who ought to know, is that tours booked at the weekend are likely to be more comprehensive than those in the middle of the week.

The refreshments at the end of the tour were worth waiting for, though the service was several stars short of the Renaissance aspiration, perhaps because the hotel was extremely busy on the day I visited.  Some members of my group were put out by this, but I considered Royden’s guiding alone was worth £20, and to me the pot of tea and an empty croissant was incidental – welcome, but not serious hospitality.

I hope Royden writes a book about St Pancras.  His knowledge will add greatly to the existing literature on the station and the hotel.

Tours of St Pancras can be booked at www.stpancrasrenaissance.co.uk.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture on St Pancras Station and the Midland Grand Hotel please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 16, 2011

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (1987)

While the Adelphi Cinema lay dark [see Picture palace gathers dust] Sheffield’s other listed cinema building found a practical use as a performance building.

I’ve a soft spot for the Abbeydale Cinema.  Though I only ever once saw a film there, I repeatedly visited it in the 1980s when it was an office-equipment showroom – an unexpected fate for a superannuated cinema.  The company that bought it, A & F Drake Ltd, sold filing cabinets and office desks in the stalls and balcony, and separately operated the former ballroom and billiard hall in the basement as a snooker club.  The Drakes and their manager, Ian Humphreys, repeatedly allowed me to take adult-education groups to see the place from top to bottom, and on one occasion Ian McMillan and Martyn Wiley broadcast Radio Sheffield’s Saturday morning show live from the Abbeydale auditorium.

Because the Drakes had the imagination to find a productive use for the building – they regarded it as a better customer attraction than an anonymous box on a trading estate – it survived intact long enough to attract the attention of a Friends’ group who are restoring it as a venue for film and amateur dramatics.  Cinemas in the 1920s featured live performance as well as silent movies, and the Abbeydale had an organ – long ago destroyed – and still has a full-scale stage with wings, fly-tower and dressing-rooms.

Even more interesting is the iron safety-curtain, which has remained in situ even after Drakes jacked up the stage-floor six feet to create more space for their wares.  This must date back to the 1920s, but its unique interest is the complete set of painted advertisements that faced audiences between films.  Clifford Shaw, the greatest living expert on Sheffield cinemas, has dated the existing adverts to the 1950s.  Ian Humphreys observed to me in the 1980s that all but one of the businesses advertised had by that time folded.  The Cinema Theatre Association reports that, to the best of their knowledge, no other cinema safety-curtain survives with contemporary advertisements, and for this reason is supporting the proposal to upgrade the listing.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 10, 2011

Category:Fun PalacesExploring Chicago

Chicago Auditorium

It's easy to walk straight past Chicago's Auditorium Building (1889) on South Michigan Avenue.  Once the tallest building in the city, it's now one of the magnificent group of structures that form the "streetwall" overlooking Grant Park.

The philanthropist Ferdinand Wythe Peck (1848-1924), supported by such luminaries as Marshall Field (1834-1906) and George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897), intended it as a major cultural centre and with a strongly egalitarian emphasis, following the bitter and tragic Haymarket Riot of 1886, which first provoked the celebration of May Day as a workers' festival.

Peck wanted a civic auditorium that would provide equally good sight-lines and acoustics for every seat and, as originally conceived, no private boxes.  Built at a cost of $3,200,000, it was one of the earliest American buildings to be air-conditioned and lit by incandescent electric lights.

The Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler combined in one structure a 4,300-seat auditorium, a speculative office block and a 400-room hotel.  Adler designed a foundation raft of railroad ties (railway sleepers, in British terminology) and steel rails to support the ten-storey structure, with its seventeen-storey tower, on the deep bed of clay beneath.

Unfortunately, the weight of the load-bearing exterior walls led to spectacular settlement, in places over 2½ feet, so that to this day the lobby floor slopes perceptibly.  Nevertheless, Sullivan & Adler's practice moved into an office suite on the top floor of the tower, where the young Frank Lloyd Wright served his apprenticeship as a draughtsman.

The auditorium is magical:  the ceiling arches are embellished with 24-carat gold leaf and the walls are elaborated stencilled to Sullivan's designs.  Albert Francis Fleury painted murals of Spring and Autumn on the side walls and Charles Holloway decorated the proscenium with forty-five life-size classical figures, all inspired by Louis Sullivan's poetry.

The building has provided the venue for many milestones in Chicago's cultural life:  it hosted the Republican National Convention in 1888, the year before the building was completed;  it was the venue for the debut of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891.

However, the Symphony Orchestra moved out in 1904 and the opera company followed in 1929.  The office space proved difficult to sell because of the noise of the elevated railway on South Wabash Avenue, and the hotel failed to thrive because newer competitors featured en-suite bathrooms.

The only reason the building survived the 1930s was because it was too expensive to demolish.  In 1941 the theatre company went bankrupt.  During the war it was used as a servicemen's entertainment centre, with a bowling alley on the stage and front stalls.

In 1947 the Auditorium Building was sold for $1 to the then Roosevelt College, now Roosevelt University.  The hotel rooms became classrooms and the former dining room became the college library.  A group led by Mrs Beatrice T Spachner campaigned for the restoration and reopening of the derelict auditorium, which took place in 1967.  The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975, and a further, thorough restoration took place in 2001.

The Auditorium has a regular programme of performances – http://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/wb/pages/home/performances-events/performances.php – and Roosevelt University offers public tours of the building:  http://auditoriumtheatre.org/wb/pages/home/education/historic-theatre-tours.php.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here

Posted by: mike on Jul 4, 2011

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe, Sheffield (1982)

Former Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe, Sheffield (1985)

When the Victorian Society South Yorkshire Group ran a historic walk of Attercliffe in 2010, one of the buildings they were able to point out was the Adelphi Cinema (1920), one of Sheffield's two listed cinemas and currently a cause for conservationist concern.

Originally located up a cul-de-sac, it has an interesting façade of buff and blue faience with a stubby little dome, designed to catch the eye.  Now that the surrounding buildings have been cleared, it's more visible from the main road and forms one of a group of historic buildings alongside the former Attercliffe Baths (1879), the former Attercliffe Library (1894) and one of Attercliffe's two Burton's stores.

All these survive alongside the Don Valley Stadium, formerly Brown Bayley's steelworks, and shortly to be redeveloped:  there seems to be an opportunity waiting to be taken to develop the possibilities of this location.  The Baths and the Library have been converted into rather sterile office and conference facilities, which at least safeguards the fabric, but the Adelphi is more of a problem.

It closed as a cinema in 1967, and operated as a bingo club until well into the 1980s.  There was a project to take advantage of its elegant classical interior as a gay club, and eventually it was transformed into a rock venue.  It's listed Grade II, which does nothing to keep the rain out.  Though it appears to be in fair condition, it badly needs a sympathetic owner and a way of earning its keep.

Now that the Stadium has gone, the area is largely deserted apart from the patrons of a couple of pubs and restaurants and the rather sad massage parlours up the road.

Yet the Adelphi stands on the main road between Sheffield, Rotherham and the M1 motorway.  There's no shortage of car-parking.

It's a possibility waiting to be turned into a practicality.

For details of the Victorian Society South Yorkshire Group's future events and conservation activities, go to http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/south-yorkshire.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 2, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Pavilion Cinema, Attercliffe, Sheffield (1982)

Another building that the Victorian Society South Yorkshire group couldn't visit during their Attercliffe walk in 2010 was the Pavilion Cinema, opened in 1915 and eventually demolished in 1982.

Though the original plans show that a classical interior was intended, in fact the auditorium was mock-Tudor, with black-and-white timbering, strapwork and lanterns as house-lights.  The auditorium was distinguished by side boxes, as in a theatre, very popular with couples:  the cinema management had an interesting strategy of pricing these box seats at 3/- for five people.

The Pavilion was converted to bingo briefly in 1970 and then became an Asian cinema:  at some point the owners repainted the entire auditorium in raspberry pink and two shades of blue.

When demolition began, in the innocent days before security fencing, I explored and photographed the entire building, primarily because it was one of the two Attercliffe cinemas that my parents patronised regularly on Saturday nights.  (My dad, who wasn't nicknamed "Scottie" for nothing, declared around 1954 that we wouldn't buy a television because they'd soon be making colour ones.)

I alerted the Victorian Society to the imminent demise of this unusual building, to be told that no-one had any idea how unusual it was, because no survey of Sheffield cinemas had been attempted.

So I tramped around the city checking out the survivors and was briefly the greatest living expert on the subject until Richard Ward produced his book In Memory of Sheffield Cinemas (Sheffield City Libraries 1988).  (I happen to know that Richard wanted the book to be titled A Memory... but made the common error of dictating his intention over the phone.)

I'll always have a soft spot for the Pavilion, not so much because it was part of my childhood as because it kick-started my interest in the architecture of the entertainment industry, and led me to run continuing-education courses and study tours about pubs, theatres, cinemas and the seaside under the umbrella title 'Fun Palaces'.

And that has proved to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of all my history work.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 21, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Grand Hotel, Mundesley

Former Grand Hotel, Mundesley

As you drive along the tortuous coast road through the Poppyland area of north Norfolk, after passing through Overstrand, Sidestrand and Trimingham you may notice on the horizon two large Victorian hotels looming incongruously over the landscape.

This is Mundesley, a former fishing village that was aggrandised into a resort in the mid-1890s as the railway at last penetrated to this remote corner.  The station opened as the terminus of a line from North Walsham in 1898.  In 1908 it was extended through to Cromer Beach.  Its three platforms, each six hundred feet long, were never remotely necessary.  It closed in 1964 and is now virtually obliterated.

The East Coast Estates Company was established in the 1890s by an architect with the unfortunate name of Mr Silley.  Streets were laid out on the West Cliff and given the name Cliftonville.  Two brickworks opened.  The Clarence Hotel (1891), which is now a care home, and the Grand Hotel (1897), which is apparently being converted to apartments, stare out to sea, grandiose statements of opulence and unfulfilled ambition.  The Manor Hotel, built around an earlier dwelling to a design by Bullard & Sons of Norwich in 1900, remains in business – http://www.manorhotelmundesley.co.uk.

Indeed, the most successful enterprise in Mundesley was the Sanatorium, opened in 1899 with an initial capacity of twelve patients, a fine timber prefabricated building by the Norwich architects Boulton & Paul.  This became the Diana Princess of Wales Treatment Centre for Drug and Alcohol Problems in 1997 and closed in 2009:  see http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/showthread.php?t=18049, which links to http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/showthread.php?p=182326#post182326.

One of its early patients was the golfer Harry Vardon (1870-1937), who laid out the Mundesley Golf Club [http://www.mundesleygolfclub.com] in 1901.  He was treated for tuberculosis in the Mundesley Sanatorium in 1903-4, during which time he achieved the only hole-in-one in his entire career.

Of the holiday towns along the Norfolk coast, Mundesley really is the last resort.  Though the population of this quiet place has continued to grow through the twentieth century, the visitors were always thin on the ground.  That's its unique selling point.  It has a beautiful beach, beach huts, a quiet village atmosphere.  It's the ideal place for an away-from-it-all British seaside holiday.  No tat.  No razzamatazz.  The real thing.  Enjoy!

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 19, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Cliftonville Hotel, Cromer

I've stayed twice at the Cliftonville Hotel, Cromer [http://www.cliftonvillehotel.co.uk], so I've observed the architecture at close quarters over a full English breakfast.

The dining room is an impressive example of the exuberance of the Norwich architect, George Skipper, but the archaeology of the building is odd.

According to the material I surfed in the local-studies section of Cromer Library, a local retailer, William Churchyard, built a residence designed by A F Scott in 1894 on the site of Skipper's later extension.  This was a dignified Victorian villa which looks on the only photograph I could find quite different to the existing hotel.

Within a couple of years Churchyard had the elaborate corner building constructed by an unknown architect, and then appears to have demolished the house and replaced it by Skipper's elaborate wing of 1898, which includes a grand staircase, a ballroom and an elegant dining room with a minstrel's gallery.  Why would someone knock down a four-year-old house to extend a hotel over the site?

I could find no clear indication of a domestic structure lurking within the shell of Skipper's 1898 work.  The rooms and floor-levels are entirely logical for a hotel, and I couldn't discern any odd changes of level or oddly positioned doors and windows.

The spaces are impressive and the surroundings – marble fireplaces, dark woodwork and stained glass – add to the enjoyment of staying there.  And the owners have taken care to preserve the electric-bell boards and the instructions for operating the original lift.

I'm still wondering if the history of the building is even more interesting than it looks.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 13, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Great Yarmouth Winter Garden

Winter Garden, Great Yarmouth

Sometimes a man of talent is so attracted to a locality that he invests energy in one place that would otherwise have propelled him to wider fame.  John William Cockrill (1849-1924) left his mark, quite literally, on the neighbouring resorts of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston.  Indeed, Kathryn Ferry's study of his work is entitled 'The maker of modern Yarmouth...'.

Borough Surveyor for forty years from 1882, he gained the nickname 'Concrete' Cockrill, and seems to have enjoyed being identified with this practical and versatile material:  "The reason for so much concrete work in Yarmouth was, of course, its extraordinary durability and cheapness since sand and shingle were provided free of all cost on the beach in such abundant quantities that thousands of tons have been sent to other towns."

He laid out promenades at Yarmouth Marine Parade and in Gorleston, and designed the Gorleston Pavilion (1900), together with Yarmouth's Wellington Gardens, which included an extensive shelter, seating up to seven hundred, and a domed bandstand built of Doulton columns and tiles.

He was responsible for the innovative Wellington Pier Pavilion (1903), using Art Nouveau motifs in a way that prefigured the stripped modernism of inter-war architecture.  It was built around a steel frame, clad in a patented fireproof material called Uralite, a brand-name which Punch thought hilarious.

He also arranged to purchase the Winter Garden from the borough of Torquay, where it had made little profit since its construction in 1878-81, and to re-erect it – without breaking a single pane of glass – in 1904 beside the entrance to the Wellington Pier.

His son, Ralph Scott Cockrill, designed the Yarmouth Hippodrome (1903) and Fastolff House, Regent Street (1908).

When J W Cockrill retired, the Yarmouth Mercury commented,–

If he had set his sails towards other spheres he could have commanded a much more remunerative position but he elected to stay in the place of his birth, because he loved the old town, which he helped to bring up-to-date, and abreast with many seaside resorts.

Cockrill's unbuilt schemes to turn the wooden jetty into Yarmouth's third pier show flair and ambition to make even more of the resort:  private enterprise might have made more of his talent, but he chose to remain a public servant in his home town.  Cockrill may not have gained fame or fortune, but he deserves credit in Yarmouth for being the genius of the place.

Kathryn Ferry's study of J W Cockrill forms a chapter in her collection Powerhouses of provincial architecture, 1837-1914 (Victorian Society 2009), obtainable from http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 9, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Cromer Hotel de Paris

Hotel de Paris, Cromer

Until 1877 Cromer was regarded as a "fashionable watering place".  Its attractions, for those who could afford to stay there, were the cliff scenery, the activities of the fishing trade, and the opportunity to bathe, either in the actual sea using bathing machines, or in bath houses.  Through much of the nineteenth century Cromer remained a very small settlement, and much of the surrounding land remained part of the Cromer Hall estate.

The East Norfolk Railway, first promoted in 1864, opened to North Walsham in 1874, to Gunton two years later, and eventually reached Cromer High Station, a mile away from the town-centre, in 1877.  Ten years later the Eastern & Midlands Railway completed its branch from Melton Constable to the more accessible Cromer Beach Station in 1887.

This provoked a carefully managed expansion of the little town, seeking affluent visitors in small numbers.  A major contributor to this development was the ebullient Norwich architect, George Skipper.  With his brother Frederick, he built the Town Hall (1890), followed by the restrained Grand Hotel (1890-1) on part of the Cromer Hall estate as the flagship development for the western extension of the town.  It was demolished after a fire in April 1969.

A different syndicate employed George Skipper to build the Hotel Metropole (1893-4, demolished 1970s), a more flamboyant design than the Grand, with oriel windows and Skipper's favourite Flemish gables to enliven the roofline.

Though the Grand and the Metropole have now both gone, Skipper's Hotel de Paris, built in 1894 for the proprietor, Alex Jarvis, remains in business.  A virtual rebuilding of a more reticent Georgian building that had been a private residence before it became a hotel in 1830, the Hotel de Paris is the prestigious embodiment of its proud name, with an asymmetrically placed entrance surmounted by a landmark domed tower.  Enlivened by Skipper's favourite material, terra-cotta, it is the most prominent and endearing building in Cromer.

George Skipper's final work in Cromer was the extension of the Cliftonville Hotel in 1898, providing a grand staircase and an elegant dining room that also remains in hotel use [See Breakfast in style].

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Feb 24, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Ossington Coffee Palace, Newark

The temperance movement is one of the aspects of Victorian social history that has strong resonances in the twenty-first century:  powerful moral interests raged against the perils of the demon drink, while much of the population cheerfully imbibed without actually coming to much harm, in much the same way that current political hysteria about illegal substances conflicts with a widespread and partly respectable black market in drugs, some of which appear to be less risky than legal commodities like alcohol and tobacco.

I've been reading some research by Andrew Davison into the history of the temperance movement and the buildings that arose from it.  In many British towns the temperance hall was the most comfortable – and often the only – public meeting-place available for hire other than the upstairs room of a pub.  Temperance billiard halls were common:  Rochdale had six in 1916.

The most startling, to modern eyes, were the coffee palaces, the temperance answer to gin palaces, designed to offer the working man everything he'd find in a pub, but without the temptations of alcohol.

One of the most visible of these is the Ossington Coffee Palace in Newark, Nottinghamshire, designed by Ernest George & Peto and opened in 1882, boasted a ground-floor coffee room instead of a bar, a first-floor assembly room with a reading-room, a library and a club-room and, on the second floor, a billiard room and sleeping accommodation.  There was a tea garden, an American bowling alley and stables for fifty horses.

It is now the Newark branch of the Zizzi restaurant chain and – so they say – haunted:  
http://www.zizzi.co.uk/restaurants/newark.

Its original name is a reminder that it was built, at the considerable cost of over £20,000, as a memorial to John Evelyn Denison, Viscount Ossington (1800-1873), Speaker of the House of Commons from 1857 to 1872, by his widow, Charlotte (1805-1889).

She was the third daughter of the 4th 'Farmer' Duke of Portland, and sister of the eccentric 5th 'Burrowing' Duke [see More country-house railways and Having a ball at Welbeck Abbey] and his political brothers, Lord George and Lord Henry Bentinck.  Another sister married Lord Howard de Walden.

Denison's forbears were Leeds wool merchants, but he inherited the Ossington Hall estate, near Newark, in 1820:  he was educated at Eton and Oxford and served as an MP from the age of 23.  His brothers were respectively Archdeacon of Taunton, Bishop of Salisbury and Governor successively of Tasmania, New South Wales and Madras.

John Evelyn Denison was not thought sufficiently grand to court Charlotte.  Her father resisted an engagement until she seriously threatened to elope.  (The story is related in a chapter of Charles J Archard, The Portland Peerage Romance (1907) which can be found at http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/portland1907/portland4.htm.)  They married in 1827, but had no children.

Charlotte, Viscountess Ossington's bequest to the town of Newark appears not to have been a commercial success.  Which is a pity, because some police officers will tell you that they don't spend their Saturday nights arresting out-of-control cannabis takers – or coffee drinkers.

Andrew Davison's essay, '"Worthy of the cause": the buildings of the temperance movement' appears in Geoff Brandwood (ed), Living, Leisure and the Law:  eight building types in England, 1800-1914 (Spire Books/Victorian Society 2010):  see http://www.spirebooks.com/lll.html.  It supplements Mark Girouard's account in the first part of chapter 8 of Victorian Pubs (Yale University Press 1984), which is out of print.

Posted by: mike on Jan 7, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesExploring Australia

St Kilda Pier

St Kilda is lively at night, and laid back by day.  It's so easy to nip down there by tram from the centre of Melbourne that I took to eating breakfast and an evening meal there.  On Sunday morning there is a craft market.  When I return to Melbourne next I'll seriously consider staying in St Kilda rather than in Melbourne itself.

It has three living monuments to the history of entertainment – the Palais Theatre, Luna Park and the St Kilda Pier.

The pier has a chequered history.  The original timber jetty was replaced by the present concrete structure on a slightly different alignment.  The charming and much loved pavilion, known locally as the "kiosk", was destroyed by fire in 2003, and as a result of vehemently expressed public opinion was rebuilt in its original form, with a cool, glass-fronted modern extension behind which houses Little Blue [www.stkildapierkiosk.com.au].  Here you can eat either in air-conditioned comfort or wafted by natural breezes:  I had a restorative risotto, while others around me tucked into Sunday brunch.

Beyond the pier and its kiosk is a breakwater, part of which is fenced off as a wildlife reserve.

I liked The St Kilda Pelican [16 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 3182 VIC] for its intriguing wooden veranda with circular openings through which to see and be seen, its relaxed, sunny, morning atmosphere, and its eggs Florentine for breakfast.

There's a plethora of choices for an evening-meal venue at St Kilda Beach.  I stumbled upon The Street Café [www.thestreetcafe.com.au] which I enjoyed so much I made a second visit.  This return visit showed that what I thought was pumpkin and lamb soup the first time was in fact pumpkin and lime.  (I still have trouble with Australian vowels.)  The service at The Street Café is highly polished, and it's possible to sit by the window watching the people go past in the evening sun.  Food and entertainment is what the seaside should be about.

Posted by: mike on Dec 9, 2010

Category:Fun Palaces

Thursford Collection

I wish I'd had the opportunity to meet George Cushing.  He was the man who made the Thursford Collection of showmen's engines, fairground rides, mechanical organs and much else.

By all accounts, he had a magical touch that galvanised steam enthusiasts and beguiled ordinary visitors to Laurel Farm, where from the inter-war period onwards he rescued some 45 steam engines.  Numerous descriptions tell how he would buttonhole visitors on their way out, asking "Did yer loik it, then?"

He was the son of a farm labourer, born in 1904 in the village of Thursford, and left school at the age of 12 to work on the land.  In the early 1920s he began driving steamrollers, and eventually bought one of his own with savings of £225.

He clearly had a head for business:  by the end of the 1930s he had a fleet of fifteen steam rollers and a steam lorry – all in practical use – yet realised that steam was on the way out.  This appalled him:  to discard steam was like selling the crown jewels for scrap, so he began to collect redundant steam engines – road rollers, traction engines and showmen's engines.

Steam enthusiasts made pilgrimages to Laurel Farm, and then ordinary tourists.  He laid a car park, and built a gift shop and café.  He had the combined flair of Fred Dibnah, a generation younger, and Harry Ramsden, a generation older.

After the death of his wife Minnie in 1976 he established the Thursford Trust, to safeguard his life's work from death duties:  the Collection attracts something like 170,000 people a year, 100,000 of them for the Christmas Spectacular, devised by his son John, featuring a cast of over a hundred including dancing penguins and roller-skating milkmaids.  (There are two shows daily from early November until shortly before Christmas;  next year's booking opens at the beginning of January – "we are very sorry we cannot accept bookings before this date":  http://www.thursford.com/christmas-spectacular.aspx.)

There is nothing quite like the Thursford experience.  The crown jewel is the Wurlitzer from the former Paramount Cinema, Leeds (1932), which is played daily by the resident organist, Robert Wolfe.  Alongside the organ is George Cushing's huge collection of engines, mechanical organs and a Gondola switchback.

His Daily Telegraph obituary [March 22nd 2003] describes him as "a millionaire [who] remained a Norfolk country boy at heart".  The website http://www.girdwood.co.uk/britorg4.html pins down the greatness of his achievement precisely:

The shows are what theatre organ should be about – entertainment – and there are just as many children sitting spellbound and enchanted as there are senior citizens.  Thursford has got it right.

Thursford is unmissable:  http://www.thursford.com.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Dec 7, 2010

Category:Fun Palaces

Great Yarmouth Hippodrome

There are two places in Britain where you can experience circus performed in a purpose-built building with a mechanism to convert the ring into a tank for water displays.  One is, of course, the Blackpool Tower Circus [http://www.theblackpooltower.co.uk/index.php], which is famous for where it is and what it is;  the other, a little less well known, is the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome [http://www.hippodromecircus.co.uk], which is unique in the way it belongs to, and continues to reinterpret circus and show-business traditions in exciting new ways.

The owner of the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, Peter Jay, is remembered by a certain generation as the leader of Peter Jay & the Jaywalkers, one-time support band to the Rolling Stones.  He is in fact the descendant of one of Great Yarmouth's showman families, married to Christine, who belongs to the other Great Yarmouth showman family.  Peter told a Daily Telegraph reporter, "When we started going out, everyone thought we were just trying to find out each other's family business secrets." [December 6th 2008].

After Peter and his father first bought the Hippodrome building to forestall a rival bingo operator in 1983, they gradually realised the potential to develop creative, innovative circus entertainment within the old traditions of highly skilled, risky physical performance, using lighting, music and dancers alongside the acrobats, trapeze-artistes – and synchronised swimmers.

The swimmers are the most unusual part of the Hippodrome performance:  as the second half of the show winds towards its finale, four pairs of stagehands unlock the bolts that hold the circus ring in place and it gently sinks into the water tank beneath.  Once, you could see this in a number of places – the London Hippodrome on Leicester Square, the Olympia Theatre in the Liverpool suburb of Everton.  Now only Blackpool and Great Yarmouth operate in Britain, and two others – Moscow and Las Vegas – elsewhere.

Several of Peter and Christine's sons have been directly involved in the present-day show – Ben as the lighting designer, Jack as co-producer and drummer;  Joe, a trained trapeze artist, prefers to work on oil-rigs and other high-building sites.  In fact, one of the joys of working in circus is the way the whole troupe forms a family for the duration of the run.

Watching live circus is an inimitably thrilling experience.  Some people are intimidated by the level of risk that the artistes take on;  for most audiences, that is the sheer wonder of circus.  There are no special effects, though there is certainly a dash of conjuring in the clowning.  The precision, precariousness, athleticism, grace and beauty of the acrobatic acts is unique to this form of entertainment.

Actually, I don't miss the animals.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Dec 4, 2010

Category:Liverpool's HeritageFun Palaces

Liverpool Garston Empire Theatre

Empire Theatre, Garston, Liverpool (2000)

The invaluable newsreel of the current Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin reports that the former Empire Theatre, Garston, in south Liverpool, is threatened with demolition – apparently to make way for a hospital car-park.

That would be a pity.

This modest suburban music hall, with a seating-capacity variously recorded as 876 or 1,040, was built, after several false starts, and opened in 1915.  It lasted as a theatre for barely three years, before becoming a full-time cinema, bravely advertised as "The Scala of the South", with a local news Gazette and an augmented orchestra.

Ironically, for an enterprise with such shaky financial foundations, it prospered in the absence of any nearby super-cinema in the surrounding suburbs.

It eventually closed as a cinema, with a final double bill of Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock and Glenn Ford in The Fastest Guns Alive, on December 8th 1962.  After that it went over to bingo until 2009 – three years of theatre, forty-four years of cinema and forty-seven years of bingo.

When I photographed it in 2000 the auditorium was undivided;  by the following year a suspended floor had been inserted between the balcony and the proscenium, presumably to make the place easier to heat.  Nevertheless, the Theatres Trust website http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/1956-empire-garston 
reports that the building is well-maintained and retains many original features.

The existing building, by an unrecorded architect, was designed as a full-scale theatre, with a thirty-foot proscenium, a stage fifteen feet deep and a tower of seven dressing rooms, and because neither cinema nor bingo required any substantial alteration, it survives as a virtually intact Edwardian music-hall/variety theatre.

It's the classic setting for Mickey Rooney's line, "Let's do the show right here."

It's hard to estimate – because I'm not a Garston resident – whether there's any community need for a compact auditorium with everything needed to return it to live performance.

It's a shame if the car-park can't go somewhere else.

The Cinema Theatre Association website is at http://www.cinema-theatre.org.uk.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's 'lectures' Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry and Liverpool's Heritage please click on the links.

Posted by: mike on Nov 24, 2010

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Hull Tower Cinema

Tower Cinema, Hull (1999)

Earlier articles in this blog have featured auditoria across the north of England that have been neglected to varying degrees by owners who would like to see them flattened – in Bradford (see Hug the Odeon), Manchester (see Hug another Odeon) and Derby (see Bringing the house down).

The November/December 2010 edition of the Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin featured a cinema building with a more optimistic future – the former Tower Cinema, Hull.

The Tower opened on July 1st 1914, designed by the Hull architect, Horace Percival Binks.  Originally it seated 1,200 – 850 in the stalls and 350 in the balcony – and had a café serving "Morning Coffee, Luncheons, and High-Class Teas".  Latterly, it was reseated to 523 in the stalls and 230 in the circle.

Its history is entirely conventional – sound in 1929, Cinemascope in the 1950s, closed in 1978.  Since then it has functioned as a night club, and is once again up for sale.

Its appeal, however, lies in the ornate exterior, a riot of cream and green faience, with domes (recently reinstated), obelisks, a belvedere with Ionic columns dripping with swags, topped by a bare-breasted female figure that no-one seems able to identify.

Despite Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's dismissive 1972 comment "undeniably debased in the extreme, but the young have begun to like this sort of thing", it was listed Grade II.  (Pevsner's comment on the sister cinema across the road, the Regent of 1910, is "built in seven weeks and it shows".)

Images in the Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin indicate that the decorative interior with its domed ceiling and gilded plasterwork is practically intact.  Indeed, David Salmon's detailed history of the cinema at http://www.davesden.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/tower016new.htm suggests that the plasterwork, woodwork and stained glass were cleaned by a team of volunteers in 1981.

The Cinema Theatre Association Newsletter for September/October 2012 reported that, after a failed attempt to restore it as a cinema, new owners have reopened the Tower as Tokyo nightclub http://www.thisishullandeastriding.co.uk/pictures/Tokyo-nightclub-opens-Hull-s-famous-Tower/pictures-16766642-detail/pictures.html with a commitment "to make the most of the beautiful building.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 14, 2010

Category:Fun Palaces

Blackpool Tower Ballroom

U3A in Sheffield has an admirable Lunch & Lecture event twice a year, and I was invited recently to be the "turn" with my lecture Fun Palaces:  the history & architecture of the entertainment industry which, inevitably, includes a segment on Blackpool Tower.

At the end of the lecture a gentleman came over and discreetly pointed out that I should not refer to the Tower's most famous organist as "Reg" Dixon.  To Blackpool people, he was and is always Reginald Dixon.  In future, I mean to get that right.

As it happens, Reginald Dixon was born and bred in Sheffield.  He learnt to play at the Cemetery Road Congregational Church on the southern edge of town, and worked as a professional organist at, among other cinemas, the Heeley Palace, where he had to keep an eye on the level of the River Sheaf as it flowed past the building, in case it threatened to flood the orchestra pit.

When he applied for the vacant post as organist at the Tower, he bluffed in saying he could play dance music, but his idiosyncratic style proved ideal for the demands of accompanying ballroom dancers, rather than silent movies, on an orchestral organ.  His contract began in March 1930;  he made his first radio broadcast a month later, and by 1933 was able to persuade the Tower Company to install a completely new, three-manual, thirteen-rank Wurlitzer with a carillon and an additional piano.  The original Tower Wurlitzer was transferred to the Empress Ballroom in the Winter Gardens.

Reginald Dixon became one of the most potent of Blackpool's legends.  He is famed for 'Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside', but when he reinaugurated the Wurlitzer after the 1956 fire he began with the first tune he ever played in the Ballroom, 'Happy days are here again'.  He made a point of accompanying Christmas concerts and performances of Handel's Messiah on the Wurlitzer.  He switched on the Illuminations in 1956 and was awarded the MBE in 1966:  he played his final concert at the Tower on Easter Sunday 1970.  He died, aged eighty, in 1985.

Actually, there was a Reg Dixon also.  He was born in Coventry in 1915, and died in 1984.  He was a comedian popular in the 1940s and 1950s, the closing years of variety.  His catch-phrase was "I'm not well.  I'm proper poorly."  There is interview-footage of him at http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=78574 and further footage at http://deanocity3.piczo.com/coventrystvandradiopersonalities?cr=5&linkvar=000044.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.  Enquiries about the activities of the U3A in Sheffield should be addressed to Doreen Bezant at doreenbezant@tiscali.co.uk.

Posted by: mike on Nov 6, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesExploring Chicago

Medinah Temple, Chicago 2

My Isle of Man friend John, whose antennae can detect a pipe organ over astonishing distances, has pointed me to footage of the interior of the Medinah Temple, Chicago, dating from 2000, when the Austin Opus 558 organ was intact and playable:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-3tYSxN8LQ.

Perhaps Bloomingdales missed an opportunity when they stripped out this instrument to convert the building into a department store:  [see Shrine for shoppers].

Macy's in Philadelphia, the current owners of what was once Wanamaker's, have retained and restored the gigantic pipe organ which John Wanamaker purchased from the St Louis World's Fair of 1904.  Designed by the great organ designer George Ashdown Audsley, this exhibition instrument – the largest in the world with over 10,000 pipes – proved insufficient to fill the volume of the store's seven-storey atrium.  Enlargements took place in 1910-1917 and again in 1924-1930, so that there are now 28,500 pipes, controlled by six manuals.

The Wanamaker Organ, as it is still named, is a much-loved part of Philadelphia life.  Most recently it figured in one of the Knight Foundation's Random Acts of Culture in which 600 choral singers, disguised as shoppers, led by the chorus of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, burst into an impromptu performance of the 'Hallelujah Chorus' to the astonishment and delight of ladies trying on shoes and having their make-up done.

Footage of that event can be found at http://www.knightarts.org/uncategorized/what-a-joyful-noise-650-singers-burst-into-hallelujah-as-part-of-random-act-of-culture%e2%80%a8%e2%80%a8%e2%80%a8.

Enjoy.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 4, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesExploring Chicago

Medinah Temple, Chicago

The first couple of times I visited Chicago I stayed at the Cass Hotel on North Wabash Avenue – at that time an inexpensive, serviceable place to stay with a fluorescent-lit coffee-shop on the ground floor and a dark bar by the entrance.  Now it's transformed into a boutique Holiday Inn Express:  http://www.casshotel.com/index.php.

On my first visit, in 2001, I was intrigued by the building on the next block, an exceptionally rich essay in Moorish Revival style, bristling with Islamic motifs, which I was told was the Medinah Temple – not in any sense a place of worship, but a Shriners' temple.

The Shriners – properly entitled the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – are virtually inexplicable to the British.  It's akin to explaining Oddfellows to an American (though there is an American connection, the Odd Fellows).

The Shriners is a philanthropic organisation, responsible among much else for operating children's hospitals.  The founders sought to combine Freemasonry with fun and fellowship, and their temples provided enormous auditoria in which huge fundraising entertainments could take place.

The Chicago Medinah Temple was a much-loved venue for circuses and graduations.  Built in 1912, it could seat 4,200, and because of its excellent acoustics and its huge five-manual organ it was regularly used as a recording studio by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Noël Coward, obliged to undergo an uncomfortable medical procedure in the nearby Passavant Hospital (now part of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital), was at first irritated by the noise of the massed bands of the Shriners marching to their temple, but later admitted that their rhythmic rendition of 'Darktown Strutters' Ball' "helped a little, spasmodically".

In 2000-3 the Medinah Temple's exterior was restored, but the interior was stripped out, apart from the proscenium, the dome and some stained glass, to create a spectacular branch of Bloomingdale's http://www1.bloomingdales.com/store/index.ognc?action=STORE_DETAIL&lstRegion=all&storeId=70001.

To find out more about the Shriners, visit http://www.shrinershq.org and http://www.shrinershq.org/Hospitals/Main.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 31, 2010

Category:Liverpool's HeritageFun Palaces

Gaumont Cinema, Dingle, Liverpool

Gaumont Cinema, Dingle, Liverpool (1996)

The Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin (September/October 2010) alerts me to activity at the Gaumont Cinema, Dingle, Liverpool – a huge Art Deco pile on the corner of Park Road and Dingle Lane that I've been driving past for years without ever having a chance to look inside.

It was designed by the Gaumont house-architect, W E Trent, assisted by Daniel Mackay, as a replacement for an earlier, smaller cinema called the Picturedrome.  It opened on Easter Monday 1937, seating 1,503, with a second-hand Wurlitzer organ (now in the care of the Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust:  [http://www.voxlancastria.org.uk/heritage]) transferred from the Trocadero Cinema, Liverpool.

W E Trent excelled at simple, sweeping architectural effects, so the exterior has a vertically-banded centrepiece, originally neon-lit, and horizontal bands of stone and brick, curving round the street corner;  the interior is a calm essay in moderne stripped classical features intended to be highlighted by concealed lighting, probably with a range of colour-changes.  Small-scale live shows were provided for:  the proscenium is 45 feet wide, the stage 15 feet deep and there are four dressing rooms.

It operated as a cinema until 1966, and then became a Top Rank bingo-club until 1998.  Thereafter it stood empty until it was taken over for redevelopment as a cultural centre despite attacks from local vandals [http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/liverpool-news/local-news/2009/02/28/owners-hope-to-restore-former-gaumot-art-deco-cinema-in-liverpool-s-dingle-100252-23030627].

The Dingle Gaumont attracts more than vandals:  it has a reputation as the most haunted cinema for miles around.  The CTA Bulletin led me to a TV series I wouldn't otherwise have come across, Most Haunted, with an over-the-top production-style that will strike viewers as gripping or hilarious depending on their views about the supernatural:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8N08jo7kNqo&feature=fvw.  (More relaxed views of the interior can be found at http://www.urbexforums.co.uk/showthread.php/6799-Former-Gaumont-Cinema-Dingle-Liverpool-June-09.)

Because of its status as "one of the most haunted locations in the North West" it has now become a venue for ghost-hunters:  http://www.britevents.com/whats-on/merseyside/dingle/gaumont-cinema/74823.  Tickets cost £49, and you need to bring your own sandwiches.

Bingo kept the place going for decades.  It's good to see a new way of gaining income from an old cinema.  And it's an excellent way of deterring the vandals.

The Cinema Theatre Association website is at http://www.cinema-theatre.org.uk.

Images from a November 2011 urban explorer's visit are at http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php/66021-Gaumont-Cinema-Dingle-Liverpool-November-2011.

Excellent undated images are at http://urbanliverpool.blogspot.co.uk/p/gaumont-cinema-dingle.html.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 29, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Brighton West Pier

Brighton West Pier (1980)

Two individuals have been arrested on a charge of arson in connection with the fire at Hastings Pier on October 5th 2010.  Of course, they're innocent until proved guilty, but even if these two were uninvolved, arson is the likely cause of the fire.  Derelict seaside piers are not prone to spontaneous combustion.

The most spectacular example of such destruction is Brighton West Pier (1863-6), built – like Hastings –by the great Victorian pier engineer Eugenius Birch.  This most splendid of British piers, Grade I listed, was a location in Richard Attenborough's film, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969).  It was partly closed the year after the film came out, and completely closed to the public in 1975.

Battles between owners who wanted to demolish it and Brighton residents who wanted to take it over and restore it continued until the Brighton West Pier Trust bought it for £10 in 1984.  Storm damage in 1987-8 isolated the concert hall and pavilion:  a temporary connection was eventually built in 1996 on the strength of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of just under a million pounds, which was followed two years later by the promise of over ten million pounds of funding for a full restoration.

Two successive devastating storms on December 29th 2002 and January 20th 2003 caused the central section of the pier and the concert hall to collapse.

On March 28th 2003 the isolated pavilion was destroyed by a fire.  On May 11th the same year what was left of the concert hall caught fire.  The following day that fire reignited.  On June 23rd 2004 the remaining shell of the central section blew down in a gale.

The West Pier Trust was eventually compelled to give up hope of restoring what was left of the pier, and turned their attention to building a 150-metre observation tower, I360, on the site.  The current intention is to complete this structure by the summer of 2015:  http://www.westpier.co.uk/the-future.

The sad vestige of the pavilion has an elegance of its own, and Flickr is awash with superb photographs of its outline against the sea and the sky [http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=brighton+west+pier].  There is also a poignant documentary of 2003 by Hannah James:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egikqrDRcww

Pure magic.

A further stage in the inevitable disappearance of the remains of the West Pier is chronicled at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-26046379.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 11, 2010

Category:Fun Palaces

Derby Hippodrome Theatre

Hippodrome Theatre, Derby (1993)

The last two articles [Hug the Odeon and Hug another Odeon] have highlighted auditoria that are intact (just), architecturally valuable, unlisted and in danger of demolition.

Listing a building doesn't, of course, automatically guarantee its security.  The Hippodrome Theatre, Derby is a notorious example of what can happen to a supposedly protected building.

In this case, the owner, Mr Christopher Anthony, under the pretext of making repairs, managed to remove the stage area and much of the roof.  The delicacy with which this was accomplished can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pS5UOSz2dBg and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YlUJUyLcMk&feature=related.  This followed an earlier arson attack which, by means which are unclear, destroyed plasterwork around the dress circle and the proscenium arch.

Derby City Council, supported by such organisations as English Heritage, Derby Civic Society, the Theatres Trust and the Cinema Theatre Association, has pursued Mr Anthony through legal action, not only for the damage caused to the previously intact building but also by rejecting his application to turn the site into, of all things, a multi-storey car-park.

Why does this matter?  Leaving aside the civic and legal arguments about the significance and effectiveness of listed-building legislation, the Hippodrome had, and still has, historical and architectural value.  It was built in 1914, right at the end of the great late-Victorian and Edwardian boom in building variety theatres.  It is the only known surviving example of the work of the Scottish architects, Charles T Marshall & William Tweedy.  Though it was adapted as a cinema in 1930, it returned to theatre use from 1950 to 1959;  it operated as a bingo club from 1962 until it abruptly closed in 2007.

As a result of this history it was very little altered.  I took groups to visit it, by courtesy of Walkers Bingo, repeatedly during the 1980s and 1990s.  The auditorium, stage-tower and grid were intact.  At some time in the early 1990s the auditorium was redecorated and the seating reupholstered.

Bingo kept the roof on and the building warm for decades.  There were even occasional Christmas shows on the stage.  Derby is not well blessed with auditoria, and can ill afford to lose this one.

Indeed, the city is rather better provided with multi-storey car-parks.

The rallying-point for those who wish to see the Hippodrome somehow restored is the Derby Hippodrome Restoration Trust, whose website is http://www.derbyhippodrome.co.uk.  The Theatres Trust website has a detailed architectural description: http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/118-hippodrome-derby.  A representative press account of the most recent activity is http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/newsstory.php/28858/turning-point-for-derby-hippodrome.

A detailed options appraisal report from the architectural practice Lathams, with phtconsultants, examines alternative possibilities for restoration:  http://derbyhippodrome.co.uk/resources/Options-Appraisal-Report-17.04.12.pdf.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 8, 2010

Category:Manchester's HeritageFun Palaces

Odeon Cinema, Manchester

Former Paramount Cinema, Oxford Street, Manchester (1996)

The New Victoria Cinema (latterly the Odeon), Bradford [see Hug the Odeon] stands mouldering because its owners have pointedly neglected it for ten years and English Heritage has seen insufficient evidence to list it and secure its survival.

The Paramount Cinema, Oxford Street, Manchester, which finally closed in 2004, is in an even worse state.

Like the New Victoria, Bradford, it was opened in 1930 – in this case the very first Paramount cinema in the British provinces.  Designed by the Paramount house-architects, Frank T Verity and his son-in-law Sam Beverly, it seated 2,920 in an elaborate baroque auditorium with a Wurlitzer organ which survives in Stockport Town Hall [http://www.voxlancastria.org.uk/ltot01.htm].  Certainly it's been knocked about a bit:  it was repeatedly subdivided in 1973, 1979 and 1992, and photographs show that the removal of the organ did no favours to the organ case.

The developers, Manchester & Metropolitan, carried out what they described as "limited and entirely lawful exposure works in anticipation of the forthcoming redevelopment".  This involved ripping out easily accessible decorative features and discouraged English Heritage from listing.

In fact, thanks to YouTube, it's clear that a substantial amount of the original auditorium decoration remains:  go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3E8RPd0JFo&feature=fvw and fast-forward to 2:45.

Websites discussing the potential future of the Paramount include http://www.cinema-theatre.org.uk/press/pr02_2007.htm, http://www.g7uk.com/photo-video-blog/20070519-manchesters-odeon-cinema-subjected-to-a-damaging-systematic-and-methodical-assault-to-prevent-preservation.shtml and – a more matter-of-fact view – http://www.aidan.co.uk/article_paramount_manchester.htm.

The parallels with Bradford are instructive.  A hopelessly large auditorium is subdivided in the 1960s to maintain its commercial viability;  by the end of the twentieth century the game is up and redevelopment is seen as the answer.  Finding a creative solution to preserve such a building is understandably off the developer's script while its true architectural and historical significance is hidden.

Yet both these erstwhile Odeons stand within a potentially lucrative cultural quarter.  The Bradford building is next to the Alhambra Theatre and is within sight of the National Media Museum.  The Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin (September/October 2010) suggests that the Manchester Odeon may have a future use as a supplementary conference venue alongside Manchester Central, the former G-Mex.

Alternatively, the building next door is a J D Wetherspoon's pub – called, suggestively, the Paramount...

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 5, 2010

Category:Fun Palaces

Odeon Cinema, Bradford

Former New Victoria Cinema, Bradford (1986)

When the New Victoria Cinema, Bradford opened in September 1930 it was the third largest cinema in the UK, seating 3,318 patrons.  Designed by the Bradford architect William Illingworth, its exterior is punctuated by two domed entrance towers.  The fan-shaped auditorium, elaborately decorated with classical pilasters and friezes, is surmounted by a 70-foot diameter dome.  There was a tea lounge, a 200-cover restaurant and a high-ceilinged ballroom with its own separate entrance.

The proscenium was 50 feet wide by 35 feet high;  the stage, 70 feet by 45 feet, was equipped with a full grid and ten dressing-rooms, because in 1930 live shows were a requirement and there was no guarantee that the fashion for new-fangled, technically unreliable talkies would last.

The original Wurlitzer survived a 1946 flood, because someone had the presence of mind to park the console at the top of its lift:  it now resides in the deliberately named New Victoria Centre, Howden-le-Wear, Co Durham.

The New Victoria became the Gaumont in 1950.  At the end of the 1950s decline set in:  the ballroom closed in 1961 and the Wurlitzer was removed when the building was subdivided in 1968.  Illingworth's auditorium was so vast that, instead of the usual practice of dropping a wall from the balcony end to create additional screens in the rear stalls, the balcony itself was divided into two screens by a vertical partition and a floor across to the proscenium, and the stalls area became a 1,000-seater Mecca bingo hall.  The twinned cinema reopened as the Odeon in August 1969.  In 1988 a third screen was opened within the otherwise unused ballroom.

After the bingo-club closed in 1997 and the multiplex cinema followed in 2000 the building stood empty.  It was sold first to a developer and later to Yorkshire Forward:  both planned to demolish the Odeon completely, and repeated redevelopment schemes excited vociferous opposition led by the Bradford Odeon Rescue Group [BORG], who in 2007 arranged for a thousand people to link hands and hug the entire building.

Public-sector bodies such as Yorkshire Forward and Bradford Centre Regeneration [BCR] claimed that the building had no historical value and is deteriorating, which it might well be after a decade without active maintenance.  English Heritage has remained unconvinced that it is worth listing, and interested groups such as the Twentieth Century Society and the Cinema Theatre Association have had difficulty gaining access to prove otherwise.

In the end, it fell to urban explorers, those curious obsessive aficionados of dereliction, to provide incontrovertible evidence that the original decorative scheme remains.  The 1968-9 conversion proved to be a shell built within the original space, and the ballroom conversion simply involved installing a suspended ceiling.

To see some of what remains, check –
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTZ6cmoURRU&feature=related and
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSK5emM-AD8&feature=related.  It's an eye-opener.

There's a detailed history of the New Victoria Cinema at http://www.kingsdr.demon.co.uk/cinemas/newvic.htm#origin.  The present owners of the New Victoria Wurlitzer are at http://www.netoa.org.uk.

In September 2012 the agreement with the developer who intended to demolish it fell through, prompting a fresh search for an economic solution:  http://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/9941717._All_viable_options_open__after_Odeon_deal_collapses and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-20097997.

The Homes & Communities Agency, to which the building had devolved, proposed to sell it to Bradford City Council for £1, and to provide £4.1 million to secure the building.  A structural survey revealed that, after all, the building was in better condition than had previously been suggested.

Irna Qureshi's article in The Guardian (September 21st 2012) surveys the fall and rise of the New Victoria Cinema's fortunes:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/the-northerner/2012/sep/21/bradford-georgegalloway.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 13, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesExploring Australia

Melbourne Australia Princess' Theatre

Photo:  Mat Connolley (Matnkat)

Princess' Theatre, Melbourne, Australia

I'm glad I came across the Jason Donovan edition of Who do you think you are? [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tndyd] because it explored parts of Australia I visited a few months ago.

Jason Donovan was born in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern in 1968, the son of an English father and an Australian mother.  The programme set out to explore his Australian roots, and I was interested to recognise location shots of Melbourne and Sydney, as well as footage of Tasmania and the Blue Mountains which I hope to explore on a future visit.

One of the locations I'd visited was the Princess' Theatre, Melbourne, the one surviving auditorium where Jason's great-grandmother, Eileen Lyons, had performed.  She was a singer who entered show-business at the age of sixteen (a year younger than Jason when he joined the soap-opera Neighbours).  Here in the auditorium-gallery, he was shown contracts, bill matter and an Australian Broadcasting Corporation audition-review dug out of the archives by a local historian.

Elsewhere, he followed his blood-lines to a Tasmanian convict-settlement and, most intriguing of all, to a connection with Dorset-born William Cox (1764-1837) who reached Australia commanding a contingent of transported convicts and went on to engineer the first road from Sydney across the Blue Mountains in 1814-5.

Jason Donovan is therefore descended both from a transported convict, and from a British army officer in charge of transporting convicts.  He's a living example of the Australian claim to be a classless society.

Each step of the way, as in each of these programmes, the subject is assisted by archivists and local historians who have undertaken the spadework of detailed research that threads the story together.

Just as volunteer enthusiasts make possible the living-history museums, historical re-enactments, preserved railways and steam and motor-vehicle rallies that offer the general public weekend entertainment, so the nuts and bolts of local- and family-history research depends on individuals quietly beavering away in their specialist patch, building up a body of knowledge that the rest of us can tap into.

Jason Donovan's realisation of a stronger sense of his Australian identity was made possible because he gained access to detailed information in libraries, archives and the files of people who investigate history for their own interest.

Those of us who explore our local or family history without the benefit of a BBC research team have even more reason to be grateful to the foot-soldiers who catalogue, index and retrieve the minutiae of past lives.

Posted by: mike on Aug 4, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Kensal Green Cemetery, Ducrow monument

Probably the most bombastic monument in Kensal Green Cemetery is that to Andrew Ducrow (1793-1842), the equestrian owner of Astley's Amphitheatre in Lambeth.

Ducrow's entry in Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Ducrow] likens his stage act to the modern-day Chippendales, because he and his sons dressed in flesh-coloured body stockings and posed on the backs of white stallions.

Even though Astley's burnt down three times, Ducrow was clearly worth something.  His plot in Kensal Green Cemetery is a prestigious location near to the Duke of Sussex, and his monument cost £3,000.  Built initially for Mrs Ducrow, its design by George Danson is a ponderous mix of classical and Egyptian motifs, originally coloured and surmounted by a statue of Hygieia, goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation.

The inscription, which Ducrow clearly wrote, declares that the tomb was "erected by Genius for the reception of its own remains".  It was described in the contemporary periodical The Builder as "ponderous coxcombry".

The real genius of Astley's Amphitheatre was, of course, its founder, Philip Astley (1742-1814).  In many ways he is the originator of the modern circus, because he was the first professional trick-rider to perform in a circle, though he never used the Latin term "circus" or the English "ring", but called it a "ride".  He introduced clowns and acrobats into his show to extend and vary the performance.

Most significant of all, he determined that the diameter for the circus ring, as we now call it, should be 42 feet, for that caused a cantering horse to lean at the optimum angle for a man to stand on its bare back.

Now that's genius.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 16, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesCountry Houses

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire:  theatre 2

My Isle of Man host-with-the-most John has provided further details of the Wurlitzer organ at Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire, which, as I mentioned in the previous blog [Security-minded millionaire], was bought second-hand from the Madeleine Theatre in Paris in 1937 for Sir Julien Cahn's private theatre attached to his house.

The organ came, not from the Madeleine Theatre (1924), which still exists in the Rue de Surene [http://www.theatremadeleine.com/index-historique.html], but from another Madeleine Theatre, designed entirely as a cinema by Marcel Oudin in 1918, at 14 Boulevard de la Madeleine which is now an opticians.  The Wurlitzer – one of only two French Wurlitzers – was installed by the then owners, Loew Inc, in 1926.  According to Ken Roe's contribution to http://cinematreasures.org/theater/23874/ the cinema subsequently became the Gaumont Madeleine and showed films until at least the mid-1970s.

The website http://www.theatreorgans.com indicates this Wurlitzer was repossessed at some point after installation.  This modest instrument was an ideal purchase for Sir Julien's 352-seat theatre – "une salle élégante", as the French account has it.

The knobs and bells and whistles of the Wurlitzer have a more elegant tone when described in French:  les clochettes de traîneau [sleigh bells], les sabots de cheval [horses' hooves], les vagues [waves], les oiseaux [birdsong], la corne d'auto [car hooter], le gong d'incendie [fire-alarm], le sifflet de bateau à vapeur [steamboat whistle], la sirène [siren], le tam-tam [gong], et la sonnerie de porte [doorbell].

Among his many talents, John is a church organist and confessed, many years ago, to an ambition to play a Wurlitzer like the Blackpool Tower Ballroom.  My influence in Blackpool runs nowhere near that far, but I managed to give him the opportunity to play the Stanford Hall Wurlitzer.

Sometime in the late 1980s I ran a WEA day-visit to country houses in south Nottinghamshire, and smuggled John into the orchestra pit of the Stanford Hall Theatre – then part of the Co-operative College – with an arrangement that when at the end of my tour I brought the group into the back of the auditorium and said, "And this is the private theatre..." John would press the lift-button on the console and rise from the pit playing 'I do like to be beside the seaside'.

Which would have worked perfectly if John had realised how far up the lift goes, or I'd been aware that he suffers from vertigo.  It's quite difficult to keep a grip when you're playing with both hands and both feet.  I suppose buttock-clenching is the only resort and I've never liked to ask.

Certainly John's performance had a certain bravura quality, and we've both dined out on the story ever since.

Posted by: mike on Jul 14, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesCountry Houses

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire:  theatre

Sir Julien Cahn (1882-1944), the millionaire owner of the Nottingham Furnishing Company, lived from 1928 until his death at Stanford Hall, near Loughborough, which he transformed to suit his distinctive lifestyle – part English country house, part Hollywood.

He employed Queen Mary's decorator, White, Allom Ltd, to install pastiche historical interiors and modern Art Deco schemes including at least four bathrooms (Sir Julien's in black and white, Lady Cahn's in blue and white, a guest bathroom in tortoiseshell and another – which survives – in salmon pink marble).  He built an indoor badminton court with trellis-work, trompe l'oeil privet and a birdcage in the corner.

Apart from hunting and philanthropy Sir Julien had two major hobbies, cricket and magic, in neither of which – according to contemporary accounts – he particularly excelled, but both of which he took extremely seriously.

To provide a venue for charity performances, Sir Julien commissioned a sumptuous 352-seat private theatre with a Wurlitzer organ bought second-hand from the Madeleine Theatre in Paris.  Above the auditorium Sir Julien provided a wing of bedrooms for the visiting cricket stars who took part in the Sir Julien Cahn Cricket XI.

Below the auditorium is the most extraordinary feature of all – a capacious gas-proof air-raid shelter easily capable of accommodating the entire household, with decontamination facilities and an escape-tunnel extending thirty-six feet beyond the building line in case the entire building collapsed above.

The Cahns left their mark in the grounds too.  There was an open-air swimming-pool, which eventually cost £60,000, nearly as much as the theatre, and for his fifty-fifth birthday Lady Cahn bought her husband some sea-lions (their names were Charlie, Aqua, Freda and Ivy) and a suitable pool was duly constructed.

After Sir Julien's death in 1944 Stanford Hall became the Co-operative College until 2001.

Posted by: mike on Jun 17, 2010

Category:Manx HeritageFun Palaces

Douglas IOM Villa Marina

The Manx Government acquired their magnificent Wurlitzer organ in 1989 and initially installed it in the now-demolished Summerland centre.  At last it has been meticulously restored and rebuilt in the Villa Marina arcade, sandwiched between the Gaiety Theatre and the Villa Marina concert hall.  This 1929 instrument came originally from the City Cinema, Leicester, rescued by a wealthy organ-enthusiast, Allan Hickling, and installed in his home, Dormston House, Sedgeley [see http://www.villagaiety.com/ViewNews.gov?page=lib/news/villagaiety/allanhicklingand.xml&menuid=11570].

Len Rawle, who led the renovation project, demonstrated its range and power in a Saturday-evening concert in May after a week of maintenance work and before running a seminar for the island's aspiring organists.  (Len's website is at http://www.lenrawle.eu/scripts/Biography.html.)

You can't argue with the power of the mighty Wurlitzer.  There is something unmistakable in the bravura playing-style that the instrument demands – accelerandi, rallentandi, arpeggii, swells and swirls and, as Len pointed out, early in his presentation, contrast.  People sometimes assume incorrectly that a theatre-organ is amplified, and Len showed how its core works perfectly well as a church organ playing classical pieces.  He gave an admirable conducted tour of the Wurlitzer specification – the stops designed specifically to create a "unit orchestra" to accompany silent movies, the additional keyboard links that provide bells, xylophone and vibraphone and the special effects for film accompaniment such as the motor-horn, the fire-engine and the birdsong which, he gently pointed out, should be used with discretion.

Noël Coward's petulant line in Private Lives, "extraordinary how potent cheap music is" has the ring of truth.  Popular classics such as 'There's No Business Like Show Business' and 'When I Fall In Love' scrub up to a high polish on a Wurlitzer, and Len's repertoire included less familiar music of the period.  He brought his evening to a close with both the Manx national anthems, the nostalgic 'Ellan Vannin' and the staunch 'Arrane Ashoonagh dy Vannin' ['Land of our birth, gem of God's earth, O Island so strong and so fair...'].

There's no following that with an encore.  What Len actually did was to shoo the audience away so that a young girl could have privacy to try out the Wurlitzer on her own.  As he said, that was what got him started a few decades ago.

The Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a demonstration of the Villa Marina Wurlitzer and a tour of the Gaiety Theatre next door.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 4, 2010

Category:Fun Palaces

Tramway shelter, St Annes-on-Sea

Blackpool, St Annes & Lytham Tramway Shelter

I made a flying visit to St Annes-on-Sea to present my lecture 'Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of seaside resorts' to the newly-founded Fylde Decorative & Fine Arts Society a few days ago.  For a society that's been up and running for less than a year they've achieved an enormous amount – over 200 members, an award-winning website, visits to Yorkshire and Krakow, Young Arts sponsorship, a church-recording project and strong connections with other organisations in the region.  They meet at the United Reformed Church, St Georges Road, on the first Wednesday of each month from October to July, and have room for further new members.  See http://www.fyldedfas.org.uk/index.htm.

Kate Cartmell, the Programme Secretary, paid me a warmly-appreciated compliment when she pointed out that my description of Blackpool as a seaside resort "gave the place dignity".  Sometimes people think I'm joking when I describe the Tower Ballroom as the finest piece of rococo decoration in the North West:  I was heartened that Kate recognised I wasn't being ironical.

I wish I'd said a little more to place Lytham St Annes into the context of the history of the British seaside.  The Fylde coast tells the whole story, in essence, of how railways and, to a lesser extent, steamships, drove the holiday industry.

The landowner Peter Hesketh Fleetwood gave his name and lost his fortune to the wildly over-ambitious resort of Fleetwood, which was quickly overtaken by the small landowners and businessmen who made Blackpool the premier resort of the North West.

This process was helped by the decision of another landowning family, the Cliftons, to sell up in Blackpool and develop Lytham as a superior, "select" alternative that they could tightly control.  When the Cliftons were in need of cash in the teeth of an agricultural depression, they sold to a developer the land on which St Annes was built from 1875.  Meanwhile, further south, two more landowning families, the Scarisbricks and the Bolds (the latter related by marriage to the Fleetwoods), worked jointly to build spacious, elegant Southport.

To the far north, on the Lune estuary, another miscellaneous collection of landowners threw together Morecambe, in its day phenomenally successful as "Bradford-by-the-sea" and now less a resort than a dormitory for Lancaster.

You can walk round each place and pick up its character very quickly – Fleetwood, St Annes and Southport planned with a ruler and set-square; Morecambe and Blackpool strung together piecemeal;  Lytham, carefully constructed at the gates of the big house, Lytham Hall.

A quick trawl through the new Pevsner (Lancashire North) compels me to return to Lytham St Annes to explore the astonishing quality and variety of its architecture.

Watch this space...

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2010

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Withernsea Pier Head

I've always had a soft spot for Withernsea.  It really shouldn't exist.

Most of the two villages of Withernsea and Owthorne had disappeared into the sea by the nineteenth century, when Anthony Bannister, a Hull fish-merchant and ship-owner with capital to spare, promoted the Hull & Holderness Railway and – to provide somewhere for visitors to stay when they got off the train – built what became the Queen's Hotel at the Withernsea terminus in 1854-5.  The railway was unsuccessful because it had only one track and was taken over by a larger company in 1862.

In 1870 Bannister tried again to generate income by founding the Withernsea Pier, Promenade, Gas & General Improvement Co.  The pier was completed in 1877, the year before Bannister died, but in 1882 the Pier Company went bankrupt.

The pier was damaged by storms and collisions in 1880, 1882, 1890 and 1893.  In 1903 the owners gave up and demolished what was left, leaving the twin castellated towers that remain as an ornament to the promenade.  It's now commemorated by a memorably original seat for weary passers-by.

The geology at Withernsea is so unstable that the lighthouse was built several hundred yards inland, where the bedrock could support a tall enough structure.  Its light guided shipping from 1894 to 1976.  Now it's a charming little museum with an excellent cup of tea [http://www.withernsealighthouse.co.uk].

It contains a tribute to the actress Kay Kendall, who was born in Withernsea.  Her famous trumpet-playing scene in Genevieve (1953) was dubbed by the jazz trumpeter Kenny Baker:  at the time the film was made neither of them apparently realised that the other came from Withernsea, perhaps because of the five years' difference in their ages.

It's not a very big place.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2010

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Cleethorpes Empire Theatre

The Empire Theatre, Cleethorpes is virtually invisible.  When I checked out the resort to run a visit there I discovered textbook references to its existence but it took a great deal of finding. The building stands on the sea front and attracts visitors as an amusement arcade.  It doesn't have the obvious decorative faience façade of a Frank Matcham variety theatre, and indeed the only exterior clue to its origin is round the back, where a very tall doorway in the back wall is clearly the scene dock.

When I contacted the owner, Rosie Armitage, she was more than ready to give me access and to allow me to bring groups to see the remains of the interior.  What was the stalls is now unrecognisable, but at balcony level – amidst the paraphernalia of Lazer Quest – the proscenium arch and plasterwork remain largely intact, though painted matt black and only visible under working lights.

It's a spooky time-warp experience to find a late-1890s interior, as it were frozen in time and virtually forgotten.

The place has its share of theatrical stories:  Sidney Carlton, the lessee in 1899, was "known as much for his frequent court appearances as for his management of the theatre", and left town abruptly in August of that year;  a subsequent proprietor, James Carter-White, a chemist who was also a local councillor and a Freemason, established Cleethorpes' first independent Masonic lodge in the upper rooms;  the most illustrious performer to appear at the Empire was Charles Coburn, "the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo".  The place was still playing to full houses as late as the 1950s, but abruptly closed after Jimmy James & Co played there in 1960, and has been an amusement arcade now for nearly as long as it was a theatre.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.


Previous page: Amenity bodies