Theatres in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire
Above - The Dewsbury Empire - Courtesy Richard Sterry, whose grandfather, Archibald Sterry, was Managing Director of the Theatre in the 1940s
The Empire Theatre, Wakefield Road, Dewsbury was built in 1909 and opened with a variety show on the 2nd of August the same year. The Theatre was designed by the architects Chadwick and Watson who also designed the Alhambra, Bradford.
Right - The opening night variety programme for the Dewsbury Empire on the 2nd of August 1909 - Courtesy David Clegg. - On the Bill were the Tom Davis Trio, Lenton & Lane, Robb Wilton, Queenie May, the Cavallotti Brothers, the Wedburns, Howard & St. Clair, Alisa Douglas, the Martelloni Family, Marcus Boyle, and Animated Pictures of the Latest Events.
The Theatre's auditorium was on three levels, Stalls and two Circles and was noted for having good sight-lines because the circles were carried on two huge beams rather than pillars. Because of their size the beams took much manoeuvring through the streets of Dewsbury in order to get them to the site of the Theatre when it was being constructed and were considered very advanced at the time of its building.
The Royal Ballet performed there during the war, but with only a piano for accompaniment. The Theatre paid until the day it closed in 1955 when the company was forced into liquidation, due to debts incurred by other theatres in the circuit.
The last production at the Empire was by the Dewsbury Operatic Society which leased the building (minus staff) for one last production. The theatre was never converted to a cinema. It was demolished in 1960 and the unlovely Empire House was built on the site.
The above information on the Empire Theatre is courtesy John West.
Above - The Dewsbury Empire orchestra in 1909, shortly after the Theatre opened - Courtesy Peter Lindup whose grandfather Fred Hinchliffe is the young lad, aged 15, with the drums at front of the photograph. Also in the photograph are probably Dick Francis, Joe Lomax, Woodcock, Sam Strickland, Sam Wood, Walter Shires, and Dick Summerfield.
Click here to hear a 30 minute Mp3 interview with Fred Hinchliffe, courtesy his Grandson Peter Lindup.
Above - A Drawing of the Dewsbury Empire by Ivor
Westwood, produced for the Dewsbury Arts Group in 1977 in connection
with a specially devised show performed by the Group in February 1978
called "Remember the Empire" - Courtesy Ivor Westwood and
Fifty years ago Dewsbury was an important place in the world of Christmas pantomime. The Empire Theatre had one of the best and longest running pantos in the North of England and it was all home grown. The theatre was large, almost 2000 seats and the shows ran from Christmas Eve until the beginning of March, most of performances were sold out, therefore in excess of 150,000 people visited the Christmas attraction each year.
Right - The Dewsbury Empire Theatre - From a period postcard.
The pantomimes had been pretty run of the mill touring productions until the theatre was taken over in the late forties by Richard Stephenson, who also ran theatres in; Barrow in Furness, New Brighton and Leicester. He decided to run a first class pantomime season at the Empire. He already had scenic and wardrobe workshops in a disused Methodist chapel in West Town so all the costumes and the lavish scenery could be manufactured here on the doorstep of the theatre.
Reg Bolton, a comedian who had been well known at theatre before the war was commissioned to produce, write the book, and to play principle comic. All the original music was written by the pit orchestra pianist, Arthur Dickenson, many of the supporting parts were cast from the artistes who were in Stephenson's repertory companies for seasons during the summer months in all the theatres that he ran and the teams of stage management came from the same source.
Above - An Audience packs the auditorium of the Empire Theatre, Dewsbury - Courtesy John West
At the theatre meetings with principle artistes took place; contracts were arranged script conferences attended; and. a party bookings department was set up that contacted all factories, working mens clubs, churches and schools within a seventy miles radius and the bookings started to roll in. Lavish posters were printed and they went out on sights throughout the Heavy Woollen District plus Leeds and Bradford. By the end of November it was impossible to obtain a seat for any Friday night, Saturday matinee or Saturday evening performance through out the run.
Rehearsals commenced at the beginning of the second week in December and all the artistes assembled in the town plus a sixteen strong dancing troupe of Florence Whiteley's Zio Angels, who stole many a young man's heart during the next fourteen weeks. Until the week before Christmas the regular show would be on at the theatre in the evenings and these exotic, glamorous pantomime people, the men dressed in camel haired overcoats, the women, made up to the eyes, dressed in fashionable short skirts with fur coats would assemble in the Scarborough Hotel and The Little Saddle which were also theatrical digs to quoff innumerable pints of guiness and gin and tonics after rehearsals ended. You did not see their like in Dewsbury very often in those days. They added a scintillating extra attraction to the pre Christmas atmosphere of the town.
The week before Christmas the full company plus the augmented orchestra moved into the theatre to rehearse with costumes and scenery and this culminated on the day before Christmas Eve with a full dress rehearsal which always went on until the early hours of the morning. The cast, orchestra, stage staff, and wardrobe department, then dog tired dragged themselves off to sleep fitfully in their homes or digs, only to return to the theatre at ten o'clock on Christmas Eve morning to put finishing touches to the show. There were no such things as unsociable hours at the Dewsbury Empire fifty years ago.
Above - Behind the Town Hall in this photograph can be seen the Empire Theatre, Dewsbury - Courtesy John West
Opening night was a glittering affair with a packed house attended by the Mayor, Council, chief constable, local dignitaries and some times the local member of parliament.
What a show it was from the moment the fourteen piece orchestra struck up the overture under the direction of Stanley Jackson who conducted magnificently dressed in tails ,with a carnation in his button hole and his blonde hair glittering in the limelight. The curtain would rise to reveal the demon king plotting dastardly deeds and the good fairy promising to thwart them. Next the village scene with all sixteen Zio Angels doing a lively song and dance plus, the dame dressed in outrageous costume, simple simon, simple as ever, the hilarious brokers men, and the principle boy statuesque and looking splendid in fish net tights.
Kitchen scenes with the stage covered in decorators paint and flower, twelve pert juveniles specially picked from the cream of Dewsbury dancing schools and a magnificent ballet with dancers dressed as nymphs, birds, and animals completed the first half.
During the interval, the auditorium awash with ice cream and lemonade the manager announced over the back stage microphone the names of all the parties present and Stanley Jackson and the orchestra played a selection of popular songs for the audience to sing.
The second half opened with the Zio Angels doing a kicking routine, thirty two shapely legs moving in absolute precision followed by further spectacular scenes, Alexander's Wonder Dogs presented by Miss Irene, the song sheet with Simple Simon when the audience sang "I do like a nice mince pie " until they were hoarse and a magnificent finale with glittering scenery and all the artistes walking down an enormous stair case dressed in fabulous costumes to take their finale applause. Simple Simon made his final joke, the audience and cast stood whilst the orchestra played "God Save the Queen " ; the plush house curtain fell, the orchestra played a cheerful reprise of a popular song from the show as the audience poured out of the theatre feeling that they had been treated to a "reet good nite owt".
Above - The Dewsbury Empire orchestra in 1911 - Courtesy Peter Lindup.
Many big names appeared in the Empire pantomimes before they became famous including Hylda Baker and Morecambe and Wise. There were well established supporting artistes such as Ken Wilson, Harry Sheils, Joe Black; glamorous principle boys like Sheila Hannaway, Kitty Prince and well known specialty acts; The Falcons, The Great Alexandra Troupe, and Tarzan and Mowgli, the latter dressed in an ape skin used to run up and down rope ladders and along the edge of the circle and gallery during the interval.
Every night motor coaches lined Wakefield Road and Long Causeway waiting to take the audience home to places as far apart as Chesterfield, Hull, Middlesbrough and Oldham when they came out of the theatre satiated by their three hours of entertainment.
Right - Christmas wishes from Archie Sterry, Managing Director of
the Dewsbury Empire in the 1940s - Courtesy his Grandson Richard Sterry.
The theatres in Leeds and Bradford belonged to powerful circuits who had houses in all the major cities of the country. The directors of these became frightened and jealous of the kind of business that was happening at the Empire which seated more people than any other theatre in the West Riding. They put a clause in their contracts barring artistes who worked for them from appearing at the Empire. Television was becoming more and more popular and audiences dwindled, coupled with this Reg Bolton, the driving force behind the pantomime died shortly after Christmas 1954.
The Empire closed abruptly one Saturday night in April 1955 and was demolished in the early sixties to make way for Empire house, a block of offices. It is a sad loss for the town.
As for me; the pantomimes gave me the inspiration to go on and work in the production side of the theatre and I am still working in it almost fifty years later. The odd times that I visit Dewsbury and walk past the site of the old theatre I imagine that I can hear the sound of Stanley Jackson and the orchestra striking up the overture.
Above - The Pioneer Industrial Society Building, later the Pioneer Co-operative Societys building, and later still the Pioneer Theatre - Courtesy John West
The Pioneer Theatre was a conversion of the Pioneer Hall on the top floor of the Pioneer Co-operative Societys building (which was listed Grade II due to the efforts of John West.) The stage and dressing rooms were very primitive. A single circle was constructed at the time of conversion and it was said that it was entirely done with materials supplied by the Co-Op. It was later converted to a cinema and then converted for Bingo which only closed relatively recently.
The theatre was on the second floor and accessed by a staircase in the clock tower. The later circle cut across the windows in the bay to the right of the tower and the next window as well. The stage was in the similar pedimented bay furthest from the clock tower. The building still stands but in 2009 is currently vacant.
The above text and image are courtesy John West, 2009.
A Visitor to the site, Jim Batty, writes:- 'Read
the site with great interest and nostalgia as I was born in Dewsbury
in 1940 so have good memories from the mid 1940's. One thing I never
hear mentioned is that the Pioneer building was opened up to music concerts
in the late 50's early 60's. The first I believe was the Glenn Miller
band, then there was Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys and Chas McDevitt
with Shirley Douglas. Not sure if they performed on the same bill. Then
followed a short season, I think (it may have been just the one concert)
of one night stands of the 'new' craze of rock and roll. Marty Wilde,
Wee Willie Harris, Terry Dene, Screaming Lord Sutch, Joe Brown plus
I think Cliff, Adam Faith and others.' - Jim Batty, May 2016.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Above - The Dewsbury Playhouse, closed and awaiting demolition in 2002 - Courtesy Ron Lake.
The Dewsbury Playhouse was built in 1931, and designed as a Cinema with stage facilities by the well known Theatre Architect Robert Cromie.
Right - The Dewsbury Playhouse from above in a detail from the postcard shown top of page - Courtesy John West.
The Cinema and its stage were both very large. The auditorium was built on two levels, Stalls and one Circle, and could accommodate 1,850 people.
The Cinema was originally fitted with a Compton organ (shown below) but this was scrapped in 1959 due to damage by flooding. The Console was one of only two ever built by John Compton with 'angled' stop jambs. The other was supplied to the Savoy Theatre in Acton.
The building was used for many years both as a Cinema, and as a Variety Theatre, and was later used for pop concerts up until the 1970s.
Left - The Compton Organ Console originally installed at the Dewsbury
Playhouse, and removed in 1959 after flood damage - Courtesy Ron Lake
who says the photograph was taken by Ivor Buckingham, the compiler
of The Compton List, now sadly deceased.
The Theatre was later converted for Bingo use but after this ceased the building was boarded up and out of use for some time until it was eventually demolished around 2002.
Many photographs of the demolition of the Cinema, kindly sent in by Ron Lake, who started his working life at the Playhouse, can be seen below.
A Wilkinsons Store was subsequently built on the site of the Cinema.
Above - Photographs of the Demolition of the Dewsbury Playhouse in 2002 - Kindly sent in by Ron Lake.If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Formerly - Edwin Croueste's Circus / Harte's Ampitheatre
Above - The Dewsbury Hippodrome, Foundry Street in 1910
The Dewsbury Hippodrome was situated between Cloth Hill Street and Foundry Street, and was built on the site of the former Harte's Ampitheatre, a Music Hall which had seating for 2,000, and was about to be sold by auction, when it was destroyed by fire on Sunday the 12th of June 1898. The Music Hall was itself a conversion of a former Circus building which had been run by Edwin Croueste since 1891. The conversion to Music Hall use was carried out under the management of Chas E. Ellis whose business name was Harte, hence Harte's Ampitheatre. The building was 108 feet long by 72 feet wide and of timber construction with a corrugated iron roof.
After Harte's Ampitheatre was destroyed by fire in June 1898 a new Theatre called the Hippodrome was built on the site, and was in use until 1919. In the Stage Yearbook of 1909 and 1910 the General Manager of the Hippodrome was stated as being Mr. Geo. Weldon, and the Stage Manager was Mr. Jack Harris.
The Theatre is thought to have been running until 1919 and demolished in 1950.
A visitor to the site, Julie Callanan, says: 'I have a telegram sent
to my grandmother in August 1913
booking her for a week at the "Dewsbury Hippodrome", which
the agent who booked her calls a "Picturehouse with one turn".
I see from the National Archives that the "Dewsbury Picture House"
was in the probate of J. T. Auty of Ossett in 1914.'
- Julie Callanan.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
The Theatre Royal, Dewsbury was built for a Mr. Job Joy in 1865 and was sited adjacent to a mill near the Market Place and the present Ring Road. The Theatre renamed in the hands of the Joy family until February 1895 when it was bought by James Allen Love of Southport for £6,700.
Sadly for James Love his Theatre was partially destroyed by fire on the 4th of May 1895 between the afternoon and evening performance of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'. The fire was started when one of the scenery borders caught fire and caused the whole of the scenery to catch, destroying the stage in the process, although parts of the building, including the auditorium and Dressing Rooms, survived.
Right - A poster for 'The Plaything of an Hour' at the Theatre Royal, Dewsbury in May 1926 - Courtesy Lynne Colman.
The Theatre was then rebuilt to the designs of the architect, C. Sydney Ingham, reopening on Monday the 12th of August the same year. The ERA reported on the reopening in their 17th of August edition saying: '"It's an ill wind which blows nobody any good" is a self-evident truth to the Dewsbury theatre-goer, for he has now to thank the fire which occurred on May 4th last at the Royal for the provision of a commodious playhouse equal to most in the provinces. On the date mentioned a fire broke out on the stage, completely gutting it, but owing mainly to the arrangements in existence, the flames did not extend to the auditorium. All the scenery was destroyed, as well as the costumes of Mr Chas. Harrington's Uncle Tones Cabin company.
With commendable enterprise the new proprietor (Mr John A. Love, of Southport) decided that in the reconstruction various improvements should be effected, the principal one being the enlargement of the stage and the provision of better accommodation underneath. The work of rebuilding was entrusted to Messrs E. Chadwick and Sons, a local firm, who built the Dewsbury Town Hall.
They commenced work on June 26th, and since that date a large staff of workmen have been busily engaged in carrying out the plans of Mr Chas. S. Ingham, architect. Manchester and Southport. The new stage is 34ft. deep and 53ft. wide from wall to wall, and there is a proscenium opening of 24ft. The flies are from 19ft. to 20ft. from the floor, and the grid is 43ft. high. The ample width and height enable the drop-curtain and the fire-curtain to be raised and lowered without being rolled. In other respects the stage is replete with all necessary apparatus.
Left - A poster for 'Stone The Woman' at the Theatre Royal, Dewsbury in June 1926 - Courtesy Lynne Colman.
The new stock scenery has been painted by Mr Frank Venuiman, of Huddersfield. The new decorations have been carried out with great taste, and the general effect is handsome. The new lessees, Messrs S. A. and W. Robinson, with Mr Otto C. Culling, general manager, have superintended the arrangements, and on Monday evening they were the recipients of the congratulations of their friends upon the excellence of the improvements.
For the reopening week the management have secured Mr H. Dundas's company, in A Life of Pleasure, and the initial performance on Monday was given to a crowded audience. The scenery carried is made a speciality, the Maxim guns in full action in act four being worthy of special mention. Prominent in a very numerous company are the following ladies and gentlemen: - Mies Marion Denvil, Misa Laura Leyccster, Mr Charles Vane, Mr F. Owen Baxter, Mr Ashton Ashbee, Mr John Dobson, and Mr Eric Mayne. The last named also ably acts in the capacity of business manager for Mr Dundas.'
The Theatre was later converted to a cinema called The Tudor and the interior was re-constructed with this theme in the 1930s. The Council demolished the building in the 1960s and the vacant site was then used for car parking.
Some of the information on this page was kindly sent in by John West.
Right - A selection of posters for the Theatre Royal, Dewsbury for 1926 - Courtesy Lynne Colman.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
From The Building News and Engineering Journal, September 20th 1889
Above - The Dewsbury Town Hall and Municipal Buildings - From the Building News and Engineering Journal, September 20th 1889.
This building, which was opened on Tuesday last, stands on an eminence fronting the Market-square, and is surrounded by streets from all sides, being wedge shape, with the angle cut off to gain frontage. The various departments are grouped together for convenience of working, and consist of Municipal offices, reception rooms, borough court, police, school board, exchange, and large hall...
Above - The First Floor Plan of the Dewsbury Town Hall and Municipal Buildings - From the Building News and Engineering Journal, September 20th 1889.
...The main fronts are built of Holmfirth stone, and the whole of the woodwork is of wainscot and Stettin oak. The building is Lighted by electricity throughout, and fitted up with water service in case of fire. The cost of the building, including fittings, will be about £40,000...
Above - The Second Floor Plan of the Dewsbury Town Hall and Municipal Buildings - From the Building News and Engineering Journal, September 20th 1889.
...The architects are Messrs. Holton and Fox, of Dewsbury. All the doors are fitted with Messrs. Joseph Kaye and Sons' patent locks and patent automatic bolts, and their patent sliding door locks are affixed to the sliding iron entrance gates, and all are made to open with master key, with which the Mayor of Dewsbury was presented to open the hall. Messrs. Kaye and Sons also made all the door handles and furniture.
The above article and its accompanying images were first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, September 20th 1889.
Right - A Google StreetView Image of the Town Hall, Dewsbury today - Click to Interact.
You may like to visit the Town Hall's own Website here.
This DVD by Simon Reed Productions is a fascinating look into Dewsbury's past and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the town's lost buildings. With a plethora of archive images, then and now street views, interviews with locals, and searches amongst the rubble, the treasures detailed here also show several of Dewsbury's lost Theatres and Cinemas. You can find out more and buy the DVD from Simon's own website here.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: