The town of Falkirk sits well on a site chosen by the Romans when they built their Antonine Wall. Its geography also led it to be the site of the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, which Scotland avenged at Bannockburn in 1314.
Right - A Thumbnail image of an excellent National Library for Scotland map which shows an 1860 plan of Falkirk, which is zoomable, and shows clearly the Corn Exchange, the Rankine Hall, and the Wilson Hall - Click to view the map.
The Falkirk Cattle Trysts for many centuries were the final stage each year of the cattle droves from the Highlands and Islands to the start of the Lowlands, and entertainments were made and circuses attracted to the growing town. Industrially Falkirk and the surrounding district blossomed with developments of new metallurgy and the plentiful supply of ironstone around, and was further aided by the opening of the Forth & Clyde Canal in 1790. The first modern ironworks in Scotland started in Falkirk in 1759, by the renowned Carron Company, who soon had their own Royal Charter, and whose extensive foundry product ranges included cannon and ammunition for armies and navies and, much later, Royal Mail pillar boxes and the red public telephone boxes for the GPO. More than thirty foundry companies opened up.
In 1740 the Aitken family started their brewing business which expanded to international size, and it was a descendant James Aitken who started the movement in the late 1890s to establish the burgh`s first purpose-built theatre the Grand Theatre & Opera House.
After visiting Falkirk for just one night on October the 20th 1864 Arthur Lloyd received a glowing review in the Falkirk Herald saying: 'Mr. Arthur Lloyd is a comic A1 in his line. He has a fine, clean melodious voice, a rare thing for a comic. His imitations of street musicians on the clarionet were excruciatingly funny and elicited roars of laughter and applause.'
The above information on Falkirk Entertainment was written for this site by Graeme Smith in May 2013.
In the 19th century from the 1850s the three main Halls or Rooms presenting drama, music, panoramas and entertainments were the Corn Exchange by far the largest and two Assembly Rooms noted below. All were within 100 yards of each other and also were venues for meetings, soirees, exhibitions and lectures. Examples of entertainment for the week of the New Year 1877 are Shakespeare and other dramas at the Corn Exchange, admission 2s, 1s and 6d; Wilson`s Hall had a French and German language concert by its Music Class; pantomime at Rankine`s Hall, admission 1s, 6d, and 4d; and variety in full swing at the Bank Street Hall, admission 2d.
H. F. Lloyd appeared at Bank Street Hall in December 1850, from the Prince`s Theatre, West Nile Street, Glasgow where he was manager, performing as character comedian in an Annual Concert arranged by Mr Crawford, leader of music of Falkirk Parish Church.
Wilson`s Hall or Assembly Rooms, in Wilson`s Buildings, High Street, Falkirk, had a larger hall and a lesser hall. It was built in 1846 as an investment by John Wilson, the coal magnate. Wilson`s staged vaudeville companies, plays, music concerts, panoramas accompanied by vocal and instrumental music, and pantomime. It was also a centre for music tuition - Also Private Classes for young Ladies and Gentlemen wishing to learn the newest Dances. Special Classes for Etiquette, Ball-room and Drawing-room Deportment etc. In the 1870s it added Reading and Billiard Rooms the Reading Room being reserved exclusively for Farmers and their Friends every Thursday forenoon.
Later - Mrs Rankine`s Hall, Rankine`s Folly, The Theatre, Rankine`s Royal Hall, The Theatre Royal
Rankine`s Hall or Assembly Rooms in Rankine`s Lane, leading on to the Pleasance, started around 1851 after the Old Assembly Rooms in Robert`s Wynd became a store. Both venues were part of a large number of properties owned throughout the town by the Rankine family. The Old Assembly Rooms had hosted plays as far back as 1806 by a Theatre Royal company.
The New Assembly Rooms contained a large hall and a room sometime used as a private school and were developed by John Rankine. They became known variously as Mrs Rankine`s Hall, Rankine`s Folly, the Theatre, Rankine`s Royal Hall, and the Theatre Royal. It had a gallery, pit and boxes. The hall staged drama from theatres in the cities and touring companies, panoramas, waxworks, pantomime, variety and concerts.
In 1856 he announced that.. RANKINE`s ROYAL HALL having been recently enlarged, is now the largest in the county. It has a Portable Stage and Scenery suitable for a Theatre and may be had by the night. Terms moderate.
John Rankine was the grandson of William Symington, inventor of the first practicable steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, and later an engine consultant with the Carron Company. In 1862 Rankine wrote the first biography of Symington to commemorate his work and the start of steam navigation, and to raise money for a public memorial to him.
During 1873 the celebrated violinist W. Jukes presented attractive Bills of Fare, sometimes in association with Falkirk Ironworks Band, and in the summer months he started dancing assemblies on Tuesday and Saturday evenings. Previously Jukes was the orchestra leader for James Baylis when Baylis opened and ran the Theatre Royal Hope Street, Glasgow from 1867 to 1869.
The above information on Falkirk's Assembly Rooms, Wlson's Hall, and Rankine's Hall, were written for this site by Graeme Smith in May 2013.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
During the 19th century Callendar Riggs on the east side of the Cross and connecting to the slopes up to Callendar estate was the main site of the Falkirk Fairs and the cattle and horse markets. The Riggs and the adjoining streets eventually came under the jurisdiction of the burgh council who leased the Riggs and the street customs to the White family for the purposes of fairs, carnivals and entertainments. Every year the Whites in turn rented out stances for bazaars, fancy goods, shooting saloons and sporting entertainments. They were the leading family of the Romany travelling families loyal to Falkirk. The council regarded John White as a showman of good repute and during the 1890s also leased and licensed him to operate the Caledonia Theatre in the Riggs. Currently little is known about this structure but it was possibly a wooden theatre.
In 1899 the burgh council leased it to Fred Bolton of the respected partnership of Frank Pierce & Fred Bolton who built and ran the Caledonian Theatre, Ayr - which was a wooden building in 1895 in Ayr`s Carrick Oval and would be replaced in 1902 by the building of the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr. From theatre receipts Bolton donated to good causes including Falkirk`s Boer War Reservists Fund. His daughter Lily married Will Fyffe who became a national star, but sadly she died in 1921 in a major ship collision off the west coast when sailing from Glasgow to Dublin.
John White resumed the lease after Fred Bolton. Most likely once the Grand Theatre got underway the Caledonia ceased to exist.
The above information on Caladonia Theatre, Falkirk was written for this site by Graeme Smith in May 2013.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Above - The War Memorial and Town Hall, Newmarket Street, Falkirk - Courtesy Graeme Smith
The Corn Exchange was built in 1857 in New Market Street and was Falkirk`s largest venue. Each year the building and its waiting rooms were let out on an annual basis for the purpose of Lectures, Concerts, Dancing, Public Exhibitions, Sale-Room purposes and all Public Entertainments, with the exception of Thursdays which the Feuars reserve for a Grain Market till Three o`clock in the afternoon.
Entertainments included dramas, panoramas, minstrel shows, pantomimes, concerts, vaudeville, opera, and musical plays, by artistes local and national and by theatre companies across the country. Operatic concerts included those put on by the town`s School of Arts newly formed in 1873.
In the 1860s and 1870s, along with other dance halls, the Corn Exchange organised dances each Saturday through the winter, and at farm-feeing days, from 8pm to 10pm, ending before the public-houses shut at 11pm. Admission was 6d, and free for girls and women. But the Exchange drew fire from some households and churches who complained that their domestic servants were coming back later, and not always fit for work!
When rebuilt in 1879 as the Town Hall & Corn Exchange only the east and west original gables were retained and the whole hall was widened and modernised, seating 1,700 people.
Left - The frontage of the Town Hall, Falkirk - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The Town Hall continued its wide range of entertainments, and dancing, - its operatic concerts now including Falkirk District Choral Union, and plays including the famed John Clyde and his acting company (scenery by William Glover), and military concerts including John Philip Sousa and his 53 bandsmen in 1903. A large proscenium was erected in 1902, but reduced the Hall`s sitting accommodation to 1,450, in an attempt to further increase the number of theatrical touring companies to Falkirk and increase the revenue of the Burgh Property Committee - but two years later the new Grand Theatre was attracting many of them.
After a distinguished career through peace and war the building was demolished in 1966 when the huge new office complex for the Town Council was opened in West Bridge Street which includes the current Town Hall. The current Hall is the principal venue for arts and theatre entertainment in Falkirk now mainly by amateur societies in drama, dance, music, opera, and pantomime.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Later - The ABC Regal
Above - The Falkirk Grand Theatre on the right of Vicar Street, with its domed roof and before the canopy was added to its entrance - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The leading proposers in 1899 were the brewery magnate James Aitken who at the same time was building a very modern brewery in the centre of the town (shown left) - Frederick Johnston owner of the Falkirk Herald and founder of today`s publishing house the Johnston Press Plc, and James Rankine of the town`s Rosebank Distillery (and not connected to Rankine`s Hall.) They were joined by two from Edinburgh who were then running the Pavilion Theatre, Grove Street, Edinburgh - John Sloan Blair a wine merchant (who was not unknown to the bankruptcy courts) and who was a founder member of the Masonic Lodge Dramatic & Arts of Edinburgh, and Sturrock Campbell who was known for presenting drama in Falkirk with his Paragon touring company.
The architect appointed was the inspired Alexander Gauld based in Melville Street, Falkirk. His drawings of 1900 showed a substantial building and a handsome frontage on Vicar Street. It would accommodate 2,000 people and be electrically lit throughout. - The general decorations will be oriental in detail, the predominating shades being cream, with Indian red, and peacock blue tints, relieved with copper hues, while parts of the principal features will be treated with gilding. - The centre of the dome would form a sliding roof divided into panels with perforated ornament, to introduce fresh air, and extract the foul air.
Left - The unbuilt Falkirk Grand Theatre design of 1900 by Alexander Gauld - From the Falkirk Herald.
However, the work did not take place as the company failed to secure the monies required in the Prospectus; possibly the townsfolk were deterred from buying shares after some ministers railed against the need for a theatre.
A new Company was started in 1903 with James Aitken the leading director, this time with the advocacy of R. C. Buchanan of Glasgow who was now promoting a series of new theatres starting with the New Century Theatre, Motherwell. Buchanan normally had a five-year agreement to be managing director once each building opened.
The chairman of the new Falkirk Grand Company was Major Robert Howard, wine merchant in Glasgow, who had initiated the New Century Theatre, Motherwell. Its architect Alexander Cullen, senior, based in Hamilton with a prestigious portfolio of clients, became the Falkirk Grand`s architect.
The project now included building an art nouveau styled tenement of shops, offices and houses on Vicar Street, taking the name Vicar Chambers, and behind that the theatre was entered through a covered theatre corridor at the right hand corner of the tenement. The Grand accommodated 2,000 people in stalls, pit, two circles and fourteen boxes. The tip up chairs in stalls and circles, and the balcony edges, were upholstered in green plush. The auditorium had a large dome centred by a group of seven gasaliers while the stage and orchestra pit were electrically lit. The act drop was a scene of Loch Ard painted by William Glover. Entrance to the pit and gallery was at the other corner of the tenement through Theatre Lane.
Right - The auditorium of the Falkirk Grand Theatre as seen from from the stage - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
When receiving Dean of Guild Court approval an additional exit door was insisted upon by the Court, noting that in Glasgow the door space is usually one foot to 60 people, in contrast to the Edinburgh basis of one in 70. Falkirk usually associates with things in the west, not in the east.
The Grand presented drama, musicals, opera, pantomime and revues. Its prices were Dress Circle 2/6d, Stalls 1/6d (6d extra if reserved), Pit 1/-, Amphitheatre 9d, Gallery 6d. Half prices from 9pm half-time. The private boxes ranged from 7/6d to 25/-. Within five years film and variety were added to the bill of fare, as were stage sports, including wrestling.
Recalling his start as a programme boy in the Grand, one resident recalls The patrons of the theatre were well catered for, especially those who liked a dram, as there were five public bars catering for their needs. Encouraged by the arrival of the Grand, the Falkirk Operatic Society started in 1903 and continues today.
In 1920 the Grand was sold to a new grouping of theatres and music-halls - chaired by John Calder of the Alhambra Music Hall, Stirling with its offices in Dunfermline. The Grand`s shareholders received a generous £3 for each £1 original share paid. The new group promoted variety and cine-variety, and the Grand continued to be managed for a while by Stanley Rodgers (a fellow director of Buchanan) who had moved from being a pantomime producer to theatre management for Arthur Jefferson of the Metropole Theatre, Glasgow, remaining manager of Jefferson`s theatres on Tyneside when the Jefferson family moved to Glasgow. During the Twenties Rodgers went on to create the Stanley Rodgers Cinema Circuit of some 15 venues in and around Newcastle and Gateshead.
Left - A photograph showing the Grand Theatre, Falkirk with its canopied entrance - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
In 1929 the theatre was taken over by the ABC cinema chain and run as a fulltime picture house; four years later it was demolished and the new ABC Regal appeared in resplendent art deco style with its main door now at 90 degrees to the original building, opening out to the newly-constructed Princes Street. After almost 70 years the Regal closed in 2001, and today the building is operated as the Sportsters Bar & Grill.
The growth of theatre and hall venues around the beginning of the 20th century helped to encourage a young man to start a bus service. Walter Alexander was a grate fitter in one of the foundries in nearby Bonnybridge, and at night spent his spare time repairing and selling bicycles. From his savings he and his wife (from Denny) started a bicycle shop in 1902 in Camelon, Falkirk. Alexander foresaw the growth of road transport. Before the outbreak of the Great War he bought a second-hand chain-driven charabanc which he stripped down and used as a motor lorry, but put the charabanc seating back on to ferry passengers on occasions. One newspaper reflected - He bought a dilapidated motor lorry and set up as a haulage contractor, including carrying shells throughout the Great War years. On two nights of the week he equipped the lorry with wooden forms, one on either side, put a hood over the top, hung a bicycle lamp inside, and conveyed people from Falkirk to Bonnybridge and Denny to the theatre.
He soon bought two new chain-driven Belhaven charabancs and started a daily passenger service linking the towns. Within 20 years W. Alexander & Sons were one of the largest bus service operators in Scotland, and introduced the luxury Blue Bird coaches from their own works in Falkirk and Stirling. By the 1960s Alexanders exported more double-decker buses than any other manufacturer in the world, and today Alexander Dennis continue to be the largest bus builders and exporters in Britain.
Right - Falkirk Model of early Blue Bird coach - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The above information on the Grand Theatre and Opera House, Falkirk was written for this site by Graeme Smith in May 2013.
Formerly - The Erskine Church - The
Electric Theatre - The Empire Theatre
The Roxy Theatre was in Silver Row, one of the many narrow cobbled streets of Falkirk swept away in the 1960s to be replaced by an indoor shopping centre.
Right - A photograph showing the Roxy Theatre, Silver Row, Falkirk - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
Originally the building was the Erskine Church, complete with graveyard, which began in the 18th century. In 1905 the congregation moved to a new building near the Infirmary and the premises were eventually sold to show-businessman Teddy Atkinson, trading originally as Atkinson`s Electric Theatres Ltd, who renovated the place and opened for business in 1910 as the Electric Theatre showing silent films, and seating 900 people. A few years later it added live performances, possibly encouraged by the fact that the proposed Hippodrome Music Hall planned to be built in Hope Street did not materialise. This Hippodrome and a similar Hippodrome for Coatbridge were planned for a Scottish Provincial Hippodrome Company Ltd (but aborted) by a short-lived civil engineering partnership Robertson & Dobbie based in Glasgow. It is possible Dobbie was a relative of the Dobbie family, prominent foundry owners and engineers and benefactors in the Falkirk area. George Webster, who became a prominent cinema manager for decades in Edinburgh, started as a chocolate boy in the Electric.
By 1915 there were variety acts such as comedian Donald Mackay, and The Balmorals, often in a cine-variety programme, and Anderson & Nash the comedy eccentrics. Musical revues were presented such as the American naval revue Biff Bang! written during the Great War.
From 1920 the Electric changed ownership and its name to the Empire Theatre and was leased to a Stirling architect and surveyor Alexander McKenzie Lupton - who was active in choral music and opera productions - presenting numerous variety acts from Europe and America, including favourites such as Dr Bodie, Mackenzie Murdoch, Tommy Morgan, Tommy Lorne, Will Fyffe, Harry Gordon and Dave Willis. In the latter part of the 1930s the Empire continued under the same proprietors, the general manager by now being Hyman Lipman from Glasgow, and the building was gutted internally for renovation.
Left - An advertisement for the Falkirk Roxy Theatre possibly 1950s - Courtesy Bob Bain.
It was rewired and new stage lighting introduced; the auditorium and gallery now had new passageways and tip-up chairs; central heating was installed; new dressing rooms built; and a 16 foot illuminated sign now hung outside. The weekly shows became twice nightly. It reopened in October 1938 as the Roxy Theatre of variety, headlining Billy Mason and his Orchestra at the start of a national tour.
No matter how the theatre was decorated if the turn was good they got pennies thrown onto the stage from the balcony, if they were not, old fruit was pelted at them.
Above - A 1950s Programme for 'Cinderella' at the Roxy Theatre, Falkirk - Courtesy Bob Bain.
Prime performers of the 1940s and 50s included Robert Wilson, Jack Radcliffe, Clark & Murray, Jack Milroy, Jimmy Nicol, Chic Murray & Maidie. Often the dancing troupe were the Moxon Ladies. One newcomer who made his national debut in theatre entertainment was a young serviceman stationed at RAF Grangemouth. This was Max Bygraves, age 21, who went on the Roxy stage in a wartime charity show in 1943 for three nights in a singing cowboy act George Burt and the Bunkhouse Boys - and was paid £5.10/- When the Tall Droll Chic Murray - was starting out and yet unbilled, he was booked for the Roxy in October 1947 and promptly dubbed its musical director Jimmy Running Running Wild, Lost Control as he struggled manfully with the Roxy orchestra.
Right - Max Bygraves performing at the Piano - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The Roxy closed in March 1958 with its final show produced by Dave Hunter of Falkirk who had many years experience as a performer and producer in the Roxy. In a letter to the town`s newspaper in 2012 one Falkirk Bairn recalls the old buildings in Silver Row including the Roxy - Famously, one of the last acts to perform was Syncopating Sandy Strickland, a non-stop pianist (resident in Bolton) who broke the world record by playing for 130 hours or thereabouts. People queued up to see this phenomenon and the sound of Sandy was relayed to the crowds by loudspeaker.
The above information on the Roxy Theatre, Falkirk was written for this site by Graeme Smith in May 2013.
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