Britain's Hippodrome Theatres
Making a splash
The following article, by Peter Longman, on Britain's Hippodrome Theatres, was first published in The Theatres Trust September 2002 Newsletter - The Article is reproduced here by kind permission of the Theatres Trust, whose website can be found here.
The image shows a rocky ravine, at the top of which orange and yellow flames and vivid lines depict an explosion, with debris in the air and distraught figures silhouetted against the light. Below, the waterfall has turned to a torrent and is shown smashing through a wooden bridge from which a coach with four horses and assorted passengers are being thrown. All around startled bystanders run to escape impending doom.
Left - The Hippodrome, Poplar - Click to go to Poplar page.
All of this was for real - they don't make shows like that any more! And it was just one of many such spectaculars which were served up to satisfy the ever increasing demands of audiences a hundred years ago. Shows like 'Siberia' featured ice-skating and horse-riding, and a finale in which up to forty polar bears roamed the arena. Circus promoters were having to compete with music halls, whose acts increasingly incorporated circus performers. Theatre and music hall people like Edward Moss responded in kind, and architects like Frank Matcham were called in to create bigger and more elaborate purpose-built venues. In Glasgow, the Sauchiehall Hippodrome building was originally (1892) a diorama, but in 1895 the flamboyant showman Arthur Hubner turned it into a ice-skating palace.
Right - The Rotherhithe Hippodrome - Destroyed during World War Two - Click to go to Rotherhithe page.
In the following year it was also the site of Glasgow's first cinema show. In 1902 Hubner reopened the Hippodrome as a circus. However he faced competition from E A Bostock's Scottish Zoo mid Glasgow Hippodrome which opened in the same year in nearby Cowcaddens, and from the long established Hengler family, whose circus had toured Britain in 1891 and who led the way, developing the concept of circus and water spectacles, and opening a chain of purpose-built circuses across Britain. These included one on Wellington Street in Glasgow. Over the next few years Arthur Hengler gradually lost his venues, and was forced to collaborate with his former rivals Moss and Stoll. But in 1964 he was able to take over control of the Sauchiehall Street Hippodrome from Arthur Hubner.
It was probably Frank Matcham's Hippodrome for Edward Moss, above what is now Leicester Square underground station in the centre of London, that set the standard. The audience in 1900 sat on three levels and around three-quarters of a circular circus ring, with a proscenium arch flanked by stage boxes occupying most of the other quarter. During the performance metal caging protected the audiences from the animals, but at the climax of the show the caging would sink from view and the circus rink would drop, to reveal a huge water tank covering the area of the circus ring. The stage curtains would open to reveal a jungle scene, with an enormous waterfall most of the height of the proscenium arch. At the top of it elephants would appear and then slide down into the tank. Audiences were warned about the danger of getting wet, although fortunately glass screens had come up to replace the metal caging.
Left - The London Hippodrome - From a postcard 1910 - Click for a detailed look at the theatre in 2003.
The roof above the auditorium could slide open, and divers would leap from the minstrels gallery 60ft above into the water. If you don't believe me, we've a copy of the piece from the Sphere magazine of 9 January 1904 showing in diagrammatic form 'the new sensation at the London Hippodrome - how the elephants come down the slide'. We also have a cutting from the 4 January edition of The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News showing the model of the stage made for The Golden Princess and the Elephant Hunters with 'the great shoot (sic) down which Busch's elephants plunge'.
The opening programme for the Hippodrome in Sauchichall Street explained how the circus ring, 42ft in diameter, would be converted within one minute to a tank of 100,000 gallons of water. The circular platform on which performances took place was raised and lowered into the bottom of the tank by a powerful hydraulic ram and pumps.
In 1912 the Glasgow Herald reported on the latest epic - 'The Balkans' - in which horsemen, wild sheep and bullocks were driven up mountain passes, how a bold youth dived from a dizzy height to rescue his girl, and of the bursting of the floodgates up in the mountains and the stampede of oxen, horses, men and women, the wild plunge and the exciting swim for life.
Right - Gloucester Hippodrome Programme - Courtesy Peter Charlton
A typical programme of the 1901 London season started with an overture - 'a Grand Orchestra Of 40 performers' - and included boomerang throwers, the only saxophone band in the world, Herbert's Dogs - including Dink the Marvellous High-Diving Dog. comedians and conjurers - some fourteen acts in all before the finale. This was The Redskins and comprised five scenes starting in 'the Settlers hut', followed by 'the Indian encampment', and finishing (cue the water effects) with 'fording the river' and 'shooting the rapids' (You could do very good rapids from the stage boxes into the tank). The programme also referred to Hengler's Plunging and Diving Horses and the (one legged) diver Mr Ted Heaton.
Not everyone was impressed by these shows. 'The elephants are hardly entitled to rank as specimens of natural muscular development, as they have obviously cultivated their great strength at the expense of their mental facilities' wrote one critic, adding 'they do not appear to possess either discriminating judgement or wonderful wins, unless indeed an elephant slides down an inclined plane into the water of his own unfettered choice, which I hardly imagine likely'.
Left - The Wrexham Hippodrome - Click to go to Wrexham page.
In the late nineteenth century theatre buildings incorporating circus rings, or re-using former circus buildings and ice rinks were not infrequent. Doncaster's Grand was built on the site of a former circus building and reflects its dimensions, as does the form of Scarborough's Royal Opera House, first built for the Henglers in 1877. But the novelty, and the increased scope for spectacle offered by water tanks, proved a great attraction. The Hippodrome in Manchester (Shown right) opened in 1904 and the Olympia in Liverpool a year later.
Right - The Hippodrome Manchester - From a postcard 1909 - Click for more on this Theatre.
Both of these were essentially in the circus ring format. Matcham's Edinburgh Empire of 1892 and Bristol Hippodrome of 1912 were both more conventional in appearance and had proscenium stages with front sections that could be withdrawn to reveal water tanks.
The trend was short-lived and most of these unusual buildings were lost or were adapted. Hengler's final season in Glasgow was as late as 1924, and the Hippodrome was rebuilt as the Regal Cinema, later the ABC. According to Bruce Peter (author of Scotland's Splendid Theatres - Polygon, Edinburgh), the remains of animal pens still existed below the cinemas in 1999. They may have gone by now, for the building is about to start the next phase of its long life as a 'leisure venue', whatever that is. But the outline and roof of the circus ring and some original brickwork are still visible from Scott Street and from the Glasgow School of Art which towers over it. And although you'd never guess from the outside, the basic structure of Glasgow's other Hippodrome designed by theatre architect Bertie Crewe in 1902 Still stands on New City Road, Cowcaddens, as a vast warehouse-like iron framed structure now clad in corrugated metal as a supermarket and part of Glasgow's Chinatown. When I visited the site recently with Clare Sorensen of the Royal Commission in Edinburgh we were told of a lady who still lived nearby and could remember the noises made by the animals in their cages at night.
Left - Programme for the Palace Theatre, Halifax - Courtesy Peter Charlton. - Click for more on Halifax.
There are more extensive remains elsewhere - Brighton's Hippodrome of 1901 by Matcham was created from an 1897 ice rink and is now a magnificent bingo hall. His Olympia at Liverpool still exists, much altered as a live music venue but, as at Brighton, (right) there is much evidence of the earlier circus and aquatic usage and of the animal inhabitants.
Right - The Brighton Hippodrome - M.L. 2002 - Click to go to the Brighton Hippodrome page.
As I write this, it seems likely that much of the London Hippodrome site may be demolished. Matcham had returned there in 1909 to increase the stage depth and incorporate a retractable stage over the water tank, thus starting the conversion to commercial variety theatre.
Left - Programme for the Hippodrome, Newcastle - Click for the Newcastle Hippodrome page.
Circus and aquatic use finally ceased in 1915 when Matcham's office converted the Hippodrome to a variety theatre. In 1958 a false ceiling was inserted below the balcony for the Talk of the Town theatre cabaret, and today only the lower part of the auditorium remains in use, heavily disguised. Above, all accessible decorative features have long been removed or vandalised. In the basement the outline of the water tank beneath the circus ring is still evident, although much altered.
There has been speculation that the building could be restored and reopened as a home for musicals, and even that circus promoters might be interested. But the fact is that the cost of restoration would be prohibitive and, in planning terms, the building is no longer classified as a theatre. However, we are working with Westminster City Council to see whether there is scope within the legal constraints of the planning system to create a new theatre use on the site. But I am afraid that its circus days are long gone.
Today, the working purpose-built circus incorporating a water tank below its ring is just about extinct. There is one in Moscow and, I believe, in Paris, but we still have two here in the UK. In 1894 architects Maxwell and Tuke, probably helped by Frank Matcham, fitted one in between the four giant legs of Blackpool Tower. It's a wonderful Alhambresque plasterwork concoction, still occasionally used, but not with animals.
If you want the authentic feel you have to go to Great Yarmouth, where Peter jay, the 1960s pop star and leader of the jay Walkers, and his family still do a summer season at the Hippodrome on fairly traditional lines. It still had horses when I visited and a marvellous 'earthy' feel to it - the smell is pretty authentic too. I wouldn't want to have to vouch for the cleanliness of the water, but it's certainly very cold.
Sadly there are no elephants or polar bears, although the finale does include a sort of torrent, involving 75,000 ping-pong balls. It must take ages to clear them up, but I'm sure all will be ready for next July, when they will be launching their centenary season. Do visit - details on 01493 844172.
The text from the above article was first published in The Theatres Trust September 2002 Newsletter and is reproduced here by kind permission of the Theatres Trust, whose website can be found here.