Theatres and Halls in Birkenhead, Wirral, Merseyside
The Argyle Theatre - The Hippodrome / Ohmys Grand Circus / The Gaiety Music Hall / The Metropole Theatre - The Theatre Royal - The Claughton Music Hall - Other Birkenhead Theatres and Cinemas - Ormskirk Theatres
Also known as - The Argyle Theatre Of Varieties / The Prince of Wales Theatre
Above - The Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead - From a 1930s Postcard.
The Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, was built for Dennis Grannell and opened on Monday the 21st of December 1868 with a Music Hall Bill including the Cedas Troupe, John Barnum, Miss M. Astropp, the McGregor Simpson Sisters, M. Bevani, Richardson & Graham, the Hondra Brothers, and Fothergill and Summerson.
Right - A Poster for the Argyle Theatre of Varieties for Monday January the 21st 1907.
The ERA reported on the new Theatre in their 27th of December 1868 edition saying:- 'Argyle Music Hall - (Proprietors, Messrs George Arundale and Co.) - This new and elegant place of amusement was opened for the first time on Monday, the 21st inst. The Hall is seventy feet in length by forty-five feet wide, the height being forty feet, with two galleries capable of seating 500 people, the body of the Hall accommodating a similar number.
In connection with the Hall there are eight American bowling alleys, seventy feet long, a large public billiard-room, tables, and a select room. The whole has been built under the superintendence of Mr Davis, architect, Liverpool, at a cost of upwards of £10,000.
The opening performance on Monday was in every respect a great success, the company at present under engagement comprising Ceda's troupe of minstrels, Miss M. Astrop (Bravura vocalist), Mr J. Barnum (comic), the Sisters M'Gregor Simpson (operatic and Scottish vocalists), Mr Richardson and Miss Graham (dramatic sketches), Hondra Brothers (gymnasts), and Messrs Fothergill and Summation (comic Irish sketches).
Mr F. Springthorpe is a corteous and efficient Manager. The orchestra includes Messrs C. W. Mackey (leader), J. Fish (pianist), Alfred Cornish (cornet), Lawton (flute), and Ball (basso), and gives great satisfaction to the audience.'
The Theatre had a change of name in 1876 to The Prince Of Wales Theatre, opening with the pantomime 'Prince Bowbell', or the 'Illustrious Stranger' and was then generally used for more conventional fair such as plays. A new proscenium was erected at this time and the stage enlarged, along with various other improvements to the building.
However, the name reverted back to the Argyle Theatre in 1890 when it was used as a Music Hall and Variety Theatre again. Dennis Grannell's nephew, Dennis J. Clarke, ran the Argyle Theatre for 45 years from 1890 to 1935 and it became one of the most well known Theatres in the country.
Sir Harry Lauder began his career at the Argyle, and all the names of the day performed there including Dan Leno, George Robey, Vesta Tilley, Stan Laurel, Bud Flanagan, and Charlie Chaplin.
Left - A Poster for the Argyle Theatre of Varieties for Monday the 1st of February 1892.
The Argyle Theatre was the first Theatre to host radio broadcasts, which were sent out all over the commonwealth on short-wave radio, and the Argyle was also the only Theatre at the time to broadcast to the USA.
The Theatre was a leader in the showing of Vitagraph Pictures, Thomas Edison's early cinema, outside of London and even showed footage, in 1910, of King Edward VII's funeral.
On the 21st of September 1940, an air raid during the Battle of Britain resulted in the Argyle being destroyed by fire and the Theatre's illustrious career had come to an end.
There is a list of productions and performances which took place at the Argyle Theatre from 1885 to 1921 on the website of the Sheffield University as part of their National Fairgrounds Archive which you can download in a Word Document here.
The 1909 Illustrated Anniversary Souvenir of The Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead with a brief synopsis of its history chronicled by W. H. Donovan
Above - The Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead - From a sketch in the 41st Anniversary Souvenir Programme for the Theatre in 1909 - Kindly donated by Maureen Shakeshaft.
The primary object of the Management in presenting this little Souvenir to their patrons is to chronicle the fact that the Argyle Theatre is this year celebrating the Forty-First Anniversary of the date of its opening, which interesting event took place on the 2lst of December, 1868.
It also affords an opportunity of indulging in a few reminiscences in connection with the history of the Theatre that may possibly be as interesting to its numerous patrons and habitues of to-day as the revival of old time names and memories will be to those who remember and frequented this popular place of amusement in its earlier days.
There is always a peculiar charm and pleasure to the enthusiastic playgoer in recalling the theatrical recollections of youth, and there are few of us who do not cherish some happy memory of the footlight favourites who delighted us in the evenings of the days gone bye.
The remarkable progress that the Variety Theatre has made and the daily increasing popularity it enjoys among all classes of the amusement-seeking and play-going public of today, is in marked contrast to the prejudice and antipathy displayed towards the Music Hall of nearly half-a-century ago.
Left - A sketch of J. Keating, acting manager, beside the Box Office of the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead.
The time was when a visit to a Music Hall had to be made surreptitiously, from fear of offending Mrs. Grundy. The censorship of the songs and jokes of the artistes was seldom exercised, and the vigilance of stage managers in suppressing vulgarity deplorably lax.
To-day there is scarcely a town in the United Kingdom that does not delight in the lavish architecture of its modern Variety Theatre. The artistes are petted and patronized by Royalty, and society receives them with open arms. From a glance at the occupants of the stalls and boxes of a London Music Hall to-day, it would not be inapropos to describe it as a "House of Peers."
We accept this as a happy and healthy sign of the times, and in doing so, we desire to credit the present management of the Argyle Theatre with that full measure of praise for the aims and efforts it has displayed in assisting to bring about this welcome revolution.
Above - The New Entrance and Waiting Room of the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead in 1909
It was in the year 1867 that the late Mr. Dennis Grannell, (Shown Right) proprietor of the Rotunda Music Hall, Liverpool, secured the site for the erection the building known to us as the Argyle Theatre.
With admirable foresight he saw the possibility the future would develop, notwithstanding that the district adjacent and to the westward was waste land and fields, from Grange Road, to Holt Hill, and from the Haymarket to the Park. His farseeing enterprise is manifest today in the crowds that besiege the Theatre nightly.
Right - Dennis Grannell, founder and first proprietor of the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead.
The Theatre was constructed and fitted with all the modern improvements in lighting and seating, at an enormous cost. In the architectural design of the building, evidence of Mr. Grannell's perspicuity and business acumen is not wanting. From the cellars and bowling alleys in the basement, to the luxurious billiard saloons and residential portion of the establishment, there is scarcely a yard of space that is not utilized.
The management was placed in the hands of Mr. George Arundale, and the opening performance took place on 21st December, 1868. From a pen and ink copy of the first bill issued (Shown Below) it will be seen how easily satisfied and simple the tastes of the patrons were in those days when compared with the colossal combinations of stars and expensive programmes provided for the present generation.
Above - Portraits of Bella & Bijou who are featured in two of the Argyle Theatre Posters on this page - Courtesy Peter Cannon, Great Grandson of Bella & Bijou who were also the original owners of Walter Lambert's Popularity Painting for whom it is thought it was originally painted.
It is also a curious fact that the prices of admission to nearly all parts of the house were the same then as they are to-day. The £200 per week artiste had not arrived, and it is probable that that £30 often covered the salary list of artistes, orchestra, and other liabilities.
In the present year of grace, 1909, the "top of the bill" rarely signs a contract for less than £100 per week and the remaining artistes on the programme take another £150.
Left - A Pen and Ink sketch of the first Bill issued from the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead - From the Theatre's 41st Anniversary Souvenir Programme.
It is also interesting to recall the names of some of the stars of greater or lesser magnitude who entertained and brightened the lives of Argyle patrons in the early days. Mr. Harry Linn was the "one and only" Scotch Comedian, and the predecessor of our Harry Lauder, minus his ability, and popularity. Mrs. F. R. Phillips was admittedly the "Queen of Serio Comics." Hyram Travers revelled in Cockney delineations. Nish and Martin, Craven and Conway, Pierce and Monaghan, represented the profession as negro comedians, the "brilliant Black Brothers of Burlesque," a type of humorist that has almost become extinct.
The Brothers Wilkinson, Barney Hopkins, Pat Feeney, Alexander Staunton, were among the popular stage Irishmen. The Sisters Pedley, Sisters Mario, Sisters Grosvenor, Will. Townley, the "Lancashire Vocalist," W.. J. Collins, the "Black Storm," Ned Cunningham (father of. Minnie), N. C. Bostock, Cheevers and Kennedy, Frank Mordauut and Lieutenant Cole, ventriloquists, are a few of the names of old favourites who's names are chronicled in a portfolio of star celebrities.
Right - Harry Kilburn, music hall comic, singer, dancer, and actor from 1879 to about 1910. He married Ruth Grosvenor of the stage act the Grosvenor Sisters, who are mentioned above, in 1889 - Courtesy Harry's Great Nephew Steve Kilburn.
In 1876 the familiar name of "The Argyle" was removed from the bills, and the title of the establishment changed to The Prince of Wales Theatre. It was opened for the season with the pantomime of Prince Bowbell, or the Illustrious Stranger. Mr. and Mrs. Will Marchant, who were the reigning favourites of Birkenhead at this period, scoring a great success, which was shared by Mr. J. S. Foote, a clever comedian, Mr. Fred Charles, and the Sisters Pedley.
Above - The Stage of the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead in 1909
In the same year the stage was enlarged, a new proscenium erected, and many other improvements made. Mr. Charles Wood, the new manager, inaugurated a dramatic season with a remarkably able and well-staged production of Uncle Tom's Cabin; Mr. Tom Potter made a marked hit in the character of Uncle Tom, a part he had won some distinction in, and Miss Kissie Wood (now Mrs. H. C. Arnold, of the Lyric, Liverpool), making a striking success as Topsy.
Following upon this came a splendid and ambitious revival of Hamlet, in which a clever young Liverpool actor, Mr. Walter Speakman, made a remarkable success as the melancholy Dane. The local press described this as the finest representation of Shakespeare's tragedy ever seen in the town. The dramatic season which ran for several weeks was not altogether a financial success, and the Variety programmes were again reverted to.
Right - A sketch of the Argyle Theatre's conductor, E. Denney.
In 1877 Messrs. Fineberg & Lees, of the Liverpool "Star," instituted the Saturday and Monday Concerts, during the summer months, under the direction of Mr. Dan Saunders. There being no Mersey Railway at this period, the transmigration of the artistes from one Hall to the other was carried on with great difficulty.
It will not be out of place to note that in this year, 1877, the incorporation of the town took place, and Mr. Dennis Grannell, as one of the Conservative candidates for Cleveland Ward, was elected by a large majority, and remained a member of the Town Council for many years.
Above - The Auditorium of the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead in 1909
The year 1888 is memorable in the annals of the Theatre as recording the first appearance of Mr. D. J. Clarke (Shown Right) as Associate Manager with the late Mr. John Riley. The now, almost general, system of two houses a night was initiated, but, strange to say, was not a success, and after a nine weeks trial was abandoned in favour of the old system.
Three years later Mr. Clarke took up the sole responsible management of the Theatre, and the success that he has since achieved is now a matter of history. There were innumerable wise-acres at the time, who were kind enough to prophesy that the placing of such responsibility on juvenile shoulders would end in failure and disaster, but here the acumen and judgment displayed of his uncle, Mr. Dennis Grannell, was again verified.
Right - D. J. Clarke, sole proprietor and manager of the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead from 1888.
One of Mr. Clarke's first achievements was to break all previous records in the receipts. He also inaugurated his prosperous regime by restoring to the Theatre its original and most familiar title of "The Argyle." On the 2nd February, 1903, the system of two houses a night was again introduced, but not without some fear and trepidation. The success of the innovation has been remarkable since its inception, and the two houses a night are now practically universal throughout the country. The multitude or friends and patrons who have watched the progress of the Theatre, rejoiced in its prosperity, and observed its ever-increasing popularity, will unite with us in paying a tribute of admiration to the energy, judgment and enterprise displayed in its management. Managers, agents, and artistes throughout the profession, endorse and verify the good opinion the Birkenhead public have expressed as to Mr. Clarke's ability.
Above - A sketch of D. J. Clarke signing contracts from the morning's post at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead
recent structural alterations that have been carried out, and which
have added so much to the comfort and convenience of its patrons, and
enriched the internal and external appearance of the building merit
sincere, praise. By clever architectural manipulation the entrance and
access to the stalls and boxes have been made equal in construction
and decoration to many of the leading Variety Halls in London
or the provinces. Short
of entire reconstruction of the building
Right - A sketch portraying D. J. Clarke's 'Ideal Bill' for the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead.
That the improvement is fully appreciated is evident in the crowded houses to be witnessed. There is scarcely an artiste of note or repute in the variety world who has not appeared, or is engaged to appear. Many artistes who have attained eminence in the profession, look upon the Argyle as their "mascot." In this connection we may mention the names of Mr. Harry Lauder and Mr. Wilkie Bard, two of the highest salaried and most popular comedians in the profession.
Agents are employed in all parts of the-universe, and have commissions to engage the best possible class of entertainers available, and to secure any star artiste or novelty that may appear in the variety firmament.
It is not given to every Manager to attain that measure of success that Mr. Clarke has won. He has been cradled in the Variety business, and his whole mind and soul is wrapped up in it. It is a business, the intricacies of which can only be mastered by years of experience.
He displays a wisdom and knowledge of its details in the value of artistes, and the compiling of programmes that surprises, not only his brother Managers, but also the general public. He has his finger on the pulse of his patrons, and his one intent is only for their delight.
Left - H. O Neill, Secretary of the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead.
It is Mr. Clarke's impression that his patrons visit his Theatre to be amused and entertained, and it is his avowed object to provide the best entertainment it is possible to procure. He believes in placing before the playgoing public a clean and healthy bill of fare, and every effort it is possible to make, is strenuously exercised in this direction.
His fellow townsmen have still further shown their appreciation of his business abilities by electing him a member of the Town Council as a representative of Egerton Ward.
May the sun of prosperity long continue to shine upon him will be the sincere wish of thousands of his patrons who have the privilege and pleasure of his friendship. W. H. D.
Right - W. Thompson, a familiar personage "in front."
The above text and accompanying images are from the 41st Anniversary Souvenir Programme for the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead in 1909 - The Programme was Very Kindly donated by Mrs Maureen Shakeshaft who says:
'As a matter of interest I was brought up in Birkenhead and can just about remember the building that had been the Argyle Theatre but by that time it was ready for demolition. My father was a great fan of the music hall and theatre and in his youth he lived very near Argyle St, I have often wondered if he patronised the 'Argyle' I feel sure he would have done.' Maureen Shakeshaft.
Above - The back cover of the 41st Anniversary Souvenir Programme for the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead
The Argyle Theatre for Youth by Geoff Unwin
A visitor to this site, Geoff Unwin, who performed for the Argyle Theatre For Youth and was also the composer of the title song score for the feature film 'On the Buses,' has sent in some information and images of the Argyle Theatre, he writes:
'Dennis Clarke, who ran the Theatre in the first half of the 20th Century, had three sons, two of which - Tom and Gerrard - ran the Argyle Theatre for Youth from the dressing room complex of the Theatre that survived the blitz.
It was a traveling fit-up theatre which I joined in 1957 for a production of Alice in Wonderland, touring schools all over the British Isles. (I played the white rabbit and Judy Vague - a great niece of Hollywood's Vera Vague - played Alice.)
Right - A Poster for the Theatre For Youth production of 'Alice in Wonderland' (from the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead) in 1957. - Courtesy Geoff Unwin, who played the white rabbit, with his future wife Judy Vague, who played Alice.
Uncle Tom, as we called him often told us stories of his childhood in the Theatre. He remembered the first movies being shown there on a huge white linen sheet which was suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the Theatre. Firemen sprayed water on it in order for those on both sides of the screen to view the hazy images. No-one complained about the water running down the isles apparently!
Left - Poster for the Theatre For Youth production of 'David Copperfield' in 1957 - Courtesy Geoff Unwin, who appeared as David Copperfield, playing opposite Judy Vague who doubled as Emily and Mrs McCawber.
In 1949 Tom Clarke bought a job-lot of costumes from Tom Arnold and these were used in his touring productions as well as being hired out to other companies. I remember 'uncle Tom' opening a locked door in the rabbit warren of dressing rooms to let us look out into the ruin of the Theatre. It was open to the sky and still contained huge mounds of bricks which had been left there since the war.
This was in 1957, I don't think it would be allowed today.
Right - The auditorium of the Argyle Theatre in ruins after being hit by a bomb in 1940. - From the Liverpool Echo. - Courtesy Geoff Unwin.
The Theatre for Youth continued into the 1970's. In the early 1980's the Argyle pub (shown below), attached to the Theatre, was condemned as 'unsafe' and in danger of collapse and was finally demolished along with the remains of the Theatre.
Today there is no sign of there ever having been such a wonderful Theatre with its own adjoining pub ever having existed on the barren space which is now a car park.' - Text courtesy Geoff Unwin.
I grew up in Birkenhead and Fred, our next door neighbour, used to be the stage doorman at The Argyle before it was bombed. Even though I was very young I can remember him showing me the signing in books filled with the signatures of a variety of stars who had played there, everyone from Chaplin to Morecambe and Wise. I've no idea what happened to it as Fred died over 50 years ago but I'd love to have a proper look at it now I'm of an age to appreciate its history.
I vividly remember standing with my Ma at the bus stop outside the post office opposite the Argyle on the day they finally demolished it to make way for that beautiful car park. The workmen had found a song sheet and were holding it up, one of them with a piece of wood pointing out the lyrics as everyone standing at the bus stop joined them in a chorus of 'You mustn't miss the last bus home', although being a callous teenager at the time I was mortified at the sight of my mother 'making a show of herself'.
The Argyle pub was like stepping back in time with a fire burning in the grate and unchanged since the photo on this site was taken (shown right). Each time my Uncle Al was on shore leave from the merchant navy he drank in there with his cronies and I knew that he'd always sling you a couple of bob if I went in to say 'hello' on my way home from school. I don't recall ever seeing any women in there, just men drinking pints of mild and smoking Woodbines as they studied the racing pages.
Right - A Postcard of the Argyle Pub circa 1939. The pub was part of the Argyle Theatre building and remained standing and open for business after the Theatre's Auditorium took a direct hit in 1940. In the 1980's The Argyle pub was condemned as 'unsafe' and in danger of collapse and was subsequently demolished - Courtesy Geoff Unwin.
I was doing some research for a documentary I was making about Gypsy Rose Lee and discovered that Burlesque actually originated in Birkenhead and at The Theatre Royal. In 1868 Lydia Thompson took 'Ixion', the play they'd performed on opening night at The Royal, to Broadway and caused a sensation, touring the country for years. She'd married Alexander Henderson and together with a bevy of beefy chorines she cleverly promoted the troupe as 'Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes'.
She died in London in 1908 leaving a daughter Zeffie Tilbury (now there's a name) who became a legit Hollywood actress. Lydia and her girls are frequently credited as being responsible for the birth of what is known as The Great American ArtForm, Burlesque but it's interesting to think that the residents of Birkenhead got to see it first.
The above text was kindly sent in by Paul O'Grady in November 2015.
A 1928 Variety Programme for the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead
Above - The Cover and Bill from an Argyle Theatre Variety Programme for April 30th 1928
A 1940 Variety Programme for the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead
Above - An Argyle Theatre Variety Programme for July the 22nd 1940 - Very Kindly donated by Mrs Maureen Shakeshaft.
Formerly - Ohmys Grand Circus / The Gaiety Music Hall / The Metropole Theatre
Above - The Hippodrome, Birkenhead from a period postcard - Courtesy Maurice Friedman, British Music hall Society.
Originally on the site was a building called Ohmys Grand Circus. Joseph Ohmy had previously run a wooden Circus building on Conway Street since the 1880s but this new building on Grange Road, paid for by Ohmy and others, was also used as a Theatre.
The license for the new building was granted on December 20th 1888 and the Theatre / Circus subsequently opened to the public.
Ohmy's plans for the building however, were not a success
and by 1890 he had left and Eric
Brammell had taken over, renaming the building the Gaiety Music Hall.
Although this was more successful, by 1898 yet another new owner had moved into the building, W. W. Kelly, who changed the name to the Metropole Theatre and used it for touring productions of plays and melodramas.
Ten years later the building was bought by the De Frece Circuit in 1908 and substantial alterations were carried out.
The Theatre reopened as the Hippodrome on the 7th of December 1908 with a larger stage, electric lighting, and a fully refurbished auditorium and front of house areas.
Right - A close up view of the postcard of Grange Road shown below, the white building at centre shows the Birkenhead Hippodrome - Courtesy Maurice Friedman, British Music hall Society.
Above - An advertisement for Francis Laidler's Superlative Revue 'Glad Eyes' at the Hippodrome Theatre, Birkenhead - From a programme for the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead in April 1928.
Above - Grange Road, Birkenhead, the Hippodrome can just be seen to the far left, (see close up above right) - Courtesy Maurice Friedman, British Music hall Society
In 1932 the Theatre was converted for Cine Variety use with a large screen using a back projection system. The Hippodrome reopened on the 31st of October with non stop Cine Variety shows starting at 2.30 in the afternoon and running until 10.30 in the evening. The first night consisted of a showing of 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' and a Variety show on stage with the Lupessu Sisters, The 2 Arthurs, Billy Barr, Tom Fagan, the Rigoletto Trio, and Wensley and Dale.
Sadly, even this was not to last and on the 5th of March 1934 the Theatre began its last week of live shows, aptly titled 'Evening Follies' (see programme below).
Above - A programme for 'Evening Follies' at the Birkenhead Hippodrome for the week of the 5th of March 1934 - Courtesy Robin Lucas. This was the last show at the Hippodrome before it was demolished.
On the 10th of March 1934 the Birkenhead Hippodrome closed its doors for the last time and the Theatre was then demolished and the site was used for a department store by the Birkenhead and District Co-operative Society.
Some of the above information was gleaned from the
Wirral History website here
where you will also find some nice archive images for the Theatre.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact Me.
Later - The Scala Theatre
The Theatre Royal on Argyle Street and Conway Street, Birkenhead was designed by the architect Mr. L. Hornblower, of Liverpool and Birkenhead, and opened on Monday the 31st of October 1864 with a production of the one act comedy 'The Handsome Husband', the burlesque 'Ixion, or the Man at the Wheel' with Lydia Thompson, and the farce 'Turn Him Out'. The Theatre was run on its opening by Mr. Henderson, who was also the lessee of the Prince of Wales Theatre, Liverpool at the time, now the Liverpool Empire.
The main frontage of the Theatre Royal was on Conway Street, where the box and pit entrances were, and the auditorium, which was decorated by the local firm J. and W. Jeffery, was built on three levels, Stalls and Pit, Dress Circle, Gallery, and boxes, and had a capacity stated at the time of being anywhere from 1,600 to 1,850 people, even '2,300 at a crush.'
The Theatre Royal, later known as the Scala, was demolished to make way for a new Cinema in 1937.
The Daily News reported the opening of the Theatre Royal, Birkenhead, in their November the 1st 1864 edition saying:
'The new theatre erected by a joint stock company at Birkenhead was opened last night, when Miss Lydia Thompson and a powerful company appeared in Mr. Burnand's burlesque,Ixion, and other entertainments. The building is sufficiently large to accommodate about 1,600 persons, and the seats are large and comfortable. The front of the theatre faces Conway-street, one of the principal thoroughfares of the town, and the approach to the pit and boxes is through a handsome corridor.
The stage, which is of amply convenient size, is fitted with extensive mechanical apparatus, and furnished with a liberal stock of excellent scenery. Mr. Dalby, who is locally celebrated as a scenic artist, has painted a charming act-drop. The decorations of the proscenium, the dress and gallery circles, and the ceiling are light, chaste, and artistic, gold mouldings on delicate tintings forming the prominent feature of ornamentation. The anterooms for refreshments and promenade are numerous and roomy, and every device which care for the convenience of the public could suggest has been applied in the construction of the building.
Mr. Henderson, the lessee of the Prince of Wales Theatre, Liverpool, has taken the house for the first six months, and announces a series of performances of high-class character and interest. Ixion, Mr. Burnand's popular burlesque, has been produced, Miss Lydia Thompson sustaining the principal character. Mr. E. A. Sothern will perform during the week; Mr. J. L. Warner, the Australian tragedian, is engaged for a series of representations; and other "stars" are in reserve. A local pantomime, by Mr. Charles Milward, will be produced at Christmas.
The management of the Prince of Wales Theatre gives grounds for high expectations as to that of the Birkenhead Theatre; and it is confidently believed that the large population of the borough and adjoining townships will practically appreciate the first effort made on an extended scale to give them entertainments of a high order.'
Above text from the Daily News, November 1st 1864.
The Liverpool Mercury also reported on the opening of the Theatre Royal, Birkenhead, in their 1st of November 1864 edition saying:
'The inauguration of this beautiful theatre, which as been erected in Argyle-street, Birkenhead, took place last evening under most favourable circumstances. Birkenhead has now become a large and prosperous place, with a busy population of upwards of 40,000 ; and if we take the surrounding districts, the inhabitants will number about 40,000. The want of a first-class theatre was long felt in the locality, there being no regular place of amusement to which the residents could resort without crossing the river to Liverpool. All this involved great loss of time, to say nothing of the inconvenience and discomfort experienced during the winter season and in foggy weather. The result was that a large class, especially ladies and delicate persons, remained at home, and were thus debarred from participating in those innocent and instructive entertainments afforded to their neighbours on the Liverpool side. It was not to be expected that a town like Birkenhead - a town which has grown from a mere village to be one of the most important places in the kingdom within the memory even of young men - should long remain without its theatre. Birkenhead was one of the first towns in the country to adopt the Free Libraries Act, and the handsome structure which was opened last year in Hamilton-street reflects credit upon the enterprise of its inhabitants. With the incentive given to the study of literature by the opening of the Free Library, it was only natural, then, that there should also be erected in the township a suitable building in which the Plays of Shakspeare and other illustrious authors might be performed.
The subject had long engaged the attention of some of the leading gentlemen of the place. At last a company was organised, of which Dr. J. M. Craig was appointed chairman, and the land in Argyle-street was purchased. .Mr. L. Hornblower, of Liverpool and Birkenhead, was engaged as architect, and it is only fair to that gentleman to state that he has produced as handsome and pretty a theatre as there is to be found in the country.
In giving a brief description of the building, we may state that it is capable of seating comfortably 1,850 people, and in a crush about 2,300. The theatre proper is thrown to the rear of the land abutting in Henry-street. Every attention has been given to secure ready ingress and egress. The box and pit entrances are in the centre of the Argyle-street facade, and are 12 feet each in width, the box-office being placed at the end of the corridors and dividing the two entrances.
Messrs. J. and W. Jeffery, of Compton House, in this town, have supplied the whole of the decorations, which are exceedingly handsome. The scenery has been painted by Mr. Dalby, a well-known artist, and the greater portion of it is splendidly executed. The proscenium is remarkably elegant, the work of decoration being carried out in excellent taste.
In accepting Mr. A. Henderson, of the Prince of Wales Theatre in this town (Liverpool M.L.), as the lessee of the new theatre, the company evinced sound judgment. Mr. Henderson, by his spirited and able management of the Prince of Wales Theatre, has earned for himself a high reputation in the theatrical world, and no doubt his management of the Theatre Royal, Birkenhead, will be equally as successful as it has been on this side of the Mersey.
But we must now come to the opening of the new theatre. Long before seven o'clock there was a great crush of people eager to obtain admittance, and a long line of carriages, filled with the principal gentry of the township and neighbourhood, was drawn up in front of the principal entrance in Argyle-street. The house was brilliantly lighted, and the large number of ladies in the dress circle and boxes added greatly to the splendour of the scene. The building was crowded. Amongst the company were Mr. John Laird, M.P., and party ; Mr. W. Jackson, M.P., and party ; Mr. Charles Mosley, mayor of Liverpool ; Mr. B. Mozley, Mr. L. B. Mozley, Mr. Gaskill, Dr. Craig, Mr. R. B. Moore, Mr. Councillor Melia-dew, Mr. J. Enthoven, Mr. Hancock. Mr. T. E. Hignett, Captain Hookey, Major Hornblower, Captain Campbell, Captain Horner, Mr. Capel Cmwood, &c.
Messrs. Hime and Son, of the music warehouse, Argyle-street, have the direction of the letting of the seats in the dress circle and boxes; and the refreshment department, of which there is ample provision, is under the management of Mr. James Griffiths, so well known for his excellent catering at the refreshment rooms at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
An overture having been capitally played by a good band, under the direction of Mr. Connolly, from the Queen's Theatre, Dublin, the curtain rose, and the whole of the company appeared upon the stage in evening dress. The members of it joined in singing the National Anthem as solo, quartet, and chorus, the audience rising en masse as the band commenced the well-known strains.
On the termination of the anthem Miss Sidney Cowell sang the song "God bless the Prince of Wales" very prettily, and received the approving plaudits of the audience. Mr. Henderson, the lessee, then stepped forward and delivered an appropriate address, written for the occasion by Mr. William Brough. The lessee met with a genial reception, was repeatedly cheered during the delivery of his address, and called before the curtain at the close. Owing to the crowded state of the house the address will again be spoken tonight; we therefore do not publish it in this day's impression. As Mr. Henderson retired the green curtain was drawn up, and there was then displayed to the view of the audience an act drop, one of the moat charming specimens of the scene painter's art ever seen within the walls of a theatre. It is a landscape, and for loveliness of design, delicacy of execution, and artistic finish could not be well surpassed.
The performances commenced with the amusing little comedy, in one act, called " The Handsome Husband." Mr. E. Price, a favourite with the frequenters of the Prince of Wales Theatre, an excellent actor, and Mr. Alfred Nelson, the stage manager, played the characters of Mr. Wyndham and Henry Eitzlierbert spiritedly, and Miss Agnes Ryder ably enacted the part of Mr. Wyndham. Miss Lewis's Mrs. Twisden did her credit, and Miss Nellie Nesbitt represented the Hon. Mrs. Metford gracefully.
The audience were so much gratified with the efforts of the ladies and gentlemen taking part in the comedy that they were called for on the fall of the curtain. The most prominent feature of the evening's entertainment was Mr. Burnand's celebrated burlesque "Ixion, or the Man at the Wheel." For this representation Mr. Dalby has furnished some magnificent scenery. Some of the "sets" are on an elaborate scale, and are highly effective. The costumes are also appropriate and of the richest and most picturesque description. The cast includes the whole of the stock company, with that remarkably popular burlesque actress Miss Lydia Thompson as Ixion. The reception accorded her was perfectly enthusiastic. The moment she made her appearance in the first scene there was an outburst of applause from all parts of the house, and it was again and again repeated. The lady plays the character assigned to her with singular vivacity, and dances to perfection. Miss Mary Huddart makes up admirably as Jupiter, and her acting and tuneful singing entitle her to a few words of praise. Mr. Searle endeavours to throw as much humour as possible into his personation of Minerva, and Mr. A. Nelson to make as much as he can of Ganyrnede. Miss Cowell is a charming Cupid, and Miss C. Elton shows considerable ability as Juno. The delivery of the speech in the scene where Jupiter holds court was decidedly commendable. Miss Ada Coates (Apollo) and Miss Nellie Nesbit (Venus) appear to advantage in their respective parts. There is a very pretty ballet, in which the accomplished and graceful French danseuse Mad'lle Ida Idalie appears. The incidental music is well sung, and the dances generally are given with enlivening effect.
The programme concluded with the mirth-inspiring farce called "Turn Him Out,' the characters in which were sustained in a manner that left little to be desired. The greater part of the audience remained until the close, all appeared to enjoy the amusement provided for them, and the directors and the lessee may justly be congratulated upon the success attending the first performance in the Theatre Royal, Birkenhead.'
Above text from the Liverpool Mercury, 1st of November 1864.
The Theatre Royal, later known as the Scala, was demolished to make way for a new Cinema in 1937.
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Later - Claughton Picture House / Astor Cinema / Astor Tombola Club
The Claughton Music Hall was situated on the corner of Claughton Road and Atherton Street in Birkenhead. The building was designed by the architect Walter Scott, of Liverpool and Birkenhead, and constructed by John Hogarth of Rock Ferry at a cost of £4,000. The Claughton Music Hall opened on the 15th of January 1862 and is said to have been able to seat 600 people.
The Liverpool Mercury reported on the Claughton's opening in their 16th of January 1862 edition saying:- 'The opening of the splendid new Music Hall erected at the corner of Claughton-road and Atherton-street, Birkenhead, took place last evening, under most auspicious circumstances. The event was celebrated by a ball, the proceeds of which, through the liberality and laudable spirit of the directors, were appropriated to the funds of the Birkenhead Hospital.
The new Music Hall has a frontage to Claughton road of 52 feet, and to Atherton-street of 112 feet, and, from its elevated and commanding situation, has a very imposing appearance. There are four principal entrances - two to Claughton-road, one to Atherton street, and one for the musicians, officials, &c., - communicating with the different parts of the building.
A covered porch, approached by a bold flight of steps, leads to a vestibule on either side communicating with the entrance hall and grand staircase, the latter consisting of a double flight, moat elaborately got up, the banisters being of iron, of a beautiful pattern, with the monogram B.M.H." Interlaced in the foliage. These lead to the upper hall or ante-room leading to the great hall, which is approached by two magnificent doors, of a great height, richly worked.
The great hall, which is decorated in an exceedingly chaste and elegant manner, and is lighted by three sun burners of 63 lights each, is 75 feet long (exclusive of the orchestra) 48 feet wide, and 40 feet in height. The orchestra is raised, and will accommodate 50 of a chorus and 35 musicians, in addition to the pianist and principal singers in front.
Midway in the entrance hall is a lofty and wide corridor leading to the supper room, which is 48 feet by 30 feet, and of proportionate height. On either side of the corridor are cloakrooms, each supplied with lavatories, &c. There are four rooms for the accommodation of performers, each being fitted up with every convenience.
The exterior of the building is bold, and richly interspersed with carvings in medallions and on the keystones. One appropriate feature is that the medallions, &c., are cut with busts of some of the moat eminent musical composers - Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Donizetti being amongst the number.
The building is warmed by an apparatus on Dr. Arnott's principle, supplied by Mr. Gibbs, of Lime-street, and the decorations are the work of Mr. Dawson, of this town. The furnishings and upholstery, which are all of a very superior description, were supplied by Messrs. George Woods and Co of Bold-street.
We may state that the design of the new building was selected out of 16 competitors, and that the architect was restricted to the sum of £4000, which included the lighting and heating, the decorations, &c. Mr. Walter Scott, of Liverpool and Birkenhead, was the architect, and Mr. John Hogarth, of Rock Ferry, the builder, both of whom deserve the highest credit for producing such an exceedingly handsome structure. The company, also, cannot be too highly praised for their public spirit and enterprise in providing what has been long wanted in Birkenhead - a commodious and elegant music hall.
The ball last night was a complete success. The company numbered about 400, and included the elite of Birkenhead and neighbourhood. The lady patronesses were Mrs. Septimus Ledward, Mrs, P. Callender, Mrs. Horner, Mrs. V. A. King, Mrs. Parsons, and Mrs. Sim. The company included Mr. Thomas Brassey, jun., the late Liberal candidate for the new borough, Lieutenant-Colonel and Mrs. King, Mr. and Mrs. John Ravenscroft, Mr. and Mrs. George Harrison, Mr. and Mrs. H. K. Aspinall, Captain William Laird, Captain H. H. Laird, &c.
Streather's band occupied the orchestra. Danoing commenced at eight o'clock, and was kept up in a spirited manner until an early hour this morning. The refreshments, which were of the most recherche description, were provided by Mr. Moorish, of the Merchants' Dining Rooms in this town, whose catering gave the greatest satisfaction.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Liverpool Mercury,
16th of January 1862.
The Claughton Music Hall opened on the 15th of January 1862 and ran as such until it was eventually converted for Cinema use in 1912. An organ was installed in the Music Hall by William & Frank Hall of Rock Ferry in 1882, and Oscar Wilde is said to have given a lecture there in 1883.
On its conversion for Cinema use in 1912 the Cinema News and Property Gazette of August 1912 said that the new Claughton Picture House Company Ltd was registered with a capital of £1,000 in £1 shares. The Directors of this enterprise were A. Levy, Managing Director, J. Auerbach, and H. G. Auerbach, whose registered office was 3, Mitchell Place, Liverpool.
Cinema then ran in the building under the Claughton Picture House name from 1912, with seating for 800 people, until it was taken over by Woodhill Entertainment in 1952 and renamed the Astor Cinema. In 1956 the Cinema was redecorated and reopened as a Continental Cinema, but this venture was not a success and the Cinema was soon closed. The building was then bought by Harry Rogers who reopened it in 1957 as the Astor Tombola Club, which would be Birkenheads first Bingo Hall. Bingo then ran there until it was closed in 1981. The building was subsequently demolished the following year in 1982.
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Other Theatres and Cinemas in Birkenhead over the years were The King's Theatre, which was built in 1908 but now long gone; and the Ritz Cinema, of which an archive film of the Royal Film Performance there in 1949 can be viewed here.
You may also be interested in this page on the Wirral History website.
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Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: