Formerly - Situated in Hucknall Torkard, near Nottingham
Later - The Theatre Royal and Picture-Drome
Above - Victoria Street, Glossop and the Theatre Royal - Courtesy Trefor Thomas
On a dull winters day in December 1904 a freight train steamed into Glossop Railway Station carrying a most unexpected load - the prefabricated timber framework and corrugated iron roof of a large Theatre, complete with all the equipment needed to set it up. The building was rapidly erected on a central site just south of the present market ground, bordering Victoria Street.
Masterminding this unexpected enterprise was a remarkable thirty-one year old man, already well known on the London stage and in the wider theatrical world as Sydney Spenser. He was born in Sleaford, Lincolnshire in 1873, the son of a Congregational Minister, William Tidd Matson. Christened as Spenser Matson he adopted a stage name at an early point in his career. His father William was a nationally-known literary figure, the author of a number of volumes of poetry, a successful writer of popular hymns, and a personal friend of the famous freedom campaigners Mazzini and Kossuth. The 1881 census shows the Matson family, father, mother, and two children, living in No. 1 Norfolk Street, Portsmouth, where William Matson was a Minister. There is no firm evidence which can explain how the young Spenser Matson came to choose a theatrical career, but perhaps a possible clue can be found in the census which records two immediate neighbours, George and Alfred Smith, as Actors. Were they the influence which led this son of the Manse to the stage?
Right - A photograph of Sydney Spencer in 1905 - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
A study of the theatrical newspaper The Era in the 1890s reveals that Spenser enjoyed success as a juvenile lead in Theatres all over the country. He later claimed to have appeared in over 400 towns in different parts of England. He was well known on the London stage, and trod the boards in most of the leading Theatres. For example, he was at the Grand Theatre, Islington, in May 1899 in the sensational melodrama 'Two Little Vagabonds'. There is also evidence that he had aspirations as a playwright, his 'My Sweetheart' was performed all over England. He wrote 'A Wonderful Woman' [with Charles Dance], 'The Hero of the Flag', and 'The Stolen Birthright'. These plays were mainly light musical comedies with a patriotic flavour, and the scripts have not survived. In a number of these productions a young actress, Lizzie Hall, also appeared and was highly praised. The two were married in Preston on June 28th, 1899, and she was an active partner in his Glossop enterprises, and a great favourite with the local audience.
Sydney Spenser had aspirations to move on from his early employment as a jobbing actor with touring companies performing in London and the provinces. In 1901 he was in Hucknall Torkard near Nottingham, negotiating with the authorities to obtain a licence for a new Theatre to be built in the town. When this was granted the construction proceeded rapidly, and a Grand Opening Night was scheduled for April 26th 1901. The new Theatre was commodious, and detailed descriptions of its interior have survived. It was constructed on a wooden framework with corrugated iron walls and roof, and fitted out internally to a high standard. The stage measured 33ft x 24ft, there was space for a small orchestra, a scene dock, and 8 dressing rooms. There were 40 tip-up seats in front, covered in plush velvet, 60 pit stalls, 270 raked pit seats, 420 gallery spaces, and 2 refreshment rooms. The first production, appropriately for this region, was a burlesque version of 'Robin Hood', produced by Horace Barrys Company. The Theatre attracted touring companies from all over the country, and Spenser spared no effort in his attempt to make it a success. However, Hucknall was a mining town, and money was short. On 24th November, 1904, after less than 4 years, Spenser announced from the stage the imminent closure of the Theatre, blaming it on bad times in the mines. The Theatre was then packed up and moved by goods train to Glossop. Spenser and his wife Lizzie found accommodation in Glossop at 5, Bank Street, where they remained for the ten years they spent in the town. He believed that the cotton-workers of Glossop were more theatrically-minded than the miners of Hucknall, and he rapidly arranged to have the building re-erected on a site in the centre of the town. On March 10, 1905, he was able to announce a Right Royal Opening,, attended by a large crowd of Glossop folk of all classes. In an emotional speech he asked for the support of the town in his new venture, and read out congratulatory telegrams from the great actors Beerbohm Tree and Henry Irving.
The first show in the new Theatre was 'The New Mephisto', a musical by George Dance performed by W. H. Kirbys London Company, with music by the Urban Electric Orchestra. Next was 'Sinbad the Sailor', again performed by a London company. The energy of the management was remarkable. During the week beginning March 17th there was a different opera every night, including 'Il Travatore' and 'The Bohemian Girl'. Other weeks were occupied with titles including adaptations of quite recent novels such as 'East Lynne' and Hall Caines 'The Eternal City', interspersed with popular melodramas from an older tradition. The standards of the Theatre were high. In December they hosted a Shakespeare week, with a different play each night.
Left - A newspaper advertisement for Sydney Spencer's 'Fritz' at the Theatre Royal, Glossop in December 1908 - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
This first year set the pattern. The repertoire included traditional titles from an earlier age, 'Sweeney Todd' and 'Uncle Toms Cabin' were favourites, more controversial modern dramas such as 'The Rich and Poor of London' [May 5th], or 'The Cotton Spinner' [September 22nd] by Frank Harvey, with the occasional foray into high culture with operas or Shakespeare. These were performed by touring companies, or by the Spensers own troupe. Ticket prices, which varied from ten shillings and sixpence for a private box seating 4, to sixpence for the gallery, indicated that this was a community Theatre which attracted support across the class structure. Mill worker and mill owner could both take pleasure in the plays. Indeed, from the beginning Spenser encouraged community use of the building, and he ran special performances for workhouse children, and hosted celebrated revivalists such as W. H. Jude, and various political groups.
There was a long summer break during which the Spenser troupe itself went on tour, visiting Theatres all over the north of England with the productions they had worked up in Glossop. In retrospect, however, perhaps the most significant event of this opening year occurred on September 22nd, when a programme of Animated Pictures was advertised to fill in the intervals between acts of the play. This used a system called Imperial Rayograph, in which images were inscribed by hand directly on the film stock to create animation. These were, presumably, the first moving pictures ever shown in Glossop, and the use of such a system at this early date indicates Spensers willingness to innovate and experiment.
Right - A newspaper advertisement for the Edward Marris' Company
in 'As Midnight Chimes' at the Theatre Royal, Glossop - Courtesy Trefor
In 1907 the outstanding productions were Harry Starr in 'Otto the Outcast', 'The Colleen Bawn', 'The Octoroon', and Josephine Ellis, direct from her huge London success in 'The Varsity Girl'. The high standards continued, in December there was a full week of Victorian classics - 'Lady Audleys Secret', 'East Lynne', 'Bound to Win' [with real horses on stage!].
The schedules for 1908 and 1909 show little change in the pattern, perhaps there are fewer Victorian classics, and more modern plays, often musicals or light comedy. However, the Theatre maintained its standards. In 1908 there was a play festival with a different title each night, including Charles Reades 'Its Never Too Late to Mend', Marie Corellis 'Sorrows of Satan', and, of course, 'Sweeney Todd'.
On February 25th, 1910 the Glossop Chronicle reports an ominous development. Sydney Spenser proposed to rename his building as the Theatre Royal and Picture-Drome, and to show silent films on some evenings. For the films entry prices were to be cut by half. He would obtain the films [10,000ft a week] from Paragon Bioscope, a distribution company based in Cecil Court, London [widely known as Flicker Alley, because of its connections with the early film industry]. This company was short-lived and survived only from 1909 to 1910, but it provided Spenser with a weekly supply of up-to-date movies. On the same day Spenser applied for a licence to show films, as required by the new Cinematographic Act. The Chief Constable opposed the application on safety grounds, leading to some lively exchanges in the Court. The Act required that a projectionist should have assistance, but Spenser observed that his employee would have the assistance of a bucket of sand. These problems must have been overcome, and the building, modified as requested, with an external projection booth, opened as the Picture-Drome on 7th March as planned. The first film, appropriately, was a silent version of Dickenss 'A Tale of Two Cities' with thrilling scenes of the French revolution, followed by the dramatic art-film 'Pocahontas, or The Child of the Prairie'. These were the first full silent movies to be shown in Glossop. As was standard in the period, they were short [30 mins in the case of 'A Tale of Two Cities'] and supported by live music. The Dickens film was directed by W. J. Humphry, with Maurice Costello as Sidney Carton. The following week the Picture-Drome showed 'Monte Christo', based on Dumass famous novel, accompanied, as were many of these early screenings, by live vaudeville artistes. April 4th had a showing of 'Cyrano de Bergerac', and this time rock-steady pictures were promised, perhaps a hint of previous projection problems.
The 1911 season was a momentous one for the Theatre Royal. The year began with the Australian drama, 'A Fast Life' by Herbert OGrady, direct from its London success, and performed by Walter Steeles London Company. In March another great London production, 'The Prince and the Beggar' transferred to Glossop. However, in April the first indication of competition for the new popular audience for film, at cheaper entrance prices, occurred. An Electric Picture Palace was opened in Woolley Bridge. Its first film was the perennial favourite 'Uncle Toms Cabin', a Vitagraph version.
Left - A newspaper advertisement for Sydney Spencer's Musical Version of 'The Colleen Bawn' at the Theatre Royal, Glossop - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
In May both Theatres had the first football coverage the Cup Final between Bradford and Newcastle, and both began to show newsreels covering national events. The Theatre Royal, however, continued to alternate between film and live drama, in August Sydney Spensers own company put on a series of plays, a different title each night for a week. The Company also toured with these productions, receiving, according to the Chronicle, the highest praise wherever they went. In late 1911 another competitor appeared. The Electra Palace was to be constructed on George Street, a fine stone building. It was complete in early 1912, and in June showed 'The Mills in Joy and Sorrow'. The Theatre Royal continued with live drama in May it ran 'Only a Mill Girl', with real looms on stage, hardly a surprise to this audience, surely.
Now Glossop had three active cinemas competing for an audience, and the live theatre was in decline. Cinema admission was now 2d for the gallery, far cheaper than the Theatre. Although the Theatre Royal continued with some live performances in the years from 1912 to 1915, the great days of the early years, when many famous London companies were attracted to Glossop, were over. A typical evening for the period has the Royal showing two films a boxing match between Max Linder and Nick Winter, followed by 'The Black Chasm'. Victor Denning, the popular baritone sang in the intervals. The Royal continued to host travelling companies, but less frequently. In 1912 and 1913 there were visits from Charles Harringtons Company with the perennial favourite 'Uncle Toms Cabin', but new genres of film with a strong American influence most obviously the Western - were the most significant aspects of the changing pattern of popular entertainment.
On September 15th 1915 the Chronicle carries a long valedictory feature in praise of Sydney Spenser, who has announced his intention to leave Glossop, and to sell the Theatre Royal. For ten years he has provided bright and cheerful entertainment for the people, and attracted leading artistes from all over the country. At a special evening in the Theatre he is presented with a solid silver flower vase, and in an emotional speech he remarks that he has nothing but happy memories of the town.
Nothing more is known of the life of Sydney Spenser until his death in Scarborough in 1957 at the age of 84. Could such a man have renounced the theatre for good?
The above article on the Theatre Royal, Glossop was written by Trefor Thomas and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site by him in April 2013. Trefor Thomas thanks the Glossop Heritage Trust, Maureen Newton of Hucknall Torkard, and the staff of Glossop Library for help with his research. Trefor Thomas worked at Manchester Metropolitan University for many years. He is the author of articles on aspects of local history and popular entertainment in Victorian times. He lives in Charlesworth.
If you have further information about Sydney Spenser or the Theatre Royal, Glossop, or have images you are willing to share, please Contact me.
Tom Russell and his Amazing Travelling Theatre by Trefor Thomas
Wakes Week- early May - in the small Derbyshire cotton town of Glossop was always a time of celebration for the thousands of mill-workers who were only too ready to make the most of a brief release from their weekly toil. The natural epicentre of the festivities was the Fairground, conveniently located near the Market Place and the many public houses in the surrounding streets. The bright gaslights, the gaudy painted decoration of the sideshows and rides , the fast food stalls, the rowdy calls of the showmen, made an attractive contrast to the daily monotony of loom and shuttle, and the Fairground was often filled to capacity with a mass of people in holiday mood, out to enjoy themselves.
On a typical late Victorian evening in May the town would be buzzing with life. The excited, alchohol-fuelled customers could choose to patronise the brightly coloured booths of Professor Leo the Famous Ventograph, The Amazing Living Skeleton, Bunce the World-Renowned Anthroporcine Marvel, Professor Garlands Temple of Mystery, Bartletts Lion Show, the Giant Rat, Coxwain Terrys Nile Wonders, Lawrences Electric Biograph, the Giant Baby, Hollands Steam Horses, and a range of other stomach-churning Rides.
Located In a corner of the Fairground was a large structure, The Pavilion Theatre, proprietor Thomas Russell. This portable theatre wintered in Glossop, where Tom Russell had a house at 76, Victoria Street, but travelled extensively all over the north of England during the summer season. From the 1850s onwards travelling theatres had visited Glossop - Newmans Sanspareil and Mathew Wardhaughs companies were the best known - and Russells Pavilion Theatre was the last survivor of this great tradition. It was active from around 1884 to 1893.
What kind of building was this?
Little detail is known about the exact dimensions of the many portable theatres which travelled the length and breadth of the country in late Victorian times, but by a fortunate chance a few months before his death Tom Russell advertised his Pavilion Theatre for sale in the local newspaper, the Glossop Chronicle, and the details provided give a rare opportunity to understand the construction of travelling establishments of this kind.
Right - Notice to Theatrical Speculators - For Sale - Pavilion Theatre (Portable), Glossop - From the Glossop Chronicle - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
This was a large travelling theatre by comparison with some which were little more than small fairground booths. The theatre measured 40ft by 100ft, the side walls were built up from wooden planks bolted together, and the roof or tilt as it was called was canvas. Immediately in front of the theatre was a platform on which the actors paraded in full costume or performed brief dramatic excerpts from the current production in the hope of attracting custom. Two doors, one each side, gave entrance to the interior. At the front of the auditorium was a raised stage, with dressing rooms and storage for props, scenery etc., to both sides. There were brightly coloured cloths to hang over the walls, and a range of painted flats which would be brought into use for particular plays. Gas lighting was used. Also at the front was a pit with space for an orchestra, and more expensive seats for 20 customers. At the rear was a raised gallery which had seats for 19. Most customers, however, had to stand throughout the performance, possibly on slightly raked benches. This large portable could certainly cater for several hundred standing patrons. Perhaps luckily in view of tired feet the performances were often short. Some portables, though possibly not Russells Pavilion which seems to have set its sights on a more upmarket repertoire, could reduce Hamlet to no more than half an hour, an opening ghost scene, a Soliloquy, and murders, after which a fresh paying audience could be recruited. Acting styles were melodramatic and unsubtle, as they had to be to overcome competition from the boisterous, unruly audiences and the noisy fairground itself. By the 1880s travel around the country was managed by rail [rather than the horse drawn carts familiar earlier in the century] and the hard labour involved in taking down, packing up, travelling, and rebuilding in a new location is obvious. Several times towards the end of his career Tom Russell, perhaps suffering from advancing years, advertises in the local press for hands to assist the process.
Above - Wanted, Gentlemen for Heavies, and Responsibles Permanent situation to a competent artist. Address, Thomas Russell, Pavilion Theatre, Glossop - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
The Pavilion Theatres circuit included many towns in Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire. The earliest traceable performance is January 1884, in Stalybridge, where a week of Shakespeare [King Lear, Othello, Macbeth] was produced. The company also travelled to Todmorden [a favourite destination], Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Hyde, Haslingden and Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire, and Heckmondwike in Yorkshire. In all probability the list was more extensive, but information about this is difficult to find.
Shakespeare was a standard component of the repertoire, but also popular were old favourites such The Colleen Bawn, Jane Shore, The Octoroon, and melodramas such as Maria Marten and the Red Barn. More recent plays were also a feature: in 1888 Todmorden enjoyed The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, and Charles Reades Never Too Late To Mend. Usually the plays were performed by Tom Russells own company which included members of his family his partner Harriet Ellis, and her children Ada, Maud, Kate and Clara were all professional actors who continued careers on the stage even after Toms death in 1891.
Right - Pavilion Theatre Opening notice - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
Occasionally the theatre would be leased out to other travelling troupes. In 1886 James Taylors Company performed a musical, Simon, at Glossop. In 1887 at Glossop Fairground the theatre hosted Jonathon Dewhurst, famous throughout the north as the Lancashire Tragedian, in a series of Shakespeare plays.
Who was Thomas Russell?
The biography of Victorian actors from the close-knit community of strolling players is generally obscure and difficult to research, as their itinerant lifestyles and, perhaps, mistrust of the authorities, may leave little trace behind. Census entries for these travelling families are famously unreliable. However, it is possible to establish some facts about Thomas Russell. He was born on July 14, 1841, in Hounds Court, Leeds, the son of another Thomas Russell, a cloth-dresser, and his wife Mary-Ann Russell, who also worked in the wool trade. The 1851 census shows the Russell family living at 25, Hound Street, Leeds. By 1861 Tom can still be found in Leeds, working as a Joiner. Ten years later he is in Bury, Lancashire, listed as Carpenter. This skill with timber was no doubt vital in his later career in charge of a portable theatre. He began to take an interest in local theatre, and appeared as an amateur in a number of productions in Leeds. Later, he became a paid performer, and was well-known for the role of Robert Brierley in The Ticket-of-Leave Man. He was hired by C. H. Duval, a celebrated Lancashire theatrical entrepreneur, and became a successful supporting actor in a chain of theatres in the north Blackburn, Bolton, Hull, Hyde. After leaving Duval he, with J. F.Scott, built the first theatre in Accrington. An outline history of his transition from cabinet-maker to amateur actor, and later actor/manager with his own company can be found in the most famous contemporary account of the late Victorian strolling players, Sam Wilds Memoirs [The Original, Complete and Authentic Story of Old Wilds] first published in 1888 but since reprinted. In it Thomas Russell is described as a young actor who, as an experiment, leased a Portable Theatre with which he toured Yorkshire towns. The success of this enterprise encouraged him to purchase his own construction, with which he set up in business. An obituary in the North Cheshire Herald, April 18, 1891, describes this as one of the best travelling theatres in the kingdom, and it became well known throughout the north of England.
He also became Sam Wilds son-in-law, having married Louisa, Sam Wilds daughter, also an actress, on the 4th April 1864. However, this first marriage did not last, and by 1881 he can be found, now listed as a Professional Actor, at the Bull Inn, Haslingden. At this address he is accompanied by a widow, Harriet Ellis, and her children from a previous marriage. Harriet Ellis, too, has connections with the Old Wild theatrical dynasty, as she was the daughter of Sams sister Selina, and thus Sams niece. It appears that Harriet, who remained with him until his death, and was very active in the theatre as both an actress and a manager, was his common-law wife. In this later period Tom Russell diversified into the construction and management of a more permanent wooden building, the first Theatre Royal at Hyde, Cheshire, which he erected in 1881 in Frank Street. Using the name of Harriet Ellis Russell his partner continued to manage this theatre for some years after Toms death.
On Saturday 11th April 1891 the streets of the small Yorkshire town of Heckmondwike were filled with a vast concourse of people gathered to mourn the sudden death of Tom Russell, who had a house in the town, which was also a favoured location for his Portable. The funeral was suitably dramatic. According to one obituary 300 actors and actresses from theatres all over the north attended. The North Cheshire Herald reports that there were nine coaches, each drawn by a pair of fine steeds, the whole being preceded by a glass-panelled hearse. Present at the graveside were all the pomping aristocracy of the north of England, and crowds lined the route to the cemetery for his last journey. In a fitting final act, worthy of the melodramas he so often graced, Tom Russell had signed a dramatic death-bed will leaving the whole of his estate, £661, to Harriet Ellis, but this will was contested by his first wife Louisa, who argued in court that Tom was not of sound mind in his final illness. However, at a high court hearing a judge ruled in favour of the common-law wife, and Harriet received her dues.
Thomas Russell had, according to an obituary in The Era, done much to bring better quality drama to small communities all over the north of England, and this achievement is certainly his best monument. The folk of the isolated town of Todmorden, on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire and a favourite venue for the Pavilion Theatre, were so grateful that they commissioned a large oil-painting of Tom Russell which for years after his death hung in the railway station. Its fate is unknown!
Tom Russells death in 1891 did not bring the theatrical enterprises of this amazing dynasty to an end. Harriet Ellis Russell [the name she adopted after Toms death], who was evidently a woman of some business acumen, continued to operate the Pavilion Theatre as a portable for a few years, and retained ownership of the Theatre Royal, Hyde, although this was under the charge of a manager, Joseph Maloney, (shown right) who took day to day control. At the time of his death in November 1900 Mr Maloney was actively engaged in plans to build a new, more modern theatre in Hyde, a project which was completed in 1902.
Right - An early photograph of Joseph Maloney - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
The building he projected, the new Theatre Royal, Hyde, still stands, although its future is uncertain. Harriet Ellis Russell died in 1912.
All the children of Tom Russell and Harriet Ellis Russell were active on the stage in the years after 1891. The most notable career was that of Clara Russell, born c. 1870. On 24th November 1894 The Era reports her marriage to another actor, Victor Widdicombe.
Clara and Victor Widdicombe appeared in a number of London productions and also worked in the provinces, until Victors death in 1912. Clara Widdicombe was still working in the theatre as late as the early 1940s, when she appeared in a number of productions in Liverpool [Pygmalion and Eden End at the Playhouse Theatre] and Colwyn Bay [New Rialto Theatre].
Above - Mr. and Mrs. Victor Widdicombe (Clara Russell), Jubilee Week, Aquarium Great Yarmouth - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
Was Clara the last in the long dynasty founded by Tom and Harriet Russell, whose travelling theatre did so much to enliven and enrich the lives of working people in the northern towns where he was so well known?
Left - A photograph of Clara Widdicombe - Courtesy Trefor Thomas.
This article is work-in-progress, and any further information relating to Tom Russells life and career will be welcome. In particular, photographs or illustrations of Tom or Harriet Russell , or of their travelling theatre, which are lacking.
The above article on the Pavilion Travelling Theatre, Glossop was written by Trefor Thomas and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site by him in December 2013. Trefor Thomas is the author of a number of articles and books relating to aspects of popular Victorian culture.
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