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The Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street, London E8 1EJ

See also Hackney Empire Memories by Danny Varney

The Hackney Empire in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Hackney Empire in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

 

The Hackney Empire was designed by the renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham, and was built for Oswald Stoll next door to the Town Hall in Mare Street, Hackney. The Theatre opened on Monday the 9th of December 1901.

The Glorious Frank Matcham Auditorium of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted BottleWhen the Theatre was originally commissioned it was designed to have also accommodated the Head Quarters of Stoll Theatres, complete with boardroom and offices, but after work had already begun on the building Stoll changed his mind and decided to build a West End flagship Theatre, the London Coliseum, instead. As a result Matcham had to redesign the Hackney Empire to exclude the HQ accommodation and reduce the frontage of the building.

Left - The Glorious Frank Matcham Auditorium of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted Bottle who says: 'You see the auditorium here in its Mecca colours. Mecca was very good in maintaining their theatre buildings but they had a most curious colour scheme. The auditorium resembles more of an opera house than a variety theatre.'

The Theatre eventually opened in 1901 with a twice nightly Music Hall and Variety policy with provisions for film projection and was built on a grand scale including a Grand Vestibule with a double staircase finished in marble, a lavish 1,500 seat auditorium with three balconies, and boxes at the rear of the Dress Circle and either side of the auditorium.

The ceiling of the auditorium was designed so that a section could be slid back to aid ventilation, much like the Victoria Palace, another of Matcham's Theatres.

The Theatres Trust Guide says of the Theatre today that:- 'This is one of the most perfect examples of Matcham's work in London.'

 

The Hackney Empire's original Matcham Facade in a photograph taken in August 2009 - Photo M.L.The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the Theatre's opening in their 13th of December 1901 edition saying:- 'The new Empire Theatre in Mare-street and the Grove, built from designs by Mr. Frank Matcham, was opened on Monday night. The main facade is carried out in Victorian design. The central portion contains the entrances to the stalls and grand circle, and over this is an open balcony with an arch over, springing from columns, and surmounted by a pediment with a figure holding aloft an arc light. This elevation is flanked by towers, crowned by terracotta domes, terminating with flambeaux. In the centre of the frontage is a grille of wrought iron containing the word "Empire", which is lighted at night by electricity.

Right - The Hackney Empire's original Matcham Facade in a photograph taken in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

The elevation, towards the Grove is less elaborate. The doorways in the ground story of the front towers form the entrance to the pit-stalls and the exits from the stalls. In the centre, polished mahogany screens with swing-doors open into a lobby, and thence to the grand vestibule. This has a panelled ceiling and frieze, in which lunette windows are introduced and corresponding panels containing painted designs. The floor is laid with vitreous mosaics, and the walls are embellished by polished alabaster pilasters and dados. The staircase is a double one in white marble, and is flanked with alabaster balustrades with coloured cappings. The first flights of this double staircase meet on the landing overlooking the vestibule, and it is continued up through arched openings, the ceilings being divided into small panels, and studded with small electric lamps. Under the crushroom and between the stalls and pit-stall entrances is the smoking saloon...

 

The wonderfully elaborate Matcham foyer of the Hackney Empire in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The wonderfully elaborate Matcham foyer of the Hackney Empire in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

...The decorations in the front portion of the theatre have been carried out by J. M. Boekbinder in Flemish Renaissance from the architect's designs, the colouring being in delicate tints, relieved with gold. On the walls panels are framed, containing paintings representing Eloquence, Grace, Tragedy, Comedy, and Music, the whole forming an elegant auditorium. The pit, gallery, and balcony are approached through wide fireproof entrances and staircases from the Grove...

The Auditorium from the Stage of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted Bottle

Above - The Auditorium from the Stage of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted Bottle who says: 'Note the refreshment area at the back of the stalls - music hall going back to its origins?'

 

The Auditorium and Stage of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted Bottle...The auditorium is one of the largest in the Metropolis, measuring 76ft. from curtain line to the back wall of pit, the width across the back of the pit being nearly 80ft. The ground floor is apportioned to fauteuils, stalls, and pit, the two former being fitted with tip-up seats, and the latter with continuous upholstered seating.

Right - The Auditorium and Stage of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted Bottle who says: 'The house tabs shown in the picture came from the Southampton Empire (now the Mayflower) but I think these have been replaced now.'

The floors are to be covered with thick Wilton carpet and cork carpets. The grand circle is fitted with wide curved rows of tip-up seating, and only seven rows are required to seat 300 people. The cantilever principle having been adopted, no columns intervene between the audience and the stage.

 

The Auditorium of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted BottleOver the grand circle is the balcony, containing seven rows of tip-up seats. The seats are continued round to the private boxes on each side. The gallery comes over the balcony, so that the house has three tiers. The top gallery, however, is not continued round the sides, but is stopped with a curve running into one of a series of side columns, from which spring three arches, the centre arch being a very large one. From the key of this arch is suspended an electrolier.

Left - The Auditorium of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted Bottle

The main ceiling is rectangular, having a circular sliding roof in the centre, and two panels each side, filled with allegorical paintings. The decorations of the auditorium have been carried out by Messrs. De Jong and Co. The auditorium and entrances are built of concrete, iron, brick, and stone. Briggs's alarm bolts are fitted to all doors. An asbestos fireproof curtain separates the auditorium from the stage. The latter is 60ft. wide and over 40ft. deep, and all illuminating power is electric. The dressing-rooms are contained in a separate block, are lighted by electricity, and warmed by hot water.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, 13th of December 1901.

 

Programme for 'The Far East' at the Hackney Empire August 16th 1920 - Click for details.The Hackney Empire opened on Monday the 9th of December 1901 and was a successful Variety house until it was sold by Stoll Moss to ATV to become the fist commercial television studio in the country. Many popular television programs were filmed there including the weekly gameshow, one of the first in the country, 'Take Your Pick,' with its New Zealand born compare Michael Miles, and 'Oh Boy,' a weekly pop music show.

Right - A Programme for 'The Far East' at the Hackney Empire August 16th 1920 - Click for details.

Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire from August 1929.By 1963 however, the Theatre's Television days were over and it was sold to Mecca and converted into a Bingo Hall. Luckily, although the auditorium's paintwork and guilding was painted over in Mecca's trademark colours, the auditorium was not physically altered too drastically.

Left - A Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire from August 1929.

In 1984 the building was granted a Listed Grade II status and the owners, Mecca, found themselves faced with the prospect of restoring the Mare Street Facade's domes and restoring the rest of the Facade of the building to its original state.

They took down the domes and the central pediment with the intention of replacing them with substitutes but soon found themselves embroiled in a public enquiry due to the restrictions of 'Listed Building Consent' and evidence from the GLC's Historic Buildings officers. Consequently they were forced to replace the recently demolished parts of the building, and to do it in the original material (terra cotta) which was vastly more expensive than their originally proposed substitute.

Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire, recreating the Music Hall era in 1956Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire, recreating the Music Hall era in 1956The work was eventually completed and to a very high standard too, but faced with the huge cost of restoring the Facade to its original condition as well they decided instead to put the building up for sale.

A recently formed theatre company I C.A.S.T., who had been acquiring properties in order to set up a comedy circuit, bought the Hackney Empire after establishing a preservation Trust for the building and a management company for the performance side, called the Hackney New Variety Management Company, which is now known as Hackney Empire Ltd.

This new company, having acquired such a prestigious building, based their operations there and set about the restoration of the Theatre.

Right and Below - A Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire, recreating the Music Hall era in 1956.

 

Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire, recreating the Music Hall era in 1956 Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire, recreating the Music Hall era in 1956

Above - A Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire, recreating the Music Hall era in 1956, with The Empire Orchestra, Lotus & Josie, The Gelletto Bros, Moris & Cowley, Cody & Oran, Charles Ancaster, G. H. Elliot, Dawn White & Her Glamazons, and Tod Slaughter & Company in 'Maria Marten' or 'The Murder in the Red barn.' For more on this see The Arts Theatre page.

 

Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire from December 1933.The first stage of the restoration was to convert the building from its Mecca Bingo days back into a working Theatre, something which was achieved in just a few years and the Theatre reopened on the 9th of December 1986, 85 years to the day since it originally opened.

Left - A Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire from December 1933.

A Twice Nightly Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire in the Theatre's Jubilee year of 1951 - Courtesy John Earl - Click for Details. Further restoration took place in 2001, after years of fund raising, led by the comedian Griff Rhys Jones, reached the necessary £15m to begin, including a large donation from the local businessman Sir Alan Sugar.

Right - A Twice Nightly Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire in the Theatre's Jubilee year of 1951 - Courtesy John Earl - Click for Details.

Included in the restoration was a new Orchestra Pit for 60 musicians, new dressing rooms, wardrobe, green room, offices and workshops, and an extended fly tower and modern flying system.

FOH, the Box Office was enlarged and a lift installed reaching all the Theatre's levels, and all areas were repainted and repaired to Matcham's original designs. The public house next door to the Theatre was also acquired and and a new Studio Theatre, the Acorn Studio Theatre, was incorporated into the building.

 

The stage house of the Hackney Empire before the improvements - Courtesy Roger Fox

Above - The stage house of the Hackney Empire before the improvements - Courtesy Roger Fox

The rear elevation of the Hackney Empire in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The rear elevation of the Hackney Empire in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

 

The Hackney Empire's side elevation in a photograph taken in front of the Town Hall in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Hackney Empire's side elevation in a photograph taken in front of the Town Hall in August 2009 - Photo M.L.

The Theatre reopened in January of 2004 and on the 14th of September 2004 a Celebration Gala marked the completion of the restoration of this 103 year old 'masterpiece' of Theatre architecture. You may also be interested in reading Hackney Empire Memories by Danny Varney here. And you may also like to visit the Theatre's own Website here.

I am very greatful to John Earl, former Director of the Theatres Trust, for providing some of the information and images used on this page.

If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.

Postcard showing a horse drawn omnibus on a route from the West India Docks to South Hackney, and passing a boarded up shop with fly-posters on its wall, one of which is a poster for the Hackney Empire.

Above - Postcard showing a horse drawn omnibus on a route from the West India Docks to South Hackney, and passing a boarded up shop with fly-posters on its wall, one of which is a poster for the Hackney Empire.

 

A Variety Programme for the Hackney Empire 13th September 1937

 

Variety programme from the Hackney Empire for the 13th of September 1937, featuring Billy Gerhardi and his radio band direct from the Piccadilly Hotel.Billy Gerhardi and his Radio Band Direct From The Piccadilly Hotel

Bringing the electric atmosphere of West End night life to the microphone, Billy Gerhardi and his "boys" get a million fans tuning-in to their dance music sessions on the air. For Billy has spent practically all his professional life within the Mayfair circle, leading bands at all the famous hotels, cabarets and night spots. At the Dorchester, Grosvenor House, Cafe Anglais, The Blue Train, and, for the past year, at the Piccadilly Hotel, Billy Gerhardi has set the pace and called the tune for dancing socialites.

Right - Variety programme from the Hackney Empire for the 13th of September 1937, featuring Billy Gerhardi and his radio band direct from the Piccadilly Hotel.

Billy Gerhardi's Band make the switch from radio to stage with a brilliant show that puts them right in the front line at the start! The violin-playing conductor has devised a presentation of melody and swing that will appeal to widely differing
musical tastes.

And he sees that other people get a chance to shine, notably his lightning-fingered pianist, Bert Whittam, the 3 Macs, harmony vocalists, and the novelty dancers, Lee Street and Jose. Jose, by the way, has a surprise number that will get the audience talking.

Variety programme from the Hackney Empire for the 13th of September 1937FROM SUNSHINE TO STARDOM

Genial, smiling Billy Gerhardi is a South African, born in Durban 36 years ago. Tiring of the job of selling orange groves and houses in the sunny Union, he came to London with his violin tucked underneath his arm. His first job was as violin and conductor of "The Ragpickers," an American team playing at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, but he was quickly in the West End spotlight where he has remained ever since.

AMERICA'S LATEST LAUGHTER-DANCERS

CHARLES MYERS & SUE ST. JOHN

SOMETHING NEW IN COMEDY AND DANCING.

No school in the world could teach you to dance like this! You've got to get the ideas yourself and then have the ability and the double-jointed chassis necessary to carry them out.

Variety programme from the Hackney Empire for the 13th of September 1937Charlie Myers does one of the funniest acro-eccentric dances you'll ever see and his gorgeous girl friend partners him in a free-for-all waltz burlesque. Definitely an act not to be missed !

THE WHIRLWINDS, AMERICA'S FASTEST AND MOST SENSATIONAL SKATERS

Thrills to leave you breathless! Daring to hold you spellbound! And some fun when they take members of the audience for a ride!

AMERICA'S FOREMOST COLOURED COMEDIANS

RADCLIFFE & RODGERS In "DARK DOINGS."

They may be dark subjects but they sure are bright entertainers! Between half-hearted attempts at piano polishing, Radcliffe and Rodgers hold involved arguments on the meaning and spelling of words.

There is rich humour in their attempts to score over one another. Neither of' them knows very much but each takes a lot of' trouble to hide his ignorance which naturally causes all the fun!

And, to make the pleasure complete, is some challenging singing by one of the pair, some stylish piano-playing and a "hot" trumpet solo that will rejoice the hearts of the jazz enthusiasts.

Variety programme from the Hackney Empire for the 13th of September 1937TROUPE RACSOS - Sensational Springboard Acrobats.

DOUGLAS MAYNARD - Variety's Youngest Marimba Player.

JACK DALY

THE IRISH PERSONALITY STAR

With a racy style, a grand sense of humour, a lot of new jokes and some lilting songs, Jack Daly - that's him smiling at you on the left - puts over one of the brightest shows in Variety.

He is a new and dynamic personality you'll be sure to like. See you see him!

GAILLARD FOUR

IN A HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY OF DANCE

Variety can offer no more picturesque or colourful dancing presentation than this. The spirited Slavonic dances, the beautiful costumes and the fiery exciting music make an irresistible appeal to eye and ear alike.

If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.

 

You may find the following pages from this site of interest: