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The Music Hall and Theatre History Site
Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904.

 

The Hippodrome, Wharf Street and Gladstone Street, Leicester

Formerly - The Gladstone Hotel and Concert Hall / Sweeney's New Oxford Music Hall / Gladstone Music Hall / The Gaiety Palace of Varieties / Empire Theatre of Varieties

Leicester Theatres

A sketch of the Hippodrome, Leicester by David Garratt, 2011

Above - A sketch of the Hippodrome, Leicester by David Garratt, 2011

The Gladstone Hotel and Concert Hall was built in 1862 for Mr Fred Bakewell, and stood on the corner of Wharf Street and Gladstone Street, Leicester. The building was three stories high of brick construction, and was run by Mr William Cooper who had run a 'free and easy' previously at 'The Barrel' public house, also known as 'The Tower Vaults'.

By 1866 the owner was Samuel Sweeney, but it was not a success, resulting in his bankruptcy and was sold on November 28th 1866 as 'Sweeney's New Oxford Music Hall'. The contents of the sale were described as follows: 'The whole of the boarding, scantlings and fittings of the Gallery, containing several hundred feet of timber, iron pillars, beautifully painted scenes and side wings, all seats, tables, and other valuable fittings of the Music Hall, beer engine, liquor fountains, several hundred glasses, one ring 36-light gas burner, sunlight, ventilator etc complete, gas chandeliers and brackets',

Records show that by August 20th 1867 the building was again for sale, and was bought by Mr Cleaver, who did not last too long either being succeeded by Mr Coverdale, who had previously been Chairman at Paul's Concert Hall, Leicester.

By 1869 it seems that the building could not make a success as a Music Hall and was rented out to the Hallelujah Band for religious services. By 1872 the building had become the Gladstone Hall Ragged Mission, on a seven year lease.

1880 heralded the return of the building to be the 'Gladstone Music Hall'. Having been redecorated and brought back to use by Mr Charlestone. It reopened with new scenery and décor by Mr W. Laffar, who had been scenic artist at Leicester's Theatre Royal.

A sketch of Sam Torr by David Garratt, 2011.In 1881, Sam Torr was the proprietor of the nearby 'Green Man' public house. Sam Torr came from Nottingham and had been very successful on the Halls with his famous song 'On the back of Daddy, Oh'. In fact he had a statue on the parapet of the roof of the 'Green Man' depicting 'Daddy' carrying, piggyback style, another man on his back. On Monday September 3rd 1883 records show Sam Torr opening the Gladstone Hotel as 'The Gaiety Palace of Varieties' with Vesta Tilley topping the bill.

Left - A sketch of Sam Torr by David Garratt, 2011.

A description of the Hall states that there was a bar, with numerous tables and chairs, an area by the chairman’s table for about 50 people, and the body of the hall could accommodate about 200 people. Upstairs a promenade Gallery also could accommodate a further 200 people.

On May 5th 1885 the Hall was put up for sale again by Thomas Ridge of Nottingham, described as the owner, but was withdrawn from sale. The description of the hall at this time states that the Hall was 45 feet long by 31 feet wide, tastefully decorated, with two refreshment bars and a capacity of 500 people. It appears that Thomas Ridge and Sam Torr were partners, with Ridge also owning a Music Hall in nearby Nottingham.

In 1884 it was to Sam Torr that the young Joseph Merrick – The Elephant Man - wrote to from the Leicester Workhouse, to enquire whether exhibiting his appalling disfigurement upon the stage might be of monetary use, to drag himself out of abject poverty. Joseph Merrick had been born nearby to the Theatre at 50, Lee Street Leicester. After visiting Merrick in the workhouse, Torr agreed to Merrick's suggestion, and set up a group of four theatrical businessmen to develop Merrick's career upon the stage. Although there is no firm evidence that Merrick did appear at the Gaiety Music Hall, Sam Torr and Thomas Ridge did present an appearance of Merrick at Ridge's Nottingham Music Hall and as Sam Torr and Thomas Ridge were partners, it may be assumed therefore that Joseph Merrick appeared at the Gaiety Music Hall. In later years a blue plaque was placed on the Gaiety building telling of Merricks appearance there.

There is reference to the wrong sort of clientele being attracted to the area. It is rumoured that the adjacent building to the Gaiety, number 17, Wharf Street, became famous as 'Lief's' Pawn shop, and is also alleged to have been a brothel.

Again the Gaiety, failed and Sam Torr sold the Theatre after just two years. His daughter Clara kept a diary recording the last days of the families involvement in the Theatre, in which she states that several barmaids were sometimes accepting farthings for half sovereigns, and that several waiters where missing when needed, and jokes were played on the chairman. However she states, 'One morning my dear mother came to me in a terrible distress saying 'Clara', everything will be sold in a few days and we shall be homeless. Whatever will become of us?'

There are records of the Torr family continuing to appear on the Halls. In June 1891 Sam was playing the Grand Theatre Liverpool with Miss Annie Torr, one of his daughters. On December 14th 1896 at the retirement of Mr R Wakes, Sam Torr and Clara Torr, the well known serio-comic, another daughter performed on stage. On the 11th January 1896 At the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties Belfast – 'the old veteran, Sam Torr, still retains his power of capturing his audiences approbation.' There is a reference in the Era newspaper for 20th February 1897 that Mrs Sam Torr (Elizabeth) had recovered from a most severe operation for cancer at the Samaritan Hospital, Raleigh Street Nottingham, but on March 20th 1899 she had died at Bulwell Nottingham after a long and painful illness aged 53 years. Her death states that she left a family of one son and three daughters.

1888 and The Gaiety needed improvements to comply with the Borough Surveyor. New toilets and staircases were installed but the licence was withheld until the removal of a loft had taken place, and an iron safety curtain was installed.

The new owners in 1889 were Mr Fred Reeves and Mr Hal Verdo, with Mr James Paul as acting manager until his death in 1891. Artists who appeared at this time were Nan Torr and Ada Wallett.

In 1892 it was decided to demolish the Gaiety and build a brand new Music Hall in its place. Plans were submitted by Mr W. Hancock, a London architect acting on behalf of Messrs Langmore and Bankart of Leicester. Building commenced in the spring of 1893 with a planned opening for October/November 1893. The Theatre was to be on three floors. The ground floor had stalls and pit with lounge . The stage was 21 feet by 20 feet with all modern appliances enabling the production of shows of every description. There were separate entrances, one to the stalls, another to the circle and two pit and gallery entrances. The stalls and circle entrances were in Wharf Street. Next to the Gallery entrance was a smoke room and bar. The bar in the smoke room also served the hall. The lounge was at the side of the stage being particularly convenient and comfortable for those patrons who wished to have a quiet chat without interfering with or disturbing the performance on stage. There were Ladies and Gentleman’s toilets on each floor. The Circle was octagonal in its form with bars at each level. The auditorium faced the corner of the Theatre and the stage was therefore triangular in shape, with the back of the stage fitting into the corner of the building. The Stalls seating was covered in Velvet, being divided into benches, not tip up chairs. At the front of the building on Wharf Street living accommodation was provided. The Gallery was a copy of the Circle with an octagonal and ornately decorated sliding roof above to accommodate a fast change of stale air and smoke. The décor was 'Moresque' in style, with the ornate plasterwork being carried out by 'The Plaster Decoration Company of London'. Over the stage was a water sprinkler so that at the slightest alarm of fire, by turning a handle a solid sheet of water would immediately divide the stage from the auditorium. All girders were of rolled steel. The outside bricks of the upper part of the Theatre were of yellowish tinge with red bricks used in the lower sections and white stone dressings. The new Theatre was build in five months, and reopened as the 'New Empire Theatre of Varieties'.

By 1901 the Theatre was named the 'Royal Empire Theatre and the lessee was Mr Cecil Gray with Arthur Prince, the famous ventriloquist, performing. Programmes also included the Bio-Tableau (early films) showing incidents of the Boar War.

When Oswald Stoll was building the Palace Theatre in Belgrave Gate, most of his chain of variety Theatres were named 'The Empire Theatre'. However because Leicester already had an 'Empire Theatre' he could not use the name, and this is why the Belgrave Gate Theatre was named 'The Palace'

By 1916 the Theatre was presenting cine-variety, now known as 'The Empire'.

By 1921 plans were submitted to remove the vaults and replace them with a new entrance hall and crush room. At ground level the smoke room and bar were removed for extra seating and the installation of a new projection room. The screen was placed immediately behind the proscenium arch, and the living accommodation removed for stores and offices. However these were removed in 1922 to accommodate extra seating. Now a cinema, the building was renamed 'The Hippodrome'.

In 1927 the stage, and projection room, together with entrance and crush room were removed for extra seating. The proscenium arch also removed, and the upper floors opened out for better sight lines with the screen placed on the rear corner wall. A new projection box and winding room were created on the second floor. The Hippodrome prospered until the 1940's. In the 1950's it fell into disrepair, and was eventually converted into a motor factoring business, and the top floor entirely removed.

The Site of the Leicester Hippodrome in February 2011 - Courtesy David Garratt

Above - The Site of the Leicester Hippodrome in February 2011 - Courtesy David Garratt

The building was eventually demolished on Friday 20th March 2009. It is now a derelict site awaiting the building of a block of flats to be named Merrick House. Some of the Theatre's decorative plaster roses which adorned the exterior of the Theatre have been salvaged, and plans are to incorporate some of them on the exterior of the new block of flats. Until then there is nothing to suggest the rich theatrical history of this sad derelict site.

The above article was written for this site by David Garratt and kindly sent in for inclusion in 2011. The article and its accompanying images are © David Garratt 2011.

If you have any archive images of this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.

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