Theatres and Halls in Portsmouth, England
The Landport Hall / First Theatre Royal / Second Theatre Royal - Frank Matcham's Theatre Royal of 1900 - Memories of the Theatre Royal in the 1950s - Groundlings Theatre - The Prince's Theatre / Royal Albert Theatre - The Hippodrome Theatre - The Empire Theatre / Coliseum - The South of England Music Hall / Alhambra Music Hall / New South of England Grand Palace / Barnard's Royal Amphitheatre - Vento's Temple of Varieties / Palladium Cinema - Ginnett's New Hippodrome - Saint George's Hall and Opera House - The Royal Britannia Theatre - The Crown Assembly Rooms - The Grecian Saloon / Landport Theatre - The Queen's Rooms
Formerly - The Landport Hall / The Theatre Royal Opera House
Above - A Google StreetView Image of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth today - Click to Interact.
There have been three Theatre's Royal on the present site in Guildhall Walk, Portsmouth. The present Theatre was designed by Frank Matcham, incorporating parts of C. J. Phipps' Theatre of 1884. The present Theatre opened on the 6th August 1900 with Mrs Patrick Campbell giving the opening address and also appearing in 'Magda' a play by Sudermann. More on this below.
In 1854 a traveling circus proprietor, a Mr Henry Rutley, took over the Swan Tavern and Landport Hall next door to the tavern, installing his circus in the Landport Hall, which was a success. In February 1856 he applied for a licence to convert the Hall into a Theatre. The licence was granted on the 29th of September 1856 and the new Theatre opened with the popular comedy 'A New Way to Pay Old Debts,' by Philip Massinger.
The old Landport Hall had undergone quite a transformation. The frontage was about 40 feet wide with an arcade over the pavement. The auditorium had two circles containing numerous boxes, and over the proscenium was a painting depicting two reclining muses holding the masks of comedy and tragedy. Opera and Shakespeares plays were very popular. In 1872 a number of improvements were carried out.
Henry Rutley died in 1874, and his wife carried on the Theatre for a short time, but then the Theatre closed. In 1875 the Theatre was being run by the Portsmouth and Southsea Assembly Rooms and Theatres Limited. However in 1882 Mr John Waters Boughton had taken over the Theatre. He also bought up pockets of land around the existing Theatre. He then decided on a complete rebuild and enlargement of the old Theatre, employing Charles John Phipps. F.S.A. to build his new Theatre. The last production at the old Theatre in May of 1884 was 'Les Manteaux Noirs' a comic Opera by Yorke. Phipps had commenced his new build by constructing walls around the old Theatre, to reduce the closure time to minimum. On the 19th May 1884 the old Theatre was demolished.
Phipps new Theatre, called the New Theatre Royal, opened on the 4th August 1884 with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Opera 'Princess Ida' by the Doyle Carte Opera Company.
There were five entrances, three being under the new portico which led to the Private Boxes, Dress Circle, and Upper Circle. The entrances to the Pit and Gallery being in Spring Gardens. All entrances had their own staircases built of brick, which were 5 feet 6 inches wide, with no winding steps. All landings being square. There were handrails on each side and all doors opened outwards.
The Theatre's audience capacity was 2,000 people in 1884. The Pit was on street level, with cushioned seats with back rails. The Circle seating 200 people in 5 rows, on armchairs with up folding seats. To the rear of which was a spacious corridor promenade which gave a good view of the stage.
There was a Refreshment room and smoking lounge at circle level built over the new Portico, with retirement rooms for both ladies and gentlemen at every level.
Left - The auditorium of Phipps' 1884 Theatre Royal, Portsmouth - From a programme for the pantomime 'Sleeping Beauty' which was produced at the Theatre for Christmas 1909 / 1910 - Click to see the whole programme.
The fronts of each tier were painted on a cream background with gilded decoration picked out. The background walls were in terra cotta red in two tones. The upper tiers were horseshoe shaped. The seating in the Upper Circle being cushioned seats with backs. The ceiling followed the curve of the gallery front with radiating bands of ornamentation towards the centre, featuring a 6 feet wide sun burner in its centre with a large flu set in the ceiling behind the sun burner for adequate ventilation. The hangings and drapes were all of ruby plush velvet as were the arm rests round the circle. The auditorium decoration being in the Italian Renaissance style.
The stage was divided from the auditorium by a brick wall built high up into the roof. The Proscenium arch was 30 feet wide by 34 feet high, either side of the proscenium were three stage boxes, together with two more boxes at the rear of the first tier. The proscenium was a richly gilded frame surmounted by a pediment. In the tympanum was a painted lunette, by Ballard, representing comedy and tragedy. The stage was 36 feet deep and 60 feet wide complete with fly tower, and the stage was fully fitted with stage machinery to stage all effects required. Attached to the stage was a dressing room block also containing a property room, limelight room together with the scene dock.
The builders were Mr W. Ward of Fratton. Fibrous plaster work was carried out by Messrs G. Jackson, of London. Painted decoration and gilding was carried out by Mr Edward Bell of London. Gas was supplied by the Portsea Island Gas Company, with special arrangements for auditorium lighting and stage by Strode and Company of London. The armchairs in the Dress Circle were manufactured by Wadman of Bath to the architect's registered design, and Carpets and Upholstery were supplied by Mr C.J. Lawrence of Southsea.
At the opening performance Mr John Winterbottom conducted the orchestra in the National Anthem sung by four principals of the 'Princess Ida' company with a chorus of 100 ladies and gentlemen of Portsmouth. There were then calls for Mr Boughton to appear, which he did, bowing and acknowledging the audience. There were calls for a speech, however this was not forthcoming as he had circulated a printed rhyming address among the audience, which was taken 'as read'. There were a limited number of programmes which were printed in pink letters on pale blue satin, as souvenirs. Then after a brief interval the curtain rose upon the complete performance of 'Princess Ida.
Frank Matcham's New Theatre Royal of 1900
Above - An Early Photograph of the Portsmouth Theatre Royal and Opera House - From a 1920s Lion Foundry Company Catalogue - Courtesy Clive Greathurst.
By 1900 Mr J. W. Boughton had decided that his New Theatre Royal was not large enough to entertain all his patrons and so he employed Frank Matcham to enlarge the Theatre. Matcham practically rebuilt Phipp's Theatre. Within four months of the Theatre being closed for this enlargement, the new Theatre was altered and ready to open for the bank holiday on August 11th 1900 with the play 'Magda'. Matcham's brief was to cater for half as many people again as the old Theatre held. The contractor was Mr J.H.Corke, of Southsea.
Right - A Variety programme for the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in 1954 - Courtesy Alan Chudley.
A large piece of land behind the stage house, had been acquired for a spacious new stage, property rooms, rehearsal rooms, scenery stores and dressing rooms. The space which the stage occupied in the old Theatre was now incorporated into Matcham's new auditorium. Entrances were re-arranged and extra exits made. The workmen worked 24 hours round the clock to achieve this vast transformation in so short a time.
The exterior was improved with an iron and glass shelter supported on ornamental columns, only the gallery entrance was not covered by this shelter, that entrance being in the side street. On top of the building was a life sized statue of Neptune installed complete with trident which was also utilised as a gas flambeau at night. Piers between the seven entrances were covered in granite, and each arch filled with 'graffeto' work with figures representing the arts, music etc.
Right - The Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in a photograph taken in the early 2000s - Courtesy David Garratt
The centre three entrances had mahogany doors with glass panels inset. These led into the vestibule which had a rich mosaic floor with marble walls. The ceiling was very ornately decorated and painted by Italian artists. All the woodwork including the box Office was in mahogany. From this entrance a flight of marble steps led upwards through an archway with columns and balustrades into the lobby, and thence through swing doors into the foyer. There was a ladies retiring room close by and through a draped entrance led into part of the verandah with access to the outside balcony.
The foyer was separated from the Dress Circle by a glazed partition. There also being a Saloon over the vestibule with a smoking room with a large lounge opening out on to the balcony.
Inside the auditorium the dress Circle was constructed on the cantilever system with comfortable armchairs for nearly 200 people. There was no ceiling overhang, all the Dress Circle seats being in front of the Upper Circle above. Each side of the Dress Circle open colonnades with columns and arches draped in plush velvet led to rows of seats and to the boxes and orchestral stalls.
Above - The auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in a photograph by David Garratt taken shortly before the renovation of the Theatre in the early 2000s. At this stage the plasterwork had just been repaired and the auditorium was awaiting repainting.
The Pit, now partitioned off, had five rows of armchairs immediately in front of the orchestra rail and the Pit was now able to hold 250 more people than Phipps's Theatre, the capacity now being 1,000. The floor covering in the Pit was of thick cork linoleum and was well raked upwards from the stage, for decent sight lines. There was a large Pit Saloon with a mosaic floor and tiled walls. The Stalls Saloon had a domed ceiling and smoking lounge with settees, velvet pile carpet, and brilliant mirrors.
The Upper Circle and Gallery had a smoking lounge in the Verandah and there were cloak rooms etc., in every part of the house.
Left - The auditorium boxes of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in a photograph by David Garratt taken shortly before the renovation of the Theatre in the early 2000s. At this stage the plasterwork had just been repaired and the auditorium was awaiting repainting.
The Stage was very large being 65 feet deep (the old Theatre's being 36 feet deep) and 56 feet in width. The stage could take the most elaborate London scenery, and also feature spectacular shows with scenes such as horses racing across the stage. This was achieved by special street entrances onto the stage from each side of the Theatre, thus the horses could get up a good pace before entering the stage floor, racing across, and then exiting to the other side into the street.
There were numerous emergency exits and hydrants placed throughout the Theatre and there was also an Asbestos Fire Proof curtain.
The Hampshire Telegraph of the 11th of August 1900 describes the decorations as follows:- '...the decorations, which are really magnificent. Mr Matcham's design is beautifully conceived, the details are exquisite, and the whole forms a charming scheme of colouring and raised ornamentation, which fascinates the eye and delights it without dazzling. The old ceiling over the auditorium had been altered and beautified beyond recognition. Scrolls and panels, with suggestions of blue sky and birds, have a most pleasing effect. The new ceiling between the box façades is cleverly treated with large coved ceilings with enriched pendants carrying brass electroliers. The eight new boxes along the side of the dress circle are furnished with rich embossed plush draperies. At the sides are polished marble pilasters carried to the ceiling, from which spring beautiful winged figures supporting the ceiling beams.
Right - A detail of the auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in a photograph by David Garratt taken shortly before the renovation of the Theatre in the early 2000s. At this stage the plasterwork had just been repaired and the auditorium was awaiting repainting.
On each side of the stage is a niche with a pedestal supporting the
figure group, one representing Tragedy and the other Comedy. The same
muses form the subject of a beautiful art panel over the stage opening...'
- Hampshire Telegraph 11th August 1900.
Above - The auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in a photograph by David Garratt taken shortly before the renovation of the Theatre in the early 2000s. At this stage the plasterwork had just been repaired and the auditorium was awaiting repainting.
The Theatre's colour scheme was cream, light terra cotta's and gold. The draperies and carpets were in copper. The Dress Circle and Upper Circle fronts being decorated using naval and military motifs. The Dress Circle had naval motif's of dolphins, shells, mermaids, anchors and life belts. The Upper Circle, honouring the military, had laurel wreathed Lions' heads. The Gallery front was decorated in rococo acanthus leaves. Even the electric light fittings had a nautical flavour, formed of brass anchors with incandescent globes. The Boxes were divided by the bows of ships with figure heads.
Right - The Ceiling of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in a photograph by David Garratt taken shortly before the renovation of the Theatre in 2002.
At the glittering opening night, present in the packed audience were the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Portsmouth Mr & Mrs Pink, together with officers of the U.S. Ship 'Mononguhela'. The performance commenced at 8 pm and the band played 'God Save the Queen' and then Mrs Patrick Campbell came forward of the curtain to deliver the opening address. Then the curtain rose on a one act play called 'Mrs Jordan Actress', featuring Miss Elenor Molyneaux, to be followed by Mrs Patrick Campbell in the play 'Magda', also featuring George Arliss and Gerald du Maurier. At the conclusion of the play the audience gave a warm welcome to Mr Boughton, the owner, Mr Frank Matcham, the architect, and Mr Corke, the builder, who each acknowledged the audience's appreciation by bowing. The other plays presented during that first week by Mrs Campbell's company, were 'The Second Mrs Tanqueray' on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and at the matinee ' The Fantasticks'.
The Theatre operated for many years featuring the latest touring productions. It was however, in use as a cinema for 16 years, but returned to theatrical use again in 1948, presenting mainly Variety Shows. It then closed for a period being re-opened by the Hector Ross repertory company, unfortunately closing again before becoming a Bingo Hall and wrestling arena in 1971.
Right - The rear of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth showing the loss of the Stage House - Courtesy Peter Foulstone.
After this the Theatre closed again and remained derelict for some time. It was vandalised, lead being stolen from the roof, interior fittings smashed, and in 1972 a devastating fire was started on the stage by children playing with fireworks, which destroyed the stage, fly tower, and back stage block. Fortunately the fire brigade managed to drop the safety curtain, thus saving Matcham's auditorium.
After the fire the New Theatre Royal Society was set up to save the Theatre. Volunteers cleaning, and restoring the building at weekends and in their spare time. The New Theatre Royal Trustees (Portsmouth) was formed in 1980, who were able to raise the funds to buy the Theatre from the owners. In 1984 a thrust stage was built inside the auditorium over the orchestra pit so that performances could again be given on this platform stage. After 20 years they were able to refurbish the auditorium and façade bringing them back to their Victorian grandeur. The Theatre was then able to present professional and community shows with educational projects and workshops.
Left - A staircase to nowhere at the rear of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth after the loss of the Stage House - Courtesy Peter Foulstone.
In 2012 a Heritage Lottery grant was awarded of £939,900, thus allowing the next part of the project of restoration to take place, being the building of a new stage house, fly tower, back stage dressing rooms, and adding a creative learning space, behind the presently bricked up proscenium arch. By December 2013 this was well advanced and the new Stage House was under construction.
Right - An enhanced photograph of part of the side elevation of the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth showing a painted sign still saying 'Callers Entrance' - Courtesy Peter Foulstone.
The £4.5m restoration of the Theatre's Stage House was completed in October 2015 and included a modern fly tower with a new stage over 10 metres deep, and a 15-piece orchestra pit. The new building also incorporated new offices, dressing rooms, laundry, green room, and a technical workshop. A new Studio Theatre for the University of Portsmouth performing arts Organisation called the Anthony Minghella Creative Learning Space was also constructed to the rear of the Theatre, which has retractable seating for 200 and its own gallery and two dressing rooms, one of which can be used as a bar for the Theatre.
Now seating 700 people the New Theatre Royal reopened with a production of 'The Great Gatsby' on October the 15th 2015. The Theatre can look forward to having the best in touring productions and community Theatre into the future.
You may like to visit the Grade II Listed New Theatre Royal's own website here.
The above article on the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth was written for this site by David Garratt and kindly sent in for inclusion in 2012. The article is © David Garratt 2012. The article was updated in August 2016.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
When I was fifteen years old, I had an interview with the lady who was supposed to help me find a job when I left school. Being me, I said, I want to be an actress or an air hostess. Needless to say, when I left the office I had an address for a local hairdresser in Birmingham where we lived at the time. After my father was relocated to Portsmouth with his job, we moved to the south coast in the same year. I decided to try to follow my dream and I applied for a job at the Repertory company based at the Theatre Royal in Portsmouth. I simply wrote to The Manager, and after an interview with Hector Ross I was offered the job as Assistant Stage Manager or (ASM), and I seem to remember a weekly wage of £2.6.8 a week. I really thought that was so grand, and I was now on my way to becoming a great and famous actress.
Reality hit home when I realised that I lived in Leigh Park, I would have to pay my bus fare, and it would take me more than an hour to get to work, and another to get home again. Another problem was that the last bus to Leigh Park was about 11pm. I also had to be at work for 10am in the morning, 6 days a week. However, with the foolishness of youth I arrived at the theatre on my first day, and was shown around rather quickly by a slightly older girl, who obviously realised she had a naive twerp on her hands, and in her control.
Within days, I was given an old rather large pram, full of odd things to be returned to the shops we had borrowed them from, and a list of those shops with a map and address of where they were. I was told to go and take them back. It was explained to me that we were a repertory company, and as such, we put on a different play every week. It meant that every week we needed to borrow the appropriate props as listed in that weeks script, and every week the old ones had to be returned. This, I was told, was just one of my jobs. Records had to be kept, because we also gave the lender a credit in the programme, and also provided them with two free tickets for the matinee.
In all weathers, I would trek around Portsmouth, including Marmion Rd, where there were many junk shops. I would push this enormous pram, delivering or collecting props, and I remember some very odd items including a mooses head, (from a play long forgotten), paintings, lamps, and even small items of furniture . I also recall that there were still some odd bomb sites in one or two places, which I did not like walking past.
I had many other duties, which seemed rather glamorous in my naivety. One of them was to take clothes and costumes up to the wardrobe, which was somewhere at the top of the building. It was quite a large area, and it smelt very odd, and musty I suppose. There were lots of clothes up there, and I can remember lots of arguments about which dress had been worn when, and by whom. I remember Beryl Reid had to wear a fur coat for something, and she said she preferred wearing her own thank you, as ours smelt funny! Beryl was kind to me, and later in life we corresponded until her death. I still have her signed photograph.
On the other hand, Frankie Howard was grumpy, and was a bit of a tyrant, and always wanted his own way with everything. He had been a big name, and although he became a household name again later in Up Pompeii he came to us for a show during his lull. I regret I do not remember what, and I wish I had a programme for it. Interestingly, I was one of the few people allowed into his dressing room, and that was only because he wanted me to go and get his sandwich from the cafe opposite (at the time). He always had a young man with him, whom I innocently thought liked me, but I was soon corrected mind you. To this day, Frankie Howard owes me money as he did not pay me for the last matinee sandwich. Funny claim to fame isnt it?
One pantomime we did was Alfs Button, 23/12/1958 - 3/1/1959, (programme cover shown left) and I remember this as I was very pleased to be given credit as a dancer in it, and as a result I kept the programme. They soon realised I could not dance however, mainly because I was too shy at that time, and would not even try. My name remained in the programme, as it was too late to take it out. One of the actors in it was Dudley Stevens, and he was a very nice young man, unfortunately, he payed me little attention, although he did give me a signed photograph of himself which I still have.
Left - A programme for 'Alf's Button' at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in 1958 - Courtesy Sandra Harding.
Underneath the stage was very dark, dirty and cobwebby. During the interval, I had to go down there and put on a gramophone record, and take it off as the curtain went back up. Heaven help me if I was not there to do it, but I believe I always was. There was also a strange contraption, with which the baddie or fairy or whoever, could be hoisted up and down through a trap door during pantomimes. I avoided it, as I had been told that a previous ASM had their finger chopped off operating it. I have no idea if this were true or not.
Right - Cast Details from a programme for 'Alf's Button' at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in 1958 - Courtesy Sandra Harding who is credited in the programme as Sandra Hunt.
The lead in almost all the plays and shows we did were played by Hector Ross, and June Sylvaine. June was rather sweet to look at, but not underneath. Hector was losing his hair, and in the days before really good wigs, he would put a strange black stuff to hide his balding areas. It shone in the light, and I dont think anyone had the heart to tell him. I hardly ever said more than hello to him, as I found him rather overpowering.
One of the many early lessons I learnt was as a result of being invited to a party, by one of the other A.S.M.s (the girl I mentioned earlier). I was very flattered and looked forward to the party after work on Saturday night. I was told it would be fun, and likely to last all night, and to tell my parents I would not be home which I did.
We went into Southsea, up a dingy flight of stairs, to be met at the top by two men, who I can only remember as being foreign. I asked when the others were arriving to be told, there are only just the four of us, and have a drink. I declined, and quickly realised that I had fallen into a trap. I got out only after telling them I was going to get a policeman if they did not let me go. I was also very angry by then, and I was not to be ignored when I was angry even at that young age. I had learnt as a child that anger can be a very good thing in certain circumstances, and this was certainly one!
Left - A Review from The Stage of December 1958 for 'Alf's Button' at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth - Courtesy Sandra Harding.
I walked from Southsea up to the taxi rank by the Guildhall and got a taxi home. My father was furious as he was got out of bed and had to pay the cab fare, and I was so embarrassed that I told my parents I had a lovely time, but just wanted to come home. I avoided talking to the girl in question from then on, and carried on doing my job without her input whenever possible.
One of the touring shows we had was Expresso Bongo in March 1959. Jill Gascoine and Colin Hicks were in it, (Tommy Steeles brother) and I was very star struck. However, he was too much in love with being Colin Hicks to even notice me, but he was still very cute.
Going back to getting a bus home at night, in those days the bus stops were at the bottom of the Guildhall steps, and I often wondered why there were so many pretty ladies hanging about when I waited for my last bus home. They always smelt lovely, had on high heels and, it seemed to me, nice clothes. Remember, I was only 15-16, going on 11, so it came as a shock to me when I found out they were working girls. They always said hello to me though, and once one offered me cigarette. I refused, and in fact I never did smoke a cigarette, nothing to do with her, I just hated the smell (still do)
I remember regularly peeping through the curtains to see how many people were in the audience, and having to report the numbers to Hector, or whoever had asked me. At times, particularly for the matinees there were more people on stage than in the audience, and I still remember the odd feeling as I realised the mood that the actors would be in that day.
Eyes and teeth dear they would say, and on they would go, and someone told me once that you had to pretend it was a full house, and act accordingly. Very hard I think for anyone to do, and even worse for what was, even then, the beginning of the end for repertory companies, but they did not know that for sure, and had to carry on as they did not know what else to do.
Underneath the theatre to the front was a bar which the actors and guests would use after the curtain had gone down. It had photographs all round the walls, and I often wonder where they are now. I often wished I could have joined in the larks that went on after hours, but my bus would not wait, and I was always very self conscious in my youth, inexperience and ability to converse well with these important people. In those days, I did not drink, and anyway, did not have the money to do so even if I had wished. I saw many drunks in and around the Guildhall, and after being approached once or twice, I decided never to drink, and to this day, I have no time for drunken behaviour. One of the working girls actually told a drunk who was bothering me to push off, which he did.
One strange coincidence was that my sister Patricia Hunt played at The Theatre Royal in 1953/4 in a touring variety show. Terry (Toby Jug) Cantor was the comedian, who came on dressed in a toga and wore hob nail boots. He had a lady assistant who had balloons for bosoms and Terry would pop them with a pin. Pat was in a ladies singing group called Lois Bard and the Golden Chords. They stayed in digs in Portsmouth, and she also remembers walking over bomb sites to get to the digs.
They had good audiences, made up in the main of sailors. As there were nudes on stage in an act, this was no surprise. The sailors would roll up their programmes and use them as telescopes to look at the nudes who were not allowed to move of course in those days. The sailors were very noisy, and the ladies were told not to flirt with them.
I remember my last ever journey home from the Theatre, but not the exact day for many reasons. I fell asleep on the bus and ended up in Havant, at the terminal, and the bus driver woke me up. I collapsed and was unable to stand, and he and the conductor took me home to Leigh Park.
The doctor was called the next day, and I was diagnosed with acute anaemia, and had to have complete bed rest, injections every day, and only food rich in iron. It was the end of my dream for me, as it took rather a long time to recover. Looking back of course I realise what had happened. I was not eating very well, in fact some days not at all. Food was not important to me, and I suppose I must have been anorexic, before it was known about, and the only consolation I have is that it was not deliberate, just foolish.
I still feel sad at the abrupt end to my acting career, but later in life I tried to satisfy my theatrical leanings by joining the Hayling Island Operatic society, playing principal boy in many pantomimes. I had recovered from the shyness of youth.
The above article was written by Sandra Harding and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site in June 2013.
Above - Groundlings Theatre, Portsmouth - Courtesy Richard Stride
Groundlings is a unique Georgian Theatre built in 1784, it is a magical place with secret doors and hidden rooms, it is also said to be haunted by ten friendly ghosts. It was frequented by Queen Victoria, and Charles Dickens was nearly born here. In 1812, Elizabeth Dickens went into labour with Charles Dickens whilst attending a dance in the building. Henry Ayres, who became Premier of South Australia and who Ayres Rock is named after, was a pupil at the school. Groundlings still has a lot of the original features such as original floorboards and fire places.
The building went on to serve the rich and the poor with the downstairs floor serving as the classroom for impoverished children, and the upstairs floor being used by the high society for meetings, concerts and theatre. The school applied a very disciplinarian attitude to education.
It was not until 1837 the boys only school was opened to girls and a junior school was also formed in 1873. The school had to be closed in 1939 due to the outbreak of WW2 and it is said that a Nazi sympathizer used the roof of the school to shine a torch to direct bombers seeking to hit Portsmouth Dockyard. The school finally closed in 1962.
Right - The Interior of Groundlings Theatre, Portsmouth - Courtesy Richard Stride.
It was in 2010 when Richard Stride bought a burned-out shell of a Theatre, thanks to a stray firework, which he then embarked on a starting major restoration job. He decided to appeal to locals to roll their sleeves up. They desperately needed help; so builders, local volunteers, in fact everyone came to lend a hand.
With Groundlings Theatre then finally fully restored the team of actors, locals, and volunteers ran, and continue to do so today, a varied programme of events for young and old, from pantos to comedy, and from new plays to Shakespeare.
Today Groundlings Theatre is buzzing with life and it truly is a unique, intimate experience watching a performance there.
You may like to visit the Theatre's own Website here.
The above article on Groundlings Theatre was kindly sent in for inclusion on this site by Richard Stride, the Artistic Director of the Theatre, in April 2016.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Also known as - The New Prince's Theatre / Royal Albert Theatre / Royal Prince's Theatre / Prince's Temperance Theatre of Varieties / Prince's Cinema
Above - An early photograph of the Prince's Theatre, Portsmouth - From a programme for the pantomime 'Sleeping Beauty' at the present Theatre Royal, Portsmouth for Christmas 1909 / 1910 - Click to see the whole programme.
The New Prince's Theatre was situated in Lake Road, Landport, Portsmouth and originally opened on the 2nd January 1869 as a Circus. This fist season did not last long however, ending on the 13th February, and the Theatre then reopened in 1870 renamed the Royal Albert Theatre. This Theatre again was not successful, closing in 1872. The Theatre then received some rebuilding and renovation and re-opened as the Prince's Theatre on the 11th November 1872.
The Theatre now featured Private Boxes, with the Dress Circle seating 200 in comfortable chairs, the Pit sat 650 people with backed seats, and the Gallery held 700 people. There was a promenade for Private Box and Dress circle patrons. The tier fronts were decorated in sprays of flowers executed by T. Wilson, of the South of England Music Hall. The ceiling had a large sunburner, and carpets and finishings throughout were upholstered by Maples. The opening play was 'Masks and Faces' followed by a farce entitled 'How's Your Uncle'. The opening oration was given by Miss Foote, who was one of the directors.
The Theatre was in competition with the Theatre Royal, which was the only other straight Playhouse in Portsmouth. The Christmas Pantomime in 1873 was 'Columbus'. In March 'Domby and Son' was presented. Balfe brought his English Opera Company in June 1874, presenting 'The Rose of Castille' and 'The Bohemian Girl'. There is a record of the Theatre being named The Royal Prince's Theatre at this time. By the 1880's the Theatre policy had changed, and the Theatre was renamed 'The Prince's Temperance Theatre of Varieties'. It was not very successful and there were many closures. The Theatre finally being destroyed by fire on 24th April 1882. A Mrs Gillam, living opposite the Theatre said that she went to her window at 4.50am and saw flames bursting out of the top left hand window. Then the roof caught fire at about 6.0am. The heat was intense. The Chief Fireman later said that the thickness of the Theatre walls had contributed to the adjacent building escaping the fire.
Mr John Waters Boughton acquired the Theatre site, and slowly bought up adjacent properties and land. This gave him a frontage of 95 feet flanked on one side by a Baptist Chapel. The site had a depth of 194 feet to North Town Street. The new Theatre was designed by the architect Frank Matcham and built by F. D. Hall of Portsmouth in 128 days. The clerk of works being Mr W.A.Carter. The Baptist Chapel opposed granting a licence to the Theatre, 'on the danger which would occur from the moral point of view, which cannot be disputed. Also there is a danger of actors outside the Theatre' In spite of these objections the Theatre was granted the licence.
The Theatre was of red brick and tracery work in terra cotta. The height of the front elevation from ground to the vane on top was 73 feet, having a frontage width of 86 feet, and a total depth of 124 feet.
A vestibule led to a stone staircase up to the circle tier, which had a fine promenade at the rear. All staircases were constructed of concrete and stone for fire safety reasons. The Pit had a boarded floor over a concrete base, as did the scene dock and much of the stage. There were lavatories and retiring rooms on each level. There were emergency staircases with separate doors from the circle and gallery.
The stage had a depth of 44 feet 6 inches. The Proscenium opening was 29 feet 6 inches. The stage had doors on all sides and the scene dock was 99 feet by 24 feet. A water curtain was fitted over the proscenium capable of throwing down 4,000 gallons a minute, giving an impenetrable curtain 4 inches thick of water. There were also 4 sprinklers over the stage in the fly tower grid capable of giving 4,000 gallons of water per minute, plus hydrants on the stage, flys, and situated at every floor level in the auditorium.
The auditorium sat 500 people in the Pit, and had 5 exit doors. The circle and gallery were carried on iron pillars. The ceiling and tier fronts were covered in fibrous plaster moulded in flowering patterns.
During construction of the Theatre 750,000 bricks were used. The prevailing colours in the auditorium were blue, cream and terra cotta shading, with the use of much gilding. The Curtain and hangings were in old gold. The Dress Circle seating also being carried out in the same colours. Busts of Shakespeare and Beethoven flanked the proscenium arch, with the Prince of Wales feathers and Diadem crown above. Gilded panels radiated from the sunburner in the centre of the ceiling, with each panel containing the name of a noted author or composer. The auditorium and stage were lit by gas.
Originally the Theatre held approximately 2,000 people, but by 1912 the capacity was as follows: - There were four stage boxes seating 16 people; the stalls held 353 people, and the Pit held 248; the Circle held 108, with the Upper Circle seating 230, and the Gallery 500 people.
The Theatre opened on Boxing Day 1891 with the pantomime 'Dick Whittington and his popular Cat' produced by Mr J. D. Hunter, and written by Mr Edwin Keene. The scenic artist was Mr Limmere Cullen with costumes by Madam Robinson. Music specially arranged by Mr Surtees Corne. The cast was as follows:- Miss Blanche Bailey as Dick Whittington, Miss Dora Archer as Alice Fitzwarren, Miss Florence Bailey as Fairy Firefly, Mr J. D. Hunter as Idle Jack, Alderman Fitzwarren was played by Mr Fred Lay, Demon Rat by Mr E. Korri, and the pantomime also featured a Japanese troupe of jugglers and the sisters Diamond who were big boot dancers, plus The Korries in their musical melange. The Pantomime was followed by the Harlequiade, featuring Mr T. Nixon as Clown. Mr J. H. Konroy as Pantaloon, Mr W. Barber as Harlequin, and Miss Lily Gowar as Columbine.
Boughton's artistic policy was to feature touring companies presenting drama's, particularly melodrama's and Christmas Pantomimes.
In 1907 Frank Matcham was re-engaged to supervise renovations. By cantilevering the circle an extra row of seats was added. De Jong of London designed and executed new plasterwork to the boxes and panels of the tier fronts. Mahogany doors, were fitted with bevelled glass, stairs carpeted, and new curtaining and upholstery carried out in scarlet. Seven rows of orchestral stalls were created in front of the pit. The auditorium was redecorated in cream and gold, relieved with pale green, and electricity installed to the whole Theatre. A cast iron balcony, very similar in design and construction to the New Theatre Royal, was built along the whole 93 foot frontage. This housed lounges and a tea room on the first level with a new saloon above.
Boughton ran the Theatre until his death in 1914, thereafter the Theatre being run by Peter Davey who continued Boughton's Theatre policy. On 29th November 1920 a resident repertory company occupied the Theatre. They lasted for 107 weeks till 13th January 1923, giving 1,292 performances and featured Beryl Adair, as leading lady, J. Grant Anderson as the juvenile lead, Milton C. Curtain as the villain, and Charles Denville and John Laurie. After the repertory company, there were weeks of touring companies, but the Theatre closed on 2nd June 1924. Peter Davey had then retired and Mr W. E. C. Sperring became managing director of Portsmouth Theatres. The Theatre was then rented to Mr S. Zeid, who re-opened it as a cinema. The Prince's continued as a cinema until 1930, being sold to Joe Davison of Charlotte Street, a cinema proprietor for £30,000.
In 1931 the Theatre boxes and tiers were gutted and one single large balcony constructed. It now resembled all other purpose built cinemas.
During a matinee performance on the 24th August 1940 the Theatre was severely damaged by a war time bomb in which 8 children were killed. The Theatre had finally succumbed to it's end and subsequently its inevitable demolition. There is more information on the bombing of Portsmouth here, and information and an image of the damage to the Theatre here and here.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Above - An early postcard depicting the Portsmouth Hippodrome - Courtesy Maurice Friedman, British Music hall Society.
The Hippodrome Theatre was constructed in 1907 and opened in 1908, being built for Sir Walter De Frece (his eighteenth Theatre) at a cost of £40,000.00, an enormous sum in those days, and was designed by Bertie Crewe, the eminent Edwardian Theatre architect. The Theatre stood on Commercial road, Portsmouth.
It was a two tier Theatre, having a grand tier, above which was situated the gallery. Four boxes were situated each side of the proscenium arch, which was built from Derbyshire marble in a large curving arch. The auditorium had four columned arches either side of the proscenium, and was painted in white and gold with deep crimson seating, which was generously spaced so that any late comers could pass along to their seats without disturbing those already seated. The auditorium ceiling was painted with cherubs flying high above. The total capacity was 1,873 people, being:- Stalls 465 seats, Pit 280, Grand circle 352 seats, and the gallery held 624. The eight boxes held 52 people, and there was standing capacity for 100 people.
There were 9 exits, and it was calculated that the Theatre could be evacuated within three minutes.
The Theatre had 5 saloons, but initially no alcohol was available, but afternoon teas were available at matinee performances.
Backstage was somewhat cramped, the stage being only 30 feet in depth, and 31 feet wide at the proscenium. The Theatre was 64 feet wide and the auditorium 64 feet in depth. There were ten dressing rooms, however dressing rooms numbers seven and eight were below the stage.
The opening ceremony before a specially invited audience of 1,000 people, was performed by Marie Tempest. Lord and Lady de Frece and Bertie Crewe were amongst the distinguished audience. Lady de Frece was Vesta Tilley who had married Sir Walter de Frece in 1890.
The opening programme featured Mr Jam Rudenyi, a celebrated Hungarian violinist, Mr Henry Moore, a 'mimic', Alburtas and Miller jugglers, Madam Alice Esty supported by a full operatic chorus, in the 'Miserere' scene from 'Il Travatore'. Together with early films using the Hippodrome's Bioscope.
The Theatre featured all the Music Hall stars of the day such as Marie Lloyd, George Robey, Vesta Tilley, Harry Randall, Little Tich, and Nellie Wallace. Music Hall later gave way to Variety. However, by 1913 the Hippodrome had gone over to showing films and remained a cinema until 1918.
The Hippodrome was sold in March 1928 to the General Theatre Corporation which later became part of the Gaumont British chain of cinemas in May 1928.
By 1933 the Theatre presented Non Stop Variety, Revue, and Films. Also known as Cine Variety. The complete programme lasted three hours, one hour being taken up with films. It was claimed to be the biggest and best entertainment value in the south of England.
This was a difficult period for Theatre as 'talkies' were now playing cinemas. The Hippodrome reverted back to variety during the week and showed films on Sundays, as the law did not allow for theatrical performances on Sundays. Occasionally Opera and plays were presented, together with Christmas Pantomimes.
Unfortunately the Theatre was destroyed by a War time bomb in the Blitz on the 10th January 1941, resulting in its eventual demolition. An Office block was built on the site named Hippodrome House.
Right - A Google StreetView Image of Hippodrome House, on the site of the former Portsmouth Hippodrome - Click to Interact.
Later - The Coliseum Theatre / Empire Theatre
Above - A Detail from a postcard, posted in 1915, showing the Empire Theatre, Portsmouth
The Empire Theatre Portsmouth opened on Saturday the 31st of October 1891 being commissioned by The Portsmouth Empire Palace Company (formed by a group of local businessmen). The Theatre was designed by C. J. Phipps, and built by Cooke of Fratton. The Directors of the Theatre were Mr Horace Sedger, Mr Charles Coote, and Mr E. H.Warren Wright. The acting manager being Mr R.W.Steele.
Right - A typical mid 20th century programme cover for the Portsmouth Empire.
The Theatre was built of brick having two cantilevered tiers, based upon an iron frame, with concrete floors. It was built to comply with the latest fire safety regulations. The stalls and circle had comfortable seating with armrests, and was upholstered in blue plush velvet. On the audience's right was a promenade leading to a saloon, and there were two boxes either side of the proscenium arch at circle level. The Theatre's seating capacity was about 800 people with space for 300 standing, all having uninterrupted views of the stage.
The auditorium was square shaped and its colour scheme was blue/grey, ivory and gold leaf. The circle and balcony front panels were decorated with mythological figures and the ceiling had an elaborate rococo design radiating out from the central sunburner. The ceiling was fitted with trapeze fittings and tightrope fittings to the balcony fronts, for Music Hall acts. The Theatre was lit entirely by gas and the auditorium light fittings had opal shades.
Prices were:- Private boxes one guinea (one pound and 5 pence in todays money), and half a guinea (fifty two and a half pence); Circle two shillings (ten pence); Stalls one shilling (5 pence); and the gallery six pence (two and a half pence).
Above - The Auditorium of the Empire Theatre, Portsmouth from a programme for 'A Strip From Show Business', which closed the Theatre for the last time on the 30th of August 1958 - Courtesy Bob Hind.
The Theatre was formally opened on Saturday the 31st of October 1891 by the Alzando Glee singers and the Band of the first Yorkshire Regiment who tested out the properties of the auditorium's acoustics, which passed with excellent comments. The National Anthem was sung by ''Sons of Neptune'', followed by Mr G. Leyton who gave some amusing songs. Then appeared the Brothers James acrobats. Florrie Robina made her appearance and was well received, followed by Mr H. D.Burton and company in a sketch entitled 'The Burglar'. Next on the bill was Winifred Johnson a banjoist. Mr R. G.Knowles, a famous comedian, was next, followed by The Pinauds in eccentric sketches to the audience's great amusement. The Tissots then appeared as living marionettes. The Sisters Reeve duettists and dancers gave a 'bright and pretty' performance.
Dignitaries present at the opening were Mr George Adney Payne of the Canterbury, Mr Richard Warner and Mr William Oliver from London together with Mr Harry Lundy from the Alhambra, Brighton. The Theatre being crammed to capacity as the patrons of Portsmouth eagerly enjoyed their new Music Hall.
In 1900 the Empire Palace company planned a larger Theatre to replace the Empire. The ERA of the first of September 1900 reports as follows:- ''The new Portsmouth Empire, which will shortly be erected from the designs of the well known architect Mr W.G.R. Sprague, will be one of the largest and most complete halls in the provinces. The auditorium will be over 60 ft wide with a depth of 80ft from back of the pit to curtain line. The house will consist of three tiers, and will be built on the very latest up-to-date fireproof principles. In addition to many other special features, a handsome winter garden will be erected in conjunction with the hall.'
Unfortunately the licence was not granted and the plan fell through. However in 1913 the existing Empire Theatre was completed renovated and renamed the Coliseum. The auditorium was completely redecorated and the plaster mouldings picked out in English gold leaf. Two boxes were added each side of the gallery and two rows of fauteuils (plush armchair seats), were added in the front stalls area. The entrance foyer was redecorated with ornate panels added, which featured hand painted figures. The stage was 21 feet deep, and the proscenium opening 28 feet in width. The auditorium width was 56 feet by 54 feet in length. Marie Lloyd topped the bill for the re-opening.
Left - A Variety Programme for the Coliseum Theatre, Portsmouth in June 1945 - Kindly Donated by Pam Prior - On the Bill were Jack and Eddy Eden, Joe Young & Co., Sally & Revel, Reggie Retcliffe, Len Clifford & Freda, The Levane Brothers, and the 'News of the World' Darts Champions Jim Pike and Leo Newstead playing local champions.
In the 1930's Christmas Pantomime became a main feature at the Theatre, but by 1933 a resident repertory company was in residence.
After the war in the 1940's the Theatre was again redecorated and the boxes in the gallery removed. New curtaining fitted, and new upholstery to the seating carried out. In 1948 the Theatre reverted back to its original name of 'The Empire' when it flourished again until the 1950's, when it succumbed to a fall in audience numbers due to the introduction of television. Nudist shows were presented in an effort to keep it going, and there was an appearance of grand opera in 1957, 'Faust', and in 1958, 'Die Fledermaus' by the Portsmouth Grand Opera Company. However the end came in August 1958.
Right - A Programme for the last production at the Empire Theatre, Portsmouth, 'A Strip From Show Business', which closed the Theatre for the last time on the 30th of August 1958 - Courtesy Bob Hind.
It was reported that the Empire was to be demolished to make way for a supermarket as a substantial sum had been paid for the site, and that this was the main reason for the closure as the Theatre was not actually losing money. Terry Cantor was featured in the last show, 'Folies a la Parisienne,' which had been playing the Theatre for the previous six weeks with weekly variations. It was announced that the final week's performances would end on Saturday the 30th of August 1958 and would include a review of show business called 'A Strip From Show Business' with a nostalgic touch to the final bill, and that the Theatre's effects and equipment would shortly be sold at auction.
Left - Cast and Details from a Programme for the last production at the Empire Theatre, Portsmouth, 'A Strip From Show Business', which closed the Theatre for the last time on the 30th of August 1958 - Courtesy Bob Hind.
Thus another of Portsmouth's Theatres was no more, just a memory of
many happy evenings spent of wonderful entertainment, which provided
an escape for a few hours from people's daily life.
Later - The Alhambra Music Hall / New South of England Grand Palace / Barnard's Royal Amphitheatre
In 1854 William Brown took over the licence of the Blue Bell Inn (formally the Blew Bell Inn), situated in St Mary's Street Portsmouth. Like many Inns of that period, it possessed a music room where songs were sung and ale flowed. Owing to it's success, he decided to change this music room into a small Music Hall, and this was opened in 1856. It gained an unsavoury reputation though, as many fights and brawls were common place there, it's clientele being mainly sailors and soldiers.
The programme on offer for the 8th March 1858 announced a comic occultist, dancers in quadrilles and waltzes, pantomimists and 'nigger' entertainers. * Doors opened at 5pm and the performance commenced at 5.30pm.
Business was good, and by 1860 Brown decided to enlarge the building. He built a new enlarged one around the existing one, and then demolished the old hall. It only took two days closure to knock down the old hall and open the new enlarged Music Hall. Reportedly the new Hall could hold two thousand patrons. The builder was Mr H. Lawrence, and decorations were designed by C. B.Wilson. The Music Hall was heated by sixteen fires and entirely lit by gas, featuring numerous glass chandeliers. Admission was by tokens worth one and a half pence each, which could be exchanged for two pints of beer.
In 1872 the music hall was reseated and redecorated. There were two grand saloons for the audience's refreshment and a theatre orchestra of nine musicians. Prices were:-
Private boxes two shillings ( ten pence in todays
The Music Hall was sold to the London Alhambra company upon Brown's retirement in 1873 who then renamed it the Alhambra Music Hall. However, in 1878 the Hall caught fire after the performance had finished and was closed for the night. The fire originated in Mr Tilly's soap factory next door to the Hall. Some male members of the company appearing there were relaxing at the front of the Hall when Mr Egerton smelt fire. Raising the alarm it was discovered that the Balcony was on fire, with flames dancing along the private boxes and gallery fronts. The stage was well alight as were the lower floor. The female artists were asleep in bedrooms inside the building and there was difficulty in awakening them, however fortunately they all got out and there were no fatalities. The local fire brigade attended, but the Hall and adjoining soap factory were well alight. The fire's advance was checked when it reached the stone walling separating the auditorium from the front of house. The bar parlour, main entrance, stairs adjoining the ticket office, the ticket office itself, and various offices, including Mr H.C.Hughes, the proprietor, were all saved. It was quickly announced, early on Friday, that performances would be held at the nearby Princes Theatre for the foreseeable future.
Various artists who were part of the company appearing at the Music hall lost their apparatus and properties in the fire. Many of them were uninsured. Murray and White lost musical instruments to the value of £150. 'Avalo' lost £120 worth of equipment. The Cawthorne Brothers lost £30 worth of goods and Miss Leonora Gray lost costly dresses which were burnt. The only insured actor was Mr Egerton who's property amounted to a loss of £100 worth of wardrobe and music.
A new replacement Theatre was built and opened within a year and named the 'New South of England Grand Palace', with an audience capacity of 3,000 people. The new Theatre consisted of orchestral stalls, pit, a tier of boxes and gallery. The new Theatre thrived and all the famous music hall artists of the day appeared there.
The Theatre was not rebuilt after this fire.
Later - The Palladium Cinema / Bolloms Store / Blundells Store
This Music Hall was situated at the corner of Lake Road and Leonard Street, Portsmouth and was built in 1884 by Frank Pearce. The lease changed hands in 1886 when Harry Vento took over and thus the name of the Music Hall, 'Vento's Temple of Varieties'. It was a rough and ready house, it's clientele were allowed to bring in fish and chips, oranges, nuts, etc., which no doubt could be used as ammunition against turns which did not meet their approval. The Music Hall had no flying facilities, and the front curtain rolled up and down on a roller system. Each act was announced on a board placed on an easel on the side of the stage.
In 1891 Vento stopped paying the rent to Mr Pearce the owner, as the local authority were unable to renew the licence due to the Hall's condition. Vento stated that it was the owner's duty to refurbish the Music Hall and to ensure that it was in a fit state for purpose. The situation ended in a court case, which Vento lost. Mr Pearce had the Music Hall redecorated and made ready to run it himself, however on the day it was due to re-open it caught fire and was destroyed.
The Hall was rebuilt and featured many of the well known top artists of the day. However, by 1910 it had become a cinema and renamed 'The Palladium'. During the 1940's the building lay derelict and later became Bolloms and later Blundells, both stores, until the building was finally demolished in 1980.
This building was situated in Commercial Road, Portsmouth adjacent to the Town Station. Originally a circus in 1881, it was rebuilt and renamed a number of times but never seemed to last for very long in any of its incarnations.
The Saint George's Hall was situated near St George's Church in Ordnance Row, Portsmouth and is mentioned in 1868 as being owned by Mr G.A. Atkins. It seems to have had a single gallery, and did indeed present Opera. Miss Laura Pyne's Comic Opera Company presented 'Poor as a Rat' by Summer, and 'The Treasure found by the Lamp Light' by Offenbach.
These were situated in Pembroke Road, Portsmouth. A poster of 1842 announced 'The Great Wizard', 'Transformation and Cabalistic Conjurations,' 'Peruvian Sacrifice with the mysteries of Vesta, Goddess of fire,' and 'The Wonderful Gun Delusion', a magicians programme.
Later - Landport Theatre
This Theatre, situated at 20 Mary-le-Bon Street Portsmouth, was opened in March 1843 by Mr T. E. Ball. The building also had a pawnbroker's business on the premises. However, before a licence was granted for the Music Hall, the pawnbroker business had to be removed. Mr William Shalders was the Stage Manager. The Theatre held approximately 700 people, and variety, music, and dancing were presented. It also presented 'Dissolving Views' obtained by using Oxy-hydogen lime light.
The Theatre had been renamed the 'Landport Theatre' by 1845, Mr Samuel Hogg now being licensee. The Theatre now presented mainly plays and melodrama's. However, Mr Hogg went bankrupt in 1850, which resulted in the end of this Theatre.
This hall was situated in Lion Terrace, Portsmouth, and showed mainly moving panorama's, created by the use of 'rolling' scenery in one long length, wound from one side of the stage to the other, and using dramatic lighting and sound effects. Later music hall acts were also presented.
Some of the archive newspaper reports for this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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