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The Westminster Theatre, 12 Palace Street, London SW1

Now - The St. James Theatre

A history of the Site of the Westminster Theatre

The Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh

Above - The Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh

The Westminster Theatre at 12, Palace Street, Westminster, opened as a Live Theatre the day before the Saville Theatre, on the 7th of October 1931, with a production of James Bridie's 'The Anatomist' directed by Tyrone Guthrie. However, the Theatre was actually originally built as a chapel called the Charlotte Chapel by the Rev Dr William Dodd in 1766 (See image below.)

The Charlotte Chapel - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

Above - The Charlotte Chapel - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

The St. James' Picture Theatre, the forerunner to the Westminster Theatre, just before its opening in 1923. The architect J. Stanley Beard is the right hand figure in front of the building Over the years the Chapel became more and more dilapidated and less and less used and was eventually sold on and converted into a Cinema by J. Stanley Beard who reconstructed the interior and built a new frontage.

The Cinema which was called the St. James' Picture Theatre opened in 1924.

Right - The St. James' Picture Theatre, the forerunner to the Westminster Theatre, just before its opening in 1923. The architect J. Stanley Beard is the right hand figure in front of the building - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

In 1931 the Cinema came into the hands of A. B. Horne or Anmer Hall as he was later known, who set about turning it into a Live Theatre. The original Crypt of the Chapel was turned into dressing rooms, a green room, and the Stalls Bar, and the auditorium was redecorated by Miss Molly MacArthur in pinks, blues, and cream with 'Elephant Grey' carpets.

The Westminster Theatre's auditorium was built on two levels, Stalls and one Circle, the circle had boxes at the rear, and there were also two stage boxes.

 

A 1970s Seating Plan for the Westminster Theatre

Above - A 1970s Seating Plan for the Westminster Theatre

 

A Tea Towel made from pure linen and produced to commemorate the opening of the New Westminster Theatre Arts Centre in 1966 - Very kindly donated by Dixie Cheek.The Theatre was converted into an Arts Centre in 1966 and opened on the 26th of November that year with a performance of the new British musical, "It's Our Country, jack!" The conversion involved incorporating an adjoing site, almost as large as the Theatre itself, and building new Foyer spaces, dressing rooms, a restaurant, and re-cladding the exterior in Welsh slate. There is more information on this 1966 conversion furthur down on this page.

Left - A Tea Towel made from pure linen and produced to commemorate the opening of the New Westminster Theatre Arts Centre in 1966 - Very kindly donated by Dixie Cheek who found it in pristine condition in a secondhand store in Bellingham USA. The Inscription on the front of the Theatre in the illustration reads: 'Westminster Theatre. Mr Brown Comes Down The Hill. Peter Howard.' This was a play by Peter Howard about how Christ would have been received had he turned up in the 1960s.

The last production at the Westminster Theatre was False Impressions' 'Illusion' (See Flyers Below.) The Theatre closed down quite suddenly after campaigners lost their six year fight to save the building from demolition and rebuilding into flats and a small studio Theatre replacement.

 

The last production at the Westminster Theatre

A Flyer for the False Impressions production of 'Illusion' which was the last production at the Westminster Theatre before it closed and was subsequently destroyed by fire on the 27th June 2002 - Courtesy Richard Leigh. A Flyer for the False Impressions production of 'Illusion' which was the last production at the Westminster Theatre before it closed and was subsequently destroyed by fire on the 27th June 2002 - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

Above - A Flyer for the False Impressions production of 'Illusion' which was the last production at the Westminster Theatre before it closed and was subsequently destroyed by fire on the 27th June 2002 - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

Details of the rebuild

Demolition work began in February 2002 but was halted when fire broke out and destroyed what remained of the Theatre on the 27th June 2002, only the dressing rooms survived.

The remains of the Westminster Theatre after fire destroyed the building on the 27th June 2002 - Photo M. L. The remains of the Westminster Theatre after fire destroyed the building on the 27th June 2002 - Photo M. L.

Above - The remains of the Westminster Theatre after fire destroyed the building on the 27th June 2002

Years of wrangling then took place concerning the site of the Westminster and at times it seemed uncertain weather a replacement Theatre would ever happen. At one point it looked like the replacement would be built for the black theatre company Talawa but when that idea came to nothing the Theatre's future looked even worse.

The site of the Westminster Theatre in September 2008 during building work - Photo M.L

Above - The site of the Westminster Theatre in September 2008 during building work - Photo M.L

Since the loss of the original Theatre and the fire, the Theatres Trust and Save London's Theatres Campaign had fought continuously for nearly a decade, and in May 2009 it seemed their efforts had finally been rewarded.

 

An artist's impression of the new Westminster Theatre.Westminster Council granted planning permission for a 350 seat main Theatre and a second smaller 260 capacity Studio Theatre to be built on the site, which would also include a 100-cover restaurant which it was hoped would fund the running of the Theatres, much like the very successful Menier Chocolate Factory in London Bridge. The new Westminster Theatre was to be run by a new theatre Company; 'London Aloft' whose business plan and design for the Theatre gave the planning committee confidence to agree to an additional floor of penthouses in order to add sufficient value to fit out the Theatre. Prior to their involvement the Developer and Council had been at stalemate for many years. The Theatres themselves were to be designed by the architect Tim Foster.

Right - An artist's impression of the new Westminster Theatre.

It was hoped that the new Westminster Theatre would finally be open for business in late 2010 but this did not come to pass, and although the housing was completed the Theatre spaces remained empty and undeveloped for several more years. Sadly 'London Aloft', who were preparing for the Theatre's opening season in 2010, and had done three years work on the planning of the building, and who had also had a lease agreed under the Sec 106 agreement, were then unceremoniously dumped from the project by the Developer. The Stage described this decision as 'controversial' and Private Eye were less than complimentary about the proposed new operating company.

The St. James Theatre nearing completion in the spring of 2012 - Photo Rob Cable - Courtesy Lucy French, Director of Development for the TheatreEventually the new revised design was given planning permission however, and the replacement Theatre was finally constructed. The Theatre, which would open in September 2012, and be named the St. James Theatre, was the first newly built Theatre complex to be constructed in central London for 30 years and was designed by the architects Foster Wilson with the interior design by Lambart & Browne.

Left - The St. James Theatre nearing completion in the spring of 2012 - Photo Rob Cable - Courtesy Lucy French, Director of Development for the Theatre.

 

There now follows several articles (and many images) about the Westminster Theatre, celebrating the Theatre's conversion into the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre in 1966. The material is from a souvenir book produced to celebrate the Theatre's reopening, kindly loaned to the site by Richard Leigh whose False Impressions production of 'Illusion' was the last production at the Westminster Theatre before it closed and was subsequently destroyed by fire on the 27th June 2002.

Two Hundred Years of History - From a Westminster Arts Centre Souvenir Book celebrating its reopening in 1966

The Auditorium of the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh

Above - The Auditorium of the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh

The Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre which many of the articles and images on this page are sourced - Courtesy Richard Leigh.The Westminster owes its origin to one of the more colourful characters of the eighteenth century, the Rev Dr William Dodd. Dr. Dodd, popular preacher, man of letters, social reformer and unsuccessful playwright, became Chaplain to King George III in 1763. In 1766, with the aid of his wife's winnings in a lottery and a legacy, he built the Charlotte Chapel. It was a great success, with the Queen and the Court in regular attendance.

Right - The Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre which many of the articles and images on this page are sourced - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

Eight years later, however, Mrs Dodd tried to bribe the Lord Chancellor to give her husband a better living. Dr Dodd was forced to sell his Chapel and flee the country. When he returned he went from bad to worse, and the Newgate Calendar says, "he descended so low as to become the editor of a newspaper".

Plans of the Westminster Theatre at Foyer and Restaurant Level in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.He became more and more extravagant and finally, by an act of irreparable folly, committed forgery in the name of his old pupil and benefactor the Earl of Chesterfield, for the sum of £4,200. Forgery was still a capital offense. In spite of many efforts to save him, the King was adamant and Dr. Dodd was hanged at Tyburn in June 1777.

The Chapel that he built, however, is now the Westminster Theatre.

It remained a Chapel until it was closed in 1921. A company was set up to convert it into a cinema, and in 1923 the St James' Picture Theatre was opened. Designed by J. Stanley Beard, it was then the last word in West End cinemas.

Eight years later Anmer Hall transformed it into a theatre, named after his old school. It opened in October 1931 with James Bridie's The Anatomist, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, in which Flora Robson achieved a striking success.

Left - Plans of the Westminster Theatre at Foyer and Restaurant Level in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

The theatre was bought by the Westminster Memorial Trust in April 1946 as a memorial to men in Moral Rearmament who gave their lives in the War. Since then the Trust has either put on plays of its own choosing or has, at times, let the theatre out to other companies. It has been running the present series of plays since 1961, and will continue to do so indefinitely.

The first production put on by the Trust in 1946 was Alan Thornhill's The Forgotten Factor, which a President of the United States described as "the greatest play to come out of the War". It dealt with issues of home and industry, and people still come to the Westminster who vividly remember seeing it.

The opening of the Arts Centre in November 1966 began a new chapter in the Theatre's history, filled with far reaching possibilities in many fields.

 

How the Arts Centre Began - From a Westminster Arts Centre Souvenir Book celebrating its reopening in 1966

The Foyer of the Westminster Theatre in 1966 looking towards the mosaic mural, and showing the panels of Sudan leather on the right - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

Above - The Foyer of the Westminster Theatre in 1966 looking towards the mosaic mural, and showing the panels of Sudan leather on the right - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

The Box Office at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.The Westminster Theatre has been making a unique contribution in recent years through its plays and films, its conferences, forums and publications, and in its many other activities.

Right - The Box Office at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

In an age of mounting violence and conflict, it has shown how to answer bitterness and bridge division; at a time when industry has been called on for increased productivity in the face of many difficulties, it has put new zest and a will to win into workers and management; in a period when human values have been under attack, it has stood for faith and moral standards adequate to meet the stresses of our day. The drama of despair has little appeal to men and women faced with the vast opportunities and daunting dangers of today. They welcome a theatre which goes beyond probing problems to point the road of an answer.

The productions at the Westminster, from tragedy to pantomime, from high spirited musicals to the drama of ideas, have offered entertainment -and much more besides. They have presented a theatre of humanity and hope and constructive ideas.

The Westminster Theatre Cinema which was actually the restaurant most of the time - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.So great has been the response that the Westminster has recently doubled the size of its buildings and created the new Westminster Theatre Arts Centre.

Left - The Westminster Theatre Cinema in 1966, which was actually the restaurant most of the time - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

In particular, the Westminster has drawn in the younger generation of our own country and Commonwealth, and of many other lands, and also the industrial workers and management of Britain. They have come in their thousands: the students and young people to find a positive programme and hope for their lives and their countries; the men of industry to find the secret of new initiatives that can lift Britain into the leadership she is meant to offer the modern world. It was a Clydeside shop steward who said, "The Westminster gives men of industry fresh ideas and frees them from old prejudices."

The Restaurant of the Westminster Theatre in 1966 , which was able to be converted into a Cinema and Conference Hall - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.The Westminster has carried drama beyond the theatre, and has aimed to make it part of life in direct ways. More than 300 weekend conferences have been held in the past seven years on how to apply the ideas of Moral Re-Armament in the plays to the national issues of the day.

Right - The Restaurant of the Westminster Theatre in 1966 , which was able to be converted into a Cinema and Conference Hall - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

As time went on, it became apparent that the Westminster needed a range of new facilities to help realise its aims enlarged foyer space, a restaurant and cinema, library, kitchens, conference rooms, and better accommodation for the actors who serve the theatre so well.

The Westminster Theatre Kitchen in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.Four years ago the Trustees began to plan, in consultation with Peter Howard, to build on the land beside the theatre which they already owned, and which was almost as large as the area of the theatre itself.

Left - The Westminster Theatre Kitchen in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

Through the brilliant work of the architects, John and Sylvia Reid, they have realised a building of beauty and many-sided usefulness which is a pioneer in its field. It is a masterpiece of planning in the space available, and gives a sense of spacious welcome to all who come. More than fifty countries have contributed to the building of the Arts Centre, which was opened in November, 1966.

 

The Architects View by John & Sylvia Reid - From a Westminster Arts Centre Souvenir Book celebrating its reopening in 1966

The Safety Curtain at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

Above - The Safety Curtain at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

The design and construction of the new Westminster Theatre Arts Centre could hardly have presented a greater challenge. It called for a wealth of complex services and posed many planning problems. It required the alteration and partial reconstruction of a much altered eighteenth century building and the construction of an entirely new one alongside which, in the end, had to blend into one complex.

A dressing room at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.The involved variations in levels was further complicated by the underground river which runs diagonally across the site. The physical difficulties of working on a restricted site whilst making major structural alterations to an old building were both interesting and exasperating.

Right - A dressing room at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

To begin with, the requirements for the new Centre called for rather more accommodation than could be contained within the volume of building that we were permitted to construct. The first task therefore was to devise methods of increasing the utilisation of the space available. Thus the Foyer, which provides a generous circulation space for theatregoers, has dimensions similar to those of the stage area which permits its use as a rehearsal area. Similarly the Restaurant can also be used as a lecture theatre and cinema.

The Green Room at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.A cardboard model was required to explain the spatial relationships that had been evolved. Only after these had proved acceptable to the Trustees were the services and structural engineers consulted to see if the building could in fact be achieved owing to the site complications.

Left - The Green Room at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

The result is a structure based on reinforced concrete piles with cantilevered foundations and a mixture of load-bearing walls and reinforced concrete frame for the lower part of the building, whilst the upper part hangs from lattice girders of high tensile steel in order to achieve the clear span required over the Conference area.

 Photograph of the 14 foot in diameter Brick Tunnel which carries the Tyburn River diagonally under the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre, during construction work in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.Many new techniques have been developed especially for this building. The method of employing slate for the external cladding, for example, developed from a study of the logical applications of the typical properties of the material as applied to the specific problems of this building.

Materials and finishes throughout the building have been chosen for their suitability and for case of maintenance. A high standard of amenity has been set and the Dressing Rooms are probably among the best equipped in existence.

Right - Photograph of the 14 foot in diameter Brick Tunnel which carries the Tyburn River diagonally under the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre, during construction work in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

The building has been conceived as a complete entity and even carpets and crockery have been designed as part of this whole.

It is fitting that as the Architects we should speak of the teamwork and cooperation that have contributed to this venture.

We hope that the new Centre will live up to the expectation of all who have given it such able support. We consider it a great privilege to have been able to take part in this exciting venture.

 

Opening the Arts Centre - From a Westminster Arts Centre Souvenir Book celebrating its reopening in 1966

The Tapestry Room at the Westminster Theatre in 1966The opening of the Arts Centre was on Saturday, 26 November, 1966, by Shri Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and close friend of Peter Howard, before a crowded assembly from thirty three countries.

Right - The Tapestry Room at the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - Caption Reads: 'Showing gifts from the United States: a beautiful Seventeenth Century Flemish tapestry and a portrait of Peter Howard by the British born artist Erling Roberts. The room is a favourite meeting place for students night by night after the play, as well as providing a gracious reception room for the use of the Trust.' - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

After unveiling the memorial stone to Peter Howard, Mr Gandhi declared the building open. "A voice will go out from this Centre", he said, "to which all humanity will respond."

Mrs R M S Barrett then unveiled the plaque commemorating the gift of the Welsh slate, while the Aber Valley Male Voice Choir sang the Welsh National Anthem. His Excellency Sayed Buth Din from the Sudan unveiled one of the panels of the Sudan leather.

The Lighting Control Room in the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.The whole assembly then entered the Arts Centre and took their places in the theatre which was crowded to the door. The first act in the new Arts Centre was its dedication by the Bishop of Colchester, the Rt Rev Roderic N Coote, DD.

Left - The Lighting Control Room in the Westminster Theatre in 1966 - From a Souvenir Book for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre - Courtesy Richard Leigh.

Part of Mr Rajmohan Gandhi's address to the assembly will be found on a following page. After he had spoken, Peter Howard's four grandchildren came up on to the stage and presented him with one of their grandfather's favourite books.

Mrs Howard and her daughter and son-in-law, Mr and Mrs Wolrige Gordon, also addressed the Assembly. Other speakers included the Architect, Mr John Reid, youth from the Commonwealth and trade union speakers who presented a message from trade unionists all over Britain.

In the evening an inaugural dinner was held in the restaurant for a hundred and seventy-two guests. The Guest of Honour was His Highness Prince Richard of Hesse, for many years a friend of Peter Howard and of Dr Frank Buchman.

Afterwards, the guests from all parts of the world assembled in the theatre for a special performance of the new British musical, "It's Our Country, jack!"

Much of the text and many of the images above are from the Souvenir Book produced for the opening of the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre in 1966 and are Courtesy Richard Leigh whose False Impressions production of 'Illusion' was the last production at the Westminster Theatre before it closed and was subsequently destroyed by fire on the 27th June 2002.