The Holborn Empire, 242/243 High Holborn
Formerly - Weston's Music Hall / The Royal Music Hall / New Royal Music Hall / The Royal Holborn Theatre of Varieties
Above Left - The Holborn Empire in its heyday - Courtesy Peter Charlton - And Right - The Site of the Holborn Empire in 2008 - Photo M.L.
There were a succession of successful Music Halls and Theatres on this site from the mid 1800s up until the Second World War when the Holborn Empire was bombed and then subsequently demolished in 1960. There is more on the Holborn Empire below. There now follows a chronological history of the site.
Originally on the site was a small tavern called the 'Six Cans and Punch Bowl,' where, from the early 1800s, sing-songs and harmonic meetings were held in the parlour of the tavern. In 1835 Henry Weston became the licensee of the tavern and in the late 1840s he obtained the Holborn National Hall Schools which were next door and set about converting them into a large and elegant music hall to be called 'Weston's Music Hall.'
Right - For more images of Holborn and London's lost Streets see the Disappearing London page here.
Above - The Interior of Weston's Music Hall.
Weston's Music Hall opened on the 16th of November 1857 and was so successful that Charles Morton was encouraged enough to set about building a new Music Hall himself, on Oxford Street. This incensed Henry Weston who tried to obtain an injunction to Morton's plans, but Weston was unsuccessful and the Oxford Music Hall was built.
The day after Weston's opened The ERA printed a report of the building, reprinted in Mander & Mitchenson's 'Lost Theatres of London' which read:
"The inauguration of the Weston Music Hall, at 242, High Holborn, was celebrated with considerable eclat on Friday (yesterday) evening. Upwards of 300 visitors sat down to an elegant repast consisting of all the delicacies of the season; and the supply of wines was an excellent vintage.
Edward Huggins, Esq., of the well-known Brewery firm had kindly consented to take the chair, and took his seat in the hall at a few minutes past five o'clock. At his right hand were seated Messrs. Henry Weston and Thos. Wm. Flavel, solicitors to Messrs. Reid and Co. On the immediate left was Mr. Alderman Wire and several other friends.
Right - The original Hammer of Weston's Music Hall presented by P.Corri to his friend Fred Trotman, 21st October 1869 - (Image reproduced with kind permission - Mr. Charles Sharpe) Click for more images of the hammer.
The interior of the building is well worthy the inspection of every inhabitant and visitor to London. It is so far advanced that it is intended to open it next Monday. It has been designed by Messrs. Finch, Hill, and Paraire, architects, of No. 1, St. Swithin's Lane, City. The length of the hall is 103 feet, and the width, forty; in height we have thirty-five feet. Longitudinally the building is divided into ten compartments by highly-decorated beams, with shields in the centres, and bunches of flowers. Due ventilation is afforded by a variety of trellissed panels and coffers in ceiling and wall. There is a commodious gallery, projecting six feet from the side walls, and on the northern end of the room, on the same level as the gallery, there is a supper-room. The front of this gallery stands out in bold relief, and is remarkably conspicuous. It is highly embellished with ornamental work in relief, representing natural foliage, and at intervals emblazoned shields, with monograms on their fronts, and surrounded by scroll-work relieved by gilding. The gallery is supported by twelve iron columns. The walls throughout are decorated by panel painting, admirably executed in imitation of fresco, by Messrs. Homann and Beensen, of Charrington Street, Camden Town. At the orchestra end of the hall, beyond the proscenium, a large amount of decoration is bestowed on the wall. In its centre is a large semi-circular arch, the pilasters and spandrels of which are painted with subjects in colour, and over it is a tasteful representation, in alto-relievo, of Tragedy and Comedy. The hall is lighted with five magnificent glass chandeliers, furnished by Messrs. Defries, the well known firm of Houndsditch. The central one weighs nearly one ton, and is eleven feet in diameter. Messrs. Patrick and Sons, of Westminster Road, were the general contractors for the work, which, we are bound to say, has been brought to so successful a termination.
The musical arrangements were entrusted to the full members of the company, but under the arrangement of Mr. John Caulfield, late of the Canterbury Hall. Misses Eva Brett, Pearce, and Mrs. Caulfield, with Messrs. G. Allen (who was deservedly encored in 'The Merry Men of England'), Parkinson, Corri, S. Heartley, and Matz, all united efficiently to produce sufficient entertainment, in this respect, during the entire evening. When the cloth was withdrawn, the National Anthem was sung, and the usual loyal and patriotic toasts were given and responded to.
Mr. Weston shortly afterwards came forward, and replied to the toast. His appearance upon the platform, or stage proscenium, was the signal for loud and long-continued applause, in return for which he bowed repeatedly. When silence had been sufficiently restored, he stated that he had been highly complimented by the worthy chairman who had proposed his health, and as equally gratified at the heartfelt response which the public had made to it. As regards his feelings upon the present occasion, when he saw himself surrounded as so young a man, he most certainly ought to feel proud. They had rallied round him in the most handsome manner, and he should never forget it. Whenever they chose to repeat the visit, he should feel highly delighted to see them, and he would do all in his power to make them comfortable and happy.
Mr. Alderman Wire mentioned that he took the opportunity of proposing a toast, which was as agreeable for him so to do, as for the company to receive, viz. 'The health of their worthy chairman, Mr. Huggins.' But before he remarked further upon that topic he (the speaker) might be allowed to give his countenance and approval of the step taken by his friend Mr. Weston. They were met there to inaugurate a magnificent building, which was intended to be devoted to the amusement of the people, with a strict regard to the decencies of life; and thus realie and participate in the high mental enjoyment of the higher classes. If such means of opportunity for rational enjoyment were afforded they ought eagerly to be embraced, as the free right of the public. From all he anticipated of the future, he might be allowed to prophesy that none would come within the compass of these walls but what would depart gratified. As to proper conductorship, when the fact became known throughout London that Mr. Weston had invested between £8,000 and £9,000 in the speculation, that would surely be received as an indubitable guarantee that such would be the case. He (Mr. Alderman Wire) would now recur to the toast which it was his present duty to propose, viz. 'The Health of Mr. Huggins, their worthy and respected Chairman.' All knew his sterling commercial integrity-his high vindication of all that was good, useful, and talented; and in saying this it was surely his best recommendation to their notice. (Loud cheers)."
Weston's - Mr. Arthur Lloyd, a universal favourite, and one of the best of the comic singing brotherhood, was most cordially greeted by troops of his friends assembled for his benefit, at Weston's Music Hall, on Monday night. Extra attractions were liberally put forth, and a programme of remarkable attractiveness was submitted to the personal friends of the popular singer and the general public. It would be alike impossible and unnecessary to mention all the performances of the evening in detail, but Mr. Lloyd's own doings must command special attention.
His burlesque drama, Mugget's Brook, is useful in proving his talent in a style of Music Hall entertainment always acceptable to the million. Mr. Lloyd is not only a competent actor, but in the matter of quick changes he is marvelously expert. A great amount of practice and technical knowledge becomes necessary before any performer can hope to excel in this particular, and we can compliment Mr. Lloyd upon his undoubted proficiency in the new line of business he has apparently struck out for himself . There is nothing whatever original in the performance, but it is impossible for any burlesque sketch to be given with greater neatness and expression than is Mugget's Brook, Several characters are introduced - the first of them a venerable female supposed to be the mother of a very flaxen - haired divinity called Clara. There is, of course the virtuous lover - by name Dick Donkey - and a vicious Squire Marchmont, who employs Bertolo, a worsted - ringleted bravo, to waylay the buxom Clara at the bridge over the Brook. Beitolo (in the dummy form) is slaughtered by the muscular Donkey, and Mr. Lloyd makes his farewell bow.
On Monday night he was called forward by acclamation, and delivered a poetical address to the audience, thanking them for their sympathy and expressing the amiable things usual on these occasions. Mr. Lloyd alluded to an onslaught made upon him some time ago in the pages of' a periodical, and has certainly cause to congratulate himself upon Possessing thousands of' friends to one "detractor," as he described the individual. Among those who appeared during the evening were Harry and Katie King, a clever boy, and an equally clever girl. H. K. must very soon expect to be Called a young man and the days of childhood are fast drawing to a close for his pretty little sister. The two Kings do not desert Libernian songs and dances, but give both with greater spirit than ever The selection from Lucia di Lammermoor was performed by the efficient company here, and the bill for the evening contained the names of many celebrities of the Music Hall platform.
See also: Arthur's Benefit at the Royal after returning from the USA
See also: 'A night at Weston's
Weston's Music Hall was renamed The Royal Music Hall on the 30th of November 1868 after John Samuel Sweasey had bought it from Weston's son Edward in 1866 for £16,000 and then sold it to W. T. Perkiss. During all this time the hall had remained virtually unchanged but on July the 18th 1887 the Royal Music Hall closed and was completely rebuilt.
Right - Programme for The Royal, Holborn (Late Weston's) - Courtesy Peter Charlton.
The New Royal Music Hall as it was to be known for a short time before the 'new' was dropped, opened on the 12th of September 1887, still under the management of W. T. Perkiss, and The ERA duly printed a review of the new hall in its 17th of September 1887 edition, reprinted in Mander & Mitchenson's 'Lost Theatres of London,' which read:
"It is quite unnecessary to describe the architectural beauties of the New Royal, which now rears its head on the site, with added space, of the building long known as Weston's; suffice it to say that the handsome and well-proportioned new temple of variety built under the practical directions of Mr. W. T. Purkiss will compare favourably with any in the metropolitan area, and is but another instance that the taste for a music hall or vaudeville entertainment spreads, in spite of the grandmotherly restrictions that hedge round caterers and do much to prevent that further improvement in the staple known as 'variety' which is equally desired by managers, artistes, and the public.
Mr. Purkiss has contrived the new hall so that all within can both see and hear. A wide and spacious balcony, supported by pillars, overhangs a comfortable pit; the stalls, elegantly upholstered in blue velvet, as of old, slope down to the orchestra, stained glass is largely used at the exits and entrances, which are plentiful; and the building is constructed of fire-proof material as far as possible. An essential difference has been made in the size of the stage, which is extensive enough, and with every facility for producing ballet or spectacle.
The new grand ballet divertissement which marks the renewed career of the 'Royal' is entitled Civilisation, one of the scenes of this, an exquisite mountain bit by Calcott, with real waterfall, proving the possibilities of the enlarged stage and increased mechanical facilities. The principal strength of the entertainment lies in the favourite serio and comic singers interspersed throughout the programme.
Right - Benefit notice for Arthur Lloyd at the Royal, Holborn - From The Entr'acte of Oct 20th 1900.
Mr. Tom Bass makes an early commencement with humorous songs and patter. He is an old Royal favourite, and his engagement under the new condition of things seems to give a good deal of satisfaction. Miss Katie Seymour once again elicited the warm admiration of her rapidly increasing legion of admirers for her very delightful exhibition of stepdancing. Most fascinatingly dressed, the Sisters Williams asserted their claim to the favouritism which will surely be theirs with such pretty faces and agreeable style of singing. Mr. Frank Travis's very interesting old gentleman of ninety sings rather vigorously considering his age; but The Colonel's Evening Party, at which he arrives in due course without any legs, has other guests, who voiced by the clever ventriloquist, entertain the audience with conversation, witticisms, and songs that are always in good taste.
Above - Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall.
Some who follow Mr. Travis's line of entertainment display, unhappily, much anxiety to pander to the tastes of the more vulgar in an audience. As given at the Royal, his show is happily free from this grave fault, and the hearty laughter and applause heard during the 'conversations' of his figures abundantly testified to the fact that success can be won by legitimate means, provided always that sufficient ability be displayed.
As a step-dancer Miss Lottie Collins occupies a prominent position on the music hall stage. Mr. Sam Adams has wisely secured her services here, and she is already a great favourite. Mr. Sam Torr, besides his Salvation Army skit, has other songs in his budget that are highly relished; and we again listened with the greatest pleasure to Mr. and Mrs. Watson, in their truly refined entertainment. The audience showed their good taste by encoring Mrs. Watson in her Tyrolean melody, which she sings charmingly. Miss Topsy Venn returns to revive memories of the old Strand some fourteen or fifteen years since. Time has amplified her figure, but has otherwise dealt gently with her. Her voice still preserves its freshness, and she is as active and agile as of yore. She sang on Tuesday, the night of our visit, 'A Matter of Taste,' and also gave a contribution of the American song and dance order which merited the applause it received.
Left - Arthur Lloyd at the Royal, Holborn - From The Entr'acte review of December the 15th, 1900.
Messrs. De Voy, Le Clercq, and company contribute their funny sketch Down goes the Lever, little Le Clercq's comicalities being, as a matter of course, heartily laughed at; Mr. G. H. Macdermott, the favourite actor-vocalist, sings 'The Wild, Wild West,' 'Jubilation,' and 'I'd have done it;' the Sisters St. Felix have reduced step-dancing to a fine art, and give an entertainment that has rightly met with the appreciation of the British public; and the programme closes with the duets of the Sisters Collins.
The courteous Mr. Sam Adams, assisted by Mr. Tom CarIton, looks after the general management of the front of the house, whilst a good chairman has been found in Mr. W. B. Fair. To give eclat to the opening night (Monday) the Covent Garden choir of boys and girls sang the National Anthem, after which Mr. Gwyllym Crowe conducted his latest and prettiest waltz, with an increased orchestra, and the chorus in tasteful costumes.
The new Royal, with its roomy staircases, its plentiful outlets, and its set of sprinklers over the stage, seems built for safety. Its comfort is luxurious, and good ventilation-that vexed question of sanitation-would seem to be secured by a sliding roof, and by two air-propellers, each of which will remove 30,000 cubic feet of air per minute."
Text in quotes above from the 17th of September 1887 edition of the ERA.
The Royal Music Hall had a very successful career, with many stars making their early appearances. It was here that Bessie Bellwood, 'the most exuberant serio of the halls,' made one of her first appearances, and was told that she was 'too quiet!'
The Royal Music Hall was reconstructed and redecorated in 1892 and its name was changed to The Royal Holborn Theatre of Varieties. This was to have a successful but short career as a Variety Theatre. In 1896 the building was sold at auction along with the public house next door, the former 'Six Cans and Punch Bowl' Tavern, by then known as 'The Royal,' for £40,500. The purchaser was Mr. John Brill who then set about rebuilding the frontage to incorporate both buildings and this was accomplished by the architect Ernest Runtz. However, this new incarnation was not to last and the Theatre closed in June 1905 when it was sold to Walter Gibbons.
Above - The Holborn Empire in its heyday - Courtesy Peter Charlton
The Holborn Empire was brought into existence when the whole of the former Royal Holborn Theatre of Varieties was demolished apart from its Holborn Frontage. The Theatre was completely rebuilt to the designs of the renowned Theatre Architect Frank Matcham and opened on the 29th of January 1906. The Theatre cost £30,000 to build and on opening had a capacity of nearly 2,000 people.
Right - A Variety Programme for the Holborn Empire for Monday October the 10th 1921.
A couple of days before the opening the ERA printed a report of the new Theatre in its 27th of January 1906 edition saying:- 'The old Royal Music Hall has been closed since June, and, during that period, the whole of the building, with the exception of the frontage to Holborn, has been pulled down and rebuilt, from the designs of Messrs. Frank Matcham and Co., architects.
Mr. Gibbons, the proprietor, has shown great enterprise in such a venture, and he has given his architects instructions practically carte blanche to make the Royal the handsomest and most comfortable hall in London, and it will be seen from a visit how well his wishes have been carried out.
The old building was approached practically level from the street, and was a one-tier house, containing a balcony only over the ground-floor.
The architects were met with most unusual difficulties in the planning of the hall, as, among other troubles, rights of ancient lights prevented the raising of the new building above the old level, and to obtain the usual number of tiers required it was necessary to lower the building to the basement, and to utilise the old cellars that existed, and were practically useless. This has enabled them to erect a much larger hall than could have been anticipated, considering the room that has to be given up for the number of exits and staircases required to carry on successfully two performances a night, as it is Mr. Gibbons' intention not only to do this, but to give matinees every day during the week.
The striking difference between the new and the old Royal will engage the attention of those who had a knowledge of the old building immediately they enter, for the stage, which was originally on the left-hand side, is now immediately facing the entrance.
The levels of the hall have been so altered that the visitor now enters direct from the street into the grand circle, and descends to the stalls on both sides; but owing to the level of Whetstone Park (at the rear) being considerably lower than Holborn, the occupants of the stalls can make their exit on the same level as their seats, in a similar manner to the patrons of the grand circle, who exit practically on a level with Holborn.
Although the frontages of the Empire remain the same as before, the alteration of the position of the stage and the absorption of the oyster-bar in Holborn into the music hall scheme has enabled the architects to more than double the number of exits, which of course was necessary in consequence of the increased accommodation.
Left - Details from a variety Programme for the Holborn Empire on Monday October the 10th 1921.
The principal entrance is from Holborn through the existing outer vestibule, the walls of which remain in Faience, but with artistic Mosaic panels introduced, representing music, singing, &c. The floor is covered with cube Mosaic, and the ceiling is panelled out and decorated with an art panel in the centre.
Entering the inner vestibule through pairs of polished mahogany doors, we find the commencement of the new order of things, the walls being formed with white and green marble, in bands, with a deep panelled frieze over a beautifully-designed and decorated ceiling. The floors again are Mosaic. Six wide white marble steps divide this vestibule, and on the higher level is the pay and booking office, and from here pairs of polished doors open into the foyer. This is most ingeniously contrived in the construction of the grand circle. It is 40ft. in length, and is divided up with curved panelled beams and arches, the walls being panelled and filled with silk.
Between the pilasters and columns are luxurious settees, upholstered in cloth, with embroidery border and the crown in the centre. The floor is laid with super Saxony carpet, and the electric light has been introduced with good effect.
The decorations are simple but very effective, in green and white. From this foyer a wide staircase leads direct to the stalls and corridors on each side, conducting the visitor to the grand circle seats, on the lower level. A separate staircase from the outer vestibule is provided to the upper seats of this circle, at the rear of which is a raised promenade, with balustrading dividing this from the seating, and from this promenade entrance is obtained to one of the finest lounge bars in London. This is obtained by utilising the old disused rooms over the entrances, the windows of which overlook Holborn. It is divided into two parts by a large opening, flanked by pedestals and columns, between which three wide steps conduct the visitor to the lower level of this saloon. This is fitted with a counter and fittings, and the room is furnished with lounge chairs, settees, and tables, the floor being covered with thick velvet pile carpet and the windows draped with rich silk-brocaded curtains, the walls and ceilings being artistically decorated, and the whole lighted with five polished brass electroliers.
The pit entrance is from Holborn, through a tiled corridor to the lounge at the back of the pit, and from here the pit saloon is approached. This is situated under the entrance vestibule, and is well lighted and ventilated. The whole of the walls are in Faience work, and the floor is Mosaic. The fittings are of polished oak, and the whole room is tastefully decorated and brilliantly lighted.
The gallery, which is formed over the grand circle, is approached from Holborn by a wide staircase, carried up to the promenade, from which access to the gangways dividing the seats is obtained. A large saloon is at the rear of the gallery, well ventilated and decorated, the walls, as well as those of the gallery itself, being lined with Faience.
Right - An early 1900s Music Hall programme for the Holborn Empire under the management of Charles Gulliver who took over the Theatre's management in 1913, the programme also shows the Theatre's auditorium - Courtesy Roy Cross.
The auditorium is of fine proportions, and designed on somewhat novel lines, the circle having wide, sweeping curves, and good heights between them, giving fine sight-lines and free circulation of air.
The ground floor is divided up into stalls and pit, the former containing nine rows of polished wood armchairs, covered with Angora goat-hair satin, the floor being of wood-block, and covered with super Wilton carpet.The pit is also furnished with sixteen rows of velvet-covered tip-up chairs, and the floor of wood-block flooring and cork carpet.
The walls of the stalls are formed of polished marble, in panels, and the walls of the pit are tiled, the ceilings being richly decorated. Staircases on each side of the stalls lead up to the grand circle, and to a very unique stalls saloon, designed in old English. The floor is of polished parquet, and the room is furnished with a counter and fittings, and with leather-covered settees and quaint tables and rugs. The room is decorated in subdued tints, the electric fittings corresponding in style, the whole being very effective...
Above - An early 1900s Music Hall programme for the Holborn Empire under the management of Charles Gulliver who took over the Theatre's management in 1913 - Courtesy Roy Cross. On the Bill was an overture under the musical direction of Harry J. Baynton, followed by amongst others The Two Lillys & Assistant - Acrobatic Specialty, H. E. Hughes, comedian - Comedian, My Fancy - A Study in Black and White, Wish Wynne - In her Own Original Character Studies, Miss Tittel Brune - The Australian Actress, and Company, in the Melodramatic Sketch "Bracelets", Gus Harris - Versatile Hebrew Comedian, Jack & Evelyn - In a new Vaudeville Revue, Frank Whitman - The Dancing Vocalist, Celest - In New Ideas of Equilibrium, and The Bioscope - With the Latest Films.
...The grand circle contains twelve rows of seats, and is furnished with chairs, and carpeted similar to the stalls. There are four boxes on the lower level of this circle, two on each side of the proscenium, and two boxes are provided in the top corners at the rear of the circle, and are particularly well placed for seeing the stage.
The gallery is furnished in a comfortable manner, the seats being covered with a leather material, and the whole of the floor covered with a thick, warm cork carpet.
The decorations are artistic in the extreme. They are designed in a free treatment of French renaissance, the colours chosen being white, cream, and gold, relieved by beautifully-painted panel subjects by Italian artists. The ceiling has an opened designed dome, with a sunlight arrangement in the centre, forming the ventilation scheme. The flat ceiling is set out with curved ribs, forming panels, and the sides are covered down to the walls with pilasters, and coffers, and caryatides. The box facades are well conceived, and the single boxes over those on the dress circle level take the form of balconies, with a panelled coved ceiling, and the walls are ornamented and treated with the general decorations, no draperies being used here. The gallery and grand circle fronts are of fibrous plaster, and contain shields, &c., with the electric lights designed to correspond.
The whole of the furnishing of the auditorium is in two shades of Rose du Barry, the carpets, seats, and draperies all being in the same colouring. The tableau curtains and box curtains, being of a watered silk material, are very handsome and effective, and when the whole is brilliantly illuminated with the electric light from the handsome brass fittings a very charming effect is obtained; in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the new Royal will vie for elegance, comfort, and artistic design with any theatre or music hall in London.
The safety of the public has received every consideration, the usual fireproof curtain and iron doors separate the stage from the auditorium, hydrants fully equipped are provided at all important positions, and the exits are numerous.
The comfort provided for the audience cannot fail to be appreciated as, apart from the handsome auditorium, with its uninterrupted sight-lines and its luxurious seating, there are foyers and lounges, and retiring rooms for all parts of the house. The lavatory and sanitary arrangements are built with the latest improvements. The whole of the building is heated by hot-water pipes and radiators, and everything that skill and experience can suggest has been provided to make the audience comfortable and happy in their surroundings.
The stage is of goodly proportions, and large enough to comfortably stage any music hall productions. It has a hardwood floor, and the upper part contains the usual flies, grids, bridges, &c., and an up-to-date system of electric lighting.
At the rear of the stage is the dressing-room block, containing the manager's office, property and wardrobe rooms, ballet and supers' rooms, and sets of dressing-rooms, the whole well lighted and ventilated, and comfortably furnished with lavatories and dressing-tables, the floors carpeted, and every convenience and comfort is provided for the artist.'
The Holborn Empire was as successful as all its predecessors and is remembered as one of the last Variety Theatres in London to have kept the Variety tradition going until its end.
The Theatre was redecorated and re-seated in 1928 but the end came when it was closed after being bombed in the blitz during the Second World War on the night of the 11th / 12th of May 1941.
Moss Empires bought the Theatre in 1947 with the hope of rebuilding it but this came to nothing, and the Theatre remained empty and unused until it was finally demolished in 1960 by its new owners The Pearl Assurance Company, who then built an extension to their offices on the site.
A modern office building with shops on the ground floor stands on the site today.
Right - A photograph of Weston House, the Site of the Holborn Empire, in 2008 - Photo M.L.