A theatre and cinema, of 1910-1911, adapted and designed by Bertie Crewe from a former music hall and variety theatre, of 1894, and C19 cotton mill, with later C20 alterations. Edwardian neo-Baroque style.
Reasons for Designation
This adapted theatre and cinema, of 1910-1911, adapted and designed by Bertie Crewe from a former music hall and variety theatre, of 1894, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* as an interesting example of an Edwardian variety theatre and cinema adapted from an earlier theatre, which itself was unusually adapted from a mill;
* for the involvement of the nationally renowned theatre designer Bertie Crewe;
* for the high-quality design and craftsmanship of the auditorium which retains the proscenium arch, curvilinear cantilevered balconies, elaborate boxes and ceiling design;
* for the wealth of surviving interior fixtures and fittings, including decorative fibrous plasterwork by Tanner and Sons of Liverpool and London, pay boxes within the foyers of the stall and gods, raked seating to the circle and gods, decorative tilework, doors and stairs.
* as a building type that represents a watershed moment in the rapid transition from variety theatre to cinema, physically represented in the early fire safety measures;
* as a former late-C19 theatre which established itself as a key staging point on national tours by major stars, including Marie Lloyd, Florrie Ford, Vesta Victoria and Harry Houdini.
The Empire Music Hall and Theatre of Varieties was built in 1894 for William C Horner (1841-1922) following the purchase of Newtown Mill, previously Tunstill’s and Harling and Todd’s Spinning Mill. George Birkbeck Rawcliffe (known as GB Rawcliffe, 1847-1919), the architect, adapted and designed the Empire reusing the external walls of the mill and mill pond. He had designed the adjoining Victoria Opera House on St James’s Street for Horner in 1886, which adapted a former warehouse, and the two theatres were interconnected for staff and performers to move between them. Horner was a local entrepreneur and theatre manager and had worked in local mills before founding a successful stationery business in Burnley and managing the Victoria Assembly Rooms.
The theatre, which was built for 1,500 seats, was designed with modern safety appliances and its opening on 29 October 1894 was reported in the national theatre press. From the outset, the Burnley Empire established itself as a staging point on national tours by major stars, including Marie Lloyd, Florrie Forde and Vesta Victoria, with local artistes filling the lower part of the variety programme. It also held the first film show in Burnley in December 1897, after the Lumière Brothers brought cinema to London in February 1896, and Harry Houdini performed at the Empire in December 1902.
Between 1910 and 1911 the theatre underwent substantial reconstruction by Bertie Crewe and at its reopening on Monday 13 September 1911 it was declared ‘undoubtedly the most beautiful and up to date theatre in the north of England’. A contract for works (July 1910) specified a larger theatre of 1,808 seats, with modified access and public circulation arrangements from St James’s Street and Cow Lane. Crewe designed a flamboyant Ferron cement façade to Cow Lane with banded rustication, pilasters, pedimented first-floor windows, moulded second-floor windows, a north-east octagonal cupola, and a wrought iron and glazed verandah across the pavement. A new public main entrance and foyer through the façade of the Victoria Opera House was also created (adapted from a former theatre passage and a shop), which had a panelled ceiling, terrazzo floors, a central box office with doors either side and a crush room. The enlarged auditorium was redecorated with fibrous plasterwork designs by Tanner and Sons of Liverpool with balconies, proscenium arch, boxes and ceiling, save for the late-C19 coat of arms over the proscenium, decorated in a Louis XVII style. The ceiling had a hand-painted central canvas representing Apollo, the sun and the Naiades, and the stalls were fitted with Art Nouveau tiles. The larger stage had a basement formed underneath and access through to a dressing room block and scene dock built on the south side of the building. A concrete slab ‘biograph box’ (an early form of projection room) with teak shutters was inserted into the circle.
In 1930 the new Federated Estates Limited converted the Empire into a ‘talkie’ cinema (one of 21 cinemas on the Craig – Clavering circuit established by Sir Edward Gordon Craig and Albert Clavering). Alterations included the construction of a large purpose-built projection room above the 1910 biograph box, which punctured the tiered seating of the gallery. In 1932 Burnley Empire Limited acquired the lease, and in 1938 the circle was remodelled and extended east with new seating. By 1946 the gallery was closed, the theatre seating reduced, and the two north stall exits interconnected to create easier access from the box office and foyer (number 118 St James’s Street).
The adjoining Victoria Cinema (former Victoria Opera House) was demolished in October 1955, with the main entrance to the Empire Theatre remaining. The Empire was threatened with closure until Harry Buxton of the Buxton Theatre Circuit took over on 16 June 1956, and in the same year, the single-storey entrance from St James’s Street was remodelled to continue as an entrance and foyer. The Empire continued as a cinema, and its last use for live theatre was in October 1966 when the Burnley Light Opera Company staged a production of The Merry Widow. The cinema closed in July 1970 and was modified to become a bingo hall. The building remained in use until 1995 and is currently empty (2022).
Former music hall and variety theatre of 1894 adapted from a C19 cotton mill, reconstructed by Bertie Crewe between 1910 and 1911 as a theatre and cinema, with later C20 alterations. Edwardian neo-Baroque style.
MATERIALS: sandstone, brick, concrete and cast-iron girder construction. The roofs are of timber, concrete, and iron-girder roof framing.
PLAN: a polygonal theatre situated to the rear of St James's Street and facing Cow Lane with an east-west aligned stage and auditorium, and an irregular-shaped south-west stair block. Extending to the north are two inter-connected north-south and east-west aligned ranges (entrances), and to the south, a north-south aligned dressing room block.
EXTERIOR: the theatre re-utilises the walls of the former mid-C19 mill and mill pond in its north, east and west elevations and the River Calder turns sharply left around its north-east corner. The stage has a mansard roof, with rectangular roof light, and catslide roofs which are separated by a stone-capped parapet from the auditorium’s combination and pitched roofs. The southern stair block and north extensions have flat roofs whilst the south range is pitched. All the windows are currently blocked (2022).
The west elevation facing Cow Lane (Bertie Crewe's former principal elevation) consists of a single canted north-west bay, seven bays facing Cow Lane, and a wide single bay to the south (the stair block) beneath a truncated parapet. A substantial moulded cornice, string bands, and panelled pilasters partially remain and Bertie Crewe’s fenestrated arrangement (and design) can be seen despite late 1930s panel additions and C20 render. The ground floor has three entrances including a substantial chamfered canted north-west entrance, a wide doorway to the small stalls foyer and a narrow door in the back angled southern bay. Above is a central frieze, a round-arched stair light to the south and a blind projecting late-1930s concrete and steel girder box (containing winder rooms).
The north elevation contains the mid-C19 and late-C19 fabric of the former mill and Rawcliffe’s theatre stage and auditorium wall adapted in the early C20 with an upper stage window. A single-storey north-south aligned brick, stone and concrete range (number 118 St James' Street) abuts the stage wall and connects westwards with a 1910-1911 two-storey brick and concrete range; both form historic entrances and stairs to the auditorium. The 1910-1911 block has ashlar incised render and its north elevation has an exit door from the stalls, with windows either side and stair windows above. The right (west) return contains an exit door from the gods and has a heavily projecting cornice extending from the north-west canted entrance.
The building's south elevation includes the projecting stair block with a heavily moulded cornice above a two-leaf south door to the gods pay booth and stairs. Its right (east) elevation is of red brick. Extending east is a gabled and capped parapet auditorium wall with a tall rendered corner chimneystack to the south. Beyond the chimneystack the wall height drops to a two-bay, three-storey stage wall with two upper windows (one retaining a six-over-six sash) below a catslide and mansard roof. Attached to the south wall of the stage is a two-storey north-south aligned scene dock with a catslide roof and a dressing room block. The dressing room block has a pitched roof and margined quoins to the south-east corner with a south door and first-floor casement window.
The rear (east) elevation comprises a four-bay dressing room block with three ground and first-floor windows, and a mid-storey ground and first-floor window to the north. Its masonry ties into the stage elevation which ranges in height between the stone-capped parapet of the catslide and mansard roofs. The bay adjoining the dressing room block has two off-set windows at ground and mid-storey level, margined south-east quoins, an upper wall of white glazed brick and substantial quoins marking the former end corner of the mid-C19 mill. To the east, the stage wall re-utilises the former six-storey mill wall with its infilled windows and doors, and at its north-east corner is a buttressed extension that returns around the north elevation.
INTERIOR: The theatre predominantly retains Bertie Crewe’s 1910-1911 design, unless otherwise identified.
Bertie Crewe’s Grecian Renaissance-style auditorium has a wide segmental proscenium arch with a moulded and ornamented plaster surround and spandrels set either side of a re-set 1894 scrolled cartouche of the Burnley shield (late-C20 modifications conceal the full design). To each side are three sets of pilasters that rise to elongated scrolled ceiling brackets ornamented by composite capitals with cherub heads. The gallery has garland drops to the upper panelled pilasters and between the pilasters are shouldered panels with plaster garlands. Projecting from the eastern auditorium bays are two-tier bow-fronted boxes with elongated scrolled brackets (removed for replication – 2022) supporting plinths with acanthus leaf moulded bands, partly-fluted columns with composite capitals, and a heavily ornamented entablature. Above the entablature is a moulded flat pediment embraced by posts and stylised scroll brackets with a plaster cherub in a central panel and two floral motifs in the post panels. Behind each two-tier box is a wooden quarter-landing stair with a moulded floor-to-ceiling newel column and a short access corridor and cloakroom from the circle. The lower box fronts have three rectangular panels with a central scrolled decorative cartouche and swagged garland, set between an acanthus leaf string band and moulded and decorated handrail. The upper box's front has a stylised Graeco-Doric band below a band of enriched geometric panels and a bead-and-reel cornice. The upper box also has a moulded arch opening with scrolled brackets and a stylised central scroll and moulded spandrels above. The auditorium ceiling is coffered with dentillated enrichment and a bow-ended central compartment containing rope plasterwork and a latticed ceiling ventilator.
The auditorium has a large concrete orchestra pit and raked stall floor and retains sections of decorative Art Nouveau wall tiles (by Craven Dunhill & Company), moulded dados, and banded cream and red tiles. There are now five exits from the stalls, including a north-west canted exit directly onto Cow Lane. Two exits beneath and beside the north box (now inter-connected) provide access to the 1910-1911 extension, exits to the north courtyard and through number 118 St James’s Street (blocked – 2022) and entrance stair to the circle. A west exit enters a small stalls foyer containing stairs to the circle and a pay booth with an external door onto Cow Lane. The pay booth retains a moulded architrave, six-panel door and ticket hatch. A further exit door beneath the south box (originally through to the adjacent Listed building, now blocked) accesses a polygonal west room with a hatched four-panel door. Two further doorways, one to the west and another to the north, provide access to former toilets. To the rear (west) of the stalls are three blocked-up auditorium windows replicated on the balconies above, some with moulded architraves and shutters in place.
Bertie Crewe’s two-tier cantilever steel, wood and plaster balcony system is tied to the two-tier boxes. The circle balcony has an extended curved balcony front (1938) ornamented with a 1930s scheme of rosettes and diamond motifs below a bead-and-reel cornice and handrail. The adapted raked balcony floor has 1930s velvet-covered metal tip-up seating with panelled seat ends. To the rear of the seating is a curved and panelled promenade balustrade with square and shaped newel posts, three north-facing window architraves and a north room (ladies’ room with Duckett and Son pedestal toilet). The circle is accessed by two entrances from the north and east, connecting with the northern 1910-1911 extension and number 118 St James’s Street and stalls. Gentlemen’s toilets retain wooden window architraves and four white James Duckett and Son of Burnley kiln-fired and salt-glazed urinals and a wooden Edwardian toilet cubicle. A metal-framed north door leads to a narrow winding room with concrete slab walls and ceiling, which originally accessed the biograph box (now removed). Above the winding room, parallel sections of iron girder and brick walling support an inserted 1930s projection room above.
Crewe's gallery balcony is curved and set back from the circle balcony with decoration to the balcony front and underside matching those of the boxes. Its underside has a decorative frieze and is coved above the circle promenade with dentillated and moulded cornicing. The raked gallery benching is divided by tall plank partitions and is arranged with mid and end aisles, and to the rear is a panelled balustrade with chamfered square newel posts and ball finials. A 1930s concrete-built projection box punctures through the gallery seating with a viewing box set above.
The gods has similar exit arrangements to the circle, including a north door to a concrete staircase in the 1910-1911 extension that exits through a west door onto Cow Lane, and a west door leading to a landing. The landing leads to a 1910-1911 lavatory and down to a ground-floor pay booth and external south door. A corridor runs north to access further gentlemen’s toilets containing four-panelled doors and brown Duckett and Son urinals and steps down to the 1930s projection and winding rooms. The concrete slab and H-girder frame projection room has metal-framed doors and seven projector windows retaining iron shutters.
The stage utilises the full height of the former mill with a large 'haystack' lantern. Fly floors are positioned either side of the stage and remain connected by a gantry with parts of the fly system and counterbalance system in place. The stage floor has been shortened. There is a brick-infilled tall north doorway (former late-C19 scene dock doorway), a blocked east door (onto the former ironwork passage to Tanner Street) and two south doors to the dressing-room block and scene dock. Beneath the remaining stage are two dressing rooms and a small ancillary room with shelving and six mill window openings looking over the River Calder with C19 three-over-three pane windows and early-C20 two-over-two casements. The north dressing room has a late-C19 west door to the foundations of the former mill pond. The south dressing room accesses the basement and sub-basement of the dressing room and stage block.
The dressing room block has a north-south aligned corridor between an external stage door, steps up to the stage, stone stairs down to the stage’s basement and a sub-basement beneath the scene dock (for heating services). It has dressing rooms on both floors. The scene dock, adapted as office rooms, is accessed from a south doorway off the stage.