Detail of an ornate but derelict theatre interior, a balcony front with decorative moulding, flanked by columns.
Interior of Burnley Empire theatre, showing a balcony front. © Historic England Archive. Image reference DP290516.
Interior of Burnley Empire theatre, showing a balcony front. © Historic England Archive. Image reference DP290516.

The Empire Theatre, Burnley

Unearthing a hidden gem.

In the 1900s, Lancashire’s northern cotton towns had about 20 purpose-built theatres and variety halls. Today just one survives, the Burnley Empire, built in 1894 on the site of a spinning mill and significantly remodelled in 1911 and 1938. It closed as a bingo hall in 1995 and has since lain empty and became derelict. The Burnley Empire (Theatre) Trust was formed in 2015 and acquired the site in 2018. The Empire is part of the High Street Heritage Action Zone on St James’s Street, and has also received Heritage Lottery Funding, but despite stabilisation work it remains in a distressing condition.

New research improves our understanding of the building, raises its profile and will inform a more detailed list description.

The First Theatre 1894

The development of live entertainment in Burnley owes much to William Horner (1841-1922), a local stationer. He organised concerts at the Mechanics Institute before taking over the Victoria Assembly Rooms in 1886, which he renamed the Victoria Opera House, as a centre for drama and pantomime. Then in 1894 he opened the much larger Empire Theatre for variety shows, set behind the earlier Victoria Opera House and entered from a narrow foyer to its side.

The architect was George Birkbeck Rawcliffe (1847-1919), a local surveyor and himself a popular lecturer and amateur thespian. The substantial stonework around the base of the auditorium, visible internally, suggests that a large amount of Tunstill’s early 19th-century mill was incorporated in the new building.

The new theatre had a large stage and electric lighting. However, it was plainly decorated in anaglypta (a textured wall covering) save for plasterwork pilasters around the proscenium (the frame to the stage). There were two balconies, each with a concourse rather than foyers, and the staircase arrangement was also novel, the ‘Burnley Express’ describing two sets of stairs within a single space rather like a double helix.

More impressive was the array of talent gathered by Horner, who secured stars from London as his headline acts. They included singers Marie Lloyd, Florrie Forde, Vesta Victoria and escapologist Harry Houdini, who on 9 December 1902 staged a breakout from the local police cells to advertise his show that week. The Empire also exhibited the first films in Burnley, in December 1897, and many of the variety programmes ended with short films.

The Rebuilding of 1911

On its backland site, access was at a premium and Rawcliffe’s plan with an innovative double helix staircase may not have been entirely successful. Moreover, by 1910 more variety theatres had been built in Burnley and the plain Empire would have seemed outdated. In 1910 Horner brought in the celebrated London architect William Robert ‘Bertie’ Crewe to prepare new plans. Crewe remodelled the elevations, which were rendered and rusticated with large areas for signage and the date ‘1910’, and entirely rebuilt the auditorium and access stairs.

The new theatre was larger, with 1,808 seats. The auditorium was enlarged by digging out the basement and rebuilding the staircases, while a new scene dock for accessing stage sets was built on the south side of the building. A new proscenium was installed with behind it a grid from which to fly scenery, and a basement was formed under the stage to permit traps. The proscenium, balcony fronts and box fronts were redecorated with new plasterwork, painted mainly in cream and gold, with a warm dull red towards the back of the auditorium. This is the decoration we see today, save for the balcony front to the dress circle; Crewe’s balcony was set back so there were originally two boxes to either side on each level. The smaller spaces all gained new floors, skirtings and tiling, and a proper projection box for showing films was installed with teak shutters.

The absence of circulation space between the auditorium and the side entrances and exits on Cow Lane remained striking, a testament to the tight site.

An advertisement for the opening night on Monday, 13 September 1911 was suitably fulsome, declaring it ‘undoubtedly the most beautiful and up to date theatre in the north of England’.

Bertie Crewe (1864-1937) was a specialist designer of theatres and later cinemas, who spent his career in London. His training was unusual, however, for in the 1880s he spent three years in Paris, studying Beaux Arts planning and its elaborate decoration. He later claimed that it was meeting French theatre designers that led him to his specialisation. Returning to London in 1888, Crewe joined the practice of Walter Emden, an engineer and West End surveyor who specialised in theatres and hotels. Crewe brought a rare understanding of French classical styles, then fashionable, and a baroque panache to his plasterwork, quite unlike the delicate tastes of his contemporary William G. R. Sprague (1863-1933), with whom he formed a partnership from 1889 to 1895. These two rank second only to Frank Matcham as Britain’s leading theatre architects, but their surviving work is far less extensive.

Crewe established his career with the Hippodrome, Liverpool, built for 3000 people in 1902 and leading to work in Paris and Brussels. He also remodelled the interior of the prestigious Lyceum, London, in 1903, which survives. His few other surviving theatres include the Shaftesbury Theatre and Golders Green Hippodrome in London, the Victoria Theatre in Salford and (re-fronted) Palace Theatre in Redditch, all built between 1900 and 1913.

The fruity Baroque patterns give way to a stricter Neoclassicism at the later Golders Green and Redditch theatres and in his cinemas of the 1920s. The Burnley Empire is not only a rare survivor, but important since it shows Crewe on the cusp of this change in style.

Later Years

Later Years
In March 1930, the ‘Burnley Express’ reported that the live theatres in Accrington and Nelson were set to be converted to cinemas, along with the Burnley Empire. This was blamed by the management on ‘hard times’, but more important was the popularity of the ‘Talkies’, which reached Britain in 1928. Large crowds gathered when the Empire reopened after just nine days on Monday 19 May. It was only in 1938 that extensive alterations made it more suitable for showing films, when the circle was enlarged and reseated, taking out two boxes on each side. No architect was recorded for this work, and the decoration on the balcony front is much simpler than that elsewhere.

The Victoria Theatre, situated in front of the Empire, closed in March 1955 and was quickly demolished. The Empire closed briefly while a simple single-storey entrance was made on St James’s Street, the old one having been part of the Victoria. It continued showing films, with occasional performances by the Burnley Light Opera Company, until July 1970 when it was superseded by a two-screen cinema in the new shopping centre. It survived because the Silver Dollar Bingo Club transferred its operation from the much larger Palace-Hippodrome by Horsfall & Son of 1907, which was demolished in 1973.

It seems almost miraculous that the Empire should have survived, often by a knife-edge, when every other historic theatre and cinema in Burnley has gone.

The website ‘Cinema Treasures’ records that there have been 19 cinemas in the town; today it is served only by the nine-screen former Apollo (now Reel) Cinema built in 1997 inside a former DIY store.

When the theatre was listed grade II in February 1996, the description emphasised that ‘the principal feature of interest is the interior, which retains most of the structure and decoration of 1911’. The Burnley Empire Theatre Trust (now Burnley Empire Trust) was founded in 2015 to campaign for the building’s restoration and reuse. It acquired the Empire in 2018 with the support of an anonymous donor, the Theatres Trust and the consultant David Wilmore. The National Lottery has provided grants for a condition survey and asbestos removal, and work to the roof has begun. Through the High Street Heritage Action Zone Historic England has also funded essential stabilising works. Though not actually on the High Street (the old foyer is now a bar in separate ownership), restoration would bring new life to the area outside shopping hours.

About the author
Name and role

Dr Elain Harwood

Title and organisation
Senior Investigator at Historic England
Elain joined the predecessor organisation to Historic England in 1984. She has published extensively and won the Art Book Award and Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion (the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain’s annual award), for ‘Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-75’ (published by Yale University Press in 2015).

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