A potted history of the most important unused theatre in the UK
The building that became the Hippodrome was built as an ice skating rink in 1897, designed by Lewis Karslake of the London architctural firm Karslake and Mortimer. For Karslake this was a rare venture outside the capital, where, among other activities, he had been architect and surveyor of the Brompton Hospital Estate from 1881. The rink was at 53-58 Middle Street, with an Ice Skating Club next door at 52, replacing houses and a plumbing/building business1. It was in competition with other rinks, however, such as the roller skating rink at 78 West Street, and ice skating did not catch on to any great extent.
'Though his buildings were often excellent in external design, his chief concern was with the interior construction, his object being always that of enabling every member of the audience to obtain a good view of the stage. In this he was remarkably successful.'
—'Death of Mr Frank Matcham', The Times, 20 May 1920
Tom Barrasford was born in Jarrow, Co Durham in 1859. He had a short-lived career on the stage in the Moore & Burgess Minstel Show before going into hotel management in Tynemouth. In 1895 he took over a wooden circus building in Jarrow, naming it the Jarrow Palace of Varieties. That was the start of a chain of music halls he built up throughout the north of England and Scotland. The solid foundation of his business success was introduced when he took over the Tivoli music hall in Leeds in March 1899: twice nightly shows at low prices. This became the model for all the halls in his circuit (or 'tour', as performers went from one to another on a weekly basis).
Barrasford must have been particularly pleased with the Brighton Hippodrome as he moved his headquarters from Leeds to Middle Street, taking up residence in Hippodrome House with his second wife, the former Maud Egan, who had been a singer on the halls as Maud D'Almayne.
In that same year, 1902, the Barrasfords also took over the 1,250-seat Empire Theatre of Varieties in New Road, Brighton, almost next door to the Theatre Royal, and renamed it the Coliseum. By the time Tom Barrasford came to Brighton, his variety shows typically ended with 10 minutes' worth of films, accompanied by the pit orchestra. He later called the projector the Barrascope. However, in 1909, when permanent cinemas began to be established as a result of the regulations introduced by that year's Cinematograph Act, the Coliseum, run by Maud, was fitted out as a cinema and changed its name again, this time to the Court Cinema.
When he died at Hippodrome House on 1 February 1910, Tom Barrasford left around £70,000, the equivalent of £7m today. His funeral was said to be one of the biggest ever seen in Brighton. His fortune had allowed him to indulge a passion for race horses and he even invented a starting gate that was adopted by the Jockey Club, as well as patenting a device for extinguishing fires in cinema projectors. His wife Maud also had a couple of patents to her name, both concerned with bathroom comfort.
On 23 January 1913, the actor-cellist Auguste van Biene—who had the distinction of being the first named established performer to appear in a filmed drama when he was filmed in 1896 by the Hove Pioneer Esmé Collings—collapsed and died on stage at the Hippodrome while performing the cello recital in act two of his melodrama The Master Musician.
The theatre was sold in 1910 to Walter de Frece, who had just formed an alliance with Sir Alfred Butt to create Variety Theatres Controlling Company (VTCC), the second most powerful music hall business in the country. De Frece's family background was in theatres—he was married to the great music hall star Vesta Tilley—and nearly all his theatres were called Hippodrome. He was knighted in 1919 for his work in providing entertainment for the troops (although much, or most, of the work was actually done by the manager of the Hippodrome, Billy Boardman, who was not knighted). Wanting then to pursue a political career, de Frece sold his interest in VTCC but also set up the Alliance Film Company with the actors Gerald du Maurier and A E Matthews. He was an early investor in Warner Bros.
Most of the biggest names in variety theatre appeared at the Hippodrome between 1902 and 1965. Among them Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Gracie Fields, Max Miller, the Crazy Gang, Laurence Olivier, Arthur Askey, Tony Hancock, Dickie Henderson. Just before the Second World War Moss Empires appointed its youngest ever musical director, Sydney Sharp, to run the Hippodrome Orchestra; he stayed for 25 years, into the era when pop music filled the bill.|
In 1963 Roy Orbison headed a line-up that included The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers. The following year the Beatles were back at the top of the bill. The Rolling Stones appeared in the same month.
But late in 1964 the end of variety shows was in sight. After the panto, The Frog Prince, around the turn of the year, the theatre closed.
One idea was to turn the theatre into a cabaret but after a brief spell as a television studio, the Hippodrome became a Mecca Bingo hall. Just like variety, bingo lost its huge audiences and the Hippodrome closed in 2007.
1Pike 1896, 1897, Towner 1899
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