Nostalgia on Tuesday: Theatres aflame

Lyceum Theatre Pirates of Penzance  David Ian Centre Plays Frederick Dec 1990Lyceum Theatre Pirates of Penzance  David Ian Centre Plays Frederick Dec 1990
Lyceum Theatre Pirates of Penzance David Ian Centre Plays Frederick Dec 1990
Some of Sheffield's old theatres experienced far greater dramas than anything they put on stage. Three were burnt down and never re-opened while another dodged demolition and enjoyed a £12m refurbishment.

Sheffield’s recorded theatre history begins c. 1700 with the establishment of the Pepper Alley Playhouse opened by John Leighton. Around the same time travelling theatre companies performed in pub yards such as the one belonging to the Angel Inn and plays were even staged in the Town Hall.

One of the destroyed theatres, the Theatre Royal, in Tudor Street, opened in 1778 under William Herbert. On the front of the building was a profile of William Shakespeare. Famous actors and actresses trod the boards there, including Sir Henry Irving and patrons enjoyed a varied programme of drama and musical entertainment. Success continued throughout the 19th century and for much of the first half of the 20th century. The theatre was altered several times and rebuilt in 1855 and 1901. At the time of the conflagration in the early hours of Friday 29 December 1935, the Theatre Royal was Sheffield’s oldest theatre and the second oldest in England. Flames leapt 150 feet into the air and within an hour nothing remained of the interior. Shakespeare’s profile on the front of the building survived intact and was rescued from the ruins. Thankfully no one was injured. The cause of the fire was a mystery and the site was eventually cleared.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Surrey Theatre in West Bar owned by Thomas Youdan, only had a relatively short lifespan before destruction. It was built in 1851 and at that time was used for singing and dancing. A museum and picture gallery were added and in 1855 it was enlarged to become a theatre. Before the fire, early on Saturday morning, 25 March 1865, it had been developed even further.

Lyceum Theatre Opening with Peter Palumbo, John Cornwall and Brian RixLyceum Theatre Opening with Peter Palumbo, John Cornwall and Brian Rix
Lyceum Theatre Opening with Peter Palumbo, John Cornwall and Brian Rix

Friday evening’s performance had finished about 11, but it was thought that some section of the woodwork, probably in the ‘flies’ had been ignited during a grand fire scene in the play of The Streets of London. In less than five minutes the flames burst out of the roof and began to spread so rapidly that neighbouring houses were in great danger and residents fled in their nightclothes. But, whilst the fire was prevented from extending beyond the theatre, it was impossible to do more. The fire burnt itself out, leaving a mere shell of a building. Thomas Youdan allegedly cried like a child, overwhelmed at the catastrophe.

The rebuilding costs were estimated at £30,000 with an insurance cover of only £13,000. Youdan eventually purchased the former Adelphi in Furnival Road and Blonk Street, reopening it as the Alexandra Music Hall.

Sheffield’s third theatre to meet an untimely end was the Albert Hall built to the designs of Flockton & Albert and opening on December 15, 1873. A small hall, chapel and dressing rooms were on the ground floor while the main auditorium was on the first floor and made up of salon (stalls), a balcony of three sides with a second tiered balcony and upper gallery above. Some of the world’s most famous vocalists and instrumentalists appeared at the Albert. At the rear of the open stage was an organ on which some of the finest organists played. The Albert was converted for cinema use in 1919 and the last film shown before fire gutted the building was Black Legion starring Humphrey Bogart.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

At about 10.45 pm, on July 14, 1937, a ‘sheet of flame’ was discovered by the foreman under the stage. Immediately, the Sheffield Fire Brigade was contacted and the engines arrived in a few minutes. The fire spread with amazing rapidity and lurid light was seen as far away as Millhouses.

Lyceum Theatre Interior in  Disrepair 22 June 1981Lyceum Theatre Interior in  Disrepair 22 June 1981
Lyceum Theatre Interior in Disrepair 22 June 1981

Crowds of people lined Barkers Pool, the Town Hall Square, Pinstone Street and Fargate to watch the army of firemen fighting the flames. Firemen poured a score or more jets of water into the auditorium through the roof.

During early March 1938 work began on the demolition of the ruins, ready for the erection of a new super cinema. But, during August of the same year it was reported the Sheffield Estates Committee had agreed to purchase the Albert Hall from the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation for approx £50,000. Various projects were suggested for the area until Cole Brothers Department store was built in 1963.

The Empire Palace Theatre in Union Street was designed by Frank Matcham and built for and run by the Moss Empires chain of theatres. The Empire Palace Theatre of Varieties was opened on Monday 4th November 1895 with seating for 2,500. All the old music hall favourites appeared there including Marie Lloyd, Florrie Ford, George Formby, Grace Fields, Ivor Novello, Jimmy Clitheroe, Ken Dodd and Shirley Bassey. A fire broke out in the building on August 3 1942, and it did not reopen until September 6 1943. In the following decade the Empire became renowned for staging large American musicals. Moss Empires sold the Empire Theatre to an Edinburgh property company in 1959, and after closing on Saturday 2nd May it was eventually demolished and the site redeveloped.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

By March 1969, the former Lyceum Theatre, was a full time bingo hall, continuing until 1972 when demolition seemed likely. It had opened on Monday 11 October 1897. Quite a number of the major music stars of the day trod the boards of the Lyceum stage and visitors included the D’Oyly carte Opera, Sadlers’ Wells Opera and the Royal Ballet.

Fortunately the demolition was resisted and the theatre was designated a Grade II Listed building. Between 1988 and 1990 the Lyceum was completely restored and reopened at a cost of around £12m.