After seeing some photos a while ago showing part of the ornate interior of Morecambe’s Winter Gardens theatre I decided I just had to see this place for myself so during my 2-week staycation in September I booked a place on a ‘behind the scenes’ guided tour; unfortunately dogs weren’t allowed on the tour so this was one occasion when I had to leave Poppie at home.
The Morecambe Baths and Winter Gardens Company was formed in 1876 by a consortium of businessmen from Bradford who developed an unoccupied piece of land on the sea front into a site for new public swimming baths, surrounded by the gardens which gave the Winter Gardens complex its name. In 1877 a proposal was made for three restaurants to be erected next to the baths – a first and second class restaurant and behind them a third class restaurant for ‘excursionists’ who would, for a payment of 2d, be able to enter without being required to buy anything. There was also to be a 30ft long grand aquarium with fish, ferneries, fountains and plants, a ballroom and a fine arts gallery, and the complex opened in June 1878.
As a later extension to the existing Winter Gardens complex the Victoria Pavilion Concert Hall and Variety Theatre was built at a cost of nearly £100,000, opening its doors to the public in July 1897. It was designed by Mangnall & Littlewood of Manchester, with noted theatre architect Frank Matcham as consultant. Interiors were by Dean and Co and the tiling which covered the walls and ceiling of the lavish foyer was by Burmantoft of Leeds. With its audience capacity of 2,500 the theatre was one of the largest concert halls in the North West and quickly became known as the Albert Hall of the North; over the years it was the home of the internationally renowned Morecambe Music Festival and played host to Sir Edward Elgar, the Halle Orchestra and many other well known performers from variety, music and theatre.
In the 1950s the Winter Gardens were taken over by Moss Empires, the largest UK chain of variety theatres and music halls. By the mid-1970s however, the theatre’s fortunes were in decline and in 1977 the decision was taken to close the whole complex, culminating in the demolition of the original Winter Gardens in 1982, leaving only the theatre remaining and with an uncertain future. In 1986 the Friends of the Winter Gardens group was formed to represent the interests of the building, campaigning for its restoration and preservation, then in 2006 the Friends formed a charitable trust company, The Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust (Ltd) to purchase the theatre. The years since then have been spent in cleaning, repairing and restoring various parts of the building and fundraising to enable the ongoing and never ending work to continue.
The tour was limited to a group of five visitors plus the guide and started off from the front of the auditorium, where visitors can pop in for coffee and a bite to eat accompanied by music from the resident organist. The auditorium has a roof span of 118ft and a height of 65ft and is still one of the largest in the country; the fibrous plaster ornamental ceiling is hung from a skeleton of girders originally supplied by the Widnes Foundry and is a masterpiece of Victorian engineering.
Up a short flight of steps and through a door on the left of the auditorium the guide led the group along various passageways and up and down different stairs, stopping in different rooms to point out various interesting features. It was actually quite difficult taking photos and absorbing all the information and history at the same time, with hindsight I should have taken a notebook and pen to jot things down.
While the auditorium itself looked fairly decent the same couldn’t be said for behind the scenes. Almost everywhere I looked there were signs of the deterioration and delapidation which the theatre had fallen into over the years; with holes in ceilings, flaking plaster and bare brickwork in many places it was going to take a lot of man hours and many years to restore the theatre to its former glory.
Originally reserved for the highest priced tickets the Grand Circle is currently undergoing restoration and was out of bounds, with viewing only allowed on a tour with an experienced guide. From the centre of the circle shallow steps led up through double doors to a long and wide corridor which would once have been a very pleasant carpeted seating area with a bar and toilets at each end. With tall wide windows along its length there were good views over the promenade to the South Lakeland hills across the bay.
Back in 1982, five years after the theatre closed its doors to the public, several hundred seats were removed from the Grand Circle and sold on, with the later presumption that many had been sent to Australia and would therefore be lost for ever, however in 2019 the Winter Gardens trustees were contacted by the Theatre Trust with the news that more than 400 of the seats had been listed for sale on an online auction site and were actually only 35 miles away in the Leyland Masonic Hall. After confirmation that the seats had originally belonged to the Winter Gardens the owners cancelled the auction and offered them back to the theatre trustees who launched a seat sponsorship campaign to raise funds towards their purchase. Behind what was once the Grand Circle’s bar area were two unrestored rooms full of these seats, well covered for protection but with just a couple on show as part of the tour.
Down a few stairs and along a short passageway was the double-sided staircase leading to the Upper Circle, known in theatrical terms as ‘The Gods’. This was reserved for the cheap seats, with the original bench seating only being replaced by the current folding seats in 1953, though the walls, floor and ceiling of the staircase were just as ornate as those down below.
On a side wall close to the top of the stairs and just inside the door to the Upper Circle itself was a small folding wooden seat, this was where the usherette would sit while on duty. Unfortunately the dizzying height of the top row of seats was out of bounds but I was able to get a detailed look at the ornate ceiling and the top of the highly decorated two-tier boxes at the side of the stage.
Back down at Grand Circle level I was able to look in one of the upper boxes with its once-lavish curtains and decor. Being set at an angle it mostly looked out over the auditorium and the view of the stage was very limited unless you craned your neck, but back in the day (and maybe still today) private boxes were really all for show – if you could afford the expense of a private box then you were considered to be ‘somebody’.
Having already looked in the general dressing room, which was very spartan and basic, down at stage level was the star’s dressing room though even that wasn’t particularly lavish. Then it was onto the stage itself with its huge steel safety curtain raised above; I didn’t quite catch all the writing with the camera but right in the very top left corner of the curtain and difficult to see was the signature of a little-known comedian and the words “Archie Ore died here autumn 1974”. Presumably he was the warm-up for a more well-known act but he mustn’t have been very good if the stage crew didn’t want him back.
The tour ended where it began, at the front of the auditorium, and as I made my way back towards the entrance I took my last few shots of the stairs to the Grand Circle and some of the features in the foyer before emerging from the dim light of the theatre into the bright afternoon sunshine.
The tour had been extremely interesting and standing on the stage itself looking out into the auditorium had brought back memories of my own days in local theatre many years ago. I’d done it all, from painting scenery flats and sourcing props to makeup, lighting, costumes, special effects, providing animal ‘actors’, singing, dancing and acting, and standing there I could almost get a whiff of the distinctive smell of greasepaint.
The theatre tours ended on the last weekend in October but I enjoyed that one so much that I’ll certainly go on another one sometime next year – and next time I’ll take a notebook with me to jot down all the interesting information.