The middle Sunday in October saw me heading to Morecambe for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Winter Gardens theatre situated on the Central Promenade. The late Victorian building became Grade ll listed in 1987 and since the formation of the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust in 2006 the theatre has been undergoing the long slow process of major repair and restoration, and in September 2020, after being intrigued by some photos of the ornate interior, I booked myself onto one of the guided tours. I wasn’t disappointed, the theatre’s history was fascinating, and though I intended to go back in 2021 I decided to wait until this year to see what progress had been made with the various renovations.
The tour guide this time was a very friendly and knowledgeable volunteer named Lesley and with only three other people in the group I had plenty of opportunities to ask questions and discuss things. Although I’d already seen many areas of the theatre on the previous tour other areas were now accessible and it was interesting to see photos and things I hadn’t seen before and to learn some more fascinating and quirky facts about the place.
Unfortunately there is no knowledge of the various entertainers advertised in the photo above – I would love to know what the ‘monkey music hall’ was and if it featured actual monkeys – although I have managed to find out about Cullen & Carthy. Johnnie Cullen (1868–1929) was born in Liverpool while Arthur Carthy (1869-1943) was born in Birkenhead and they met while working together in the machinery room of the newspaper printers producing the Liverpool Echo. They were eventually fired for entertaining their co-workers with singing and dancing and soon afterwards went on to form a comedy double act, achieving popularity on the British and Irish music hall, circus and variety stages and with the Winter Gardens theatre being a venue where they regularly appeared. With a career spanning almost four decades their partnership lasted from 1890 until Cullen’s death in 1929.
Just as previously the tour went from the ground floor of the auditorium, along different rear corridors and up and down various staircases, with stops along the way to see different interesting features. In an as yet unrestored area behind the Grand Circle it was nice to see a few more of the original seats uncovered for the tour and intriguing to see that they are of two different designs, with the red seats and arm rests being deeper than the blue ones, although no-one knows why.
The upper level of the central staircase featured typical late Victorian flocked wallpaper, ornate marble columns and balustrades, and though it’s not really noticeable in the photos all the carved cherubs have slightly different features and a different shade of hair colour.
Above the Grand Circle stairs led up to the underside of The Gods, now undergoing restoration, and halfway up a door led to the void underneath the seating, something which I hadn’t previously seen. Apparently in the past some of the theatre cleaners, rather than removing any rubbish properly, would just throw it into the void where it lay undisturbed for many years and it was only discovered when volunteers cleared out the void prior to renovation – a few of the items found are on display in one of the foyer’s ticket booths.
Another new feature of the tour was the opportunity to go out onto the wide balcony overlooking the promenade to get a closer view of the carved medallions on the wall above a central door – the interlinked letters MWG (Morecambe Winter Gardens) on the left and the date on the right. Access to the balcony was temporarily through the old and very basic Victorian gents’ toilets (no, I didn’t take a photo) and there were good clear views over the promenade and across the bay to the South Lakeland hills.
On the way back down to stage level there was the opportunity to look inside one of the upper boxes, which I’d seen on my previous visit, then the basic general dressing room and the star’s dressing room which now had the added ‘luxury’ of a tv, kettle, and a couple of pictures on the walls, before ending on the stage itself.
One anecdote tells of the theatre having a door big enough for an elephant to go through; sometime in the past an elephant did feature in one of the shows and behind the rear backdrop there is indeed a huge sliding door in the outer wall. The theatre has played host to many famous faces over the years and the final scenes for the 1960 Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer were shot on the Winter Gardens stage.
12 thoughts on “Morecambe Winter Gardens theatre tour”
What an amazing building and wonderful, and no doubt costly, restorations taking place. Thanks for your photos.
Is it functioning as a theatre in its present state?
I cycle past often enough but usually out on the prom, will have a closer look next time. Is that a café in there?
It’s certainly an amazing place and worth going in just to view the ornate features from the ground floor. Even with the ongoing restoration work it does now function as a theatre but with seating only on the ground floor – recent shows have included Queen and Abba tribute acts and the Brighouse and Rastrick Band, and there’s a Cinderella panto later this month.
Aside from ticketed events the theatre and cafe closed at the end of October and will reopen next Easter – Saturdays 12-4pm, Sundays 11am to 4pm. It’s free to go in and the cafe is open until 3.30pm serving tea/coffee/soft drinks, sandwiches and cakes. There’s usually an organist playing on Sundays and visitors are free to look round the ground floor auditorium.
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From the outside it looks like a beautiful old building. It will be wonderful to see it restored to it’s former glory. X
The terracotta brickwork is lovely and the interior is amazing, especially the ornate ceiling in the auditorium. It will take a long time and a lot of work but it will be truly wonderful once everything has been done.
It’s always good to see lovely old buildings like this brought to life Eunice, and I can see why you’ve made several visits to see the progress being made. It’s such a shame that it fell into decay in the first place, and presumably most of the hard work is being done by volunteers, but at least it’s being brought back to life.
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Aside from the five trustees and the specialists repairing the auditorium ceiling everyone who works there is a volunteer so most of the work is being done by them. It’s a lovely old building with many features well worth preserving so it’s nice to see it being restored instead of being demolished.
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Looks like an amazing place and I love those colourful chairs. I love old theatres and cinemas and wish more could stay open. X
If you’re ever over that way on a weekend next summer do pop in for a look round the ground floor – it’s free, dog friendly, and I believe the cakes are very good 🙂
It’s good to know that it’s dog friendly and I definitely do love 🍰 cake. Thanks Eunice. X
What an amazing place, deserves to be cared for and brought back to life. How naughty of past cleaners to ditch the rubbish, I’m sure they didn’t have a thought about how interesting it would be to future visitors!
It’s a wonderful place and definitely worthy of restoration. The story of the cleaners throwing the rubbish in the void under the seats made me smile but at least there were some interesting finds among all the junk 🙂