The Walsall Imperial 1

Part 1 – 1868 to 1908
The Walsall Imperial has a long history: today, it is a pub operated by the Wetherspoon’s chain but before that it was a bingo hall, a cinema, a theatre and public hall; however, it was in fact built in 1868, as the Agricultural Hall.

The name is, in part, a little misleading, as it was a multi-purpose venue from the start, but its raison d’être was as a corn exchange.

Location of Agricultural Hall on Darwall St

Location of Agricultural Hall on Darwall St

Back in 1867 the Walsall market traders had approached the Council to hire the court-room at the Guildhall to use as a corn exchange, but were rejected as this was about to be redeveloped. Up to this point, the market traders and farmers were buying and selling produce in the street, being exposed to, as the Walsall Free Press describes it, the “broiling sun” in summer and in winter to “all kinds of weather”.

After a robbery, which had shown that it was undesirable to transact business in a public house, a public meeting was held in January 1868 at the George Hotel on the Bridge, to gauge reaction to a proposed purpose-built hall. It seems clear from the newspaper account that a number of shareholders had already invested in the project and a committee was formed at the meeting to appoint an architect and find a suitable site.

Walsall Free Press, February 1868

Walsall Free Press, February 1868

By the February plans were drawn-up. The architect was Mr G Nichols and a good description is given in the Walsall Free Press that month…

the ground floor comprises of a hall, 80ft by 50ft, with two spacious anti-rooms and a stage, which including the orchestral platform, measures around 36ft by 30ft. The hall appears to be of excellent proportions.

The roof is constructed partly of wood and partly of iron, and is in the form of a hexadecagon, or half a 16-sided polygon, and appears to be of a peculiar construction, ornamented cast-iron columns being introduced, to support the roof in lieu of masonry, and which, so far as we can judge of the design, will have a very light and good effect. Under about one half of the space of the hall, a series of capacious vaults are arranged, which appear to be of substantial construction. The upper floor comprises of a secretary’s room, retiring rooms, with a spacious landing with a large semi-circular opening, which will afford an approach for a gallery, if found necessary, and for the stage. Dressing rooms are provided for the lady and gentleman professional.

The side walls [interior] of the hall are in red brick, with bands and panels of white brick and the main cornice is entirely of moulded and perforated brickwork. The end walls are entirely of white brick, with bands of red brick. The white brickwork is to be executed in Hednesford Colliery Company’s bricks.

The large archway forming a proscenium to the stage, and the archway of the landing to the upper floor, and the arches to the anti-rooms are to be executed with moulded brickwork, to be relieved by the introduction of ornament in distemper. The plaster panels of the roof are to be decorated in a similar manner. The elevator is of a very ornate character, and from the elevated position of the floor, which is 4’ 6” above the level, gives a pleasing effect to the building.

The principal entrance [exterior] is adorned with double pilasters, supporting a noble fringe and cornice, over which is a large semicircular window; on either side are triple windows, with semi-circular heads [Romanesque]. The approach to the entrance is by a flight of steps on either side, forming a spacious landing between the door and the parapet: the parapet being surmounted with two lamp pillars. The work is simply executed with red bricks, relieved with bands of white bricks; the plinth being partly formed with blue bricks. The stonework is to be executed in Hollington, Bath and Codsall stone. The warming of the building is entrusted to Messrs Haden of Trowbridge.

Whilst the hall was opened officially in January 1869, it was used in the December of 1868 by the farmers, after which the building was, “deemed by all remarkably well adapted both for the purpose of an exchange and an assembly hall”. It isn’t clear as to how long it operated as a corn exchange, but it doesn’t seem to have been too long.

The inaugural event in January was a concert consisting of 250 performers in aid of the cottage hospital, although a report in the Walsall Free Press in February 1880 stated that of the £80 taken on the door only two guineas found their way to the hospital. It was operated by the Walsall Agricultural Hall Co (Ltd).

Inauguration, January 1869

Inauguration, January 1869

The Walsall Red Books give notes on events held within the town over the previous year: these, and the newspapers, give accounts of lectures, dances, concerts, theatrical performances, political events, flower shows, dinners and soirees over the earlier years, as well as a public anti-vaccination demonstration in July 1876. The Hall’s entry in the Red Book of 1872 claimed that it could seat 800-1000 people.

The Hall continued for a few years in the same vein; however, in February 1879, when the company applied for their theatrical licence, whilst they were granted it, the magistrates made it clear that they had concerns “over the matter of egress from the hall, particularly when it is crowded and if an alarm was sounded.” Possibly as a direct consequence of this the Hall was altered significantly in 1880. Strangely, no building plans survive in the Walsall Local History Centre, but the architect was a Mr S Loxton, from the Bridge in Walsall.

Reviews in the Walsall Free Press in April of that year, when the Hall re-opened, seemed to cast doubt over the qualities of the ‘old’ hall, which would have only been some twelve years old at this point and formally hailed as a triumph “… It will be remembered by all who ever attempted to sit out a night’s performance in the hall as it was originally, what a cold ramshackle of a place it was, reminding one of the interior of a goods shed”.

The correspondent went on to give an appraisal of the new Hall “… The hall can be comfortably warmed, and is so lighted as to have quite a bright and cheerful appearance, and what probably is of quite as much importance there is now a chance of the occupants of the back seats and gallery hearing what is spoken upon the stage – a thing next to impossible under the old arrangements”.

The Walsall Observer gave more attention to the rebuild of the Hall. It starts by agreeing that “For meetings, concerts, and the drama it is equally well suited”, although it is unclear if this means the corn exchange was still held there.

Further, it states that the interior has been completely remodelled and additional entrances had been made at the side and front. The “unsightly and useless balcony” was turned into a spacious room and horse shoe galleries added at the end and two-thirds down the sides of the hall that will “seat comfortably 400 spectators”: and from this point, the Walsall Red Book started to list the capacity as some 1500 persons. The stage was “metamorphosed” (it was enlarged), with the interior arch that blocked sound being removed and the front seats were also given cushions! A new panelled ceiling was put-up with star lights. In front of the stage an orchestra was made, which the musicians entered from beneath the stage – formerly they “trooped” through the hall.

The Hall re-opened on 5th April, 1880, with a theatrical performance by the Walsall Corps Dramatique of ‘Heir-at-Law’.

The Hall seems to have continued in the same vein, until 1883. It was leased in this year to a Rebekah Deering, a “celebrated” actress in her own right. She closed the Hall around February of that year, after ‘Tom Thumb and the Marvellous Midgets’ made a two-day appearance.

The Walsall Red Book states that Deering re-opened it on the 26th March as a permanent theatre, but this seems not to be the case. It was re-opened then, and the place had received a make-over, with new carpet, paintwork, settees and cushions, as well as a partition to exclude draughts; however, an article in the Walsall Observer states that Miss Deering, whilst anxious to bring the best theatre from London and elsewhere to Walsall, also said the Hall could still be used for other purposes. Indeed, whilst it near-disappears from the listings of public halls in the Red Book, before the end of the year it is hosting the Walsall Florist Society’s flower show.

Miss Deering opened with several short-running plays where she played a lead and showed her versatility: these included Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Lady Gay Spanker in the comedy, ‘London Assurance’. The Observer lauded the Hall and the performance, but commented on the “not large audience”. Around this time, the Hall also used the name of the Theatre Royal when advertising in the newspapers.

In May 1885 the Hall was put up for auction, but only managed a bid of £1500 from Mr Hughes, a timber merchant – it was valued in the region of £7000 after all the recent improvements. The timing of this auction is a little suspicious, as the newspapers were full of letters and reports the preceding months touching on the need for a new public hall: maybe this was an attempt to off-load it onto the Town Council.

In 1886 the Red Book lists the Hall as a public hall again, but it is now called St George’s. Indeed, the Walsall Observer has adverts from the January under that name, so one assumes it was a fresh start for the new-year and likely with the same company in charge. The fact that it is a public venue is shown by the Hall hosting functions for the Sister Dora’s statue fund.

In 1887, the Hall closed for some three months for an internal refurbishment. This was undertaken by a Mr Lawley. A report in the Walsall Observer, just prior to it reopening in the September, also mentions improved fire safety. It mentions six exits, but these, it seems, were the ones set in place in 1880.

By 1891 the Hall was facing increasing competition: the old Gaiety had been rebuilt (re-opened as the Grand) and the Central Hall, a smaller public venue, had opened. At this stage we know, through the Walsall Red Book and the newspapers, that the Hall could now accommodate 2000 spectators, of which 1600 could be seated. Further, the Hall had two names, both appearing in the same newspaper at the same time. St George’s Hall seemed to accommodate any function that was not theatrical, whereas St George’s Hall and Theatre hosted that which was. It maybe that the Hall’s theatrical aspect was leased to an Andrew Melville, as his name is on the adverts. Melville was the proprietor of the Grand Theatre in Birmingham, and employed a local manager in Walsall, one Arthur Cooper.

Valentine Smith's Opera Company appear at St George's Hall, 1890

Valentine Smith’s Opera Company appear at St George’s Hall, 1890

By 1893 the Hall is being leased to Haldane Crichton and under him the Walsall Observer advertisements are for St George’s Theatre. The Red Book, in 1898, lists the seating capacity now as 1800, but still 2000 in all. Crichton still held the lease when in January 1899 the Walsall Theatres Company Ltd took over both the Grand Theatre and the St George’s Theatre: they offered shares in the Company for sale, at £1 each, in the Walsall Observer.

St George's Hall and Theatre, now operated by Haldane Cricton

St George’s Hall and Theatre, now operated by Haldane Cricton

The original idea, as set out in the newspaper, was to turn the Grand into a variety theatre and to demolish St George’s and rebuild it as a “high-class modern theatre”. This in fact did not happen – the Walsall Theatres Company’s architects, Messrs Owen & Ward of Birmingham, instead designed a new theatre, Her Majesty’s, on Park St.

In 1899, St George’s was renamed the Imperial Theatre. It was re-opened after redecoration and the installation of electric light in the May of that year. It is clear from the description given and a photograph at the Walsall Local History Centre (147/Z), that the exterior of the 1880 hall is still that of the Imperial Theatre as of the 29th July 1899 – when ‘Forgive Us Our Trespasses’, the play on the advertising-boards in the photograph, was being performed.

Renamed, The Imperial, around 29th July 1899 when Forgive Our Trespasses was being performed

Renamed, The Imperial, around 29th July 1899 when Forgive Our Trespasses was being performed

With the arrival of the Her Majesty’s Theatre, formerly opening with the ‘Belle of New York’ on the 24th March 1900, the Imperial was returned to a public venue for hire and even disappears from the advertisements in the newspapers. Its last performance appears to have been ‘The New World’, by Fred Darcy – “a thrilling story of pioneer life in the goldfields”, which ran for a week from March 12th.

The diverse nature of events held at the Hall over the next several years included; the odd theatrical and concert performance; a war and long service medal award night for the Walsall Volunteer Brigade (Dec 1901); a meat dressing competition and demonstration (May 1902); a performance by American composer and band leader, John Phillip Sousa (Jan 1903) ; a boxing competition (Dec 1903); an exhibition of physical culture (May 1905) and a breakfast for 2,712 children hosted by the Zeller fund – which was then followed by dinner for 800 elderly people (Dec 1907).

Walsall Reservists' Concert, 1899

Walsall Reservists’ Concert, 1899

1905 saw the new public Town Hall open. In the November of that year, Her Majesty’s Theatre became a theatre of varieties and under the joint management of the Walsall Theatre Company and Moss Empires Ltd: Moss controlled the London Coliseum amongst others, and so it became a part of the “greatest aggregation of variety theatres in the world”. The Grand appeared to revert back to being a theatre. This merger did not affect the Imperial initially, but would in the long term…..

Thank you to the Walsall Local History Centre for giving permission to use the images

An Imperial Story continues with 1908 – 1939: Early Cinema Days

  1. […] Historians into local mining history and the Harrison empire will find stuff of interest, as will Cannock, Bloxwich and Walsall folk. […]

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