The Royal Court Theatre, Wigan was built in 1886 and designed by the architect Richard T. Johnson, who was also responsible for the redesigns of the Theatre Royal and Empire Theatres in Wigan.
The Royal Court Theatre opened on the 22nd of November 1886, and was to gain the reputation of being one of the most attractive playhouses in the provinces.
The greatly increased standard of Theatre building in the town was commented on in an article printed on the 20th November 1886, in the Wigan Observer who said: ‘The Eagle room behind the Royal Hotel ( formerly The Eagle and Child) some fifty years ago was a place of some importance, for there were held the assembly balls and there, too, the drama found gloomy asylum, though the audience was more select than numerous. Since then we have crept slowly forward, first with one wooden structure then with another, then with the diminutive Theatre Royal, until without any preliminary flourish we find ourselves face to face with the very elegant new Theatre in King Street’ – The Wigan Observer.
A description of the Theatre, which cost £18,000 to build, including the site, appeared in the same article: ‘Simplicity solidity and utility have been constantly kept in view, and this more particularly in the façade in which “Ruabon” bricks and terracotta, which promises to be the future building material, figure very harmoniously. “The beauty of the daughter of the King is within”, so it is with the Royal Court Theatre. It is impossible to give a detailed account and adequately describe the interior of the Theatre; a personal visit is the only way to obtain a correct idea of the whole.
The Theatre is a happy medium of comfort convenience and elegance, which are blended together not only in the general outlines but also in the smallest details. Here we have a Theatre comfortably accommodating 3,000 people and yet giving the idea of a small, compact and elegant work of art. The cost is considerable. Nothing however has been spared to produce a perfect Theatre.
Polished granite and marble adorn the handsome and spacious vestibule, while granolithic concrete laid by Mr Lockwood of Manchester figures in the staircases to the upper circle and gallery, thus rendering them fireproof. The pit is very spacious and divided into orchestra stalls, pit stalls and pit. Above are three tiers in a form called the “horseshoe.” The dress circle is upholstered in copper coloured satin and velvet plush with gold tassels, while the upper–circle and gallery is treated with much more taste than is usually displayed in this part of the house.
To all parts of the house will be attached separate refreshment and cloak rooms, lavatories etc. The proscenium and fronts of the tiers will be of fibrous plaster from the special designs of the architect in a conventional Grecian style of architecture which are original and highly chased, with noble simplicity and silent grandeur. The ceiling will be of fibrous plaster divided in to panels, with rich partera enrichments and surmounted with a circular dome 30ft. in diameter, relieved with fibrous plaster enrichments, the acoustic properties being well studied by the architect. The whole of the plaster work is being executed by Messrs’ James Hammond and Son of Manchester, and will be decorated by a well-known Paris firm.
The act drop, portraying a well- known and important view has been artistically painted by that distinguished artist, Mr G. F.Warde of London. The stock scenery, which displays great artistic taste, is from the brush of Mr Phillip Small. All the stage appointments are in the hands of Mr J. R.Chapman of London.
The stage which will be fitted with every modern appliance is 56ft. wide and 45ft. deep, and attached to the same by a corridor is a building containing spacious green, ballet, property, orchestra and dressing rooms all fitted up with heating apparatus and hot and cold water, and each of which is ventilated by special flues carried through the ceiling. The foul air of the auditorium is taken away by air grids placed under all the galleries connected with flues running up the walls, and the latter being conveyed into the patent extractor ventilator in the roof by means of pipes, and fresh air is admitted by means of air grids placed in the walls and connected with the atmosphere outside by moveable air grids which can be regulated from inside.
The heating of the building will be on the low pressure system and the lighting by gas and electricity. The building is practically fireproof, the gallery being constructed of ironwork and every precaution will be taken to prevent the spread of fire by a plentiful supply of water hydrants and hose. In addition to the ordinary means of egress, there will be additional staircases and many exit doors in case of fire.
The new Theatre will be opened on Monday evening when Captain Bainbridge’s well known company will produce the popular comic opera “The Beggar Student.” Whenever this opera has been given it has attracted crowded houses, who have been delighted with the sparkling melody, capital acting and interesting situations.’ – The Wigan Observer.
The ERA reported some interesting facts about the new Theatre’s stage in their 27th of November 1886 edition saying:- “The stage is 45ft by 56ft, and its mechanical appliances have been designed and executed by Mr J R Chapman, of London. It contains all modern improvements There are three working bridges, three star traps, and eight narrow working sliders for sinks and rises. The cellar is 21ft below the level of the stage. The gridiron is 50ft above. The grooves, of which there are four pairs, are 18ft in height, so that there is ample accommodation to produce the most elaborates or mechanical pieces travelling. The footlights are sunk below the stage level. In fact everything is superb about the building and pen can do faint justice to its true merits.” The ERA, 27th of November 1886.
The opening night of the new Theatre must have been one of the most glittering in the history of live entertainment in Wigan, and the report which appeared in the Observer on Wednesday the 24th of November 1886, recreates this long forgotten occasion: ‘The opening proceedings on Monday night were watched with singular eagerness by a large number of people who seized every opportunity of giving vent to their enthusiastic feeling. There was a large audience, and the new Temple of Thespis started upon its career with the best of all auguries— a crowded house. All the private boxes were occupied, and there was a good attendance of prominent ladies and gentlemen in the dress circle. The side circle and orchestra stalls were also comfortably filled. The pit and the stalls were crowded as was the upper circle. The gallery was literally packed, but the denizens of that lofty position did not suffer much inconvenience in consequence, as owing to the admiral formation of the place and the excellent acoustic arrangement all the ”gods” had a good view of the stage and were able to hear the artistes particularly well. The interior presented a most brilliant appearance and the beauty of the place won the admiration of the audience.
The curtain rose shortly before half–past seven, revealing the magnificent act-drop, a view of Windsor Castle, painted by Mr G. F.Warde. This at once drew forth a round of applause, and the painter appeared and bowed his acknowledgements. The orchestra then struck up the National Anthem, the act drop was raised and the vast audience rose whilst the principle members of the Opera Company sang ”God Save The Queen” Miss Ada Lincoln executing the solo passages. The act-drop was then lowered for a short interval, and a telegram was at once despatched to her Majesty, informing her that the Theatre had been opened by the singing of the national hymn. Soon afterwards the performance of the comic opera, “The Beggar Student” in three acts, by Captain Bainbridge’s (Theatre Royal Manchester) splendid opera company began.
The performance was in every way excellent, and the ripples of laughter, the storms of applause and repeated calls before the curtain of the principal artistes testified in an emphatic manner how much the audience appreciated it. The dresses were rich and appropriate, as were the scenic effects, and when we say that at various points of the play there were upwards of eighty people upon the stage, it will be understood that the blending of colour and groupings were extremely effective. The music was admirably rendered by the augmented orchestra under the direction of Mr John Jew.
Captain Bainbridge at the close of the second act stepped before the curtain and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have been requested by the managers to come before you and read two or three telegrams which have just been received, but before doing so, I should like to remark that you now possess one of the most handsome Theatres in England. I really cannot say very much to you tonight as I am a stranger to the town; but I have brought my company here and I hope you approve of it. (APPLAUSE.) I would like to say a great deal more to you, but I will content myself by reading the telegrams. The first is from Mr Henry Irving, (APPLAUSE) “Strand, London. Let me thank you for your kind letter and enclosure. All good wishes for your new Theatre. An auspicious opening and continued success, HENRY IRVING (APPLAUSE.) He sends his congratulations and hopes the new Theatre will be a grand success. He will try to give you an engagement next year. (APPLAUSE.) The next is from Mr Clarence Holt, who is in Dublin. He wishes good luck to the new Theatre, and says it is bound to succeed. He says he will come here as well. (APPLAUSE.) The other telegram is from Mr Charles Collette (APPLAUSE.) who wishes success, and hopes to appear before you sometime.
Let me now thank you very much for the way in which you have received our opera and those kind friends both before and behind the curtain for the way in which they have conducted the Theatre. I hope the managers will have great success and that I shall have the pleasure of appearing before you again. “(APPLAUSE.)
The performance closed a little before eleven 0’ clock, and the theatre was cleared in exactly one minute and a half. Since Monday night the following letter has been received from her Majesty the Queen:- “General Sir Henry.F. Ponsonby is commanded by the Queen to thank Messrs’ Worswick and Gee for their letter of the 19th instant, and the programme which they sent:- Buckingham Palace, 22nd November, 1886.’ – The Wigan Observer.
The Royal court was a success from the start and in 1894 the Dress Circle was enlarged, the private boxes modified and the amount of electric lighting increased. The entrances to the Pit, Upper Circle and Gallery were re-located. The two end shops were enlarged over the former Pit entrances and forward to incorporate the former veranda area. The area of the shop, on the right of the front entrance, was incorporated into the foyer to provide space for a new staircase layout to the Circle and Stalls and a Booking Office. Unusually, access to the Stalls appears to have been through the Circle and down steps located on either side of the proscenium. The dressing room accommodation, whilst still in the same location and on two floors was doubled in size.
The Wigan Observer of 24th July 1894 noted: – ‘Visitors to the Theatre, which is to be re-opened on Monday by Mr Wilson Barratt, are sure to be astonished at the alterations which have been carried out.’ – Wigan Observer 24th July 1894.
According to a report in the ERA dated 4th August 1894 the alterations were not yet completed:- ‘This commodious Theatre has been closed for a few weeks undergoing extensive alterations, and although they are not yet completed the place presented a very nice appearance, on Monday evening, Mr William Barrett and his company being the attraction in “Claudian”. The famous actor, who undertook the title role was applauded to the echo by a crowded and enthusiastic audience.” – The ERA 4th August 1894.
The 1894 plan is shown below:
During the next forty four years opera and music lovers as well as theatregoers would be well provided for at the Royal Court Theatre. The D’Olly Carte Opera Company paid a number of visits to perform the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, and other operatic entertainments was provided by the Carl Rosa Opera Company, also the Moody Manners Opera Company.
Forbs Robertson brought his company to present dramas; lighter entertainment was provided by such people as Fred Karno’s “Celebrated Company,” who appeared several times. Many other dramatic entertainments were performed by less well-known companies and playbills of the period show titles such as “The Price of Sin”, “The Girl Who Lost Her Character”, “Maria Martin” and a great favourite to judge by repeated advertisements in the local press,”Humanity”.
Another advertisement, in the Comet, dated 15th November, 1891, said that the “eminent tragedian” Mr Osmond Tearle would shortly appear at the Royal Court , playing Hamlet on Monday, Macbeth on Tuesday, Othello Thursday, Shylock, Merchant of Venice Friday and Richard 3rd on Saturday. Proof that the “Bard” himself was not neglected by the management of the Theatre.
In 1899 major alterations were carried out by the London based Theatre architect John P. Briggs, who is now recognised as one of the leading Theatre architects of his time. Backstage, Briggs further enlarged the dressing room accommodation. He built a large scenery store and property room on land behind the stage house but attached to the back wall, with access directly from the stage. He replaced the 1886 Upper Circle and Gallery with a single large Upper Circle, retaining the cast iron pillar supports for both the circle and upper circles. Between the upper circle and the Dress Circle he introduced a mezzanine floor with a new and spacious bar built above the entrance hall with five windows set between fluted Doric pilasters overlooking King Street. He redesigned the entrance hall using the former shop space on the left of the original principal entrance and creating new double doors left and right of the original centre doors, creating a new staircase, with a centre flight to a half landing with flights left and right leading to the new crush hall and bar above. This was apparently typical of his style; the staircase has survived to the present day 2012 and is believed to be one of only three Briggs staircases still to exist. Electric lighting was extended to all parts of the Theatre.
The Wigan Observer 5th August 1899 carried a report on the alterations saying:- ‘The decoration of the Theatre has been carried out in French Renaissance style, being carefully and harmoniously treated. The prevailing tints are cream, buff and gold, relieved by rose pink and smoky blues. The ceiling is a very handsome one; the centre portion being domed and divided out with open scroll, worked with bold cornices and enrichments. The proscenium opening is flanked on each side by an enriched frame, from which spring ornamental bracketing. There are two beautifully treated private boxes on each side of the stage draped with crimson plush curtains and valance. The upper circle and dress circle fronts are fully enriched and decorated in gold and colours. The electric light has been introduced into the circle fronts so as to form part of the scheme of decoration. The walls of the auditorium are covered with Japanese paper which helps to throw out the delicate tints of the decoration’. – The Wigan Observer 5th August 1899.
The plans displayed here demonstrate the extent of the alterations.
A great disappointment came to Wigan theatregoers in 1905, when it was announced that due to ill health, Sir Henry Irving would be unable to make his anticipated visit to the Theatre. There is no evidence to be found to support any theory that Sir Henry ever appeared in Wigan on any future occasion.
The Royal Court continued as a home of live entertainment until 1930, when projection equipment was installed and the silver screen began to dominate the stage of the Theatre. However during that year one live show was seen at the Royal Court. This was a musical show called “Mr Cinders“ and featuring an artiste called Leslie Hatson in the title role. This was probably the last because no further adverts for live performances could be traced.
In 1930 the interior of the Theatre was considerably remodelled by the architects Grey and Evans of Liverpool. The proscenium was moved back, enlarging the seating capacity of the stalls. Briggs’ upper circle and dress circle were substantially altered by introducing the cantilever system to support them. The stage boxes were removed and the exits from the auditorium were once again revised. A fine Compton Cinema Organ was installed at this time, capable of rising from a new “orchestra pit”. A back projection system was used for a number of years until a projection room was built at the back of the upper circle about 1950. The Theatre reopened as the Court Cinema in December 1930.
The first floor dressing rooms disappeared at the time of the remodelling when Mr Worswick also engaged Grey and Evans to enlarge his Court Ballroom next door, housed in what had been the old County Court. The ground floor dressing rooms would eventually be made into kitchens that would serve Wigan’s British Restaurant during the Second World War.
In this form the Royal Court continued to function as a place of entertainment until the spring of 1974 when it was closed as a cinema, to reopen sometime later as a bingo hall, see images below. The alterations this time would involve the blocking off of the upper circle and the insertion of a second false ceiling hiding J. P Briggs’ dome, the only part of his auditorium to survive.
The Theatre’s incarnation as a Bingo Hall eventually closed and part of the space was then used as a bar called ‘The Hub’ in 2012. This ceased trading and was repossessed by bailiffs on the 13th May 2016. In February 2017 the building was still closed and awaiting a new owner at a guide price of £250,000.
At the time of writing the building is a Grade II Listed and the circle, complete with seats, and the upper circle, minus seats, and closed off to the ceiling with a plasterboard “wall”, remain intact, as does the upper stage house, part of which is above the false ceiling installed in 1930. The original orchestra pit still exists beneath the floor of what were the stalls.
In the Spring of 2018 it was announced that the Theatre is to be restored back to full theatrical use again by an arts group in the town known as The Old Courts. It was purchased at auction by the officials of this not for profit organisation in March 2018 to great acclaim, not only from the people of the town but from organisations such as The Theatre Trust.
This article on the Royal Court Theatre, Wigan was first written in 1974 by George Richmond and was updated by him in 2012 and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site. The article is © copyright George Richmond 1974 – 2012. The article was updated by myself in March 2018 to include the latest situation.
With thanks to ArthurLloyd.co.uk for the use of this article.