Entertainment and Leisure

Like all major towns, Wolverhampton was well supplied with places of entertainment. Unfortunately only one of these, The Grand Theatre, remains from the town’s 19th century theatres. In Bilston Street was the Star Theatre and Concert Hall, which was built in the Elizabethan style and entirely rebuilt in 1883. In Cleveland Road was the Theatre Royal erected in 1844. The original theatre was at the top of the Swan Hotel yard in Queen Square (or High Green as it was then) and was built about 1779. Mrs. Siddons performed there on many occasions and legend has it that the great tragedian John Kemble made his acting debut there.

Music Halls, few of which have survived, were thought of as subversive places of entertainment as well as places of beer and gin. What is not often realised is that they were often quite political where one was as likely to hear a parodied version of a popular Jingoistic song as the real thing. 

Any discussion of Wolverhampton buildings used for entertainment must begin with the Grand Theatre. It has been described as ”the finest miniature opera house in Europe” and few would quibble with that description. A few years ago when it appeared that this delightful building was in danger of never opening again, many people felt a sense of almost personal loss. Like many local people, the writer’s earliest theatrical experiences were all at the Grand.

The Grand Theatre, Lichfield Street.

The decision to build the theatre in Lichfield Street had been made as early as February 1894 by the then mayor C.T. Mander, who was the driving force behind the scheme, and about six others. The site was important for the theatre; it was near the town centre, on a main thoroughfare and next door to the hotel, which had been enlarged to make it a first class establishment. The proprietors of the Victoria Hotel were quite pleased that there was going to be a new theatre on their doorstep and shareholders were encouraged to buy an interest in the new place of entertainment.

The actual building of the theatre was entrusted to the Wolverhampton firm of William Gough, who took only six months to complete the work after the laying of the foundation stone by Mrs. C.T. Mander. The theatre is a product of the “naughty nineties”, being built between 1893 and 1894 to a design by the architect C.J. Phipps, one of the first architects to specialise in theatre design. It was designed to seat 2, 500 people and cost £12,000. Phipps was a prolific theatre designer and his other commissions include the Savoy Theatre and Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. The Grand Theatre also incorporated four shops, two on either side of the entrance which is 123 feet across.

The opening night of the theatre was on December 10th 1894 with a performance by the D’Oyle Carte Opera Company performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Unlimited.

The latter years of the 19th century were a golden age of theatre building. It is strange that the times of the greatest theatre building do not always coincide with periods of great dramatic writing. Theatre architecture is very much linked with the social climate of the day because it is a social art. Play writing in the 19th century before the arrival of Chekhov, Ibsen and Shaw was at low ebb. However playwrights such as these often had conflicting aims, which were in conflict with those of theatre architects. The latter were concerned with creating an environment to accommodate all levels of society; the great dramatists were intent on reform and social examination as well as entertainment.

The façade of the Grand has a continental look with a five bay upper loggia of arcading. A cast iron porte-cochere extends over the pavement. Inside there are deeply recessed balconies fronted by ornate stucco work. 

The Hippodrome, Bilston Street.

Like all theatres, the Grand reflected social divisions; different bars, entrances and toilets for the patrons of different parts of the house.

It was whilst performing at the Grand Theatre in February 1905 that Sir Henry Irving was attacked by the serious illness which terminated fatally at Bradford later in the year. The young Charlie Chaplin was recorded as a call boy in 1902 and he also starred at the Grand in one of his first acting debuts as Dr Watson’s page boy (!) in Sherlock Homes.

Many Victorian theatres and music halls have either been destroyed or insensitively “adapted”. Wolverhampton is fortunate in retaining the Grand.

The Elephant and Castle that was in Stafford Street.

There are in Wolverhampton some fine examples of pub architecture, although many have gone and those remaining do not contain their original fittings. Although some people get very romantic about good pub buildings, it should be remembered that they had one function and one function only and that was to sell beer and make as much money as possible. Many underhand methods were employed to make people drink more, including adding salt to the brew. (Now pubs just sell a wide range of salty snacks). 
In the 19th century the brewery interest was very powerful and not for nothing was it known as the “Beerage”. There are in Wolverhampton some fine examples of pub architecture, although many have gone and those remaining do not contain their original fittings. 
One of the best examples of pub architecture was the Elephant and Castle just off the Ring Road. The façade was of exuberant green glazed brick. For a sign it had a splendid model of its name on the corner. The tiling was perfect and extremely well-preserved with the name of the pub written on the two sides facing the two roads. Above the doorway was written Wines and Spirits in ceramics of the very highest order of quality. 
What remained of the beautiful and much loved Elephant and Castle after its hasty demolition.
There was a projecting black and white gable above the model sign and below that a decorative border. The Elephant and Castle achieved the brewery’s main aim which was to create a landmark building. The Elephant was not only one of the most famous buildings in Wolverhampton but also one of the best loved.

In the City centre, the recently refurbished Posada still retains many of its original features, including the glazed tiles below the window and inside, but most of all the beautiful Art Nouveau lettering of its name above the window and down the side entrance. The Prince Albert and Sir Tatton Sykes are both good examples of imposing late Victorian pubs. The former is one of our favourite façades having as it does an excellent symmetry. At the top are two cupolas on either side of four steep gables. Each of the storeys uses a different design for its four windows. The first storey windows are bowed and those at the ground floor have arches. The two doorways either side of the building complete the symmetry.

The Prince Albert pub.

Recently the Town hall Tavern has been refurbished and renovated. One outcome of this was the removal of plaster work above the first floor which revealed a row of exquisite sky-blue tiles, some patterned, some with fleurs-de-lis, others having letters making up the legend “Wine and Spirit Merchant”. Entwined numbers in stone above the door give the date 1874. Although the inside of the pub has been ruthlessly altered, the façade of the Old Still  retains its ability to impress, guarding as it does the entrance to King Street, a street that can probably still boast of being one of Wolverhampton’s most elegant streets.

The Exchange in Cheapside was recently vandalised when the old fixtures and fittings were torn out to be replaced by imitation old fixtures and fittings. Progress of a sort one supposes.1

Unfortunately, many of Wolverhampton's Victorian pubs disappeared during the construction of the Ring Road. I would pick out five, the first being the Blue Ball at the end of Pipers Row.


1. It is strange how some breweries (not of course Wolverhampton’s premier brewery) deliberately trade on their old fashioned traditional image and at the same time have engaged in architectural vandalism and philistinism on a breathtaking scale. How people who harp on their “heritage” can so ruthlessly destroy and disguise it is a mystery. When one local pub was undergoing a particularly ruthless transformation into a Giggle Palace or Fun Factory, I wrote to the brewery concerned and asked if the beautiful plaster mouldings, brass work, heavy oak doors and etched windows had at least been passed on to a dealer in architectural antiques. The reply expressed blank amazement that anyone should have asked such a ridiculous and naive question.

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