Imperial Theatre

A rare example of a theatre derived from an agricultural hall of 1869, which has retained its original architectural character.

Auditorium of the Imperial Theatre Walsall.
Address
Darwall Street, Walsall, WS1 1DA
Risk Rating
5 (Community Rating: 1, Star Value: 2, Risk Factor: 2)
Local Authority
Walsall Council
Owner
Private
Architect
G B Nichols of West Bromwich, remodelled by Hickton & Farmer
Date of Construction
1868 - 69, substantially altered 1914
Listing
Grade II / Walsall Council Local Heritage List
Capacity
1,150

Significance

The Imperial started life as an Agricultural Hall constructed in 1868-69 and designed by the architect G B Nichols of West Bromwich. At that time it was used for a variety of community activities including shows and dancing, it was also hired out to travelling film showmen. The main feature of the early building was a principal ground floor hall.

In 1880 the hall was reconstructed internally for use as a theatre, undergoing many alterations and improvements including the addition of a horse-shoe gallery, new proscenium arch, remodelling of the stage and back of house dressing rooms. From 1899 it was known as the Imperial Theatre and was used by professionals and amateurs.

By 1908 films were being projected by Bioscope on a regular basis. In 1909 the Cinematograph Act was passed, a principal feature of which was fire safety and the need for a separate, fire-resistant projection box, connected to the auditorium by shuttered projection portholes. This, no doubt, brought about the need for a purpose-built venue and in June 1914 the Imperial was closed to allow for major alterations. The designs by West Midlands-based architects Hickton & Farmer importantly still allowed for live performance, the conversion including an extension to the fly tower to provide a fully-equipped stage with flying facilities. A balcony was also added and the capacity increased to 1,600.

The Imperial was converted to a bingo club in 1968 and in 1996 it was converted into a pub, which closed in 2016.

The theatre’s auditorium appears to retain the original roof and arrangement from the agricultural hall. This features open plastered roof trusses and lantern above. Internally the 1914 decorative scheme survives with a good degree of preservation; later fit outs have simply covered over the original features or left them exposed. The main façade is also from the 1914 remodelling.

The Imperial is included on Walsall’s local heritage list. An application by Theatres Trust to statutory list the building was successful and the theatre awarded Grade II listing in January 2022.

Why is this theatre at risk?

The Imperial is new to the Theatres at Risk Register in 2022.

The building has been empty since the pub operator vacated in 2016. In April 2021 its owner submitted a planning application to convert the building into apartments with openings inserted to provide windows. This would see complete loss of its 1914 interior and harm to its exterior, although the front façade would be retained. This constitutes harmful and irreversible alteration that would permanently remove any possibility of its retention for performance or other compatible use. Theatres Trust along with Cinema Theatre Association and the Victorian Society submitted a strong objection citing harm to a non-designated heritage asset and lack of evidence to justify loss of a community and cultural facility.

The building has since been listed Grade II, however, the planning application remains undetermined.

Theatre potential

Although there have been alterations to facilitate bingo and pub use the auditorium is substantially complete and could be reverted to cinema or theatre use, or alternative uses sympathetic to its historic significance. Walsall’s recently adopted Local Plan (2019) seeks to strengthen its cultural offer and is seeking cinema and performance venues. The Imperial provides an obvious candidate site to meet that aim.

Current situation

Despite being vacant since 2016 the building remains in good condition both internally and externally.

Theatres Trust has been actively involved in helping protect the Imperial through its role as statutory consultee in planning and through achieving listed status for the building. Moving forward we hope to work with the owner, council and other key stakeholders to find a viable and sympathetic reuse for this rare and important historic theatre.

Main photo, Imperial Walsall by Theatres Trust.