Burnley Empire

Burnley’s only Grade II listed purpose-built Victorian theatre. The auditorium was reconstructed in 1911 by eminent theatre architect Bertie Crewe, and survives in its original, elaborate form.

Colour auditorium photo from the first balcony looking across to the opposite side boxes and up to the ceiling.
Address
St James Street, Burnley, Lancashire, BB11 1NL
Risk Rating
7 (Community Value: 2, Star Rating: 2, Risk Factor: 3)
Architect
G B Rawcliffe, Bertie Crewe
Date of Construction
1894
Listing
Grade II
Capacity
1,200 (estimated)

Significance

The 1,200-seat Burnley Empire was built in 1894, with the auditorium reconstructed in 1911 by Bertie Crewe. It is Burnley’s only Grade II listed purpose-built Victorian theatre. It has a high level of architectural interest, the principal feature being the Crewe interior. At the time of statutory listing, it retained most of the original structure and elaborate detail with robust and richly formed plasterwork in the classical style. Although in poor condition, the theatre could be restored to use.

Research has recently revealed that the theatre played host to the first-ever film featuring escapologist Harry Houdini, adding further to the building’s cultural significance.

Why is this theatre at risk?

Burnley Empire has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2006 when we started the list.

Empty since 1995 when bingo moved out, by 1997 the disused upper level showed signs of fairly significant water penetration. Over time the ownership of the building had been split and the dressing room block, the main entrance foyer, and the linking block between the foyer and auditorium sold to different parties. Despite vigorous objections from Theatres Trust, in 2018 planning approval was granted for a permanent café / bar within the original foyer of the building (118 St James Street). This decision highlights the complications arising when the ownership of a listed building is held by different parties and the historic significance of the different areas of the building are misunderstood.

The main part of the building came under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster in 2015 after the company who had owned the theatre went into administration. In December 2018 the Duchy decided to auction the building. It was feared that, should this happen, the building could have been purchased by a speculative buyer with interests in demolishing the Empire and developing the site. However, at the eleventh-hour local campaign group Burnley Empire Limited (now Burnley Empire Trust or BET) with support from a coalition group comprising Theatres Trust, National Trust and David Wilmore at historic theatre consultancy Theatresearch, and the generosity of an anonymous donor, was able to acquire the theatre. BET has also managed to acquire the linking block between the main foyer and auditorium. The foyer and dressing room blocks however remain in different ownerships.

BET with continued support from Theatresearch and Theatres Trust has been making steady progress to secure the main part of the building. However, there is still an enormous way to go before the Empire is fully restored and reopened for its local community.

Up close balcony front plasterwork in the Classical style at Burnley Empire, with gold and red detailing

Theatre potential

In 2016 Theatres Trust and local campaign group BET, working closely with other stakeholders including Burnley Council, commissioned a viability study on the future of the Empire.

The study by Bonnar Keenlyside and Theatresearch was conducted in two phases and identified a preferred option – an innovative and incremental approach to the renovation of the building. In the short term, it would allow the development of the stage house into a fully independent nightclub / events space, with a long-term vision to fully restore the auditorium through an initiative with heritage skills training and to reopen it as a working venue.

A successful bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) Resilient Heritage grant scheme in 2019 supported an update of the viability study to take into account the University of Central Lancashire’s expansion in the town and the council’s new masterplan proposals for the area. This has supported the phased approach to the works and has provided a suggested route to providing an initial meanwhile use for the building before it is finally fully restored and reopened.

Current situation

BET took ownership of the building on 5 December 2018 and has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the Empire locally and to fundraise for its restoration. Its achievements to date include:

  • A successful bid in spring 2019 to the NLHF Resilience Fund, to support governance, an update to the viability study, and allowing the group to commission a conditions and structural survey.
  • Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme support to commission an asbestos survey and to support the group with construction, design and management advice for undertaking the site works.
  • In 2020 funding was received from the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) and the Heritage High Street Action Zone (HAZ) for Lower St James Street to help stabilise the building and make it watertight as well as removing asbestos.
  • A further grant from the AHF awarded in 2021 supported additional viability work around the stage house area and legal and business planning support,
  • Further funding through the HAZ to support additional survey work, removal of debris around the stage and in previously inaccessible areas, and to carry out some initial works to the historic decorative plaster ceiling and box fronts.

The group has also been given the backing of Burnley Council and received support of offers-in-kind from local businesses, including the founder of Hemingway Design, Wayne Hemingway MBE. Local MP Anthony Higginbotham has also recently pledged his support to the Empire.

Despite these great advances, the project has also suffered setbacks along the way, including vandalism littering asbestos debris within the auditorium and break ins that have caused severe damage to the building. Not only has been heartbreaking for the group, but it also increased the overall project restoration cost.

BET continues to work tirelessly towards its goal to restore and reopen the Empire and to create a new destination for the people of Burnley and East Lancashire. The ambition is for a building that will be a new centre of activity for local cultural and creative communities, as well as a space for learning, socialising, and collaboration for everyone. In addition to restoring the beautiful Bertie Crewe interior, the project will provide a new space to support local businesses and people with the ambition of bringing prosperity to Burnley, both in economic and social terms.

Theatres Trust will continue to work with and support BET in its ongoing goal of restoring and reopening the Empire.

Campaign video (2021)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSvVUQ-Y2hQ

Auditorium photo Burnley Empire, Eveleigh Photography; balcony detail, Ben Hamlen at North Films.