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.
- St James Street, Burnley, Lancashire, BB11 1NL
- Risk Rating
- 7 (Community Rating: 2, Star Rating: 2, Risk Rating: 3)
- Local Authority
- Burnley Borough Council
- Burnley Empire Ltd
- G B Rawcliffe, Bertie Crewe
- Date of Construction
- Grade II
- 1,200 (estimated)
- Database Link
- View in Theatres Database
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.
Why is this theatre at risk?
The theatre has been empty since 1995, when bingo moved out. By 1997, the disused upper level showed signs of fairly significant water penetration. Over the last year, the building has been subject to several cases of unauthorised access, one of which resulted in a fire. The building which has been under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster for many years was due to go to auction in December 2018. It was feared that should this happen the building may 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, with support of Theatres Trust, was able to acquire the theatre. Despite this huge step forward in the journey to rescue the building, there is an enormous way to go before the Empire is fully restored and reopened for its local community.
In 2016 Theatres Trust and local campaign group Burnley Empire Theatre Trust (BETT – now Burnley Empire Ltd) working closely with other stakeholders including Burnley Borough 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 night club / 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.
Over the intervening time, BETT, together with Theatres Trust, has been working to establish partnerships with other potential stakeholders to see the ambition for the theatre turn to reality.
In 2018 it was announced that the National Trust were backing the campaign. In June 2018 after discussions between Theatres Trust, Theatreseach, the National Trust and Burnley Borough Council, National Trust and the Council co-chaired a workshop for key stakeholders in Burnley focusing on a future life for the Empire. Responses were enthusiastic.
At the end of an eventful year for the Empire which saw planning approval for a permanent café / bar within the original foyer, a fire, and the threat of auction. BETT finally realised the first step to its ambition and took ownership of the building.
This momentous step was enabled through the continued support from the Theatres Trust, National Trust and David Wilmore at historic theatre consultancy, Theatresearch – and the generosity of an anonymous donor. The Duchy, who kindly honoured its original offer to allow the group to buy the building for £1, transferred ownership to Burnley Empire Ltd (the company set up by BETT) on 5 December 2018.
The group also has the backing of Burnley Borough Council and has received support of offers in-kind from local businesses as well as founder of Hemingway Design, Wayne Hemingway MBE.
Funding is now being sought to carry out a conditions survey on the building, which has been inaccessible for many years, the first step towards the stabilisation works for the theatre. Theatres Trust will be continuing to work and support Burnley Empire Ltd in its continued goal of restoring and reopening the Empire.
BETT and local Ben Hamlen from North Films have been documenting the building, and have released images of the interior of the theatre.
Update October 2019
BETT, using funding awarded through our Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme, commissioned an asbestos survey which discovered asbestos within the auditorium. This was a vital piece of work that has helped the campaign group understand the state of the building and plan its next steps.
Campaign video (from 2016)
Image: Burnley Empire, Eveleigh Photography