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.

June2016 eveleigh side pano burnleyempire cropped detail
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. 

The theatre has been empty since 1995 when bingo moved out. By 1997, the disused upper level showed signs of fairly significant water penetration. To complicate issues the ownership of the building has been broken up and the dressing room block, the main entrance foyer, and the linking block between the foyer and auditorium sold to different owners. Despite vigorous objections from Theatres Trust, planning approval was granted in 2018 for a permanent café / bar within the original foyer of the building, also known as 118 St James Street. This decision highlights the complications when the ownership of a listed building is broken up and subsequently the historic significance of areas of the building 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 and 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 - now Burnley Empire Trust (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.

Over the last year, the main part of the building that includes the auditorium has been subject to several cases of unauthorised access, resulting in damage to the historic fabric.

BET together with support from the coalition group has been making steady progress to secure the building and has been successful in its bid to secure funding from the Architectural Heritage Fund and as a part of the Heritage High Street Action Zone (HAZ) for Lower St James Street. This work will help stabilise the building and make it watertight as well as removing asbestos. However, there is still an enormous way to go before the Empire is fully restored and reopened for its local community.

Burnley Empire, detail

Theatre potential

In 2016 Theatres Trust and local campaign group BET, 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 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 in spring 2019 was successful in its bids to both the NLHF Resilience Fund and to the Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme, the former supporting governance, an update to the viability study and allowing the group to commission a conditions and structural survey, and the latter supporting an asbestos survey and construction, design and management advice. The group has also been given the backing of Burnley Borough Council and received support of offers in-kind from local businesses as well as the founder of Hemingway Design, Wayne Hemingway MBE.

Despite great advances, the project also suffered setbacks including vandalism littering asbestos debris within the auditorium, and, most recently, a further break-in that has caused severe damage to the building.

BET, however, continues to work tirelessly towards its goal to restore and reopen the Empire and has now started enabling works to remove asbestos from the building and carry out essential repair works to the roof. These works are being funded through a successful crowdfunding campaign which was match funded by the Architectural Heritage Fund. Further roofing works, asbestos removal, and provision of a safety net beneath the fragile fibrous plaster ceiling are being funded through the HAZ and part-funded through work-in-kind by generous local businesses and supporters. The HAZ is also supporting work to secure improved hoardings to the building and for part improvements to the façade providing signage for both the Empire project and the wider works.

BET registered as a charity in April 2020 and has been recruiting trustees to support the overall running of the charity, which will see the group grow in capacity and enable them to better support future capital works.

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

Campaign video (from 2016)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXGUuZPyqIA

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