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 Value: 2, Star Rating: 2, Risk Factor: 3)
- Local Authority
- Burnley Borough Council
- Local Group
- Burnley Empire Trust
- Burnley Empire Trust
- 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.
In 2015, the building came under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster 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), with support from Theatres Trust, was able to acquire the theatre. This was a huge step forward in the journey to rescue the building, however, there is still 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 Trust (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 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.
A successful National Lottery Heritage Fund bid in 2019 is supporting 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 work is due to complete early in 2020.
In 2018 it was announced that National Trust was backing the restoration of the Empire. In June 2018 after discussions between Theatres Trust, Theatreseach, 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.
Despite vigorous objections from Theatres Trust, 2018 also saw planning approval for a permanent café / bar within the original foyer of the building, also known as 118 St James Street. However, the year was to end on a positive note with BET finally realising the first step to its ambition and taking ownership of the building on 5 December.
This momentous step was enabled through the continued support of a coalition group comprising Theatres Trust, National Trust and David Wilmore at historic theatre consultancy, Theatresearch – and the generosity of an anonymous donor. Download the full press release.
The group were also given the backing of Burnley Borough Council and received support of offers in-kind from local businesses as well as founder of Hemingway Design, Wayne Hemingway MBE. This invaluable support has continued and is helping BET progress their ambitions.
In April 2019 and with the continued support of the Coalition Group, BET were awarded funding through the National Lottery Heritage Fund's Resilient Heritage grant to build capacity, update their viability study and to carry out a conditions survey and structural survey on the building. This is the first step towards the stabilisation works for the theatre.
In May 2019 it was announced that BET were one of the six TAR theatres to benefit from the Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme. The funding is supporting an asbestos survey and CDM advice.
In autumn 2019 Burnley Empire was selected as one of only 25 buildings to be featured by the Heritage Open Days organisation as part of their annual event. Tours within the building had been planned but were postponed after asbestos debris from panels broken by vandals was discovered within the auditorium. Despite the setback BET hosted a meet and greet event in a local café.
On 8 November the group held a 125-year Big Birthday Dinner Party for the Empire at Burnley Football Club's Turf Moor stadium. Attendees at the fundraiser event were treated to entertainment and viewing exclusive recent footage from inside the Empire.
Burnley Borough Council has recently been successful in its bid for a Heritage High Street Action Zone (HAZ) for Lower St James Street. The boundary of the HAZ includes the Empire Theatre. The HAZ, a national initiative funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and administered by Historic England, aims to breathe new life into heritage-rich high streets. Burnley is aiming to achieve this through three complementary strands of work: physical works to buildings; cultural activities and events; community engagement. The details of the project are currently being developed.
In April 2020 Burnley Empire Trust was awarded charity status.
The team at Burnley Empire Trust discovered that people had entered the building unlawfully, and caused severe damage by forcing entry through a brick wall on the riverside. The team were quick to reseal the entry point and have now permanently restored the wall, but the work has diverted money away from other restoration projects planned for the building.
Theatres Trust will continue to work and support BET in its ongoing goal of restoring and reopening the Empire.
Campaign video (from 2016)
Main photo Burnley Empire, Eveleigh Photography