Garston Empire

A rare surviving example of a ciné-variety house, built in 1915 to show both theatre and silent films to the local working class community.

20100505 ig liverpoolgarstonempire 002 detail
1 James Street, Garston, Liverpool, Merseyside, L19 2LS
Risk Rating
5 (Community Value: 2, Star Rating: 1, Risk Factor: 2)
Local Authority
Liverpool City Council
Private owner
Joseph Pearce
Date of Construction
Not listed
1,000 (estimated)


With only three working years as a theatre, this gem has survived with its original features and much decoration intact, thanks to over forty years with cinema use, and thirty years with bingo use. Designed in 1915, the Garston Empire belongs to a class of transitional theatres that were built for a very short period, coming after the Edwardian theatre boom and before the cinema building boom that followed the 1909 Cinema Act. These theatres possess unique qualities, as their architects were conscious of the possibilities of continued variety theatre and silent films. This type of entertainment building is therefore a reflection of major changes that affected the social habits of society and comes at a watershed moment in the history of entertainment. This theatre was designed to serve a predominantly local working class community. Such provincial variety theatres provided a vehicle for the spread of popular culture and are often referred to as ‘fleapits’, characterised by small foyers and relatively plain auditoria. They are increasingly rare with estimates that fewer than twenty survive nationally. It is an architecturally important ciné-variety house, deserving of more research, national recognition and heritage designation.

Why is this theatre at risk?

In 2010 Theatres Trust received notification of possible demolition of the building. The council confirmed that demolition would not require planning permission as the building is neither in a conservation area nor listed. However, the Trust would be consulted should the site be redeveloped.

Current situation

Following the launch of the 2015 Theatre Buildings at Risk Register, Theatres Trust was contacted by several members of the local community who wished to help save the Empire and Theatres Trust made contact with the owner. After so many years of disuse the owner is eager to sell and has had approaches from developers. The local community still has fond memories of the building and there is support for reopening the Empire as a community facility.

While there has been continuing interest in the building from many sources, including a local theatre-maker looking for a venue to stage shows, this has yet to result in a core group that can take on the onerous responsibilities of a regeneration project. Theatres Trust remains in contact with interested parties, including the local community group South Liverpool Voluntary Inclusion Programme, who work to improve the mental and physical health of older people and whose members have fond memories of the Garston Empire when in cinema use. The group would like to see the theatre reopened once more for the benefit of the community. Theatres Trust will continue to facilitate contact between interested groups and also the owner to try and find a route to successfully bring the venue back to life.

Update August 2019

A new campaign group has formed with plans to return the Garston Empire to community use. Read more about the Friends of Garston Empire in our news story.

Image: Garston Empire, Ian Grundy