The Theatres Trust

Theatre-building’s heyday

Frank Matcham The period from the 1880s to World War I was the greatest era of theatre building. Over 1000 professional theatres were operating in Britain then, some built by syndicates, who created chains of touring houses. New architects such as W G R Sprague and T Verity became renowned for their work and could design theatres according to the changing stringent building regulations.

Probably the most prolific was Frank Matcham, who designed or renovated over 120 theatres. He was noted for his excellent planning and opulent interiors.


The development of hydraulic (water powered) stage machinery enabled more spectacular productions to be presented. Shows with increasingly ambitious special effects were devised to attract and retain audiences. However, this required more backstage space for storage and operation.

Music halls were still very popular places of entertainment, but were usually called variety theatres, owing to the variety of the acts in their shows. To make them more suitable for families the consumption of alcohol was banned in the auditorium, though it could still be consumed in bars at intervals or before and after performances. Internally, they became more like conventional theatres. Admission was by payment for designated seats, as had been the case with theatres showing drama, and which ensured that families could sit together.

Hackney Empire, London

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