Imperial Theatre

A rare example of a theatre derived from an agricultural hall of 1869, which has retained its original architectural character.

Auditorium of the Imperial Theatre Walsall.
Darwall Street, Walsall, WS1 1DA
Risk Rating
5 (Community Rating: 1, Star Value: 2, Risk Factor: 2)
Local Authority
Walsall Council
G B Nichols of West Bromwich, remodelled by Hickton & Farmer
Date of Construction
1868 - 69, substantially altered 1914
Grade II / Walsall Council Local Heritage List


The Imperial started life as an agricultural hall constructed in 1868-69 and designed by the architect G B Nichols of West Bromwich. At that time, it was used for a variety of community activities including shows and dancing, it was also hired out to travelling film showmen. The main feature of the early building was a principal ground floor hall.

In 1880, the hall was reconstructed internally for use as a theatre, undergoing many alterations and improvements including the addition of a horse-shoe gallery, a new proscenium arch, and remodelling of the stage and back-of-house dressing rooms. From 1899 it was known as the Imperial Theatre and was used by professionals and amateurs.

By 1908 films were being projected by Bioscope on a regular basis. In 1909 the Cinematograph Act was passed, a principal feature of which was fire safety and the need for a separate, fire-resistant projection box, connected to the auditorium by shuttered projection portholes. This, no doubt, brought about the need for a purpose-built venue and in June 1914 the Imperial was closed to allow for major alterations. The designs by West Midlands-based architects Hickton & Farmer importantly still allowed for live performance, the conversion including an extension to the fly tower to provide a fully-equipped stage with flying facilities. A balcony was also added, and the capacity increased to 1,600.

The Imperial was converted to a bingo club in 1968 and in 1996 it was converted into a pub, which closed in 2016.

The theatre’s auditorium appears to retain the original roof and arrangement from the agricultural hall. It features open plastered roof trusses and lanterns above. Internally the 1914 decorative scheme survives with a good degree of preservation; later fit outs have simply covered over the original features or left them exposed. The main façade is also from the 1914 remodelling.

The Imperial is included on Walsall’s local heritage list. Theatres Trust successfully applied to have the building listed, with it being awarded Grade II listed status in January 2022.

Why is this theatre at risk?

The Imperial was added to the Theatres at Risk Register in 2022.

The building has been empty since the pub operator vacated in 2016. In April 2021, its owner submitted a planning application to convert the building into 21 apartments with new window openings inserted. The conversion would have seen the complete loss of its 1914 interior and harm to its exterior, although the front façade would be retained. The proposal constituted harmful and irreversible alterations that would permanently remove any possibility of its retention for performance or other compatible use. Theatres Trust along with the Cinema Theatre Association and the Victorian Society submitted a strong objection citing harm to a non-designated heritage asset and lack of evidence to justify the loss of a community and cultural facility.

The building has since been listed Grade II. The owner subsequently submitted a listed building consent application in August 2022 for the proposal to convert the building into 21 apartments. Historic England along with Theatres Trust, the Cinema Theatre Association and the Victorian Society objected to the listing building consent application. Walsall Council’s conservation officer also objected to both applications.

Both planning permission and listed building consent were refused on 23 November 2022. The owner has since put the building on the market with a guide price of £595k.

Despite being vacant since 2016 the building remains in good condition both internally and externally, however, the longer the building remains empty the more vulnerable it is to deterioration.

Theatre potential

Although there have been alterations to facilitate bingo and pub use the auditorium is substantially complete and could be reverted to cinema or theatre use, or alternative uses sympathetic to its historic significance. The building is located within the town centre of Walsall, and Walsall’s Town Centre Area Action Plan (adopted in 2019) seeks to strengthen its cultural offer, including providing cinema and performance venues.

In 2021, it was announced that Walsall Council had been successful in its bid to the government’s Towns Fund, an initiative aimed at transforming the economic growth prospect of towns. While the Imperial provides an obvious site that has the potential to meet these aims and we have encouraged the council to explore the opportunities that it presents, ownership remains a challenge.

The council was also successful in a bid to the Cultural Development Fund in March 2023 to transform the nearby Guildhall into a Creative Industries Enterprise Centre, a project that falls within the Town Deal. The council noted in its press release that the project represented ‘a step change in approach to Town Centre regeneration, celebrating important historic spaces through community-led cultural activity.’ It is understood that its positive stance towards the rejuvenation of historic buildings extends to supporting finding a sympathetic reuse for the Imperial.

Current situation

Theatres Trust has been actively involved in helping protect the Imperial through our role as a statutory consultee in the planning process and through achieving listed status for the building. We have also provided a robust response to both the planning application and listed building consent application, which has seen the conversion of the building into residential being refused.

Since the addition of the building to our Theatres at Risk Register, we have been contacted by several interested parties who have ambitions to see the building reopened for live performance. We are supporting these groups through advice on early-stage viability work with the aim of unlocking a means to restoring and reopening the building.

We will also continue to look to work with the owner, council, and other key stakeholders to take a collaborative approach to finding a viable and sympathetic reuse for this rare and important historic theatre.


Main photo, Imperial Walsall by Theatres Trust