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.

Colour auditorium photo from the first balcony looking across to the opposite side boxes and up to the ceiling.
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.

In March 2023, and as part of Historic England’s work with the Hight Street Heritage Action Zone, the listing description for Burnley Empire was updated. Read the research compiled by Dr Elain Harwood

Why is this theatre at risk?

Burnley Empire has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2006 when we started the list.

Empty since 1995 when bingo moved out, by 1997 the disused upper level showed signs of fairly significant water penetration. Over time the ownership of the building had been split, and the dressing room block, the main entrance foyer, and the linking block between the foyer and auditorium were sold to different parties, with the auditorium and stage house eventually falling under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster.

In 2018, despite vigorous objections from Theatres Trust, planning approval was granted for a permanent café / bar within the original foyer of the building (118 St James Street). This decision highlights the complications arising when the ownership of a listed building is held by different parties and the historic significance of the different areas of the building are not fully understood.

In December 2018, local campaign group Burnley Empire Limited (now Burnley Empire Trust) 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, acquired the theatre from the Duchy of Lancaster. Burnley Empire Trust (BET) has also acquired the linking block between the main foyer and the auditorium.

With continued support from Theatres Trust and Theatresearch, BET has been making steady progress to secure the main part of the building. However, there is still an enormous way to go before the Empire is fully restored and reopened for its local community.

The foyer and dressing room blocks currently remain in different ownerships; the former now a café / bar and the latter in very bad condition and vulnerable to forced entry, in turn rendering the main theatre building vulnerable.

Up close balcony front plasterwork in the Classical style at Burnley Empire, with gold and red detailing

Theatre potential

In 2016 Theatres Trust and 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 and 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. The project will help support local businesses and people with the ambition of bringing prosperity to Burnley, both in economic and social terms.

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. The funding also allowed BET to commission a conditions and structural survey.

A further report funded by the Architectural Heritage Fund, completed in January 2023, has provided a more detailed route towards reopening the stage house as an independent space for creative events. This could include music, theatre, rehearsals, meetings, exhibitions, etc, with the fly tower providing the capability for the hanging of large sculptural objects, aerialist training and / or displays, and even technical theatre training. The report also indicated a growing appetite among key stakeholders within Burnley to support a venue of this type.

Current situation

BET took ownership of the building on 5 December 2018 and has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the Empire locally and to fundraise for its restoration. In addition to the success in grants funding for early-stage viability work, its achievements to date include:

  • Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programmesupport to commission an asbestos survey and to support the group with construction, design and management advice for undertaking the site works.
  • A grant from Architectural Heritage Fund and the High Street Heritage Action Zone in 2020 for Lower St James Street to help stabilise the building and make it watertight as well as removing asbestos.
  • Further funding through the High Street Heritage Action Zone to support additional survey work, removal of debris around the stage and in previously inaccessible areas, and to carry out some initial works to the historic decorative plaster ceiling and box fronts.
  • Funding through the Shared Prosperity Fund for works including security, decontamination works, netting maintenance, roof maintenance and patch repairs, clearance of remainder of bingo ceiling grid stage, and creation of a safe walkway to the circle level for public tours.

Burnley Empire Trust also received funding for a condition report and 3D laser scan survey through our Resilient Theatres: Resilient Communities programme and has been a part of the funding programmes cohort training group focussing on good governance.

The group has also carried out several successful crowdfunders and is in discussion with the council and its local MP regarding a potential bid for Towns Fund monies and ongoing discussions with the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic England and other public funders. 

The group has also been given the backing of Burnley Council and received support of offers-in-kind from local businesses, including the founder of Hemingway Design, Wayne Hemingway MBE. Local MP Antony Higginbotham has also pledged his support to the Empire.

In September 2023, BET opened the doors of Burnley Empire to the public for the first time since its closure in the 90s. The limited number of guided tours sold out instantly with people coming from across the UK to see the building for themselves, proving the broad ranging appeal of both the Empire and the work of BET.  

Despite these great advances, the project has also suffered setbacks along the way, including vandalism littering asbestos debris within the auditorium and break-ins that have caused severe damage to the building. Not only has this been heart-breaking for the group, but it has also increased the overall project restoration costs.

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

Campaign video (2021)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSvVUQ-Y2hQ

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