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. 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.
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. Despite vigorous objections from Theatres Trust, in 2018 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.
The main part of the building came under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster in 2015 after the company that had owned the theatre went into administration. In December 2018 the Duchy decided to auction the building. It was feared that should this happen, the building could have been purchased by a speculative buyer interested in demolishing the Empire and developing the site. However, at the eleventh-hour local campaign group Burnley Empire Limited (now Burnley Empire Trust or BET) 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, was able to acquire the theatre. BET has also acquired the linking block between the main foyer and the auditorium.
The foyer and dressing room blocks however remain in different ownerships. BET, with continued support from Theatres Trust and Theatresearch, 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.
In 2016 Theatres Trust and local campaign group BET, working closely with other stakeholders including Burnley 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.
A 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
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. Its achievements to date include:
- A successful bid in spring 2019 to the NLHF Resilience Fund to support governance, an update to the viability study, and allow the group to commission a conditions and structural survey.
- Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme support 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.
- A further grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund ,awarded in 2021, for additional viability work around the stage house area and legal and business planning support. The work, which was completed in January 2023, has outlined a route toward reopening the stage house as an independent space for creative events.
The group continues to fundraise and has applied to Burnley Council’s Shared Prosperity Fund for continued stabilisation works. Discussions between BET, the Architectural Heritage Fund, Theatres Trust and other public funders are ongoing.
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 2022, the theatre was used as the focus of Manchester School of Architecture’s undergraduate design project, looking at examples of how heritage can potentially be reused to the benefit of communities. Students were asked to reimagine the theatre within a regeneration masterplan supporting community economies, and their work has been displayed in Burnley and used by BET in some of its engagement work.
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.
Update April 2023
Burnley Empire Trust successfully applied to the government's Shared Prosperity Round 1 funding. It received circa £19k of funding for 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. Works completed in March 2023.
Burnley Empire Trust also received funding for a condition report and 3D laser scan survey through our Resilient Theatres: Resilient Communities programme. Read the full news story.
Update June 2023
Update September 2023
Burnley Empire Trust is running a Crowdfunder campaign to raise money to fix the roof to make the stage house of the Burnley Empire wind and watertight. Find out more about the campaign and support if you can.
Campaign video (2021)
Auditorium photo Burnley Empire, Eveleigh Photography; balcony detail, Ben Hamlen at North Films.