A rare surviving example of a ciné-variety house, built in 1915 to show both theatre and silent films to the local Liverpudlian working-class community.
- 1 James Street, Garston, Liverpool, Merseyside, L19 2LS
- Risk Rating
- 7 (Community Value: 2, Star Rating: 2, Risk Factor: 3)
- Local Authority
- Liverpool City Council
- Local Group
- South Liverpool Voluntary Inclusion Programme / Friends of Garston Empire
- Private owner
- Joseph Pearce
- Date of Construction
- Not listed
- Estimated at 1,000
- Database Link
- View in Theatres Database
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 of cinema use, and thirty years of bingo use.
Designed in 1915, the Garston Empire belongs to a class of transitional theatres that were built across a very short period, coming after the Edwardian theatre boom and before the cinema building boom that followed the Cinema Act 1909. These buildings 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?
Garston Empire has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2009 when bingo closed and the building fell vacant.
In 2010, Theatres Trust received notification of the possible demolition of the building. Liverpool City Council confirmed that according to planning policy at the time the demolition would not require planning permission because the building is neither in a conservation area nor listed. However, Theatres Trust would be consulted should the site be redeveloped.
While the bingo owner had been sympathetic to the idea of retaining the building and re-opening it as a theatre for the local community, in November 2020, they sold the building to a developer, Dam Group UK Property Ltd. It was subsequently sold again to Garston Project Ltd, which it is understood has since gone bankrupt and as of December 2022, the building is once again up for sale. Changes to permitted development rights introduced in November 2020 means that planning permission would now be needed for the demolition of the building, but we continue to be concerned that the building will be lost to commercial redevelopment.
The previous bingo use of the Empire has been sympathetic to the architectural layout of the building, and it could easily be returned to theatre use.
There has been much local interest in the building over the years suggesting the reopening of the Empire as a community facility has potential. The local community still has fond memories of the building and interest has come from a number of sources including community group Friends of Garston Empire whose ambition is to reopen the building as a theatre, and community group South Liverpool Voluntary Inclusion Programme, which works to improve the mental and physical health of older people and whose members remember Garston Empire as a cinema. Theatres Trust has been providing various interested groups with early-stage project advice, but unfortunately, none have been in the position to progress a capital works project.
In September 2022, Theatres Trust was contacted by a new community group, Garston Futures, which aspires to preserve and develop the area’s rich architectural heritage. One of the goals for the group is to secure the future of the Garston Empire, and although they are not in a position to purchase the building, they are exploring the possibility of getting the building listed, based on the historical and architectural significance of cine-variety theatres. Theatres Trust is providing ongoing support to the group and supports the listing application.
Theatres Trust has attempted to contact all the recent owners however we have not been successful. Since the building was put up for sale again in December 2022, we have been in touch with the estate agents, to remind them of the permitted development rights that would need to be considered by any new owner. We would be keen to engage any new owner about the potential opportunity and community benefits of restoring and reopening the Empire and to help it connect with the many community groups who have shown interest in the theatre. We believe that there is a historically sympathetic and sustainable future for the Empire and will continue to advocate for this.
Main photo Garston Empire, Ian Grundy; interior by Ken Roe.