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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Norwich Hippodrome

Norwich Hippodrome

Hippodrome at Night
Hippodrome at Night

Many motorists parking their cars in the multi-storey car park in St Giles Street are not aware that the building previously occupying the site was a theatre of grand design.

The theatre was designed by W G R Sprague and based on many other theatres being built at the turn of the 1900's. With its ornate internal decoration and a very formal exterior, the new building was named on the plans as the New Grand Theatre but by its opening it had been named The Grand Opera House. The other major theatre in Norwich at this time was the Hippodrome in Theatre Street.

The new house would be able to accommodate 1836 people, 200 in the Stalls, 800 in the Pit, 120 in the Dress Circle, 200 in the Family Circle and 500 in the Gallery [or the Gods as we know it]. There was room for a further 16 people in four boxes. It was built on the site of the Norfolk Hotel, the freehold of which was bought in 1898 by a syndicate of investors for £9,500. The vacant, cleared site was then sold in 1902 to Fred Morgan, the manager of the Theatre Street building known as the Hippordrome. Morgan then hired Sprague, Britain's 'youngest theatrical designer, with more London houses to his credit than any other man in the same profession,' to design his new theatre. Several of Sprague's London theatres still survive but none of his Music Halls.

The Grand Opera House opened its doors for business as an Opera and Play House on the 3rd of August 1903 with a musical play The Country Girl. In the first year patrons were entertained by prominent artists such as Mrs Brown Potter, F R Benson and Florence Smithson.

The public entrance to the Grand Opera House was set back from the street to allow carriages to deliver and collect the patrons. Inside there were bars and crush rooms, before access to the opulent auditorium which was surrounded by gilded angels and cherubs on walls and balcony fronts, whilst the proscenium arch had at its top a mural over its entire width with the city coat of arms in the centre. The stage door entrance and scenery dock were both approached via Upper Goat Lane.

By the end of the first year it began to falter as an Opera and Play house and after negotiations between Morgan and the owners of the Hippodrome, Messrs Bostock & Fitt, it was agreed to swop. This resulted in the St Giles Street building being re-named the Hippodrome and the Theatre Street building became the Theatre Royal. The presentations at both buildings also changed, the Hippodrome became a variety house whilst the Theatre Royal took over the play style presentations. In 1906, when the theatre could seat eleven hundred and was described as 'cool and ventilated', the Hippodrome Bioscope depicted 'San Francisco in Ruins'.

Variety shows continued until 1930 during which time many of the popular performers of the time visited the Hippodrome . The Norwich Amateur Operatic Company also became a regular user of the facility with shows like Maritana and The Yeoman of the Guard.

Between both world wars, some of the greatest names in entertainment, such as Charles Chaplin, Marie Lloyd, and Gracie Fields, performed on the Hippodrome stage. In September of 1930 a deal was struck with A B C cinema's to take over the building to show films. These were to continue until 1937. During this period theatregoers were deprived of live entertainment at the other major venue when a fire destroyed the Theatre Royal in 1934. It did not re-open until September 1935.

In August 1937 the Hippodrome closed as a cinema and re-opened as a 'live' theatre in the September.

Presentations at this time were now heavily biased towards revue rather than straight forward variety. This increased the number of visiting artistes per week. By the time the war broke out these artistes were finding that the Sunday change of venue around the country much more difficult due to interrupted public transport.

In April 1942 the Hippodrome received a direct hit from the bombing when the manager, his wife and the trainer of a group of sea lions were killed. The damage sustained caused the theatre to be closed for essential repairs until August, although the gallery would not be re-opened until many years later.

By the early 1950s it was again a popular venue for variety artists such as Max Miller, Morecambe and Wise, and the Goons but in order to attract audiences the management included semi-nude displays as part of the weekly bill.

There was also a yearly, traditional Christmas Pantomime when people would queue outside for a seat in 'the gods' - the uncomfortable, prickly upholstered benches situated at the sides of the upper balcony. Even in those austere post-war days, the Hippodrome décor was fascinating and luxurious, with gilded cupids and plush boxes. It must have been very opulent indeed in the early 1900s.

With the advent of television theatre audiences were declining, and by the end of the decade it became a struggle to remain open. By April 1958 the building had undergone the long awaited war damage repairs, and for the re-opening it had been decided to make the building a repertory house and re-name it the Norfolk Playhouse. The re-launch was not a success and in June 1959 repertory finished and a For Sale or to Let sign went up. There were various attempts to keep the theatre going; in November Robert Harvey took over, returning the building to being the Hippodrome and opening it once again as a cinema. Except for one further live show the Hippodrome continued as a cinema until 27th April 1960 when the management informed the staff the building was to close.

The old building gradually fell into disrepair, standing empty and vandalised. It was demolished in 1964, making way for St. Giles Multi-storey Car Park, which opened two years later.

Although many people would say that such a thing should never have happened, the support for live entertainment was at this time very low and as a business it could not survive. So motorists remember when you park you could be on the stage where singers, comedians, jugglers, musicians and balancers all plied their trade and as you leave the car you might well hear the ghost of a ventriloquist reminding you to pay before you leave.

Further Reading.

  • The Norwich Theatre Royal: The First 250 Years, Michael P Blackwell, and Carole A. Blackwell, Contributor Harriet Walter, Connaught Books, 2007.
  • 'Norwich Street Names, St. Giles,' In the Eastern Evening News, Derek James,  January 10th 2007.
  • A History of Norwich, Frank Meeres, Phillimore, Chichester, 1998

Thanks to Shirley Wigg and Keith Goodwin for this article