Various oil and candle lit theatres came and went in early 19th century Burnley. There was a ballroom and a room in the Hall Inn where Shakespeare’s “Othello” was performed in 1814. Inns were favorite venues for performing at and had been since Shakespeare’s time.
Then there was first Theatre “Royal” where you could see the World’s Leading Ceiling Walker (there were others?). There was the New Theatre which also became a Theatre “Royal.” Pickle’s Theatre which burnt down. The New Market Music Hall where you could also see boxing matches. Another Theatre “Royal.” Lichfield’s Theatre. Another Theatre “Royal,” this time in Howarth’s Mill.
If you’ve lost count that was four Theatres claiming to be “Royal.”
“Royal Patent” theatres were licensed after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to perform “serious, spoken drama,” as opposed to comedy, pantomime or melodrama. A way round this was to present dramas that had singing or dancing in them so they couldn’t be defined as “serious.”
Anything to get bums on seats and if calling your theatre “Royal” helped, why not? In any case, the monopoly granted by a Royal Patent to do “serious” plays was revoked by the Theatres Act of 1843. So Burnley’s theatres could be as serious as they wanted then and you couldn’t get more serious than the “World’s Leading Ceiling Walker.”
There was Mr. Culeen’s Theatre and Circus which was set up in a wooden shed on the town’s old Cattle Market, the theatre later rebuilt and renamed as the Gaiety Theatre and Opera House where the program was changed for each performance and you could take in fish and chips from one of the town’s 80 “Chippies” as well as pies and beer. It was known as “The Blood Bucket” owing to the amount of fighting that took place there.
Best of all, the Victoria Assembly Rooms, later known as the Victoria Theatre, the first proper, permanent theatre in Burnley which opened on the 14th of September 1886. Finally followed in 1894, by the Empire Music Hall, playing twice nightly at 7 and 9.
Theatres lit by the revolutionary new gaslights. Theatres where you could (wonder of wonders)now dim the auditorium lights and bathe your star performer in a “Limelight.”
Both would have to wait a while for electricity.
It was at the” Vic”, as the Victoria Theatre became affectionately known, that something rather wonderful happened in 1941 and involved one of the world’s most famous film stars arriving in Burnley looking for work but that’s for later in the story.
In 1882, a few years before my grandmother, “Kate’s” arrival two other events took place in Burnley, both of which would affect me. At first glance they might seem to be unconnected but each, in their own way, would have their place in my tale.
The first, in March 1882, was the opening of the Springhill Weaving Shed near to “Catchpenny Hill” where sheep used to graze just off South Parade, one of the main arteries out of Burnley.
Now called, rather less elegantly, Manchester Road, it reaches its peak on the moors above the town at Crown Point where on a clear night just before Christmas in 1940, people gathered see Manchester burning in the Blitz.
It would have another significance for me.
Springhill shed would survive as a mill until the Depression years of the 1930’s when it would attract a number of new resident manufacturers, eventually becoming known as Burnley’s “Knicker factory.”
There in 1941, my mother, Milly, then 18 and her work-mates would transfer their fine sewing machine skills from lingerie to parachutes. With the Battle for Britain taking place in the summer skies above the South of England and the possibility of a German invasion if it failed, knickers would have to wait. The German Army, the Wehrmacht, had already had maps printed of the town.