Burnley Civic Trust Heritage Image Collection

The Victoria Theatre, Burnley 1886 - 1955

September 14th, 1886, was a memorable day for Burnley when the Victoria Assembly rooms was opened. It was an important day because, at last, the town possessed a theatre worthy of the name. Its opening took the form of a concert.

The programme for that opening concert gave a vivid description of the theatre. "The Victoria Opera House is an entirely new building with handsome stone front erected in the main street and nearly in the centre of the town. The front entrance is 11ft wide with tile floor and has a striking handsome corridor and ticket office. The circle and gallery are of iron construction and the pit and dressing room floors are of concrete.

"The building will seat about 1,800 and stand four or five hundred. The acoustic properties are considered perfect and the shape of the hall is such that all have good seating on every part.

"There are large dressing rooms with hot and cold water. There are 1st and 2nd class refreshment rooms.

"The stage is 58ft wide, 38ft deep and is one of the most complete in the provinces. The proscenium opening is 27ft wide."

When the theatre was first opened it was known as the Victoria Assembly Rooms being intended as a hall where concerts meetings and so forth could take place. Later, the name was changed to the Victoria Opera House and retained that title until 1935 when the ownership changed to a body of local gentlemen well known in the entertainment world. The new board consisted of Captain THG Grey, Mr JA Linscott, Mr Alf Ingham and Mr John Morphet. Captain Grey and Mr Ingham had considerable experience in the entertainment world and Mr Linscott was well known as the musical director at the Victoria. (B Ex Oct 12 1935).

During the first 20 years' existence of the Victoria, drama, variety and concerts were performed there. Mr W. C. Horner made sure the standard of performance was high.


Star-studded years at the Vic.

Burnley Express Nov 13, 1954


Close on 70 years of eminent service to the field of the arts and of entertainment, which is the record of Burnley's Victoria theatre, come to an end next March (1955) when the theatre will cease to function as a theatre, the building having been sold to be adapted as a business premises.

In that span of years the theatre has known many brilliant days when some of the leading artists of their time appeared there. It attained more than local renown as the home of high - class entertainment in whatever sphere, and then for a period during the war it became a theatre of national importance when the Vic-Wells organisation made its temporary home there.

That was indeed, a more than usually brilliant interlude, one which is still talked about and which will live in the memory of all who had the good fortune to attend the shows.

The story of that period has been well recorded in the history of the Vic-Wells by Professor J. M. Dent and in Mr Charles Landstone's book "Off-stage."

Mr Landstone was in Burnley for most of the time the companies were here, being their booking manager for the tours, and (as he tells us himself), he came to like the place so much that when the time came to leave he felt the parting a lot.

The Victoria Theatre was aptly named for the purposes of the coming of the Old Vic, for as Mr Landstone says, it is, with the exception of the home of the company in Waterloo Road, London, the only theatre in the country so named.

The Old Vic transferred to the Burnley headquarters in November 1940. In January 1941 an eight weeks season of opera, drama and ballet was launched there. The programme note, signed by Mr. Tyrone Guthrie and Mr. Linscott, is worth quoting.

"Burnley with the combined season of opera, drama and ballet, suddenly becomes the most important creative centre in the English theatre. The event is symptomatic of the times. For too long London and the great metropolitan cities have owned altogether too much of the cultural life of the country. One of the most important and encouraging symptoms of the turmoil which we are now enduring is the dispersal of the treasures of the art and culture throughout a wider area of the land and wider range of the people.

"In London it has been the happiness and pride of the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells to have personal contact between the audience and players such as existed nowhere else; these audiences are famous as the most sternly critical, the most affectionately demonstrative in the world - a real aristocracy of taste and a true democracy of the feeling and of manners. It is our belief that a similar potential audience exists here. It is our hope that we shall find it. To please will be our happiness and pride."


These brave words, like so many other war-time aspirations, were not entirely fulfilled in the years to follow but, says Mr Landstone, some of the spirit has lingered on. At any rate, there was no doubting the bond of affection which linked the players and the audience or the true appreciation which the people showed for the various performances.

We can recall with Mr. Landstone some of the great productions that were put on - Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Trilby, King John, the Merchant of Venice, The Cherry Orchard, The Witch, and so on; opera, some of the great masterpieces of Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Puccini, and in ballet, those well-established favourites which the Sadler's Wells Ballet danced and mounted so beautifully.

We can recall, too, some of the famous people who worked with the companies here - Dame Sybil Thorndike, Sir Lewis Casson, Ernest Milton, Alec Clunes, David Horne, Renee Assherson, Sonia Dresdel, Athene Seyler, Abraham Sofaer, Nicholas Hannen, Frederick Valk, Tyrone Guthrie, Robert Helpmann, Margot Fonteyn, Constant Lambert, Lawrance Collingwood and many others.


What a splendid time that was for the theatre both nationally and locally! What rich compensation was all that art for the people in those war days of stress, worry and anxiety. The pity is that the scene of those triumphs is soon to be removed, leaving us the poorer by its going and throwing us back on memory to recreate for us a glittering epoch.

On the wall inside the theatre is a plaque commemorating that happy association of the great Vic-Wells organisation with the Burnley Vic. This plaque was unveiled some few years ago by Mr. Tyrone Guthrie, who played such a big part during the group's stay here, and who, at the unveiling, paid his sincere tribute to the welcome and the help the companies were given at all times.

This Plaque, which was unveiled by Mr Tyrone Guthrie in March 1952, commemorates the association of the theatre with the Old Vic. and Sadlers Wells, in the early war years.

The late Mr WC Horner, well known for his interest in the theatre movement, had a long association with the Victorian Theatre at the beginning, and to quote a contributor to our columns in 1924, "It was due to him that so many of the world's most famous vocalists and entertainers were persuaded to include Burnley in their tours."

He acquired the lease (for seven years) of the place in 1886. For a time, concerts only were presented by him. Later he brought drama companies to the Theatre, with "full London cast" (a notable feature of the productions).


Probably his most notable achievement was the booking of Madame Adelina Patti, the world-renowned soprano, who was then at the height of her fame.

For once the Victoria was made to live up to its title of opera house, and entering the building, it gave one the impression of being in one of those true homes of artistic opera, for which, alas, the Continent alone has the claim," wrote our contributor.

In the theme "variety is the spice of life," Mr. Horner presented a minstrel troupe, straight drama, pantomime and grand opera in quick succession.

For the visit, in 1887, of the Royal Italian Opera Company (direct from Covent Garden), admission prices ranged from one guinea to 2s. 6d.

Sir Frank Benson's Shakespearean Company, the Carl Rosa Opera Company, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company were just a few of the famous groups to visit the "Vic" in those years.

In May 1924 to quote our columns, "business in the world of entertainment was bad, not only in Lancashire but all over the world." In that month the experiment with the 'Frolics' at the Victoria has not met with success that was anticipated and the theatre will be closed for the time."

Various experiments in programmes had "not caught on," it was reported, and so arrangements were made for closure until the autumn season commenced. In fact, the theatre re-opened within a month to a "stock company."


Another gentleman who was prominently associated with the "Vic" was the late Mr WA Buckstone, who was the manager there for a considerable period from the end of the First World War throughout the 1920s. A picturesque figure, he was known as the "man of the eternal buttonhole," because of his practice of always wearing a flower in his jacket. Mr Buckstone was a familiar figure to the thousands who throughout the years of his managership frequented the theatre.

There are some five months or so to go before the "Vic" closes. Those five months will see about the old place none of the ennui or complacency that is so often a sign of a closing era. True to its make-up, the "Vic" will go on vigorously and proudly until the very end.

On Saturday 12 March 1955 the last production staged there was a comedy. A Lancashire play about Lancashire people, by a Lancashire author - what could be more appropriate for the last play ever to be presented at the Burnley Victoria Theatre? The selection was Harold Brighouse's "Hobson's Choice."


Mrs Baldwin, seen backstage with Manager Morris Parsons and his wife (left), who played Mrs. Hepworth in "Hobson's Choice."



Yes, Saturday night was a very special occasion for the Victoria and one thing which helped to make it different from all the other nights in the theatre's history was the fact that at that final performance was an old lady who attended the theatre in its opening week, in September 1886.

She was 78 years old Mrs. Lucy Baldwin, who watched the last performance with her daughter and son-in-law. Mrs Baldwin is not sure whether she went to the Victoria on its opening night, but it was definitely the first week. She remembers her father taking her and an elder brother to the theatre. Weeks before, while the theatre was still being built her father had promised to take them during the opening week. "We were very thrilled about it" she said.

Since that first occasion, Mrs. Baldwin has visited the Victoria very many times. She was particularly fond of opera, and never missed an operatic production. She has been a constant visitor through the years and has seen several presentations by the Lawrence Williamson Players.

It was fitting, therefore that she should be present for "The Vic's" last show. Following the performance she was taken backstage to meet members of the Company, after which she joined the rest of the patrons making their way out of the theatre.

An article in the Burnley Express of 26 March 1955 announced that the Woolworth company was to occupy the building as an extension of its store.