Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: March 05, 2016
Webpage updated: September 18, 2021

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Site of the Hippodrome Theatre in 1895.          Hippodrome Theatre

On the left is the site upon which the Hippodrome Theatre was erected.
From Ordnance Survey sheets CXXIII.7 surveyed in 1892/3 (left) and 1912 (right).

On March 4th 1907 Mr W C Vallance and Mr J A Newton attended the Devonport Borough Watch Committee on behalf of Mr George Dance, to submit plans for the erection of a theatre in Princes Street, to be known as the Empire Theatre, and to enquire whether the Council would grant a Stage Play Licence for it. 

The Town Clerk read letters of support from Messrs Bond & Pearce and Mr Isaac Foot and it was resolved that: 'subject to the theatre being erected in accordance with the plans submitted, to the satisfaction of the Borough Surveyor and a proper application being made when the building is completed, the Committee will grant a Stage Play Licence, with power to smoke when the building is used as a Music Hall, to the actual and responsible manager of the building.'

Unfortunately the Borough Surveyor did not like the plans as only two private boxes had been included instead of three.  Mr Dance duly abandoned his intention of erecting a theatre at Devonport.

However, on July 25th 1907 the Council approved plans from Messrs United County Theatre Company to erect the Hippodrome Theatre at 31 Prince's Street.  Mr Bertie Crewe of London was the architect and on Saturday September 12th 1908 the memorial stone was laid by the Mayor of Devonport, Mr Richard Smerdon.  The construction work was undertaken by Messrs J Parkinson & Son Ltd of Blackpool, Lancashire.

The "Gigantic Opening" took place on September 14th 1908 with a review entitled "Neighbours".  The owners at that time were stated as Messrs Hippodrome (Devonport) Ltd, under the chairmanship of Mr Alfred Moule.

On January 20th 1910 the Hippodrome Theatre became the second establishment in Devonport to be granted a Cinema Licence, the licensee being Mr H Taylor.  A varied programme was put on.  During the week of Monday July 25th 1910, for example, the stage acts included the Daunton Shaw Troupe of Australian Trick Cyclists, George Campbell the comedian and a Fred Maitland.  A film was also shown, courtesy of Jury's Bioscope.  This was "A Coaching Trip to Brighton with the Vanderbilt Coach".

When the Cinema Licence was renewed on January 19th 1911, it was granted to the new manager, Mr Gwyther Eastlake Prance. 

The Hippodrome was opened on Christmas evening 1911 for a band concert.  The bars had to be closed, however, and a percentage of the takings had to be donated to charity.

On the afternoon of Saturday January 8th 1916 the Sixth Annual Trial Matinee was held.  This was evidently a talent show because 'Any turns you like' were admissible and there was 10 in prizes to be awarded.  A Grand Concert was held on Wednesday September 18th 1918 in aid of the Wessex Field Ambulance Prisoners of War in Germany.

The front of the Hippodrome Theatre at Devonport, circa 1914.
The board advertises Harry Claff (1880-1943) performing an
Operatic Novelty, "The White Knight".
From a postcard.

During the week of Monday April 7th 1924 great fun was had with a show called "Making Movies", in which the parts were acted on stage by members of the audience.  This was filmed and then shown on the big screen.

The Hippodrome Theatre in Prince's Street, Devonport, closed as a theatre on Saturday June 1st 1929 with the world famous entertainers, Layton and Johnstone "In the Flesh".   The adverts stated: 'Telephone bookings entirely suspended' and that the theatre was: 'Closed for conversion into Britain's most palatial place of amusement.'   It was going to have accommodation for 2,500 patrons and would re-open in the autumn of 1929.  Not everything went smoothly, however.  On Wednesday August 7th a girder across the stage door was being removed when it crashed to the floor and brought down the stage roof and a wall facing Granby Street. 

Luckily there were no injuries and the Grand Opening eventually took place on Monday December 23rd 1929 with the talkie "Broadway Melody", Ted Coleman and his Waldorf Band and the British Movietone News.  Although the programme was so popular that it was retained for a further week, the Western Evening Herald reviewer commented that 'the "ear" of the theatre has not yet been measured to a nicety'.

Although seats could be booked, telephone bookings (to Devonport 142) were not accepted.  Seat prices were:

  At the door Booked in advance
Ground floor 1s 1s 3d
Centre stalls 1s 6d booking free
Front circle 2s 2s 4d
Circle 1s 3d 1s 6d
Balcony 6d no booking

There were to be three performances a day, at 2.30, 6.15 and 8.30pm.  One marketing novelty, presumably introduced by Mr Prance, was that every Monday evening a brand new ladies or gents bicycle was given free at each performance to the purchaser of the lucky numbered programme.

After its conversion for "talkies" to be shown, the Hippodrome Theatre had its Grand Opening on Monday December 23rd 1929.  Described as "Plymouth's Wonder Theatre", it must have looked like a palace to those poor folk of Devonport, living in their terraces of houses. 

Thick red carpet covered the ground floor and circle.   The walls were painted blue with gold panelling.  The circle waiting room held 200 and had apparatus by which the attendant could notify the employee in the pay-box when standing room only was available or when the circle was full.  The entrance to the circle was three times as large as it had previously been and it had a marble floor and mahogany pattern walls.  The circle was constructed of concrete and steel and was thus considered fireproof.

The front rows had "pneumatic" seating and even the balcony seats were padded.  The pay-boxes had sand-blasted glass, which looked very attractive when illuminated.  There was four-colour background lighting, all lit by oil but with a gas back-up system. 

What was described as the "talking apparatus" cost 5,000 and the speakers were at the side of the 40 foot stage, rather than behind the screen.

Continuous performances were started on Monday February 29th 1932 and prices were consequently reduced.  During the day admission to the stalls cost 7d and the circle 1s but in the evenings the prices went up to 7d and 1s for the stalls and 1s 6d or 2s for the circle.  The balcony cost 5d at all times.

By 1939 the Hippodrome was owned by County Cinemas Ltd and it shared its film programme with the Regent Cinema in Plymouth.   County Cinemas was later acquired by Odeon.  It is said that the theatre had a sliding roof to aid ventilation during the intervals and that a Mr Cyril Symons tried to paint the name of the theatre on the roof slates but it was not wide enough so he only achieved "HIPPO".

The end of the Hippodrome came suddenly during the night of Wednesday April 23rd 1941, when it was gutted by fire and left an empty shell.  The remains were purchased in May 1958 by Plymouth Council for 4,000 and the building was demolished.