Tunbridge Wells was a staid and respectable spa town, not over-supplied with theatres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Mrs Sarah Baker’s Tunbridge Wells Theatre, opened in the Pantiles in 1802, was used as a theatre for about fifty years and then converted into a Corn Exchange which still exists.
In the decade when the borough became Royal Tunbridge Wells, thanks to the merry monarch, King Edward VII, the Opera House was promoted by Mr J Jarvis and opened in 1902.
It was designed by John Priestly Briggs (1869-1944) who among much else built the Grand Theatre, Doncaster (1899, with J W Chapman).
The splendid Baroque exterior includes a range of shops on three sides and a balcony above the entrance leading out of the dress circle bar. The central dome was originally surmounted by a nude statue of Mercury which was removed after the First World War.
The intimate auditorium, originally seating 1,100, is lavishly decorated with a dress circle and balcony , and a central saucer dome above the stalls.
The proscenium is 28 feet wide and the stage is 32 feet deep, with a grid 44 feet high. The proscenium arch has brackets in the upper corners and is surmounted by relief figures representing Music and Drama.
The eccentric local landowner John Christie (1882-1962) reopened the Opera House as a cinema in 1925. He had taken over the organ-builder William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd in 1923, and installed an ambitious five-manual organ with pipework located on stage and the console in the enlarged orchestra pit.
He produced a wide range of shows, including musical comedy and Gilbert & Sullivan, before he set up his own celebrated opera house on his nearby estate at Glyndebourne: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/glyndebourne-the-love-story-that-started-it-all.
The organ was sold to a New Zealand buyer in 1929 but the stage remained in use for annual amateur operatic performances from 1932 to 1966.
The history of the building after John Christie’s time is conventional – refurbished in 1931, bomb-damaged but repaired and reopened in 1949, taken over by Essoldo in 1954.
In 1966 the local council refused a bingo licence and listed it Grade II. After a couple of years of controversy, the final film-show (Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons) took place on February 3rd 1968, and the Opera House reopened as a bingo club in July the same year.
The bingo club, successively operated by Essoldo, Ladbrokes, Top Rank and Cascade, eventually closed in 1995, and after a public campaign to prevent demolition, the Opera House was taken over by the J D Wetherspoon chain in 1996 and adapted as a public house that can be used for opera one day each year.
J D Wetherspoon has an outstanding reputation for transforming redundant historic buildings into enjoyable places to eat and drink. By combining business acumen with sensitivity to the localities in which it trades, the company enables heritage structures to earn their keep and bring enjoyment to customers.
At the Tunbridge Wells Opera House the seating remains in the dress circle and, unused, in the gallery. The boxes are practical but cramped, and the stained glass panels in the doors to each box and the vestibule at the back of the dress circle are restored. The stage house retains its fly floors and bridge, and the original lighting board and the counterweights for the house tabs remain in situ.
Though there’s nothing scheduled in the calendar at the time of writing, it’s easy to set up an alert for the next Tunbridge Wells opera experience: https://www.ents24.com/tunbridge-wells-events/wetherspoon-opera-house-pub.
And in the meantime, any day of the week, breakfast to suppertime, anyone can walk in and enjoy a complete Edwardian auditorium with good pub food, beverages and a wide range of drinks at very reasonable prices.