Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

Exploring Canberra: All Saints’ Church, Ainslie 2

All Saints’ Parish Church, Ainslie, Canberra, Australia

My curiosity to visit All Saints’ Church, Ainslie, was prompted not only by its unusual provenance as a cemetery railway-station, but because of a local association between my native Sheffield and this antipodean suburb in Australia’s federal capital.

The sanctuary of All Saints’ is dominated by the east window by Charles Kempe & Co.  The glass comes from St Clement’s Church, Newhall, Sheffield (1914), paid for by a subscription of parishioners and dedicated in 1919 to the memory of the war dead of the parish.

St Clement’s closed in July 1961, as the congregation had dwindled and the surrounding housing was cleared.  The All Saints’ guide-book, A Station of the Cross, relates that the gift was at the instigation of Lady Jacqueline De L’Isle, wife of the Governor-General who served from 1961.  Lady De L’Isle liked to worship at All Saints’, and once brought the poet John Betjeman to a service. He advised her where in Britain she could source glass to fill the east window at All Saints’.

The glass in the east window at All Saints’ is not the entire window from St Clement’s:  photographs indicate that John Dodsley Webster’s design for Newhall was taller and the window longer:  http://www.picturesheffield.com/frontend.php?keywords=Ref_No_increment;EQUALS;y02488&pos=2&action=zoom

It’s apparent that the prophets Joel, Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi are omitted along with the original inscription “Remember ye with thanksgiving and all honour before God and man those who went forth from Newhall to the Great War 1914-19, and returned not again.”  Canon William Odom’s description of the window in its original form is quoted at http://www.sheffieldsoldierww1.co.uk/Memorial/St%20Clements.html.

Furthermore, some panels of glass at Ainslie are clearly intended to fit cusped tracery, yet the Sydney designer Phillip Handel has mounted all the glass in a single steel frame.  Some of the surplus glass was used in the entrances to the side vestries.

All Saints’ possesses further English glass by Charles Kempe from the parish church of St Margaret, Bagendon, Gloucestershire.

The original bell, which at Rookwood alerted mourners to the departure of the return train to Sydney, had disappeared and was replaced by the bell of an American Shay locomotive that worked at the Wolgan Valley Railway near Lithgow, New South Wales, presented to All Saints’ by the New South Wales Steam Tram & Train Preservation Society in 1958.

Exploring Canberra: All Saints’ Church, Ainslie 1

All Saints’ Parish Church, Ainslie, Canberra, Australia

Just as I’d taken a jetlag break in Manila only to see the San Sebastian Church, in my epic journey from Hobart in Tasmania to Cairns in Queensland I took a side-trip from Sydney to Canberra specifically to see one building.

All Saints’ Church, Ainslie, deep in the Canberra suburbs, is of unique interest to anyone who studies Gothic architecture, railways, nineteenth-century funeral practices and conservation. 

The stonework of All Saints’ started out as the Haslem’s Creek Cemetery Station, the terminus of the rail spur into Rookwood Cemetery from Lidcombe Station, ten miles from Sydney Central.  This imposing structure accommodated a single track under cover, with platforms on either side and open arcades through which coffins were transferred to horse-drawn hearses to reach their burial site.  The funeral station was a highly elaborate Gothic essay, matching the high quality of the Mortuary Station alongside Central Station.  Both buildings were designed by the Colonial Architect, James Johnstone Burnet (1827-1904).

Trains entered through a Gothic arch, from which spring carved angels, the left-hand one holding a scroll with closed eyes, the right-hand with open eyes holding a trumpet:  the pair presumably symbolise death and resurrection.  The station originally ended in an octagonal apse which was removed in 1891 when the line was extended further into the cemetery to Cemetery Stations 2, 3 and 4:  the stones of the apse became the ladies’ waiting room of Cemetery Station 3 and the Haslem’s Creek station was renamed Cemetery Station 1.

The cemetery railway closed in 1948, and Cemetery Station 1 was vandalised and then burnt out, leaving only the masonry standing, sometime in the 1950s.  The stones were purchased by the parish of All Saints’, Ainslie, for A£100 and transported to Canberra in eighty-three lorry-loads in 1958.  The total cost of transport and reconstruction was A£5,101 3s 2d.

This remarkable transaction was led by the Rector, Rev Edward G Buckle, and a parishioner, Mr Stan Taunton.  Some people were not in favour.  According to Mr Buckle, “anonymous phone-calls were received, from sincere people, declaring the venture foolhardy, and urging its abandonment”.

None of the stones were lost, though there was a worrying moment when a truck carrying carved stonework including keystones of the arches and interior columns, broke down on the road and apparently disappeared.  It reappeared two days later after the driver had arranged a replacement clutch at a remote country garage.

There is a poignant photograph of the clergy and parishioners holding hands in a circle around the footings of their new church in a service based on 1 Peter 2:5 – “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” 

The architect, Mr W Pierce, ingeniously adapted the 782 tons of stone, including the apse rescued from Cemetery Station no 3, in a three-dimensional jigsaw in which nothing was wasted.  To fit the site the bell-tower was re-erected on the opposite side of the building from Burnet’s original layout.  The entrance arch with the angels was taken inside to frame the sanctuary, and the rear arch became the west front.  The sanctuary itself was built from most of the stones of the original apse, except for the angled stones which became the pulpit.  The top of the chimney of the apse is now the font.

The result is a very beautiful and original building.  The Tasmanian Mountain Ash roof and interior fittings all date from 1958 and a new floor of ceramic tiles, coloured to match the sandstone stonework, was installed in 2011.  There is a west gallery with a Bishop & Starr organ from Wealdstone Baptist Church, Harrow, purchased in 1988.

The proportions of the interior are unlike a conventional Gothic church – wider, lighter and lower, big enough to accommodate an Australian-sized train.  Its proportions work perfectly as a worship space.

Super cinema

Plaza Cinema, Stockport

One of the most enjoyable residential leisure-learning weekends I’ve ever had the pleasure to lead was ‘Dream Palaces:  an introduction to cinema architecture’ in November 2004 for the now-closed and much-lamented Wedgwood Memorial College at Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent.

The College was blessed with a cosy atmosphere, an eclectic selection of subjects for study, staff who alike knew the regular students and welcomed newcomers, and home cooking.

The centrepiece of my two-day programme of talks, videos and slide presentations was a half-day trip to visit the Plaza Cinema, Stockport, a magnificent example of an early-Thirties super-cinema, designed by William Thornley and a near twin of his Regal, Altrincham, which opened in 1931 and burnt down in 1956.

The Plaza is unusual in that it’s built into a cliff, its façade facing Mersey Square, once the gathering place for the town’s trams and buses.  Much of the 1,800-seat auditorium is practically underground.  In an evacuation, some members of the audience go upstairs to the emergency exits rather than down.

The interior displays an eclectic mixture of Egyptian, classical, Moorish and Art Deco features of unusual richness:  the original decorative scheme was dominated by the burnished silver dome, lit by a Holophane system of 6,000 variable coloured lights. 

The three-manual, eleven-rank Compton organ, like its sister at the Regal, Altrincham, was built to the specification of Norman Cocker, deputy organist at Manchester Cathedral, and was the very first Compton organ to have an illuminated console.

The Plaza opened in on Friday October 6th 1932, showing Laurel and Hardy in Jailbirds and Jessie Matthews in Out of the Blue.  Its prominent central site protected it from increased competition in its early years and from the inexorable decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s, even though its nearest large competitors belonged to national first-release circuits. 

It was bought by the Mecca Group in 1965, and after initial opposition from Stockport Borough Council a replacement bingo club opened on February 6th 1967.  The stage machinery was removed in 1989 to increase the bingo playing-area, and for a time the café operated as a night-club. Because the building was used as a bingo club until 1998 the auditorium was never subdivided, and its intact interior was in sufficiently good condition to merit Grade II listing.

Even before the closure of the bingo operation, an active campaign for preservation led to the founding of the Friends of the Plaza, an energetic group of volunteers supporting the Stockport Plaza Trust, whose campaign, in turn backed by Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, English Heritage and the National Trust, has provided the town with a venue for live performances, recitals and films.

The Trust took possession in March 2000.  Six months later the listing was upgraded to II*, and on October 7th 2000 the building returned to public use.

In 2009, the Plaza closed for a comprehensive £3,200,000 refurbishment, and reopened on 11th December the same year with a cine/variety show, similar to its original 1932 opening show, featuring Gold Diggers of 1933, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Towed in a Hole, soprano Marilyn Hill-Smith leading a tribute to Gracie Fields with the Plaza Orchestra, and Richard Hills playing the Compton organ.

When my Wedgwood Memorial College group visited a month before Christmas 2004, after a behind-the-scenes tour we joined an audience for Holiday Inn, the film for which Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’, together with a period newsreel, Pearl & Dean advertisements, the Compton organ, the lady with the ice-cream tray and, at the very end, we all stood up for The Queen.

There could hardly a better prelude to Christmas – all in the cause of adult continuing education. 

Learning should be fun.

Jesuit gem

St Francis Xavier RC Church, Everton, Liverpool

When I was at university, one of my hall-of-residence associates was studying science in preparation for training to be a Jesuit at the English College in Rome.

From knowing him, I’ve always regarded the Jesuits as the border collies of the Catholic clergy – astute, focused, determined, committed and effective.  Adherents vow to devote their lives Ad Majorem Dei Gloria – to the greater glory of God.

The Society of Jesus built the first post-Reformation Catholic chapel in Liverpool in 1736.  It lasted two years before it was destroyed by a mob, and was promptly rebuilt, disguised as a warehouse.  Their work in Liverpool ceased after the suppression of the Society by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, and their chapel was passed to the Benedictines in 1783. 

The Jesuits returned to Liverpool in the 1840s at the invitation of a group of eight Catholic businessmen who financed the building of the church dedicated to St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuit order, on Salisbury Street, Everton. 

The foundation stone was laid in 1842.  By the time the church was completed in 1848 Liverpool was experiencing a huge influx of poor Irish people fleeing the Great Famine.  The thousand-seat capacity of the original church became inadequate and a secondary worship-space, the Sodality Chapel, was opened in 1888.  (A sodality is a lay religious brotherhood.)

The 1848 church, designed by Joseph John Scoles (1798-1863) is stone built, with separate roofs for the nave and aisles and a polygonal apse, and an impressive tower and spire at the south-west corner.  The spire was always intended, but only added in 1883.  The high altar, reredos and pulpit, and the Sacred Heart altar of 1852-53, were designed by Scoles’ pupil, Samuel Joseph Nicholl (1826-1905).

Most of the original glass by Hardman & Powell was blown out in the Blitz, but an almost complete set of fragments of a window depicting St Ignatius was found in a box and restored in 2015.

The Sodality Chapel was designed by the Liverpool-born architect Edward Kirby (1838-1920), a pupil of the Gothic Revival architect Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875).  It’s smaller but more elaborate than the main church, with a polygonal apse and an ambulatory behind the altar.  Its stained glass is by Burlison & Grylls.

In the 1930s St Francis Xavier was the largest Catholic parish in England serving a population of 13,000.  It continued to flourish, despite damage to the building in the Liverpool Blitz, until the clearance of the surrounding streets emptied its congregation. 

The Archdiocese proposed to demolish the nave in the early 1980s, until a national outcry led to a compromise:  the Archdiocese agreed to maintain the Sodality Chapel while the parish took responsibility for the nave.  As a result, a glass screen was erected in the arcade between the two, and for years the nave remained unrestored. 

On the pretext of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the parish in 1997, an impressive campaign enabled the restoration of the nave from 2000 onwards, and in 2001 the Archdiocese amalgamated two neighbouring parishes, and the Sodality Chapel was renamed the Chapel of St Mary of the Angels and St Joseph. 

In 2007, the three-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first Catholic priest in Liverpool, Father William Gillibrand SJ, a shrine was dedicated to St Mary Del Quay, commemorating the very first Christian chapel in Liverpool, founded in 1207.

The St Francis Xavier College moved into the adjacent presbytery in 1845 and then into a new building alongside by 1857.  This in turn proved too small, and a purpose-built replacement by Henry Clutton (1819-1893) opened in 1877.  The corresponding sandstone “poor schools” designed by Joseph Spencer were started in 1853 and extended by the same architect in 1857.  The College moved to Woolton in 1961.  The Salisbury Street buildings and their surroundings became derelict until they were taken over by the ecumenical Liverpool Hope University and opened as its Creative Campus in 1999.

The rescheduled ‘Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022)’ tour includes a guided tour of St Francis Xavier Church.  For further details please click here.

Tinsley Towers

“Tinsley Towers”, Blackburn Meadows WTW, South Yorkshire (2008)

Blackburn Meadows Wastewater Treatment Works, operated by Yorkshire Water, is hidden discreetly behind the great steel curtain of the M1 Tinsley Viaduct, which opened in 1968.

Alongside the sewage works dating back to 1886, Sheffield Corporation operated an electric power-station, opened in 1921, to supply the considerable needs of the local steelworks, taking advantage of the adjacent River Don for cooling water, and excellent rail connections to supply coal.

When the station’s capacity was expanded to 72 megawatts, two hyperbolic cooling towers, each 250 feet high, were built in 1937 and 1938.

The power station became surplus to requirements, like many of the steelworks it supplied, and closed in 1980.  All the structures were quickly demolished except for the cooling towers, which stood less than twenty metres from the M1 viaduct – too close to be taken down safely.

Accordingly, the elegant, empty concrete structures became a landmark for motorway travellers and a reassuring symbol of homecoming to returning Sheffielders, who referred to them as the Tinsley Towers.

Despite the support of local MP David Blunkett and the sculptors Anthony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, proposals to use the towers for concerts or a skate park were floated but sank.

English Heritage refused to list them, arguing that the internal cooling apparatus had been removed, leaving only the concrete shells.  This emptiness was part of their aesthetic appeal – abstract spaces that could only have been constructed for a functional purpose that they’d outlasted.

After thirty years of slow-burning controversy, the towers were blown up during a motorway closure on the night of August 24th 2008, before an appreciative audience of sightseers using the car-park of the adjacent Meadowhall Centre as a viewing platform.

Their site has been utilised for a biomass power station, burning waste wood, operated by E.ON UK and opened in 2014.

This image of the Tinsley Towers is available as a greetings card, either singly or in a pack of five, or as a notelet to order.  For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Blackburn Meadows

Blackburn Meadows Waste Water Treatment Works, South Yorkshire

Sheffield sits in a bowl of hills, drained by five rivers:  the rivers Loxley, Rivelin, Porter and Sheaf each drain into the Don, which flows north-east to Rotherham, Doncaster and the Humber estuary.

There’s only one place to put a sewage works to serve Sheffield – Blackburn Meadows, named after the Blackburn Brook that joins the River Don near to the Meadowhall shopping centre.

Blackburn Meadows Wastewater Treatment Works is nowadays discreetly shielded by the bulk of the M1 motorway Tinsley Viaduct.  Formerly, it was surrounded by steelworks and railway lines, an environment of stygian gloom that was, ironically, essential to the health of the city.

Sheffield stunk for much of the nineteenth century, until in 1886 the Sheffield Local Board of Health completed a main drainage scheme, costing £150,338, including the 23-acre Blackburn Meadows sewage works at Tinsley, which cost £44,730. 

Sewage treatment was rudimentary and didn’t work particularly well.

Sheffield Corporation, the successor-authority to the Local Board, took compulsory powers in 1890 to convert premises served by middens to water closets:  in 1893 there were still 32,362 privy middens in the town;  by 1914 this number had been reduced to 7,450 and hardly any remained by the end of the 1920s.

Through the twentieth century Blackburn Meadows was repeatedly modernised to deal with Sheffield’s industrial and domestic sewage by bio-aeration – oxygenating the liquid to encourage “good” bacteria to digest the offensive matter – and, latterly, the incineration of solid waste.  In the inter-war period visitors came from far and wide to admire and learn about the ‘Sheffield System’ of sewage disposal.

From January 1979 Sheffield’s Victorian sewerage-system was dramatically upgraded by the completion of the gigantic 5.5m-diameter Don Valley Intercepting Sewer. Sewage is pumped into the works at Blackburn Meadows from a depth of 22.5 metres by four 1050Kw and two 540Kw pumps housed in a cream-coloured, clad and glazed pumphouse designed by Hadfield Cawkwell Davison and completed in 1983. 

Blackburn Meadows remains the ultimate and inevitable destination for all Sheffield’s sewage and storm-water.  Indeed, in the 1950s when Sheffield built a housing estate on its southern boundary at Greenhill, which drains south into the Drone valley, the Derbyshire authorities told the city exactly what it could do with its ordure.  Consequently, the Greenhill effluent is pumped back over the watershed to begin its long journey to Blackburn Meadows.

It’s the proud boast of the workers at Blackburn Meadows that the liquid they return to the River Don is cleaner than the river itself.

One day’s itinerary in the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (August 25th-29th 2022) tour includes a journey along the course of the Great Sheffield Flood, which killed at least 250 people in March 1864. It starts at the Dale Dike Dam which replaced the one that burst, includes relevant sites including Wardsend Cemetery, and ends with a fleeting view of Blackburn Meadows WTW from the M1 Tinsley Viaduct. For details of the programme, please click here.

Tinsley Viaduct

M1 Motorway, Tinsley Viaduct, South Yorkshire (1985)

The M1 viaduct at Tinsley was an adventurous solution to a complex engineering problem – a double-deck design, taking the motorway on the top deck and a trunk road beneath across a flat valley-floor site riddled with old mine-workings, circumventing an electricity generating station and a sewage works and crossing two railway-lines and two main roads. 

The M1 deck is 65 feet above the valley-floor;  the A631 trunk road is slung twenty-five feet below it.

Colonel Maynard Lovell, the highways engineer of the West Riding County Council, submitted an original design in concrete, built in sections to counteract subsidence and heat-expansion:  its estimated cost was £6 million. 

This proposal was overruled by the Transport Minister, Ernest Marples, in favour of a single-unit steel box-girder design by Freeman Fox & Partners costing £4.6 million.

The viaduct, Junction 34 of the M1, opened to traffic in 1968 – the lower deck, carrying the A631, in March and the upper motorway deck in October. 

Within the following three years three box-girder bridges collapsed, causing fatalities, while still under construction. 

In 1970 the Cleddau Bridge at Milford Haven killed five workers and the West Gate Bridge over the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia, killed thirty-five.  In 1971 the South Bridge over the River Rhine at Koblenz in West Germany also collapsed, killing thirteen.  

The Cleddau and Yarra bridges were both designed by Freeman Fox & Partners, who in the same decade designed the first Severn Bridge (1966) and the Humber Bridge (1980). 

It may have seemed appropriate to have a steel viaduct bridging the industrial heartland of the city of steel, but the original flexible concrete design would have avoided the disadvantages of the insufficiently tested box-girder construction, and a concrete viaduct doesn’t need painting. 

However a 2004 Highways Agency calculation indicated that replacing as opposed to rebuilding the viaduct would cost £200 million and involve hidden costs for delay and disruption amounting to £1.4 billion.

Initial modifications to Tinsley Viaduct began in February 1976 and continued with few interruptions for years.  The additional cost was given as £3 million at the start of the rebuilding programme. 

The ugly cross-girders and diagonal reinforcements along the lower deck have destroyed what elegance the original structure had, and their installation in a structure carrying an operational trunk motorway was a logistical nightmare.  The original maintenance gantries had to be completely redesigned, and the previously unrecognised need to inspect the inside of the box-girders required the fitting of permanent lighting and safety rails.  Furthermore, the formerly sulphurous atmosphere of the East End steelworks necessitated frequent repainting (£2 million at 1980 prices).

An £81,000,000 scheme to strengthen the structure further in order to meet EU criteria was completed in late 2005:  European legislation had restricted the motorway to four lanes;  intricate internal reinforcement of the box-girders enabled it to carry 40-tonne vehicles over six lanes and permitted a safer configuration of the Junction 34 slip roads.

It’s difficult, because of the effects of inflation, to ascertain whether the patching of the Tinsley Viaduct was in the end cheaper than knocking it down and building a new one.

Sad end for the Wakefield Regal

Wakefield Regal/ABC/Cannon Cinema, West Yorkshire (June 2021)

Though Wakefield can be justifiably proud of the preservation and continued flourishing of the Theatre Royal, its best surviving cinema building has come to a sticky end.

The Regal Cinema at the junction of Kirkgate and Sun Lane was opened on December 9th 1935 by the Associated British Picture Corporation. 

It was designed by ABC’s house architect, William R Glen, in the instantly recognisable modern style that most people know as Art Deco.  To the left of the corner entrance, the walls swept in a graceful curve following the alignment of Sun Lane.

The interior had the characteristics of thirties design – bold curves, concealed lighting and a 43-foot wide proscenium framing what in those days was a standard Academy-ratio screen. 

In fact, though it only seated 1,594 at the outset – mid-range in comparison with other contemporary urban cinemas – the stage was 26 feet deep, providing space for major drama or dance productions.

Its later history was similar to many other town cinemas – rebranded as ABC in 1962, tripled by inserting two small screens in the stalls under the balcony in 1976, sold to the Cannon group in 1986.  It closed in 1997, shortly after a major Cineworld multiplex opened in the town.

A covenant requiring the building to remain in cinema use inhibited any possibility of adaptive re-use.

The building rotted while proposals to convert it into flats in 2007 or to demolish it to make way for a new apartment building in 2013 came to nothing. 

Urban explorers in 2007 found that the basement was flooded and the front stalls were under eighteen inches of water:  Report – – Wakefield ABC – Regal cinema 13/12/07 | Theatres and Cinemas | 28DaysLater.co.uk

Eventually Wakefield Borough Council bought it in 2020, in desperation that a fine building which had become an eyesore would before long become a hazard.

A rearguard action by an energetic Friends group, supported by the Cinema Theatre Association, tried unsuccessfully to convince the Council there was any future for the building or its façade, but a “non-obtrusive structural survey” concluded that demolition would be safer before it began to fall down.  

In June 2021 the Council resolved to flatten it to create a temporary “green space” until a replacement structure, designed to “celebrate” Glen’s 1930s design, could be built.

Bijou opera house

Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, West Yorkshire

Ken Dodd used to say that you could immediately tell a Frank Matcham theatre simply by walking on to the stage and speaking quietly.  You’d be audible at the back of the gallery without difficulty.

Frank Matcham’s smallest surviving theatre is the Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, for many years known as the Opera House and now as the Theatre Royal.

It stands on the site of an earlier Theatre Royal, which had been built in 1776 for the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson (1739-1803). 

Under his management John Kemble performed in Wakefield in 1778 and 1788 and Sarah Siddons in 1786; in the following generation Charles Kemble acted at the Theatre Royal in 1807 and Edmund Kean in 1819.

The old theatre went into gradual decline through the middle of the nineteenth century, and in 1871 became a beer house and music hall, licensed by John Brooke, the landlord of the Black Horse pub. 

In 1883 it was revived as the Royal Opera House by Benjamin Sherwood, but was denied a licence nine years later because of the condition of the building.

The replacement theatre was built in 1894 in nine months flat at a cost of £13,000 to Matcham’s designs and opened on October 15th that year. 

After the failure of Benjamin Sherwood’s marriage in 1900 his wife Fanny and their children took over the theatre as Sherwood & Co. 

In the early 1950s their family sold it for £20,000 to Solomon Sheckman, owner of the Essoldo chain of cinemas.  He installed a wide screen for Cinemascope in 1954 and operated it solely as a cinema until he leased it as a bingo hall in 1966. 

It passed to Ladbrokes and was listed Grade II in 1979.  

When Ladbrokes announced its closure in 1980 the Wakefield Theatre Trust, led by Rodney (latterly Sir Rodney) Walker, began a campaign to bring live theatre back to the town.

The restoration involved –

  • renewing the stage house
  • strengthening the grid and installing a new counterweight system for flying
  • re-raking the stalls and lower circle floors
  • reinstating the front-of-house canopy
  • removing the projection box

The building is Grade II* listed, largely on the strength of the quality of the auditorium decoration by De Jong of London – bombé balcony fronts, foliage, fruit and flowers on the lower balcony and paired dolphins in waves on the upper circle.  The original colour-scheme was gold and blue.  The proscenium is intact, and the ceiling has eight decorative medallions of the Muses, reinstated by Kate Lyons, who placed the ninth muse in the central panel of the dress circle front. 

It reopened with a gala show on March 16th 1986.  Arthur Starkie, who co-ordinated the theatre’s centenary celebrations, founded the Frank Matcham Society at the Theatre Royal in 1994.

The Trust acquired the adjacent street-corner site to create a new entrance and bar.  Further grants in 1995, 2002 and 2012 enabled improvements to the auditorium.

The theatre has gained prestige from the appointment as creative director of the playwright John Godber in 2011.  He was born locally, at Upton, and taught drama at the nearby Bretton Hall College.  His breakthrough play, Bouncers (1977) has become a perennial favourite, and his John Godber Company is resident at the Theatre Royal.

I first saw Bouncers at the Wakefield Theatre Royal.  The play is performed by four male actors in black tie, who play the bouncers, the stroppy youths who have to be chucked out and the girls dancing round their handbags.  John Godber portrays the bitter-sweet lives of the men who spend their Saturday nights dealing with the clients who create so much noise, aggression and vomit.

At the end of the night, walking out of the theatre on to Westgate was like stepping into the play.

Back from the brink

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire

Barlaston Hall, in the Trent valley south of Stoke-on-Trent, is now a very desirable residence, but until Marcus Binney and his colleagues at SAVE Britain’s Heritage became involved in the early 1980s there was every chance that the house would fall down before it could be knocked down.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage arose from the European Architectural Heritage Year project in 1975, and has an impressive track record in making a difference to the fate of British historic buildings, particularly when there’s a need to break an impasse. 

As Marcus Binney relates in Our Vanishing Heritage (Arlington 1984), the group took up the challenge to buy the wrecked house for £1, in order to take control of and release funds for a seemingly intractable conservation problem.

Barlaston Hall was built for a Leek attorney, Thomas Mills, on a virgin site next to Barlaston parish church in the period 1756-8.

It’s generally agreed, despite the lack of documentary evidence, that the house is the work of Sir Robert Taylor (1714-88).  The distinctive octagonal and diamond glazing bars are his signature, for instance, though he probably delegated on-site oversight to a local builder, perhaps Charles Cope Trubshaw who rebuilt the nave of Barlaston parish church in 1762.

The house is designed in the Palladian manner, of brick with stone dressings, with the principal piano nobile storey sitting on a stone-built “rustic” floor but without the customary giant portico or side pavilions.  The rectangular plan is varied by projecting bays – rectangular on the east entrance front, three-sided on the north and south sides and on the west, garden front an elliptical bay reached by an imposing curved double stair. 

The interior planning is clever and compact.  The walls of the central stair-hall carry all the chimney-flues, so that each of the surrounding principal rooms has maximum light. 

The plasterwork is fine, particularly the rococo overmantels of the north and south rooms, rich with scrollwork, grapes and vines, and the Chinese Chippendale staircase is innovative, cantilevered with wrought-iron bars in zigzag formation concealed within the treads.

As a result of a rumoured comment by either the Duke of Sutherland (“damned ugly”) or his Duchess (“vulgar”), it was enveloped in stucco until, during the Second World War, it was stripped back to the brickwork to deprive enemy pilots of a landmark leading to nearby industry.

Thomas Mills’ successors lived at Barlaston until 1868, after which they let it to a succession of tenants, and eventually tried unsuccessfully to sell it shortly before the First World War.

Between the wars the house was used as a diocesan retreat until Josiah Wedgwood & Sons purchased the estate in order to relocate its factory from Etruria in 1937. 

For a time after the Second World War the Wedgwood Memorial College occupied Barlaston Hall until dry rot forced a move to other premises in the village in 1949. 

Thereafter the building was steadily neglected, and when the National Coal Board proposed mining beneath it in 1968 it had become a dangerous eyesore, standing across a fault in an area that was expected to sink by up to forty feet over a period of years.

The Wedgwood company desperately wanted to be rid of the building, which was listed Grade I as a result of a conservation campaign led by SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  When SAVE took it on in 1981 the house required a new roof as well as stabilisation against subsidence before the damp and derelict interior could be restored.

In 1992 the weatherproof, structurally sound shell was sold to James and Carol Hall for £300,000 for restoration as a single dwelling.  They calculated on spending an equivalent amount alongside an English Heritage grant of £269,342 as a 75% contribution to the restoration of the rococo plasterwork, the staircase and joinery. 

By 2003 the Halls were fully in residence and able to show the house to groups of interested members of the public.

The house was once again offered for sale in 2015.