Monthly Archives: July 2021

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.

Enterprising potter

Etruria Hall, Stoke-on-Trent

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) triumphed magnificently over adversity. 

He lost his father when he was nine, and at the age of eleven smallpox left him with a permanently weakened right knee so that he couldn’t become a thrower.  This did, however, enable him to explore the various skills of the pottery trade and gave him the freedom to question and experiment with established practices.

By the age of nineteen he had invented an improved green glaze, become a master-potter and leased a pottery in Burslem with his cousins, John and Thomas Wedgwood.

His business soon outgrew these facilities, largely because of his personal energy, his multiplicity of skills and his adventurousness both as a designer and a businessman. 

He was more prepared than any of his competitors to try new methods.  He insisted on a clean, tidy working environment and his products had a better finish and more shapely proportions – and, indeed, uniformity of size – compared with the rest of the market.

In 1765 he was appointed the Queen’s Potter, and contributed £500 towards new roads in the Potteries area, the first step in a lifelong campaign to gain secure, rapid transport facilities for his precious and fragile wares, which led to his association with the Trent & Mersey Canal, opened in 1777.

Two years later, with his second cousin Thomas, he acquired the site which became his Etruria Works, and the following year invited Thomas Bentley, a merchant with wide experience of the fashionable world, into the partnership.

Wedgwood was a member of the influential group of Midlands intellectuals known as the Lunar Society (because they met and exchanged ideas on the Monday nearest the full moon), including Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819).

In 1764 he had married his third cousin, Sarah Wedgwood (1734-1815), and their eldest child, Susannah (1765-1817), married Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), the son of Erasmus Darwin:  their son was the famous naturalist Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), who in turn married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896).

On May 28th 1768, Josiah Wedgwood had his right leg amputated, “foreseeing,” according to the Dictionary of National Biography, “that this useless and often painful member would prove a serious encumbrance in his enlarged sphere of work at Etruria”. 

Etruria Works was opened in June 1769, and by 1773 he had centralised all his operations there. 

The name Etruria refers to the kingdom of central Italy that preceded the Roman republic and connects Wedgwood’s designs with the Etruscans’ elegant pottery.  In fact, the antique pottery so much admired by Wedgwood’s clients ultimately proved to be Greek.

As befitted Wedgwood’s reputation for manufacturing beautiful ceramics, his works was tastefully designed by the Derby architect Joseph Pickford.  The central range, facing the canal, surmounted by a cupola containing a bell, was flanked by two roundhouses.  The northern roundhouse is the only surviving structure of the entire complex. 

By the mid-1760s he had, by shrewdly using recent developments in ceramic technology, perfected the first of a series of innovations – his cream-ware named, by permission, Queen’s Ware, which was followed by Egyptian Black (sometimes known as basalts, first sold in 1768), marble-ware and eventually his jasper-ware, which could be tinted in a variety of colours, of which the pale blue is more familiar than the alternatives dark blue, lilac, sage green, black and yellow, and pearlware, a form of creamware with a blue tint.

His exports included a dinner-service of of 952 pieces for the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, which cost over £2,000 after its decoration with 1,244 individual views of British landscapes and great houses.  Known as the Frog service from its enamel emblem, this unique commission was exhibited, with admission by ticket, at Wedgwood’s London showroom before dispatch in June 1774. 

The family residence, Etruria Hall (1768-71), was designed by Joseph Pickford.  It was screened from the works by a plantation, and because Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood’s family continued to increase two wings were added in 1780. 

The relationship between the works and the owner’s residence is reminiscent of Matthew Boulton’s Soho House in Birmingham and Sir Richard Arkwright’s Willersley Castle in Derbyshire. 

The Wedgwood family continued to occupy the Hall until 1819, and again from 1828 to 1842.  From 1848, it was associated with the nearby Shelton Ironworks until the 1980s, by which time it was used as offices by British Steel.

When the surrounding area was reclaimed for the 1986 Stoke National Garden Festival, the Hall was restored to its eighteenth-century appearance as the centrepiece of the site, and in the following years it was incorporated into a new hotel.

The most perfect of all station houses 2

Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2021)
Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2021)

Almost nine years ago I wrote about Wingfield Station, Derbyshire, prompted by its inclusion in the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings list for 2012.

This elegant ashlar-faced building is the only surviving example of Francis Thompson’s twenty-four stations commissioned by Robert Stephenson for the North Midland Railway.  It opened in 1840 and closed to passengers in 1965.

The historic building list description describes it as “…a subtly proportioned building with a delicacy of detailing that was greatly admired by contemporary commentators who appreciated its refined architectural qualities”.

Its design was good enough to appear, transformed into a suburban villa, in a supplement to John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture (1842), and the pioneer historian of railway buildings, Christian Barman, in 1950 described it as “the most perfect of all station houses”.

By 2012, all the Victorian Society could do was fulminate about the neglectful owner and the lack of activity by the local council.

However, there was new energy at local level, when the lively South Wingfield Local History Group, founded in 2007, pressed English Heritage to upgrade the station building from Grade II to Grade II*, and their campaign succeeded in April 2015, prompting Amber Valley Borough Council to seek a compulsory purchase order and take the building over, in partnership with the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust.

The Trust has a long and honourable history, dating back to 1974, of rescuing Derbyshire buildings in distress and returning them to economic use.  One of the first of its projects was Francis Thompson’s Railway Village in Derby.

On December 11th 2019 Wingfield Station was formally handed over to the Trust, which has secured £137,000 of development funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and a £263,000 grant for urgent repairs from Historic England.

Detailed examination of the building has revealed that it was never modernised, so it is possible to restore it almost exactly to its 1840 appearance, complete with original paint schemes and recovered wallpaper from the ladies’ waiting room.

The intention is to adapt it to office use, with guaranteed occasional public access for its historic interest.

Presumably office workers can live with trains thundering past all day.  Trying to sleep there would be a different matter.

(If you want to sleep in a functioning Derbyshire railway station, go to Cromford. There are no overnight trains on the Matlock line.)