The surviving mid-nineteenth century music halls in the UK can almost be counted on one hand – Wilton’s and the Hoxton Hall in London, the Old Malt Cross and the Talbot (now Yates’s Wine Lodge) in Nottingham, the City Varieties in Leeds and the Britannia in Glasgow. Sheffield had a couple of surviving examples until the 1990s, and one of them at least was worth saving.
In the second half of the nineteenth century West Bar, which runs along the valley floor below the hill on which the town centre had grown, was what the journalist Steve McClarence described as “the Shaftesbury Avenue of the Sheffield working man”. Here stood the Surrey Music Hall, which burnt down spectacularly in 1865, the Bijou (which survived as a tacky cinema into the 1930s), the London Apprentice (demolished in the 1970s) and the Gaiety, of which fragments survived until it was demolished c2000 to clear space for the Inner Ring Road.
The Gaiety in its heyday was owned by Louis Metzger, a pork-butcher. He kept a musical pig called Lucy who, if plied with beer, would sing – as indeed a pig owned by a pork-butcher might.
The Britannia Music Hall on West Bar stood literally next door to the former police- and fire-station that is now the National Emergency Services Museum. Built on the back-land behind the older Tankard Tavern, it dated from around the mid-1850s, and was superseded by bigger, better and more central variety theatres in the 1890s.
Incredibly, it survived as a bathroom showroom, intact but altered with a floor built across the proscenium and a lift-shaft at the back of the auditorium, and was described in detail by historian Andrew Woodfield in 1978. When I first encountered it in 1984 it was Pink Champagne, providing wedding goods and, it appeared, a venue for wedding receptions.
In February 1988, by which time it was operating as Harmony Wedding World, Ian McMillan and the late Martyn Wiley broadcast their BBC Radio Sheffield Saturday-morning show from the Britannia and an actor called Stuart Howson (whose great-grandfather had managed the Regent Theatre in the east end of Sheffield) gave the final performance, a couple of verses of a Victorian ballad, ‘The best of the bunch’.
Later the building became Door World and then, just as Sheffield City Council prepared to put a preservation order on it in 1992, it went up in flames and was quickly demolished.
There was much hand-wringing by the Council, the Hallamshire Historic Buildings Society, the Theatres Trust and the site-owners, West Bar Partnership who (in The Stage, April 4th 1992) “expressed regret”. The fact remains that conservationists have to win every battle, while the developer only has to win one.
The space where the Britannia stood is now used for car sales.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces: the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.