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East of the Pier Heritage Trail

Royal Hippodrome

Royal Hippodrome


This theatre, originally called the Theatre Royal, opened in August 1883 and was the result of a remarkable initiative by a group of local businessmen. The development of Eastbourne to the west of the Pier over the previous decades had followed the grand blueprint for the creation of a genteel resort - both in architectural style and social outlook. But Eastbourne's lofty ambitions had not so far included the provision of a theatre for drama and music, a shortcoming increasingly commented upon by visitors and many of the town's growing resident population, which was approaching 25,000 by the early 1880s.

Concerned that the town's standing, reputation and - perhaps most importantly - prosperity was threatened, and despairing of the lack of action by the Local Board (forerunner of the Borough Council), local businessmen formed the Season Extension Committee to campaign for improvement.

They turned to the leading theatre architect of the day, C.J.Phipps. He sought an assurance that there were no other plans for a theatre in Eastbourne and then recruited investors to join him in the project. Phipps first approached the directors of Devonshire Park to ask for space for a theatre on that site. This was refused and with the help of the Season Extension Committee Phipps identified a plot in Seaside Road that could serve as the site for his playhouse. He also formally applied to the Prince of Wales for the new theatre to be granted a Royal Patent, enabling it to the called the Theatre Royal.

His design was at first turned town by the local licensing committee who requested amendments to comply with new regulations governing theatres. Phipps implemented these and by early 1883 building work was under way. By July, Phipps, his business partner, George Loveday, and their newly recruited manager, Waldtern Pegg, were able to apply to the local magistrates for the theatre's licence.

Their solicitor stressed Phipps' and Loveday's experience in building and running theatres and gave details of the Theatre Royal's capacity. It would accommodate up to 1,200 people, in the ground floor 'pit', dress circle, upper circle, gallery, orchestral stalls and stage boxes. The building would be gas lit, and with emphasis on audience safety fire hydrants and hoses would be installed.

The licence was granted and the Theatre Royal was welcomed as a home for drama which would extend the season and enhance the cultural tone of the town.

The theatre opened amid much local anticipation and excitement on August 2nd, 1883. The star attraction was Britain's leading light comedian, J.L.Toole, and his short run at the theatre proved highly popular. He was followed by Richard D'Oyly Carte's company with 'Patience', and then a drama, 'Rags and Bones', and H.S.Dacre's Comic Opera Company. As the year continued, however, the programmes became less illustrious, and full houses were no longer guaranteed.

A little over a year later the theatre closed after Mr Pegg, the manager, abruptly left amid a marital scandal. It remained closed for four months, its troubles aggravated by the opening of a new theatre at Devonshire Park, approved by the council despite their earlier assurances to Phipps that there were no plans for another theatre.

However, the Theatre Royal reopened with a new manager, Frank Emery, but audiences were slow to return. While the quality of the Theatre Royal's offerings had been welcomed, there had always been other options for those seeking entertainment, even before the arrival of the Devonshire Park Theatre. Albert Hounsom, an energetic local promoter, put on summer concerts in a canvas Pavilion on the Pier featuring marionettes, excerpts from operas, comedians and musical acts - in effect an early variety show. Mr Hounsom also ran the Brittania Varieties in Pevensey Road, which was later enlarged to become the Theatre of Varieties with seating for 500 and offering a wide range of popular entertainment.

Visitors and townspeople could also enjoy music concerts in the select surroundings of the Winter Garden at Devonshire Park, and a circus at the east end of the town was also a long-running attraction.

Circuses were much in demand by Victorian audiences and the summer of 1885 saw Sanger and Sons' Monster Hippodrome Circus set up in the Ordnance Yard in Seaside Road, attracting more than 12,000 people. And in August 1886, showman Fred Ginnett was given permission to open a permanent circus and hippodrome in Lower Bourne Street.

So the Theatre Royal faced a battle for audience share. Its worries were compounded when in 1887 another Phipps theatre, the Exeter Theatre Royal caught fire during a performance with the loss of many lives. The inquest brought severe criticism of Phipps' design and the Eastbourne Theatre Royal was once again closed amid widespread consternation so that safety could be overhauled to comply with stricter regulations. It reopened on Whit Monday 1888 with more exits and further safety measures.

Yet more competition came that year with the opening of the new permanent Pier Pavilion, but under new management by Messrs Roberts, Archer and Bartlett the Theatre Royal found new popularity in the 1890s by balancing fashionable and popular appeal, with D'Oyly Carte productions of Gilbert and Sullivan light operas exceptional crowd-pullers.

Meanwhile, in 1896 the Brittania reopened as the New Empire Hall of Varieties and presented a range of popular acts including ventriloquists and comedians. And in October of that year it was the first local venue to host 'moving pictures'.

The rollercoaster history of the Theatre Royal jolted downwards again in May, 1897 with the death of its architect and proprietor, C.J.Phipps. In due course the managers sold the theatre to their major creditor, the printer of playbills, Theophilus Creber. He carried out major refurbishment work, including the installation of electric lights, and the theatre opened again on Easter Monday 1898 with a series of Shakespeare plays.

With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the advent of the Edwardian era public taste became lighter and the Theatre Royal moved more towards variety with Vesta Tilley and Fred Karno's troupe among the attractions. After yet another makeover in 1904 the theatre reopened as the Eastbourne Hippodrome, run by Samuel Lloyd, S.W.Winter and local entrepreneur Thomas Gowland. Capacity had increased to 1,500 and there was a sell-out for the opening night on December 5th which featured, among others, 'Miss Ella's Lions'. In the following months great names such as Houdini, Hetty King, Charles Coburn and Marie Lloyd graced the stage.

By this time moving pictures had become established as an exciting attraction with many local venues, including the Hippodrome, used for 'movies' showing news events, including the Coronation.

The town's first cinema had already been established in Kent-Lacey's Art Gallery in Terminus Road, but other permanent locations followed. The New Hall, not far from the Hippodrome in Seaside Road, became the New Picture Hall and then Mansell's New Picture Hall, while the former Central Hall, also in Seaside Road, became the Electric Theatre. Then came the town's first purpose-built cinema, the Eastern Cinema Palace at 143 Seaside.
After the First World War the Hippodrome combined picture shows with variety, moving with changing popular taste towards musical comedies and revues. One such show, 'It's a Bargain', in 1918 featured a young Gracie Fields.

The Hippodrome again adjusted its offering in the 1930s as the acclaimed comedian Clarkson Rose dominated the summer entertainment scene with his show 'Twinkle' in the Pier's splendid new Music Pavilion, with the BBC broadcasting an hour of the fun every Sunday night.

Variety again became the staple fare at the Hippodrome and through the 40s and 50s stars of radio such as Tommy Handley, Vic Oliver, Jimmy Jewell, Max Miller and Norman Evans were on the bill.

The spread of television sets in the late 1950s brought a major challenge to traditional live variety. In fact a young Bruce Forsyth was chosen to host 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium' in 1958 while he was on the bill at the Hippodrome's summer show.

The post-war years, and well into the 1970s, saw many famous entertainers on the Hippodrome's stage, including Sandy Powell, Terry Thomas, Norman Wisdom, Elsie and Doris Waters, Max Miller, Tommy Trinder and Ken Goodwin.

And for three years Cyril Fletcher brought a highly successful summer show to the theatre.


Tourist Information Centre


Royal Hippodrome Theatre,
108-112 Seaside Road,
East Sussex,
BN21 3PF



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Map reference: OA 617911  Lat: 50.76906 Long: 0.29277

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