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The Grand Theatre

In 1858 Queen Victoria visited Leeds to open the new Town Hall. She was accompanied by Prince Albert, and it is said that he remarked that 'Leeds seemed in need of a good theatre, and that nothing was more calculated to promote the culture and raise the tone of the people'.

Nothing was done for another 20 years. In 1875 the Theatre Royal in Hunslet Lane was destroyed by fire, as was the Amphitheatre in 1876. This prompted a group of prominent citizens to take action, and a company was formed in 1876, under the chairmanship of Sir Andrew Fairbairn. Their objective was to build a new theatre for Leeds. It was an ambitious scheme, for besides the theatre, the building included Assembly Rooms and six shops. It was built on a site on New Briggate, and George Corson and James Robertson Watson were the architects. Their design was in the gothic style, with a richly decorated exterior.

The theatre could hold 2,600 people, with standing room for a further 200. Because of the destruction of the other two Leeds theatres by fire, the directors were very fire conscious, and every precaution was taken to make the building safe. Wilson Barrett, the manager remarked that 'If the stage were engulfed by fire, every gentleman would have time to light his cigar comfortably, give his arm to his lady love, and saunter pleasantly out of the building!'  

There was no electricity at that time, and the theatre was lighted by 400 gas jets. In the event of a fire, water could be substituted for gas in the 15 miles of gas piping, and distributed through the gas jets. Backstage there was lavish accommodation for the actors and actresses. The dressing rooms were heated by gas pipes, and there were 'green rooms' for the principal actors. Several miles of speaking tubes ensured communication between various parts of the theatre. There were four frames for the painting of scenery, and machinery for transformation scenes and other spectacular features.

Wilson Barrett a former actor-manager of the Amphitheatre, was offered a five-year lease on the theatre. He had earned himself a good reputation in Leeds, both for his acting and his ability to stage new plays from London. He was married to Caroline Heath, a well-known actress. Barrett had to pay rent of £1700 per year, and although the theatre company agreed to pay up to £800 for scenery, Barrett had to provide the props. Barrett gave advice to the directors on the layout of the theatre, and suggested that the two bars should be let to a Mr. Rae, of the Regent's Hotel in Hull.

The theatre was opened by Sir Andrew Fairbairn on Monday November 18th 1878. The opening production was 'Much Ado About Nothing', put on by Wilson Barrett's own company. The backdrop for the opening night was a view of Kirkstall Abbey by William Telbin. In 1885, the running of the theatre was taken over by the directors, with John Hart as manager. He carried out many improvements, including the installation of electric light, and a new stage, built in 1898. A canopy was added over the main entrance in 1894.

Many famous names appeared at the Grand at this time.  Among them was Henry Ainley, a frequent visitor in the early 1900s. He was born in Leeds at Belle Vue Terrace, and baptised at St.George's Parish Church.  Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in July 1881, and Lily Langtry in 1882. In 1907 Henry Irving acted in his version of 'The Bells', and Ellen Terry appeared in J M Barrie's play Alice-sit- by-the–Fire in 1905. A playbill for 1899 tells us that F R Benson’s company was in Leeds for two weeks to perform five plays by Shakespeare, and also 'She Stoops to Conquer.'

A splendid playbill advertised a performance of the Galley Slave in 1880, 'in the depiction of which is embraced a tour of Europe' – ambitious indeed! Pantomimes were put on each Christmas – for example Red Riding Hood in 1894 featured Miss Mabel Love as Red Riding Hood and Miss Harriet Vernon as Boy Blue.  During the First World War the Grand staged patriotic plays like 'Sealed Orders' which was billed as 'a Great Naval and Patriotic Play', and the comedy 'Potash and Perlmutter' direct from the Queen's theatre, London, and which was described as 'the play that is making all London laugh'.

The Grand is of course also an opera house, and in 1913 Thomas Beecham, with the Denhof Opera Company presented the complete 'Ring of the Niebelung' by Wagner; the performances stretched over the whole week, with two on the Saturday. On a lighter note, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company put on six Gilbert and Sullivan operas in one week in 1912.  Ballet was also popular – Anna Pavlova, the famous ballerina made three visits to the Grand Theatre, one of them in October 1912.

In 1963 the Grand was scheduled as a building of special architectural and historic interest, but it was in financial crisis, and by 1969 closure was threatened. Plans were drawn up to replace it with shops and offices. Leeds City council saved the theatre by taking a 7 year lease on the building. In 1971 they sold it to Howard and Wyndhams, but in 1973 bought it back, and this magnificent theatre is safe for the citizens of Leeds and others to enjoy.

In 1971 a £1m restoration began, and now the theatre  has the latest type of lighting equipment, and modern scenery and effects. Lifts have been installed, and the orchestra pit has been extended. In 1982 the interior was refurbished and restored to its Victorian Gothic splendour. The designer was Claire Thompson (Ferriby), and the work was carried out by
A S Broadley of Swillington.

In November 1977, it was announced that the theatre was to become the home of Opera North. This was the first full time opera company to be formed in England for more than thirty years, and in November 1978 coinciding with the centenary of the theatre, they gave their first performance - Samson and Delilah.

The theatre closed for a refurbishment in May 2005 and reopened on 7th October 2006. A second phase of the transformation project led to structural improvements and further refurbishment of the theatre and the restoration of the Assembly Rooms. This phase of restoration led to a second performance space, the Howard Assembly Room, which is used for performances including recitals, concerts, and chamber operas.



Click images to enlarge
Map 1908
Map 1908
The Grand Theatre, 1878
The Grand Theatre, 1878
Ground Plan
Ground Plan
Upper Plan
Upper Plan
Theatre with canopy, 1936
Theatre with canopy, 1936
Wilson Barrett
Wilson Barrett
Backdrop, 1878
Backdrop, 1878
Playbill, 1905
Playbill, 1905
Programme for Benson's company, 1899
Programme for Benson's company, 1899
Mabel Love, 1893
Mabel Love, 1893
Harriet Vernon, 1893
Harriet Vernon, 1893
Playbill, Galley Slave
Playbill, Galley Slave
Playbill, 1912
Playbill, 1912




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© 2003 Leeds City Council | Site created by: LCC electronic information team | 25 March 2003