Today, 4th November, Historic England has published its Heritage At Risk Register 2021, which for the first time includes the Streatham Hill Theatre, one of eighteen new London sites added to the Register .
The Heritage At Risk Register sets out the historic sites in England most at risk of being lost forever as a result of neglect, decay or inappropriate development. The 2021 Register describes the Grade II listed Streatham Hill Theatre as “an unusually lavish example of a theatre built outside of the West End and was designed by William George Robert Sprague, one of the leading theatre architects of his generation. It is a rare survival as only a few of his buildings still exist today”.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said: “In London our theatres are the envy of the world, they provide a stage for aspiring artists and bring a wide range of benefits to our communities. That’s why I’m supporting efforts to ensure the magnificent Streatham Hill Theatre is saved for future generations, and why it’s so encouraging Historic England have recognised this is a place like no other and added it to the Heritage At Risk Register. I hope others will join me in supporting this remarkable building being transformed into an inclusive, cultural space that will serve the local community for years to come.”
This means that there will be more attention paid to the ongoing state of this now considered vulnerable building, and will hopefully focus mind on how to continue the process to bring this gigantic sleeping beauty back into productive community use.
On the anniversary of his passing, we take this opportunity to celebrate one of the greats of UK theatre architecture, William George Robert Sprague (?/?/1863 – 4 December 1933).
Sprague was born in Australia in 1863 to actress Dolores Drummond, who spent some years in Australia, before returning to London in 1874.
At the tender age of sixteen, Sprague became an articled clerk for the legendary architect Frank Matcham for four years. In 1880 he was an articled clerk for Walter Emden for three years. He then formed a partnership with Bertie Crewe until 1895. His work rate was quite prolific, designing a number of theatres and music halls, mostly located in London. At the height of his powers he produced six intricately detailed and richly detailed jewel-box theatres in Westminster in less than four years. Unlike Matcham and Emden, Sprague studied architectural forms and conventions and applied his knowledge into his designs, was quoted that he “liked the Italian Renaissance” as a style for his frontages, but was happy to take liberties when needed “to get the best effects”. In 1902, the theatre newspaper The Era described him as “Britain’s youngest theatrical designer, with more London houses to his credit than any other man in the same profession.”
Sprague favoured two-tier auditoria, which invariably paid off for audiences in terms of atmosphere and sight-lines. Wyndham’s is a personal favourite and, to my mind, one of the most perfectly designed theatres I have ever had the pleasure to sit in.
Today most of his surviving theatres in the West End are owned (and lovingly restored) by the Delfont Mackintosh organisation. The Strand (now the Novello)(1905), The Globe (now the Gielgud) (1906), Wyndham’s Theatre (1899), The Queen’s (now the Sondheim) (1907), and the New (later the Albery and now the Noel Coward) (1903) all form part of DMT’s classy and well-maintained portfolio of theatres.
Other surviving Sprague West End theatres include two intimate under 500-seaters, the St Martin’s Theatre (1916) (current home of the Mousetrap) and the neighbouring Ambassadors Theatre (1913). There is also the Aldwych (1905), the “sister theatre” to the Strand, Outside the West End we can still find the Coronet in Notting Hill (1898) (for most of its life a cinema but now returned as a theatre), and The Camden Theatre (1900) (now a nightclub called KOKO).
His most significant design outside London was the Sheffield Lyceum (1897), thankfully restored and now a Number One touring house.
Later years saw Sprague designing fewer buildings, but he left with a wonderful swansong. The Streatham Hill Theatre was the last theatre credited to him (in association with W. H. Barton), opened in 1929. A massive suburban hall seating more than many a West End House, 2800, its size made it vulnerable later but thankfully it still survives today (read more in my article here).
Regular readers of this blog will also be interested to know that Sprague was the architect of the now-lost Fulham Grand Theatre, which was featured in my Lost Theatres collection (find the article here)
Sprague died in Maidenhead in 1933, leaving a legacy of some of London’s most beautifully intricate houses. It is fitting that we remember this great architect whose work has given such pleasure to so many audiences- and will continue to do so for years to come.
For those interested, the encyclopaedic ArthurLloyd.co.uk site has an interesting article headed A Chat with Sprague from 1905, which you can find here.
This is the first in a series of articles exploring and celebrating the UK’s many lost theatres and music halls. Although all that is left after the wrecker’s ball is a few fuzzy photos, some posters and a lot of joyous yet fragile memories, just sometimes we are given a precious window back in time. Through film, occasionally these lovely old venues are captured as part of another story, which uses their (usually faded) glories as an inexpensive backdrop for the story being told. I wanted to share with you some of our “lost” theatres through photos and films. This, the first in the series, salutes the Fulham Grand Theatre (1897-1958)
The Fulham Theatre opened on 23rd August 1897, built for Alexander F Henderson as a live theatre. Designed by celebrated theatre architect W.G.R. Sprague (who designed so many beautiful West End theatres), it was commandingly located at the intersection of Putney Bridge Approach and Fulham High Street, in SW6. High atop its façade with portico entrance and Ionic columns, sat a statue of Britannia and two hand-maidens.
Designed internally in the Beaux Arts style, with decorations by a Mr De Jong, the auditorium was on four levels and originally accommodated 2239 (this capacity appears to include a large number of standing places as well as seated), which was later reduced to a seating capacity of 1132. The theatre changed its name to The Shilling Theatre after a few years’ operation, and from 1912 onwards was mostly used as a cinema.
By 1937 it had been renamed The Grand Theatre, reverting to live performance, and closed in 1950. A little while after closure it began an undignified use as a storage facility and, in 1953, briefly as a film location (about which, more details below). After this momentary flicker of interest the theatre fell into further neglect and was demolished in 1958 to be replaced by an undistinguished office block.
You can read a detailed review of the 1897 opening of the theatre on the excellent arthurlloyd.com website here
Our window into the past is provided by a film called ESCAPE BY NIGHT (1953) which was filmed in part at the empty Fulham Grand Theatre. The story of a hard-drinking reporter who hides out with an Italian gangster in order to get his life story, the pair take refuge in a deserted theatre, aided only by a naïve young boy who stumbles across their hideout. The film is a low-budget affair, shot at the tiny Southall Studios and on location at the Fulham Grand. The film stars UK-based American actor Bonar Colleano as the reporter, and, as Leslie Halliwell puts it in his excellent Movie Guide, “the world’s most unlikely villain – Sid James”, as the Italian gangster. It’s hardly a great movie, however such a generous amount of screen time is spent in the theatre itself, it is worth a watch. For those less forgiving, or with less time to spare, the theatre footage starts at about 20 minutes in.
Here are some screenshots from the film showing various parts of the building:
I am delighted to say that I have located a copy of the film on YouTube for you to watch in the link below. Please bear in mind that links may expire – but where they do I will try to find you an alternative source.
FOOTNOTE: In my research for this article I stumbled across a superb set of photos taken just before the theatre’s demolition by photographer Corry Bevington. There is a link to the photos on her website here.Find The Fulham Grand in the index under “Other projects”. *****UPDATE- Unfortunately, this link is no longer working*****