Townscape Heritage Entertainment Series: The Empress

Following the interest in our recent article exploring the entertainment culture that has thrived in Brixton since the Victorian era, we decided to do a deep dive into some of Brixton’s most beloved music halls and theatres, still standing or otherwise!

Brixton has a long history of theatres and music halls. During the Victorian era music halls and Variety Shows entertained the masses with evenings of singing, comedy and performances. Between 1894 and 1920 four theatres opened in Brixton, most of which have been redeveloped.

The Empress theatre, Brixton. Image provided by The Brixton Society.
The Empress theatre, Brixton. Image provided by The Brixton Society.

The Empress Theatre

Opening in 1898, four years after the Brixton Theatre, The Empress Theatre was located on Brighton Terrace. Just a week before the theatre, also known as The Empress Theatre of Varieties and Empress Music Hall, was officially opened, a viewing of the building was arranged.

The ERA printed a review saying:- ‘Messrs W. H. Burney, W. J. Grimes (the proprietors), and E. V. Page (manager) were “at home” on Thursday evening at the new Empress Theatre, Brixton, to a crowd of friends and well-wishers, who had been invited to view that newest addition to London’s amusement palaces – the Empress, Brixton.”

They describe the architecture of the new building as ‘a valuable addition to the beauties of suburban Brixton, and though it does not face the main road, its handsome and lofty turret attracts the attention of all wayfarers to its striking facade.’ The box-office vestibule is described as being paved in ceramic mosaic work.

The Empress Theatre opened on Boxing day 1898 with a variety show and would continue in this vein for the next 32 years before Variety Theatres Consolidated acquired it in 1930. The auditorium was remodelled in the Art Deco style, with the addition of 500 seats. It is thought that the sculptor Hermon Cawthra created a frieze for the interior of the newly reconstructed Empress Theatre as part of the redevelopment.

Like many theatres, music and variety halls in 1957 the theatre was converted for cinema use and renamed the Granada Cinema, before becoming a Bingo hall in the 1970s and temporarily being used as a furniture store. In 1992 the Victorian theatre was demolished to make way for a residential development.