The Albert Hall of the North celebrates its 125th anniversary in Morecambe

The Albert Hall of the North, Morecambe Winter Gardens celebrates its 125th anniversary this July.

By Professor Vanessa Toulmin
Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 3:45 pm

The Winter Gardens Theatre in Morecambe which stands magnificently on the Morecambe seafront with its red terracotta brick frontage is in fact the Victoria Pavillion Theatre and Concert Hall which opened its doors on July 19 1897, as a later addition to the original Winter Garden which opened in June 1878.

From conception to opening, the Pavillion was built in less than a year with the foundations of the new theatre built within the original area where the bath houses had stood. Opened as both a concert hall and variety theatre, the ambitions of its shareholders was to create a first class London Concert Hall in the provinces with interiors to match and no expense was spared in its décor.

The Manchester based architectural practice of Mangnall & Littlewood were selected to realise this ambition and they had recently completed the Empress Ballroom and Opera House in Blackpool, and the West End Pier Pavilion in Morecambe in 1896.

Winter Garden and Aquarium at Morecambe. (unknown date). Photo courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.

Dean and Co of Birmingham were the commissioning designers and some of the greatest names of decorative arts were responsible for its lavish entrance and foyer.

However, in many ways its inception was both an anomaly of contrasting performance concepts and a folly of Victorian grandeur and over expansion.

Designed to be both a concert hall and a theatre from the onset its fortunes were mixed.

The lavish expansive fibrous plaster ceiling created a cavernous auditorium for classical recitals and it was styled the Albert Hall of the North with Elgar debuting five new pieces of work there from 1903 to 1908.

A programme for the Morecambe Winter Gardens, Victoria Pavilion and oriental ballroom dating to 1897. Programme courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.

However, its elaborate walk ways and viewing galleries where visitors could work between both venues were not ideal theatrical conditions and for much of its history the venue was commercially unviable as successive owners realised to their cost.

Over the years, the auditorium was boxed in the walk ways dismantled and even under the control of Moss Empires in the 1950s, its fortunes went into decline.

However the greatest damage was perhaps when the decision was taken in 1982 following its closure as a venue in 1977 to demolish the original complex, and de facto the infrastructure that the theatre was connected to and part of, and it seemed likely that the Pavillion would follow.

Thankfully through the work of the Friends of the Winter Gardens and a long campaign of fundraising, the venue was designated Grade II* in 1991 and in 2006 was acquired by the newly formed Winter Gardens Preservation Trust.

A postcard of the Victoria Pavilion, Winter Gardens, Morecambe. (unknown date). Photo courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.

Today’s Winter Gardens Theatre is now under new management and over the past three years the reformed charitable Trust have raised over £1.2 million pounds of

funds from bodies such as the Theatres Trust, Historic England, the Architectural Heritage Fund to kick start its restoration and regeneration.

The fibrous plaster ceiling has been cleaned, restored and new panels constructed by Hayles and Howe of Bristol in 2021 and further work on the Horseshoe completed earlier this year.

The roof and steelworks have being restored by UK Restoration and a new heating system funded by the Coastal Communities Fund and donations via Crowdfunder was installed in 2020.

A final drawing of Morecambe Winter Gardens by architects Mangnall and Littlewoods Manchester. Picture courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.

Today the Theatre is run entirely by volunteers who contributed over 12,000 voluntary hours in 2021 alone to raise the monthly running costs of £4,500 required to keep the theatre going.

Music and performance is returning with professional companies, touring bands and local theatre returning once again to the stage and the Theatres Trust acknowledging the great progress that has recently been made.

As the building celebrates its 125th anniversary year, the volunteers and the Trustees are determined to bring new life to the original People’s Palace.

To create a space for music and performance that is worthy of the aspirations and ambitions of its original investors and to make it once again, the Albert Hall of the North.

Key Facts:

 Volunteers contributed over 12,500 voluntary hours in 2021 alone to raise the monthly running costs of £4,500 required to keep the theatre going.

A programme for the Folies Bergere revue at the Winter Gardens in 1953. Programme courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.

 Trust have raised over £1.2 Million since 2020 from 11 different grants from bodies including Historic England, Theatres Trust, Coastal Communities, DCMS,

Architectural Heritage Fund and donations through Crowdfunder and charity boxes in the Theatre

 From Elgar to Shirley Bassey to the Rollling Stones, the Who, George Formby & the Halle Orchestra, the venue has seen the stars of stage and music perform in the

venue including Laurel & Hardy in 1947

 Sir Edward Elgar performed 4 times at the Winter Gardens between 1903 to 1908 composed an original piece of Choral music and premiered five new works in the

theatre

 The Entertainer starring Laurence Olivier was filmed at the Winter Gardens – Archie Rice said the immortal lines ‘Don’t Clap too Loud it’s a very old building’

 John Osborne Wrote Look Back in Anger on Morecambe Central Pier whilst appearing in Rep and based the Entertainer on his experiences in Morecambe.

 Professor Vanessa Toulmin the Chair of the Trust was born on the Winter Gardens Fairground which was at the back of the Theatre and operated by her family and has

a personal connection to the Theatre. She is the first person from a travelling showground background to become an academic Professor!

 The original gentleman’s bar in the Theatre was called the Prince of Wales Bar but to our knowledge no Prince of Wales has ever visited the theatre until Friday when the Prince of Wales himself will be visiting.

 Lord Mendoza visited the Winter Gardens in October 2020 to congratulate the Theatre on receiving Cultural Recovery Funding from DCMS

Morecambe Winter Gardens is planning a weekend of activities to celebrate its 125th anniversary.

Keep a lookout on lancasterguardian.co.uk for details of these events.

A postcard of the Winter Gardens, Morecambe.
A souvenir brochure of The Happy Holiday Show at the Winter Gardens in 1968. Programme courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
Three programme covers for the Winter Gardens. Programmes courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
The inside of a brochure for Aladdin at Morecambe Winter Gardens in 1939. Programme courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
The inside of a brochure for Morecambe Winter Gardens in 1955. Photo courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
Morecambe Winter Gardens and the ballroom all lit up. (unknown date). Photo courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
A postcard of the Winter Gardens in Morecambe. (unknown date). Photo courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
An old postcard of the Winter Gardens in Morecambe. (unknown date). Photo courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
Morecambe Winter Gardens all lit up with a reflection in the sea. Photo courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
Morecambe Winter Gardens RAF gala evening. Photo courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.
Morecambe Winter Gardens today. Picture courtesy of Morecambe Winter Gardens.