A potted history of the most important unused theatre in the UK
Brighton Hippodrome


Open the timeline and chronology of the Hippodrome here (opens in new window).

The building that became the Hippodrome was built as an ice skating rink in 1897, designed by Lewis Karslake of the London architctural firm Karslake and Mortimer. For Karslake this was a rare venture outside the capital, where, among other activities, he had been architect and surveyor of the Brompton Hospital Estate from 1881. The rink was at 53-58 Middle Street, with an Ice Skating Club next door at 52, replacing houses and a plumbing/building business1. It was in competition with other rinks, however, such as the roller skating rink at 78 West Street, and ice skating did not catch on to any great extent.
Frank Matcham       The building was empty in 1901, when Frank Matcham, left, the doyen among theatre architects of the period, was commissioned to convert it into a circus (hence 'hippodrome'—derived from the Greek for 'course for horses'), but the scheme was unsuccessful. The building was then acquired by Tom Barrasford, for whom another leading theatre architect, Bertie Crewe, carried out further work to create a variety theatre, which opened on 24 December 1902 (below).
      'No other circus in the world can match the temple atmosphere created by Frank Matcham's decoration, its gilded cast iron pillars and freezes [sic], the deep red of its walls and seat rows, the intimacy conveyed by the proximity of the public to the ring.'2

'Though his buildings were often excellent in external design, his chief concern was with the interior construction, his object being always that of enabling every member of the audience to obtain a good view of the stage. In this he was remarkably successful.'
—'Death of Mr Frank Matcham', The Times, 20 May 1920

Tom Barrasford was born in Jarrow, Co Durham in 1859. He had a short-lived career on the stage in the Moore & Burgess Minstrel Show before going into hotel management in Tynemouth. In 1895 he took over a wooden circus building in Jarrow, naming it the Jarrow Palace of Varieties. That was the start of a chain of music halls he built up throughout the north of England and Scotland. The solid foundation of his business success was introduced when he took over the Tivoli music hall in Leeds in March 1899: twice nightly shows at low prices. This became the model for all the halls in his circuit (or 'tour', as performers went from one to another on a weekly basis).

      Barrasford must have been particularly pleased with the Brighton Hippodrome as he moved his headquarters from Leeds to Middle Street, taking up residence in Hippodrome House with his second wife, the former Maud Egan, who had been a singer on the halls as Maud D'Almayne.
Hippodrome box       In that same year, 1902, the Barrasfords also took over the 1,250-seat Empire Theatre of Varieties in New Road, Brighton, almost next door to the Theatre Royal, and renamed it the Coliseum. By the time Tom Barrasford came to Brighton, his variety shows typically ended with 10 minutes' worth of films, accompanied by the pit orchestra. He later called the projector the Barrascope. However, in 1909, when permanent cinemas began to be established as a result of the regulations introduced by that year's Cinematograph Act, the Coliseum, run by Maud, was fitted out as a cinema and changed its name again, this time to the Court Cinema.
      When he died at Hippodrome House on 1 February 1910, Tom Barrasford left around £70,000, the equivalent of £7m today. His funeral was said to be one of the biggest ever seen in Brighton. His fortune had allowed him to indulge a passion for race horses and he even invented a starting gate that was adopted by the Jockey Club, as well as patenting a device for extinguishing fires in cinema projectors. His wife Maud also had a couple of patents to her name, both concerned with bathroom comfort.
      On 23 January 1913, the actor-cellist Auguste van Biene—who had the distinction of being the first named established performer to appear in a filmed drama when he was filmed in 1896 by the Hove Pioneer Esmé Collings—collapsed and died on stage at the Hippodrome while performing the cello recital in act two of his melodrama The Master Musician.

The theatre was sold in 1910 to Walter de Frece, who had just formed an alliance with Sir Alfred Butt to create Variety Theatres Controlling Company (VTCC), the second most powerful music hall business in the country. De Frece's family background was in theatres—he was married to the great music hall star Vesta Tilley—and nearly all his theatres were called Hippodrome. He was knighted in 1919 for his work in providing entertainment for the troops (although much, or most, of the work was actually done by the manager of the Hippodrome, Billy Boardman, who was not knighted). Wanting then to pursue a political career, de Frece sold his interest in VTCC but also set up the Alliance Film Company with the actors Gerald du Maurier and A E Matthews. He was an early investor in Warner Bros.
      In 1928 the Hippodrome and Court were acquired by Gaumont-British Picture Corporation and in 1933 the Hippodrome became part of Moss Empires, the UK's largest variety theatre chain. Between February and June 1929 films were shown at the Hippodrome on Sundays (cinemas but not theatres were allowed to open on that day) when a fire put the Regent Cinema in Queen's Road/North Street temporarily out of action.

      Hancock posterMost of the biggest names in variety theatre appeared at the Hippodrome between 1902 and 1964. Among them Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, W C Fields, Gracie Fields, Max Miller, the Crazy Gang, Laurence Olivier, Arthur Askey, Tony Hancock, Max Bygraves. Just before the Second World War Moss Empires appointed its youngest ever musical director, Sydney Sharp, to run the Hippodrome Orchestra; he stayed for 25 years, into the era when pop music filled the bill.
Hippodrome Roy Orbison ad       In 1963 Roy Orbison headed a line-up that included The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers. The following year the Beatles were back at the top of the bill. The Rolling Stones appeared in the same month.
      But late in 1964 the end of variety shows was in sight. For much of the year the theatre had been dark, with only Sunday-night pop concerts keeping it alive. After the last of these, on 22 November 1964, the Hippodrome closed.

One idea was to turn the theatre into a cabaret but after a the installation of a flat floor and a few weeks as a television studio, the Hippodrome became a Mecca Bingo hall. Just like variety, bingo lost its huge audiences and the Hippodrome closed in August 2006.
      In February 2007 the lease was taken by Academy Music Group (AMG), which tried to find a way of reviving the Hippodrome as a live music venue. It was believed that plans were still in development when a proposal emerged to convert the Hippodrome and adjacent buildings into an eight-screen cinema with four restaurants. A planning application was submitted in February 2014. The Our Brighton Hippodrome local and national campaign to ensure that the building is retained as a live theatre got under way.



1Pike 1896, 1897, Towner 1899
2Paul Bouissac: Semiotics at the Circus. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010: 1. Bouissac was writing about the Blackpool Tower Circus (1894) but it is not unreasonable to extrapolate such a reaction to other Matcham 'circus' interiors.
3Our Brighton Hippodrome: @ourhippodrome

Some information from Nick Charlesworth: 'Memories of Brighton Hippodrome' at britishmusichallsociety.com

This page reproduced courtesy of brightonhistory.org.uk
© David Fisher

You can read a more comprehensive history of the Hippodrome here (opens in new window).
© David Fisher. Not to be reproduced

Page updated 27 July 2021