The Theatre Royal stood in the High Street at Chatham – one of the Medway Towns situated in north Kent some thirty miles south east of London. The towns comprise Strood, Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham and are known worldwide for their history and architectural gems. The novelist Charles Dickens lived nearby and many of his books are set in the area.
The Royal Navy was based at Chatham Dockyard for over four hundred years, and their former base is now open to the public, whilst the Napoleonic fort that protected it is an award-winning museum. The Cathedral at Rochester was founded in AD604 and is an outstanding example of eleventh and thirteenth century architecture, whilst the neighbouring castle stands guarding the long bridge over the River Medway – for many centuries the main road from the port of Dover to London.
The nineteenth century saw a great expansion of population in the Medway Towns, encouraged by the arrival of the railway, and many places of public entertainment were established – from public houses to pleasure gardens, music halls and sports facilities. It was within this context that the Theatre Royal was built in 1899.
The theatre served the Medway Towns for over fifty years, and played host to many of the greatest performers and shows, but by the 1950s it no longer attracted large enough audiences to keep it open. It closed in 1955 and was subdivided to form shops and a warehouse. To all intents and purposes its original use was forgotten.
In the 1980s a campaign was started by local people to restore the building to its former glory and to reopen it as the largest theatre in the region.
Unfortunately the economic circumstances in the Medway Towns weren’t favourable for the Theatre Royal and in 2002, the volunteers of the Theatre Royal Chatham Trust were forced to abandon their campaign, the building subsequently being sold to a local housing developer.
The Theatre Royal was designed by the architect George Bond who lived locally. It caught the mood of its period, with an impressive facade of terracotta dominating the rather narrow street frontage. The eye is drawn up to the two little Moorish cupolas on the roof which add an exotic feel to an otherwise suburban townscape. The owners of the building were local impresarios C and L Barnard who owned a music hall nearby and who wanted to provide a venue for more serious forms of entertainment in the Medway Towns.
The theatre opened in July 1899 with a performance of ‘The Liars’. With 3000 seats it was by far the largest public building in the area and was lavish in its interior appointments. A new road had to be constructed up a hill to the rear of the building, not only to cater for the carriages and cars that brought patrons from miles around but also to allow enough emergency exits to the side and rear.
After a few months it was obvious that more serious entertainment could not alone keep the building open, so a more varied programme of concerts, plays, shows and circuses was introduced. In 1913 it was one of the earliest theatres in the area to be equipped with a back projection cinematic capability.
High on the pediment outside the theatre stood the tall gilded figure of Victory – a thinly disguised compliment to Queen Victoria who had celebrated 60 years on the British throne a few months before plans to build the theatre were drawn up. Sadly, it was taken down during the First World War and we only have old photographs to show us what a dominating feature of the skyline she was. The building was designed to emphasise the Victorian concept of class. Whichever ticket price you paid, you were sure never to mix with those who had paid a different price – be it higher or lower! There were separate entrances, lounges, staircases and even toilets. It sounds ridiculous today but theatre going was a serious business.
The wealthier patrons entered a luxurious world of mosaic floors, stained glass windows, gold leafed plasterwork and hand painted tiles.
The building was lit by electricity, an early instance of this in a building of such a size, over one thousand lights being used to light the stage. The power was produced by a gas engine which drove a generator, these being situated in the basement of the building. All areas of the theatre had a backup source of gas lights.
The stalls seated 212, the rear stalls, or pit, 1000. On the first floor was the Dress Circle with 142 seats and the balcony with 300 seats, whilst above this, on the second floor and reached from the rear of the building was the Gallery, which seated a further thousand!
Over the stalls was an enormous plaster dome which hid the air conditioning and supported a magnificent chandelier whilst the proscenium arch proclaimed the text, “Let the evening’s entertainment bear the morning’s reflection.”
After its closure the building suffered from continuous vandalism and neglect. When the Theatre Royal Chatham Trust purchased it, the auditorium had been virtually roofless, many hand painted tiles had been stolen and the boxes had been ripped from the auditorium walls. To many people the task of restoration was hopeless but much was achieved to consolidate the building in preparation for major work.
The architect, G E Bond built many other public buildings in the Medway Towns including the former Chatham Town Hall, St Andrews Church, the Masonic Hall and the River Medway Conservancy Board Offices.
After a fire in 1937 the interior was redecorated by Andrew Mather, the leading theatre architect of his day, well known as the house architect for the Odeon Circuit Cinemas.
The theatre played host to many of the greatest actors of the twentieth century including Ken Dodd, Rex Harrison, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Shaw Taylor, Gracie Fields, George Formby, Max Miller and Norman Wisdom and shows ranging from Shakespeare to Pantomime.
The arrival of the Annual Circus, when the animals were paraded through the streets and housed in enormous cages beneath the stage became a regular feature of life in the Medway Towns.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many people from the world of show business had joined the Theatre Royal Chatham Trust supporting their efforts to reopen the theatre.
Click here for the full list of the shows performed at the
Theatre Royal Chatham between 1899 and 1955
This page was originally produced for the website for the campaign to save the Theatre Royal Chatham.
The original text was written by John E Vigar, Historian – www.johnevigar.com
This web site was designed and is maintained by – Graham White
Please become a member of The Theatre’s Trust – www.theatrestrust.org.uk
http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/ChathamTheatres.htm – further information about the Theatre Royal Chatham with some architectural drawings and photographs of the Theatre Royal as it appears today.