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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Plymouth Photo Walk 3 - 15 09 2022

Part two of my Plymouth photo walk ended with this building coming into view, The Great Western Hotel and New Palace Theatre. I promised more detail so here we go.

Best summed up by this extract from English Heritage, as it is a listed building.

Former variety theatre and hotel, built 1898. A significant building in an area where major regeneration has been underway. Historic England has offered grant aid in the past, which was not taken up. Temporary repairs were undertaken in 2013 and 2015 to make the theatre weathertight. Further temporary weather proofing has been put in place in the last few years but as of 2020 a full condition report and detailed scheme of repairs, and a business plan for reuse of the building, are still required.

It is further described as....

Priority: A - Immediate risk of further rapid deterioration or loss of fabric; no solution agreed.

which is a bit worrying as it is a totally unique building.

Many Victorian buildings in Plymouth did not survive the Second World War so this is a rare example. It operated as a nightclub as recently as 2006. The style is Northern Renaissance with Art Nouveau interiors and nautical motifs throughout.

The building was designed by Messrs. J T Wimperis and Arber, with the frontage being in terracotta by Royal Doulton and Co of Lambeth. The theatre cost £95,000 to build and the adjoining hotel a further £87,000.

There are two semi circular tiled panels of reproductions of paintings by Sir Oswald Brierly. The Spanish Armada Leaving Ferrol in Spain.

...and the Defeat of the Spanish Armada. Of course these two scenes are of great local significance as Sir Francis Drake who defeated the Armada was a local man. As a vice admiral, he was second-in-command of the English fleet in the victorious battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. English ships sailed from Plymouth to attack the Armada. They were faster and more manoeuvrable than the larger Spanish galleons, enabling them to fire on the Armada without loss as the Armada sailed east off the south coast of England.

Sir Oswald Brierly also had local connections. Although he was an English marine painter from an old Cheshire family, born at Chester, he had a general grounding in art at the academy of Henry Sass in Bloomsbury, and went to Plymouth to study naval architecture and rigging. He exhibited drawings of two men-of-war at Plymouth, Pique and Gorgon, at the Royal Academy in 1839. He then spent some time in the study of navigation, and in 1841 started on a voyage to Australia with his friend Benjamin Boyd in the latter's yacht Wanderer.

At the top of the frontage is a large Flemish gable with a carved and shaped pediment with finial and a pair of statues of Spanish soldiers standing on brackets either side of the central window.

The first show at the theatre, on Monday the 5th September 1898, ran for three hours and featured a variety of acts. After a rendition of the National Anthem by the Princess Ladies' Orchestra from the Promenade Pier, the show was opened by Leopoldine, described as "a lady who is very clever on the parallel bars and flying rings and kindred implements". She was followed in turn by comedian Harry Comlin, Arthur Vining and Nellie Coleman (vocalists) and singer Emmie Ames. Adele and May Lilian, the Levey Sisters, were "very chic", and "one of the features of the evening" while the Marvellous Craggs "were encored again and again for their wonderful acrobatic work". Walter and Edie Cassons performed "their highly amusing musical vaudeville" Honours are Easy. Other acts included Walter Stockwell, a "character vocalist", Emmie Ames, a vocalist, and Fred Darby, roller skater, who closed the show.

During the interval, a formal opening speech was made by Mr. L.C.J. Livermore for the owners who welcomed the audience and promised "better class" acts in future.

Mr Livermore doesn't sound like he thought very highly of Leopoldine and her flying rings and kindred implements.

Livermore went on to say that if the audience "patronised the new hall as they should there was nothing the directors would not do to give them satisfaction".

In the centre of the pediment is a shield bearing the coat of arms of Plymouth, with the Cross of St. Andrew and the four turrets which overlooked the Barbican.

Leaving the theatre, the route now follows Union Street West. There are several interesting buildings in a similar state to the theatre. Some look to have been in use until fairly recently, while others are still in use.

There is evidence of the local community being involved in various projects to develop some of the buildings.

Nudge Community Builders was set up in 2017 by local people living in Stonehouse, Plymouth. We had been volunteering in our community for over 10 years. We kick started the Union Street Party, created Union Corner and were inspired and asked by our community to do more. Five years on we have unlocked 25% of the empty buildings along Union Street and offered spaces for local people to grow. Our most recent purchases include C103 and The Millennium Building - two buildings we know hold a place in people’s hearts.

The Grand Theatre Public House.

Wooden supports which are 'holding together' part of a famous old public house from crumbling into Union Street were not enforced by council workers, the authority has confirmed. Plymouth City Council confirmed that officers did not enforce wooden beams to prop up the Grand Theatre Pub after struts appeared in two window gaps at the front of the derelict venue. The windows have also been boarded up.

The wider Stonehouse area was once home in Victorian times to about 300 pubs and was the entertainment district for the booming city of Plymouth. And the famous thoroughfare now has just a single pub.The rest - and theatres too - have been knocked down or are falling down. Plymouth Herald

The Grand Theatre was opened on 26th December 1889 with a production of the pantomime “Cinderella”. It was designed by a H.J. Snell. Inside the auditorium, seating was provided in orchestra, dress circle and balcony levels. The stage was 48 feet deep and 60 feet wide. It was re-named Grand Theatre & Picture Palace in 1909, when variety & films were programmed. By 1927, it was offering Revue shows, and it operated as a successful theatre until 1930.

On 14th May 1930, it was re-opened as a full time cinema. Independently operated, it was damaged by German bombs during the Blitz in March 1941 and closed, never to re-open. The building was used as a warehouse for many years.

It was demolished in 1963 and a block of flats named David Southgate Court was built on the site. The adjacent Grand Theatre public house building still exists, but is closed in 2009.

Here is that single pub, as it proclaims, the last pub on Union Street. I will be taking a right here at the pub and walking into the heart of the conservation area.

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Unknown member
Oct 06, 2022

Beautiful buildings! So sad that no one has done anything with them. The designs are just much talent going down the wayside :(

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Oct 06, 2022
Replying to

I think there seem to have been a lot of things about to happen just before covid which have been set back. We'll see if anything happens soon. Hopefully I can do a follow up one day with the results.


John Durham
John Durham
Oct 05, 2022

Incredible elevation and facade on the hotel and theater - why, if you know, was grant money never accepted for renovations/repairs?

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Oct 06, 2022
Replying to

Not sure, it depends who owns it and what their plans are. An offer of money would have come with strings attached. For example they may have had to agree a time frame and maybe did not have the rest of the money ready to go, that sort of thing. At least it has been weather proofed which is a good sign.

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