Theatres in Hull

New Theatre (Ref C DIDA/4)

Hull’s first theatres

Travelling players were recorded in Hull as early as the 16th century and were probably accommodated in private houses. A theatre is said to have existed in Whitefriargate at the end of that century, but no references to it have been found.

By 1742, the New Theatre in Lowgate is listed, but the date of its erection is unknown (the site was subsequently occupied by the George Yard Methodist Chapel). In 1768 a new theatre in Finkle Street was built by Tate Wilkinson, and after the granting of a royal patent became the Theatre Royal.
After failed attempts to alter the original theatre, a second and larger Theatre Royal was built by the Wilkinsons in Humber Street, completed by 1810 to the designs of Charles Mountain, the younger. It was destroyed by fire in 1859.

A small theatre was situated at the junction of Humber Street and Queen Street, (the site formerly occupied by a circus). It was known by several names over the years; the Minor Theatre (1826), Humber Street Theatre (1827), Summer Theatre (1828), Sans Pareil (1830-1831), the Clarence, or Royal Clarence (1832) and the Royal Kingston Theatre (1833). It is said to have been demolished in 1836.

It is likely that the staff of the former Minor Theatre moved to the Royal Adelphi, which under the same management and only a few metres away, on the corner of Wellington Street and Queen Street. It was also converted from a circus and in use by 1831. It fare little better than the Minor Theatre and closed in 1840.

The Queen’s Theatre (previously the Royal Amphitheatre) on Paragon Street was the largest theatre in Hull at this time, and its stage is said to have been larger than the modern day Covent Garden Theatre in London. The interior was extensively redecorated in 1849 and 1863, but the building was last used in 1869.

The first music hall opened in the saloon of the Mechanics Institute, George Street from 1862. From 1867 until 1890 the saloon was used for musical and variety entertainment under various names: the Mechanics Music Hall (1867), Ringhams Music Hall (1868), Canterbury Music Hall (1868), Alexandra Theatre (1869), the Star Music Hall (1878) and the New Mechanics Theatre (1885) From 1890 it was called the Empire and between 1909 and 1913 the Bijou. It was closed in 1913 on account of its derelict condition and the site was occupied by a boxing arena.

Theatre Royal Seating Plan (Ref C TAB.CB6)In 1864 the Hull Theatre and Concert Co. was formed. It purchased the site of the ruined Theatre Royal from the Wilkinson family and on it erected a (third) Theatre Royal, which opened in 1865. It was very short-lived, being destroyed by fire in 1869.

Within only two years, the (fourth and last) Theatre Royal was rebuilt on part of the site of the Queens Theatre (Paragon Street) and opened that year, with a capacity of 1500. Precautions against fire were a high priority, given the disastrous theatre fires in Hull over the previous years, with safety bolts to allow quick evacuation.

After some initial doubts about its respectability, the Theatre Royal enjoyed prosperity until it closed in 1909. It was then reopened as the Tivoli Music Hall in 1912. The Tivoli was host to revues, plays and pantomimes until well after WWII, despite closing for a year after severe air raid damage in 1943.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1924 (Ref C DIDA/2)The next major theatre to be built was the Grand Opera House and Theatre (George Street) in 1893. It was designed by the theatre architect Frank Matcham. It remained opened until 1930 when it became a cinema, later becoming the Dorchester Cinema.

The Alexandra Theatre, on the corner of George Street and Charlotte Street was opened by the Morton family in 1902. The Alexandra remained a leading theatre until the 1930's when attendances declined. In 1935, and unable to find a buyer, Mortons leased it as a music hall where the entertainment included boxing and wrestling. The landmark building, with its large corner tower and revolving searchlight, was destroyed during the Hull Blitz in May 1941.

In 1897 the New Palace Theatre of Varieties was opened, also designed by Frank Matcham. It stood next to Henglar’s Circus in Anlaby Road. It closed in 1939 but reopened in 1951. It later became a ‘continental’ music hall and was renamed the Continental Palace. Its popularity faded and it closed in 1965.

Current theatres

Little and New Theatres
In 1924 a group of local enthusiasts founded the Hull Repertory Theatre Co. It used the Lecture Hall in Kingston Square (next door to the Assembly Rooms), for dramatic productions, renaming it the Little Theatre. In 1928 a public limited company, the Little Theatre (Hull) Ltd. was formed to buy the hall, which it did in 1930.

The early 1930s were a troubled time, but with the appointment of Peppino Santangelo, the Little Theatre was on the road to success. The two companies were amalgamated in 1933 and in 1939 acquired the Assembly Rooms: which were converted to the New Theatre. The New Theatre’s opening performance was Noel Gay’s ‘Me and My Girl’.

The theatre was bought by a London company in 1951, although the management remained unaltered. In 1961 it was sold to the Corporation and has been Hull’s largest theatre since then.

Hull Truck Theatre
Hull Truck Theatre was opened in 1971 by actor Mike Bradwell who placed an advert in Time Out: "Half-formed theatre company seeks other half". It was originally known as Hull Arts Centre, then Humberside Theatre. Hull Truck Theatre Company (formed 1971) took the theatre over in 1983, after a brief closure, and reopened it as Spring Street Theatre.

John Godber was appointed Creative Director in 1984 and his formal association with Hull Truck continued for the next 26 years. He was a key figure in helping Hull Truck to achieve popularity and national importance, and he also oversaw the move from their Spring Street premises to a new venue on Ferensway. The new Hull Truck opened in 2009 with increased capacity and two theatre spaces. Hull Truck focuses on showcasing the work of living playwrights.

Further Reading

  • Thomas Sheppard, Evolution of the Drama in Hull and District (1927) L.792
  • Peppino Santangelo, 21 Years of Management with the Little and New Theatres (1954) L. 792
  • Community Survey, Hull’s Cinema’s and Theatres L. 971.4
  • The records of Frank Matcham and Company, Theatre Architects, held at the the V&A Museum. These include original drawings for Hull's Palace Theatre, and the reconstruction of the Tivoli Theatre