‘They can’t be always a working’: old Bradford theatres

I have now been recording maps from Bradford Local Studies Library’s extensive collection for some three months. It is clear that since the 1840s, and perhaps longer, land purchases or changes to roads, railways and watercourses required the production of quite detailed surveyed plans. I often find myself embarrassed at being quite unable to recognise where I am in maps of my own city. My ignorance may be pardonable since what remained of sixteenth and seventeenth century Bradford was demolished wholesale during the population explosion of the nineteenth century. Only the Cathedral, Bolling Hall and Paper Hall have significant portions that remain from this earlier period. Later constructions were themselves often replaced, and further huge changes to the city centre occurred as the result of ‘town planning’ in the 1960s. Road patterns and names have also been frequently altered.

This week I had to identify a survey clearly plan drawn up because of the prospective enlargement of an existing but unnamed music hall. I recognised the location on the ground but I could not see how a theatre could ever have been positioned there, nor did the plan have a date. But then, in honesty, two days ago I could not have named a single Bradford theatre aside from those that have survived to the present day and the Star Music Hall. The Star had an important role during the great Manningham Mills strike of 1890/91. The lessee of the Star Music Hall a Mr Pullan, whose family name we shall hear much more of, placed his premises at the disposal of the strike committee during the early days of the dispute.

My ignorance meant that I have had to undertake a little research. I think that my basic problem is that I have been concentrating on Bradford at work, in its mines, quarries, brickworks and textile mills. I had totally forgotten the lesson of Charles Dickens’s rather neglected masterpiece Hard Times. This story is set within a northern community, Coketown, in 1854. A pair of young people, Thomas and Louisa Gradgrind, are emotionally retarded by being fed a diet of mathematics and other purely factual knowledge by their schoolmaster father. Poor Louisa is eventually coerced into marrying a grasping and hypocritical capitalist, Josiah Bounderby. The cast of unpleasant characters in this short, rather dark, novel is redeemed by a honest, but doomed, union man and a kindly circus girl called Sissy Jupe. It is Mr Sleary, her circus manager, who says: People must be amused…they can’t be always a working, nor yet they can’t be always a learning. So, how were they amused in Bradford?

I think we may reasonably assume that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries itinerant entertainers visited public houses and that there were also visits from fairs and circuses. It looks as if permanent theatre building had commenced by the 1840s; I’ll begin with the example provided by my plan. The theatre was placed near Westgate between Duckett Street and James Street. If you stand in what is Godwin Street today (then it was Cross Street), with your back to a multi-storey car park, you will see those signs of modern civilization, a mobile phone shop and a cash converter. The buildings are modern although round the corner in James Street itself the Commercial Inn could be late Victorian. In 1849 a man named Henry Pullan is known to have built the Coliseum Theatre ‘off Westgate’. Pullan had previously managed the Bermondsey Saloon in Cannon Street, a noted place of entertainment. The Coliseum was unusual in that it was not directly linked to a public house. Twenty years later he moved to a new theatre called Pullan’s ‘New’ Music Hall, in Brunswick Place (now Rawson Street, by another multi-storey car park) which had an amazing 3,000 seats; the modern Alhambra has less than half that number. Pullen’s new musical hall remained in existence in the years 1869-89 at the end of which time it burned down, this being something of a Bradford tradition. The vacant site left after the fire eventually evolved into John Street open market. Thomas Pullen and his son seem later to have taken over as managers or leasees of the combined Star Music Hall and Prince’s theatre which brings us back to the Manningham Mills strike.

Although my plan was not dated it mentions St George’s Hall (opened 1853) and the New Exchange assembly rooms (foundation stone laid 1864) so it must presumably have been drawn-up after 1865. Considering all these facts it seems plausible that the plan represented an intention to enlarge the old Coliseum theatre around 1868 although it seems clear that in the end a wholly new building was constructed on a nearby site. The older theatre evidently survived, being later renamed as St James’s Hall and then The Protestant Working Men’s Hall. It was finally demolished in 1892 which is a plausible date for the construction of the Commercial Inn which I have already mentioned.

The Coliseum was not Bradford’s first theatre by any means although this whole subject is quite a difficult one for a non-specialist like me. The very first is said to have been owned by L.S. Thompson in a converted barn on Southgate (now Sackville Street) around 1810-25. This and other similar enterprises hosted travelling theatre troops. A few years later, in 1841, the New Theatre opened at the city end of Thornton Road using the upper room in an existing Oddfellows Hall which had been opened in 1839. The Oddfellows were a friendly society who had 39 branches in Bradford and surrounding areas. At the time in question they seemed to have some similarities to the Freemasons but this is too complicated a topic to discuss now. I understand that the New Theatre was intended to hold ‘superior performances’.

In the same year the Liver Theatre, Duke Street, probably became Bradford’s first purpose built theatrical premises. In 1844 it was remodelled and re-opened as Theatre Royal, Duke Street. The fact that it was widely known as the ‘wooden box’ may say something about the standards of its construction but the illustration above looks stable enough. In 1864 the Alexandra Theatre had opened in Manningham Lane. In 1869, when the original Theatre Royal finally found fell victim to a series of street improvements, the Alexandra famously took over the discarded name. A moment of notoriety occurred in 1905 when the great actor Sir Henry Irving gave his final performance as Becket at the Theatre Royal, Manningham Lane. Shortly after he collapsed and died in Bradford’s Midland Hotel.

In 1876 the Prince’s Theatre was built above Star Music Hall in Victoria Square. The first proprietor of this curious double establishment was entrepreneur William Morgan who started his career as a Bradford hand wool-comber and concluded it as mayor of Scarborough. I think the site must be at the garden that is now in front of the Media Museum. Both theatres were fire damaged and restored in 1878. The Star Music Hall was renamed as Palace Theatre in 1890s and finally demolished in the 1960s. In 1899 the Empire Theatre was built at the end of Great Horton Road. All three theatres were just across the road from the present Alhambra.

The Alhambra itself was built in 1914 and has fortunately survived. Its construction is associated with the name of Bradford’s pantomime king, Francis Laidler, who had previously been company secretary at Hammond’s Brewery and had been involved in the theatre world since 1902. His career was to last for another 50 years. In 1930 the New Victoria was opened on an adjacent site but was eventually converted to the iconic Odeon Cinema. The cinema is a much cherished local building and, long closed, it hangs on in a ruinous state hoping for Heritage Lottery funding to restore the fabric. Finally I should mention that in 1837 the Jowett Temperance Hall had been built and this was also converted into a cinema as early as 1910. The building was eventually also destroyed by fire and was rebuilt in 1937 as the Bradford Playhouse, Chapel Street.

I hope you will agree that Bradford theatres represent an interesting and eventful story. If you would like a more detailed, and very well written, introduction to the subject there is a splendid website:


There is also a long account of the theatres mentioned in William Scruton’s Pen & Pencil Pictures of Old Bradford. Scruton gives many details of the largely forgotten actors who performed in Bradford. More recently the development of the early theatre was described by David Russell in The Pursuit of Leisure (in Victorian Bradford, 1982).


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