A theatrical landmark
c1910. The Hippodrome can be seen to extreme left of this photo
On land, situated to the west of the Montagu Arms, now a cheerless, dull, non-entity of a car park, once, stood a beautiful theatre.
It was constructed of red pressed brick dressed in pale Tansley Stone. An ornate stone pediment, in the Athenian Style, carved with the Fleur-de-Leas, emblematic of its original name, took centre stage and stood proud from the rest of the building. Below could be found the central arched entrance, edged in stone, which lead to the ‘Circle and Circle Promenade’. Whereas to the sides lesser arched doorways could be seen leading to the ‘Pit and Gallery’, on the left, and ‘Pit and Stalls’ to the right. Above, on the second floor, three sash windows could be seen and eight Flat Greek stone columns, topped by capitals carved with foliage. Atop these was a stone Frieze, in which was proudly carved ‘THE PRINCE OF WALES’ with the word theatre etched into the stone on either side. All this was surmounted by a stone boldly depicting the year in which this magnificent building was opened by Mary Livesey, 1893.
The interior was equally as splendid as the exterior, with painted recumbent, plump, pink, cherubs, reclining on fluffy white clouds, while others cavorted in the blue heavens, surrounded by gold gilt baroque plasterwork. At every
conceivable opportunity, scarlet, plush velvet, curtains and swags draped doorways, window frames and the stage, held in place by golden tie-backs.
Such was the theatre where the people of the Don and Dearne saw: moving pictures; were able to see world famous actors and celebrities; also view drama such as Shakespeare, re-enacted by actors of the highest degree. This was the theatre that inspired the creation of so many local drama, musical, and comedy groups and which gave so much local talent and from which we still celebrate such as Brian Blessed and Keith Barron. And we owned it all to Thomas and Mary Livesey and their portable Paragon Theatre.
It is unsure as to when Thomas and Mary purchased the Paragon Theatre but were touring the mining towns of South Yorkshire by the mid 1880’s.
The Paragon Theatre was advertised as the largest portable theatre in Europe, so large was it that it needed 30 horses to transport it and the caravans in which the company lived. It could seat as many as one thousand people, in its red wooden interior, and had seating in a pit and gallery and, in the winter, had the luxury of heating.
They became a frequent visitor to Mexborough and Thomas and Mary, and their six children: Edward, Gustavus, Samuel, Ellen, Joseph and May (sometimes listed as Mary), were all employed as actors, musicians, backstage hands, ticket sales, etc. etc.
They gave productions of Shakespeare, dramatisations of the Dickens novels, farces, and we are reliably informed that it was at the Paragon Theatre that a primitive form of moving pictures was shown.
They began to make Mexborough their winter stop-over and the theatre would be erected on land opposite the Montagu Arms, once a quarry.
In the centre of the front wall of the theatre was situated a pay box, behind which, to the right were steps leading to the gallery, whereas to the left the entrance to 6d (2p) and 1s (5p) seating could be found. To the left of the theatre a long winding path could be seen leading to four large entertainers’ wagons, known as Swinton Caravans, which was living accommodation for the Livesey Family.
They arrived in Mexborough at a time of formation and threw themselves, with gusto, into many civic causes, such as the establishment of the Montagu Cottage Hospital and the equipping of an efficient Fire Brigade. On 18th Dec. c1889, at the Paragon Theatre, they staged a play entitled ‘Caste’, for the benefit of Mexborough Cottage Hospital, staring Mary Livesey as the Marquise (a French Marchioness) de St. Maur and her sons Sam, Gus, and Ted also taking major rolls. All the takings, which as the theatre could seat 1,000 when full, must have been considerable.
Thomas and Mary’s overriding ambition had always been to have their own permanent theatre, and as Mexborough was their favourite touring venue, chose this town. Then suddenly Thomas died but showing great strength of character, we presumably with the help of her brother who lived at 54-56 Market St., and her adult children, she carried on.
She began by buying a piece of land, which is said to have been owned by ‘Barrow’s’ Glassworks (could this be Barron’s Glassworks?) we presume this
to have been situated at the side of the Montagu Arms, on 25th Oct 1892, for £750.
On 3rd Nov. 1892, Messrs. G.M. Saunders, Nicholson and Reeder, Solicitors of Wath recorded that a mortgage was taken out between Mr.
Montagu and Mrs. Livesey for £2,000 towards the construction of the theatre. The whole enterprise was underwritten by Walter Turner (the proprietor of the Mex. & Swinton Times), Alfred Rayner, George H. Smith (Building Contractor), Amos Thompson, and Alfred William Hillerby (Tobacconist). George H. Smith began the construction of the theatre in Feb. 1892 and by 8th Dec. the M&ST informs us that it was “in the final stages of erection and when completed will be one of the handsomest, and most perfect theatres in the country”.
When it was new it must have been one of most magnificent and impressive buildings in South Yorkshire, the interior alone measuring 110ft(36.66m) x 50ft(16.66m).
The Prince of Wales Theatre was opened on 18th Dec. 1893 by Mr. H. Hesslegrave, better known to theatre goers as ‘Soft Tommy Shuttleworth’, and Mary, who was the sole proprietor, standing beside her Gen Manager Mr. F.G. Venimare (once manager of a Sheffield Theatre), although feeling very proud, must have wished that her late husband could have been there to see their lifelong ambitions come to fruition.
The first play to be seen on the stage of the Prince of Wales starred Mary’s son, Edward, in the roll of a simple fisherman and it had packed the theatre every night, people flocking there from miles around. Crowds to the theatre were such that it was found necessary to provided meals and a while after the opening of the theatre Mary obtained a house, at the bottom of Garden Street, which she turned into a restaurant. A café which I feel many of us will remember as the ‘White House Café’. Another house was obtained for the family, on Garden Street; where for the first time the family could have a stable, permanent home, enabling the children to be educated at Garden Street School.
Mary Livesey was well connected within the theatrical fraternity and as such was able to attract world famous individuals. In Nov. 1902 she invited the most flamboyant showman in Britain at the time to appear at the theatre and
thousands came to Mexborough from all quarters and by any means available to see Colonel Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. The showman, sharpshooters, horsemen, cowboys, Indians, horses, etc. etc. arrived by train,
and disembarked at the goods yard, and they must have made a splendid sight as Cody, dressed in a fringed buckskin suit, Stetson hat, and riding a beautiful white prancing horse, rode down the High Street, followed by a cowboy’s ‘Chuck Wagon’, plus a string of cowboys and Native American, all dressed in gaily coloured costume.
They dismounted to the rear of the theatre where he flew his man-carrying kite and failing to find anyone to fly in the basket below his kite gave a display of sharp shooting. The following day ‘the circus came to town’ in the form of the ‘Wild West Show’ which was staged on a large flat field situated on White Lea Road. This was followed, at night, by a play at the theatre named ‘The Klondike Nugget’ in which Cody, on horseback, was chased along the huge stage up a hill onto a bridge, which collapsed, he and the horse then fell 30ft(10m) to the stage below which, concealed from view, was strewn with numerous mattresses. This feat was then followed by a shooting competition.
Cody was not the only famous individual to tread the boards of the Prince of Wales as in 1909 Charlie Chaplin came to Mexborough with Fred Karno and his brother, and in the play ‘The Mumming Birds’ acted the part of a red nosed drunken clown.
It was during the following year that Mary Livesey showed again her pioneering spirit, with respect to moving pictures, by showing two bioscope pictures entitled: ‘Romance of the Western Hills’ and ‘Among the Roses’.
In 1910, at approx 62yrs. Mary retired and sold the theatre to a Mr. Smith of Dewsbury. She then moved to live in a pretty seaside cottage, less than 50yds from the sea, at Deal, Kent. It was on 14th Oct 1912 that we find the first advert claiming that the Prince of Wales had changed its name to the Hippodrome reflecting the fact that the huge stage was equipped with a tread mill and turntable large enough and strong enough to accommodate a wagon and horses, and Mexborough Fire Engine, pulled by its team of horses was a regular feature.
On 9th July 1912, on receiving a message from a pit official, it became the sad duty of the Manager, Mr. Hirst, to stop the performance in order to make the following announcement: “Could relatives of those men working this shift at the Cadeby Main Colliery please return home immediately” and at once half the audience got up and left. We now know that that was the fateful night of the Cadeby Pit Disaster in which two explosions at the colliery resulted in the loss, in total, of 91 lives.
On a happier note it was also in that year that Norman Evans appeared who became so well known for his ‘Over the Garden Wall’ sketch. Which in later years Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough were to parody, so successfully in their sketches as Cissie and Ada.
The famous Australian singer and entertainer Florrie Forde made a number of appearances, mainly during the 1st WW, singing her songs ‘Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Back’, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘Take me Back to Dear Old Blighty’ and of course everyone’s favourite ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’. It was she who introduces us to Flanagan and Allen, who can still be heard on our TVs to this day singing the theme of ‘Dad’s Army’. Following her appearances on stage at the Hippodrome she would love nothing better than to go into the Montagu Arms and have a good old sing-along with the customers.
In 1919 Archie Pitt brought ‘Mr. Tower of London’ to the Hippodrome, which starred a young lady with a beautiful voice, Gracie Fields.
In an echo of what happened almost twenty years earlier, following the 1st WW, hundreds of people descended on Mexborough Station by every means imaginable in order to welcome the world famous escapologist, Harry Houdini, to Mexborough. We are informed that he performed his most famous trick of being placed in a straight jacket, and then while hoisted by a crane, he freed himself in seconds.
Other notables who appeared at the Hippodrome were: the Great Como, an astounding magician, performing tricks never before seen, including making a live lion disappear on stage, some of his stage props can be seen to this day in the museum owned by Paul Daniels; others were George Formby; James and Jimmy Jewel; Wilson, Keppel and Betty, there names may be forgotten but the tune they danced to will forever represent, the pyramids, sand and the fez hat; Violet Carson, (Enid Sharples of Coronation Street) then known by her maiden name of Violet Warner…….the list is endless.
Professional entertainers were not the only ones to grace the stage; it was also the home of some brilliant amateur work. Mex. Amateur Dramatic Society gave excellent performances of Shakespeare and began their life owing over £300, which was cleared in their first night. Following the dramatic society the Green Room Club was formed and performed a play named ‘The Passing of the Third Floor Back’ as their first performance and went on, under the guidance of Verdi Popple, to become 10th in the All England Drama Competition. 1930 brought Mex. Operatic Society who performed ‘The Geisha’ and in 1926 Mex. Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society showed ‘Merry England’ and by 1937 were showing ‘Rio Rita’
Rio Rita must have been one of the last shows to appear at the Hippodrome. In 1939, after a public outcry, this beautiful old theatre was demolished because of a road widening scheme, which in the end was not taken up because of the 2nd WW and is now a cheerless, dull, non-entity of a car park. A sad end to what must have been a truly magnificent building which would have been such a fantastic asset to our town.
Information Obtained from:
Firstly thanks to Ron James for his help with respect to the research into the family history of the Livesey Family.
Books: The History of the Hippodrome Theatre Mexborough 1893-1939 by Brian Hillerby.
Wikipeadia: Architecture, The Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, Livesey Family, Les Dawson & Roy Barraclough, Florrie Forde.
Personal Memories of: William Blount (the Electric Man) and Brian Hillerby.
Archives of Mex. & Dist. Heritage Society: Plan of the Paragon Theatre and its situation in Mexborough; Livesey Family by Jill Watt; Programme of the play ‘Caste’ 18th Dec. c1890 performed at the Paragon Theatre; surviving portion of a book entitled ‘Old King Coal’ author unknown; programme of ‘Rio Rita and ‘The Geisha’; Newsletter dated Feb. 2000.
Ancestry.com: Census Returns; 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911; Passenger lists.
UPDATE, March 2013 : Buffalo Bill Did Not Come to
my newsletter entitled ‘The Hippodrome’ dated 29.01.2013 I stated that research
showed that Buffalo Bill came to Mexborough with his Wild West Show in
1st March 2013 a gentleman came to Mexborough Library
bringing with him a medal, awarded to his grandfather Mr. J. Seven at the Wild
West Show in Mexborough, for shooting.
This medal proves, without a shadow of a doubt that it was not Buffalo
Bill that came to Mexborough but Samuel Franklin Cody, who is believed to have
been a relative of Bill Cody.
was presented by S.F. Cody, who’s name is engraved on
the rear of the 9ct gold medal, and is accompanied by newspaper clippings. These have now been copied photographically
of members to view.
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