Frank Matcham (22 November 1854 – 17 May 1920) was an English theatre architect and designer. During his 40-year career he was responsible for the design and construction of more than ninety theatres and the redesign and refurbishment of a further eighty throughout the United Kingdom. According to the dramatist Alan Bennett, there was a Matcham theatre in every corner of the UK. Matcham was best known for his work in London, under Moss Empires, which included the designs of the Hippodrome (1900), Hackney Empire (1901), London Coliseum (1903), London Palladium (1910), and the Victoria Palace (1911).
Matcham was born in Newton Abbot, Devon, and became apprenticed at the age of 14 to the architect George Sondon Bridgeman. Aged 21, he moved to London, where he joined the architectural practice of J. T. Robinson, who was to become his father-in-law. Under Robinson, Matcham completed his first solo design, the Elephant and Castle Theatre, which opened in June 1879. He took over Robinson’s business on the latter’s death and continued the designs of various provincial theatres. Matcham formed his own practice, Matcham & Co. in the 1880s and enlisted skilled craftsman. His first major association came in the 1880s when he was employed to design and refurbish theatres belonging to the Revill family who owned many of the theatres throughout the United Kingdom at that time.
Matcham’s most successful period was between 1892 and 1912 when he worked extensively for Moss Empires, a theatrical company headed by Edward Moss and run by Oswald Stoll. Under them, he completed 21 theatres, most of which were in the provinces. During this period, although not with Moss Empires, he completed the designs for the Tower Ballroom at Blackpool Tower, the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, both in 1894, and the County Arcade in Leeds in 1900. Shortly before the First World War Matcham retired to Southend-on-Sea, Essex, where he died of a heart attack, brought about by a blood infection, in 1920. Matcham’s biographer Brian Mercer Walker notes from the architect’s personal archives that he was “a man of remarkable vigour and enthusiasm for life … he possessed a tranquility of mind and [had] a great sense of humour and fun.”
Matcham was born on 22 November 1854 in Newton Abbot, Devon. He was the second of nine children and the eldest son of Charles Matcham (1826–1888), a brewer, and his wife, Elizabeth née Lancaster (1830–1905).[a] In 1857 Charles Matcham moved his family from Newton Abbot to Union Street, Torquay, where he secured a job as a manager of a brewery and a malthouse. Frank was educated at Babbacombe School in Torquay, and showed an early interest in architecture. At the age of 14 he became apprenticed to George Soudon Bridgeman, a local architect.[b] The apprenticeship lasted 18 months until Matcham was offered a job at a quantity surveyor’s office in London in around 1868. Working in the capital allowed Matcham to study with different architectural professionals. His training under a quantity surveyor taught him how to draw up estimates of cost, interact with building contractors, and introduced him to complex calculations, something which he was unlikely to have been taught at school. He also learnt the importance of working to tight schedules imposed by demanding customers.
In his spare time, Matcham visited many of London’s buildings but took a particular liking to theatres and music halls. A building of special interest to him was the newly completed Gaiety Theatre in the Strand, designed by Charles J. Phipps. Matcham was impressed at Phipps’s ability to build a normal-sized theatre on a small, awkward plot, and it is probable that Matcham gained inspiration from the Gaiety in some of his later buildings which were also built on restricted plots of land. It is not known how long Matcham spent in London, although it was not uncommon for an architect to take up to six years to become qualified. The theatrical author Görel Garlick estimates that Matcham spent three years in the capital during this time, which would seem probable as by 1871 Matcham was back in Torquay and again under the guidance of Bridgeman, this time as his chief assistant. Bridgeman was eager to take advantage of Matcham’s experience in London and asked him to help on the redesign of the Lyceum Theatre in Torquay.
The American businessman Isaac Singer moved from France to Devon in late 1871. His intention was to buy a large property in the English countryside for his family. His attempt at buying Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s estate was unsuccessful and instead he purchased the Fernham Estate, in Torbay, on which Oldway Mansion was eventually built. Singer commissioned Bridgeman’s office to undertake the design and instructed that a theatre be built within the house. In an edition of The Builder, dated 1873, Matcham was named in the request for tender section as being the accepted party to work alongside Bridgeman on the Oldway Mansion project. Garlick considers it entirely possible that Matcham was given responsibility for the design of the theatre because of his educational experiences in London. Singer spared no cost in terms of Oldway Mansion’s construction; he sourced the finest materials from around the world and instructed Bridgeman to design the interior in exuberant French style. Garlick notes that it was highly likely that Singer’s exuberance would have influenced someone as architecturally impressionable as Matcham whose later theatres also used extravagant decoration.
Entry into the Robinson family business
In around 1875, soon after the completion of Singer’s house, Matcham secured a job with J. T. Robinson’s office in London.[c] The employment allowed Matcham to become more familiar with what the biographer Brian Mercer Walker calls, “theatre design of a high order”. Matcham’s time under Robinson was brief; Robinson died unexpectedly at the family home in Bloomsbury Square, London, in 1877, shortly after Matcham’s marriage to Robinson’s daughter, Maria. Matcham was entrusted by the family to continue with Robinson’s designs which included the refurbishment of the Elephant and Castle Theatre, as well as the modifications to the Cambridge Music Hall in Shoreditch.
Matcham’s designs for the Grand Theatre, Islington
By the mid-1870s around 137 theatre fires had been reported in the United Kingdom which prompted parliament to create the Metropolis Management and Building Act (1878) which established safety rules for developers to adhere to. Matcham found the rules to be problematic; because of them, the Elephant and Castle Theatre project had to be extended by six months.
In 1882 Matcham took on the redesign of the Grand Theatre in Islington. It was an important project for Matcham: it was the first to be designed using unobstructed sight lines to the stage and was notable for its holding capacity, and prompt construction, something for which he latterly became known in architectural circles. The Grand was revolutionary in its design; it was used as an educational showpiece to amateur architects and it was often visited and commented on by architectural critics and journalists. In one of the three volumes, entitled Modern Opera Houses and Theatres, which were published between 1896 and 1898, the author Edwin Sachs made reference to the Grand’s “good sighting and acoustics of the auditorium, economy of space and cost, and rapidity of execution”. Matcham’s improvement of sight lines were a result of his use of cantilevered steel. This new design allowed for the balconies to protrude into the auditorium without the use of the supporting pillars which increased seating capacity and gave the audience better views to the stage. It was a design that Matcham patented and incorporated into all his future theatrical designs.
The Paragon in Mile End, East London, in 1882, was Matcham’s next major project. The design was one of importance, according to Walker, as it showed a great emphasis on the ventilation system – the first of its kind – which used a sun burner in the roof and warm air ducts, 6 feet (1.8 m) above ground level, which emitted draughts. The builders of the theatre, Crowder and Payne, advertised the venue as being “the best ventilated theatre in London” It opened in May the following year to much praise for its achievements in audience comfort. The success of the Paragon allowed Matcham to open up his own office in Belfast in 1884.
Work under the Revills
Outside of London, and prior to 1886, Matcham had had only two designs commissioned: Hengler’s Grand Cirque and the Royalty Theatre, both in Glasgow. In 1879 he started work on the redesign of the Royalty, a playhouse originally designed by James Thomson and one that had been built on the first floor of a four-storey building. The layout was problematic and Matcham had to make a series of adjustments. To compensate, he designed a ventilation system which involved the installation of an exhaust duct over the auditorium gas light which caused the heat from the burners to rise up and create a movement of air through the theatre. It was a design that he also used on the Gaiety, Matcham’s second Glaswegian theatre. The Royalty took just four weeks to complete and was relatively inexpensive, two factors that helped enhance his reputation.
Matcham met the actor and theatrical manager James Elliston in 1886.[d] Elliston, a native of Edinburgh, had come to hear of the architect through his work in Glasgow and commissioned him to reconstruct the side boxes and gallery and to improve the acoustics and ventilation system at his theatre, the Theatre Royal, Blackburn. Through Elliston, Matcham was introduced to William J. Revill, the proprietor of the People’s Temperance Hall in Stockport. The Revill family were influential in theatrical circles with their connection to the stage going back to the 18th century.
Revill contracted Matcham to draw up designs for a new building after the hall was destroyed by a fire in 1887. The new building, as with most of the Revill family’s theatres, was to be named the Theatre Royal and Opera House; it was completed to schedule the following year. The finished structure was considered to be state of the art by the town’s magistrates, who granted an entertainments licence that June.[e] The Era considered the new building to be “undoubtedly one of the finest theatres in the country”. According to the biographer Michael Sell, Matcham’s relationship with Elliston helped the young architect to become a nationally recognisable name in theatrical architecture and brought him to the forefront of his profession.
Matcham was commissioned in 1888 by William Revill’s son, the theatre manager Wallace Revill, to design a new theatre on some land that he had purchased in St Helens, Lancashire. The new theatre was named the Theatre Royal and Opera House. It was constructed of brick with stone dressings and comprised an orchestra pit, stalls, a dress circle of three rows, an upper circle, which had the unusual feature of its own retiring rooms, and a very large gallery which allowed for unobstructed views. The entrance façade was built in the classical style with three wide bays of giant pilasters. On the theatre’s opening night the following year, Elliston called the building “one of the most beautiful theatres [he] had ever seen”.
In addition to the Stockport theatre under Revill, Matcham received another commission from Elliston, this time to rebuild the Theatre Royal and Opera House, in Bolton, which had caught fire on 4 January 1888. Elliston’s only requirement was for the building to be completed within a 20-week period, which Matcham honoured. The foundation stone was laid by the actor Henry Irving on 17 October, a month before its opening. Owing to the large numbers of people who died in a similar theatre fire in Exeter the previous year, Matcham improved the safety features, such as fireproofing the ceilings and walls; widening and straightening the staircases; using outwardly opening doors; installing hydrants on each floor; and hanging an automatic, fireproof curtain in the auditorium. The interior was decorated in terracotta and gold tints and the seats covered in crimson upholstery.
Other theatres followed for the Revill family who had by now employed Matcham full-time to work on their projects. Bury and Rochdale, then both in Lancashire, were to get their own Theatre Royal and Opera House with the Rochdale building being a renovation of an existing building. The Bury theatre opened on 26 December 1889 with a pantomime production. The theatre lacked interior decoration as Matcham had been behind schedule. He made a rare appearance, on stage, that night, and assured the audience that during a fortnight’s closure he would complete the designs. To compensate for the lateness, he took the unusual step of sub-contracting the auditorium’s art work out to a London-based sculptor.[f]
The following year Matcham was contracted by Frederick Purcell, a member of the extended Revill family, to undertake the renovations of his theatre that had caught fire the year before. Matcham was afforded the benefit of being able to use the existing building, which increased the possibility of his being able to finish the project on time. The same year, The Grand Cirque and Amphitheatre opened in Bolton. Matcham’s design allowed for it to be used as a circus and a theatre and for the venue to be changed between the two in a few hours. It was decorated in the Italian style and had the capacity to seat 3,200 people. The circus ring eventually fell out of favour with audiences and it was covered over.
Purcell took over the family business in 1899 after the death of four of its members but only commissioned a few buildings over the next decade, including the Alexandra Theatre, Stoke Newington. Matcham continued to work with Purcell until around 1908 when the latter decided to wind up the business. Matcham’s last design for the family, according to the historian Michael Sell, was the King’s Theatre, Southsea, in 1907. The architecture historian Nikolaus Pevsner called the King’s Theatre “splendid” and described the theatre as having a “prominent hexagonal tower with Ionic columns and lion finials around a broad spire-like top crowned by a cupola with a replica statue of Aurora. The interior is charming and richly detailed, making full use of the tight space. Plaster figures and mouldings in Matcham’s full-blown Baroque.”
Matcham & Co.
It is unclear when Matcham & Co. was established; it could have originated from when Matcham established his office in Belfast in 1884 after the success of the Paragon Theatre in Mile End, or it might simply have been a renaming of Robinson’s business, which Matcham took over a decade or so prior to the 1880s. What is known is that it operated out of three offices in Holborn at different times. The first was in Bedford Row, between 1880 and 1886, after which it moved to 3 Great James Street. The business stayed there until 1893 when it moved again, this time to 9 Warwick Court, where it remained until after Matcham’s death. It is not known how many staff Matcham employed; he worked with a regular team of assistants and craftsmen, among them, Felix De Jong, an expert in work with fibrous plaster; Jonas Binns, a specialist decorator; and Albert Dean, a master furnisher. During their time in operation, Matcham & Co. completed around 170 theatre designs.[g] Matcham was assisted in his designs and the running of the business by the engineer R.A. Briggs and F.G.M. Chancellor, an architect. Little is known of the working relationship between the three men, only that it was a prosperous one.[h]
Theatre boom years: 1892–1912
Before variety theatre, music halls were the preferred entertainment of the working-class communities, in London and the provinces. Acts including George Robey and Marie Lloyd were deemed “overly racy”, according to The Stage, with major theatres banning them in the interests of decency. The restrictions were brief, mainly because of the negative effect such censorship was having on audience numbers. By the 1880s most music halls were either operated by amateur syndicates who were more enthusiastic about the theatrical business than about profits, or wealthy businessmen who were uninterested in the entertainment side of things and more focused towards the money the theatres generated. Safety, in both cases, was frequently compromised as it was costly and renovations were often ignored. Music halls had, for many years, been a hugely profitable business, but had become the subject of stringent regulations and safety controls. By 1880, covert inspections were taking place by local authorities to ensure proprietors were adhering to the safety requirements; the rules were so strict that a lot of the ageing halls, particularly those whose proprietors had little money, were forced to close. Those that remained open were instructed to improve and refurbish their premises to meet expectations. The boom required competent architects who knew how theatres worked.[i]
Moss Empires and Oswald Stoll
From 1898 to 1910 Oswald Stoll had been the managing director of Moss Empires, a theatrical entertainment circuit headed by the impresario Edward Moss, which at its height was responsible for thirty-three theatres around Great Britain. Matcham first worked for Moss Empires in 1892 on the Empire Palace, Edinburgh. Moss was so impressed with Matcham’s work that he commissioned him to design other provincial theatres over the next seven years. Matcham’s work in London under the impresarios included the Empire in Hackney, and the Coliseum and Hippodrome theatres, both in Westminster. In total, Matcham was responsible for designing twenty-one theatres for Moss and Stoll over a twenty-year period, ending with the Wood Green Empire, in 1912.
Stoll intended the Hackney Empire to be his London headquarters, but the plan changed midway through construction when he decided to locate his offices further into central London: this caused a drastic reduction in the budget for the Empire to allow extra finances for Stoll’s new headquarters at the Coliseum. Matcham rushed together a secondary, cheaper design of the Empire’s façade and presented it to Stoll on a piece of scrap tracing paper. The exterior of the Empire was a design that Matcham always loathed but was one, according to the historian Michael Sell, that demonstrated the architect’s “seemingly endless powers of invention” and one that will “forever remain a landmark”. The auditorium is noted by Historic England as being “one of the most exuberant Matcham interiors in Britain”, while the theatrical author, Brian Walker, called the Empire’s interior “the most perfect Matcham interior in Greater London. Pevsner considered the Empire to be “splendidly confident” and “among the best-surviving Edwardian variety theatres”.
For the Coliseum, Matcham encountered a problem. Stoll wanted the theatre to be the largest and most lavish in London, but Matcham was concerned that its vast size would cause a reduction in sound quality, and accordingly gave particular attention to the theatre’s acoustics and sight lines. For vision, he designed the balconies so that they sloped towards the auditorium sides, rather than the more traditional method of being supported by pilotis; Matcham pioneered the use of cantilevered steel in his designs, and took out patents to protect his work. The theatre featured a revolving stage, the first of its kind in London, which allowed for imaginative ideas, including the theatre’s extravagant celebrations of Derby Day, featuring guesting jockeys riding real horses, galloping against the moving revolve. Backstage there were, according to Pevsner, “box-to-box telephones” and “changing rooms so that evening dress could be donned on site”. The Coliseum cost £250,000 to build.
Matcham rarely ventured away from theatres, but did on occasion. He was commissioned by the Blackpool Tower Company, a Standard Contract & Debenture Corporation, to design the decoration for the ballroom, which formed part of their entertainment complex in Blackpool, Lancashire. The ballroom’s interior was Matcham’s only design for the complex, although Historic England consider it probable that he was also responsible for the remodelling of the circus, also within the complex, in 1900. Pevsner considered the circus it to be “the largest and most elaborate theatre of its type in England” and provided the UK with a “permanent setting for a circus not available in any other resort”. The complex opened in 1894.
The regeneration of Briggate in the 1890s, one of the oldest streets in Leeds, included building shopping arcades to accompany the existing Thorntons Arcade, completed in 1878. Matcham designed Cross and County Arcades for the Leeds Estate Company between 1898 and 1900 at the northernmost part of the street. At the same time as his work on the County Arcade, he designed the Empire Palace for Moss, which was accessed via Cross Arcade, and 49–51 Vicar Lane; 2–24 King Edward Street and 115–120, Briggate, which consisted of shops and offices within the County Arcade development.
The construction costs of the County Arcade were in excess of £300,000.[j] According to Brian Mercer Walker, Matcham’s biographer, the architect took on the designs for the County Arcade either because of a decline in the need for new theatres, or an attempt to try out something different. Either way, Mercer Walker considered the project to be completely out of character for Matcham who had previously displayed such energy and enthusiasm for all his designs.
Together with a few public houses in London,[k] Matcham’s other non-theatrical commissions included a new wing for the Royal Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund at Brinsworth House and a printing works in Southwark.[l]
Matcham was a devoted if frequently absent husband and father. He married Maria Robinson, the daughter of his tutor, J. T. Robinson, on 9 July 1877 at St. James’s Church, Pentonville.[m] They had two daughters; Eveline, who was born in 1878, and Constance, in 1884. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Matcham listed an interest in music but admitted that although he owned a Stradivarius violin, he “wasn’t particular good with it”. Another hobby was amateur dramatics and on occasion, the Matchams would stage minor pieces, for the entertainment of their neighbours, when they lived in Dollis Avenue, Finchley. The author Brian Mercer Walker notes, from Matcham’s personal archives, that the architect was “a man of remarkable vigour and [had an] enthusiasm for life … he possessed a tranquility of mind and [had] a great sense of humour and fun.”
Retirement and death
In 1910 the London Palladium was completed and opened on 26 December. Designs for the Victoria Palace Theatre were already under way; it opened the following November. During the design stage of the Palace, Matcham was also working alongside Bertie Crewe on a new Hippodrome in Bristol which was to become Matcham’s last major design.
The inter-war period was slow for theatrical architects and builders, mainly because of the introduction of cinema, and many of the theatres that had been designed in Matcham’s office were now becoming picture houses. Matcham & Co.’s projects had started to slow down by 1913 with the only theatrical venture being the design of the Palace Theatre, Leicester, that year.
Matcham retired to Westcliff-on-Sea with his wife shortly before the First World War and left the running of the business to Chancellor and Briggs. He died at his home, 28 Westcliff Parade, on 17 May 1920. The funeral took place at St. Paul’s Church, Finchley, before his interment in the family vault in Highgate Cemetery.
The total number of theatres Matcham designed is unknown, and has been the subject of much speculation. The architect Victor Glasstone estimates it to include 66 new theatres and the remodelling and restoration of 58 others, between 1879 and 1910; Matcham’s biographer Brian Mercer Walker lists him ahead of his contemporaries and counts 92 designs, with the closest to him being Charles J. Phipps, with 47. According to the theatre historians John Earl and Michael Sell, Matcham was the original architect for half of the 48 surviving theatres associated with him, and the rest he restored, altered or remodelled from existing buildings. A further 111 of his theatres were bombed during the wars, destroyed by fire, or demolished as part of area regeneration, mostly during the 1960s.
From the start of the 1900s Crewe and W.G.R. Sprague had started to make names for themselves in architectural circles. It has been suggested by various architectural journals that Crewe and Sprague were pupils of Matcham, and although Glasstone was sceptical of this in his 1975 book Victorian and Edwardian Theatres, the author Iain Mackintosh noted a clear Matcham influence in Sprague and Crewe’s designs; he describes the former as being more suave than Matcham’s, while Crewe, although sharing a lot of Matcham’s exuberance, was “more polished” because of his earlier training in Paris. Sir Alfred Butt, writing in The Era, considered: “Frank Matcham lived for his work, and unquestionably was pre-eminent as a theatrical and music hall architect. According to the historians, Roger Dixon and Stefan Muthesius, Matcham was “the most consistent and prolific architect of the later music halls … his buildings, mostly in the provinces and the suburbs of London, [were] equal or exceed in splendour [compared to] the metropolitan theatres and opera houses.”
On 22 November 2007 Matcham was commemorated by English Heritage when a blue plaque was unveiled by the actor Timothy West and the actress Prunella Scales at his former London home, 10 Haslemere Road, Hornsey.
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- Charles Matcham originated from Andover in Hampshire, while Frank’s mother, Elizabeth, was born and brought up in Islington, London. They married at St Giles in the Fields, then part of Holborn, Middlesex, in 1850. After briefly settling in Andover, shortly before the birth of the eldest child, Elizabeth, in 1851, the Matchams moved to Torquay owing to Charles’s desire to capitalise on the increase in tourism in the seaside town.
- George Bridgeman was born in 1839 and was the son of John Bridgeman and his wife, Mary née Soudon. Mary Luscombe Bridgeman, John’s mother, was the proprietor of the family brewery business at which Charles Matcham worked. The Bridgemans were also neighbours to the Matchams in Union Street, Torquay, and their probable landlords. George first came to notice when at the age of 23, he helped to design a large residential development in the Roundham area of Paignton. George Bridgeman’s employers were responsible for the designs of many local buildings including schools, public houses, and municipal structures. Bridgeman went on to form his own successful drawing office, shortly after Matcham left for London. He was later appointed as the chairman of Paignton Urban District Council and became their principal architect responsible for designing many of the buildings that still make up Paignton.
- Robinson was one of the leading theatrical architects in Victorian London. His rebuilding of the Old Vic theatre in 1871 was a particularly noted design. Later that decade he became a consulting architect to the Lord Chamberlain of the Household.
- James Elliston (1852–1920) was born in Edinburgh. He was known as a hard-working entrepreneur and had a varied career both on and off the stage. He had been based in Blackburn since 1875 but had previously managed theatres in Liverpool, Bishop Auckland, and Durham.
- The building was the first purpose-built, stone and brick theatre in Stockport. It introduced the latest designs in ventilation and featured an updated version of gas lighting. The auditorium had a capacity of 3,000 and featured tip-up seats in the dress circle and upholstered chairs in the boxes. Local building contractors were used at a cost of £12,000, a fee paid personally by Revill. The theatre was demolished in 1962.
- Particular attention was paid to the roof which was decorated in crimson, green, electric blue and gold. Three large panels over the proscenium and sides of the auditorium depicted scenes of drama, comedy, poetry, and music. There were with life-size carvings of Ludwig van Beethoven, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Shakespeare. Two panels flanked the proscenium, one depicting music, the other, drama.
- In 1996 around 10,000 original drawings were purchased by the Theatre Museum after they were found in a damaged and damp state. The drawings represented 75 buildings, 35 of which were either wholly or in part attributed to Matcham.
- Francis Graham Moon Chancellor was born in Tasmania and was the lead architect for Matcham & Co. in Matcham’s absence. He was the office’s chief surveyor and office manager. In 1931 he completed the new Sadler’s Wells theatre. Robert Alexander Briggs possessed more of a business mind compared to his colleagues and was an engineer of good standing. He designed the stage machinery for all of Matcham’s Hippodromes. He, along with Matcham, purchased the patent for his self-designed cantilever which was specifically used in theatre construction.
- In Victorian England,theatre architects were not taken seriously in architectural circles and were often looked upon as being of inferior status.
- The Empire Palace closed on 25 February 1961 and was demolished the following year.
- One of the few surviving public houses designed by Matcham is the Crown, which is attached to the London Hippodrome Theatre in Westminster, London.
- The works have since been converted into flats, but the facade remains to the original designs.
- Maria was born in 1858 to Jethro Thomas Robinson and his wife, Hannah née Beedham. Maria initially took her mother’s first name at birth, but she went by the name of Maria for most of her life. She died a few months after her husband in 1920.