DAVID A ELLIS writes ~ The Music Hall was built by Abbot Simon on a former cemetery and became the Ancient Chapel of St Nicholas. It passed into the possession of the mayor and citizens in 1488 when it became the Common Hall. Little use was made of the building until 1545 when it was considerably altered. The ground floor became a storehouse for wool, corn, cloth etc and the upper part as a port mote for the pleas of the crown, for the port mote of common pleas, and pentice court. After the alterations were complete the city authorities removed from the old Common Hall, in Common Hall lane. It is evident that it was used as a place of amusement even at that time.
On 2nd December 1606 William Earl of Derby applied to the mayor and assembly for permission to use the hall for a dramatic performance. Ten years later during the mayoralty of Thomas Thorpe an order of assembly was made on 20th October 1616 that no players be allowed to use the Common Hall, and further that for avoiding several inconveniences, ordered that they shall not act in any place within the liberties of the city after six in the evening. The mayor and the corporation often feasted and James 1st, Charles 1st and James 2nd were among the distinguished people entertained. When Chester Town Hall was built in 1698 the premises were deserted again by the city authorities, although the ground floor was continued to be used for storage, chiefly for such goods commonly sold at the city’s fairs. It then became the wool hall. When the fairs declined, a group of gentlemen opened it as a theatre for dramatic purposes in 1773. The puritans were determined to put down all such amusements. Actors at that time were arrested as rogues and vagabonds. The city authorities made an application to parliament for a licence and a patent from the crown dated May 16 1777 and was granted to John Townshend. It became the Theatre Royal. Many celebrated actors of the time appeared, including Joe Grimaldi and John Kemble. Many actors built their reputation at the Theatre Royal. In 1855 the building was altered by Chester architect James Harrison and he was responsible for the Gothic front. It opened as the Music Hall on 26th November 1855. On the opening night police regulations stated: Carriages driving to the St Werberg Street entrance must pass from Northgate Street by Abbey buildings to the hall. After setting down company, drive off to St Werberg Street. The same route must be observed in taking up company. Carriages at the Northgate Street entrance must set down with horses heads towards Eastgate Street and take up with the horses heads towards Northgate. These regulations will be strictly enforced by police in attendance. It was run by the Chester Music Hall Company. Booksellers and printers Phillipson and Golder were involved with the hall for many years. On Wednesday January 2nd 1856 the organ was played for the first time. It was billed as The Opening of the Organ. Oratorio of the Messiah was the first production to make use of the instrument. The organist was Mr Gunton. Mr Charles Halle played piano. Halle was also a conductor. From 1884 until 1914 the concerts of the Chester Musical Society were performed at the Music Hall. The building was used for lectures and concerts with occasional screening of animated films in the early 20th Century. The North American Animated Picture Company screened animated pictures of the Boer war in 1901. The advert said Sensation of the New Century – 500 animated pictures of the Boer and China wars.
Many famous people lectured at the Music Hall. Charles Dickens first gave a talk there on Friday 13th August 1858. The reading was taken from A Christmas Carol. In December of 1861 Dickens was booked to appear again on the 19th. However, on December 14th, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert died. The visit was postponed as a mark of respect until after Christmas, when the new date for the readings took place on Thursday the 30th January 1862. This time with readings from The Trial from Pickwick & Nicholas Nickleby at Mr Squeers’s School
He also gave a lecture on January 22nd 1867 of Dr Marigold and Bardell v Pickwick. He was due to give a reading on Thursday 29 April 1869 but it had to be cancelled due to ill health, he had suffered a slight stroke. A statement was given in the Chronicle dated 24 April 1869 by Mr F. Carr Beard. He said, that he was satisfied Dickens would not get through his reading, if he appeared. Dickens recovered enough to carry on giving readings. His last was on 15 March 1870 at St James’s Hall, London. The Chester Chronicle of 17 April 1869 advertised the Chester visit as One Farewell Reading (the last Mr Dickens will ever give in Chester). He would have read Boots at the Holly tree Inn, Sikes and Nancy and Mr Bob Sawyers Party (from Pickwick). Sadly there is no record of him returning to Chester. Some sources say that Dickens said, “The hall is like a Methodist chapel in low spirits, and with a cold in its head.” Later, his two sons Alfred Tenyson Dickens and Sir Henry Dickens lectured at the theatre. ~ Check David A Ellis further detailed account on the Dickens appearance further down this page.
Winston Churchill gave a lecture in March 1901 called The War as I Saw It. On April 15, 1915 Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lectured at the Music Hall on great battles of the war. The advertising said ‘told in detail for the first time’.
Also in 1915 Music Hall artiste Vesta Tilley made what was advertised as a ‘flying vist’. This took place on 3rd August and she was supported by the London Star Entertainers. Roald Amundson also lectured, as did many others.
Films were screened full time from 1915 and the hall was known as Music Hall Pictures. The first film screened was The Corsican Brothers from 20th December. At this time the screen was at the St Werburgh Street end of the building. A Mr Bobby Williams added the musical accompaniment to the films by playing the piano. The last films screened as Music Hall Pictures were What Would you Do, Fatal Failure and Apartment Wanted. This was on 17th September 1921. The freehold was sold by the Cathedral to the new company. After closing, work began on altering the hall. A Mr Edward John Muspratt and a Mr G.E Tonge converted it. The screen was moved from the St Werburgh Street side to the Northgate Street side.
Tip up seats, which were a luxury at that time were fitted. The orchestra under the direction of Edgar Patchett was placed in a sunken platform at the foot of the stage. The cinema was equipped with a pipe organ called an Orchestral, which according to newspapers of the day cost £3000. This seems an amazing sum at the time and it may have been £300. It was stated that the organ would ensure beautiful and effective musical settings to the pictures. The Music Hall was advertised as the oldest cinema in the world. This should have read: Probably the oldest building in the world to show films. At the time it was said that the site is admittedly the best in Chester for a picture house. It is only a few yards from the Cathedral, Town Hall, and Market Hall and has the still further advantage of being in the very heart of the chief shopping area in the city.
A newspaper report said: The Chester Music Hall Cinema has been for many years an exceptionally good paying proposition and has a deservedly high reputation for its music and pictures. This success has been achieved in spite of the fact that the Music Hall does not compare favourably with the modern cinemas for comfort and attractiveness and the directors realising the need in Chester of an up-to-date picture house on refined lines have decided to transform the Music Hall in its unrivalled position and with its wonderful possibilities of development and improvement, into a super cinema that will be worthy of the city.
It is proposed entirely to re-construct and re-decorate the building to embrace the erection of a circular balcony with lounges, foyer and every modern convenience, the provision of improved seating accommodation with tip-up seats. Further the existing structure will be improved upon to provide every facility for entrances and exits to the benefit of the public.
The above alterations will only require the hall to be closed for two or three weeks. Under the new scheme the Chester Music Hall will lend itself in a more befitting manor to the periodical high-class concerts, which have been such a distinctive feature in the past, and which will still be continued under the supervision of Messer’s Phillipson and Golder.
An agreement dated 22nd April 1921 made between Harold Lipson of the one part and the said Henry Kennedy (on behalf of the Chester Music Hall syndicate) of the other part, whereby consideration of the sum of £27,500 the said Chester Music Hall and premises including goodwill and the furniture, fixtures and fittings and all acquired rights and interests of the said Harold Lipson were agreed to be sold to the said Chester Music Hall syndicate. An agreement dated 24th April 1921 made between the said Henry Kennedy acting as agent for the said Chester Music Hall syndicate of the one part and the said James Rylance (as Trustee for the company) of the other part, whereby the said syndicate agreed to sell to the company all the said premises at the price of £30,000, such price as £27,500 in cash and the balance of £2,500 by the allotment to the members of the said syndicate or nominees of £2,500 fully paid shares of £1 each.
The Cheshire Observer dated 26/11/21 said: On entering the body of the hall, one is impressed by the splendid improvements introduced. The floor has been raised and an extremely good slope towards the screen enables all patrons to view the pictures without strain or discomfort. The seats in the body of the hall are all in the luxurious tip-up style, and the floor is covered with a fine Wilton carpet in black and gold.
The first attraction shown in the converted cinema was The Kid starring Charlie Chaplin. The company running the new Music Hall was Chester Music Hall (1921) Ltd. The directors were James Rylance, Hugh Bicket, Henry Kennedy, John Davies and William Costigan. The Kid was shown from 28th November 1921. The second feature was Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. On Wednesday the 21st March 1928 the cinema screened a film called Chang. The entire proceeds of the performance went to the Chester maternity hospital.
On Monday September 23rd 1929 the Music Hall screened Chester’s first ‘Talkie’ The Singing Fool, starring Al Jolson. The local press said: The public will appreciate the enterprise of the Chester Music Hall proprietors in installing the plant to provide the exhibition of “Talkie” films.
Chester has been in the fore in the matter of the silent films, and the Music Hall has become noted for the excellence of the fare produced and the early booking of all the outstanding photoplays. Another report says: To ensure a successful screening of the films the interior of the Music Hall has been a hive of industry during the erection of the necessary equipment. It will be readily understood that considerable difficulty is experienced to get an even distribution of the sound, or talking, from the operating, to all parts of the auditorium. The Music Hall is noted for its wonderful acoustic properties, but this is not enough to ensure a clear and even dissemination of dialogue throughout the hall. Special apparatus had therefore to be installed and during the last few weeks the latest type of distribution schemes has been added to the interior of the hall under the superintendence of the expert, Mr Gamoner. The first British ‘Talkie’ Blackmail, directed by Alfred Hitchcock was shown at the cinema on November 4th 1929. The sound was on disc, a short-lived system before optical sound on film. The cinema was advertised as ‘The Talkie Theatre’, ‘Chester’s Talkie Theatre Select’, ‘Chester’s ‘Select’ Talkie Theatre’ and Chester’s Super Talkie Theatre. It was also advertised as the oldest cinema in the world. This should have read, probably the oldest building in the world to show films.
The cinema was run by General Theatres from 1929, coming under Circuits Management Association in 1948. An advert from 1931 describes the hall as having delightful entertainment, a homely atmosphere and comfort and relaxation. There were separate performances at 2.30, 6,30 and 8.40.
Later, continuous performances were run. There was no neon sign stating it was the Music Hall. There were two still frames at the St Werberg side, and above them was the wording Music Hall Cinema. When war broke out the films advertised from the 4th September were not shown all week due to closure and the cinemas didn’t open again until the 18th September. The films that were due to be shown from the 4th were Tailspin and Renegade Trail. From the 18th, the Music Hall ran Sergeant Madden. The first films after the end of the war were Cynara and Dead Man’s Eyes.
The manager for many years was Mr William Mulvey. He joined the Music Hall in 1915 aged 28. He had previously been manager of the Empire, Flint, North Wales. In his early days at the cinema, seats for film shows were 3d, 4d and 6d. George Robey and Vesta Tilly were some of the many celebrities who performed ‘flying matinees’ when apparently the 4d seats were cushioned and became a whopping 7s 6d. Mr Mulvey retired in 1949. The Music Hall’s longest serving manager died in 1972 age 85. The last person to manage the cinema was a Mr Alfred Newton. He moved to the Odeon Rhyl after the Music Hall’s closure.
The Music Hall was closed on 29th April 1961 with the film Never on Sunday. A good film to end on because the cinema never opened on a Sunday. Mr Newton said: “ The people of Chester have only themselves to blame for its closure, they should have patronised it better. Attendances at the theatre had gradually fallen away.” During the last week of the Music Hall, the Gaumont was screening Flaming Star and The Secrets of the Purple Reef. The Royalty theatre was staging A Girl called Sadie, the ABC were showing The Long and the Short and the Tall. At the Odeon was The Wackiest Ship in the Army and The Trunk. The Classic had The Last Days of Pompeii and The Great St Louis Bank Robbery from Sun –Wed. The Time Machine was shown Thurs – Sat. It was converted into a supermarket called Lipton’s, which opened a year after the cinema’s closure. Later, it became a Foster’s menswear shop, reject shop and today is a Superdrug store
David A Ellis writes~
DICKENS IN CHESTER
On the 22nd January 2017 it will be one hundred and fifty years since the great 19th century author Charles Dickens stepped inside the Chester Music Hall to deliver a reading. Dickens must have liked Chester and the Music Hall as the 1867 visit wasn’t his first, but unfortunately it was to be his last. Apart from being one of the greatest authors of all time, Dickens was a great orator, giving readings on both sides of the Atlantic. He would often act out the parts he was reading. His first visit to the city was on the 13th August 1858,the year he started doing professional readings. The reading was from A Christmas Carol. He was due to appear again on 19th December 1861. This was cancelled until after Christmas due to the death of the Prince Consort. The reading took place on Thursday 30th January 1862. Dickens delighted Chester audiences with readings from The Trial from Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby at Mr Squeers’s School. Prices for this event were four shillings (20p) for numbered and reserved seats. Unreserved seats in the lower galleries were two shillings (10p) and the back seats were a shilling (5p). These were pretty hefty prices at the time. The reading commenced at 8pm and lasted two hours.
On the 22nd January 1867 Dickens made his final appearance at the Music Hall, but not by choice. The highly respected author of such classics as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield gave readings to the enthusiastic Chester audience on Dr Marigold and Bardell Vs Pickwick. The Chester Chronicle dated 26/1/1867 says: The Music Hall on Tuesday evening was accordingly well filled on the whole, though a few seats set apart as “reserved” were vacant; and this is the more gratifying as the high prices charged and the exceptional severity of the weather must have been keen dissuasives with all but the most anxious to see and hear him.
Shortly after eight o’ clock Mr Dickens appeared on the platform. He took his stand at the little crimson table provided for him and commenced without a word of preface “ I am a cheap Jack” – the opening words of Dr Marigold. Dickens concluded with old Weller’s assertions about the value of an alibi, amid loud applause.
Some sources say that he gave a reading at the Music Hall shortly before his death in 1870. This is incorrect. He was booked to give a reading on Thursday the 29th April 1869 but it had to be cancelled due to ill health. Dickens had suffered a slight stroke. A statement was given to the Chester Chronicle dated 24 April 1869 by a Mr F. Carr Beard, Dickens’s doctor and friend. He said that he was satisfied Dickens would not get through his reading, if he appeared. The Chester Chronicle dated 17th April 1869 advertised the visit as one farewell reading (the last Mr Dickens will ever give in Chester). He would have read The Boots at the Holly Tree Inn, Sikes and Nancy and Mr Bob Sawyer’s Party from Pickwick. Charles Dickens died on the 9th June 1870 at the age of fifty-eight.
DAVID A ELLIS