Theatre Royal (former)

The buildings at 148-154 Gloucester Street were originally part of the Theatre Royal which was designed by Alfred Simpson and built in 1876.

With its northern boundary facing onto Gloucester Street, Town Section 699 was in the ownership of William Brooks when he advertised the lease of the property in March 1861.

On 11 November 1861, a meeting was held in the Market Hall to consider the formation of an instrumental society which would amalgamate with the Vocal Union. At this meeting it was proposed to construct a new music hall on section 699. This meeting was followed by another, held on 14 November at the Forester’s Hall, whereupon the agreed amalgamation resulted in the formation of the Canterbury Musical Union. On 25 November, a provisional committee accepted the design for a music hall to be built in brick by George Mallinson.

By 14 December, those promoting the construction of a new hall had received applications for 190 shares in the project. On 20 December 1861, the Canterbury Music Hall Company Limited was officially formed following another meeting held in the Market Hall.

Tenders for the erection of a music hall in accordance with the plans prepared by Mallinson were advertised in January 1862. The building was completed by June 1863. It was a simple building, described at various times as a ‘red brick box’ and having ‘…dismal proportions so suggestive of a dissenting chapel or Quaker’s meeting house’. The hall, known as the New Music Hall, opened on 15 and 16 June 1863 with two concerts.

By October 1863, John Lawrence Hall had taken over the lease of the music hall with the intention of converting it into a theatre. To accomplish this, in December the interior of the building was renovated to include an orchestra pit and stalls on the ground floor, with a tier featuring a dress circle, boxes, and slips. The ceiling was also divided up into nine sections with painted decorations. Hall renamed the building as the Royal Princess Theatre in honour of Princess Alexandra.

By November 1865, the lessee of the theatre was William H. Mumford. In October 1866, R. B. Willis and J. S. Dale took over the lease. Prior to opening for the winter season in June, they renovated the building. This involved replacing the flat roof with a domed one and installing a chandelier. The approaches and vestibule were also repaired. Upon completion the building was renamed the Theatre Royal.

In March 1867, Henry C. West, who held the license for the neighbouring Shakespeare Hotel, advertised for the sale the unexpired lease of the theatre. George Furby took up the lease by November 1867, however by April 1868 the lessee was R. H. Cox. The turnover of lessees perhaps affected the quality of the theatrical performances during this time, as when W. J. Wilson took up the management of the theatre in October 1868, it was said that he raised the standards. By November 1871, the lessee was Achille Fleury but by January 1872 Fleury was declared bankrupt.

Although the building was only a decade old, by the 1870s it was evident that the converted music hall was inadequate as a theatre. Cold in the winter, and hot in the summer, the building was often referred to as “the barn”. In June 1872, John Baylee advertised tenders for alterations to the building. The contract for the exterior renovations was awarded to J. Wood, while the interior renovations were done by Heath and Rose.

Since the original building was set back from the street front, a single storey lobby was erected to fill this space. Wider than the width of the original building, its façade featured three arched doorways and two windows (set between each door), and was topped with a decorative balustrade. The façade of the original building, set further back, was painted to match the new construction. Atop the façade was a coat of arms bearing the name of the theatre. In front of the theatre, on the footpath of Gloucester Street, was a large lamp set between two posts.

The westernmost door on the new Gloucester Street front was the entrance to the dress circle. Passing through the double doors, the patrons found themselves in a lobby which was lit by a window and gas jets. To the left of the entrance was the cloak room and the ladies’ restroom. Opposite this was the money taker’s box. From the lobby, a staircase led up to a landing and after proceeding through another set of double doors, the patrons entered the dress circle in the original theatre building. This dress circle also included the private boxes.

The central door of the new structure provided access for those whose seating was in the pit. Passing through the doors, the patrons entered a lobby with a money taker’s box. From there, they were met by a screen where they turned either left or right to enter the pit. The former central aisle access to the pit seating had been removed, and instead, patrons made their way to their seating from an aisle on either side.

The easternmost door on the Gloucester Street front led to a passageway that featured a window for the money taker (who shared the same room as the money taker for the pit). The passageway followed the easternmost exterior of the original building before providing an entrance to the stalls.

The centre of the ceiling featured a dome which was painted as a sunflower. Suspended from this was a sun burner chandelier.

One of the lessees to manage the new theatre was William Hoskins, who held the lease in 1873. Hoskins, during his time in England, had been the elocution teacher for the stage actor, Henry Irving (whom author, Bram Stoker, is said to have based Count Dracula upon).

In March 1876, George Beatty, John Baylee, and Hoskins purchased the property and in April a meeting was held at the rooms of H. E. Alport to discuss the formation of a company with the intention of erecting a new theatre. Those who proposed the idea brought with them four possible plans for a new theatre.

A design by Alfred Simpson was eventually selected. The tender for the new theatre’s construction was advertised in July 1876. The contract was awarded to Allen and Son, while the tender of Heath and Rose to build the stage was accepted. The foundation stone for the theatre was laid on 10 July 1876.

As with its predecessor, the new theatre was designed to front Gloucester Street. With a timber façade, it was designed to be in keeping with the adjacent Palace Hotel (also under construction) which was also designed by Simpson. The sides of the building, however, were built from brick, and the roof was of corrugated iron. The façade featured six pilasters which were topped by a balustrade and a panel with the royal coat of arms.

On the ground floor of the façade were three front doors. The central door, which was in line with the lamp suspended between the two posts on the footpath, led to the pit. The western door led to the dress circle via a staircase, while the eastern door led to the stalls. The two windows (one on either side of the central door) gave light to the office of the manager and the ticket taker’s room. The five windows on the upper floor were for the ladies’ dressing, private, and cloak rooms, and the refreshment bar which was situated at the rear of the dress circle.

Inside the auditorium, the dress circle was capable of holding up to 350 people, with nine tiers of seats (these were later raised in May 1882). There were also two stage boxes. The pit could seat up to 850 people, while the stalls seated 300. The stage, at the time of its construction, was the largest in New Zealand. Behind this was the painting room, a property room, and a green room. The dressing rooms for the actors were situated above the stage. The interior of the theatre was decorated by W. E. Samuels, and the ceiling was topped by a dome.

The new theatre opened on 4 November 1876 with a performance of “The School for Scandal”.

In 1902, P. A. Herman and Company purchased the theatre with the intention of eventually erecting a new theatre building.

After the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire disaster in Chicago, in which over six hundred people were killed as a result of inadequate fire escapes, the Christchurch City Council surveyed the city’s theatres and found that the Theatre Royal did not meet the new safety standards it sought to impose. In February 1904, the council ordered that the building be closed and repairs carried out within fourteen days or the license would not be renewed. Herman was required to replace the staircase that led to the dress circle with a larger one, install a high pressure water system, and install additional exits from the stalls, the pit, and stage.

In February 1905, the council was informed by the superintendent that the wiring and switchboard for the electric lighting was dangerous. In the same month, the theatre was accused of being overcrowded. Herman wrote to the council in August, offering to sell the theatre if they were interested in establishing a municipal theatre.

Recognising the need for a new theatre, George Gatonby Stead, a grain merchant, organised a group of businessmen to oversee the establishment of a new theatre. In 1906, construction started on a new Theatre Royal building at 145 Gloucester Street.

No longer operating as a theatre, by 1908, the building was in the ownership of the Christchurch Press Company.

In April 1910, Collins and Harman advertised the alterations to be made for the building and work was underway by May. The front of the former theatre was converted into shops, while the auditorium of the theatre was turned into the printing works for the Christchurch Press Company. The decorative lamp post on the footpath was removed and the property became known as the Theatre Royal buildings.

Following this conversion, the ground floor of the front of the building housed four shops with the addresses 148, 150, 152, and 154 Gloucester Street.

One of the earliest occupants of shop 148 was the Merivale Football Club, which was in residence by September 1910. They remained listed as the occupants until 1923. The shop address remains unlisted in the city directory until 1936 when it was occupied by J. and W. Field, signwriters. Another signwriting firm, Raymond Taylor, was in occupancy in 1940. By 1946, R. V. Meyer was the occupant. From 1964 to 1974 the shop was occupied by the Jewel Casket. 

The shop at 150 Gloucester Street was possibly first occupied by Mrs Hucks Lunch Rooms which was operated by Isabella and Henry Hucks. By 1913, Robert Wilson, a tobacconist and hairdresser, occupied the premises. His shop was raided by the police for use a gaming house in 1914. By 1918, W. J. Lane and Co., electrical engineers, occupied not only the shop at 150 but also the adjoining shop at 152 Gloucester Street. In September 1927, the shop formerly occupied by Lane Electrical was advertised for lease by the Christchurch Press Company. In 1930, the Inn Tea Rooms opened in the shop. The tea rooms were rebranded as the Princess Royal Tea Rooms in 1934. The name was changed to The Singing Kettle in 1947. By 1974, the occupants were S. E. Boanas Limited.

One of the first occupants of the shop at 152 Gloucester Street was possibly Thomas Boyd and Son cycle manufacturers, who were in occupancy by 1913. After being occupied by W. J. Lane and Co., in January 1922, M. and K. Cosgrove opened The Vogue, a millinery and dressmakers shop. In 1925, Nell Bradley, an art furnisher, was the occupant. Bradley was still the occupant in 1946. By 1956, the shop was Christine, a babywear specialists. 

Annie Bolt, a fruiter, was one of the earliest occupants of the shop at 154 Gloucester Street. By 1916, another fruiter, Elizabeth Herd, had replaced her. From 1920, the shop was the premises of Handisides and Sturge, locksmiths and gunsmiths. The shop was rebranded in 1947 as Henry Sturge Limited, and remained so by 1974.

In 1931, tenders were advertised by the architectural firm, S. and A. Luttrell for the construction of a new two storey printing house for the Christchurch Press Company. In that year, the former auditorium of the theatre building was demolished and replaced with a new printing works.

The street front of the former theatre, which contained the shops 148 to 154 Gloucester Street, remained in place until it was damaged in the Canterbury Earthquakes. It was demolished in 2011.