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1901 The Hackney Empire (Aug 2005)
Frank Matcham (22 November 1854, Newton Abbotmarker, Devonmarker – 17 May 1920, Southend-on-Seamarker, Essex) was a famous Englishmarker theatrical architect. He is buried in Highgate Cemeterymarker.

Early career

Frank Matcham's father was a brewery clerk, and he was raised in Torquaymarker, where he attended Babbacombe school. In 1868, he was apprenticed to a local surveyor and architect, George Sondon Bridgeman. He moved to London and joined the architectural practice of Jethro Robinson, consulting theatre architect to the Lord Chamberlain's office. In 1877 Matcham married Robinson's youngest daughter, Effie, and only a year later his father-in-law died and he found himself in charge of the practice, at the age of 24. Frank Matcham received no formal training as an architect, but learnt the practicalities on the job.

His first commission was to complete the designs of the Elephant and Castle theatre (opened June 1879).


Matcham and two architects he helped to train, Bertie Crewe and W.G.R. Sprague, were together responsible for the majority - certainly more than 200 - of the theatres and variety palaces of the great building boom which took place in Britain between about 1890 and 1915, peaking at the turn of the century.

The London Coliseum
Matcham himself designed; Cheltenham Everyman Theatre Blackpool Grand Theatremarker and the Wakefield Theatre Royal and Opera House in 1894, as well as Buxton Opera Housemarker and the Royal Hall (Kursaal), Harrogatemarker in 1903, and the Liverpool Olympiamarker (1905). He also designed several famous Londonmarker theatres: the Hackney Empiremarker (1901), the London Coliseummarker (1904), the London Palladiummarker (1910), the Victoria Palacemarker (1911), and rebuilt the Alhambra Theatremarker (1912), in Leicester Squaremarker.

Matcham is remembered in Northern Irelandmarker for his design of the Grand Opera House (opened December 1895) on Great Victoria Street, Belfastmarker. In Douglas, Isle of Manmarker he is famed for the design of the Gaiety Theatre, which survives to this day.

Matcham also designed theatres in Scotlandmarker: in Aberdeenmarker, there were His Majesty's Theatremarker, built in 1904 to replace the Tivoli Theatremarker - the Tivoli was originally known as Her Majesty's Theatre, opened in 1872 to the designs of C.J. Phipps, and was subject to alterations by Matcham in 1897, followed by a complete interior rebuild by him in 1909. Both theatres still survive in Aberdeen, although the Tivoli is sadly disused after a spell as a bingo hall. In Edinburghmarker, he designed the Empire Palace Theatre, opened in 1892, and he also rebuilt it after a fire in 1911. It was subsequently demolished and rebuilt in 1927/8, this time to the designs of Sunderland architects Milburn and Milburn, and still stands today, having been refurbished after a time as a bingo hall, as the Edinburgh Festival Theatremarker, albeit with a modern glass facade built in 1994. He also designed the King's Theatre, Glasgowmarker on Bath Street in 1904, which happily also still entertains citizens of that city today. The City of Portsmouth is distinguished by two surviving Matcham designs; The Kings Theatre and The New Theatre Royal, both active still.

One unusual commission, built around 1900, is the three blocks in Briggatemarker, Leedsmarker, that are today known as the Victoria Quartermarker. Matcham's Empire Palace Theatre, which was the centre-piece of the design, was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a Harvey Nichols store, but his surviving exteriors and the impressive County Arcade have been refurbished to a high standard.

Frank Matcham pioneered the use of cantilevered steel in his designs, and took out patents to protect his work. This allowed balconies to be built out into the theatre without the use of pillars supporting each tier, these had characterised the work of the previous generation of theatre architects. Without pillars, there were improved sight lines and, popular with theatre owners, an increased audience capacity. Michael Sell "Frank Matcham - Theatre Architect" accessed 11 Dec 2006

Preserving the legacy

The refurbished Hackney Empire built in 1901, retains the original structure, but adds modern facilities (Sept 2005)
By the outbreak of the World War I, no significant town was without its theatre, or music-hall, over 150 designed by Matcham. By 1982, however, it was estimated that 85% of the theatres that had lit up British towns and cities in 1914 had been lost - 35 of them, including 20 of Matcham's, in London alone. John Betjeman and Simon Jenkins had spoken up for such architects of Victorian and Edwardian parish churches as the Gilbert Scotts, JL Pearson and GE Street, but few had heard of theatre architects such as Matcham, Bertie Crewe, C.J. Phipps, W.G.R. Sprague and Walter Emden.

That gross neglect came to an end with one too many proposed ruthless destructions: the Granville Theatre in Walham Greenmarker, in 1971, where the Greater London Council stepped in to stop a developer. This incident brought about the formation of the Frank Matcham Society, and the beginning of the preservation of this theatrical heritage. David McKie,"Give Them a Big Hand, The Guardian, London, July 29, 2004 accessed 7 November 2006

On 22 November 2007, Matcham was commemorated by actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales unveiling a blue plaque at the site of his London home, 10 Haslemere Road, Hornseymarker. English Heritage, who award the plaques, noted "His theatres are particularly notable for their exuberant interiors – he was quite prepared to mix architectural styles, from Tudor strapwork to rococo panels, military insignia to classical statuary. They also set new standards in providing good sightlines and high safety standards, with the inclusion of features such as fireproof construction, adequate emergency lighting and ready means of exit. Matcham’s work proved extremely popular with the public, and its opulence and flair continues to enthral audiences today."


  1. Matcham Society
  2. John Betjeman was instrumental in saving Wilton's Music Hall in 1964
  3. Blue Plaque for Theatre Architect Frank Matcham (English Heritage) accessed 27 May 2008

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