Mark Jones and John Pick describe “The Sensational Story of Eastbourne’s Royal Hippodrome” – formerly Eastbourne Theatre Royal. An intriguing narrative, the books sets the story against a unique social history of the town. Peter Longman, director of The Theatres Trust, provides the Foreword.
Amongst many other revolutionary developments resulting from the coming of the railways in the mid-nineteenth century, the massive expansion of this country's seaside resorts is worthy of note.
The 7th Duke of Devonshire, who had inherited lands on the Sussex coast, was quick to realise the potential of his hoidings in the western side of what had become the town of Eastbourne, and soon this area became the site of developments exclusive to the wealthy. Meanwhile in the east the town's poorer classes became ever more overcrowded, underemployed and neglected.
Subsequent guide books and other publicity material for the 'Suntrap of the South' have usually given a whitewashed account of the early history of the town, but Mark Jones and John Pick, in the early chapters of this book, have set the record straight.
The underemployed classes in the town were naturally dependent on seasonal work during the summer months and by the 18805 there were calls to extend the season by artificial means and provide more employment. Naturally the provision of theatrical entertainment was an attraction to visitors. Until this time the provision of such fare had been somewhat of an ad hoc arrangement, generally in 'found spaces.
The notable theatre architect, C J. Phjpps, with the backing of local businessmen had approached the Duke of Devonshire in an attempt the purchase a suitable plot of land on which to build a theatre, but at that time the Duke was unwilling to have a public theatre on his land.
In 1882, a member the Town Board (Eastbourne had not yet been Incorporated) had acquired land ill the centre of the town in an ideal position for a theatre.
The authors of this work have fully chronicled the events which followed, leading up to the opening of Phipps' New Theatre Royal and Opera House in Seaside Road, in August 1883.
Phipps himself and George Loveday, J.L Toole's manager, were the proprietors of the theatre with a Lessee Managership granted to Waldtern Pegg; however Phipps and Loveday personally arranged the first few weeks’ attractions. With his influential London connections, the theatre was able to open with J.L. Toole's London Company and early visits of the D'Oyly Carte Opera and Augustus Harris' Drury Lane Company. Waldtern Pegg's lesseeship proved to be something of a disaster and when he left on October, 1884, the theatre closed for four months, before re-opening with Frank Emery at the helm. The subsequent history of the theatre until 1904 is here fully documented. An appendix listing all recorded performance until that date notes the visits of top class dramatic presentations, pantomimes and variety stars, including Alfred Vance and Arthur Lloyd.
Consideration is given to the competitive entertainment available in the town, including the building of the Devonshire Park Theatre in 1901.
The Theatre Royal closed for major refurbishment in 1904, re-opening on 5th December as the Eastbourne Hippodrome, licensed as a music hall.
The closing chapters give a brief account of the following periods, including cinema use, and an 'afterpiece' gives some account of the recent, successful, attempts to save the theatre, and its prospects for the future.
This work is a worthy bookshelf companion to Edward Thomas' history of the Devonshire Park Theatre (The Playhouse on the Park, Eastbourne,1997).
Co-author Mark Jones is now researching the history of the Eastbourne Hippodrome Company ltd. (from 1904) and it is to be hoped that a full account of this period of the building's history will be published in due course.
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