Towards the end of the 19th century there were a number of theatres in Dover, as described in Theatres Part I. The oldest theatre still standing at that time was the Royal Clarence on Snargate Street. It was subject to a make over and renamed the Tivoli theatre as the owners were Dover Tivoli Company. They went into receivership early in 1898 and Dover Amusements Company, headed by B Carter, bought the theatre. Carter decided to reinstate the Royal accolade that had originally been given nearly a century before by the Duke of Clarence, later William IV (1830-1837).
Renamed Theatre Royal, Dover Amusements Company did not live up to their name preferring ‘serious’ productions such as ‘The Terror of Paris’ about a bomb throwing anarchist. In March 1900, the manager and well-known vaudeville MC, Charles Stewart, left the theatre in order to form a company that planned a new 2000-seat theatre in Castle Place, Maison Dieu Road. Frederick Dew was appointed manager and the Theatre Royal continued to survive as Drew interspersed the serious productions with lighter plays. However, in 1906 the Snargate Street theatre was on the market again.
The theatre was acquired by Messrs George Head and Co. who renamed it the Royal Hippodrome with Harry Kemp Spain, the former manager of the Phoenix Tavern and Music Hall, Market Square, stage manager. Initially, it was not very successful and within a year, the company put it back on the market. However, it would appear that Harry Spain was then given a free hand and soon the theatre became so popular that the owners took it off the market. It was at the Hippodrome that the Dover Operatic and Dramatic Society (DODS) put on its first production, the Mikado, in 1911. This was in honour of the Earl of Brassey as the Lord Warden (1908-1913).
Across town, in February 1898, it was reported that Castle Place Cottages, on the corner of Castle Street and Maison Dieu Road, had been sold to actor Edward Compton. He owned Compton Comedy Company and they floated the idea of the new theatre. This was followed by an offer of £18,000 shares at £1 each to build a 2000-seat venue and five shops.
There were to be three entrances, all on Maison Dieu Road, over which there were to be two powerful arc lamps illuminating the whole front of the building. The thought of this whole structure outraged the Town Clerk, Sir Wollaston Knocker, whose residence at Castle Hill House was directly opposite!
Nonetheless, the Company erected a ‘temporary building’ that fulfilled Knocker’s worst fears. Further, to emphasise that it was to become a permanent fixture no expense was spared with regards to the patrons comfort. Deep pile carpeting covered the floors, the seats were well padded and the walls were decorated with richly embossed paper. From the ceiling hung 6 very powerful arc lamps and 25 gasoliers.
In March 1900 Charles Stewart, the former manager of the Theatre Royal joined the company and the theatre opened under the name of Transfield’s Hippodrome. Putting on vaudeville shows, for two year the theatre was a great success. However, the Town Clerk proved to be a powerful enemy and on the grounds that structure was inadequate, he ensured that the building was condemned. The theatre was forced to close and the construction was demolished. The site remained unoccupied until 1936 by which time it was said to have been jinxed. Now, in 2014, the site is derelict but with promises of better things to come – perhaps the jinx will go away?!
The Dutch gabled Kings Hall opened in Biggin Street as a theatre but shortly after, in 1911, was converted into a picture house. In 1928, faced with competition from the newly opened state of the arts Granada cinema in Castle Street, Kings Hall was again refurbished as a theatre. This required re-seating and re-carpeting as well as other work and the contract was given to Turnpenny Brothers, of London Road. They started work on Sunday evening 22 December 1930 and completed the job by the evening of the 24th.
The theatre was sold in March 1933 and on 1 June 1934, it became part of the Gaumont franchise but retained the name Kings Hall. However, on Wednesday 29 December 1937, the cinema was destroyed by fire. Although rebuilt it was requisitioned during World War II (1939-1945) by the Royal Navy for training in the use of gunnery aiming instruments. It reopened as a cinema in 1947 but in November 1960 it closed opening, the following August, as a successful bingo hall.
The Spanish ‘flu’ of 1918 hit Dover equally as hard as elsewhere and in November that year the council ordered that all cinemas to close. For some strange reason this did not apply to the Hippodrome or to entertainment’s held in Connaught Hall. However, theatrical productions had ceased in Connaught Hall following the installation of the Dr Edward Ferrand Astley’s (1812-1907) organ in 1902.
In 1908 Sidney W Winter acquired the Hippodrome. Elected to the council in 1912 he was unseated due to the invalidity of the election but Winter remained the owner. Prior to World War I (1914-1918) Harry Spain was the stage manager at the Hippodrome and he had encouraged the local amateur dramatic groups such as DODS to put on their productions in the theatre. Harry left the Hippodrome for war service and the Resident Manager was C Taylor Lawson. For reasons unclear, they refused to allow amateur productions at the Hippodrome. This caused a public outcry and a demand for amateur productions to be staged in Connaught Hall. This caused a public outcry and a demand for amateur productions to be staged in Connaught Hall.
Harry Spain returned from war service and returned to the Hippodrome as stage manager. In 1926, Sidney W Winter, died at Kingsbridge, Devon and the theatre was put on the market. While the for sale signs were hanging outside, Harry Spain – as temporary theatre manager – allowed DODS to stage a production at the Hippodrome and it was a great success. Indeed, up until the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945), DODS put on a number of spectacular and successful shows there. Albeit, with the new grand Granada cinema, opening on 8 January 1930, the days of the theatre in Dover seemed to be numbered. In 1932, the new owner of the Hippodrome, Mr W Rice, applied to turn the building into a cinema. Two years later, the theatre was in the hands of a Mr M Morris, who advocated the need for a theatre in Dover but by autumn 1935, the for sale signs were up again.
Herbert Roberts Armstrong (1882-1947), known as HR and his wife Rosina came and had a look. HR had spent much of his working life in what was then Persia, now Iran, as superintendent of Social Services for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The couple were by this time retired but decided to buy the Hippodrome keeping Harry Spain as stage manager. On 26 October 1936, having refurbished their new acquisition, the theatre reopened and quickly attracted ‘full houses.’ Three years later Dover became a military fortress when World War II was declared. This brought to the town an influx of military and naval personnel and the Hippodromes reached its peak of popularity.
HR, so it was said, inspired artistes and audience alike with his energy and love of the Hippodrome. In his office there was a large poster that read, ‘To Hell with Hitler and his unexploded bombs, the Hippodrome is still open.’ According to the late Dick Whittamore, who started work there as pageboy in 1939, besides Harry Spain the staff included assistant manager – John Denton, cellerman – George Sidders, lighting – Nobby Granger and the chief cleaning lady – Mrs Hanson.
The Hippodrome had a five-piece orchestra that accompanied the various variety acts. The leader and first violin was Charlie Haynes, who lived at Kennington, near Ashford and the other musicians were Bob Page – piano, Harry Chandler – trumpet, Bill Delayhaye – clarinet, Mr Cooper – 2nd violin and members of the band also played drums. Secondary lighting was by gas that had to be lit manually and was very noisy!
In an article in the Dover Society Magazine of April 1996, Dick wrote that ‘at the outbreak of war the theatre closed for a few days whilst all the windows were blacked out and the neon signs disconnected. It reopened on 12 September with a visit from Robin Richmond with his electronic organ in an appropriately named show, ‘blackout blues.’ Babes in Woods pantomime opened on Christmas Day 1939 and on 8 January 1940 Little Bo Peep played for six days with matinees.’
The theatre’s agent was Universal Variety Agency, Haymarket, London and the Hippodrome boasted of many famous artistes and if they were unable to come, the agency always managed to find substitutes. On 15 December 1940 Ted and Barbara Andrews, the parents of Julie Andrews (b1935), were the headliners.
In the spring of 1941, the theatre concentrated on strip shows and entertainers included the famous Phyllis Dixey (1914-1964). Singer, Evelyn Laye (1900-1996) volunteered to play Dover and her £100 salary was donated to local charities. This was presented to the Mayor Jimmy Cairns, on the stage on the Saturday evening of that week. A stalwart performer was compare Geoffrey Warner, who not only performed on the stage but, wrote Dick Whittamore, he took artistes out to lonely gun sites to put on shows for the crews who could not make it to the theatre.
During this time, Press correspondents from many countries wrote of their experiences of Dover as bombs dropped and shells burst all around. Many propped up the bar under the stage itself for there, in complete defiance of all theatrical tradition, artistes in costume and wearing stage make-up mixed with members of the audience. For public safety, from 21 September 1940, all theatres along with cinemas, clubs and restaurants, had to close by 22.00hrs each evening and were not permitted to re-open until half-an-hour before sunrise the next day. The local police chief could change the closing time to 21.00hrs if necessary and in Dover local buses ceased to run at that time.
Albeit, from April 1941 the theatre was also allowed to open on Sundays and Christmas days for ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), productions. They provided entertainment for troops during the war. On Sunday 19 December 1943, the Tommy Trinder Show was booked in aid of Prisoners of War Fund. However, the Lords Day Observance Society demanded that the show was to be cancelled and to enforce this, they started legal action.
Tommy Trinder (1909-1989), who was not actually booked to attend – just one of his shows being staged in the provinces – heard about this so he personally brought down a show with top rate artistes. These included Sonnie Hale (1902-1959), Tessie O’Shea (1913-1995), Derek Roy (1922-1981) and the Jerry Allen Trio. Tickets ranged from 1 shilling to 5-shillings and the company played to packed houses raising £130 for the Fund.
Even though the theatre was allowed to open on Sundays, Dover was still a military fortress and often HR would interrupt shows in order to read out the names of those who had to return to their posts. On leaving, each would be given a free ticket for another night of the show. When the air-raid sirens sounded, the audience were shepherd across Snargate Street to a large shelter had been built into the face of the cliff. The entertainers, who saw it as an honour to be engaged by a theatre so near the front line, would follow and the show would resume.
On 18 January 1944, Cinderella opened at the Hippodrome to record audiences of mainly children. All had been sent to Wales for the duration of the War following the Dunkirk Evacuation in June 1940 but most had drifted back to the town. Throughout that year, as normal, there was different show every week at the Hippodrome. For the last week in September that year the pianist – Renara, choirboy – Joe Peterson, comedian – Frank E West, Rex Ashley, Sonia, and Billy Barr and his lady, and Six Dancing Diamonds were booked.
On 25 September 1944, a German shell hit the building during a morning rehearsal. No one was hurt as the roof caved in – it was one of the last shells to hit Dover but the Hippodrome never opened again.
After the theatre closed, HR Armstrong reopened the Pleasure Gardens Theatre in Folkestone. While there a sick friend, who ran the Palace Theatre in Dundee, asked if he would help out. HR travelled to Scotland but shortly after arriving caught a chill and two weeks later died on 14 May 1947. There is a seat to his memory in Granville Gardens. The wrecked building stood for six years before the council arranged for it to be demolished. Almost as if the shattered building knew what was going to happen, part of it collapsed across what was then Northampton Street before it was finally demolished in January 1951.
On the site of the demolished Hippodrome theatre, as part of the Dover Harbour Board’s policy of post-war development of Western Docks, offices were erected. These were taken over by Henry Tolputt and Company who used the forecourt for a timber yard. In September 1968 a commemorative plaque, marking the site of the old Hippodrome Theatre was put up in Snargate Street.
Mrs Rosina Armstrong, widow of HR, was present at the unveiling along with Mayoress, Mrs Jean Aslett, representatives of Dover Harbour Board and many people connected with the theatre. In her thank you speech, Mrs Armstrong said, ‘that if you ‘listen as you walk by in the dark where the Hippodrome once stood you will hear the roar of laughter of the audience long since departed. Maybe you’ll catch the strains of a well-loved melody – for a theatre never really dies.’
In the 1990s, the A2 road was re-routed through Dover cutting off the town from the seafront and burying what had been the site of the Hippodrome. In consequence, the plaque was removed and former Hippodrome employee, Dick Whittamore, eventually managed to persuade Dover Harbour Board to replace it.
A new plaque created on the instructions of IMPACT – a joint council initiative – was placed, on 25 September 1995, on the wall of the Hovertel, on Snargate Street with permission of the owners, David & Sandy Peters. Sadly, in September 2010, metal thieves using an angle-grinder stole the plaque since when it has not been replaced.
Following the War, in 1950, Dover Operatic and Dramatic Society (DODS) reformed and opened with a production of Iolathe, using materials taken from the bombed out Hippodrome to build a stage in the Connaught Hall – the council did not object! Since then the company have successfully put on regular and excellent productions in the Hall that does not do them the justice that a dedicated theatre would.
In 1951, the Dover Players staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Kearsney Abbey as a contribution to the town’s Festival of Britain celebrations. The production was seen by 4,000 people and over the following years, they staged further successful productions in Kearsney Abbey. In 1952, as part of the Coronation celebrations, the notion of a dedicated concert hall and theatre was put forward but with an estimated to cost £50,000 the idea was abandoned.
Following the War Dover Operatic and Dramatic Society (DODS) in 1950 reformed and opened with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolathe, using materials taken from the bombed out Hippodrome to build a stage in the Connaught Hall – the council did not object! Since then the company have successfully put on regular and excellent productions in the Hall that does not do them the justice that a dedicated theatre would. In order to buy property and turn it into a theatre, on 1 August 1999, DODS became a Company Limited by Guarantee.
When, in 2000, the listed former Technical College on Ladywell was offered for sale they made a bid but they were outbid by a charitable trust, Superior (Dover) Ltd, with the stated intention of helping to regenerate Dover. In reality after a couple or so years sold the building. DODS went on to look at the possibility of utilising the Salvation Army Citadel building on the High Street but this proved too expensive to convert. That building has since been turned to flats. In recent years, due to the relative high cost of hiring Connaught Hall to the return on tickets sold, DODS have sought other venues such as the St Edmund’s School’s New Eden Theatre and Astor College’s White Cliffs Theatre.
The White Cliffs Experience, in Market Square, was sold to Kent County Council for £1 and renamed the Dover Discovery Centre. In 2003 saw the library moved from Maison Dieu House to the Discovery Centre, which included the Adult Education Centre and a small tiered theatre without proper seating. That year professional actor and director, Richard Esdale set up the Blackfish Academy in Dover. This was to enable young people to express themselves through the performing arts and he won the contract from Kent County Council to use the small theatre. The initially works was carried out using generous donations and the Academy was able to buy 100 seats, a third of the theatre’s capacity and the new theatre was named the Roundhouse.
However on the wish list for Dover, is still a full size dedicated purpose built public theatre and concert hall. Many of us looked at the forlorn but once palatial cinema, the Granada, which stood on Castle Street, in the hope that money would be found to restructure and furbish as the much-needed theatre. Unfortunately, the building was sold to speculators who demolished the old cinema and the site is now temporary car park for the St James Development construction workers – there is no plan for a purpose built theatre and concert hall for Dover.
Part III of Dover’s theatrical heritage tells the story of the town’s amazing Amateur Theatrical Groups
First Presented : 13 April 2014