Family Tree

Last update:
  13-Apr-2014
©1996-2014
  Mike Todd

View of front of Queen's TheatreView of front of Queen's just before opening dayQueen's AuditoriumQueen's Theatre billboard
Group at front of Queen's Theatre South Shields Choral Society on stage Front of Queen's Theatre Porgramme Back of Queen's Theatre Programme First page of Queen's 7th anniversary brochureBillings from Shields GazetteThe Queen's just after it was bombed

 

 

The Queen's Theatre

Before the Queen's
Probably the best-known theatre in South Shields before the Queen's was the Empire Palace of Varieties, a theatre established by Shields musician and entrepreneur, Richard Thornton.

Thornton had started life playing the violin - he would be seen at the Marsden Grotto when he was only 15, and on the pleasure boats that sailed up and down the Tyne. His daytime job was at a cabinet maker's stores in Union Alley, just behind the old Theatre Royal, in King Street and where, in his 30s, he was to lead the orchestra.

In his early 40s, he was running the Shakespeare Arms Public House (also in Union Alley), shown in the 1881 census as "Inn Keeper Ale & Pork Merchant" along with his wife, Isabella (more commonly known as Bella) Thornton.

But it was while playing in the music room at the old Locomotive Inn at the Mill Dam that gave him the idea of establishing a music room at the Shakespeare Arms.

By this time, the only regular music hall in South Shields was the Alhambra (a wooden building in Coronation Street) and Thornton set about changing this by expanding the Shakespeare Arms' music room over several existing buildings. And in 1885, Thornton's Music Hall was opened.

It was a plush building in many senses, and was a substantial success. But it was too small to handle the audiences. It closed in 1898, and a new building was built. The Empire Palace of Varieties (the Shields Empire) opened in 1899 - what had started as an extended music room in a pub was now a fully-fledged music hall.

Dick Thornton went on to open a number of theatres all over the north, including the Sunderland Empire which he built in 1907.

The Queen's is built
So it was that by the start of the 20th century, South Shields was lucky enough to have a number of theatres. Then, in 1913, architects Gibson and Stienlet of North Shields designed a new theatre in Mile End Road. Built by WT Weir of Willington-on-Tyne and originally designed as a traditional theatre, it was to be opened as The Borough Theatre.

However, a last minute change of mind saw it opening as a "Pictures and Variety hall", with a change of name to the Queen's Theatre.

It was owned by (and presumably initially built for) the Thompson family, a name that was well known throughout the area through the family's engineering company - JG Thompson and Sons (Contractors) Ltd.

John George Thompson is believed to have instigated its building, and he and his son (also John George Thompson) owned the theatre throughout its life. Thompson (senior) is perhaps more famous in horse-racing circles, having owned a horse which once came 5th in the Derby.

In 1922, there were five shares in The Borough Theatre Company (the company that was the Queen's), valuing the company at £26,000.

The Queen's was a grand affair, capable of seating an audience of 2400, and with a stage that was 40ft by 40ft it could take large touring shows. The main entrance was marble, with granite columns and a mosaic floor. The staircase to the circle was a particularly elaborate affair, with steps of marble and a large mahogany handrail. Inside the auditorium were modern and luxurious tip-up chairs, and there was a lot of red plush in varying shades.

It was hailed by building experts and theatrical entrepreneurs from all over the country as "standing alongside the finest and most up-to-date in the country".

Because of its status and its links with other theatrical chains, the management was able to engage high-class acts from the British and Continental circuits, including names like Harry Lauder.

The Queen's opened on August Bank Holiday, August 4th, 1913 and the first programme was Miss Aimee Parkerson (contralto) and Les Georgis ("sensational acrobats").

But top of the bill was the film East Lynne, advertised in the local newspaper, The Shields Gazette, as "The Greatest Exclusive Picture Ever Produced". It was actually one of two British films of that title produced in 1913; both were silent, of course, and in black and white, and both adapted from Henry Wood's novel of the same name. The one showing at the Queen's was the film directed by Bert Haldane and produced by William GB Barker. It was released through Walturdaw, and consisted of five acts, 120 scenes (a technological breakthrough), and was 7,000 feet in length!

The life of the Queen's
From the day of opening, the musical director was James Todd (1877-1970), who had been a leading musician in the town. One of his autograph books is still around, and contains signatures from well-known "stars" of the day. Family stories recount that he worked with the likes of Houdini and Chaplin, and there is thought to be a second autograph book somewhere including their autographs ... but there is little evidence of any of this.

Being also a Cinematograph Theatre, in its early days it would show films between the music-hall acts. It secured many exclusive rights to films such as those starring Fatty Arbuckle and Ben Turpin. Of course, the silent movies were accompanied by music supplied by James Todd and His Orchestra!

But is wasn't just films and music hall for which the Queen's was known. The South Shields Choral Society and the South Shields Amateur Operatic Society (widely known just as "The Amateurs") both performed there. In fact it was the home for The Amateurs from its formation in 1917 right through to the start of World War II, when their 1940 production of Wild Violets had to be abandoned.

In 1920, the theatre celebrated its 7th birthday with the issue of a special "Souvenir of Opening". Sadly, one page of the copy I have has been removed. I do sometimes wonder if this page was retained by someone in the Todd family as a souvenir of the musical side of the theatre.

At about the same time, the staff at the Queen's had an outing to Alnwick Castle, and the photograph of their gathering at the front of the theatre before they left still survives.

By the mid-30s, the Queen's was doing a lot of live entertainment, including revues such as Marvellous and Laughter after Dark.

During World War II, Solly Sheckman was expanding his cinema company, "North East Coast Cinemas Ltd". Music halls all over the north were being converted into cinemas, and by 1939 he had something like a dozen in his chain. Eventually, the name of his company was changed to something a bit more memorable - he took the first two letters of his wife's name (Esther), his own and his daughter's (Dorothy) to make Essoldo, a name that eventually became well known all over the country with over 200 Essoldo cinemas were operating by the 50s.

And the first Essoldo cinema was the Queen's in South Shields. However, its life as part of the Essoldo circuit was short-lived.

The death of the Queen's
On 9th April, 1941, the Queens (by now it had lost the apostrophe in its billings!) was playing host to Arthur Lucan and his wife, Kitty McShane. Their show, Old Mother Riley and her Daughter Kitty, was hugely popular all over the country, particularly with children, and they were playing to a capacity crowd.

At this point I'd like to have pointed to a billing for that night - but the appalling quality of the microfilm from the South Shields library means that the copy I have is all but illegible. However, I can at least read the "Old Mother Riley pays us a visit", and "It's a Yell. A riot of laughter. You have never seen a funnier show."

During the night that followed the show, South Shields was subjected to what the Gazette called "a savage attack on the North-East coast" by Nazi "moonlight raiders". Some 6,000 incendiary bombs and high explosives fell throughout the town. The Queens was one of the victims.

By dawn, firemen were still playing water on the theatre. The Gazette reports "During the night they had fought the fire, increasingly ignoring the dangers to which they were exposed when huge tongues of flame leaped up into the sky and made the blazing building a target for the overhead bombers."

I've prepared a full transcription of the Gazette's lead article although, in true war-time-reporting manner, it is very vague in places.

Lucan and McShane lost most of their props - James Todd lost his valued Gobetti violin, and his theatrical career (although, like his brothers, he did continue to take an active role in musical events in the area).

Although there was some talk in 1946 of rebuilding the theatre, it never happened.

And what of the Amateur Operatic Society?

After the war, they presented concert versions of shows for a couple of years in St Aiden's church hall. They then moved to the Regent, a cinema and theatre in Dean Road. The Society successfully managed to stage shows there for 30 years or so, even after the conversion of the cinema into a bingo hall. But following a refurbishment, they had to move to the Sunderland Empire where they continued for some 18 years. They now perform at the Customs House, Mill Dam, a venue that is only a stone's throw from the Locomotive Inn, where Richard Thornton played, and which set him on the road to boosting the musical theatre tradition in South Shields.

The "gallery" at the side shows pictures and other material that I have of the Queen's Theatre. One thing is clear - it was a magnificent building.