One of Bath’s old theatres has been giving up some of its secrets as work gets underway on regenerating part of the city’s historic Saw Close site with the construction of a new casino, hotel and restaurants.
The work will involve the almost complete demolition of a building which started life as a music hall theatre and ended its active service as a bingo club.
Now only its Grade Two listed facade will live on as part of the new multi-million-pound development which will see the return of organised gambling to Bath for the first time since the days of Beau Nash.
The first theatre on the site opened in 1886 as the Pavilion Music Hall and was later extended to form the much larger Lyric Theatre. Another name change – to the Palace Theatre – came in 1903. It was a name it retained until 1956 when it became the Regency Ballroom.
See it on the Bath in Time website @ http://www.bathintime.co.uk/image/139686/the-macnaghten-vaudeville-circuit-palace-theatre-bath-1906-detail
In 1980, the dancing stopped and the building was turned into a bingo hall ending its working life as ‘Gala Bingo’.
At right angles to the main building is another late 17th-century structure that finally became a public house – linked to the theatre – and later a nightclub.
It’s from this area that theatre posters, letters and bills are being discovered which cast light on events within living memory.
Let’s start with a couple of Palace Theatre posters and the first is from May 1944.
During World War II the theatre was damaged during the ‘Bath Blitz’ in late April 1942. Despite this, it re-opened within a month. The roof was severely damaged, but because of the urgent need to keep it going, the owner Mr W.S Pearce would not allow any permanent reconstruction to be done until 6 years after the war when a new roof was erected.
Incidentally, Mr Pearce was also the Chairman of the Directors of Wessex Associated News Ltd who published the Bath Chronicle and had offices behind the theatre.
This poster offers TWO nightly shows – at 6 pm and again at 8 pm! It featured Albert Modley (1901-1979) who was a well-known Lancashire-born film-star, variety entertainer and comedian.
The second poster – found on site – is from January 1952 and features many of Carroll Levis talented ‘discoveries’ from a BBC show. Carroll was the Simon Cowell of his day.
Violet Pretty was the ‘beautiful starlet’ who topped the bill. A lady who became better known under her professional name as Anne Heywood – a British film actress with a Gold Globe nomination to her name!
I was fascinated to look through some of the till receipts for different parts of the theatre. The Buffet Bar was a popular feature which originally occupied that side building that already had served as a pub.
September 1951 saw a return of £50 for the night of September 29th.
Circle bar No. 2 saw receipts printed for the 40’s being re-cycled for the 50’s. Two quite low figures for July 1951 but by this time audiences were beginning to decline. The theatre was to close just four years later – beaten by television and no doubt not helped by the Theatre Royal being close by.
There’s an ‘Evening Final Return’ receipt for what looks like March 8th, 1952 showing £109 and six shillings going into the bank. The First House collected £18 ten shillings and three pence at the door. The Second did better at £26 nineteen shillings and ten pence.
Amongst letters retrieved is one which has to be seen in the context of the times but it does show racial discrimination in Bath just before the Second World War.
It’s a letter to the Palace Theatre from a London-based theatrical and variety agency – sent on February 24th, 1938. It’s all about the acts being booked for the summer period and the option of closing during that period if favourable terms can’t be worked out.
I quote from the second paragraph: ‘ It is frightfully worrying to see the business keeping as low as it is. According to next week’s bill at the Theatre Royal ( just across the Saw Close from the Palace!) our bill is miles ahead of same.
Firstly they have two coloured acts on the bill, the top Browning and Starr (Browing is one of the late members of the ‘Harmony Kings’) and Rusty and Shine are a Black and white Comedy duo, and as you know we have made it a point not to book any Coloured acts at the Palace.”
I have used the letter as it was typed and the capital letters as they were originally included.
Such an attitude would not be allowed today but we are looking back through time. A terrible war was to follow and then a war against discrimination fought by the Civil Rights movement and the likes of Martin Luther King.
The Harmony Kings were very popular in the 1930’s. YouTube features one of their biggest hits – ‘You’ve been Good to Me’ – at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc7HSHQ-Zns
There’s another letter from 1938 which features the loss of a watch. Mr H.R.Whatley of Frome wrote to the Palace Theatre in the hope it may have been found there.
A reply from the Manageress ( it’s a copy and unsigned) indicates that, having made enquiries ‘and a careful search’ the theatre ‘ very much regret(s) that ‘ the silver wristwatch has not been found.’
‘Had it been discovered by any member of our staff, we can assure you that it would have been handed in for safe-keeping.’
My thanks to Sanctus Project Manager Jon Cossins-Price for letting me see those discoveries.
Elsewhere on the site – as followers of the Virtual Museum of Bath will know – Cotswold Archaeology have been busy uncovering and recording some of the site’s industrial past – including an amazingly well-preserved pipe factory – which has now been carefully covered to lie well-protected under the new development.
Discover more about the site via http://www.cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/discover-the-past/saw-close-and-the-bridewell-lane-clay-tobacco-pipe-factory/saw-close-archaeological-investigation/
The Virtual Museum went back to talk to Site Director Simon Sworn of Cotswold Archaeology about some of the dwelling houses they had been investigating.
Now – having recorded the details of the basement of a late Georgian house – they have lifted the slabs to look underneath. They have found medieval garden soil and rubbish pits – one of which cuts through the partially uncovered remains of a tesserae pavement.
It doesn’t seem to be a high-quality Roman mosaic – as there is no pattern on the flooring – but it would have formed part of a Roman building and date somewhere from AD47 and through the next four hundred years during which time Bath was developed by its Roman ‘invaders.’
There’s more work to be done – and more uncovering – to try and get a more precise date but it is already known that Roman buildings existed in this area of what was the old Roman city.
A geometrically decorated pavement was found when the 19th-century extension to the ‘Mineral Water Hospital’ was built – which you can still see in the basement. It’s now – of course – the National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases.
Another mosaic hangs on the wall of nearby hospital offices in what was once the Superintendent’s House.
The most recent report from Cotswold Archaeology about work on the Bridewell Lane houses is via http://www.cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/saw-close-archaeology-update/
I am sure they will bring it right up to date in the New Year. In the meantime, the Virtual Museum wishes both the developer’s workforce – and the archaeologists – the Compliments of the Season and looks forward to more discoveries in 2016!
Maybe – just maybe – they might come across Mr Whatley’s missing watch!