A building that always catches your eye on Mount Pleasant is the Wellington Rooms. For years it was the Irish Centre but it was originally built by public subscription in 1815-1816 as a ballroom and a centre for the fashionable of Liverpool society to gather in. It kept this function until 1923 when it was converted into a private club called the Embassy Rooms. One can’t help imagining (or at least I can’t and I admit there is no evidence to support this notion) that this must have been a rather louche period in the building’s history. Later years saw it used as a youth club and in 1965 it became the Irish Centre which it remained until 1997. Since then the building has been abandoned and the impressive neo-classical structure designed by Edmund Aikin has become a derelict home for buddleia. I stopped as I walked by because the open letterbox gave me the chance to take a picture of the interior. There you can still see a faded and torn notice directing members to what I guess were the J.F. Kennedy Bar, the Ballroom and the Claddagh Room. Others also took the opportunity to scrutinise the view through the letterbox and it seems such a shame that a building of such style should be so neglected. According to the Liverpool Echo (9 July 2017) the Duchy of Lancaster now has a lease on the building and many online sources suggest there are plans to bring the building back into use as a Science and Technology Hub.
Edmund Aikin was a Unitarian and a member of the famous Aikin family of Warrington. His grandfather, John Aikin, was tutor and principal of the Warrington Academy. His father, also John, was a doctor and an important literary figure, as was his aunt Anna Laetitia Barbauld. I wrote about the Aikins and Warrington in an earlier post:
Edmund’s life was not a long one (1780-1820) although he was influential in popularising neo-classical architecture. He did other work in Liverpool, where he eventually made his home, including the design for the building of the Royal Liverpool Institution in 1814, a centre for ‘the promotion of literature, science and the arts’ founded by William Roscoe and others. He designed a number of dissenting chapels in London, including the Gravel Pit Chapel in Hackney. This building was substantially rebuilt in the Gothic style in 1857 and eventually demolished in 1967. There is no doubt that the Wellington Rooms is his most important surviving building, it’s good to know that there currently seems to be a will to rescue the building and turn it to some positive use.
Looking down Mount Pleasant
Interior view taken through the letterbox
Winged angels bearing garlands
Believed to be a device for spinning thread of some sort. One of two positioned above the side entrance.
Built 1815-1816. Wellington Rooms. Designed by Edmund Aikin. Former Assembly Rooms.
A few weeks ago I posted the above picture of a glass lantern slide featuring a driver and a clergyman on an unidentified early motor car bearing a very early Liverpool registration number. I have not been able to identify the driver or his passenger but thanks to Linda King and also Bozi Mohacek of the Surrey Vintage Vehicle Society the car can definitely be identified.
Linda suggested Rootschat would be able to help and from there received a suggestion that the Surrey Vintage Vehicle Society could help. They have over 2,750 enquiries on their website so I asked them and very quickly received word back that the car is a 1904 Oldsmobile Curved Dash 5HP Two-seater. The date is approximate but since Liverpool registrations only began in December 1903 some time in 1904 seems reasonable.
Oldsmobile Runabout (Source: Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History)
It was a very popular car and images of it can be found all over the internet. The first mass-produced motor car it was manufactured in Detroit, Michigan and between 1901 and 1907 some 19,000 were made and sold around the world. In the UK it sold for £185 in 1902.
Advert from The Autocar, November 1st 1902 (Source: Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History)
Advertisement from The Automobile Review, December 15th 1903 (Source: Wikipedia)
In 1904 Maurice Fournier, an engineer and the 1903 ‘World Motorcycling Champion’, travelled 4,600 kilometres around Europe in an Oldsmobile. It must have been an uncomfortable journey.
Maurice Fournier travelling through Europe in 1904 Source: Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History)
It was a relatively cheap vehicle, although at £185 outside the pocket of most people, but still cheaper than a lot of other cars, if far more basic in its design. Despite the claims of the advert that “with only one lever to use….you hardly need to know how to operate an Oldsmobile” it must have been difficult to handle. Maurice Fournier certainly got all round Europe in one though, and it must have been good enough for our unnamed driver and his passenger to get round Liverpool in, during the first decade of the twentieth century.
A car is parked at the roadside on a sunny day. The driver is dressed for some serious motoring whilst his passenger is a clergyman without an overcoat. He looks slightly uncomfortable perched on the seat of the open car. Who is he? Could he be the owner, or a friend or relative of the driver? It’s hard to say but here we have a glimpse into a pioneering moment in motoring history.
I picked this glass lantern slide up on eBay for a couple of pounds. It interested me because it is an early example of an automobile, probably dating from about 1903. I haven’t been able to identify the make of the car (indeed I would be grateful for any suggestions) but what is clear is that it was registered in Liverpool and was probably photographed on Princes Avenue. I don’t know who the clergyman was or the driver but the letter K was used for cars in Liverpool from 1903 to 1914. The records for these early registrations no longer exist but presumably this car was the 218th car to be registered in Liverpool. Whether that means the photograph was taken in 1903 I don’t know (would at least 218 cars be registered in the first year of the registration system?), but judging from the style of the car, which doesn’t have a steering wheel, I would guess that it was manufactured closer to 1903 than 1914. I had thought it might have been a Liver Phaeton, manufactured in Birkenhead by William Lea, of which only one example survives in the Museum of Liverpool. However, the car in the Museum has a number of differences and this clearly isn’t a Liver Phaeton. Having said that William Lea was a highly successful entrepreneur who made his own cars using imported Benz engines including a larger version of the Phaeton. His showrooms in Birkenhead had an indoor track that could be used for test drives with room, apparently, for fifty cars. By 1909 he was also the agent for “Benz, Progress, Darracq and English Benz Cars”, all available from his depot on Berry Street in Liverpool. He also advertised a very large stock of vehicles for sale. But he was far from being the only car dealer in Liverpool at the time. The city had its own Self-propelled Traffic Association from 1896 (President, the Earl of Derby) and The Liverpool Show of 1903 at St George’s Hall claimed to possess the largest (and best) exhibition of motors outside of London. It is possible to search back issues of TheAutocar online courtesy of Grace’s Guide (http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Main_Page) but that just confirms the massive variety of vehicles available to early enthusiasts of motoring. If this clergyman was one of them he must have caused quite a stir being able to shoot around his parish in his own motor car, but I rather suspect that he was induced to climb aboard by a car-owning parishioner and have his photograph taken for posterity.
Writing in the mid-1960s in his examination of the place of art in Liverpool (Art in a City) John Willett observes:
“In 1967 the new Roman Catholic cathedral will be consecrated. With its novel circular plan, like a vast upturned funnel, its windows by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens and its sculptures by William Mitchell, Frederick Gibberd’s great building quite possibly will take the breath away, and seems likely to provide for some years a religious-artistic sensation to rival Coventry.”
It was a striking addition to the cityscape and was described by Liverpool architect Quentin Hughes as “undoubtedly the major modern architectural attraction of the city”. At the time it was being built this maybe wasn’t so clear. In the 1960s Liverpool was undergoing a period of renewal that promised and threatened much in terms of architecture. City councillors had long been obsessed with constructing a ‘worthy’ civic centre and had identified the back of St George’s Hall for the location of this. By the 1960s this vision had taken on a grandiose form and encompassed an enormous series of buildings that would have snaked around the centre of the city. With a huge cross-shaped building impinging on St John’s Gardens behind St George’s Hall, Colin St John Wilson, the architect responsible, promised:
“…this is not an abstract building in space it is part of a whole texture – buildings, roads, Mersey Tunnel, Lime Street Station, with energy passing through a web of paths and creating points of focus. That’s the essence of it, to see this thing not isolated but as part of a whole traverse across the city.”
In the end most of this did not get built except for a ridiculous walkway at the back of the museums. But in the context of all this potential upheaval the new, defiantly modern Catholic Cathedral began to take shape. These two pictures by amateur photographers capture the process of building in the early 1960s:
As the “vast upturned funnel” began to take shape it must have been a challenging sight for passers-by. Certainly quite unlike anything else in Liverpool and a considerable contrast to every other church building in the city:
The building was completed and consecrated on 14th May 1967. In the Architectural Review of June 1967 Nicholas Taylor spoke of the new building’s “challenging relationship with Sir Giles Scott’s Catalan Gothic splendour for the Protestant ship-owners further along the ridge”. He also went on to draw a parallel with the other great post-war English cathedral of Coventry:
“The loosely defined image of the ‘big top’ or ‘wigwam’ will probably prove as big a success with the people in general as Spence’s Coventry, and there are already signs that it may acquire the same identity with Liverpool’s own civic image that Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City towers have with Chicago’s.
The reason is that it expresses with uncommon force one particular historical emotion: at Coventry it was the War Memorial with its symbolism of Sacrifice in the ruins and of Resurrection in the new church; at Liverpool it is the ecclesia triumphans of the Foleys and O’Reillys, a symbol of Catholic kingship riding high above the former Protestant ascendancy of merchants in the quaysides below.”
In some ways this analysis seems both patronising and sectarian although it is entirely understandable in the context of the times. But, in my view at least, the building expresses something more positive and is a hugely impressive spiritual space, a place worthy of pilgrimage. A rather more worthwhile legacy of the 1960s than what the city planners envisaged elsewhere.
At the time of its opening the council arranged for this floral decoration to adorn the roundabout in front of the Adelphi Hotel at the end of Lime Street. In the distance you can see St George’s Hall and plenty of evidence of ongoing construction work. And at the now demolished Futurist cinema they were showing Dr Zhivago:
I’ve written before about the Metropolitan Cathedral:
The three images above were all acquired on eBay for 99p. The photograph at the top of the page is one I took from the top of the Anglican Cathedral. Hope Street Church stood where the square-shaped white building stands at the bottom of the picture on the right hand side of the main road.
Sefton Park is a source of never-ending delight for anyone familiar with it. As the seasons change so its vistas change, the Victorian redesign of the ancient parkland created an urban space that must be unique in Britain. So much space, so much variety, all in the centre of a city.
The park looks well-cared for and well-maintained by the council when you walk through it now, something that has not always been the case.
What I notice most about it these days though is the abundance of wildlife you see, quite different from how it used to be. Most of all you see the large quantities of waterfowl, more numerous than in days gone by, mallards, swans, Canada Geese, Aylesbury ducks, coots, moorhens and so on.
But other birdlife is even more striking – the impressive sight of a heron perched high above the lake is something astonishing to my mind. I was very impressed to see the heron in February although in a recent visit at the start of April it didn’t seem to be there. Nor did I find the parakeets which I also saw in February. I don’t know where they can have gone, I know they are not uncommon in many places in Britain these days but I was surprised to find a load of them in Liverpool.
The park has long been full of squirrels. Not everyone approves of grey squirrels but they always attract the eye. The ones in the park are virtually tame as well and not averse to posing for photographs, like this one.
Another thing I saw recently – new to me – was a fox. Foxes are clever enough to learn that urban humans generally won’t bother them which is why they colonise cities so much. There have long been foxes in Belfast but I’ve never seen them. I saw a fox in Glasgow once, a mangy, dangerous looking thing walking along the middle of the road. But this fox looked sleek and healthy, although it didn’t hang around.
Jeremiah Horrocks is interesting for a variety of reasons but it is a curious fact that as a scientist he has collected memorials in at least four churches around the country, including the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth in Liverpool and Westminster Abbey.
As I also mentioned in my last posting on this topic there are a number of other memorials and commemorations of him in different places, all of them dating from long after he lived. One of the most recent and impressive is near the Pier Head in Liverpool. This is an exciting installation, well-sited in front of the Liver Buildings amongst the ever-growing collection of statuary and memorials that is accumulating there.
Entitled Heaven and Earth and created by Andy Plant the work was installed in 2011. The base is inscribed with the words:
Thy return posterity shall witness, years must roll away, but then at length the splendid sight again shall greet our distant children’s eyes
a quotation from Jeremiah Horrocks’ posthumously published book on the transit of Venus.
The sculpture has a working hand powered mechanical orrery, the position of Venus has been replaced by a copper angel version of Jeremiah and as his wings flap he orbits the other planets. Inside the large telescope there is a video animation of the life of Jeremiah by Tim Hunkin.
Unfortunately when I visited the sculpture on a crisp January afternoon this year none of these features were working. They may not have been intended to function beyond the time of the original exhibition of which the sculpture formed a part, I don’t know. But Tim Hunkin is something of a genius and it is great to think that some of his work is part of the installation. In fact you can read about how Tim Hunkin created A Short Life of Jeremiah Horrocks and see the animation on his own website here:
In 2014 the installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was in place at the Tower of London. It seemed to capture the popular imagination in a powerful way. Created by artist Paul Cummins and designed by Tom Piper 888,246 ceramic poppies cascaded out of the Tower of London to progressively fill the moat. Each poppy represented a British military fatality in the First World War.
The story of the poppies at the Tower of London can be seen here:
It is interesting how art and remembrance could combine so effectively in people’s minds and the poppies from the installation have continued to be used in different ways around the country since, part of the installation moving to St George’s Hall in Liverpool in November.
I was fortunate to be able to see the ‘Weeping Windows’ installation in Liverpool shortly before it ended on 17th January 2016.
Several thousand poppies poured from a high vantage point in the Hall on to the ground below. As such a significant building St George’s Hall made a magnificent backdrop for the poppies and over 300,000 visitors are estimated to have travelled to see it in place.
As the notice at the installation made clear this was a particularly appropriate venue for such a display. The plateau outside St George’s Hall became the rallying point for the men who formed the Liverpool Pals under the direction of Lord Derby in the First World War. In March 1915 Lord Kitchener inspected nine battalions of Liverpool Pals formed up outside the Hall, local men who had volunteered to serve together. In the years after the First World War the memorial for the dead of the city was placed outside the Hall and near here the installation was placed.
It was a tremendous privilege and pleasure to take part in the induction and ordination of the Rev Philip Waldron as minister of Ullet Road Church, Southport and Wirral Unitarians as part of the Merseyside Partnership at Ullet Road on Saturday, 9th January.
It was an impressive service that drew on the traditions and ethos of Unitarianism on Merseyside and which resonated effectively with the august building that is Ullet Road Church. It is testimony to the high regard in which Phil is held by his colleagues that so many ministers took part and that so many people were present. The music supplied by the organ and the singing by the choir Liverpool Voices were also of a very high standard and added greatly to the service.
Ullet Road is certainly one of the most remarkable sets of buildings within the Unitarian tradition in England and ranks highly amongst all branches of dissent. The hall, designed by Percy Worthington and built slightly later than the Church at the start of the twentieth century, is a delight in itself. On occasions such as this (with appropriate winter decorations left over from a wedding) it really comes into its own with the feel of something like a medieval hall, not least because of the open fire that provides such a focus.
In the course of his own statement Phil quoted the Rev Stanley Mellor, the highly successful minister of Hope Street Church in the first half of the twentieth century, which encapsulates some of his own aspirations for ministry:
“[the purpose] of the Christian religion, is the awakening of the soul to the discovery of its own eternal character, the conversation of the heart to knowledge of its other-worldly destiny and duty.”
The congregation are much blessed to possess such a building that reflects this quest so effectively and Merseyside District can look with satisfaction upon such an auspicious start to a new ministry.
In his excellent short article on Jeremiah Horrocks in the book Liverpool Unitarians Faith and Action Bernard Cliffe is very cautious about making too many definite assertions about his life. As Bernard puts it “an account of the life of the boy and the young man has to be a matter of conjecture, with the generous use of qualifying words.” The truth is we have very few hard facts about the life of this pioneer astronomer who died at the young age of 22. Inevitably though this hasn’t stopped others from drawing all sorts of conclusions about his life.
One of the things we do know for sure was the extent of his achievement as a youthful astronomer – indeed there are some parallels here with the life of Clyde Tombaugh who first identified Pluto in his 20s. Clyde Tombaugh now has a feature on Pluto’s surface named after him while Jeremiah Horrocks himself has been memorialized in a number of places since his initial observation of the transit of Venus across the Sun.
Horrocks’s discoveries were only published posthumously and, gradually, in the centuries after that, places – and churches – were keen to claim him as one of their own. But his scientific importance is pretty well established. Allan Chapman (in ‘Jeremiah Horrocks, the transit of Venus and the ‘New Astronomy’ in early seventeenth-century England’, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1990, 31) says that despite a scientific hagiography that has also built up around him “the plain fact [is] that his documented contributions to astronomy were formidable by any standard…he was one of the first men in England to grasp the significance of what was going on in contemporary European astronomy. Not only did he repeat many of the techniques of Kepler and Galileo, but he went on to develop the New Astronomy to produce conclusions which substantially advanced those of its continental founders” (pp.33-334).
A plaque in the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth records that Jeremiah Horrocks (or Horrox) “foretold, and was the first to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun’s disc on the 24. Nov. 1639”. But the plaque, which was put up in 1891, is, in fact, only one of four church memorials to him around the country.
Without doubt the best known of these is in Westminster Abbey erected opposite that of Isaac Newton (who had praised his work) in 1874 following a petition from the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society (actually inscribed on part of the marble monument to John Conduitt, who was married to the niece of Isaac Newton). Certainly the Abbey is a fitting place for a memorial to such a person. On it his scientific achievements are listed but it also states that he was “Curate of Hoole”. Now there is no doubt that Hoole is where Jeremiah Horrocks lived for a while and where he observed the transit of Venus. But there is no evidence that he was ever curate of Hoole, or indeed an ordained clergyman of any sort.
The Victorians were not slow to extend or embellish their assessment of his religious affiliations. The church at Hoole has its own memorials too including a Horrocks Chapel, memorial windows, a weather vane and a plaque, although the website of St Michael’s Church, Hoole now describes the text of this plaque as “largely fictional”.
Jeremiah Horrocks seems to have spent about a year in Hoole. Rather than being a curate or holding any position in the church he was probably a tutor to the children of a local family, in whose home he observed the transit of Venus. But there can be little doubt that he will have attended the church at Hoole while he was resident there. At the time there will have been little difference in the theological outlook of Hoole and the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth. Both were centres of Puritanism – comprising earnest, godly, and devout parishioners, in both places members being technically part of the Church of England (there was little leeway to be anything else at the time) but possessing a no-nonsense approach to faith and a fair degree of suspicion of ecclesiastical hierarchies. During his time there the church was still a just a chapel of ease and the curate (later rector) was eventually ejected for non-conformity.
Although no records of Horrocks’ baptism or burial survive he seems both to have been born and died in Toxteth where his family names illustrate the Puritanism of his background. The names of Horrocks and Aspinwall (his mother’s maiden name) were amongst those puritan settlers who arrived in Toxteth in the late sixteenth century and began clearing the hunting park and built the chapel. They were part of the group who called Richard Mather to be first their schoolmaster and then their minister. The same Richard Mather was reluctant to accept Episcopal ordination. He eventually did so but was alarmed after being ordained (so the story goes) when the bishop approached him and asked to speak to him in confidence. Fearing that some admonishment was imminent he was surprised instead to hear the bishop say “I have an earnest request unto you, and you must not deny me; it is that you will pray for me; for I know that the prayers of men that fear God will avail much, and such an one I believe you to be.” Despite this unusual alleged exchange with the bishop he was eventually suspended for nonconformity and subsequently left with many of his followers for New England.
It was probably here that Horrocks was educated and his religious opinions formed. From Toxteth he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge as a sizar, basically the lowest form of student life, working as a college servant alongside his studies. He left without taking a degree but developed a passion for astronomy while there and was soon manufacturing his own astronomical instruments. Members of the Horrocks family, quite probably including his father, were watchmakers which must have been an assistance in developing precision instruments.
But following his death on 3rd January 1641 two hundred and fifty years were to pass before the Ancient Chapel erected its own memorial in his memory.
But this is not the only church memorial to Jeremiah Horrocks in Liverpool. In 1826 Moses Holden, described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a “popular astronomer,” used the proceeds of one of his lectures to pay for the erection of a memorial tablet in St Michael’s in the Hamlet church in Aigburth, not far from the Ancient Chapel. It may well have been awareness of this tablet that encouraged the Unitarians to put up their own. Holden seems himself to have been a Methodist lay preacher but was on good terms with the established church. Nevertheless Jeremiah Horrocks can never have had any connection with St Michael’s in the Hamlet, since it was not founded until 1815.
Horrocks is commemorated in other ways too – additional memorials in Hoole and Liverpool; an observatory; an institute of the University of Central Lancaster – but it is curious how a variety of religious traditions have all sought to harness him for their own adornment. All of them have some claim on him but – in my view at least – it is the memorial that is the least known and acknowledged, the one in the Unitarian Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, that is most appropriate. Not because he was a Unitarian – because he wasn’t, such an idea would have been absurd to him. Not because he was a dissenter, because he wasn’t that either. As I have suggested his own views were almost certainly very strongly puritan and he held them within the context (technically at least) of the Church of England. But the little chapel in Toxteth Park was the place where he grew up and was educated. He was therefore part of a particular religious community founded in the last years of the sixteenth century and continuing ever since. The memorial to Jeremiah Horrocks was unveiled on Sunday, 11th October 1891, the minister, the Rev Valentine D. Davis preaching a sermon based on Genesis ch.1 v.1,3:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
I wonder how many Unitarian churches have their images engraved on the reverse of a coin? I only know of one example, it is not a particularly beautiful example of the medallist’s art but it is very interesting and tells an unusual tale.
The church in question is Paradise Street Chapel in Liverpool, now long demolished, indeed the whole street has disappeared under the shopping development known today as Liverpool One. But Paradise Street was built in 1791 and was a dissenting church of some importance in Liverpool at the time. In the nineteenth century no less a person than James Martineau became the minister – a fitting appointment to a congregation that was cultured, wealthy and influential. They had built their meeting house on the grand scale, with a central cupola it was octagonal with a classical frontage and adorned with elegant stone urns along the balustrade. Martineau arrived in 1832 and established a name for himself as a preacher, teacher and philosopher linking up with other prominent figures in Liverpool and the north west including John Hamilton Thom, Charles Wicksteed, and John James Tayler.
But partly through the changing environment around the old chapel, which had become more commercially orientated and less like an area the well-to-do might want to visit, and partly also because of the more devotional worship that Martineau introduced, the congregation felt a need to abandon their old church and build something new. Accordingly a grand gothic church was built on Hope Street and Martineau and his congregation departed to their new home, selling the old place off. (For Hope Street Church see my earlier post – the Church on Hope Street).
James Martineau and his congregation, perhaps out of financial necessity from building anew on an extravagant scale, showed little sentimentality in disposing of their old place of worship. Yet one can’t help suspecting that a man of such high-brow intellectual tastes as Martineau can hardly have approved of the new use to which the old chapel was now put. It was purchased by a man called Joseph Heath who intended to turn it into a music hall.
After the Unitarians left it in 1849 the spacious chapel, with its well-constructed gallery all built of the finest materials and to the highest standards, was converted into the Royal Colosseum Theatre and Music Hall. The pews were re-used for seating and one can see how a large chapel could easily be adapted for use as a theatre. However, Joseph Heath must have been an ingenious individual because he managed to turn Paradise Street into the first multiplex: there were twin auditoria for both a theatre and a music hall. According to The Liverpool Stage by Harold Ackroyd the theatre “presented what were described as full blooded dramatic plays for a patronage of mariners”, while the front part of the old chapel was converted into a music hall where variety performances were put on “well suited to the taste of those for whom Mr. Heath catered.”
One can’t imagine Martineau really approving of such an undignified end to his old church but there was greater indignity to come. The Colly, as it became known, was reputedly haunted, an association encouraged by the continuing presence of the chapel’s graveyard around the building. This also presented a practical advantage to the thespians. According to Harold Ackroyd again: …there was never any shortage of a skull during a performance of Hamlet. These were easily obtained, the artists’ dressing room, below the stage, formerly having been a grave vault, the artist had only to put his hand through an opening in the thin dividing wall, to seize hold of the grisly relic, as did Hamlet.
So it was the music hall owners who had the coin engraved with the unmistakable likeness of the Paradise Street Chapel. The Heath family owned the former chapel until about 1895 although it went through a number of refurbishments and changes of name in that time. But it remained known as the Royal Colosseum Theatre until 1875 at which time it was being run by Thomas Theodore Heath, Joseph’s son. Presumably this is the ‘T. Heath’ whose name is inscribed on the coin as the owner of the theatre. This would date the coin to the early 1870s when it functioned as an admission token for those eager for Victorian melodrama or the bawdy delights of an evening at the music hall. On the other side of the coin is a Liver bird, a belt and the name of the theatre. Some examples of the coins have a large letter ‘H’ stamped on them. I don’t know precisely what this indicated, at first I thought it was a reference to a seat or a row or an entrance but ‘H’ seems to be the only letter used in this way and it rather spoils the look of the engraving. Whatever meaning it had to the person at the theatre door this is now long forgotten.
By the late 1870s the theatre was said to be able hold 3,000 people, and must have been returned to a single auditorium, but at this stage in its history it was struck by a terrible tragedy. On the night of 11th October 1878, during a performance before a full house, a portion of the ceiling fell onto the pit and caused panic amongst the audience. Thirty-seven people were killed in the crush to escape and many more injured. Pictures in the Illustrated London News at the time show a building that was already extensively remodelled from the one that appears on the back of the token but it had fallen victim to the sort of tragedy that was not unknown in Victorian Britain. Following this the theatre was rebuilt, frequently renamed and continued in use up to the First World War. By then known as Kelly’s Theatre, it finally closed its doors in October 1916 and was sold to Cooper’s Ltd who used it as a warehouse for their greengrocery and restaurant business.
The whole story of Paradise Street Chapel and the Royal Colosseum Theatre was brought to a close by a German bomb during the blitz of 1941. Precisely how much of the building of 1791 had survived within the much enlarged edifice is hard to know but by then the building’s origins as a place of worship were hardly remembered. The link is maintained though by these little tokens which record a small element of theatre history and, almost by accident, help to preserve the image of a building that had a quite different history and purpose.
(This is an amended version of an article that first appeared in the ‘Inquirer’ 4 July 2015)