Rochdale’s Old Circus and The Hippodrome

We have the Beatles to thank for fixing into the nation’s memory an old Rochdale theatre. The Sgt Pepper LP records that ‘For the benefit of Mr. Kite, there will be a show tonight on trampoline,’ and that ‘The Hendersons will all be there, late of Pablo Fanques Fair, what a scene!’  John Lennon saw these words on an 1843 billboard promoting Rochdale’s Theatre Royal but it wasn’t the only Rochdale theatre at that time. There were other 19th century venues in the town such as the London Music Hall on Drake Street, managed by W Jeffreye and featuring greats like Dan Leno, or the Old Theatre at Waterside (near where the Town Hall is) working out of an old Weslyan Chapel at which the great clown Grimaldi appeared on a stage lit by 4 tallow candles.

The Old Circus was, however, of specific note. Holding 2800 people it was a wooden building erected at Newgate behind where the Post Office now stands, its shows advertised by billboards on horse-drawn carts. The architect was either William Roberts or Messrs Edwards of Accrington, but a central figure in setting up his own circus on the site was Joe Smith or ‘Ohmy,’ known sometimes as the ‘clog walloper,’ at other times as ‘Ohmy the Flyer.’ A horse circus operated there in the early 1880’s after which an acrobat named Alvo erected a stage on which he ran his own shows. Alvo didn’t last long though, as in 1886 Mr J Smith (the Lancashire steeplejack) along with Mr S L Lee (the licensee of the Kings Head) and Mr Thomas Hargreaves (proprietor of the Empire Hall) bought the lease and re-set the stage at the Lord Street end of the building, opening it up as their Circus of Varieties. Shows were twice nightly, admission prices being Boxes and ‘Poets Corner’ 1/-, Promenade and Side Circle 6d and Gallery 3d (‘the Gods’). After 9.00pm admission was half price which meant that there was often a disturbance due to a late rush to get in.

As well as entertainers such as George Formby (senior and junior), George Leybourne, Little Tich, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, early ‘flickers’ were shown such as Leslie’s Animated Pictures or Pringles Animated Photo Co featuring ‘North American’ and ‘War in the Far East.’ Grace Fields’ first stage appearance was at the Old Circus when she was 7 years old and she writes about the queues for the second house being told by those coming out of the first ‘Don’t waste your brass seeing it !’

On the demolition of the Old Circus in 1908 a site-lease was taken up Ralph Pringle, a Huddersfield showman who then moved his interest to the Old Empire in the Town Hall square and ran it as his own Picture Palace, the Old Circus lease being transferred to James Jackson.  Hundreds attended the last performance in the old wooden building including boys from Buckley Hall Orphanage, every one of whom was given an orange. Auld Lang Syne was sung on stage at the end and toasts proposed by the manager, Mr Stafford Grafton, to the New Hippodrome.

And the new brick building went up quickly, the foundation stones being laid within days ! By November 1908 ‘The Hipp’ as Rochdale people called it, seating 1800, opened with 32 staff including uniformed doormen and page boys. In the early years, ladies sold orange and lemon drops and when the audience didn’t like what they saw on stage they threw pennies at the performers. Acts to appear in the 1930’s included Will Hay in his role as the headmaster, Fred Karno’s Company of Comedians, George Leyton, a 16-year old Sandy Powell, Rob Wilton, Albert Modley, Kitty McShane (old Mother Riley) and Norman Evans.

However, the Jackson family struggled to keep the Hippodrome going financially so they diversified and in the late 1930’s opened it as a cinema as well as running live shows and pantomimes.

After the World War II, Rochdale Corporation took ownership of the Hippodrome and, with declining audience numbers and competition coming from television, the place was eventually run as a Bingo Hall until its demolition in 1970 to make way for the New Crown Buildings, a sad end to what had been a great Rochdale institution.