The Kingston Empire

After a false start, in 1907 the Empire Music Hall Theatre was designed by Bertie Crewe for independent theatre owner Clarence Sounes, and was built in Kingston on the site of a Doctor’s house and orchard. It opened on 20th October 1910. It later came into the hands of Jack Gladwin of the Theatre Royal Norwich and in 1930 was sold with the Aldershot Hippodrome to Stanley Watson to become Kingshot Theatres Ltd.

The theatre was built with a projection box, so that films could be shown as part of the variety programme. The exterior of the building is in an English Renaissance style, built in terracotta and red brick with a trim of Portland stone on its edges. The decoration of the auditorium was in a Grecian Renaissance style. (The auditorium was severely damaged in a fire in June 1919, and it took a while to rebuild and renovate it.)

There was an ornamental wrought iron and coloured glass verandah, and a turret at the south east elevation which was lit at night and could be seen from many parts of the town. In the refurbishment of 1930, neon lighting was introduced to light the dome, the second theatre in the country to do this (the first being the London Coliseum).

The stage carpenter and resident stage manager at the Kingston Empire from when it first opened in 1910 was Percy Court, who worked there for 30 years until 1940. After Percy retired he wrote down his memories of his long career in the theatre, from the late 1800s, in an article entitled ‘Memories Of Show-Business’.

Over the years, the Empire hosted many top name acts on its stage, including; Gracie Fields, Jack Hylton, Max Miller, Florrie Forde, Flanagan & Allen, Marie Lloyd, Harry Champion, George Formby, Louis Armstrong, The Western Brothers, and George Robey. The theatre continued the policy of twice-nightly variety until the 1950s, by which time business was declining with the advent of television. The Kingston Empire Theatre closed on 27th March 1955 with Sonny Jenks in “La Vie Parisienne”.

The theatre was auctioned, but failed to meet the reserve price and was later bought by an investment company; the interior was gutted and a supermarket opened in November 1956. Since 10th July 1997, a pub in the JD Wetherspoon chain, known as the King’s Tun, has occupied the ground floor and half the first floor.

In September 2010 the London Church International secured a 999 year lease on the site. The following year saw refurbishment. Much of the foyer plasterwork was revealed and restored. The word EMPIRE is picked out in brick, and many exits at the side and rear are preserved, though some are bricked up. The second floor became the home of KingsGate Church.

Alan Chudley reminisces:

“The Empire, always a twice nightly house, was the sister theatre of the Hippodrome Aldershot where in the 1940s I was employed as assistant Electrician. Sometimes when the Empire had a mid-week matinee and the usual stage crew, having day time jobs would not be available, I would be asked to work the Limes on the front of the upper circle, for that matinee at the Empire. I had to take a train from Aldershot to Surbition, and then catch a trolley bus, known locally as a ‘Diddler’ to Kingston. And it was quite a task to get back to Aldershot in time for the evening performances there.

The Empire was about twice the size of the Hippodrome and the pay for the matinee three times as great, at seven shillings and sixpence, plus train and ‘diddler’ fares. The Stage manager at the Empire was the highly respected Percy Court. the musical Director was Olly Aston who was replaced at the end of 1943 by Jack Frere, who had conducted the last two Royal Variety Performances prior to world war two. 

The Empire circa 1950 became one of the few theatres to install an Atlas Fluorescent Stage Lighting System, a grant when the supply changed from DC to AC helped to pay for this.

The success of the Empire put paid to the Royal County Theatre Kingston ( which was just around the corner from the Empire in Fife Road as a live Theatre.”