London Corners: Hackney Empire



Empires rise and fall, none mores than the music hall empires of old. The Hackney Empire was raised at the very start of the 20th century, a techno-marvel with central heating and electric lights. Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Marie Lloyd (a local girl) all appeared there, followed by Louis Armstrong, Tony Hancock, and Liberace.

But by the time the Second World War ended, the days of music hall – primarily a working class entertainment – were over. In 1956, the beautiful old theatre was bought by ATV, who produced many well-loved shows there, like ‘Emergency Ward Ten’ and ‘Take Your Pick’. But in 1963, Mecca bought it and converted it into a bingo hall. At least the Empire was spared the wrecking ball – most other such venues were destroyed, to be replaced by absolutely nothing of merit.

I remember seeing the bulldozers plough into the Putney Hippodrome, and read about many other baroque, graceful Victorian and Edwardian music halls which  were smashed down by rapacious developers keen to build car parks. But in the 1980s the facade of the Hackney Empire was listed, and as Mecca didn’t want to spend any money on it they sold it on to a satirical touring theatre group.

It reopened on its 85th birthday in 1986, and took off once more, once again finding the kind of market it used to have – it’s still a hugely successful venue, and the jewel in Hackney’s crown, home of beloved Christmas pantos and many shows that involve local residents. It hasn’t become an exclusively upmarket venue like, say, the Donmar.

If only other councils had not been so short-sighted, they, too, would have wonderful attractions in their boroughs. Keeping the Hippodrome (and the music halls in the Old Kent Road and Camden) would have brought money into those areas. In Camden alone there were over fifty cinemas and music halls, nearly all of which have been pulled down to make way for shops. Hackney has kept something special, and it’s worth a trip to see, whatever’s on.

5 comments on “London Corners: Hackney Empire”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    A place that has been saved up North is the Plaza in Stockport (at one time it had been turned into a Mecca bingo hall.), they put on all sorts of stuff, comics, bands, plays, shows and films on the big screen. They even installed an old Wurlitzer rescued from Blackpool, that rises from the ground.

    Nadia took me to see a showing of The Crow, the film with Brandon Lee. A very gothic night in a fine old theatre.

    There are going to show The Wicked Lady (starring Margret Lockwood.) at the end of September, the Halloween double bill’ on the 24th of Oct, looks fun. They also have the Mayor’s charity show and the panto this year is Cinderella.

    A lovely place restored and run by volunteers, well worth a visit.


  2. snowy says:

    “Cinema killed the Music Hall Star?” Not instantly perhaps, but it delivered the fatal blow, [lots of reasons, but mostly money].

    Putney Hippo’ was a ‘Film Star’ in latter days, it’s the eponymous “Theatre of Death” in the film known to many here.

    Link above leads to a page with some more info, [the sharp eyed might spot a familiar name near the bottom of the bill.]

    [Anybody wanting to trace old Cinemas/Music Halls in your local area follow the link off that page to cinematreasures.]

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I remember people of my parents’ generation talking about the wonderful property they could have owned if only they could have got the small amount together needed to buy some fabulous place in a 1930’s tax sale. There wasn’t money around which was why the owners had got behind on taxes in the first place. I’m sure there was an element of that in the sale of some of these theatres to people who wanted to “develop” the property. You don’t get rid of something that is providing you with a good living. It is fortunate that some places survived all the ups and downs to be available now. The Empire looks absolutely gorgeous. We have a giant Wurlitzer organ here, too, It’s quite dramatic to see it emerge from below the stage and the organist once was the cathedral organist who came up wearing a pink top hat and with a large rhododendron cluster on his lapel.
    The only problem I can see with the Empire is that it is enormous and that would be a problem for most local groups.

  4. snowy says:


    Delete ‘Death’
    Insert ‘Blood’

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Everything is eponymous these days.

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