The days of the Empire

The Empire Theatre. Picture courtesy of Hartlepool Reference Library
The Empire Theatre. Picture courtesy of Hartlepool Reference Library
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GENEALOGY is a mundane study unless you can bring to life your research.

It is always best to look at the aspects of life which would have shaped your ancestors.

And for people in the Lynn Street area of Hartlepool, a highlight of their neighbourhood was the Empire Theatre.

It attracted audiences of many thousands of people in its heyday and its history can today be brought to life thanks to documents and information which the Reference Library in York Road, Hartlepool, has shared with the Mail.

The library’s reference services officer, Sandra McKay, said: “Theatre was a popular part of a family’s life in those days and many of the current day people of Hartlepool would have had ancestors who visited the Empire.

“There would be many people from the area who would have performed there as well.”

History shows that the West Hartlepool Empire Palace was constructed by Hartlepool building firm Messrs Jos Howe and Co, using local labour under the watchful eye of the clerk of works Harry Barker.

Less than seven months after building work started , the Empire was ready to open in 1909.

It officially opened on December 13, 1909, with a performance of The Toreador by the West Hartlepool Amateur Operatic Dramatic Society (WHODS).

Leading the way were George F Thompson as resident acting manager and Edward Rogers as conductor of the 20-strong orchestra.

Their task was to perform to an audience of up to 2,000 people, seated in the orchestra stalls, grand circle, pit stalls, pit, upper circle, gallery, stage boxes or grand circle boxes.

Within no time, the Empire was part of Hartlepool’s history.

Throughout both world wars, it helped the war effort by putting on charity shows.

Local hospitals also benefited from other fundraising nights and the town-based WHODS used the venue for many shows.

But as well as local acts, the Empire soon became renowned for the world famous acts it hosted.

They included Max Bygraves who performed there on August 25, 1947.

He joined other illustrious names such as Will Hay, George Formby, Pat Phoenix, Jimmy Clitheroe and Bobby Thompson.

Sandra added: “It may well be the case that the relatives of some people living in Hartlepool now would have been among the first to have seen him on the stage before he became famous.”