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The Hackney Empire, London

The Hackney Empire. Listed Building. Designed by Frank Matcham. Foyer decoration by J. M. Boekbinder; auditorium decoration by De Jong (see Walker 168). Built, like the Coliseum, for Oswald Stoll. Opened December 1901; restored 2001-04. Located at 291 Mare Street, London E8 1EJ. This is one of the finest of the 95 or so new theatres designed by Matcham. Like the almost contemporaneous Richmond Theatre, it was built on a prominent site "with no earlier theatrical associations and no reusable old fabric" (Earl 49) — in the latter respect, it contrasts with the more than 50 additional theatres rebuilt and transformed by the prolific Matcham (see "History")

Left: Top of the façade. Right: Side elevation. Like Richmond Theatre, the Hackney Empire has a brick and creamy terracotta façade with towers flanking a balustraded parapet and a broken pediment. The tympanum is enhanced by a relief including clusters of musical instruments flanking a rich ribboned swag.

The crowning female figure here is very similar to the one representing Art and Music on the Richmond Theatre, and would seem to have been the work of the same sculptor. All this embellishment looks neo-Baroque, typical of its time and appropriate to the building's purpose; the whole is also part of the terracotta revival of this period, just as in Matcham's fabulous Victoria Quarter in Leeds. The side elevation is much simpler and more classical, though still with fine terracotta dressings and some sculptural scrolling in the tympanums.

The foyer. Left Ceiling with lavish plasterwork, gilding and painting. Right: Windows and ceiling to side. Note the Art Nouveau stained glass in the windows.

The interior, left to right: (a) One side of the auditorium. Note one of the two elaborate recessed onion domes flanking the proscenium arch. (b) The stage, with a smiling mask and paintings of lively scenes above it. (c) Detail of the painting and plasterwork above the stage. Note one of the two gilded cherubs leaning out from above it (each holding up an urn, not shown here).

The interior of the Hackney Empire, which could hold as many as 1,900 people in its three-tier auditorium (Walker 168; sources vary), boasted state-of-the-art technology for its age. It had electric lights from the beginning, a central heating system, a projection-box that was built in, and even (as at Matcham's Victoria Palace Theatre) provision for sliding open part of the auditorium roof for ventilation. The splendid foyer with its ornate ceiling and windows has a double staircase with marble finishing. Inside the auditorium, there are elegant boxes at the back of the Dress Circle, as well as at each side of the auditorium. As one commentator has suggested, the decor would do justice to a major opera house, let alone a variety theatre (see "The Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street"). It is hard to make out the subjects of the larger paintings because of the lighting arrangements, though they are clearly, as the listing text says, "of rococo feeling." One smaller panel at the side shows a cherub happily banging a drum. It is all very impressive.


Earl, John. "The London Theatre." Frank Matcham: Theatre Architect. Ed. Brian Mercer Walker. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1980. 36-61.

"The Hackney Empire 291, Hackney." British Listed Buildings. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

"The Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street, London E8 1EJ." Arthur Lloyd Co.. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

"History of the Hackney Empire." Hackney Empire Co. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

Walker, Brian Mercer, ed. Appendix. Frank Matcham: Theatre Architect. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1980. 154-74.

Weinreb, Ben, et al. The London Encyclopaedia. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 2008.

Last modified 29 September 2012