Empire

The Empire was one Bristol’s four great theatres – the others being the Bristol Old Vic, King Street; the Hippodrome, St Augustine’s Parade; and the Palace on Park Row. With a seating capacity of 2,500, it had a shaky start financially. Within six months of opening the Bristol Palace of Varieties went into voluntary liquidation. It re-opened 3rd September 1894 but closed again within six weeks.

A huge success!

screening of the silent masterpiece ‘‘The Loves of Pharaoh’ (1923). The screening was accompanied by a live orchestra and was a spectacular hit with Bristolians.

Unemployment Marches

During the early 1930s Britain was suffering from a period of economic downturn know as the Great Depression. In Bristol, nearly 28,000 people were registered at one of the six labour exchanges across the city. The people of Old Market were particularly affected by the Depression; two major local employers – the Great Western Cotton Works and the Bristol Carriage Works had closed down with the loss of several thousand jobs. In Bristol in 1932 there were a number of protest marches across the city. One such march led by the National Unemployed Workers Union on Pancake Day, 1932, led to what has been called the Old Market Riots.

Old Market Riots

With unemployment benefit being cut by 10% just 11 days earlier, a protest march being led by the National Unemployed Workers Union spiraled out of control into a riot. At Old Market the police attempted to divert the crowd, which had grown to 4,000 – 5,000 people down a side road, Carey’s Lane, next to the King’s Cinema. Mayhem ensued and because of the sheer number of the crowd the police were jostled. The Chief Constable gave the order for batons to be drawn and the protestors charged. Inspector Dyke, the policeman in charge at the scene, reported that ‘sticks with nails protruding were being thrown at and used upon the police. I then gave instructions to the men who arrived with me to clear the street. The crowd was very hostile and it was impossible for any traffic to get away until the crowd was dispersed by the policemen using their sticks.’ Inevitably bystanders were injured. One eye-witness reported ‘The police on mounted horses and other police with batons charged us and drove us back into Old Market Street. Oh yes, people got hurt, people who weren’t even in the scuffle. I can remember … a little lady there, there were a man and a woman there, they were clubbed down. They said they had just come from the pictures. And they had nothing to do with it.’ One policeman and several protestors were seriously injured though no arrests are made. The dispersed crowd re-grouped at the Horsefair, where speeches were delivered. Police reinforcements from the nearby Bridewell were called and the demonstrators dispersed. Two people were arrested for disorderly conduct and assaulting police officers.

Old Market Riots cont.

Some felt that the police had been too heavy-handed. Councillor H. E. Rogers (Bristol East Divisional Labour Party) wrote to Chief Constable Maby demanding disciplinary action be taken against the police who used unjustified violence. Surely your men have not been instructed to trample to death law-abiding citizens whose only object is to pursue the legitimate conduct of citizens!’ The Watch Committee concluded, however, that the police had acted with ‘commendable restraint’. Two weeks later, despite being refused permission by the police to march, the NUWM lead another protest. Again the march ended in Old Market Street. The South Gloucester Gazette reported: ‘At the unemployed headquarters at Shepherds Hall, over which continually floats the Red flag, a posse of police barred the way. For a time the crowd halted, but eventually, urged on from the back, it advanced again, and the police drew batons in readiness. Immediately came a shower of missiles, half-bricks, coke, gas-piping and iron bars, all of which had been collected by the procession on route. Immediately the police charged and in a moment the demonstrators were scattering in all directions, those who stood their ground being speedily dealt with. Again and again the police swept through their ranks and two ambulances were soon busy carrying casualties to the Infirmary.’ Bill Curtiss, a participant, saw things differently: 'To the right hand side as we were facing Castle Street ... in the annex to the Empire Theatre...he (Chief Constable Maby) had two more motor coach loads of police there in reserve … hiding in the annex and the theory was that if they came out from the annex and took the first dozen rows from behind they'd have the ring leaders and the all the march would break up into disorder...which he wasn't very far wrong ... these other police piled out from the annex and took us from behind ... and of course right away you know a punch up started, people was getting whacked with the batons ... we was getting a right licking…. According to Bill Curtis the demonstrators grabbed anything that was at hand to use as missiles. Market stalls were raided, and potatoes and cabbages and coal was thrown at the police. Photographs of the demonstration show policemen with truncheons beating marchers to the ground. Several bodies lie sprawled on the road, bicycles abandoned, placards discarded. At a press conference the next day Chief Constable Maby justified this brutal containment with a display of weapons - jemmies, batons, metal railings - allegedly taken from the protestors. He claimed that not more than 50 police were engaged in dispersing demonstrators. The Bristol Evening World, however, reported that nearly 300 police took part.

Old Market Riots Conclusion

By now the disturbances in Bristol had drawn the attention of the Home Office, who made a ‘telephonic inquiry’ about the events. Maby’s subsequent report to the Home Office appeared to be more concerned with the interruption to the traffic than anything else. Maby succinctly described the events in Old Market: ‘One procession proceeded through St Philips down old market street, and another procession, at the same time, marched from the other end of old market street. Causing serious congestion. A cordon of police was immediately lined up across old market street and the marchers requested to stop. They refused and were told they would not be allowed to march any further and must disperse. The marchers then attacked the police with sticks and banners, pieces of iron, stones and other missiles and the inspector in charge gave orders for the police to draw their truncheons and disperse the crowd, and after a short time order was restored. The mounted police were called out, but did not draw their staves.’ The protests continued throughout the Spring of 1932. The police were less heavy handed, preferring to monitor the situation rather wade in.

Old Market's 'Big Screen'

By the turn of the century, moving pictures began to vie with the music hall for the attention of the British Public. The Empire, like many other entertainment venues began to accommodate and indeed benefit from cinema’s popularity. By 1912, the Empire had begun to include film screenings in between it’s twice nightly evening bills.

Same roof, new name

In April 1931 the Empire was converted into a cinema and renamed “Bristol’s New Super Cinema”. Large audiences were attracted to the continuous performances from 1.00 p.m. to 10.45 p.m. By early 1933 ABC Cinemas had taken over the Empire and ran it alongside the nearby Kings Cinema.

End of Empire

In February 1951 a fire was discovered in the circle of the theatre. It was quickly extinguished, and the theatre re-opened the following day. Immediate repairs were carried out, but FJB Theatres were reluctant to complete major renovations, as by this time the Empire was under threat of compulsory purchase. In 1953 FJB Theatres let it be known they would be willing sellers of the Empire, and announced in July 1954 they had sold the theatre to Bristol City Council for £34,500. The City Council then granted a 7-year lease to the BBC. The last stage performance took place on Saturday 21 August 1954.

BBC - The new empire?

The BBC Theatre opened on 11 January 1955 and was to be used as a sound studio until it closed on Friday 12 October 1962.

Demolished

In September 1963 the fixtures and fittings of both the Empire and Tatler were auctioned. The Empire was demolished in 1964 to allow the start of the Temple Way Underpass scheme, work on the underpass did not in fact start until 1967.

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