A brief history of the London Coliseum, home of English National Opera.
The London Coliseum was designed by Frank Matcham for Sir Oswald Stoll with the ambition of being the largest and finest ‘people’s palace of entertainment’ of the age.
Matcham wanted a Theatre of Variety – not a music hall but equally not highbrow entertainment. The resulting programme was a mix of music hall and variety theatre, with one act - a full scale revolving chariot race - requiring the stage to revolve. The theatre’s original slogan was PRO BONO PUBLICO (For the public good). It was opened in 1904 and the inaugural performance was a variety bill on 24 December that year.
With 2,359 seats, the London Coliseum is the largest theatre in London. It underwent extensive renovations between 2000 and 2004 when an original staircase planned by Frank Matcham was finally put in to his specifications.
The theatre changed its name from the London Coliseum to the Coliseum Theatre between 1931 and 1968. During the Second World War, the Coliseum served as a canteen for Air Raid Patrol workers, and Winston Churchill gave a speech from the stage.
After 1945 it was mainly used for American musicals before becoming in 1961 a cinema for seven years. In 1968 it reopened as the London Coliseum, home of Sadler’s Wells Opera. In 1974 Sadler’s Wells became English National Opera and the Company bought the freehold of the building for £12.8 million in 1992.
The theatre underwent a complete and detailed restoration from 2000 which was supported by National Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, the National Lottery through Arts Council England, Vernon & Hazel Ellis and a number of generous trust and individual donors to whom we are extremely grateful.The auditorium and other public areas were returned to their original Edwardian decoration and new public spaces were created. The theatre re-opened in 2004.
The London Coliseum has the widest proscenium arch in London (55 feet wide and 34 feet high – the stage is 80 feet wide, with a throw of over 115 feet from the stage to the back of the balcony) and was one of the first theatres to have electric lighting.
It was built with a revolving stage although this was rarely used which consisted of three concentric rings and was 75 feet cross in total and cost Stoll £70,000. A range of modern features included electric lifts for patrons, a roof garden and an information bureau in which physicians or others expecting urgent telephone calls or telegrams could leave their seat numbers and be immediately informed if required.
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Frank Matcham (1854–1920)
Born in Devon, Frank Matcham was apprenticed to George Bridgman, a local builder and architect in 1868. In the 1870s he moved to London to join the architectural practice of Jethro Robinson who was consulting theatre architect to the Lord Chamberlain. Following the sudden death of Robinson in 1878 Matcham, by then married to Robinson’s daughter, took over the practice.
Probably the most prolific theatre architect of all times, Matcham built at least 80 theatres as original architect and was involved in minor and major rebuildings of around 80 more between 1873 and 1913. There was a building boom between 1890 and 1915 and Matcham designed theatres for many cities and towns. Notable London theatres include the Hackney Empire (1901), the London Palladium (1910) and the Victoria Palace (1911). He also designed pubs, cinemas and hotels as well as the County Arcade in Leeds and the Tower Ballroom and Circus in Blackpool.
Frank Matcham pioneered the use of cantilevered steel in his designs, and took out patents to protect his work. This allowed balconies to be built out into the auditorium without the use of the supporting pillars that had characterised the work of the previous generation of theatre architects. Without pillars, there were improved sightlines and, popular with theatre owners, an increased audience capacity
Each of Matcham’s theatres was unique and he had a reputation for building magnificent theatres on difficult sites both speedily and economically, which led to close relationships with many theatre owners and managers, including Oswald Stoll who commissioned him to design the London Coliseum in 1904. The building survives largely to Matcham’s plans which can be viewed in ENO’s Archive and was beautifully restored to the original plans in 2004. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Sir Oswald Stoll (1866 – 1942)
Oswald Stoll was a British theatre manager and the co-founder of the Stoll Moss Group theatre company. By 1905, almost every large town in Great Britain had an “Empire” or a “Coliseum” theatre, managed by Stoll.
He was born in Australia but moved to England with his mother after his father’s death and took his stepfather’s last name. His interest in theatre came from helping his mother manage theatres. Stoll was a philanthropist: he founded the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation in Fulham which continues today to house disabled ex-Servicemen and women and provide support for veterans.