Buxton Opera House – A History

February 23, 2014 | 0 Comments | Filed under: 2014, March 2014

A full house at the February meeting of Tideswell History Club heard Trevor Gilman and Roy Pickles give an excellent talk about this important and historic building. The talk was doubly interesting because of their asides of social history that we would never think of today, e.g. ladies were not allowed to drink alongside men in the bar – their drinks were served to them from a “dumb waiter” in the ladies’ toilets! Posh folks ascended the ornate main staircase whilst their poorer brethren went up 60 concrete steps to the balcony where they sat on benches with no backs. “The classes had to be kept apart”.

The architect, Frank Matcham, worked on about 150 theatres but Buxton is regarded as one of his finest. Whilst it may look typically fussy and Edwardian to us, it was an American – Mr. Singer (of sewing machine fame) who encouraged Matcham to mix his designs from all eras.

The Opera House was being constructed around 1900, and by then certain safety measures had to be built in because until then there had been huge loss of life due to fire. Theatres on average burnt down every 8 to 10 years. The Vienna Opera House burnt down on its second night and another in Derby only three weeks after opening. Gaslights doubled the occurrence of fires and doors opening inwards caused a fatal crush of people. Matcham invented “panic bolts” (the horizontal push bars across the doors still in use today). Trevor showed photographs of huge riveted steel beams that Matcham and Briggs had patented, to support and bring forward the balcony and dress circle in order to get the audience closer to the action on stage.

One of the unique features of the building is the “Gasolier”, a cluster of gas lamps in the centre of the ceiling; this also serves as ventilation in drawing up stale air from the auditorium. In one recent refurbishment, £80,000 pounds worth of gold leaf was applied to the décor. Another photograph showed the forest of ropes used for raising and lowering the scenery. Hemp rope is still used today as nylon ropes are too stretchy.

The Opera House was not opened until 1903 and had a surprisingly short lifespan. By the late 1920s, live theatre was declining as movies became all the rage and so it was converted into a cinema (a very ornate one!) which continued into the 1970s. With great vision Malcolm Fraser started up an Opera Festival in the late 70s and then one thing led to another…

Roy Pickles explained his longstanding career overseeing the stage door with its tiny frugal office with stairs leading to equally frugal dressing rooms. On a shelf in the office are books containing all the artistes’ handbills complete with their signatures. He also kept us amused with stories of how Ken Dodd keeps his audience captive for about 5 hours and then spends another hour talking to his fans. They have a list of about 200 volunteers who help to keep the place running and we must be very grateful to them.

Our next meeting is in the Institute on March 13th at 8pm when we shall be having a talk about the important manufacturing firm – Robinsons of Chesterfield. All welcome.


Brian Woodall.


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