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When fire brought down the Opera House in 1930s Dudley

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: March 24, 2005

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A few minutes after five o'clock in the morning on Sunday 1st November 1936, Mr J. Nicklin was hurrying past the Opera House on Dudley's Castle Hill. Mr Nicklin had left his Stourbridge Road home early, and the normally busy road was quiet at that early hour. However, as he passed the town's majestic Opera House, Mr Nicklin was alarmed to see tendrils of smoke spiralling from the roof. He immediately ran to the nearest telephone box and called Dudley Fire Brigade, who were quickly scrambled to the site.

Nevertheless, as the two fire engines sped to Castle Hill from their base in Tower Street, the conflagration had already gained a strong hold on the building. Flames were licking greedily at the roof, leaping to more than forty feet in height, and almost dwarfing the elegant structure. The whole of the skyline was lit as if by a fiery beacon, and the very castle itself, aside its ancient bastion, was clothed in smoke. By the time the fire brigade arrived, the roof had fallen in with a thundering crash, and fire enveloped the whole building.

The firemen struggled manfully to control the blaze. They first attacked the fire from the outside, directing their hoses to the flame-covered walls. The fire subsiding somewhat, they were next able to enter the fire-ridden building and direct jets of water at the stage. Three firemen attempted to gain access to the upper circle, but found themselves beaten back by the intense heat.

Eventually, the gallant boys in blue were able to pour water onto the blazing auditorium from the stage and a stairway to the upper circle. From every point they could secure, the firemen fought the blaze, and for seven hours thousands upon thousands of gallons of water were pumped into the burning building. Some fire-fighters directed streams of water from the picture house next door, while some even stood precariously, a hundred feet up on the outer walls of the Opera House, to pour quenching water onto the blaze. The stalls, once so luxuriously carpeted, and the orchestra pit were so deluged that a great lake formed, coursing its way onto Castle Hill and carrying with it burnt rafters and joists.

So dangerous was the position of the firemen that they were lucky to escape with their lives. All around them, charred timber and gilded plaster fell, and others were blasted down stairways with the force of the water jets. Police Constable Richardson - Dudley Fire Brigade was then operated by the police force - had the most miraculous escape. As he stood in the dress circle, directing a hose at a particularly fierce part of the blaze, he was oblivious to the fact that the roof of the dress circle was rapidly deteriorating. In the nick of time, Richardson was pulled clear by Chief Constable Campbell, just as the roof came crashing down. Lucky to survive, PC Richardson was buried by falling debris, but cool-headedly managed to pull himself free. As it was, several other firemen had their faces scorched by the aggressive flames.

"The whole place was a roaring furnace when we got here," the Chief Constable later told a local newspaper. "When the roof collapsed, and with burning material falling all around us, we had to get out as quickly as we could. A minute later, the beams on which we had been standing crashed into the pit."

Finally, after a mammoth battle with the flames, the fire had lost its strength. While some fire-fighters remained late into the night to deal with smouldering timbers, others stood and surveyed the damage, including the Borough Engineer, F.H. Gibbons.

The Opera House, once the jewel in the crown of Dudley's entertainment and cultural scene, was totally devastated. The entire roof had fallen in, leaving the once impressive auditorium open to the sky like a Roman coliseum. Only the outer walls were left, with that nearest the picture house leaning ominously. The front of the building, with its eighty foot red brick and terracotta facade, grand arched windows and towering pediment, leaned inwards at the top but bulged outwards alarmingly in the middle, putting the whole frontage at risk from a puff of wind. The gilded figure of a goddess, who guarded the Opera House from her pedestal on the apex of the pediment, amazingly survived intact, practically the only thing to do so.

The goddess had been commissioned by J. Maurice Clement, who had the Opera House built. Clement had previously owned the Colosseum Theatre, opened on Whitsun in 1889. However, in 1897 work began on the new Opera House, and after only ten years of business the Colosseum was closed in November 1899.

Vaunted as "the Safest and most Convenient Theatre in the Country," where the "House empties in three minutes," according to later advertisements, the Opera House took over two years to complete. It was finally opened on the 4th September 1899 by Shakespearean actor Edmund Tearle in 1899, under the auspices of the Earl and Countess of Dudley and the town council. The opening ceremony was followed by a banquet in Shakespeare's honour at the nearby Station Hotel, the latter becoming an annual event for many years.

The very first performance on the new stage was the D'Oyly Carte Company's rendition of the perennially popular 'Mikado'. As audiences were ushered into the Opera House for the first time, past its exotic doorways and through the entrance lobby, they gaped at the grand interior, complete with expansive stalls, balcony circle, orchestra pit and fly tower.

Over the years, the Opera House hosted all manner of opera, stage plays, burlesque, comedy, pantomimes, variety revues, operetta and even early silent films, under the guiding eye of Clement, acting manager John W. Tilley and musical director Arthur Greaves. At the outbreak of the Great war, the theatre was owned by The Dudley Opera House Co. Ltd., under the leadership of Chairman Edward Baring, but by the time of the fire, ownership of the Opera House had passed to Benjamin Kennedy, a show business magnate who owned several other theatres in the Midlands region.

How the fire started was a complete enigma. In those days before smoking was banned in public buildings, a throwaway match or carelessly disposed cigarette in the gallery seemed a likely culprit. However, on the Saturday night preceding the fire the outgoing company, who were presenting a revue called "Pleasures of the Night," had packed away their belongings ready for an early departure from the train station the next morning. The company had remained in the theatre until two o'clock in the morning with R. Kennedy, son of the owner and theatre manager, settling their affairs as the run ended.

"I stayed with the principals of last week's show until 2 am this morning," the devastated Mr Kennedy explained at the time. "Then I inspected the building and turned off the lights. I am at a loss to understand how it could have happened. Fusing of wires could not have done it, and it does not seem likely that a cigarette end would smoulder for six hours. The thing is a mystery."

Whatever the cause, the effect of the fire upon the theatre was disastrous. Damage was estimated at £40,000, a huge sum of money, and Mr Kennedy thought that it would take around a year to rebuild.

The building was insured, but the wider impact upon the town and show business circles was just as distressing. Some forty members of staff were left without a job, and several landladies in the town, who took in theatrical types during their bookings, were affected. Barricades were erected on Castle Hill, to prevent damage from the ruined theatre, and traffic had to be diverted through Trindle Road and Bourne Street, including ten omnibuses. Another revue, "Registered Rhythms." was due to arrive from Devonport, but these, as well as other companies who had been booked months in advance, were to suffer a hefty financial blow.

Nothing could be done to save the ravaged building, and the dangerous outer walls were demolished. In 1937, as the town's new zoo was opening alongside the Opera House, the building was in mid-demolition. Ironically, so too was the Station Hotel on the opposite side of Castle Hill, which had almost shared the same life span, being built in 1900.

However, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a new building slowly began to rise in place of the Opera House. The Hippodrome, built in the very latest Art Deco style, was erected on the site and opened in 1938. Top-class theatre acts once more returned to this quarter of Dudley, wowing audiences until its sad closure in 1958. The building still stands to this day, the home to a national bingo club, although when the house comes down nowadays, it's usually because someone has shouted "House!"

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