In the Beginning
The building that we see today began life in 1850 as The Market Hotel. It was used as a convenient stop-over point for farmers on their way to sell cattle and buy implements and provisions from the Corn Exchange (now the Winchester Discovery Centre).
From Hotel to Theatre
The building was bought by the Simpkins brothers who converted it by extending into the yard at the rear of the hotel.
Variety the Spice of Life
The building opened as a cine variety theatre. A typical evening’s entertainment consisted of variety acts and melodramas, interspersed with screenings of silent films and the Pathé Gazette newsreels.
The theatre was converted into a full time cinema in 1920.
Theatre Under Threat
In June 1974 the owners closed the cinema and applied for a demolition order with a view to erecting commercial premises. Winchester City Council responded by securing a Grade II listing for the building. Within two months the Winchester Theatre Fund was formed, its aim to “restore live theatre in Winchester”, with the Theatre Royal as its first project.
A New Lease of Life
With the help of the City Council, various trusts and a programme of fundraising, Winchester Theatre Fund purchased the building in April 1977 for £35,000 and pressed ahead with plans for restoration.
Let there be Light
The two adjoining buildings (22 & 23 Jewry Street) were purchased. After four years of darkness, the lights came on again in November 1978.
The newly refurbished theatre re-opened fully in September 1981.
Projection facilities were added and the Royal once again became both theatre and ‘picture palace’.
Heritage and Modernity
In January 1996 the doors closed one more time for an extensive refurbishment, made possible by the support of the National Lottery Board of the Arts Council of England, Winchester City Council, Hampshire County Council Southern Arts Board, local businesses and private donations.
The scheme included a sympathetic restoration of period details including the proscenium arch, decorative pilasters and original plasterwork in the auditorium. It also included a contemporary curved wall with glazed inserts, based on the west window of Winchester Cathedral, by artist Sue Kennington.
A Theatre for Today and the Future
After five years of hard work, the refurbishment was completed in 2001 and the theatre re-opened. It is still owned by the Winchester Arts Trust Ltd and is now operated by Live Theatre Winchester Trust Ltd. The theatre offers a dynamic programme of drama, music, dance and comedy, making it a focal point for the cultural life of the city and beyond.
We celebrate our 100th year as a theatre.