The Kings opens up its wartime secrets

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A new project at The Kings Theatre has uncovered what life was like there 100 years ago when the nation was gripped by The Great War.

More than 20 volunteers have been getting together three times a week at the Albert Road, Southsea venue to look back through the archives to its first decade.

A matinee for Crimean war veterans, 1909

A matinee for Crimean war veterans, 1909

The Matcham theatre opened its doors in 1907, and by the outbreak of what became the First World War, was one of the nation’s leading purveyors of entertainment – premiering new works before they headed off on tour around the country. It would draw in thousands of people every week.

Variety shows were its mainstay, with acts like Dick the drawing dog and Miss Aurora and her lion, D’Artagnan, or magicians and singers.

But they would also stage one act plays during these shows, and by wartime they came freighted with not-so-subtle messages for their audiences.

Katrina Henderson, The Kings’ community engagement officer says: ‘We’ve uncovered some amazing shows – like one where a lady dived into a 30-tonne tank from up in the roof. We’ve had elephants, zebras, and baboon acts, Captain Woodward and his seals – a real variety of performances.’

Katrina Henderson,  community engagement officer for The Kings Theatre, with volunteers for the First World War project -  Jessica Harper, Katy Hodges, Rob Kennedy, Tony Young, Chris Grant, Peter Rann, Susan Simmonds and Dee Cheetham     Picture: Sarah Standing (170581-6878)

Katrina Henderson, community engagement officer for The Kings Theatre, with volunteers for the First World War project - Jessica Harper, Katy Hodges, Rob Kennedy, Tony Young, Chris Grant, Peter Rann, Susan Simmonds and Dee Cheetham Picture: Sarah Standing (170581-6878)

The Kings has its own extensive archive which it has been digging into.
‘Some of the stuff we’ve got in there is amazing.

‘We’re also looking at the lost plays – plays that premiered here before touring around the country - and haven’t been seen since, but they would look into the world of espionage and spies, with these underlying messages to watch out about what you said.

‘In between the acts at a variety show you’d often get a sign come up saying: “Kitchener’s army needs you,” and a recruitment sergeant would come out on stage and give an announcement to persuade the men who hadn’t already signed up to sign up.

‘There are other stories about a lady with a basket of white feathers ,and if men came in and they weren’t in uniform, she’d hand them a feather.

Sam Lockhart's elephant act

Sam Lockhart's elephant act

‘Female performers of the time, like Marie Lloyd, would also try to encourage the men to sign up.

‘There’s not been a huge amount of photographs, but we have found some, like The Kings staff at the stage door in 1910, and one of the elephants – They were used in shows up until 1914, and then they went away to help with the war effort’

The project, funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of just under £10,000, has enabled them to look into a wide range of subjects.

‘We started with the theatre’s role during the First World War, what was performed here and what life was like,’ says Katrina, ‘ then Portsmouth’s role in the war, the people who would have come here, the navy and army personnel, the change in women’s roles – taking on more of the men’s roles and having more disposable income and coming to more of the shows. Music and popular culture, fashion are all things we’ve been finding out about.

The Kings Theatre, 1907

The Kings Theatre, 1907

As part of the project there will be a permanent display on the history of the time.

‘We’re getting to the stage now where it’s, what do we include and what do we leave out?

‘Even things like how much the performers made then – one of the big stars back then would get £500 a week which is like £55,000 today. And the audience would have been packed out back then.’

And the volunteers have got so into it, they don’t want to stop when this is over.

‘One of the great things about this is that some of the volunteers have been saying “can we do between the wars, can we do the Second World War?” It’s really gripped their imaginations.’

They also headed up to London to read some of these old play scripts at the British Library – they had to read them on site and take copies there – they can’t be removed.

Kings Theatre staff c.1910

Kings Theatre staff c.1910

‘We read four scripts to see which one we might like to do.

One of the plays, Lads of The Village is so funny, it’s on the BFI, so we’ve been able to watch an old production as well, but when we went up there we were being told off for laughing, it’s still that funny.’