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Minutes of the 360th meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on   

Tuesday 16th January 2018:

The Chairman welcomed Chris Lloyd to a select group who have spoken at Stokesley Probus more than once. He talked to us on 25th January 2015 on W.T. Stead and the Titanic. Chris is the chief Features writer for the Northern Echo and the Darlington & Stockton Times. Amongst his other claims to fame is that he has appeared twice on Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys. He gave us a very interesting and humorous talk on the history of Darlington theatre.

Chris started by telling us that, in 1859, Henry Pease, the owner of Darlington Mills, sent a missive to the young girls employed in his mills strongly discouraging them from going into a theatre. He was Darlington’s first MP and a son of Edward, the promoter of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

In the 18th century, actors went from town to town and frequently performed in tents which they put up. The first recorded performance in Darlington was in the Green Tree Fields behind the Green Tree Pub. This proved to be very popular and funds were raised to build a barn as a permanent location. The three Pease brothers hated the theatre for puritanical as well as political reasons. Henry was Chairman of the Police Court which had to give permission for the barn to be built. He could not find a reason to refuse the application. His brother, Joseph, who built Port Darlington now Middlesbrough objected to the granting of a licence, saying that ‘the theatre is a cause, source and spring of poverty, profligacy and vice’. He failed in his campaignand a licence was issued.  John Price Edwards built the barn. Soon afterwards, he was prosecuted for stealing gas from the Darlington Gas and Water Company – owned by the Pease brothers. After serving a prison sentence of a month, he resumed at the theatre.

Theatres did not survive for long in the 19th century. The Theatre Royal in Darlington opened in 1865 but closed in 1868. It reopened but burned down in 1883. A second theatre was proposed in Parkgate after the slums were cleared. The first design was by G.G. Hoskins, a well known architect, who designed Middlesbrough Town Hall.  After he fell ill, the design was completed by George Ward, an architect from Birmingham.

The New Hippodrome and Palace of Varieties Theatre opened on 2nd September 1907. On the opening night, there were two performances, seen by a total of 4000 people. It had been brought to life by Signor Reno Pepi, a flamboyant Italian impresario, who had earlier in his career acted in front of Queen Victoria in Florence. His talent as an actor was as a quick change artiste, the fad of the day. He played 7 characters of both sexes in a 15 minute sketch called ‘Love is Always Victorious’. He met and fallen in love with , Mary Countess de Rossetti, a half Irish and half Italian divorcee. This led him to give up acting and buy a chain of theatres in Barrow in Furness, Blackpool, Carlisle, Middlesbrough, Darlington, Shildon and Bishop Auckland. However, not all of these were successful and by the start of World War 1, he only owned two of them.

The name Hippodrome comes from a Greek word meaning horse drawn. Both water and menageries featured in the early years. The tower of the theatre was provided to house a water tank and in 1913, a re-enactment of the sinking of the Titanic was performed. An early star attraction at the theatre was La Milo, aka Pansy Montague. Her act was the impersonation of statues of nude ladies. Censorship was always a threat to stage performances in those days, but it had been ruled that as long as the lady did not move, the show was not obscene. She had mastered the technique of imperceptible breathing which was a big help! Chris observed that her masterpiece was the Venus de Milo. The fact that the statue had no arms, but La Milo did, was not enough to spoil the act for her male admirers!

The Countess died in 1915 at the age of 49, but the ghost of her Pekingese dog still haunts the theatre. It is not alone – ghosts of Pepi and Maud Darling, a local born actress who performed at the theatre have also been seen. She was a beauty and it is believed that she had an affair with Pepi after the death of the Countess.

Many stars appeared at the theatre including Mrs. Patrick Campbell. All arrived at Bank Top station on the only train to arrive on a Sunday evening which also brought fish from Grimsby. This gave rise to the name of the train as the ‘Fish and Actors Special’. Pepi’s greatest coup was to get the famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova to appear on 17th November 1927. Sadly, he was already very ill with cancer and missed her performance. He died later the same day and was buried in top hat and tails next to the Countess in Barrow, but not before the hearse had been delayed in freezing fog on the A66. This apparently showed his reluctance to leave Darlington.

With the creation of films, the public’s tastes changed. 5 cinemas were opened in Darlington before World War 1. Pepi was alert to the new medium and developed the Pepiscope for showing films. Chris showed us clips of a film of steam locomotives made in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway and another of a football match between Darlington Quaker Ladies Team and Terry’s of York Ladies.

After Pepi died, the theatre’s fortunes declined. In the 1950s, it was taken over by the Council and renamed the Civic. After a substantial refurbishment in 2016/17, it reopened with its original name, The Hippodrome.