A seaside theatre that was once known as the Albert Hall of the north is set for a remarkable restoration, thanks to major new funding that was secured with the help of a University of Sheffield professor.
Morecambe Winter Gardens, which was once one of the country’s most popular theatres drawing tourists from across the UK, has been awarded a grant of £2.78 million from the Cultural Development Fund to help it once again be one of the best music venues in the north of England.
The funding, which is the largest single investment the venue has received in over a 100 years, will also be used to launch a new work experience initiative to help young creatives from Lancashire get access to and develop careers in the arts industry.
A view of the inside of Morecambe Winter Gardens from a balcony during a classical music concert
Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Professor of Entertainment History at the University of Sheffield, was born and grew up in Morecambe. For the past three years she has been Chair of the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust – a group of volunteers who are trying to restore the building, which was once the centre of culture and entertainment in Morecambe, the wider Lancashire region and one of the most popular venues of any British seaside town.
First opened in 1897, the theatre was one of the largest in the north west of England. With lavish interiors and striking architectural features, it quickly became the heart of a thriving seaside resort and played host to some of the most famous stars of music and variety culture. It helped Morecambe develop into one of the country’s most loved resorts, attracting visitors from all over the UK.
However, the venue closed in the mid-1970s as Morecambe’s economy, like seaside towns across the UK, began to collapse. A group of dedicated volunteers formed the Preservation Trust in 2006 and have since worked tirelessly on cleaning, restoring, and fundraising to try to bring the building back so it can once again be at the heart of the region’s entertainment, culture and economy.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Professor of Early Film and Popular Entertainment History at the University of Sheffield and Chair of the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust, said: “This is a historic day for the Winter Gardens and marks the single biggest investment in the theatre for over 100 years. I am overjoyed for the residents of Morecambe who have shown such love and loyalty to the building over the many years of disappointment, thankful for the support of my Board, our Partners, our donors and funders and of course our wonderful volunteers. We still have a long way to go, but this funding gets us nearer to our ambition of making our building sing and be known once again as the people’s palace – the Albert Hall of the north.”
The money will bring a cash injection of £2.5 million of capital to the building, alongside £700,000 of additional funding, including £200,000 from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. Proposed work includes a two-storey extension including toilets, accessible lifts and new fire escape, full electrical rewiring, essential AV and lighting equipment, including an acoustic shell for the fly-tower and other essential conservation work.
Alongside the capital works, the Preservation Trust will work with partners, including From the Fields – known for the hugely popular Kendal Calling and Blue Dot festivals – and Morecambe and Lancaster arts groups to programme new events and music activities over the next three years.
The view of the stage in Morecambe Winter Gardens during a recent music gig
Crucial to the development of the building is a Young Creatives Initiative in partnership with Lancaster and Morecambe College, which will see a cohort of 75 young creatives from Morecambe and Lancaster given the opportunity to have work experience and paid training from national bodies with local and regional cultural partners.
David Morris, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, said: “It is absolutely fantastic news that the Winter Gardens has been awarded £2.78 million by the government. It was a fantastic bid, which I was proud to support and it is a testament to how strong a bid the team at the Winter Gardens, led by Professor Vanessa Toulmin put in. I believe it is the first time that an award of this type has been awarded to a trust running a project and not a council or larger organisation. Well done to everyone at the Winter Gardens who put this bid together and I know what a huge impact this funding will have at restoring the building to its former glory and protecting the wonderful Winter Gardens for generations to come.”
The Winter Gardens will additionally fundraise a further £200,000 – 7.5 per cent – of the remaining funds towards important conservation of the Grade II* interiors including the impressive ceramic tiles in the main foyer. Over the three years of the grant, the Winter Gardens will be transformed into a fully functioning 1600 capacity music venue, the largest in North Lancashire and the South Lakes and hopes to be a mecca for the UK touring circuit.
Caroline Jackson, Leader of Lancaster City Council, said: “Huge congratulations to Professor Toulmin and her team for gaining this outstanding funding for the Winter Gardens in Morecambe. It will enable an amazing building to come back to life to provide entertainment to audiences from across the region. More than that it will provide a boost to the cultural sector and hope for local young people who dream of entering it.”
Dean Shakespeare, Head of Touring for From the Fields (Kendal Calling and Blue Dot Festivals), said: “We are extremely excited to be working with Vanessa and her team to transform the venue into the premier destination for North Lancashire and Cumbria. We have already worked prior to this with the Winter Gardens with our successful Levellers Gig in 2021 and we look forward to bringing the best to the area.”
The Winter Gardens has also received £1.6 million of funding over the last three years from Historic England Theatres Trust, Architectural Heritage Fund, the University of Sheffield, Lancaster City Council, Morecambe Town Council, Lancashire County Council and over 500 individual donors from the public.