Marlborough Theatre history – from cinema to communist hangout

PUBLISHED: 15:51 04 October 2018 | UPDATED: 09:42 05 October 2018

The Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road, in 1903. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.

The Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road, in 1903. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.


A celebrated theatre architect unveiled his “cynosure of all eyes” in the Nag’s Head on October 5, 1903.

The Marlborough Theatre IN 1903. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.The Marlborough Theatre IN 1903. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.

It went on to be a cinema, a communist meeting point and it’s now part of City and Islington College.

Robert Matcham’s Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road, opened to a week of performances from The Carla Rosa Opera Company.

The venue, which was owned and managed by William Purrell, went on to showcase musical comedy, variety shows and pantomimes, before being converted into a cinema in 1918.

Julie Melrose, an archivist at Islington’s Local History Centre, told the Gazette: “There were two big theatres at the time, The Marlborough and The Finsbury Park Empire – and they were both designed by Frank Matcham.

The Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road,  has since been demolished. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.The Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road, has since been demolished. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.

“He was a world renowned theatre designer, so it was very lucky to have two of his works in the north of the borough.

“This was important because most of the existing entertainment options were around the Angel area.

“It made Nags head more significant and definitely helped it become a go-to area.”

In a report on the Marlborough opening in 1903, the Gazette noted: “The handsome new theatre Frank Matcham has erected was the cynosure of all eyes.

A programme from a variety show performance at The Marlborough Theatre. Picture: Islington Local History CentreA programme from a variety show performance at The Marlborough Theatre. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“A large crowd assembled outside and surveyed the brilliantly-lighted exterior with a great deal of pleasure.”

Mr Matcham was involved in the construction and design of 90 theatres, including the Hippodrome, Hackney Empire, London Palladium and the Victoria Palace.

He also redesigned Sadlers Wells theatre in 1931.

The Marlborough, which is estimated to have cost Mr Purrell between £30,000 to £40,000 to build, opened with a capacity of 2,612 people.

But this was reduced to 1,685 after the venue was purchased by Odeon Theatres Ltd in 1942.

Julie added: “It would have been popular with working class people because of its fun entertainment.

“But by the 40s and 50s cinema was beginning to take theatres place, which eventually led to both the Marlborough and Finsbury Park Empire closing down, which is a shame.”

Notable performers to appear at the theatre include Charles Wyndham, Martin Harvey, Florence Smithson, Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton.

But despite transforming into the Marlborough Picture House in 1918, the venue only played silent movies until 1929.

It’s first film with sound was Al Jolson’s Singing Fool.

A Mr S. Petty, of Biddlestone Road, Holloway, recounted his memories of working at the theatre in 1955.

Mr Petty told the North London Press, which has since gone out of print, that he started working at the theatre in 1916 as a 13-year-old boy.

Reflecting on the variety performances of the time, he said: “I well remember the act performed by a strong man from Australia who balanced a woman on a pole which rested on a chair. He knocked the pole away and caught the lady with both arms.”

In the same year, then manager Herbert Wicks said: “I have been greatly intrigued by stories about various old time actors who captivated audiences in this theatre.”

“I would like to hear from people who can help me through some light on the Marlborough’s historic past.”

The cinema shut-down in August 1957, and its last screenings were The Heart Within and Hells Drivers.

But, despite its closure, the old theatre continued to attract crowds and drama.

The dormant Marlborough featured in the film Gideons Day starring Jack Hawkins, in 1958.

Cops then dispersed an open-air meeting where a communist candidate was speaking about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1961, as reported by the Gazette the week it happened.

John Moss, who was running for MP in the former constituency of South West Islington gave a 10 minute address – but then officers from Cally Road Police Station arrived and moved him on, citing public safety concerns.

Mr Moss proceeded to come third in the 1964 election, taking 5.1 per cent of the vote.

But, by this point, the Marlborough had already been demolished in 1962.

It has been replaced with City and Islington College’s centre for health, social and child care, which is called Marlborough House in homage to the theatre.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Islington Gazette visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Islington Gazette staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Islington Gazette account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest Islington News Stories

Fri, 17:28

Islington became the first council to pass a motion of no confidence in the government’s flagship social welfare reform last night.

Fri, 15:13

Councillors met with pupils from a Finsbury primary school to celebrate a commitment to resettle 100 asylum-seeking children over the next 10 years.

Fri, 13:23

Marks and Spencer’s bid to sell alcohol every day from 8am at a new Archway store has angered police and Islington Council due to the high number of street drinkers in the area – but the shop says it doesn’t stock the kind of booze that attracts alcoholics.

Thu, 17:32

Highbury Leisure Centre is to be partially reopened on Monday – but the building that went up in flames is to be demolished and it’s unknown who will foot the bill for repairs.

Thu, 14:36

Councillors will clash over the best way to influence a Brexit negotiations they have no direct control over at a town hall meeting tonight (Thu).

Thu, 14:21

A Canonbury street artist known as “the man behind the easel” is having his work exhibited – in the local pub.

Thu, 10:08

Police are appealing for the public’s help to find a missing Islington mother.

Thu, 08:02

More than 50 volunteers scoured the roads of Islington to count rough sleepers and create a “snapshot” of the borough’s street homeless population on Friday.

Promoted Content

Fostering older teenagers means giving them the skills for life as an adult. Here, a supportive lodgings carer with Islington Council and young adult who has left care share their stories

Newsletter Sign Up

Islington Gazette twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists

Digital Edition


Enjoy the
Islington Gazette
e-edition today


Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now