Morecambe’s Winter Gardens undergoes major restoration ahead of 125th anniversary

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Chair of Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Chair of Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust, on the stage - Credit: Kirsty Thompson

As it prepares to mark its 125th anniversary, Morecambe’s Winter Gardens is the subject of a major restoration project  

When Morecambe’s Winter Gardens opened on July 19, 1897, it was only half finished. And as the Grade II listed theatre celebrates its 125th anniversary, builders have been working there again, on major restoration and repairs. 

Four decades after the whole complex was closed to the public, it’s only the efforts of dedicated volunteers that have ensured its survival, many of whom have personal reasons for wanting to see the building fully operational once again. 

Leading the comeback is Professor Vanessa Toulmin, the Winter Gardens Preservation Trust chair, who was born on her family’s fairground behind the venue. She is now an international expert in film and popular entertainment. 

‘My family were showpeople so I have fairground and performance in my blood,’ said Vanessa. Her aunt was a contortionist who performed on stages including the Winter Gardens and the Moulin Rouge. 

Although she has lived away for almost 40 years, Vanessa was persuaded to be involved with reviving the Winter Gardens during a visit home in 2017. 

The chair of early film and popular entertainment at Sheffield University had already spent seven years as a consultant for Blackpool’s Winter Gardens and worked on the town’s heritage strategy. 

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‘I could have walked away but decided to make a go of it. It’s a labour of love,’ she said. 

After the theatre closed in 1982, the Friends of the Winter Gardens was formed with the indomitable Evelyn Archer at the helm and in 2006, ownership was transferred to the Preservation Trust.

Exterior of Morecambe Winter Gardens

The impressive facade of Morecambe's Winter Gardens - Credit: Kirsty Thompson

Evelyn died in 2019 and under Vanessa’s chairmanship, as a volunteer, the Winter Gardens has received significant funding to begin restoration of the building which originally opened as the Victoria Pavillion Concert Hall and Variety Theatre. 

The 2,500 capacity Winter Gardens, built in nine months, became known as the Albert Hall of the North, playing host to everyone from Edward Elgar to Lawrence Olivier, Julie Andrews to Billy Connolly. 

Millions will be needed to fully restore the venue but much-needed heating has now been installed and in the winter the building was closed to enable further restoration of its historic ceiling. Urgent repairs to the roof and essential building work to the steel trusses in the upper levels were also required. 

Previous work has allowed the theatre to open to the public for occasional shows and events on the ground floor and stalls. Guided tours are also available and last year, more than 11,000 people visited between April and October. 

All the major restoration has been done by professionals but an army of volunteers keep the building regularly maintained. In the past year they have contributed more than 12,000 hours to the Winter Gardens which has been on the Theatres at Risk register since 2006. 

Leading the restoration and maintenance team is Malcolm O’Neil whose first memory of the Winter Gardens was performing at the resort’s famous Music Festival, aged six. Later, as a plumber, he often did jobs at the theatre and eventually began volunteering. 

‘I think it was my destiny to help the Winter Gardens,’ said Malcolm. ‘There’s a nice camaraderie and good humour with the maintenance team. I’m really proud of them, they do an unbelievable job.’  

Among them is former Waring & Gillow’s French polisher, Bernie Gaughran who remembers attending Sunday concerts with his mum at the Winter Gardens, seeing the likes of Shirley Bassey and Matt Munro perform. 

Bernie Gaughran is helping restore the Winter Gardens

Bernie Gaughran is helping restore the Winter Gardens - Credit: Kirsty Thompson

Fellow maintenance man Henry Davis only became aware of the Winter Gardens when he moved to Morecambe from Preesall and became a volunteer. The retired school caretaker, who clears the gutters every fortnight among his other DIY duties, said: ‘There’s no place like this for atmosphere.’ 

The team, who meet twice a week, ensured the building was looking spick and span in time for its Easter re-opening. Other volunteers lead guided tours, help in the café and with fundraising and events. And everyone is looking forward to the 125th anniversary celebrations in July which will include an indoor street party for local children. Other events include Symphonic Ibiza on June 25, and a George Formby Society convention on August 6. Vanessa is also writing a book about the venue.

Henry Davis is part of the volunteer army restoring the beautiful old building

Henry Davis is part of the volunteer army restoring the beautiful old building - Credit: Kirsty Thompson

Longer term, Vanessa says the theatre must pay its way and envisages it as a live music venue. Her dream is to see the Halle Orchestra return to play on the Winter Gardens stage. 

The venue currently has a 900 standing capacity or 500 seated. The circle’s restoration would provide more than 400 seats. 

‘The Winter Gardens was originally a concert hall and must have a purpose,’ Vanessa said. ‘Morecambe needs a visitor economy and the Winter Gardens is a national treasure. We must remind people of that.’ 

* To find out more about the restoration project, go to morecambewintergardens.com.