This project explores how Surrey and its people responded to the Great War.
In the first two decades of the 20th Century, theatre underwent considerable change. A mixture of variety shows and musicals continued to be extremely popular at theatres in Kingston, Guildford, Croydon, Weybridge, Wimbledon, Richmond and Woking, but as the years went by an increasing number of buildings were converted into cinemas.
Kingston’s “Royal County Theatre” opened on Fife Road in 1897 with a capacity of 1,300 seats. It ran a varied programme of touring shows, often with an orchestra and chorus, six nights every week with a matinee on Wednesdays. Noel Coward had his first experience of pantomime there in 1903. The Kingston Empire followed in 1910, along with the Cinema Palace Theatre on Richmond Road. The latter was soon showing only silent movies however, and by 1912 the Royal County was renamed the “Royal County Theatre Picture Playhouse”. Kelly’s Surrey Directory of 1913 lists no less than 46 cinemas in the county, a number of which had been converted from theatres and music halls.
Many artists joined the ranks of course – over 800 professional actors enlisted during 1914 – and concert parties were formed to entertain the troops at depots, canteen huts and resting stations away from the front line. They were often based on the Pierrot troupes that would have been familiar from music halls and end of the pier shows at home.
The experience of artists during the conflict was reflected in their work after the war. R C Sherriff wrote “Journey’s End” based upon his time on the Western Front serving with the East Surrey Regiment. It is widely regarded as the finest play ever written about the Great War.
Learn more about R C Sherriff – the man behind the play, on the Exploring Surrey’s Past website.