a celebration of
100 years of federation

Theatre legacy of Mother Town's civic bid

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Historian Fred Hughes writes....

Steve Ball is the inheritor of Malkin’s Folly, a belittling nickname given to Burslem’s 1910 town hall, notable in modern times as the theatre where Robbie Williams made his debut.

Steve tells me it is currently the home of the Queens Theatre Production Society of which he is the chairman.

“We’re a non-profit company that gives entertainment performances for community and family participation. The building belongs to the City but my company maintains it through strong local connections. I honestly think that’s what Sydney Malkin intended when he conceived the idea of Burslem’s second town hall. To me Malkin was a showman and the Queens Hall was his arena. He generated this fantastic dream of Burslem becoming the City’s civic and entertainment centre. And although his town hall proved to be a political letdown I reckon the Queen’s Theatre is still Burslem’s greatest asset.”

The pottery manufacturer Sydney Malkin came to political distinction long after Burslem was granted its own council in 1878.

Malkin's home - Waterloo Road, Cobridge
Malkin's home - Waterloo Road, Cobridge

“Sydney was the son of James Malkin who married the daughter of Joseph Edge, a prominent industrialist with fingers in many pies of Burslem governance,” explains Potteries’ historian Steve Birks. “Whether as a board member of the first gasworks, a shareholder of the infant tram company or a committee member of the Wedgwood Memorial Institute, Joseph Edge was at the forefront. Following his grandfather Sydney became a councillor in 1900 and served as Burslem’s mayor in 1907.”

Malkin showed his rebellious nature at the beginning of the 20th century when all the talk was of Federation. The Sentinel was full of it and Arnold Bennett wrote about its implications in his novel The Old Wives’ Tale published shortly before the event in 1910.

“Malkin was an advocate of Federation which was hostile to the majority of his fellow councillors and civic leaders,” Steve continues.

“Certainly the ‘big four’ authorities, Hanley, Stoke Burslem and Longton had set up Federation committees and Malkin had a seat on the Burslem group. But they couldn’t agree over incorporation and the sharing of the various towns’ assets. For instance Burslem had its own gas and fledgling electricity boards supplying Tunstall as well. It managed its own sewerage disposal and water purification plant, its hospital and public transport system. These were services that had been built up in the heat of Victorian competitiveness, a period that saw Hanley emerging as the principal retail centre.

Arnold Bennett noted this when he compared his Bursley of 1910 with how it had been 30 years earlier.

‘It had all moved to arrogant and pushing Hanbridge, with its electric light and its theatres and its big advertising shops.’

Naturally Burslem’s leaders were worried that after federation trade in Burslem would deteriorate even further. But Malkin saw it differently. He saw the opportunity for Burslem to become the civic centre if only it had the right infrastructure. And that meant exciting buildings.”

It was Malkin who instilled and promoted the audacious idea that Burslem would be the vibrant heart of the new federated borough. And so he hastily commissioned plans to build a new council house opposite the existing town hall. Naturally it met with strong opposition from Burslem’s over-cautious aldermen, powerful leaders like president of the chamber of commerce Warwick Savage. Nevertheless Malkin had his way.

“There little doubt Malkin hijacked the situation,” says Steve. “A poll in Burslem in 1903 had resulted in a massive six-to-one against federation. But 4 years on in 1907, as a result of Malkin’s’s campaigning, a referendum in Burslem narrowed the gap with 2,074 now voting for federation and 3,240 against.

And yet the rallying cry of the anti-federationists ‘To Die Fighting!’ remained the loudest.”

Despite this Malkin continued with his grand folly and the new town hall and Queens Theatre was built on wasteland once occupied by an old wooden theatre popularised by Arnold Bennett as the Blood Tub. The foundation stone was laid in March 1910, just 14 days before the new federated borough came into operation.

“It was an amazing and laughable situation because Fred Geen was miles ahead with his improvements at Stoke developing his new council chamber and the spectacular Kings Hall,” says Steve. “But even at this late stage Malkin must have assumed there was still a chance for Burslem.
In fact the first council meetings were held at the North Stafford Hotel until it was finally decided that Stoke would be the new civic centre.
And yet it was Malkin’s folly that at least gave Burslem a brand new theatre that seated 2000 including the smaller Princes Hall.”

The building hosted the magistrate’s courts and a number of conference rooms. And throughout the rest of the century the Queens Hall remained in popular public use with dances and theatrical productions.

“The auditorium is a fantastic space,” concludes Steve Ball. “It remains an integral part of Burslem’s regeneration plans. But the town’s infrastructure needs attention first. If regeneration is accomplished then the Mother Town will have a regional attraction and be rid of the name Malkin’s Folly for good.” 


Malkin's Folly - Queen's Hall, Burslem
Malkin's Folly - Queen's Hall, Burslem

The foundation stone was laid in March 1910, just 14 days before the new federated borough came into operation.

photo: Feb 2001


more on  Sydney Malkin

see the battle for the federation town hall

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26 Jan 2009