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A guest post by London Historians Member Richard Tincknell.

What do these two things have in common? Well, the answer is very simple: Wimbledon Theatre.

The Wimbledon Theatre was designed in the Renaissance style by Cecil Massey and Roy Young. With a tower in one corner topped by a dome on top of which stands the Roman goddess Laetitia (goddess of gaiety) standing on top of a globe. The theatre opened under the management of JB Mulholland on Boxing Day 1910 to the Pantomime Jack & Jill. The pantomime tradition would become a regular feature each year and has even been broadcast from here on numerous occasions.

Wimbledon Theatre, 1914

Wimbledon Theatre, 1914. Image: The Theatres Trust.

The theatre was very popular in the inter-war period with acts like Gracie Fields, Sybil Thorndike, Ivor Novello and Noel Coward all performing. In 1945 comedy duo Laurel and Hardy performed for one week and Marlene Dietrich had her last ever UK performance here in 1975.

Novello, Coward, Laurel, Hardy, Dietrich.

Novello, Coward, Laurel, Hardy, Dietrich.

The theatre fell into severe financial difficulties around 2003 and was forced to close but through discussions with various local councillors, producers and companies a deal was reached with Ambassador Theatre Group. This is when the name changed to the New Wimbledon Theatre. It has since gone on to host large touring productions.

What is little known though is the secret that lies beneath.

A Victorian style Turkish bath. Unfortunately there is very little written about the baths. Although considering that they could be accessed through the theatre itself via a several doorways off the lobby we can assume that the main use was intended mainly for male theatre workers and actors as there were no female toilet facilities. Also, we do not know whether members of the public were permitted to use these facilities as there was no mention in advertisements or otherwise of it in the local directories. One local paper at the time thought that the opening was very interesting in the way that the heating from the baths could be transferred into the theatre itself.

There are Turkish baths on part of the site occupied by the theatre and as a series of ducts from the hot rooms have been arranged connecting with gratings in the floors and walls of the theatre, so that in the event of the climate playing one of their sudden pranks with which it afflicts us, the temperature can be raised from 40 to 60 degrees in 15 minutes. (Wimbledon and District Gazette 24 Dec 1910)

As Malcolm Shifrin says on his web site www.victorianturkishbath.org (This is a brilliant place to go for those seeking to understand the venue better.): “Contemporary theatregoers must have hoped that the Turkish bath was empty of sweating bathers while the theatre temperature was being raised in this manner.”

When the theatre closed in 1938 the baths stopped too and remained closed when the theatre eventually re-opened after the war. The current usage is as a nightclub with access via the former shops on the Broadway.

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