Historical Significance or Value:
The Theatre Royal, Nelson is the oldest of three purpose-built New Zealand nineteenth-century theatres still being used for their original purpose. While it is not as large or ornate as some historic theatres on the NZHPT Register, it is distinguished from most other registered theatres by its age, its timber construction and continuous use as a theatre. Most other theatres on the register are of masonry construction or have been adaptively reused.
While in many ways representative of theatre history in New Zealand, it has outstanding historical significance in that it is the oldest continuously used purpose-built theatre in the country.
Aesthetic Significance or Value:
The exterior of the Theatre Royal is a relatively simple two-storey wooden structure, but upon entering the auditorium the special atmosphere of a Victorian theatre is felt. The dress circle, in particular, is a reminder of past grandeur, with its red and gold seats. The decorated panelled ceiling and walls, with embossed paper, and the chandeliers on the metal roses make a significant visual impact on entering the auditorium.
Architectural Significance or Value:
The Theatre Royal has architectural significance as a rare surviving example of a Victorian timber theatre. Its subsequent changes, for example adding the fly tower and projection box in the early 1900s, illustrate how the building was adapted to meet new, or improve on existing, functions. The auditorium is of important architectural value. Comparing historic photographs with current photographs shows the same layout and similar decorative scheme.
Cultural Significance or Value:
The Theatre Royal, as a purpose built live performance venue, is of special heritage significance as a culturally significant building to the people of Nelson. It has over 130 years of association with prominent performers and local citizens who have acted as benefactors and trustees. It has been used for a great variety of live performances, movies, and public events, such as political meetings and talks. Changing activities reflect changing tastes and developments in entertainment since the nineteenth century. Plays and musical performances of various kinds have been staple productions over its history, while events such as boxing matches and vaudeville shows were more popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similar to some other theatres at the time, it became a venue for showing movies early in the twentieth century; but perhaps earlier than many other theatres, stopped doing this in the 1930s.
Social Significance or Value:
As a performance venue for over 130 years (apart from when closed for refurbishment) the theatre provides a vital social centre to the community. At a number of times in its history, the theatre has been in danger of closing or being sold for other purposes, but has managed to survive largely due to outstanding community support. The Nelson Repertory Society members took out debentures to enable the purchase of the building in 1944 (this must have been particularly difficult during World War Two) and then undertook an upgrade of the building. In the 1970s another fund raising effort was made to enable a centennial refurbishment, and the most recent refurbishment also required community fund raising in addition to local Council and government support. As further evidence of the Theatre Royal’s importance to the community, all the 350 theatre seats were ‘sponsored’, mostly by local individuals and businesses.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:
The Theatre Royal directly reflects the importance of live performance venues in the nineteenth century, and changes in entertainment since then. Over its 130 year history, the Theatre Royal has hosted a wide variety of performances and events; including plays, musical recitals, operas, bell ringing, magic lantern shows, hypnotists, acrobats, dancers, movies, and occasional boxing and wrestling matches. It has also hosted political meetings, lectures, and patriotic events during or shortly after both World Wars.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place:
The Nelson community has a strong association with the theatre going back 130 years. The opening night of the Theatre Royal in 1878 attracted approxi-mately one-sixth of the Nelson population. At several critical times in its history, fund raising efforts have been needed either to enable purchase or refurbish-ment of the building to keep it as a functioning theatre. Prominent local citizens have been part of these efforts. The theatre has also been a venue for per-formances to benefit other local organisations, such as schools, sports clubs and the RSA. As such, it is of outstanding heritage significance for its community association.
(f) The potential of the place for public education:
Theatres hold an important place in New Zealand history, as a venue for the community to come together for entertainment. The interpretation panel now outside the Theatre Royal explains some of the important events in the area and in the theatre’s history as well as displaying some historic photos.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:
The Theatre Royal, Nelson is a rare survivor of a nineteenth-century purpose built theatre - even rarer for being built of timber and still used for its original purpose. Its auditorium has retained much of its original character and some of its historic fabric. While the other parts of the building have been rebuilt, the front façade has been returned to a close resemblance of how it looked in the early 1900s. The theatre makes a significant contribution to New Zealand’s heritage of timber architecture.
Summary of Significance or Values:
This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, e, f and j.
It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.
The Theatre Royal, Nelson is considered to have outstanding significance as it is the oldest purpose-built New Zealand nineteenth-century theatre still being used for its original purpose. It is also one of only two nineteenth century wooden theatres to survive as theatres. Its continued use over 130 years for a wide variety of live performances or events also gives it national significance. The changes to the building reflect the changing tastes in entertainment and also increased expectations and standards in comfort and functionality. It has special significance in Nelson, and on a number of occasions the local community has rallied to raise money to save or refurbish the building to keep it functioning as a theatre.
The settlement of the Nelson region is said to have begun with the founding ancestor of the Waitaha iwi, Rakaihautu, landing in the waka Uruao. When Ngati Māmoe and Ngai Tahu later intermarried with Waitaha, they were absorbed into the genealogy of that tribe. It was because of an abundance of resources, such as stone for adzes, and food, that the district is said to have been ‘one of the most fought over in New Zealand.’
The European association with the area began in 1642 when Abel Tasman anchored in what was to be called Murderer’s, then Massacre, and now Golden Bay. This first visit led to a lethal exchange between the Dutch sailors and members of Ngati Tumatakokiri. Following exploratory visits in the later eighteenth century from Captain James Cook and early nineteenth century by Dumont D’Urville, flax traders and sealers began to frequent the coast around Nelson. However, there was no substantive European settlement until the New Zealand Company’s establishment and settlement of Nelson from 1841.
Nelson was chosen as the nucleus for settlement, despite the generally swampy nature of the low lying areas, because of its harbour and the plentiful supplies of game and fish. Captain Arthur Wakefield negotiated a land deal with various iwi of the region; although subsequent events demonstrated the discrepancies in what each party believed they had agreed to. This led to several instances of conflict in the Nelson region during the 1840s, including the ‘Wairau Affray’ in 1843, during which Arthur Wakefield was killed.
In the early days of settlement, the arts and other cultural activities in Nelson were understandably not a main concern. However, as the quality of life of the majority of the population progressed past subsistence level, performing arts groups were formed and concert events staged. Some early examples of this include a short-lived philharmonic group and the Amateur Musical Society, both started in 1853. In 1860 a Harmonic Society formed and survived for 95 years. In 1868 it could afford to build its own small Practise of Harmonic Hall, sited on what is now the forecourt of the Rutherford Hotel. By the 1870s there was a performance of some variety for people to enjoy most nights, whether it was a concert, a theatrical performance, or a public lecture or reading.
The Theatre Royal:
The Theatre Royal was built in 1878 next to the Oddfellows’ Lodge and members of the Loyal Howard and Loyal Nelson Oddfellows’ Lodges took up debentures in the project, providing the necessary finance. The theatre was described as the Oddfellows’ new hall by the reviewer in the Nelson Evening Mail.
The theatre was designed by William Bethwaite of Bethwaite and Robertson, and built by Mr C W Moore in 1878. The original building was clad in rough-sawn lapped weather boards and the front façade was rusticated weather boards. The upper front façade had three double-hung windows with semi-circular heads, while the lower façade had three sets of double panel doors with curved heads. The original veranda was accessed from the head of the main stair, and featured a central extension out to the Rutherford Street curb. The roof was corrugated iron and small turrets covered ventilation vents. The stage originally had a bow front, and sets of two Corinthian columns, sloping inwards, framed the stage. These had decoration between them and the proscenium had embossed paper decoration.
The Colonist described the building as it neared completion in May 1878:
‘The exterior of the Theatre, which is built entirely of wood, is conspicuous more for its plain and serviceable-looking appearance than for embellishment, but its sightliness is fully sufficient to attract attention ... In the front...are the stalls, which will consist of 10 tiers arranged in the centre, and these will afford accommodation for about 150 persons. Behind the stalls are ‘front seats’ arranged with a centre gangway, and there will be sitting room for about 250. Beneath the gallery will be the cheapest part of the house, where seats will be provided for about 200. The gallery will wisely be devoted to dress circle, holding some 200; it will therefore be seen that the new Theatre will accommodate something like 800 persons. It will be observed, as being very desirable, that with these arrangements, ill-behaved boys or men cannot hide themselves in a gallery, where they would not be subject to inspection, for the purpose of annoying the more decent members of the community.’
The Theatre Royal opening night was held on Thursday 18 July 1878 with about 1,000 people attending. There was bench seating on the ground level. Mr Neville Thornton was responsible for painting eight stage sets, and also gave the opening address on the first night. As the theatre seated about 800 it was a substantial building in a town with a population at the time of about 6,000, reflecting the keen local interest in music and theatrical performances.
The theatre flourished in the days when travelling companies visited all the small centres. A variety of entertainment was provided at the theatre - including plays, farces, bell ringing and magic lantern shows. In 1894 the Nelson School of Music opened, which provided a competing venue to the Theatre Royal and its profitability began to decline. The theatre was sold in the early 1900s to Harry Saunders, who carried out extensive alterations, including adding a projection box for screening movies; this had an external side entry. Other alterations at this time included removing the veranda, adding a lean-to extension to the foyer in the central area and changing the main doors. The circle seating rake was increased, side corridors added and ‘boxes’ built within these. The fly tower, used to support the rigging and raising and lowering of set-pieces and backdrops, was added above the stage. The dress circle seating was purchased second-hand from an English theatre in about 1904.
Saunders continued to put on a wide variety of entertainments, from hypnotists, acrobats, plays, concerts, dancers and even occasional boxing and wrestling matches. For example, the annual tournament of the Nelson Amateur Boxing Association was held there from at least 1910 to 1912, promising some ‘very interesting and scientific displays’ to an expected crowded house. Performances were sometimes given to benefit local groups, such as one for the Nelson Cricket Club in 1905 and another for the Nelson Technical School in 1911. An unusual entertainment was provided by Macdermott’s Micro-Bio-Scope Company and Professor Scott at the theatre in 1905. A concert at the theatre by Clara Butt and Kennerley Rumford in 1908 occasioned such enthusiasm that the performers were afterwards accompanied by a cheering crowd to their hotel.
The theatre has also been used for many public talks, such as political meetings by electoral candidates and protest meetings. In 1923, 24 of the scientists who had been in Wellington for a science congress went on to Nelson, perhaps mainly to visit the Cawthron Institute, but while there Sir Douglas Mawson addressed a crowded gathering on Antarctica at the Theatre Royal.
In 1910, Henry John Hayward (1865–1945) leased the building to show movies; the Colonist announcing that the public could expect a ‘first class entertainment’; the three ticket prices being one shilling and sixpence (reserve); one shilling; and sixpence. Haywards’ Enterprises ran over 30 cinemas in New Zealand by 1912. When movies were first shown, the City Council’s steam road roller - placed in a pit between the theatre and adjoining lodge building - provided the power. After a few years, the theatre had its own steam plant. Movies continued to be shown until 1936, by which time newer cinemas were competing more successfully.
The Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society aimed to present one opera and one comedy each year at the theatre; with most of the productions also being taken to Blenheim. Among the productions was ‘The Runaway Girl’ in 1913. However, the Depression caused the Society to go into recess and it was replaced by the Nelson Repertory Club, formed in 1934.
During World War One many patriotic meetings and fund raising events were held at the theatre. Similarly, after World War Two a seven-night revue ‘Hello Victory’ was held in aid of the Returned Services Association (RSA) building fund; and the concert section of the RSA (the Tin Hat Club) staged their annual revues at the theatre.
The Nelson Repertory Club became an incorporated society in 1944 to purchase the theatre from Mr Noel Jones, who had advertised his intention of selling the seats and turning the theatre into a joinery factory. The purchase price was ₤2,250 - the building costing ₤1,700 and the seating ₤550. The seating comprised 290 ‘modern seats’ and 110 ‘plush’ seats of an older style (these are the dress circle seats). Members of the Nelson Repertory Society Inc took out debentures to enable the purchase and once these had been paid off they began an upgrade of the building.
The 1960s saw a decline in theatre audiences as television took hold in households - this was a typical pattern everywhere, and also affected cinemas, with many closing. The Theatre Royal building was also becoming run down, with a flood in 1970, caused by inadequate drainage, leaving the orchestra members’ chairs in six inches of water. Alterations were carried out in the mid-1970s at the time of the building’s centennial - including removing the projection box and restyling the front façade with three round-top neo-Georgian windows and multi-paned lower façade out to the footpath boundary, thus enclosing the space beneath the veranda.
Fund-raising to restore the building began in the late 1990s. In 1999 actors Dame Kate Harcourt and Miranda Harcourt, after performing at the theatre, wrote in support of restoration efforts: ‘your theatre is a valuable community asset which brings touring companies to Nelson... It’s a perfect size, acoustic and shape and retains aspects of its original décor. As to these elements of your theatre don’t change a thing!’
The theatre closed in December 2005 as such major maintenance was needed that it was no longer possible to get a licence to operate the building as a theatre. Ownership was transferred to the Nelson Historic Theatre Trust, who spearheaded a fund raising campaign for the upgrade of the building. Major refurbishment began in 2008 and the theatre reopened on 31 May 2010, with a gala opening festival from May 31 to June 13. The refurbishment cost approximately $6.5 million, which was largely paid for with government and council grants and loans, and community fund raising efforts. It now seats approximately 350. As part of the fundraising all of the seats were sponsored by local individuals and groups, whose names are marked by a small plaque on the underside of the seat - the sponsorship cost being $750 for downstairs seats and $1,000 for dress circle seats. A list of sponsors is displayed in the south corridor. The auditorium looks much as it has always been, but the stage, fly tower, back stage facilities and front-of-house have been rebuilt. The raked stage was replaced with a level one. In and around the auditorium, care was taken to restore as much of the heritage fabric as possible and only replace what was necessary. The façade was remodelled, with extra windows installed on the ground level to open it up to the street.
In its first year since reopening, the theatre had approximately 42,000 audience members to its various performances.
The theatre was designed by William Affleck Bethwaite of Bethwaite and Robertson. William Bethwaite was born in England in 1838 and arrived in Nelson in 1858 according to notices at the time of his death in 1921. In 1882 he built an extension to All Saints Church in Vanguard Street, next to his own two-storied house. The theatre was built by Mr C W Moore, builder, of Hardy Street, Nelson.
Setting and Exterior:
The Theatre Royal is located in Rutherford Street, Nelson; a busy arterial road a block to the west of the main Trafalgar Street. The street direction runs north-south, with the theatre facing east. It is mainly a commercial area. To the south side of the theatre is an army drill hall and parade grounds, while on the north side is a concrete commercial building currently occupied by Beaurepaires. More commercial buildings are located opposite. There is an interpretation panel about the theatre located outside, and nearby a small sign in the footpath proclaims ‘Shoreline 1840’. The back of the theatre can be accessed from Vanguard Street; the access way being located opposite All Saints Church (Registered Category I, Record number 251) and the theatre architect William Bethwaite’s former house (now commercial premises).
The theatre is a two-storey timber building with the traditional theatre symbol of two masks (symbolising tragedy and comedy) decorating the façade at its apex under the gable. The veranda, with six decorative posts, extends nearly to the edge of the footpath. Lights have been installed in the footpath in front of each post to light the building at night. The lower level front façade has three sets of double doors giving access to the foyer, with arc-headed fanlights above, and large windows between the doors (a new feature to make the theatre more visible from the street and lighten the foyer). The upper level has three round-top neo-Georgian windows in the same place as, and emulating, the original three, with doors on each side giving access to the veranda. The painted surrounds of the windows on the lower level are designed to match those above. The wooden façade is mainly brown, with some pink, mustard gold and white for the barge boards, door and window surrounds and the decorative fretwork under the veranda eaves.
The new building containing the stage, fly tower and back stage facilities can not be seen from the front, but is visible from the sides and back of the theatre. Four ventilation turrets were put back on the roof; two were repaired originals and two smaller ones were reconstructions. One of the original turrets was damaged as it was being put back in place.
The front entrance leads into the foyer. Inside the foyer, four wooden columns match the veranda posts in style and paint scheme. Upon entering, the ticket box, cloak check and manager’s office are directly in front; these also have four columns in the same style and colour. The ceiling and panelled walls are painted soft green with umber and green trim. The original main staircase to the dress circle on the south side of the foyer has been retained but turned 90 degrees from its original placement to now run parallel to the outside wall, to create more space in the foyer. A former secondary steep staircase on the north has been replaced with one that meets the current building code.
The recent refurbishment extended the building on its south boundary to allow more room for toilet facilities, and more foyer space. A bar is located on this side of the foyer. The former central entrance into the ground floor stalls is no longer extant - entrance to these seats is now from the original double doors on the north and south sides of the auditorium, approached from corridors off each side of the foyer. The front entrance was closed off to allow room for a desk to manage lighting and audio for shows, and for removable seating. The internal wall of the north corridor shows the original exterior wall. Just beyond the auditorium entrance doors in the north corridor is a control room with various electronic equipment for stage productions.
The auditorium has a ground level (stalls) with 240 tiered seats and a dress circle above containing 110 seats. The circle is supported by a pair of chamfered reeded posts. The parapet at the front of the dress circle has been restored and repainted. The parapet panelling has diamond inserts and circular central decals. This panelling extends about three metres to each side across the front of an enclosed box. The auditorium colour scheme is predominantly in shades of pinks and beiges, red and gold. A frieze recreated from fragments and photos of the original extends along the walls from the back of the dress circle to just below the proscenium arch of the stage. Below the frieze, the walls of the auditorium are decorated with discrete panels and wood panelling along the bottom. New embossed wallpaper was also hand-made by local artisans to match original hand-painted wallpaper that was uncovered. Many artists, artisans and members of the community contributed their skills and time to the restoration project.
The auditorium has a coved ceiling with a square dome let into it over the dress circle. The ceiling has embossed paper on scrim and panelled design work. In the 1960s the Repertory Society elected to install sprinklers instead of re-lining with Gibraltar board. One large ornate rose of pressed metal mounted on wood with a chandelier is in the centre, with two smaller roses and chandeliers to both sides and another above the dress circle. The four chandeliers were created during the refurbishment, using the existing 1970s light fittings supplemented with other sourced materials.
The dress circle seating of 110 plush red seats with ornate gold-painted wrought-iron decoration was also refurbished. This seating was purchased about 1900 second-hand from England and is believed to be much older than the theatre itself. This seating was restored in the recent refurbishment; during which the Project Manager asked in the local media for the return of any old seats - at some stage it seems some were removed.
A new three-storey tilt slab concrete structure forms the stage, fly tower, and orchestra pit, plus the dressing, meeting, wardrobe and rehearsal rooms, replacing the former single storey with a lean-to structure. Prior to the recent refurbishment the theatre had a rare sloping stage, but as this was difficult for dancers, actors and props, the stage was built level in the refurbishment.
Behind the stage are a ‘back stage’ open area, two dressing rooms, shower and toilets. The floor above has two further dressing rooms, a wardrobe room, and toilet facilities. The third floor has rehearsal space. The fly tower, which allows for props and sets to be raised, extends high above the stage. The basement below the stage has one large ‘band room’, the orchestra pit and two small store rooms. The basement was painted in 2010 by the Canterbury Rugby Union team, whose members also signed a wall.
The NZHPT Register records several theatres that were built in the nineteenth century; however only three were purpose built as theatres and have continued to be used for that purpose. The Theatre Royal, Nelson is the oldest of the three. The other two are the Odeon, Christchurch - a masonry building built in 1883 - which has a Category I registration (Record number 3140); and the Wanganui Opera House - a timber building constructed in 1899/1900 - which also has a Category I registration (Record number 169).
Those older than the Theatre Royal, Nelson include the Globe Theatre, Dunedin - but this comprises a house built in 1867 and the theatre, which was built in 1961 (Category I, record number 3177); the Fortune Theatre, Dunedin was built in 1869, but as a church (it was only converted to a theatre from 1977 – Category I, record number 3378); the Theatre Royal (Former), Christchurch was built in 1876 (of timber) but was only used as a theatre for a few decades and then converted to warehouse use (Category II, record number 3706); and the Theatre Royal, Timaru, built in stone prior to 1877 as a store and opened as a theatre in 1877 with the present auditorium, fly tower and dressing rooms added in 1911 (Category II, record number 5393).
Therefore the Theatre Royal, Nelson, is a rare surviving example of a Victorian wooden theatre that has continued to be used for its original purpose.
Theatre constructed; opened 18 July 1878
Bench seating on the ground floor replaced by tip seats, gallery (dress circle) altered to a more steeply raked gallery and new (second hand) seating installed; fly tower, boxes and corridors constructed. Front façade altered with veranda removed; front doors extended to footpath edge under a lean-to extension, and projection box added.
New entrance on southern façade created
North-west corner piles replaced; building extended to create more backstage and storage facilities
Repiling under the stage with concrete piles; reflooring of stage
Northern fire escape constructed
1976 - 1977
Front façade changed: projection box removed, foyer area enlarged and stalls reduced in size; auditorium painted.
Concrete block workshop constructed on south side of building
Fly tower re-roofed
2008 - 2010
Major renovations carried out – front façade and foyer area altered; auditorium refurbished; new building constructed for fly tower, stage and backstage functions.
2021 - 2021
Refurbishments included repainting and a new gender-neutral toilet
Timber, concrete, Colorsteel.
5th October 2011
Report Written By
Vivienne Morrell / Karen Astwood
B and S Hayward, Cinemas of Auckland 1896-1979, Auckland, 1979
Jim McAloon, Nelson: A Regional History, Whatamango Bay, 1997
J and H Mitchell, Te Tau Ihu o te Waka - A History of Maori of Marlborough and Nelson, Wellington, 2004
New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)
New Zealand Historic Places Trust
Palmer, John, ‘Theatre Royal Conservation Plan’, Palmer & Palmer Architects Ltd, 16 February 2001. NZHPT Central Region library building reports, LIB 8883
J N W Newport, A short history of the Nelson Province, RW Stiles ad Co Ltd, Nelson, 1966
Nelson Provincial Museum
Nelson Provincial Museum
‘The theatre in Nelson’ Nelson Evening Mail, 2 November 1946. Sourced from Nelson Provincial Museum ‘HPT files’.
Clark, Karen, ‘Curtain Up’, Heritage New Zealand, Autumn 2010
A fully referenced report is available from the Central Region office of NZHPT.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.