The Architects

The Milburn Brothers architects to Moss Empires in the 1920s

The death in 1920 of Frank Matcham was a significant loss to both Moss Empires and Stoll Theatres. However, another architectural firm headed by the brothers William and Thomas Milburn had been used for some of the new and rebuild projects of the Stoll Moss conglomerate and their contribution to the telling of this story is of great significance.

William and Thomas Milburn were the sons of Captain William Milburn, a ship-owner and shipping surveyor in Sunderland. William was born in 1858. He was articled to John Tillman of Sunderland and remained as assistant, studying at Sunderland School of Art. He commenced independent practice in Sunderland in 1879 at the early age of twenty-one, but appears from his nomination form to have taken what was probably a short career break to study at the South Kensington Schools in 1880.

Thomas was born in 1861 and articled to John Tillman in 1877. He remained as assistant after the end of his articles but spent some time with Liverpool Corporation before setting up in practice in Sunderland in 1884 independently of his brother. Throughout his time with Tillman and at Liverpool he studied in ‘various science and art classes’ and passed the qualifying exam in 1886, being admitted ARIBA on 18 April 1887. His proposers were Tillman, Joseph Hall Morton of South Shields and Thomas Oliver of Sunderland, with whose firm he was shortly to become connected. In 1893 Thomas designed the first of his theatres, the Olympia in Newcastle upon Tyne, in association with Oliver & Leeson, and in 1896-97 William and Thomas merged their practices as W & T R Milburn.

In that same year, 1893, they began their association with the Moss Empires circuit by designing the South Shields Empire Palace for which Frank Matcham was consultant, the experience gained there making them the premier theatre firm in the north of England. On 4 January 1904 William and Thomas were both admitted FRIBA.

They continued working on projects for Moss and Stoll and upon the death of Frank Matcham became the principal architects for all new builds and renovations. In 1925 Thomas Milburn embarked in Southampton for a trip to the United States where he would study the design and construction of the many new theatres and movie palaces being built across the country. His journey took him from New York to Chicago and San Francisco. In particular, he was impressed with the architectural work of Scottish born architect Thomas Lamb, the many new Loews State Theatres, San Francisco’s Fox Theatre and the unique designs of Madison Square Gardens. Many of the concepts became inspiration to the subsequent designs of the Milburn practice.

With the lapse of years, many changes had taken place. Some of the Moss Empire theatres had become obsolete and were required to be reconstructed (such as the Edinburgh, Liverpool and Glasgow Empires), others were sold, but the Company had purchased and erected new theatres from time to time and appropriate sites were always being sought. Having incorporated some of the existing features of the original theatres, the new Liverpool and Edinburgh Empires were opened in 1925 and 1928, since when they have continued a policy of presenting variety, revue and musical plays with notable success. Today the Edinburgh Empire is called the Festival Theatre. The Glasgow Empire was reconstructed and opened in 1931, but sadly closed in 1963. A new site in London adjacent to Oxford Street had been identified as a potential location for a new theatre, the derelict Meux’s brewery occupying a large site accessed from a narrow lane off Tottenham Court Road, the problem would be creating public access. The answer was a run-down cinema, The Court, on Tottenham Court Road and so negotiations began on acquiring the small cinema. The deals weren’t concluded until well into 1928 when the Milburns were engaged by Moss Empires to create a new West End showcase, the Dominion, which opened on 3rd October 1929 to seat 2,800, by which time they were fully occupied on another new Empire this time in Southampton.

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