At the time that Europeans arrived in Moreton Bay, the Clarence Corner area had a vastly different appearance to today. Numerous creeks descended from surrounding hills into wetlands. Woolloongabba was called One Mile Swamp by early European settlers and the swamp extended along the path of today’s Annerley Road, where the Princess Theatre is located. Woolloongabba was a culturally significant area with one of the district’s largest habitual camps located nearby. There were tree fork burials, and a pullen-pullen or tournament site. Several bora rings were located on the hill behind where the theatre now stands (see my post Holy Hawthorne Street).
After free European settlement commenced in 1842, the land was surveyed and divided into large portions for sale. In 1856, Thomas Grenier purchased a 7 acre block at what is today Clarence Corner.
A theatre is born
In 1887, Philip Hardgrave, a Brisbane solicitor, purchased a subdivision of Grenier’s block, by then owned by William Pettigrew. Probably in partnership with his father John, Hardgrave planned to build a hall on the land. A group calling itself the Boggo Road Hall Syndicate was formed to facilitate its operation.
The location was close to the horse drawn tram line which commenced service down Stanley Street in 1885. Omnibuses passed the door on their way down Boggo, later Annerley, Road (see my post Brisbane’s Omnibuses ). This, in addition to the steady growth in nearby suburbs, gave rise to a belief that a hall would be a profitable investment.
One journalist commented that “the hall will be suitable for balls, public meetings, lectures, theatrical and musical entertainments; and there is little doubt that the enterprise of its promoters will be amply rewarded.“
Architect John Beauchamp Nicholson’s Italianate design incorporated a façade with Ionic and Doric pilasters, a projecting portico and a mansard roof.
Ventilation and fire escapes received special attention.
The stage was wider than those of most existing theatres in Brisbane and seating was in excess of 800. There were 6 dressing rooms under the stage. Two street front shops were included.
Other surviving works of John Nicholson include the Norman Hotel and Heaslop’s store at the corner of Stanley Street and Logan Road. Thomas Heaslop was a member of the hall syndicate. The theatre was constructed by Blain Cunningham for £5,220 and opened in April of 1889 with a performance given by the Hansom Cab Dramatic Society.
One early concert at the hall was that given by the newly formed South Brisbane Musical Society’s orchestra and choir, directed by Seymour Dicker, organist at St John’s cathedral. The governor Sir Henry and Lady Norman were met by a guard of honour formed by volunteers of the Brisbane Rifles.
In 1893, the title to the property passed from Philip Hardgrave to his father John, a Brisbane boot seller, alderman and mayor. He was also the largest shareholder and chairman of the South Brisbane Hall Company which was formed in 1890 by the original syndicate members. The company seems to have been responsible for fitting out the theatre and its subsequent management.
The Boggo Road Theatre
From 1892, the hall was known as the Boggo Road Theatre. A wide range of activities such as concerts, vaudeville, political meetings, tableaux vivants, magic lantern shows, amateur theatre and dances were held there.
One unusual event was the 1894 draughts contest between North and South Brisbane, with over 200 players competing. South Brisbane won by 6 games. As the decade progressed, the theatre’s use became less frequent and confined mainly to such one off events for schools, churches and clubs.
Boggo Road failed to become one of Brisbane’s mainstream theatres. It was hampered by the loss of the only bridge across the river in the 1893 flood (see my post The Fascinating Story of the First Victoria Bridge). Later, the temporary and permanent replacement bridges both had a toll.
A world wide roller skating craze reached Brisbane in the 1880s and large crowds flocked to rinks. There is occasional mention of roller skating at the theatre, but again it failed to become a major venue.
In 1894, the Salvation Army held services in the theatre associated with a visit to Brisbane of Commissioner Coombs. Following ongoing use of the building, they took out a one year lease for 1897. Other mentions of use of the theatre disappear for the next few years, suggesting that the walls resounded to the sounds of the Salvo’s brass bands for some years. .
Commissioner Coombs and a “Day With God” in 1895.
The South Brisbane Hall Company was voluntarily wound up in 1895. Only £2,424 had been called up, with £1,712 unpaid in the prevailing difficult economic conditions. The company’s theatre equipment was sold just before the building passed to a new owner.
A journalist at the time commented that the hall had been intended to serve as a roller skating rink as well as a hall and theatre, but “in no one of these capacities was it a success”.
The clothing factory and a fire
In 1899 the theatre, along with around one and a quarter acres (5,000 square metres) of land, was purchased by Thomas Finney. He and his partner James Isles purchased a small store in Fortitude Valley after arriving from Ireland in 1862. The firm of Finney, Isles and Co. grew steadily and became a household name in Brisbane.
As was common at the time, the company had its own manufacturing facilities, which needed expansion. The theatre was fitted out for use as a clothing factory. Finney did not share a common belief that the proposed federation of Australian colonies would adversely affect Queensland industry.
The factory operated until 1902. It seems that Finney may have had second thoughts as in 1901, Isles, Love and Co. were considering the idea of purchasing the theatre for conversion to public swimming baths. Finney died in 1903, and the property eventually was transferred to the Finney, Isles Company.
From that year, the building was occupied by a discount clothing retail firm which traded under the name of the “Direct Importing Association”, also known as the “Drapery Theatre”.
They advertised heavily in newspapers and on omnibuses with the slogan “To the DIA, one penny” and introduced innovations such as phonograph entertainment on Friday evenings. This enterprise closed around 1903. The theatre was then hired sporadically for events.
It’s probable that the building was unoccupied for several years as there are no entries in the Post Office Directories for 1905 and 1906. In 1907, John Dent took over operation of the clothing workshop facilities.
Two years later, the building came close to burning down. The evidence presented at the subsequent enquiry indicated that a fire started after the last employees of the clothing workshop left at around 9pm. It was thought that the cause was a match carelessly dropped under the stairs or a hot iron left on a table.
The basement staircase was destroyed and the roof and floor damaged before the fire brigade extinguished the blaze. Some charred timber is still visible at the back of the stage today.
McWhirter’s purchased a large amount of damaged stock and held a fire sale in the basement of their Fortitude Valley store. Items for sale at bargain prices included “one big stack” of men’s khaki twill cords and beavers, 250 boys’ winter Norfolk suits and 2,510 ladies’ walking skirts, as well as 2,000 yards of best Belfast linen drill, “slightly burnt on the edge only”.
The late hour at which the employees were leaving is an indication of the general poor working conditions at the time. Dent appeared in court in 1907 and was fined £2 for making a woman work excessive hours at Boggo Road. The Factories Act which enabled action such as this was introduced only in 1896, some 97 years after similar British legislation.
The Princess and moving pictures
John Dent purchased the theatre from Finney, Isles and Co in 1912. There were some family issues as his brother Frederick placed a caveat on the property to hinder the sale. A few months later during an altercation at the theatre, Frederick threatened to shoot John.
In that year, Dent leased space to Thomas Hall for a clothing workshop, which was in operation in a separate building behind the theatre from 1912 until 1938. Wests Pty. Ltd. leased the theatre, their second in Brisbane following the purpose built Olympia that opened on North Quay in 1910.
The company was founded by cinema pioneer Thomas James West and it quickly became one of Australia’s largest film exhibitors. It also produced newsreels and narrative films. West’s eventually became part of the Greater Union organisation.
The Boggo Road Theatre went through the first of many refurbishments, as the dirt and grime from its time as a clothing factory and goods store were cleaned away and the interior redecorated and fitted with new seats for an impressive 1,200 patrons. Electric lighting replaced the original gas system. The walls were hung with canvasses of “charming scenes” and a picture of the King and the Union Jack surmounted the screen.
The renamed Princess Theatre was opened on the first of June 1912, by the mayor of South Brisbane, John Burke.
The typical session comprised a number of short films along with other entertainment such as vocal numbers and “illustrated songs” performed by the manager Andrew Kirk, who also accompanied films on the piano. In 1914, the theatre ownership passed to solicitor Herbert Brealy Hemming but it remained leased to West’s.
The Princess was used for other purposes. Amateur talent contests were held on Fridays for some years. Through 1917 the Reverend J. Abraham Turner (scientist) gave a series of lectures. In November, his address “Garden of Eden Found” was followed by a vocal recital given by Mrs. Reeding.
The theatre was closed for some 6 months in 1919 in accordance with health regulations, as the influenza epidemic spread through the country.
By 1920, the Princess was part of the Union Picture Theatre chain which included five Brisbane cinemas.
The local area was a rough one, and patrons at times were forced to leave the theatre due to disturbances. On one occasion in 1920, a group of youths described as ‘hoodlums’, took control of the theatre for around a half an hour. A fight broke out and injuries included broken teeth and a nasty cut to the head. Curiously, the film being shown was Mary Pickford’s “The Hoodlum”.
In contrast, the Salvation Army continued to use the theatre from time to time for special services.
In 1925, the Princess was up for lease and it was refurbished again by new operators. The opening featured the films “Cold Steel” and “Whispering Palms” along with a performance by the newly formed “Princess Own” Orchestra. Friends could meet before or after the show at “The Cosy Theatre” café. Live productions including school concerts and burlesque as well as the occasional public meeting also continued.
Below : “The Hoodlum” from 1919 and “Cold Steel” from 1921, the first film screened after the 1925 refurbishment..
In 1925, the theatre operators hit on the idea of showing educational films that attracted large school groups.
Throughout the silent era, theatre sessions continued to feature a live performance, often vaudeville, in addition to films. By 1931, the Princess had been equipped with the Pacent sound system, allowing “talkies” to be screened. However, the owner Herbert Hemming unsuccessfully advertised the theatre for lease for 4 years.
It was finally let in 1934, but to a repertory theatre rather than a cinema operator.
The 1930s and a blossoming of live theatre
The Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society was founded in 1925 at the instigation of Barbara Sisley, a professional actor and speech teacher. With the support of Jeremiah Stable, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Queensland, the society was formed and the first three productions took place in 1925 at the Theatre Royal.
One play, “Penny Wise”, was staged at the Princess in 1929. In 1934, the society acquired what was described as a short lease of the Princess Theatre and moved all of its productions there. With the security of theatre availability, in 1936 there were ten productions, with 30 continuous weeks of performances.
In 1939, the lease of the theatre was taken over by a cinema company, but the Repertory Theatre remained at the Princess until 1941, when war related use of the theatre took precedence.
Jeremiah Stable remained president of the society for 20 years. Barbara Sisley provided artistic leadership, directed 57 productions and performed in many roles before her tragic death in 1945. The society continues today as La Boite.
Below: Barbara Sisley and Professor Jeremiah Stable
One of Barbara Sisley’s students, Rhoda Felgate, performed with the Repertory Theatre and directed at least one play. In 1936, she saw the need for a new company that would provide opportunities for drama students and formed Twelfth Night Theatre. She directed at least 21 plays in the first 3 years. Twelfth Night performed regularly at the Princess and were to return in 1986 as TN! Theatre Co.
The Student Theatre was founded in 1936 at the instigation of the Queensland University Radical Club and later changed its named to the Unity Theatre. It performed regularly to large audiences at the Princess from around 1937. One 1939 memorable joint production with the Workers Educational Association (WEA) Dramatic Society was of “The Insect Play” by Karel and Josef Čapek. Their performance of this biting satire earnt great praise from critics. The Telegraph published a whole page of images from the play.
Frequent other performances in the theatre over these years included amateur theatre, opera, operetta, revues and concerts. Many performances were in aid of charities.
(Images from the State Library of Queensland Ephemera collection)6
Below : “Madam Butterfly”, Marie Knight Operatic Society 1937 and cast members of one of the Brisbane Women’s Hockey Association revues held 1934-1940. (State Library of Queensland)
World War 2
United States forces began to arrive in Brisbane at the end of 1941 after Japan’s attack on the Philippines. At the peak of the war, there were in excess of 80,000 US personnel in Brisbane. The US Army’s Special Services Unit organised entertainment troupes that visited camps and hospitals in Brisbane as well as Rockhampton, Townsville, Darwin and New Guinea.
They were composed of Australian performers augmented by artists who were members of the US Army and at times visiting celebrities. Three groups, “Stars and Stripes”, “The Variety Stars” and “The Great Levante”, all rehearsed at the Princess Theatre.
The acts included ballet, tap and aerobatic dancing, magic tricks, comedy and instrumental performances.
The Princess also served as the logistics base from where transport to the various camps departed. One member of “Stars and Stripes”, Mavis Donovan, includes recollections of these days in her autobiography2. Mavis recalled how the theatre came close to burning down once again. She arrived early one evening to find an iron that had been left on, red hot and ready to set fire to an ironing board on the stage.
The Princess also continued as a cinema during the war years and from 1941 was known as the New Princess. Air raid warden meetings were held there as well as occasional events such as school recitals. U.S. Independence Day was celebrated in 1942 by a rally attended by Jean Marie MacArthur, the wife of General MacArthur.
Herbert Hemming, who had owned the theatre since 1914, died in 1942 and it was purchased by Frederick Thornley and Ivy Teasdale.
Below :The New Princess in 1941 with a poster of one of the films being shown.
The lean years
In the years immediately following the war, the theatre was in regular use for events such as amateur boxing, talent quests, ballet recitals, amateur theatre and dances. It continued as a cinema until closing in 1948, when the industry was struggling with regulated low admission charges introduced during the war, combined with a lack of good new films.
Paper merchants Spicer and Detmold moved their Brisbane office to the building in 1949 but only stayed a few years. In contrast, the printing company E. Sydes and Co. moved in around the same time and operated from the Princess for some 30 years. The Queensland Boring Company also leased space. Other tenants included a bookbinding company and a rag merchant.3
The next owners of the Princess were Valentine Bogatier and George Fomenko who paid $50,000 for the property in 1973. Bogatier ran a second hand goods business from the theatre for some years known variously as the Mater Furniture Mart and the Mater Seconds Warehouse.
In 1985, REMM Group Ltd. purchased the property, including 9,400 square metres of land, for $380,000 and intended to demolish the theatre in preparation for a retail development. Fred Kirkegard5 was engaged as architect for the project and wished to save the theatre. He also felt a debt of gratitude to Twelfth Night Theatre as his experience with them had cured him of a bad stutter.
He persuaded the company to undertake external renovation of the theatre, assisted by numerous donations. They offered a 10 year lease to the TN Theatre Company. Later known as TN!, the company was founded in 1979 as a strictly performing arts group, separate from Twelfth Night to avoid conflicts with the commercial considerations of running a theatre.
The images below were taken by the National Trust in 1986, before restoration work. (State Library of Queensland)
Internal restoration and refitting of the Princess was carried out by TN!. Balustrades from the demolished Barry and Roberts building in Queen Street were used and Kern Corporation donated 400 seats from Her Majesty’s Theatre which opened in 1887, two years before the Princess. Her Majesty’s was demolished in 1983 as part of the development of the Hilton Hotel and Wintergarden shopping centre. Suncorp donated a counterweight flying system for curtains and scenery from the Paris Theatre, previously known as the St. James Theatre and originally the Empire when built in 1911.
The old vertical “Princess” sign was retrieved from the New Princess Theatre on Logan Road at Mt. Gravatt where it had been relocated in 1955.
Her Majesty’s and the Empire/St. James/Paris Theatres.
The Princess re-opened in June of 1986. It was the 50th anniversary year of the founding of Twelfth Night Theatre.
In 1989, Remm Pty. Ltd. commissioned Brisbane artist Katy Edwards to paint the Princess in her distinctive style.
TN! staged 20 productions at the Princess, the last being “After Dinner” in 1991. Through these years, various other groups, including students from the Brisbane College of Advanced Education, staged productions at the Princess.
(Images from the State Library of Queensland Ephemera collection)6
Unfortunately, TN! experienced financial difficulties and ceased operation in 1991.
Remm Corporation put the theatre up for sale. The Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage investigated the theatre and it was entered into the Queensland Heritage Register in 1992.
Images from the heritage investigation, 1992. (Queensland State Archives)
In that year, the Princess, along with 1,092 square metres of land, was purchased by a group of business partners for $451,000. Their original intention was to convert it into an antiques centre, but this did not proceed. It returned to being a theatre and music venue. Numerous productions by companies such as the Rock and Roll Circus, now Circa Contemporary Circus, and Frank Theatre now OzFrank, and many others were staged during the 1990s.
(Images from the State Library of Queensland Ephemera collection)6
In 1999, the owners granted access to the Community Princess Revival Association in an attempt to revitalise the Princess as a venue for fringe theatre. A number of groups performed in the theatre but its future was once again under threat.
The Lifecity Church years
The Metro Central Community Church, now known as the Lifecity Church, took over the building for services in February 2001, and purchased it in 2003. During their period of ownership, the theatre saw corporate functions, weddings, live theatre and concerts.
In 2014, the church undertook refurbishment that included work on the seats from Her Majesty’s Theatre that were relocated to the Princess in 1986. The initials refer to J.C. Willamson Ltd. who held the lease on Her Majesty’s for over 80 years. (princesstheatrebrisbane facebook.com)
In 2020, the church decided to move to a more suitable location for its services and put the theatre up for sale.
The Princess passed to new owners in early 2021. The theatre is going through at least its 5th refurbishment and plans include four bars, a public café, private event spaces, a rehearsal room, a co-working creative office and workshop space, and an outdoor courtyard. The theatre is reopening at the end of August 2021.
The Princess is a survivor. It’s gone through numerous cycles of popularity and obscurity and come close to destruction by fire and demolition but the show goes on.
Restoration underway (https://www.facebook.com/princesstheatrebrisbane/)
- Queensland State Archives Item PR283357 Company Records
- “The Stars Shine On”, Mavis Donovan, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane 1984.
- “The Princess Theatre : From Then To TN” Heather Jones. Brisbane History Group No. 6 1987 – Brisbane – People, Places and Pageantry.
- Comans, Christine Anne Wilmington (2008). “La Boite Theatre Company : a distinctive history”
- Courier-Mail, May 1 1986.
- Theatre Programs – Brisbane – Princess Theatre : Ephemera Material Collected by the State Library of Queensland.
© P. Granville 2021
16 thoughts on “Brisbane’s Princess Theatre”
Terrific job, Paul.
An easy read that belies the amount of research you’ve invested.
Well researched, nicely set and a marvellous contribution to the history of South Brisbane.
Thanks very much Ron
Great story. But you haven’t said who are the present owners who are refurbishing it to such grand designs.
Thank you so much for researching this wonderful theatre
My great great grandfather father was J B Nicholson the architect
Thanks Chris. Your great great grandfather did a great job.
This was a great read! I’ve always admired the Princess Theatre. Thank you for this story!
John Stavrou >
Thanks John. I’ve uncovered a few more interesting old photos of the Dornoch Terrace house that I’ve added to the post.
Thanks for this fabulous history. I was neck-deep in the TN! restoration works in the 80s and have a real soft spot for the old girl.
My father told me he used to go to the flicks at the Prinnie back in the 40s. He said they had canvas sling seats with doubles in the back rows for canoodling.
Thanks Stephen – great memories !
80s resto: We retrieved the “Princess” sign from a defunct theatre on Logan Rd. It had been removed from the Annerley Rd building in the early 50s (I think) and installed on a cinema near the Nursery Rd intersection.
I fell (unharmed) through the awning of a lawnmower shop onto the Logan Rd footpath when one of the bolts holding it to the facade sheared as I tried to undo it.
Lost Brisbane FB page have some photos of the cinema.
Hi Stephen, thanks very much for your message. I had heard that the sign had been taken to another theatre but I didn’t know the detail. Paul
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A great story, I have lived in Brisbane most of my 84 years and have never heard of the Princess, or if I did I have forgotten, I certainly never went there but after reading your research, I think it is time I rectified that. Thank you for your dedicated work.
Thank you for such interesting information on the Princess Theatre, I grew up in Grove Street, just of Annerley Road, where the old Boot Factory was. My sister married a Fomenko, and inherited the Princess Theatre from his father George Fomenko, who then sold it for $380,000 in the 1980’s. I never knew the great phases it had gone through over the years.
Hi Kate. Thanks . That’s interesting about the George Fomenko connection. Would there be any old photos of the Princess that your sister might have ? Paul