About Our history

How an idea became reality

In 1901, Sir Oswald Stoll asked the greatest theatre architect of his day Frank Matcham (you might know some of his other work if you've visited the London Palladium, Victoria Palace Theatre, London Coliseum and hundreds more!) to build a theatre and music hall in Hackney.

Frank Matcham and two architects he trained himself, Bertie Crewe and WGR Sprague, had £65,000 to build Hackney Empire in just 38 weeks. Hackney Empire was a cutting-edge theatre with electric light, steel cantilevers and an internal vacuum system that was smart enough to rival even Hoover itself.

On 9 Dec 1901, we opened to the public for the first time as a space for entertainment for Hackney and the East End of London. The aim was that art & culture should be available on every street corner, for every person, and this is something we’ve worked to uphold for over 120 years.

1901 - 1956

From 1901 until 1956, we ran as a theatre and a music hall with shows twice a night, and from 1910s we were also able to start showing films, with what’s thought of as one of the world’s first purpose-built projection boxes.

We saw the likes of Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields, Stanley Holloway, Stan Laurel, Houdini, Marie Lloyd, Julie Andrews, Louis Armstrong and so many more take to our stage, with a weekly programme of theatre and variety for the local community and beyond.

Check out some of the playbills from this time - you might recognise one of the names!


During WWII, the Britannia Pub that stood on the corner and which Frank Matcham built Hackney Empire around, was almost completely destroyed, but somehow Hackney Empire remained almost damage-free.

In 1943 there was a bombing raid on London. The alert sounded as a Tightrope Act was in the middle of his performance. The audience stayed in their seats and undeterred by the noise of the bombs and the shrapnel falling on the roof, the Tightrope Walker completed his act!

Lights, camera, a TV studio

In 1956, the Television Production Company ATV bought the theatre to use as a television studio and made their first programme here on 29 Feb 1956.

They initially extended the stage 15ft over the orchestra pit, but by 1958 the working area spread over the whole of the Stalls. The Gallery (only used for a couple of the cameras) quickly required some TLC!

Shows such as Take Your Pick and Oh, Boy! were broadcast live from here, and certain episodes of Opportunity Knocks were also filmed at the theatre.

Man Alive, Number Five

In 1963, the Mecca Organisation took over the theatre and ran it as a bingo hall until 1984. As you can see in some of the photos, the theatre became almost unrecognisable, with huge plasterboards covering up the beautiful architecture underneath and the stage transformed into a café.

During Mecca’s ownership, the two Domes on top of the building became unstable. Hackney Council ordered Mecca to repair them, as we’re a listed building and so they’re protected. But Mecca instead removed them completely and stored them underneath the stage. Then, in the 1980s, when English Heritage told them to put them back, they suddenly became very keen on handing over ownership of Hackney Empire as quickly as they could...

A car park?!

In the 1980s Hackney Empire was almost demolished and turned into a car park (we don’t even like writing about it!). However, luckily C.A.S.T (Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre), a satirical, political touring theatre group, led by Roland and Claire Muldoon, bid to have Hackney Empire as their London base. It is said that they acquired the freehold for the sum of £1,000!

However, it soon became clear that to properly reopen Hackney Empire they would need to raise enough money to put the Domes back on top of the building and so, with the help of a huge, public fundraising campaign, they did just that. Check out our short film On The Shoulders Of Giants, to find out more about how we transformed Hackney Empire back into a theatre!

The 1980s & 1990s

On 9 Dec 1986, our 85th birthday, Roland & Claire Muldoon and their Team reopened Hackney Empire to the public as a permanent performance space.

Over the following years, Hackney Empire became the home of alternative comedy, helping to kickstart the careers of Ben Elton, Dawn French, Julian Clary, Alan Davies, Lenny Henry, Jennifer Saunders, Gina Yashere and so many more.

It also broadcast iconic shows like the 291 Club live from Hackney Empire, as well as bringing opera and international theatre to Hackney in a way that had never been done before.

In need of a lick of paint or 1,000?

Having been through four lives already, in 2001 Hackney Empire closed for a period of over three years for a huge restoration project, costing £17 million. This money came from public funding as well individual donations, including a huge donation from Lord Sugar, as his parents had loved Hackney Empire and brought him here as a child.

This restoration aimed to preserve the original features of the building but add in the modern facilities and equipment that allows us to still run today.

Lord Sugar reopened the theatre in 2004 with a gala performance featuring acts such as Brian May and Meera Syal.

Where are we now?

Our Grade II* listed building is now one of the largest theatres in London with a capacity of over 1,600 people for music gigs with standing room, and almost 1,300 seats.

We welcome hundreds of thousands of people every year to our vibrant theatre to enjoy shows from comedy to live music, from theatre to opera, and everything in between. In the last 15 years alone, we’ve welcomed everyone from Arcade Fire to Michaela Cole, Sir Ian Mckellen to Rudimental, Peppa Pig to Mac DeMarco and so many more incredible artists to perform in our iconic theatre to sold-out crowds.

We also welcome 4,000 young people to take part in our free Creative Futures programme of events throughout the year, giving them a safe space to explore their creativity and experience art & culture.

With new shows announced every month, we hope you’ll become part of our story soon! LET'S DREAM BIG!