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Bristol Hippodrome

Bristol Hippodrome

Architect: Frank Matcham

First Opened: 16th December 1912 (111 years ago)

Website: www.atgtickets.com/bristol Open website in new window

Telephone: 0844 871 3012 Call 0844 871 3012

Address: St Augustine’s Parade, Bristol, BS1 4UZ Show address in Google Maps (new window)

The Bristol Hippodrome was designed by Frank Matcham, a prolific theatre designer in the UK. At its opening the theatre featured a huge water tank at the front of the stage which could be filled with 100,000 gallons (450,000 litres) of water, as well as an opening central dome in the auditorium to allow for ventilation.

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Detailed Information

The Bristol Hippodrome was Frank Matcham’s last major work. Matcham designed the Hippodrome for theatre manager Sir Oswald Stoll of Moss Empires, for whom he had previously designed the London Coliseum (opened 1904). The Hippodrome was designed on such a scale it was second only to the Coliseum across the entire Moss Empires theatre circuit.

Stained Glass Lighthouse
Stained Glass Lighthouse

Respecting Bristol’s long-standing maritime connections, the theatre features a maritime theme throughout its Baroque decoration. The Grand Staircase, leading from the entrance lobby to the rear of the Stalls, originally featured backlit stained glass naval battle scenes. A few panels still remain. There are a number of porthole-shaped windows, stained glass lighthouse motifs, and plaster decoration throughout the auditorium styled after knotted ropes.

The auditorium is wide and not overly deep, comparisons having been drawn with the London Palladium. The Stalls / main floor seating is aggressively raked which affords good sightlines from any row, with the minor inconvenience of shallow steps in the aisle. At Grand Circle level there are two rows of three boxes at each side, surrounded by grand Doric columns which rise up between the boxes to support the Upper Circle slips. The Upper Circle remains bench seating although it is now upholstered rather than being plain wood. The proscenium arch is 48ft wide with an elliptical arched top, set within a deep reveal sporting niches either side at stage level, and originally with intricate portraiture in the panels above.

The Retractable Ceiling Dome
The Retractable Ceiling Dome

The auditorium’s circular dome can be opened using a sliding mechanism, located on the roof, to provide ventilation. The original painted decoration on the dome’s interior flat ceiling, dome surround, supporting pendentives (featuring nymphs frolicking in the ocean), and at the sides of the proscenium, has all been lost.

The original stage machinery included a 100,000 gallon tank which could be filled with heated water. The rear section of the stage, 40ft by 32ft (12.2m by 9.8m), would lift up so that the front section of the stage, including footlights, could slide backwards underneath it, revealing the massive water tank. The tank was 42ft wide and 27.5ft front-to-back (12.8m by 8.4m), with a maximum depth of 7.5ft (2.3m). Ramps ran from the bottom of the tank up to stage level on either side.

The tank contained four platforms (“tables”), each running the width of the tank, which could be independently raised or lowered to simulate varying depths of water or to create water effects through movement. The position (depth) of each table was relayed to the main switchboard, by wires, so that the operator knew each table’s position within the tank. The orchestra and audience were protected from water splashes by a 50ft long, 6ft high (15.2m by 1.8m) glass screen, which could be raised at the pull of a lever.

A novel feature was a lighting gallery for arc lamps “immediately behind the top of the proscenium, which permitted a fine concentration of light particularly useful for illuminating the water”. From a very grainy photo it looks like this position was immediately in advance of the proscenium, directly above the orchestra pit. No further details have come to light on this lighting gallery as yet.

The Hippodrome’s vast stage
The Hippodrome’s vast stage

The stage was originally a hemp house, however after a fire that consumed the entire stagehouse in 1948, it was rebuilt with a stronger grid and full counterweight flying system. Being roughly a 60ft+ (18.3m+) cube, it remains one of the largest stagehouses in the UK outside of London.

The stage was originally raked however the rake was removed in 1988. This leads to some confusion as to why radiators are mounted several feet higher than expected on the stage’s rear wall, and explains why there are ramps down to stage level from the dock doors and loading area upstage right.

The theatre is able to accommodate the largest touring shows and, amongst many premieres, was home to the out-of-town tryout of Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins in 2004, prior to its record-breaking West End and Broadway runs and subsequent national tours.

An often-overlooked feature Front of House is that the Hippodrome utilized a central vacuum system whereby hoses were plugged-in to a local outlet and carried dust/debris away to the central vacuum using a network of piping. It is very rare to see this type of system used in the UK.

The theatre currently seats 1,951, is operated by Ambassador Theatre Group Link opens in new window, and stages shows direct from London’s West End as well as regional tours and local theatre. The theatre’s retractable dome is still operable and was last known to have been opened in August 2017. Click here Link opens in new window to watch a video of the retractable dome operating in 2013.

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Listed/Landmark Building Status

How do I visit the Bristol Hippodrome?

As of January 2023, tours take place according to theatre availability and visiting productions. Tours last approximately 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours. Tours do not include show ticket and are subject to availability. Routes may change and involve a number of stairs. Backstage access is subject to availability and cannot be guaranteed. If you have any access needs, please do get in touch before your visit via email.

Private tours can also be arranged upon request. Please contact BristolCreativeLearning@theambassadors.com.

For more details see the Bristol Hippodrome’s Theatre Tour website Link opens in new window. Advance reservations not required although recommended to ensure your chosen tour is not full.

Further Reading



Technical Information

Flying System
Counterweight System
65 Bars/Linesets (4-line) all Single Purchase at 200mm spacings aside from larger gaps to accommodate Grid Truss/Tie-bars. Permanently-rigged Hemp Set between Bars 15 and 16 slung under Grid lattice truss.
Minimum Bar Length
Safe Working Loads
1,100lbs or 650lbs roughly evenly distributed across system - refer to detailed plan for each bar's SWL.
Standard Rigging
Bar 1: House Header; Bar 2: House Curtain; Bar 3: Hard Proscenium Header (Teaser). Hard Adjustable Tormentor Legs dead-hung between Bars 3 and 4.
General Information
Balcony Overhang
Front of Grand Circle overhangs Row P of Stalls
Seating Capacity
1,951 (Stalls: 887, Grand Circle: 507, Upper Circle: 503, Boxes and Slips: up to 96, although many of these seats are not regularly used and hence not included in the overall seating capacity)
Theatre Masking
5 sets Black Legs/Borders and 1 full Black
2 x Lycian 1290 XLT (2kW Xenon); Box will accommodate up to 4 spots
Followspots to Setting Line
Not DMX; controlled from DSR or LX Control Room (rear Grand Circle)
Orchestra Pit
Minimum Depth
16ft 6in
Minimum Height
7ft 7in
Width in front of Stage
40ft 5in
Width under Stage
35ft 3in
Stage Dimensions
Minimum Stage Width
74ft 4in
Proscenium Arch maximum height
Proscenium Arch width
47ft 9in
Setting line location
Rear of Fire/Safety Curtain (Iron)
Setting line to front of stage
3ft 6in
Setting line to last counterweight lineset
48ft 7in
Setting line to stage rear wall
55ft 4in
Stage Floor to Fly Floors
Stage Floor to Grid
58ft 7in
Usual Tormentor Width
40ft (adjustable)
Width between Fly Floors
58ft 3in
Historic Photos & Documents
Files displayed in this section may be subject to copyright; refer to our Copyright Fair Use Statement regarding our use of copyrighted media.

Photos of the Bristol Hippodrome

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium: Stalls
  2. Auditorium: Grand Circle
  3. Auditorium: Upper Circle
  4. Auditorium: Boxes
  5. Ambassador Lounge
  6. Cafe Bistro
  7. Cary Grant Bar
  8. Grand Circle Bar
  9. Front of House
  10. Auditorium (September 2009)
  11. Exterior
  12. Backstage
  13. Fly Floor
  14. Followspot Box
Auditorium: Stalls

The Stalls have been noted for their excellent sightlines; this is due to their steep rake which is at the cost of introducing steps in the aisles. The view from the rear Stalls and Stalls Boxes is less acceptable because of a “letterboxing” effect created by the steeply-raked Stalls and the Grand Circle overhang.

When the raked stage was removed, sightlines from the Stalls were not impacted due to the already steep rake of the Stalls seating.

Auditorium: Grand Circle

The Grand Circle accommodates 507, not including the Boxes.

At the rear center of the Grand Circle is a projection room, currently used as the lighting control room. Originally this was audience standing room and a concessions kiosk, later turning into the Front-of-House Manager’s office when the exit stairway was added in the 1940s.

The theatre’s original Bioscope box was located in the auditorium dome, moving down to the current Followspot Box when it was created in the 1930s.

Auditorium: Upper Circle

The Upper Circle accommodates 503, not including the rarely-used Slips which accommodate 16 per side, and retains its original bench-style seating arrangements – however the benches are now upholstered for a more comfortable experience.

Several bars for lighting, sound, and effects equipment are provided in the ceiling of the Upper Circle. The central area of these bars must be kept clear of equipment if Followspots are to be used, as the area underneath the bars is in the direct line-of-sight from the Followspot Box.

Auditorium: Boxes

The Box “stack” on each side of the auditorium comprises:

The Boxes are separated by large Doric columns which support the Slips at the top level. The Slips are not generally used for audience seating.

Below the Boxes, at Stalls level, runs a passageway alongside the Stalls seating. It is separated from the seats by intricate ironwork which rises to handrail level, in-between the marble-faced square columns supporting the Box stack.

At the rear of the Stalls level there are eight Stalls Boxes, four per side; each block of four Boxes occupies roughly one-third of the width of the rear Stalls. The remaining central section contains regular seats and the central aisle, with the House Left section commonly used for live sound mixing. The Stalls Boxes are finely decorated with Harpies adorning the pillars separating each Box.

Ambassador Lounge

Every Ambassador Theatre Group Link opens in new window venue features an Ambassador Lounge, and the Bristol Hippodrome is no exception. You can check out a demo reel of the Hippodrome’s Ambassador Lounge Link opens in new window.

Cafe Bistro

From the theatre’s website: Situated within the Bristol Hippodrome Piano Bar, Hanover Street Bistro is a stylish dining establishment serving a delicious menu. Enjoy a delightful cup of illy coffee, choose something tasty from our menu or if you book a package online, you can treat yourself to two delicious courses for only £12.95 before the show. Bookings (recommended) 0117 302 3310 or hanoverstreetbistro@theambassadors.com.

Cary Grant Bar

The Cary Grant Bar was formerly known as the lower Stalls Bar. It is accessible from either side the Stalls. The Cary Grant Bar is not open at every performance and is often used as a VIP Bar.

Grand Circle Bar

The large Grand Circle Bar was originally the theatre’s Tea Room and features large windows facing onto St Augustine’s Parade, above the theatre entrance. The Bar also has a maratime-themed window overlooking the Grand Staircase.

Front of House

The Hippodrome has a small street frontage considering the large scale of the theatre behind. Front-of-House areas therefore funnel the audience through this narrow area between adjoining buildings, into the theatre and audience circulation areas such as the Grand Circle Bar above the entrance.

The Grand Staircase, leading from the entrance lobby, has an intricate double-height ceiling and dome. The dome acted as a ventilator, and the double-height walls were adorned with stained-glass panels, originally backlit, featuring various maritime scenes. One panel is still open to the Grand Circle Bar and features fish.

Auditorium (September 2009)

These photos were taken during a lighting rig check for the national tour of “We Will Rock You” in September 2009.


The Hippodrome has a small street frontage given its large capacity however this was due to available space between existing buildings. Architect Frank Matcham therefore designed a large tower with tall pavilion roof, surmounted by a metal sculpture, to sit atop the theatre’s entrance building and accentuate the building. The tower has long since been removed.


The Hippodrome’s stage dimensions are large; at the time of building it was second only to the London Coliseum in terms of technical capacity. The stage’s raked floor was leveled in 1998.

The flying system features an Arbor/Cradle Pit, whereby the tension blocks (pulleys) at the bottom end of the rope operating line are below Stage level. This is to compensate for the length of the Arbor/Cradle, which reduces the flying range of the batten/bar. Extending the length of travel down into the basement is a cheaper alternative to increasing the height of the building to achieve the same effect.

Fly Floor

The Hippodrome was originally a hemp house however a full counterweight system was installed following the devastating stagehouse fire in 1948. Counterweight arbor runs extend into the basement to ensure linesets can come in to floor level. Due to the Stage entrance Downstage Right, the first five linesets have restricted travel and do not come in all the way to Stage level.

Followspot Box

With room for up to four followspots, the Followspot Box currently houses the theatre’s two Lycian 2000W Xenon followspots. The Box is accessible from the corridor at the rear of the Upper Circle, via a near-vertical ladder.

The theatre’s original Bioscope box was located in the auditorium dome, moving down to the current Followspot Box when it was created in the 1930s.

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