1. Grand Hall and Albert Tower from London Road. Photograph ©Mike Bailey.
2. London Road facade of the Palace Theatre and the Grand Hall. ©Mike Bailey.
3. Grand Hall with new sound console and lighting installation, 2011. ©Yamaha
4. Ben Greet, actor/manager of numerous touring theatre companies. ©Folger Shakespeare Library
5. Green Street facade of the Corn Exchange. ©MBailey
6. The Albert Tower, viewed from Duke Street. ©East Ayrshire Council
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Grand Hall, Kilmarnock
The site now occupied by the Palace Theatre and Grand Hall complex has been in use for civic activity for more than two centuries.
In "Rambles Round Kilmarnock" (1875) Archibald R Adamson described the locality:
Looking up the river - if Kilmarnock Water can be designated such - the scene is murkily romantic. The view is terminated by the railway viaduct, and almost beneath the arch that spans the stream the water falls over the weir of the Bark Brae dam and purls along its polluted channel, tainted with extraneous matter. To the right a steep bank clothed with wood rises abruptly from the water edge. On its brow an old-fashioned mansion called Braehead House, the residence of Mr T. B. Andrews, peers from its sylvan retreat, and near to the bridge, some distance below the level of the road, there is a small nursery and a neat bowling green. On the left are the works of Gregory, Thomsons, & Co., and between them and the road is the Town Green, a small piece ground the townspeople have the right of bleaching their clothes on. It was at one time of much greater extent, but the erection of the Academy and other buildings, and the construction of the road over the bridge, have greatly narrowed its limits.
Down the stream the scene still retains a degree of picturesqueness. On the right, surrounded by a playground, stands the Kilmarnock Academy, a plain, unassuming edifice. It was erected in 1807. Many eminent teachers have laboured within it, and not a few natives who were educated in it have distinguished themselves and attained honourable positions. The opposite bank is an almost perpendicular steep. It is studded with trees, and over is summit passes the old line of the road to the town.
The old Kilmarnock Academy was erected in 1807, overlooking the river. It had a vigorous and prosperous career till 1876, when it was closed, following the opening of the New Academy.
The Tontine or Exchange Buildings had been erected in 1814, at the Cross, and this large hall served both as a reading-room and as a place of mercantile resort, until it was discontinued in 1880. The creation of the Corn Exchange on the corner of Green Street and London Road displaced these rooms and provided the first step towards a centre for all the arts. Previously, an older parish school, erected in 1752, and a public weigh house stood at the corner of Green Street.
The new Corn Exchange was built in 1863, on the corner of Green Street and London Road, replacing the weigh house and the disused public school. The main buildings, covering a space of about 1602 square yards, overlooked Green Street. The lower story was occupied in front by shops, and behind by a large hall 84 feet long, 51 wide, and 51 high, used for corn exchange and other public purposes. Known as the Buttermarket, this hall had accommodation for 1200, with a fine and powerful organ. The hall was used for the annual shows of dairy produce, etc., held by the Agricultural Association, and also as a volunteer drill hall. The upper story contained two large halls, one of which, fronting Green Street, contained the Kilmarnock Library; and the other, fronting London Road, was used for the Athenæum Reading Room.
The Kilmarnock Library was instituted in 1797, and by 1862 contained 3000 volumes. In that year this library, and those belonging to the Philosophical Institution and the Kilmarnock Athenæum, were amalgamated, and the number of volumes increased to about 10,000. About £100 a year from the Crawford bequest was available for library purposes, besides the members' subscriptions.
The Philosophical Institution was founded in 1823 for 'the promotion of general, and more particularly of scientific, knowledge,' and sought to attain this end by the formation of a library and museum, by the delivery of lectures, and the holding of meetings for discussion. The Athenæum was founded in 1848, for 'the social and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants, more especially of the youth and working classes, by the providing of a first-class reading-room, the maintaining of a library,' and by such other means as might seem proper. Though the libraries are now all amalgamated, the institutions themselves still remain separate.
In 1875 the subscription for all three was 12s. 6d. per annum, and for each separately a smaller sum.
Behind the Corn Exchange was a large building, 81 feet long and 64 wide, used as a market for the sale of butter, eggs, etc.. Known as the Buttermarket, this building appears to be a forerunner of the Agricultural Halls.
In 1886 an eight bay extensions was built to the south of the Corn Exchange, overlooking London Road.
In 1903, further alterations to the building allowed the formation of a music hall behind this facade. By this time most of the public green was built over.
In 1927 the Grand Agricultural Hall was added, covering the site of the former Academy and including an extended facade overlooking London Road. A stage was fitted two years later and thereafter used as a grand concert room leaving the Palace to become successful as a theatre and a cinema. This hall was altered in 1947, to designs by Gabriel Steel, to form the Grand Hall we know today.
In 1952, after some restoration work was done within the building, funds were insufficient to cover the running costs and the Exchange Theatre, as it was known then, was forced to close.
Four years later the recently formed Kilmarnock Arts Guild took over the building and the local council at the time showed their support by reducing the rent. An annual pantomime became popular with local residents and visitors and the Arts Guild also took various shows on tour.
Yet again, another setback in 1979 as the interior of the whole building was devastated by fire and the Palace was once again abandoned, but only for a short period as the local authority completed the first stage of its refurbishment by 1982. The doors opened to the public again and by 1985 the second stage of improvements had been completed to the entrance foyers and backstage facilities.
Over the past 25 years, the Palace Theatre Complex has grown from strength to strength with many high profile bands appearing in the Grand Hall and a long list, too numerous to mention, of famous actors appearing on stage. The complex today now boasts a 503 seat theatre, a 900 seat concert hall, rehearsal rooms, exhibition rooms, art halls, a cafe-bar and reception meeting rooms. It is a thriving venue managed by the local authority, who strive to maintain the highest artistic and technical standards.
The technical team have recently installed a new audio system for live events based around a Yamaha M7CL48-ES console and SB168-ES stage boxes. This flexible system uses the latest technology to provide high quality sound in all parts of the building. The grand hall has a new lighting rig, pit barriers and a wheelchair platform to bring the venues up to the latest standards.
(Text based on Adamson's Rambles around Kilmarnock, F.H. Groome, Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1882-4), Historic Scotland and Theatres Trust database records.
The Glasgow Herald, September 20, 1911
The Herald reported: ''An anti-suffragist campaign has been opened by the Glasgow branch of the Scottish National Anti-Suffrage League. The campaign opened in Kilmarnock on Sunday night, when over 500 persons attended a meeting in the Agricultural Hall .'