Occupations: Limelight Operator

According to the 1921 census dictionary of occupational terms, a limelight operator:

…has charge of and manipulates lantern, on perch or standard in wings of stage or back of auditorium; casts “spot” light on performers; throws beam of coloured light on stage by inserting slides in lantern; is generally a qualified electrician…in small provincial theatres, duties are usually performed by cinematograph operator…1

Illuminating the stage and spotlighting performers was an important part of any theatrical and music hall production. The word limelight originated from the light produced when an Oxyhydrogen flame was concentrated onto a cylinder of Calcium Oxide, otherwise known as Lime. The light which resulted from this action was then focused onto the stage using a series of lenses.2 Electric lighting in general, and the electric arc spotlight, replaced the limelight late in the 19th century. However, the name ‘limelight’ stuck.

Pay was poor. In 1913 The Stage reported on a meeting of the Manchester and Salford Branch of the National Association of Theatrical Employees, in which it was reported that youths of 19 and 20 working as limelight operations were earning as little as 5s a week.3

Accidents did happen. For example, at Ilkeston Theatre Royal in May 1910, a 15-year-old limelight operator Harry Matthews fell about 12 feet to the stage. He was knocked unconscious and taken to hospital with concussion.4 At Huddersfield’s Palace Theatre of Varieties in 1913 limelight operator, Joe Whiteley, suffered hand burns following an electric shock whilst attempting to renew a carbon with the electric current on.5

The carbon in the Huddersfield accident was one of a pair of carbon rods which were manipulated as part of the arc spotlighting process which replaced the earlier limelight.

Turning to Batley, the Theatre Royal, which subsequently became Batley Hippodrome the place where James Rush at one time worked as a limelight operator, had electric lighting installed as part of its 1907 refurbishment.

Advert for the Reopening of Batley’s Theatre Royal (later the Hippodrome) – Batley News, 6 September 1907

A more detailed description of the 1907 modernisation of the venue read:

BATLEY THEATRE as will be seen from our advertising columns, will be re-opened on Feast Monday, after having been closed for some months. Very extensive alterations and improvements have been made in the interior of the old Theatre. The old floor has been removed, and a new system of drainage has been laid down. This necessitated some hundreds of tons of earth being tipped in to level up the ground preparatory to putting down the concrete foundation upon which the new flooring is now laid. This new floor will have the effect of adding considerable warmth to the building, as neither damp nor draught can penetrate it, added to this the most modern system of heating has been installed, that known as Wright’s Patent Steam Radiator. Many of the principal London and Provincial Theatres and Music Halls are heated on this system. The auditorium has been thoroughly re-decorated, the general tone of the colour being cream, azure blue, and apple green. The effect is very artistic. The Theatre has also been installed with the most modern form of electric light…..

Theatre Royal, Batley which in 1912 became Batley Hippodrome – source unknown

The Hippodrome post-Great War morphed into the Empire Super Cinema.

The other place where people went for entertainment in Batley during the 1914-1918 period was Batley Picture Palace on Well Lane.

See also the biography of stage performer and mystery man William Frederick Townsend for more information about Batley Hippodrome.

1. A Dictionary of Occupational Terms: Ministry of Labour. Based on the Classification of Occupations Used in the Census of POPULATION, 1921. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1927;
2. About Limelights, Limes, Sunspots and Followspots, http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Backstage/Limes.htm
3. The Stage, 18 December 1913;
4. Belper News, 3 July 1910;
5. Halifax Evening Courier, 4 October 1913;