Theatre Royal Nelson


The Theatre Royal in Nelson is over 130 years old, making it one of the oldest wooden theatres in New Zealand. Before the theatre closed for renovations in 2005, around 22,000 visitors a year1 enjoyed the theatre and dance performed by countless numbers of groups. However, in 2005 the Theatre Royal stood empty. The economic climate, the increased popularity of the State Cinema and the ongoing repairs over the previous decades had been too much for the theatre to manage. Fortunately the closure was not to be permanent.

Theatre Royal NelsonTheatre Royal. The Nelson Provincial Museum; F N Jones Collection:11260
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The Theatre Royal was built in 1878 by C.W. Moore (who also built St Marys Convent and the first wooden buildings of Nelson College) on land owned by market gardener Samuel Bolton. The theatre was designed by Mr Bethwaite, of Bethwaite & Robertson and the Oddfellows, who had their club next door, financed the construction. The Theatre was built to seat 800, but opened on 18 July 1878 with an audience of 1000.

In 1884, at the height of its popularity and with special trains running from Foxhill to Nelson on theatre nights, ownership of the theatre shifted to The Loyal Howard and Loyal Nelson Oddfellows Lodges who held onto it for 20 or so years before they sold the theatre onto Harry Saunders in 1904. Saunders carried out major alterations, replacing seating, covering the mud floor and installing a projection box for moving pictures. Unfortunately, the creation of the Majestic Theatre (in Trafalgar Street - which burned down in 1996) and the 1930's global depression brought about a major decline in attendance. In 1944 Saunders decided that he could not hold onto it for any longer and the theatre was bought by the Nelson Repertory Club for £2,250 in 1944.

In 1945 the Repertory undertook to repair the Theatre, which continued to struggle, with drainage problems and low attendance.  The Theatre's Centenary Celebrations in 1978 saw a large fundraising appeal and continued attempts to save the building. In 2005 the theatre was sold to the Nelson Historic Theatre Trust for $10 and the real task of saving the theatre began.
Production at Theatre Royal NelsonNelson Operatic & Dramatic Society. The Runaway Girl (1917) Theatre Royal, Nelson. The Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 6x8 29
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Since its opening night on 18 July 1878, the Theatre Royal has housed a huge number of amateur and professional performances by local, national and international groups. In addition, the theatre was  Nelson’s very first cinema and was used as a "picture house" from 1908 to 1936, when the Majestic Theatre was built. In the early days, when it had mud floors, the Theatre doubled as a boxing venue.  It was not until the mid 1940’s that the Theatre Royal reverted back to its original function, after being bought by the Nelson Repertory Club.

The  purchase of the Theatre Royal by the Trust in 2005 was, according to Trust Chairman Greg Shaw, a natural progression: “Nelson Repertory owned the theatre; a huge conservation plan3 was done and the Trust was formed from that. Ownership was then transferred from the Repertory to the Trust, which then set up a management structure.” Shaw also said that he was driven to take on the role of Chairman by a desire to help retain some of Nelson’s history, because he felt Nelson had lost touch with a lot of it.

Theatre RoyalTheatre Royal, 1998. image courtesty Tasman District Council.
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On the 26 March 2008, restoration work on the Theatre Royal began with $4 million raised to fund it, including significant contributions from Nelson City Council and Tasman District Council.4 Over the past six to seven decades the theatre had been continuously repaired to help with stability, however never to the degree of the work done between 2008 and 2010. Improvements for the theatre during this time included, but were not restricted to, more comfortable seating, total rebuilding of the backstage area, restoration of the veranda, a rebuilt fly tower and new protruding window boxes.  The Theatre reopened on 31 May 2010, with a gala opening festival from May 31 - June 13. It is a 342 seat venue, and many of those seats have been sponsored by local individuals and groups.

The Theatre Royal is now believed to be the oldest surviving operating wooden theatre in Australasia, and possibly in the southern hemisphere. The auditorium has a Historic Places Trust B classification. The theatre makes a significant contribution to New Zealand’s heritage of timber architecture and will hopefully be available for public use for many more years to come.

This story is an edited version of a  Nelson College for Girls History assignment, 2009 and draws on a Mudcakes and Roses article, 2006, plus information from the Nelson City Council interpretation panel outside the theatre.

Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Theatre Royal (n.d.) Retrieved from Nelson City Council 24 May, 2020:
  2. Theatre restoration takes centre stage (2006) Mudcakes and Roses
  3. Theatre Royal Conservation Plan (2001). Nelson, N.Z.: Palmer and Palmer (Architects) Ltd.
  4. Funding for historic theatre restoration (2007). Retrieved from Scoop, May 24 2010:

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  • Hi
    This morning Thursday 21 June my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds Suffolk UK. They have guided tours of the theatre for 90 minutes at NZ$15.00. I informed the guide and those in the group that we had a Theatre Royal in Nelson and it was the oldest timber theatre in Australasia. The guide had visited Nelson in 2005 but never realised the Theatre Royal existed or even on the places to visit. It was an outstanding tour of the theatre and thought you might like to consider doing the same in Nelson. A great way to promote the theatre to locals and visitors to Nelson.
    Brian & Diane Ramsay

    Posted by Brian Ramsay , 22/06/2018 10:00am (6 years ago)

  • Since this article was written the Theatre Royal has reopened with a gala opening. The "ARTICLES" section below references accounts of that opening. Ed.

    Posted by Susan Price, ()

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Further sources - Theatre Royal Nelson


  • Robitai, Bev (2010) Murder in the second row. Waiuku, N.Z. Mackay Books (Fiction)
  • Theatre Royal Conservation Plan (2001), Nelson, N.Z.: Palmer and Palmer (Architects) Ltd.
  • Nelson Repertory Theatre (Inc.) (1978). The  show of the century. Nelson (N.Z.): Nelson Repertory Theatre (Inc.).


  • A royal tour (2009, August 24) The Nelson Mail, p13.
  • Boyd, Noni (1988, September, 22) Five theatres. Historic Places in New Zealand,  p.10-12 
  • Cassie, F. (1990, May 12) Royal nostalgia for a theatre in the glory of its heyday. Nelson Evening Mail, p.7
  • Clark, Karen & Gasteiger, Frank. (2010) Curtain up. New Zealand Heritage. Autumn (116) p.24-27
  • Collett, Geoff. (2010, May 29) Encore!The Nelson Mail, p.15
  • Hobbs, William. (1990, May 2) Guardians rise for old Nelson. The Press,  p. 21
  • Hunt, T. (2007. November 14) Theatre Royal to reopen in two years. Nelson Mail, p1
  • Moriarty, Angela. (2003, April 3) Theatre Royal handed to trust. The Nelson Mail, p.3
  • Neal, T. (2010, April 27) Imitation of beautiful frieze to grace theatre. Nelson Mail, p3
  • Nelson's Theatre Royal (2010, May 25) Restored to full glory. Nelson Mail, Supplement
  • O'Regan, S. (1998, July 17) Historic Theatre Royal celebrates 120th birthday. Nelson Mail, p.1
  • Parker, Anna. (2002). This little gem should be preserved. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 6 (5),  
  • Peters, C. (2005, April 3) Not even the ghosts are left. Nelson Mail, p13 (re. Empire theatre)
  • Peters, C. (2006, December 9) Royal had many men in her life. Nelson Mail,  p18
  • Tait, Maggie. (2004, July 7) Talks to Helen Moulder. The Press , p. D4
  • Theatre Royal history is in the detail. (2010, January 7) Nelson Mail, p5
  • Theatre Royal owners plan $1 million upgrade . (1998, March 12) Nelson Mail, p3


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