Tales From The Village - Shaftesbury

Thu 20 Aug 2020

A Phoenix from the Ashes: 

 The Story of The Old Marketplace Theatre & The Shaftesbury Arts Centre

by Anya Noakes

Prologue: A Brief History of the Market Town of Shaftesbury

Shaftesbury’s centre for the thriving local arts scene is housed in the old covered market in the centre of the Saxon Dorset hilltop town.   In existence for more than seven decades, it is widely recognised as one of the best volunteer membership-led arts centres in South West England. 

The iconic Gold Hill and the marvellous ruins of the once mighty Shaftesbury Abbey lie at the very heart of this hilltop town with magnificent views in every direction across the Blackmore Vale and beyond and has inspired artists, writers, musicians and pilgrims for centuries.  

The Abbey had many royal connections over its 651 years of existence.  The Benedictine nunnery was founded by King Alfred - he of the burnt cakes - in the last years of the 9th century.  On 20th February 981, the relics of Edward the Martyr, the teenage King of England murdered in Corfe Castle, were transferred from Wareham to the Abbey, turning Shaftesbury into a major site of pilgrimage for miracles of healing.  King Canute died in the Abbey in 1035.  Grants of land from the monarchy increased the wealth of the Abbey from Dorset to Wiltshire, Somerset, Sussex and as far away as Berkshire.  The fields below Layton Lane once housed the Abbey’s vegetable gardens and fishponds, stocked with an abundance of carp and tench.  

Model of how original Abbey may have looked
Old Abbey Wall, Shaftesbury

In 1260 a charter to hold a market was granted and in 1392 Richard II confirmed a grant of two markets to be held in the town on different days.  By the 15th century, Shaftesbury also had lively cloth and button-making industries, although the arrival of industrialisation led to 350 families leaving for a new life in Canada.  Many of those remaining turned their hands to malting and brewing beer. 

As the town sits on top of a steep hill, water was always scarce.  It was carried up by donkey and cart from the springs at Enmore Green, for which a yearly tribute of local produce had to be paid to the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham, on whose land the springs were situated. From around 1655 the tributes took the form of a gallon of ale, two penny loaves of wheaten bread, a calf’s head and a pair of gloves (a highly regarded present).  The ceremony lasted a week but ended in 1830 possibly because of the high cost to the corporation of all that feasting and drinking.  The payment itself was discontinued following the installation of a pumped and piped water supply from Barton Hill.

Dorset has always attracted creative people and was much admired by Georgian visitors.  In his “Natural History of England”, Benjamin Martin declared: “There is no want of any Thing, that is necessary for the Maintenance and Support of Man; since both Sea and Land seem to vie with each other, and strive which shall indulge his Appetite most, and yield the greatest Abundance.  To All this we must add, that its fine Beer and Ale are universally admired, and by some preferred before the wines of France.  And as it abounds thus with Provisions of all sorts, which are to be procured likewise at very reasonable Rates, it is no great Wonder, that such a Number of Families, even of high Distinction, make it their favourite Place of Abode; and that notwithstanding its Capital is above one hundred miles from London, its Inhabitants are as gay and polite, as those in our Metropolitan City.” 

High Street c 1860 with Market Hall archway visible
Grosvenor Hotel c 1920

Shaftesbury became a thriving market town on the busy coach road connecting London and Falmouth, and traders soon needed a market hall.  In 1855 Richard Grosvenor, the 2nd Marquess of Westminster, provided a new Market House, which was made up of a Lower and Upper Hall.  The entrance for the Lower Market Hall was through elegantly designed ornate iron gates in the High Street (now Shirley Allum Fashions) and a less ornamental entrance for the Upper Hall in Bell Street (now the Shaftesbury Arts Centre). 

Trade was further improved in 1859 when a train station opened in Semley, two and a half miles north of Shaftesbury.  Transport there and back was offered by a rather expensive horse-driven coach which picked up passengers outside the Grosvenor Hotel. 

Shaftesbury: a Centre for Leisure and a Magnet for Travellers:

Tourists were soon flocking to the town.  Because of its unique hilltop situation, Shaftesbury was advertised to Victorians as a health resort “where the air is pure and bracing.”  An eminent Victorian physician, Sir Frederick Treves, said: “The health giving properties of Shaftesbury air were on par with the air in Switzerland.”

Meanwhile in 1902, Mr J Jeffery revived the market on the high street site with small sales and livestock in the outside market.  At this time travellers would look for overnight accommodation on market days, found in the less salubrious doss houses throughout the town.  There were lots of these, especially down Gold Hill which, along with St James, was one of the poorer areas of Shaftesbury, with small, hugely over-occupied cottages.

This all changed in 1919 with the famous “Sale of Shaftesbury” during which, over three days, most tenants bought their own houses and shops.  Waterworks, parks and allotments were all bestowed by Grosvenor whilst the Town Council bought the Hall.  

Crowded cottages on Gold Hill c 1905

Arrival of Moving Pictures and Creation of the Arts Club:

The Talking Pictures had also arrived and with them a cinema.  Initially The Palace Picture House stood at the bottom of the High Street, with an ornate frontage of four large pillars, but it was demolished in 1925.  The Savoy Cinema opened on Bimport in 1933 and seated 380 people.  The owners of the house adjacent to the Savoy managed to prevent their metal railings being melted down for the war effort by claiming they stopped people queuing for the cinema from falling into their front garden.

By austerity ridden post-war 1940’s Britain, entertainment was at a premium, largely enjoyed whilst huddled round ‘the wireless’ or limited offerings on a crackly black and white TV.  Live entertainment was well nigh out of reach, often involving an expensive excursion to a nearby town on a precious day off.  With this in mind, in 1947 the local committee of the Arts Council began to arrange the occasional concert and touring show in the Town Hall and elsewhere around town.  

By 1949 it was clear that Thomas Hardy’s Shaston needed a permanent organisation of its own to encourage people to take part in the cultural life of the town.  So it was that the Shaftesbury and District Arts Club was formed, with the grand sum of £5 0s 0d bequeathed by the old committee.  

They were ambitious in their first offering: Music from Grand Opera began “at 3pm prompt” on Sunday 9th October in the (much lamented) Savoy Cinema.  Performers included the wonderfully named Zuilmah Hopkins (soprano), Sybil Willey (contralto) and Sydney Snape (baritone).  The audience were invited to join the Club by obtaining details from a Miss K Drake of Bell Street.  Membership rose to 140.

Later the same month the Drama and Music Groups were formed.  In February 1950 the Drama Group presented its first three-act play “Knight’s Move” at the Grammar School Hall.  Meanwhile, the Drama Group held its monthly meetings and rehearsals free of charge in the Grosvenor Hotel Ballroom “by kind permission of Col & Mrs Evans”, the latter being the first leader of the Drama Group.  Later that year the Arts Club became affiliated to the British and Dorset Drama Leagues.

In June 1950, the club arranged its first Art Exhibition at The Town Hall including contributions from local schools.  Two further Groups were formed in the next two years: the Camera Group in May 1950 and the Art Group early in 1951.

As the Arts Club became larger and their offerings more ambitious, they needed a home.  Venues weren’t always available and whilst the Drama Group initially borrowed scenery, props and costumes, they began to make their own, which caused storage problems.

Savoy Cinema c 1940
High Street c 1920

The Purchase and Conversion of the Upper Market Hall:

They were also busy getting “Charley’s Aunt” ready for Shaftesbury’s Festival of Britain programme in the summer of 1951 and had lost the loft they had been using as a storeroom.  Local architect Eric Stevens raised the idea of purchasing the empty Upper Market Hall in Bell Street.  In the meantime the Council gave them permission to use the building to prepare the three sets needed.  The local Gardening Association were also looking for similar facilities so both Societies were able to help each other in the Festival venture.

When this was over, the Council finally agreed to sell the Market Hall to the Shaftesbury and District Arts Club for the grand sum of £750.  The Management Committee lost no time in drafting plans and presenting them to an Extra Ordinary Meeting on the 31stOctober 1951 attended by seventy members who approved them unanimously and promised between them to provide £460 towards the purchase price.  Five Trustees were appointed, a separate bank account was opened and the purchase of the Old Market was completed in August 1952.  

With money tight, a host of volunteers were drafted in to lend a hand with the building works.  A considerable quantity of second-hand timber, flooring and doors was obtained from an old manor house.  The burgeoning Club was helped by less formal financial assistance from many quarters.  The Girls’ High School gave £25, half the proceeds from their school fete.  There were donations too from performances given by Miss Belfield’s Chalke Valley School of Dancing and a joint Floral Display with the Gardening Association.  The Club held its first open-air fete in Barton Hill, which brought in much needed publicity and £75.  The Drama Group agreed to stage at least four productions a year in the Guildhall and elsewhere and other members went all out to raise funds with sales of artwork, bridge drives, concerts, picture exhibitions and raspberry teas.

During February 1953 a rota of club members offering help was formed.  The volunteers began this ambitious project forming working parties in the evenings and at weekends alongside their day jobs and allowing for time to join in club group activities.  

A local newspaper reported in August 1954 that members “had shifted over 200 tons of earth, broken up and removed over 100 tons of stone, mixed and laid 60 tons of concrete and salvaged over 2000 bricks”.  

In the later more intricate stages of the work, the volunteers were helped by tradesmen and local builders who readily offered advice, as well as concrete mixers, wheelbarrows and essential tools: “Nor must we forget Mrs Gertrude Stevens and her apparently bottomless teapot, sustaining us at Committee and Group Meetings and rehearsals.”  The conversion project took more than four and a half years to complete.

Meanwhile the Art, Camera, Drama and Music Groups met at other venues whilst monthly newsletters were issued.  The Club published its first programme of group activities for the 1953-‘54 Season.  The Drama Group presented a number of plays to help raise funds for their new home as well as taking excerpts to six Dorset Drama Festivals.  Their 1954 entry - from the wonderfully named “Ladies in Retirement” - won through the first round at Dorchester, was placed first in the Southern Divisional Final at Bournemouth, and narrowly missed going through to the Western Area Final held in Malvern.

A Phoenix From the Ashes:

In the early hours of Thursday 24th June 1965 a catastrophic fire broke out in the next-door premises occupied by a builders merchants and an electricians shop.  “Despite the best efforts of the Fire Brigade the fire spread, causing extensive damage.  Luckily the front and stage areas were saved apart from smoke and water damage but the theatre roof had gone as well as the entire wardrobe and the control room. We lost all our theatre seats in the fire. Incidentally if you go past the ladies toilets in our current building and turn right through the door you will see a fire damaged beam over the emergency exit doors as a reminder of the fire.”

The day after the disaster the Management Committee managed to recall the plans from the planning authority for re-consideration.  The shows continued in the Guildhall whilst a vacant property in Bimport served as storage for items salvaged from the premises and also hosted meetings and rehearsals.  “Fortunately we were well insured and requested a cash payment towards the re-construction.  Members sorted through the debris, salvaging where possible and I remember we held a sausage and mash evening amongst all the debris one evening!”

The Club Room had a ceiling added with “The Phoenix Room” above “rising out of the ashes”, with an area for serving refreshments.  A new passage led to the control room with a new lighting console from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.  A greatly enlarged wardrobe was housed behind fire-proofed doors as well as a sizable workshop where sets are built and painted. 

The opening ceremony took place on the afternoon of 3rd June 1967 with an evening concert presented by the Wessex Sinfonia.  Meanwhile ‘Phoenix Bonds’ were introduced to help the Centre finances.

The Drama Group presented its first Christmas production, “Toad of Toad Hall” by A.A. Milne, produced and directed by Harold Ingram, formerly musical director of the Stratford-on-Avon Theatre, with beautiful sets by his daughter Pamela Ingram, Scenic Designer at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.  She also ran scenery workshops creating stage trees and river banks: “At an extremely late rehearsal on New Year’s Eve, Harold Keeping, who was playing Badger, fell backwards putting an end to rehearsals and possibly our New Year festivities.  Fortunately Badger was wearing a thick jacket and belt so suffered no more than stiffness and bruising!  The show was so successful we had to put on an extra performance on the second Saturday.”  More than fifty Christmas shows and pantomimes have taken place since.

Toad hall production

Into the 21st Century:

Over the ensuing years there have been major front of house improvements.  Land at the rear was acquired in 1995.  2001 saw the Phoenix Room extension.  Asbestos was removed in 2004 and more improvements were made.  In December 2005 the Centre won the “People and Places” award for Best Individual Contribution to the Arts by an Organisation in North Dorset.  In February 2007 the adjacent building was bought and housed a charity shop raising some £52k.  The lift, box office, Rutter and Proctor rooms were constructed.  By 2011 there was an Oscar-computerised ticket and membership system installed, meaning box office staff no longer had to hand write every ticket.  In 2013 the shop was converted into an art gallery, which meant the old gallery could be converted into a large open foyer with a bar.   In 2018 the roof to the Proctor Room was raised, and in July the following year work began on the Dance Studio, completed in October 2019.  

The Arts Centre is a hub of activity, with Music and Drama groups, the Bell Street School of Dance, a Poetry Group, art classes, a burgeoning Film Society screening recent releases as well as classic movies, sing-alongs, the Live Streaming of Ballets and the National Theatre Live (due to start in July 2020), along with all sorts of other activities: classical ballet classes, jazzercise, dancercise, the Shaftesbury Ukelele Band, the Shaftesbury Steel Band, an a capella choir, pilates, Zen and Dru Yoga, toddler workshops, digital champion sessions to help people master their computers as well as beauty offerings and sessions with Shaftesbury Chiropractic.  

Meanwhile, in 2012, following the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Shaftesbury Snowdrop Festival began with the planting of 60,000 bulbs.  By 2014 the town began a heritage collection of rare and unusual snowdrops which draws in visitors from across the globe and which had a starring role in BBC One’s “Countryfile” just weeks before the whole country went into lockdown because of the corona virus.

The centre also houses events for the phenomenally successfully Shaftesbury Fringe Festival and will do for the inaugural Shaftesbury Literary Festival, due to be held this November.  Shaftesbury Arts Centre looks forward to opening its doors again, welcoming everyone with its weekly Chat & Chill café and bar serving local produce, refreshments from Shaftesbury Wines and delicious local Purbeck ice-creams. Meanwhile the Art Gallery is always fully booked up well in advance, showcasing the talents of so many artists, drawing inspiration from an area that has always held a fascinating allure...