Barn Theatre history as a Theatre
Theatre in a Barn
From Brickwall to Handside
A summary by Denys & Marion Wells, Barn Theatre Archivists
Several people have written accounts of the history of the Barn Theatre at Handside Lane, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire since it was founded in 1932, and we are particularly grateful to Harry Stull for his detailed research, which has been invaluable to us.
In 1832 the Horn family became tenants of the Panshanger estate (Earl Cowper) at Handside Farm, and continued to farm in the area for nearly ninety years. In about 1830 a new farmhouse had been built at Lower Handside, and the Handside Barn had been erected on its present site, next to the farmhouse [which is now one of the Barnside Court buildings]: the barn (possibly formerly two barns) is said to have been moved from nearby, and to have been first built much earlier.
By the end of the Great War the Horn family farmed both Handside and Brickwall, some 640 acres. In 1919 their land became part of the new town of Welwyn Garden City, and shortly afterwards the Handside farm was taken-over by the New Town Agricultural Guild, and the barn was used as a milking parlour and dairy (the farmhouse was extended to form the New Town Hostel.
The dairy farm closed in 1926, but the rear part of the barn continued to be used as the bottling plant for the Welwyn Stores, until the late 1930's. The concrete silo was added to the barn early in this period, probably about 1921.
Early Theatre in Welwyn Garden City
Building of Welwyn Garden City started in 1920, and within a year, with the population less than 800, the first play was staged at Brickwall Barn (the Handside Barn was then full of cows!), when C.B. Purdom, a Director of Welwyn Garden City Limited (the company formed to build and run the town), and an enthusiast for all forms of drama, directed local people in Shaw's 'The Showing Up of Blanco Posnet'. Drama proved to be a popular activity, and many groups were set up in the following years. Some key events with relevance to the subsequent opening of the Handside Barn as a theatre are listed below.
1921 Purdom founded the Welwyn Garden City Theatre Society, one of its objects being to seek a permanent theatre for amateur drama. Their first production was Shaw's 'Candida', in the Cherry Tree Restaurant, in December.
1924 The Labour Players was founded, by F.J. Osborn and others, to perform plays of social interest (the following year the name was changed to Welwyn Folk Players). Their first play was 'The White Lady', by H.B. Pointing, a local author, presented in the Parkway Hall [where the east end of Rosanne House now stands] in March.
1928 The Welwyn Theatre (later the Embassy cinema) opened in Parkway [where the Health Authority building now stands] for use as both cinema and theatre. Apart from the Welwyn Drama Festival, which was held there with great success annually from 1929 — 1973, it was not very suitable for amateur drama, so the need for a small amateur theatre remained.
1929 The Welwyn Thalians were formed from the W.G. City Barnstormers (founded in 1923) and the W.G. City Operatic Society (founded in 1927), with a strong emphasis on musical productions.
During the period 1921 — 1931 the above drama groups, and others, regularly staged about six to eight shows each year, mostly in the Parkway Hall, and later in the Welwyn Theatre. In 1930 the Welwyn Stores Staff Association performed 'Tilly of Bloomsbury', by Ian Hay, at the Handside Barn, which then housed their social club.
Growing dissatisfaction with the Welwyn Theatre led Dr L.T.M. Gray, a Director of the Welwyn Garden City Company (which owned the Handside Barn), who was also Chairman of the Theatre Society, to arrange, and to finance from his own resources, the conversion of part of the Barn to a theatre. All the local drama groups co-operated with the Theatre Society to carry out the necessary work, and the Barn Theatre was eventually inaugurated as a public theatre in January 1932, with Dr Gray as licensee, and responsible for its operation. It could seat 150 people on tip-up seats, with tickets at 1/3d [6 pence] and 2/6d [12 pence].
The Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City 1932 — 1940
The local press records the opening of the Barn Theatre on Monday 4th January 1932, with the four drama groups most involved in its preparation each performing a one-act play, with performances every night of the week:
- Folk Players 'The Invisible Duke', by F. Sladen-Smith
- Welwyn Stores DS 'The Fur Coat', by F.J. Talbol.
- Welwyn Thalians 'The Devil among the Skins', by E. Goodwin.
- Theatre Society 'The Leading Lady', by H.B. Pointing.
The first full-length production was of Shaw's 'Misalliance', staged by the Theatre Society: in that opening year there were 'only' 5 full-length shows, compared with 10 in 1933!
In 1934 the first attempt was made to combine the main drama groups, to take over the running of the theatre. Not all of them agreed, but the Welwyn Drama Club was formed from the Theatre Society and a section of the Thalians, and took over management of the Barn where about five shows were staged each year, until it had to close down in 1940 after being requisitioned by the Army. Flora Robson, by now a talented and established professional actress, was the honorary President of the Drama Club from its foundation until its incorporation into the Barn Theatre Club in 1969 (she continued as Patron of the latter club until her death in 1984), and was able to attend a few productions at the Barn Theatre.
During the war years only the Folk Players, of the main groups, was able to continue with public productions, and they put on at least one full-length show, at St. Francis Church Hall, each year from 1941 —1946.
The Barn Theatre Welwyn Garden City: changes 1946 — 1969
In 1946 the Barn was in a sorry state after wartime use by the Army and then by Naval Cadets, so a committee from the various drama groups was set up to organise the virtually complete restoration of the theatre facilities, and to take over management of the building. Thanks to great efforts by many volunteers, the theatre, in many ways better fitted out than before, was reopened to the public in November 1946, with a production by the Folk Players of Shaw's 'Fanny's First Play'.
During the following years the Barn Theatre Committee was able to arrange from 8 to 12 shows annually, mainly by the Drama Club, the Folk Players and the Thalians, joined from 1948 by the ICI Dramatic Club, and later by the Welwyn Stores' Howardsgate Players, as well as by other groups.
In 1948 Welwyn Garden City became a New Town, and ownership of the Barn passed to the W.G. City Development Corporation, who leased the theatre to the Barn Theatre Committee. In the late 1950's the Corporation undertook structural repairs, and offered a 21 year lease. Also at about this time a Barn Theatre supporters club was formed, partly to raise money for improvements, and a Clubroom with licensed Bar for club members was opened in 1961.
In 1963 the Barn Theatre Committee was replaced by the Barn Theatre Association Limited, a company formed to place the long lease of the theatre on a more formal basis. The members of the Association were drawn from the chief drama groups, so it still represented their interests, as had the Committee.
With the security of a long lease on the theatre, and the existence of an active supporters' club, separate from the drama groups putting on the plays, the 1930's idea of a single group to perform in, and to run, the theatre was revived. Not everyone was agreed on this, but by the late 1960's two of the main groups, the Drama Club and the Folk Players, which had a growing common membership, had combined forces in several joint productions, which were very successful.
Finally, in 1969 a complicated amalgamation took place, by which the Barn Theatre Association Limited absorbed the Drama Club, the Folk Players, and the supporters club, and was reborn as the Barn Theatre Club Limited, which became responsible for everything to do with the theatre. In the same year the rear part of the building, previously used by the Welwyn Stores Social Club, became available, and the new Barn Theatre Club was able to adapt the large amount of space to theatre use, as rehearsal rooms, wardrobe space, and a Green Room.
30 years of the new Club
On 1 October 1969, the new Barn Theatre Club opened its first season with a production of the musical show by Frank Norman (music by Lionel Bart), 'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be'. A further six productions were staged by the Club in the season, and one by the ICI Dramatic Society, which had been unable to join the new organisation [the ICI club continued to put on shows at the Barn in most years until 1982, when ICI closed its main operation in the area. The Thalians also put on a couple of shows in 1970 and 1972.
In 1981 a second company, the Barn Theatre Trust Limited, was set up as a Registered Charity, to be responsible for maintaining the building, and for staging the productions put on by Club members. Because a massive rent increase was expected soon, on renewal of the first 21 year lease, it was agreed to try to purchase the freehold of the building. After long negotiations, the Trust completed the purchase in 1984, following a major fund-raising campaign, so finally achieving the goal of an amateur theatre in the town, owned and controlled by its members. Since then many alterations have been, and continue to be, made to the facilities, dependent on the money and labour available, and on planning requirements for what is now a Grade II listed building.
A wide range of plays continues to he presented at the Barn Theatre Welwyn Garden City. Displays of stage photographs and programmes from our archives are often used to illustrate the wide range of productions mounted during the life of the theatre - now approaching 90 years.
The Club also organises a variety of dramatic and social events, and is a member of The Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain. It regularly enters local and national drama festivals, in which it has won many awards.