Welwyn Garden City centenary: Theatre which was formerly a milk bottling plant at the heart of founding

Productions at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City have been postponed due to concerns over coron

Productions at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City have been postponed due to concerns over coronavirus. Picture: Danny Loo - Credit: Archant

Though this year has been an unlucky one for Welwyn Garden City to celebrate its centenary, our readers can look back with pride at how theatre shaped the culture of our town from the very beginning. 

Both of the town's founders C. B. Purdom and Frederic Osborn had a keen interest in drama and literature according to Robert Gill, Barn Theatre Archivist, and WGC 100 team contributor. 

Purdom actually produced the first play performed in the new town, founded the Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City Theatre Society, now the Welwyn Drama Club, and later performed at the new Cherry Tree restaurant, now Waitrose.

In 1924, Osborn formed The Labour Players that later became the Welwyn Folk Players, and a lot of his writings from this time are still available at Herts Archives. 

But it was not until the 1930s that the Barn Theatre finally opened after Sherrardspark Woods, used for Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1920s, Brickwall Barn, now Brickwall Nursery on the old A1, and Parkway Hall, part of the old site for the Welwyn Stores, were all used at various points to stage performances.

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In 1931 Dr L. T. M. Gray, a director of the Welwyn Garden City Company, set about turning what had been the Barn Theatre, one of the oldest buildings in the town, which had been used as a stable and later as a milk bottling plant then a recreation space for the workers of Welwyn stores, into a theatre. 

The company, according to archivist Robert Gill, owned the barn and Dr Gray, also as chairman of the Theatre Society, opened The Barn Theatre in 1932 with a series of short plays and full-length performances and by 1933 there were 10 productions a year.

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On the eve of World War II, in 1939, Mr Gill explains, the new Welwyn Department Stores, now John Lewis, opened and the bottling plant moved to be part of the new store, leaving the rear of the building empty.

Later the theatre was commandeered by the Army than the Navy Cadets, leaving much of the interior destroyed, and after the war ended, it was able to reopen in 1946 thanks to a lot of rebuilding by the management of the Barn Theatre Committee. 

Subsequently, it went back to the eight-12 productions a year while the rear of the Barn remained in the hands of Welwyn Department Store and was used as a social club, Mr Gill adds. 

Ownership changed yet again two years later when Welwyn Garden City became a new town and the WGC Development Corporation leased the theatre to the Barn Committee.

"By the late 1950s, the Corporation had undertaken structural repairs and offered a 21-year lease," Mr Gill explains. "In 1963 the Barn Theatre Committee was replaced by the Barn Theatre Association formed from members of the main drama groups.

"1969 saw the formation of the Barn Theatre Club that we have today. At the same time, the rear of the building became available from Welwyn Department Stores Social Club and was adapted to extend the overall theatre space; Dame Flora Robson and Sir Frederic Osborn became joint patrons."

Despite all these upheavals, the Barn Theatre has been a key part of the town, and though it has been closed during these past months with intermittent virtual readings this is not the end of its story. 

A play about Welwyn Garden City, City of Tomorrow by Glyn Maxwell, was read over Zoom. 

Since 1981 it has been a registered charity and owns the freehold thanks to its members' donations in 1983.

Mr Gill adds: "Today the Barn has a membership of around 500 of which some 48 per cent are senior members. It is very dependent on volunteers to maintain the building and its facilities, as well as create the 10 shows each year.

"The Youth Theatre, based within the recently developed Studio, maintains a strong presence with an eye on the future of the Club and theatre in general. "

To make a donation, go to www.barntheatre.co.uk

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