Celebrating 100 years of Music & Performing Arts in Welwyn Garden City

Welwyn Garden City has a long and proud history of amateur music and theatre groups since construction of the town began in 1920. The original founders of the town were passionate about music, theatre and sport which formed a vital part of Ebenezer Howard’s vision of building a town and community for healthy living.

By Sarah Stevens

from the Music and Performing
Arts Team and Welwyn Harmony

from the Music and Performing
Arts Team and Welwyn Harmony

From the very beginning the people who moved to Welwyn Garden City to live and work set up clubs and societies to continue their musical and theatrical hobbies.

Without readily available entertainment people had to make their own amusements, for their satisfaction and the pleasure of others, and enthusiastically set to. Some were community-led, others had professional input and some were even set up by companies here in the town, like the former ICI drama club.

Naturally over time many have amalgamated or even closed down, but there are a number of music and theatre groups that started in the 20s and 30s and are still thriving today. Here are some of them.

Welwyn Garden City Music Society

The town’s oldest musical society is the Welwyn Garden City Orchestra and Chorus also known as the Welwyn Garden City Music Society. Founded in 1921 it is just one year younger than the town itself!
Practices were held at the Cherry Tree, originally 3 army huts, where Waitrose now stands, which has also been described as “those sheds where everything took place”. In true pioneer spirit the membership of 50, out of a town population of only 400, would tramp across an unmade farm track wearing gumboots and carrying torches to reach their rehearsals. Despite that, within a year the Society was running both professional and amateur concerts, regularly performing major classical works including “Elijah”, “The Creation”, “Messiah” as well as less well-known work. In 1925 an offshoot the Ecologues, was formed for informal music-making in each other’s houses and the following year a separate women’s choir known as the “shrieking sisterhood” or “The Shriek” for short. Not a name you are likely to hear today!
Through the 30s regular concerts continued, some to raise funds for the library and hospital. The outbreak of the second world war brought a standstill to all this, but after a period of adjustment the need began to be felt for some form of entertainment to help re-establish the sense of community shattered by wartime conditions and blackout. So the Parkway Monday evenings were started. They were not exclusively musical evenings however; among the many well-known artists who came to entertain was Joyce Grenfell.
As the war ended the Society restarted its orchestra and chorus and has continued to entertain the town with high quality performances from its amateur players and singers with the encouragement of experienced musicians and singers supporting them in rehearsal and at concerts. The archives of the Welwyn and Hatfield Times over the last 70 years tell the story of an orchestra and choir who have consistently performed to very high standards whatever the challenges.
Currently the Orchestra and Chorus have some 80 enthusiastic and committed members who perform around 4 concerts a year. They continue to present a wide range of classical music from the familiar to the new. Their Music Director and Chorus Master are well known professional musicians and their President is Andrew Watkinson, the founder and leader of the internationally acclaimed Endellion String Quartet, which is arguably the finest quartet in the country. Andrew Watkinson has performed with the orchestra as violin soloist on several occasions, including their 90th birthday celebration concert, a wonderful experience for Welwyn Garden City audiences.
2021 is the Centenary Year for the Music Society. Due to the Covid pandemic their concerts have been put on hold although they hope to resume performances later this year. In the meantime both choir and orchestra are holding regular virtual online rehearsals, which although not matching the quality of real-time rehearsals, serve to maintain the high standard of singing and playing they have reached, and to keep them practising! Keep a look out for details of their own centenary celebration performances and, if you are interested in joining they are still recruiting new members.

Welwyn Garden City Band

The Welwyn Garden City Band was formed in 1934. Appealing not only to local players it attracted a large number of instrumentalists coming from all over the country to live and work in the new garden city – many from the traditional brass band strongholds of the North and Scotland.

From their earliest success in 1936 at the Crystal Palace national Brass Band Championships it has continued to be a prize winning band and performed widely, including European tours. Among their highlights is being featured in BBC radio broadcasts including “Friday Night is Music Night” and the Radio 3 Bandstand series. In 1982 they played for Her Majesty The Queen Mother at a garden party in the grounds of Hatfield House. In 1993, as one of the top brass bands in the region, Telstar records commissioned them to record “Best of Brass” a CD of twenty “all time favourites” for nationwide distribution. A second disc followed in 2004 to celebrate their 70th year “The Platinum Album”.

Over the last 15 years they have continued to be both a competitive and a performance band. From April to August it is Sunday afternoon bandstand concerts in the park, with some special events like the Teddy Bears Picnic for Kids and Bandstand days at Hertford Castle. At Christmas it is carol concerts. But from September to March they become a contest band, competing in the National Regional competition in Stevenage and three or four other regional competitions. Always happy to try something new, in 2016 they collaborated with the Barn Theatre on a production of “Brassed Off” which ran to packed houses for a week.

Covid has disrupted their 2020 performance schedule but they have continued to rehearse weekly online and members have remained keen. They do however now have vacancies for a soprano cornet player, a solo trombone and a Bbb bass player so if you have any of those skills please contact the band.

At heart they remain our local brass band. For years they have played live at the town’s annual Remembrance Day Parade in November. Cancelled last year due to lock-down the Band instead provided the soundtrack to the Remembrance Day video which the Council produced showing the Mayor laying a wreath, and representatives of the local clergy and other groups who would normally take part. From leading parades in the town to taking part in the WGC100 opening Festival of Lights event they are an integral part of the local music scene and are still going strong after nearly 90 years.


Welwyn Garden City Male Voice Choir

In 1935 a group of young Welshmen made the decision to start a choir knowing that among the 10,000 inhabitants of the town were a good number of Welsh families like themselves. Popular from the beginning, the Welwyn Garden City Male Voice choir was soon singing all over the country as well as locally, performing what became known as Celebrity concerts, where they invited a celebrity to sing with them. After 5 years the choir was in a strong position with keen members, organising a host of activities for Welwyn Garden City and raising a lot of money for charity.
The war led to a temporary break but in 1945 performances started again. The choir, along with the WGC Band and Music Society performed at the VE Day open air service. The Celebrity concerts continued. The choir first sang for the BBC in 1946 and by 1959 were singing fortnightly in a regular series of television performances with the likes of the Billy Cotton Band. The strong Welsh influence continued with the choir performing regularly at the London Welsh 1000 Voices Festival – a rare honour – and regular slots at the Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall.
Despite their fame they carried on performing regularly in Welwyn Garden City from dinner dances to concerts and their charity fund-raising continued apace. So successful were they that they attracted the interest of the Inland Revenue! The 70s and 80s were a more difficult time. The original character of the choir had changed with the majority of members no longer Welsh and work commitments making regular practice difficult but by the late 90s the choir was back to its regular strength of around 40 members and more performances, including a trip to Merthyr Tydfil to sing to a large and appreciative Welsh audience.
The 25 years from 1995 proved to be a period of great change socially with rapid development of technology and the onset of social media, which enabled the choir to reach out further afield both for new members and new audiences. Two of the more notable performances were singing on the pitch at RFU Twickenham before the England vs Wales game in 2000, and entertaining the crowds at half time at Watford Football Club when they were riding rather higher in the football leagues than they are today. Other prestigious performances followed at the National History Museum, with some of the choir standing under the tail of a brontosaurus, and at the Grosvenor and Dorchester Hotels along with the Band of the Scots Guards and the RAF Band.
The Welsh connection continues to be very important. To celebrate their 80th anniversary they held a concert at the Hawthorne Theatre along with the Codicote Primary School Choir.  Members dressed up as Welsh miners complete with head torches for the opening number “Take me Home” which includes the words “I remember the face of my father as we walked back home from the mine”. Young Owen from Codicote School walked off the stage holding the hand of his grandfather Howell, a tenor in the choir, who was a miner in South Wales in his youth before moving to WGC. Reportedly there was not a dry eye in the house.
In recent years the choir has adopted a range of new musical styles and more contemporary songs, so that in addition to its classic male voice choir numbers and at least one song sung in Welsh at their performances in acknowledgement of its heritage, you will hear songs from the musicals and pop songs such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Lean on Me, Something Inside so Strong and even Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!
Whatever the changes and challenges the choir continues in its main aim to perform concerts in aid of good causes whilst providing a convivial, sociable and inclusive environment for its members. It has raised many thousands of pounds for local and national charities. Of particular note perhaps to Welwyn Garden City folk, the local churches and charities Herts Young Homeless, Mind in Mid-Herts and JOCA (Just One Click Away), a charity set up by Welwyn Rugby Club to support the mental health of players following the tragic deaths of two of its members. In 2018 to encourage more men to try singing they set up a new choir – Men’s Voices United – to sing at a one-off concert at Hatfield House in aid of Mind, JOCA and Sane. They raised over £7000 for charity from that event alone, as well as recruiting some new members for the Male Voice Choir. The choir continues to go from strength to strength.

The Barnstormers

Among the earliest theatre groups were the Barnstormers, a group of musicians and actors founded in 1923, putting on musicals at the Barn Theatre and at school fundraisers. Encouraged by their success they moved into producing operas and also performing in the annual Old Time Music Hall. This was a very popular Easter time event funded by the Rotary Club, with all profits going to charity. With six nights of performances each attended by 400 people it raised a lot of money as well as being an important social event. The audiences dressed up, sat at tables and enjoyed refreshments while being entertained by a variety of performers. The Old Time Music Hall finished in 1985, but the Welwyn Wailers have carried on its spirit with their annual four night Music Hall charity fund raising extravaganza in Welwyn Village.

Welwyn Thalians

Welwyn Thalians was formed in 1929 from a merger with two other amateur societies, one of which was the Barnstormers. The Welwyn Thalians’ early shows were largely Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Dame Flora Robson, an early and active supporter, can still be remembered sweeping down the aisles. From there, musical shows and plays poured out in succession while the reputation of the Thalians grew. A large scale production of ‘St Joan’ was reported favourably in The Daily Telegraph, and festival triumphs took the society as far as America, as well as being  the first group at the Letchworth Festival.

When the Welwyn Theatre was damaged by fire in 1962 the society were left looking for a new venue in which to perform. This came in the form of the Hawthorne Theatre, where the group have performed many shows including My Fair lady, Little shop of Horrors, Half a Sixpence, and most recently Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for which Alex Ryde won the best actor award from the National Operatic and Dramatic Association in 2020. The society continues to thrive and grow, rehearsing and performing also in their own theatre in Bridge Road East, where recent productions have included a modernised version of The Pirates of Penzance and a highly acclaimed production of Chicago. Covid interrupted their rehearsals and scheduled performances for the WGC Centenary celebrations but they have managed to maintain a continuous programme of online workshops on topics such as characterisation, accents, and soap scripts as well as social online activities.

The Welwyn Thalians recently celebrated their 90th year, and are planning to put on their next show in the late autumn of 2021. This show will incorporate music, dance, song and theatre spanning the last 100 years. There will be something for everyone, from songs for reminiscing, to the music of today, sprinkled with sketches and a good dose of humour. The show will be performed in their theatre in Bridge Road East, so look out for more details later in the year.


The Barn Theatre

Barn Theatre Sketch 1991

Over the years there have been many performing arts venues, including the Welwyn Theatre and the Cherry Tree ballroom but no article about music and performing arts in the town would be complete without mentioning the Barn Theatre. It has played host to many of the town’s theatrical and music groups, and has had a pivotal role in promoting and sustaining arts in Welwyn Garden City.  The building itself is one of the most historic buildings in the town. Constructed as a farm building around 1830 it was converted from a cowshed to a theatre in 1931 and is now a Grade ll listed building, albeit with much more modern facilities last upgraded in the last 10 years. Almost every group in the town will have performed there at least once and for many groups it was their main venue.

In addition to providing rehearsal and performance resources for amateur groups, which continues to this day, it has its own resident theatre company, The Barn Theatre Club.  Formed in 1969 from the Welwyn Drama Club and the Welwyn Folk Players the club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020. It puts on 10 productions a year, studio events and also has an active youth theatre. The youth theatre maintains a strong presence with an eye on the future of the club and theatre in general. Whatever the future challenges the Barn seems safe in their hands.
To read more about the Barn Theatre’s history, read our guest article by Robert Gill here.

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