By Sarah Stevens
from the Music and Performing
Arts Team and Welwyn Harmony
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
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
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 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
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.