BY ROBERT GILL
WGC 100 Team Contributor
WGC 100 Team Contributor
It all started with a farm….
The story goes back to the late 16th Century when the timbers used to construct the barn were trees. A dendrochronological survey has established that the age of the oldest timbers are approximately 422 years old which means the barn was originally constructed in around 1598, Tudor times when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne. This makes the barn one of the oldest buildings in the town. Further research has established that the barn was originally built in a field on today’s Lemsford Lane, opposite Stanborough School. Around 1830 the barn was taken down and the timbers moved to their present site where it was reconstructed as part of a much larger barn on the Lower Handside Farm.
Over the years the farms in the Handside area have changed ownership but by 1850 they were part of the Panshanger Estate, owned by Lord Cowper and were being farmed by the Horn family.
‘A model dairy’
In 1919 the Handside farms along with other areas were put into auction by Lord Cowper to pay death duties. It was at this time that Ebenezer Howard, having already determined that the land would make a good place for a second garden city, purchased the farmland and in 1920 began to build the town of Welwyn Garden City. An early phase of this construction was the creation of the New Town Agricultural Guild which was formed to provide food for the growing town. The barn became an integral part of the Guild by conversion into a ‘model dairy’ providing milk for the early residents of the town. This conversion consisted of:
- Cows stalled in the main barn (today’s auditorium)
- Milking taking place at the rear where the milk was also processed
- A silo was added to store silage to feed the cows
- A light railway was installed to service the feed and waste management.
- The milk distribution was managed by Welwyn Stores using horse drawn carts with milk churns to be replaced by bottles later.
Reports from the day indicated that the milk quality was considered excellent and received many accolades from visiting dignitaries.
As the town grew, more and more houses were built on the farmland which left little room for the cows to graze. Consequently, in 1926, the cows moved out and the farm equipment was auctioned off. The rear of the Barn continued to be used by Welwyn Stores as a milk bottling plant. With the cows gone, the Welwyn Stores staff used the empty space for social activities including the performance of a play in 1930.
Then came the theatre…
One of the striking features about the formation of Welwyn Garden City was the enthusiasm for drama from the very beginning. The early days were dominated by two of the original founders of the town: C B Purdom and Frederic Osborn.
In 1921 plays were first produced by Purdom at the Brickwall Barn (now Brickwall Nursery on the old A1), George Bernard Shaw being a popular playwright of the day. The Theatre Society was formed by Purdom in 1921 and began to perform plays at the new Cherry Tree restaurant (now Waitrose).
In 1923 Flora Robson formed the Barnstormers with an emphasis on musical productions. In 1924, Frederic Osborn formed The Labour Players that later became the Welwyn Folk Players with performances in the Parkway Hall (part of the Welwyn Stores).
A number of other groups were created:
- 1926: the New Stagers
- 1927: Welwyn Garden City Operatic Society
- 1928: the Welwyn Theatre opened, though not considered suitable for amateur use (later became the Embassy Cinema)
- 1929: Welwyn Thalians formed from the Barnstormers and Operatic Society.
Plays were often performed in the local Sherrardspark Woods that had a suitable natural hollow feature, the place being called The Dell. Productions were performed from 1925, beginning with Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Barn Theatre opened in 1932
In 1931 Dr L T M Gray, a Director of the Welwyn Garden City Company (which owned the barn) and chairman of the Theatre Society, led the conversion of the barn into a theatre, using the space once occupied by the cows; the bottling plant at the rear of the building continued in use.
The Barn Theatre opened in 1932 with a series of short plays and full-length performances and by 1933 there were 10 productions a year. 1934 saw the creation of the Welwyn Drama Club formed from the Theatre Society and the Thalians. They took over management of the Barn whilst Flora Robson, by now an accomplished professional actress, became Honorary President. In 1939 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. With the coming of World War II, the Barn was commandeered by the Army followed by Navy Cadets, all of which resulted in much of the interior being destroyed.
After the war, the Barn reopened in 1946 following a lot of rebuilding under the management of the Barn Theatre Committee and began to produce 8-12 productions a year with contributions from many drama groups in the town. The rear of the Barn remained in the hands of Welwyn Department Store and was used as a social club.
Welwyn Garden City became a New Town in 1948 and ownership of the Barn passed to the WGC Development Corporation who leased the theatre to the Barn Committee. By the late 1950s the Corporation had undertaken structural repairs and offered a 21 year lease. 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.
1st October 1969, the Barn Theatre Club opened with ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be’ followed by 6 more productions plus one by ICI Dramatic Society. ICI, who had been performing at the Barn since 1946, continued to put shows on till 1982 when the company operations in WGC ceased. In 1981 the Barn Theatre Trust Ltd was formed as a Registered Charity, being responsible for the building and staging of productions by Club members. A massive rent increase was expected so a decision was taken to purchase the building freehold which was achieved by the members in 1983.
2020 - celebrating 50 years
The Barn Theatre Club, celebrating 50 years in 2020, continues to produce 10 productions a year, Studio events and has an active Youth Theatre. Since 1969 the Club has entered many Drama Festivals, both one act and full length, winning many awards from competitions across the UK. A number of members have entered the professional world having ‘cut their teeth’ in the youth section on the Barn stage.
Two notable drama festivals are held at the Barn, the Welwyn Drama Festival created by Sir Frederic Osborn in 1929, began at the Welwyn Theatre, then Campus West and moved to the Barn in 2014. The Youth Drama Festival began in 1944 and has been held at the Barn since 1947.
Today the Barn has a membership of around 500 of which some 48% 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. Future challenges include maintaining the building which is now Grade II listed.
The year 2020 is the Centenary of Welwyn Garden City and also sees the Barn celebrating the 50 years since the formation of the Barn Theatre Club in 1969. In celebration of the occasion, a number of events were planned across the town and within the Barn.
The play City of Tomorrow, written by Glyn Maxwell, was due to be performed at the Barn in April 2020, the play bringing together the Centenary and the Barn telling the story of the creation of a garden city. Glyn was born in the town, has appeared on the Barn stage in his youth and is a world recognised poet and playwright.
Sadly, as a result of COVID-19, the Centenary Celebrations were cancelled in March and the Barn closed its doors for an indefinite period.
We are delighted to share news that the Barn’s doors are reopening – virtually at least with two of Glyn’s plays. Even better news is that an adapted version of City of Tomorrow will be presented as a FREE online full-cast reading on the 18th and 19th December. Over 140 places have been booked so far.