History of Burnley Garrick Club

The first Secretary of Burnley Garrick Club was Mrs. Lilian Cook. She was originally the Secretary of the Burnley Comedy Company — a team which played once a year: a matinée at one of the local theatres. Each play was produced by Lilian’s husband, Jack Livesey Cook, a local bank manager. It was Mrs. Cook’s vision and hard work that resulted in Burnley Garrick Club being formed in 1929.

The development of the Club was no easy task, as it meant cajoling, persuading and almost blackmailing their friends to become members of something quite new and hitherto, untried. She succeeded in her venture, and some two hundred members paid six shillings each per annum in order to see twelve plays. These were presented at Claremont School, off Padiham Road, Burnley, on a Tuesday night, every fortnight during the winter. The production of those plays made it necessary for the small nucleus of players to appear almost like repertory players, for it often necessitated their learning and rehearsing two plays at the same time.

After the Club’s two years at Claremont School, Massey’s Burnley Brewery, always a patron of the Arts, offered The Garrick the theatre over the Market Tavern in Market Street, Burnley. It was a wonderful little theatre and such a tragedy when the re-development of the Burnley Centre after the war resulted in its demolition. The Club members had spent hundreds of hours in those early days, cleaning, repairing and rebuilding a stage which had been last used as a boxing ring. But what a marvellous result! The theatre was named “The Phoenix” after the legendary bird rising again from its ashes. It had character, tradition and atmosphere, not to mention a stage partially suspended over the river on two steel girders of doubtful strength and dependability.

New Market Tavern 

It is significant that, in those early years, and indeed in the years immediately after the war, one of the best attended evenings of the whole year was that of the annual general meeting. The interest then shown could not be dampened, even by the Chairman pointing out that the theatre was a dreadful fire hazard!

At the outbreak of World War II it was found impossible to carry on as before, but those left at home continued playing on various stages for wartime charities.

After the war the Club was first housed at the Victory Centre in Yorkshire Street, and in 1946 it returned to the Phoenix, and remained there until April 1961 when the area was to be redeveloped. It was then empty until it was finally demolished in 1967.

To Burnley and its little theatre have been paid many compliments, but no doubt the highest came during the second world war, when the Old Vic Company, seeking shelter from the raids of the Luftwaffe, made the town its temporary home. Sybil Thorndike and her husband Sir Lewis Casson, looked in many times admiringly at this link with the entertainment of another age. And when they came to return to London at the end of the war they said simply: “We’d like to take this theatre back with us, just as it stands.”

Whilst the town centre was being redeveloped, the Garrick was without a home. And then, in 1962, an offer from the Bank Hall Miners’ Club meant the Garrick could again present plays. Four years later, we snapped up the opportunity to lease the Co-Operative Assembly Rooms in Hammerton Street.

Florence & George Ridley 

In 1966, under the leadership of the then Chairman, Mr. George Ridley, bands of willing helpers planned, toiled and painted stage, auditorium and green-room and brought the Club premises to a very high standard.

For 20 years, Hammerton Street was the theatrical home of the Garrick. As a result of the very high standards the Garrick set itself, membership of the Garrick was much sought after by the theatre-going public. The result was that all productions were fully booked, with waiting lists for returned tickets.

The Garrick was a club, and was very much part of the Burnley social scene. However, private clubs were no longer exempted from the laws applying to public buildings. With more and more government legislation in the fields of Health and Safety, Fire and Public Liability, the Hammerton Street theatre was considered unfit for purpose. The landlords were unwilling to commit large sums of money to bring the premises up to the standards required of the day. This meant that, reluctantly, the Garrick committee had to look around for somewhere else to perform.

Not only that, it needed somewhere to store its collection of properties and scenery.

Burnley Borough Council had bought the Mechanics Institute in 1959 and had leased it to companies for a variety of leisure purposes. In 1979, the interior was reconstructed as a theatre, the conversion taking a number of years. It was in 1986 that Burnley Garrick Club moved from Hammerton Street and started to present its plays at the Burnley Mechanics, where it remained until 2010.

The Mechanics’ five-hundred-seat auditorium used to be filled on most nights of the Garrick presentations when we moved there. But, as many other amateur theatre companies found, audience numbers dwindled over the years.
There are no doubt many reasons for this, and it is the subject of constant debate amongst committee members throughout the North West.

In 1988, two years after our move to the Mechanics Theatre, we were offered and accepted rehearsal and workshop facilities at Haggate Baptist Church in Briercliffe. This, under the guiding influence of our late past president, Clifford Spencer, proved to be an absolute blessing. At last, we had somewhere where scenery could be constructed and somewhere we could rehearse without having to consider other organisations wanting a venue at the same time as us.
Behind the workshop was a flat-roofed building which, when its users gave up its lease in 2001, became available to the Garrick. This chance to have a rehearsal room, independent of the workshop was gratefully accepted. With two separate rooms it meant that the Garrick could have a meeting room and a rehearsal room. And the latter was where the majority of plays were rehearsed for more than a decade.

In 2008, with audience numbers falling, and ever rising costs of theatre hire and presentation costs, it was decided that either the Garrick had to move to a new venue or face extinction. It is to the credit of the committee at that time that it took a pragmatic approach to the problem. About this time the Arts, Culture and Entertainment Centre was being constructed in Nelson. Built as a multi-purpose unit the ACE seemed to be offering exactly what was needed for the Garrick: an auditorium large enough for our audience, a ground-level entrance, and adequate parking space nearby. That it had not been constructed with theatrical performances in mind was the only minor downside.

Again, the plunge was taken and in May 2010, we played our last performance at the Mechanics Theatre, The Darling Buds of May.

The only worry was, “Will we be able to take our patrons with us?”

The answer to that was a positive “Yes”, with bookings for that first season exceeding our expectations. John Cummings was the director of our opening play at the ACE Centre with that perennial favourite, Charley’s Aunt. From the success of that play, we have continued to enjoy many sell-out performances and it is probably true to say that the standard of presentation is as high as it has ever been.

In 2010 the terrapins housing the green room and rehearsal room proved to be unusable. The roof was leaking, the window frames were deteriorating and, following an exceptionally hard winter and a major water leak, the Baptist Church decided it wasn’t going to spend any more money on maintaining the building and offered it to the Garrick at a reduced rental. At the same time, the church offered to meet half the costs of converting part of the building used as the workshop into a rehearsal room. The help offered by the Church was gratefully received and work started to convert what used to be the doors and properties store into a rehearsal room.

The Garrick’s thanks also go to two donors of funds: one donor who wishes to remain anonymous and Burnley Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which, on its disbandment, gave money to the Garrick.

As we hardly ever made use of our wardrobe, it was decided to dispose of it and to house the properties in the space vacated by the wardrobe department. Work started on this in the summer of 2010 and continued into 2011. The last play to be rehearsed in the terrapin was The Flint Street Nativity of November 2011; and the first play to be rehearsed completely in the new rehearsal room was Cranford in February 2012.

The Garrick spent money on making the building waterproof and the terrapins were then converted into storage space for our furniture and large properties. This meant that, for the first time since Hammerton Street, all the Garrick’s assets were on one site.

The first three seasons at The ACE Centre saw the productions stretch the resources of the Garrick’s technical and stage team by mounting ever more complicated plays. From the all-curtain set of Charley’s Aunt, we had a complicated box set for Cranford, a thrilling large-cast, four-scene production of The Crucible, followed by the 33 scenes of The 39 Steps. We now feel that there is hardly any play that the Garrick cannot tackle!

The superb technical wizardry of our technical manager, Richard I’Anson, cannot be praised too highly. He has worked miracles with, at times, limited resources. Richard, I know, will also wish to thank the technical team at the ACE Centre, led by Chris Storey, which has been an invaluable partner in the Garrick productions there.

Nigel Catterall is the Garrick’s archivist. He has spent many, many hours researching and cataloguing details of the Garrick productions from 1929 to the present. His work has also shown the need for recording as much detail as possible for future generations to read.

Nigel’s archival work, and the Garrick’s presence on the internet, now means that much of this research and recording is readily available to a wider audience.

Under the steadying influence of our treasurer, Peter I’Anson, the Garrick now has the resources to continue for the next 85 years (or at least until our Centenary).

Having spent a great deal of money over the last three years, the Garrick is now hoping to be able to consolidate and grow its financial resources by continuing to present high class presentations of plays that its audience wants to see.
Finally, if The Garrick is going to maintain its standards and reach its Centenary, we shall need your help. It is easy to forget that putting on plays involves off-stage skills as well as acting. Richard, Nigel, and the several other key people who work off-stage will not always be there for us.

If you have, or anyone you know who is interested in theatre has, skills in lighting, sound, joinery, DIY, costumes, or properties, please let us know or ask them to contact us. We are not necessarily asking for a regular commitment: but it is reassuring to have a record of those willing to help occasionally, on a ‘project’ basis, or in a crisis. And this request includes our actors.