The history of Victoria Hall

John and Helen Reid
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

The Hall

In 1853 Victoria Hall was built as a Music Hall on the site of the old National School in Settle. It had wooden seating, a pipe organ, a small stage and wooden balcony. On the front outside was a cast iron verandah with glass panels.

In early days silent films were operated by Tanny Jerome and the projectionist was Harold Smith. Mr John Graham took over from Tanny and ran the picture house - the Kirkgate Kinema - from the 1920s. He was also an actor and singer with the Settle Amateur Operatic Society. The pianist at the picture house was Olive Marson (from the age of 14). Arthur Graham later carried on operating the cinema.

In the 1920s the Hall was given to the people of the district, to be run by Settle Rural District Council, by J.G.Robinson of Cragdale. The organ was removed and installed in Hellifield Church. The wooden benches were also removed, the wooden balcony and stairs replaced using reinforced concrete and a new composition floor was fitted, all to satisfy Fire Regulations. Brassington’s did work on the Hall in 1921 and second-hand cinema seats from the Coliseum Cinema in Southport were installed. The heating system was upgraded in 1922 by J. Handby. A new dressing room extension was added in 1936. In 1939 the Grahams opened the Nuvic Cinema on the site of the present Co-op store and both venues showed films of the day until eventually the showing of films was discontinued at Victoria Hall. The old projection box at the back of the Hall was then made into a toilet.

The Settle Amateur Operatic Society (AOS) was established in 1879. A Dramatic club was formed in 1920 which continued until the 1980s. A splinter group, the Settle Light Opera Company, was set up in 1931 and this continued until the 1960s. The Settle Drama Festival was staged from 1949 to about 1969 and the Take One Drama Group was formed in the late 1970s. All these continued to help keep the Hall in use although facilities were very primitive!

In the 1980s ‘Furniture Sales’ run by James Thompson and Malcolm Skidmore used the Hall and by that time the only other regular users were Take One and Settle AOS and the Tuesday market. The Hall had become very dilapidated.

To bring the Hall back to a happy life, in the late 1990s a group of Trustees was formed and they took over the Hall on a 99 year lease from Craven District Council. The building was transformed into what is seen today - a building to be proud of. Long may it continue to be supported and used as a venue for artistic performances, markets and exhibitions.

Settle AOS (130 years of history)

During the years 1879-1880, a group of enthusiasts, notably Edmund Handby, F.C. Stanley and C.E. Bygrave rehearsed a comedy, Paul Pry, to be presented in January 1880. Because of the instant success of the show, the society concerned itself with drama. In the 1880s following the success of Paul Pry, the plays given were Post Boy, Castle, The Private Secretary, The Governor, Upper Crust and The Magistrate. Then, for no particular reason, the society graduated from comedy to comic opera, and since that time, a Gilbert and Sullivan series of shows was produced. The transition from play to light opera seems to have come in December 1898, when the society produced various G & S productions. Edmund Handby painted the act drop for the stage.

After HMS Pinafore in 1891, the society produced Pirates of Penzance. Following the curtain call of Pirates, the usual bouquets and other gifts were handed out, but the Sergeant of Police received a gift that looked like a meat and potato pie!! The last performance of any note during the early years was Olivette in 1897 which was satisfying but not financially successful. In the following year the society was content to stage a minor production and a concert.

In 1900 there were repeat performances of The Geisha. Dr Charles William Buck, who became a celebrity as a friend of the composer Elgar, was the conductor. In 1906 because of this, hundreds were turned away on the last evening.

Some brave soul suggested in 1933 that the society might present The Vagabond King, breaking the well-entrenched Gilbert and Sullivan tradition. The long and successful run of the famous Savoy operas had to end. There followed some ‘golden oldies’ − Student Prince, Desert Song and Arcadians until the second world war arrived. ‘When the lights went on again all over the world’ (to use the song from our 2005 show!) the society returned with more G & S, with Iolanthe and Sir Edward German’s Merrie England. Then came the American musical invasion which, with the exception of a few English productions, has continued to this very day. During the two world war years there were no productions.

For 26 years, the producer was Mrs Barbara Bailey of Bingley. She came to us with a considerable reputation for stagecraft. Under her each show was meticulously produced. She cherished the old values, idle chatter was discouraged by a stamping of the foot. No hangers-on were permitted in the wings during the show and she was beside the stage watching every movement for every performance.

Rehearsals up until 1966 were held in various venues around the town. Then in 1966, due to a generous bequest from the member Mr J Batty, the society was able to purchase The Old Courthouse in Station Road. This is a great asset to the society, since we are able to rehearse there, make and paint scenery, store our own stock of costumes and have social events there. The Old Courthouse came complete with the dock and the magistrates’ seating!

In 1980, the then secretary, Bernard Houghton, instigated a major fund-raising event to refurbish the Courthouse. This was very quickly and successfully completed in 1983 - all thanks to Bernard. In the words of John Hargreaves, “Bernard quietly restructured the Society so that it changed with changing times, without destroying its spirit.”

From 1970 to 1982 the MD was Leslie Thomis of Bingley. Stephanie Phillip joined as choreographer in 1970. Chris Ingram produced Summer Song in 1978 and our centenary production Showboat in 1979. In 1982 Stephanie took over as producer, she like Mrs Bailey sings and acts out every line from the wings during show week.

Today the musical director is Freda Hargreaves, whose association with the society began in 1948. The contribution as musical director has been a job that she enjoys. She remarks that “The conductor has the easiest job, all she does is stand and wave her arms around!” Good accompanists are hard to come by and the society are very lucky to have two, John Lewis and David Butcher.

All our productions have taken place in the Victoria Hall, except one in the year 2000, when the Hall was being refurbished. The society has had many staunch members over the years, notably John Hargreaves, who took part in every production during his 51-year membership. Annice Holmes (a member of the Sidwells family) passed away aged 99 years - she maintained a keen interest all her life and took many leading roles during her time with the society. The late Jack Brassington, Charlie Potter, Vic Pitts, Mary Kitchen, Mary Mounsey and Tom Wooff are other staunch former members who come to mind, but of course over 130 years there are many more too numerous to mention. We remember them all.

The Society currently has several members in receipt of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association long service silver award for 25 years and more active service to amateur theatre. The 50-year gold award is held by Brian Horn, Maureen Batty and Mavis Garnett and was also received this year by Shirley Hayton. The diamond award for 60 years active service is held by Freda Hargreaves, our President and Musical Director. These are marvellous achievements and we hope our other members will continue this long tradition.

Around eighty people are involved in any production, which takes six months of preparation and rehearsals. The cost of a show can be between £8,000 and £10,000 and the Society rarely makes a profit. The AOS is helped by the Social Committee who fund-raise to help subsidize any loss on the shows.

There have been many familes involved in the Society over the years, which makes for a good family and local atmosphere. The Society is very lucky to have so much local support. It was reported that the production in 2009 was to be My Fair Lady and this announcement created some interest from NCHT members who had not attended any of Settle’s AOS productions before.

John Reid is the Chairman of Settle Amateur Operatic Society and Helen Reid the Hon. Secretary. They gave a talk about the history of the Hall and the operatic performances at the 2009 NCHT AGM held in Victoria Hall.

Edmund Handby painted the act drop for the stage

Edmund Handby painted the act drop for the stage