On May 24th 2014, The Assembly Hall Theatre celebrates 75 years since its opening in 1939. While many of us now moan about the lack of a town centre cinema and the state in which the former Ritz-ABC cinema lies, it may be worth looking at the background to the Civic Centre complex.
The land was purchased in 1895. On the site at the time was a row of three-storey town houses built by John Ward/Decimus Burton, as part of Tunbridge Wells Calverley New Town. The site wasn’t cleared until 1931, with work on the new buildings starting in 1936. Designed by architects Percy Thomas and Ernest Prestwich, The Assembly Hall was the first part of the new development to open. The Library building didn’t open until 1952. Before this theatres in the town had been privately run – Sarah Baker’s old theatre in The Pantiles, the Great Hall, and The Opera House, built as a theatre in 1902 but changed to a cinema in 1931.
I met Tunbridge Wells resident Joan Wolford, whose father Len Smith worked in The Assembly Hall from it’s opening in 1939 until the 1970s, working past his retirement age on a retainer of £3.00 a week. Len was the barman, and Joan helped him behind the bar at times, as well as attending the weekly Saturday dances, and getting free opening night tickets for the touring London shows. She recalled many names from the early years of the Assembly Hall, which opened as a multi-purpose venue – band leaders such as Ted Heath, Joe Loss, Billy Cotton, wrestling nights, and also shows by tap dancers such as Jack Buchanan and the Clark Brothers.
When it first opened the bar was a ‘mineral bar’ and anyone wanting to purchase an alcoholic drink could get a pass, cross over to the Calverley Hotel (now Hotel du Vin), have a drink, and ensure they were back before 9.45pm when the doors were locked, before the town pubs closed at 10pm. In the war years the streets were dark due to the blackout, and the dances were attended by the servicemen stationed locally, many of whom were Canadian. The auditorium had a properly sprung dance floor. Other changes over the years include carpeting the completely marbled floor in the foyer, and changing the cloakroom into a second, downstairs, bar. The box offices were in the pillars either side of the foyer stairs, and if you visit the Assembly Hall, peek behind the hanging banners and you can still see the ‘boxes’!
Joan recalls there being many venues to dance in the town during her youth – as well as four cinemas in the town centre, and while money was tight, she managed to spend many nights out dancing along with her elder sister. Stories of making their own clothes, a weekly market in Calverley Road and going home for her lunch, both Joan and the Assembly Hall have seen many changes over the past 75 years.
Credit for the photos goes to Tunbridge Wells Museum & Library.