The Town Hall
The construction of the Town Hall, by Seaton builder, G.H.Richards, was completed in 1904, and was opened to the public on 27 th July of that year. The official opening, by Sir John Henry Kennaway, CB. PC. MP, took place in 1905. The building was constructed with a mixture of limestone from Beer stone quarry and an infill of chert.
In the latter part of the 19 th century, the site of the Town Hall was occupied by Fewing’s mineral-aerated water and ginger beer factory. The owner, Mr Fewings, also owned the Pole Arms Hotel, a family and commercial hotel, just along Fore Street.
During its early days, Seaton Urban District Council (1891 – 1972) was the owner, but when East Devon District Council was formed the Town Hall was transferred to this organisation. Events were put on in the original hall helping it to become the centre of social activity in Seaton. Used for a wide variety of events from dances with live musicians, cinema screenings to roller skating which unfortunately damaged the floor and had to be abruptly stopped!
The first regular Cinema shows were in the Town Hall, which screened films every Thursday and Saturday – they advertised ‘the steadiest and best pictures in the district’. In the early days the films were silent, with the ‘talkies’ arriving in Seaton in 1929 with the Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s the Cinema was more than just entertainment, it was a retreat, almost a shrine. A few pence would buy three hours of blissful escape from the harsh squalor of the real world. With the opening of the Regal Cinema in 1938, on the site of the present Windsor Gardens, Seaton now had two outlets for family entertainment. Unfortunately, the Regal Cinema did not survive the advent of Television in the 1970’s, and was knocked down in 1972.
The Town Hall Fire
On Sunday 22 nd January 1945, during the Second World War, in the early hours following a dance a fire broke out which totally destroyed the middle section of the building. The dance had attracted many locals and a good number of military personnel, including American troops, who were billeted locally. It seems likely that the fire started from a smouldering cigarette butt that had dropped on the wooden floor and worked its way between the boards. The fire was discovered at about 4am, by Mr and Mrs French, whose grocers’ shop was next door and adjoining the building. By the time the National Fire Service (NFS) had been called, the fire had taken hold and smoke and flames were coming through the roof. The Seaton NFS team were reinforced by appliances from Axminster, Colyton, Honiton and Sidmouth, and the fire was eventually brought under control by daylight. Thanks to the excellent work of the Fire Brigade, after the clean-up the front section of the building was able to be kept in use as the Council Offices and the Masonic Hall. Within the central area all that remained was the side walls and the sleeper walls that had supported the floor, plus a few charred roof beams. All the rest, including the stage and balcony had been consumed by the fire.
The building remained in this state until the early 1950’s, when the main hall was re-built and was again opened for the benefit of the local community in 1952. The opening show was, a then modern performance of a show written and produced by a teenage student of Colyton Grammar School, John Bradbury, who lived with his mother in Seaton, at Cherry Drive. His highly successful show, named “The 9 O’clock Review”, was well received by the community and is still remembered fondly.
The Town Hall has also had an important administrative significance to the town of Seaton. The top floor was regularly used as a meeting place by members of the Freemasons, and the Council Chamber was established on the middle floor in the 1970’s. The ground floor room, presently used by The Gateway, as an office, was, back in the 1940’s and 50’s, the Gas Office; an entirely separate building.
For a small town, Seaton had lots of clubs, societies and organisations providing the community with diversity and entertainment to interest everyone. The Town Hall was an integral part of this with organisations such as Seaton Music Society who have for over 60 years brought world class musicians to the stage. Seaton District Choral Society and Seaton Colyton Operatic Society also frequently put on concerts and performances drawing on the talents of local singers and performers. Seaton has a history of varied entertainment and social & community events and The Seaton Gateway Theatre company at the Town Hall has re-established and maintained this tradition.
This public building, a focal point and icon for the community of Seaton was at risk of being sold off in 2010, this was a direct result of a slow demise in the usage of the building throughout a period of years with latterly only a handful of user groups organising their events.
A group of local residents worked together to take over the general running of the building to prove its viability as a theatre. Within 5 years they had secured various income streams and working with the county and town council, negotiated the Asset Management Transfer of the building back to the community. In 2016 Seatons Voice became The Gateway Theatre Charity, with the venue once again became the heart of the community.
Present & Future
There are currently over 100 regular community hirers, reaching out too many sectors of the local area, enhancing learning opportunities through links with local schools and colleges, improving the skills and knowledge base of the community. This ranges from toddler groups, keep fit for the active and less active, dance classes, a wide variety of specialist interest groups and provision for local clubs and groups to fundraise through their own events.
The Seaton Gateway Theatre Company works with local schools providing work experience in the venue and stage management, as well as the opportunity for youths to join workshops in Theatre Productions with our Sound and Lighting Technician Paul Hotchkiss.
Over the years The Seaton Gateway Theatre Company has established the Town Hall as an increasingly popular multifunctional venue. The theatre plays an important role in social inclusion and has a significant effect on local regeneration and on people’s lives. The theatre engages with people in the community and the passion and enthusiasm from the patrons and volunteers is inspiring.
The wide and varied entertainment programme helps spread Arts & Culture across the UK, giving exposure to art forms to rural communities who might not otherwise have the opportunity.
The growing success contributes to the vitality and vibrancy of Seaton, encouraging the evening economy and increasing footfall. The popularity of the varied events and Cinema picnic nights contribute to the local economy through audience and visitor spend, the use of local suppliers, and their (albeit limited) impact on the local labour market.
The continued work of the Gateway Theatre Company ensures the upkeep of an important part of the local history whilst ensuring the continuance of community programmes and events.
We are in the process of applying for funding to fully refurbish the building to ensure it meets all the necessary requirements for future generations to come.