Times Past: 80 years since scorn poured on idea of a Hornchurch theatre

The original Queen's Theatre was in Station Lane, Hornchurch.

The original Queen's Theatre was in Station Lane, Hornchurch. - Credit: Archant

In June 1953, Hornchurch Council resolved that the new Queen’s Theatre in the Old Cinema building on Station Lane should be home to a professional repertory company - the “Queen’s Players”.

Cllr Andrew Curtin with the book he has translated from Russian into English

Cllr Andrew Curtin with the book he has translated from Russian into English - Credit: Archant

The idea of a performing arts venue seems first to have arisen in 1935, when Cllr AJ Twigger proposed a swimming pool, gymnasium and “accommodation for concerts, dances” in Hornchurch.

The swimming pool was controversial. Another councillor commented: “I cannot imagine anyone wanting a swimming pool in Hornchurch... Most of us have one in our roads already. (Laughter)”. The issue was deferred.

Over the next decade theatre gained a particular importance during World War II, and dramatic social change in Hornchurch stimulated new thought about what the town required.

The arts were seen as particularly important to wartime morale.

The economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that music, drama and pictures had linked people to “the masterpieces of happier times”.

Theatre was important to the forces. ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association) entertained troops and produced a post-war generation of actors.

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RAF Hornchurch had a pantomime and production of “Co-Optimists” by Phyllis Monkham at Christmas 1940, for example.

After the war, the National Theatre Act was passed in 1949, and a specific power for councils to provide “a theatre, concert hall, dance hall” was included in the Local Government Act of 1948.

In June 1948, Romford and Upminster Music and Arts Society asked Hornchurch Council whether it intended to use this new power.

In October of that year, the council resolved that the Old Cinema should be “a public theatre and concert hall”.

Repertory theatre, a permanent professional company producing a variety of plays, had been campaigned for in Britain since the early twentieth century, when the first repertory companies had been established.

At the same time, Hornchurch had changed dramatically. In 1917 a writer could still refer to “the sight of golden corn” around the village in August as “a thing of beauty... worth coming many miles to see”.

Between 1931-1951 the population of Hornchurch soared from 40,000 to 104,000, dwarfing Romford with just 88,000 residents in 1951.

The number of houses in the area rocketed from 10,000 to 29,000 over the same period.

The theatre was one of a number of measures responding to the new conditions in Hornchurch.

The Queen’s Theatre celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.