Golden age of Saddleworth Players How Millgate became home to theatre company

FOR Saddleworth Players, their 2022/23 season celebrates 50 years in residence at the Millgate Arts Centre.

Their history though can be traced back to the 1920’s with the Girls’ Friendly Society at St Thomas’s Church, Delph.

The Society started up evening dramatic art classes and sought and won sponsorship from the WEA (Workers Education Association).

Over the next few years the girls were encouraged to produce performances which they did with sketches and revues at suitable venues around Saddleworth’s the villages.

Delph Co-op

By 1933/34, men had been welcomed in to the group. However, they performed only one act plays of which the first recorded was the Victorian melodrama ‘The Monkey’s Paw’.

In 1939, and still lacking their own performance venue, the group performed the morality play, Everyman at three different local venues and over the hills at Paddock Wood.

The actors travelled by coach and a Leslie Whitehead brought a notice to hang on the side. It read ‘The Saddleworth Players on Tour’. The name stuck!

Most plays at that time were performed under challenging circumstances with many outside in gardens, open parkland, and wooded areas.

Changing facilities were scarce or non-existent so actors travelled in full costume as best they could.

Part of Saddleworth Players folklore tells the story of an actor playing the part of an Angel who had to cycle from Delph in full costume to a production.

Saddleworth Players prior to performance of Singers Not Sinners at Oldham Parish Church

Cycling back home, still in full regalia and in failing light together with flat cap and bicycle clips, he came upon a man and his dog who spent a considerable time in the White Lion public house. The man let out one fearful shriek and ran away at great speed. The dog however chased the ‘angel’ all the way home.

During the war, the Company had its first contact with Oldham Rep. Since professional actors were in short supply, a number of the Players performed with the Rep. The boys were paid one pence and the girls, to their disgust, were given flowers.

In 1946, youth returned to the Society, bringing with them the ambition to build on experience to make things happen.

Charlie (Charles Winterbottom – builder of the Pots and Pans monument) gave the Company a house, the present site of Delph Band Club.

It had been a long time empty, was not entirely decrepit and was affectionately known as the Dive.

It would never become a theatre but was invaluable as a club house and set store come rehearsal rooms for a thriving dramatic society of about nine members.

Union is Strength

The Parochial Hall in Uppermill was an occasionally embarrassing venue. The stage lighting ran off a shilling in the slot meter. Sometimes the lights would go out and some member of the audience would be persuaded to part with the coinage.

By 1951, the Delph Mechanics Institute was targeted as a possible permanent home. Their committee happily let Saddleworth Players have the lower floor at an annual rent of £30 – provided they obeyed the rules formulated in 1876.

Work on the first theatre began. A stage was erected from wormy wood and Alec Holland, (local chemist and magistrate, later to become Chairman of the Urban District Council), concocted a potion to polish off dry rot.

There was only nine pence in the kitty but people who submitted bills knew that they would be paid as soon as the Players had money in the coffers.

Fortunately and generously many of the creditors become patrons and the theatre opened in 1952 with The Paragon, entrance fee of 11 pence.

The lower level of the Mechanics was home to Saddleworth Players for 20 years. The theatre part of the building, now owned by Saddleworth Players, was more or less in good order but the building above was derelict and laying itself to rest.

Mechanics Hall

By 1972, the former Co-op across the road was empty and unsuited to modern retail use and Delph desperately needed a car park.

Lord Rhodes of Saddleworth, a keen follower of the Players, banged heads together and the Council bought the old Mechanics building and the Co-op, the Mechanics was demolished to form a car park and the Players used the money to convert the Co-op into the present theatre.

Along with this, the West Riding County Library, a tenant of the Players, also transferred into the new premises.

Financial assistance was given by the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Arts Council and the Pilgrim Trust. The rest of the cost was raised by the 200 Club and various social functions.

The entire internal surface finishes, stage and setting was designed, financed and constructed by members of Saddleworth Players aided by the at cost services of local contractors.

The architect for the project was Tony Doherty, the chairman of Saddleworth Players, and the main contractor was John Winterbottom, a member of the Society.

After 18 months hard work for Saddleworth Players since their last performance in the Mechanics in Spring 1972, the Millgate Centre opened on November 3, 1973 with its first production The Italian Straw Hat by Eugene-Marin Labiche.

Fifty years later, Saddleworth Players are still at home and still producing wonderful community theatre.

2 Replies to “Golden age of Saddleworth Players How Millgate became home to theatre company”

  1. Nice article chronicling the trials and tribulations of Saddleworth’s thespians which very often didn’t go to script. The cycling ‘angel’ would have been a sight worth seeing.

  2. Remember ‘Italian Straw Hat’ well and all the excitement of the new theatre opening in 1973. My mother Nancy Woods, one of the old crowd from ‘The Dive’, had a part in it, so our family was at the opening night. There was a crowd scene where people had to run across the stage crying out in Italian. They shouted ‘Spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna, vino, ciao’ which even at age 13 cracked me up!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *