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Post Memories: Barking Broadway’s life as a bomb shelter

PUBLISHED: 14:11 30 December 2014 | UPDATED: 14:35 30 December 2014

The assembly hall during the 1950s  Picture: LBBD Archives/Valence House Museum

The assembly hall during the 1950s Picture: LBBD Archives/Valence House Museum

Archant

The Broadway’s first 80 years saw a slow birth and a number of dramatic twists. Now, as it enters a new phase, Adam Barnett looks at the colourful history of a theatre at a crossroads

Peter Pan Christmas panto at the BroadwayPeter Pan Christmas panto at the Broadway

The Broadway theatre has seen a lot of action over the years – from Nazi bombing raids to pop concerts to the shooting of a famous boxing manager.

But this fixture of Barking life actually made somewhat of a late entrance on the local stage.

Mark Watson, heritage officer for Barking and Dagenham Council, said the theatre – which will pass from council hands after more than 80 years to Barking and Dagenham College in the New Year – was born of rivalry between different boroughs.

“The town hall and the assembly hall [which became The Broadway] were designed to be built together,” he said.

Original design of the assembly hall that became the Broadway theatreOriginal design of the assembly hall that became the Broadway theatre

“Barking has always wanted to have bigger, better buildings, and in the 19th century it was competing with other boroughs to have this and that.

“Their town hall was a lot smaller [than those around them], so they had a larger town hall designed with an assembly hall for big grand council meetings and things like that.”

The building of the assembly hall connected to the town hall was pencilled in for 1935, but was delayed due to the high cost.

By the time the funds were there, the council’s timetable was disrupted once again – this time, by the Nazi war machine.

BBC's Question Time being held in Barking Broadway theatreBBC's Question Time being held in Barking Broadway theatre

“It was the beginning of 1939, and then of course the war started and everything stopped,” said Mark.

“All that had been completed were the basements underground, so it was used for air raid protections.

“It was a public bomb shelter as well as a decontamination centre in case of gas.”

In this way, The Broadway was fully involved in the country’s war effort, which saw the borough produce bodywork for Mosquito planes and ships, with women famously working in Dagenham’s factories.

The Broadway theatre will be run by Barking and Dagenham CollegeThe Broadway theatre will be run by Barking and Dagenham College

“After the war there was a terrible problem with a housing shortage,” said Mark, “and we couldn’t get builders or building materials, because we were taking resources away from building houses.

“In 1954 it was thought they had done enough of housing that they could start on the bigger civic buildings.”

The town hall itself was completed in 1958 where it stands to this day in Clockhouse Avenue, and the assembly hall was completed in 1961.

“It took between 1934 and 1961 to build it,” said Mark, “and of course architecture had moved on quite a bit in that time.”

Timeline

1934 - Plans for assembly hall next to town hall

1939 - War sees basement used as bomb shelter

1961 - Assembly hall completed after post-war delay

1988 - Boxing promoter Frank Warren shot outside theatre

2015 - Refurbished theatre passes to college management

During the ’60s it hosted musical performances from orchestras and pop groups, including the Tremolos’ first gig, and over the years put on a variety of events, from ballet to boxing.

Its name was changed to The Broadway in 1988, shortly before that last form of entertainment would make it infamous. On November 30, 1989, boxing manager and promoter Frank Warren was shot outside The Broadway aged 37.

“That made us notorious,” said Mark. “The whole place began to look a bit seedy.”

But The Broadway survived, going on to stage Christmas pantomimes, such as this year’s record-breaking Peter Pan, and receiving a massive refurbishment in 2002, creating an auditorium to seat 341 people, or 850 standing.

Just this February the theatre hosted an edition of Question Time, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme.

Since 2003, The Broadway has hosted Barking and Dagenham College’s department of performing arts and technical theatre, which should help smooth the transition from council to college management in 2015 – a step that will save the cash-strapped council £240,000.

Just shy of a century on from its birth pangs, The Broadway – the council hopes – will play a central role in the drive to turn Barking and Dagenham into a hub of culture, youth and creativity, with a lease to the college running until 2023.

To book tickets or find out more, go to thebroadwaybarking.com

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