Marketing Chair Michael Horne asked long-time Governor Robert Hart a few questions over email. So much history contained in this one – we hope you enjoy it!
Why did you get involved with The Mill and join the Board of Governors?
Please bear with me in a short history of the The Mill Theatre Trust, which was formed in 1943 as The Sharnbrook Players “to banish war-time blues and to raise money for the village’s sons serving in the Forces”. The first production was a revue, “Take a Dip”, in the Church Hall, which was to become the society’s home for the next 21 years. I joined in 1953 as “the new young male lead” in “The Arcadians”, and, with short absences for my final years of architectural training and National Service, was in four more shows up to “Kiss me Kate” in 1964. This was our last year at the Village Hall, and my first year on the Committee, soon to be the Board.
In 1965, we were given notice that the Hall would not be granted a stage licence, and found temporary homes at Riseley School, the Ritz Theatre in Rushden and finally, in 1978, the ABC Cinema in Northampton. In March 1965, an Extraordinary General Meeting was called to change the society into a charitable trust, Sharnbrook Amateur Theatre Trust Ltd, under a Board of Governors chaired by Lord Luke, the Vice Chairman F.J. Lilley (the founder and driving force), and twelve Governors including myself. The Articles of Association, drawn up by Bruce Hodson, our Honorary Solicitor, are still valid. The search for a permanent home for the Trust continued. The old police station was up for sale, but needed more land. A Mill Road site was too expensive, and so it went on. And then in September 1970, out of the blue…
The miller, William Hipwell, approached Bill Lilley with the news that the Stoke Mill building and site might be for sale! My role on the Board had become Honorary Architect to the Trust, so Bill and I walked the near-derelict building and quickly concluded that, with the support of the Governors and the authorities (Planning, Building Control, the Manpower Services Commission, etc), the potential was there to convert the building and its site for the needs of the Trust.
In 1973, we acquired a 200-year lease on Stoke Mill and the island, and with the help of fellow professionals, all working unpaid, we surveyed the building and devised the theatre that has served us so well for over 40 years. Access was one of our first problems, solved by the building of a ducted causeway across the mill stream. Major works included complete re-roofing, removal of two heavyweight floors to create the auditorium, tiered seating, rewiring, etc. This was sufficient for our first show at the Mill, “Salad Days”, in 1979.
By then, I had been a Governor for 15 years, but there was still work to be done….
What is your role within the Governors?
My last blog covered my first 15 years as a Governor, but there was much more work to be done at the Mill. Not in any sequence: we have built a permanent stage, installed the mezzanine deck, re-fitted the stage-end toilets, re-roofed the dressing-rooms, built the permanent access road and bridge, installed new foul drainage, built the foyer and toilets, built the cantilevered link corridor (a structural feat!), erected the lift and its enclosing shaft, installed a “green” water source heat pump and cooling systems in the Auditorium and the Clubroom.
My main role on the Governors over the last 56 years has, in one way or another, to have been involved in the development of the site and building of the Mill Theatre. This has given me a great deal of pleasure, and I have met and worked with some remarkable colleagues!
Where do you see the future of The Mill in five years time?
This is not an easy question to answer. I think the Governors, as a body, agree that we should be using the building more widely than we do now. The space(s) available for all sorts of other purposes than our own is underused, and we know that this is where the Marketing Committee have much work to do. In terms of facilities work, I hope that we shall at least have an attractive car park to welcome daytime users!
What is the highlight of your time on the Board at The Mill?
This is an easy one for me that no-one else can share. My highlight is that fateful day in September 1970 when the Governors learned that the Mill might be for sale. Without the fantastic site, the setting and the amazing building we inherited, the Trust and its future would not exist!