Penny reading thrills at the old Assembly Rooms

For years Weston's only public building and place of entertainment was the original tiny Town Hall, earlier a Wesleyan chapel, which stood at the back of High Street behind

For years Weston's only public building and place of entertainment was the original tiny Town Hall, earlier a Wesleyan chapel, which stood at the back of High Street behind the Plough Hotel. But by 1860 the resort had its Assembly Rooms, a private enterprise undertaking, with a hall seating 600. It stood at the corner of West Street and High Street and was Weston's principal entertainment venue for many years. On its small stage appeared many of the country's most famous actors, singers and recitalists. The Assembly Rooms had only one dressing room, but despite the handicaps many touring theatrical companies put shows on there. The stage was ludicrously small, and thus it was that in Uncle Tom's Cabin villainous Peter Legree and the slave-driver toughs, and the St Clare retainers, had to fire point blank at each other from frowning cliffs only about 12 feet apart, and little Eva had to be borne across the mighty St Lawrence River as represented by half-a-dozen blocks of closely packed stage ice.Madam Christina ran numerous competitions at the Assembly Rooms. A popular one was a Hot Tea Drinking Contest for Old Ladies. The finalists one evening were Mrs Denscombe ,aged 84, and Mrs Tozer, aged 61, the prize being a leg of mutton. Each was provided with a huge basin of very hot tea with sugar and milk to their satisfaction, and at the word 'Go!' off they went. The winner was Mrs Tozer, although whether her tongue was too scalded to permit her to taste the leg of mutton she won we are not told.Then there was the Great Pancake Eating competition. Then pancakes were placed on plates and eaten without the aid of knives and forks.Every Saturday evening there was a large audience for Penny Readings or Spelling Bees. Penny Readings were a popular Victorian entertainment that aimed to provide educative as well as amusing fare for the working classes at a penny admission fee. In one form or another, in time the readings became well supported by the public generally.Readings from Dickens were especially popular, and Charles Dickens himself was a popular recitalist of selections from his works.There were also excerpts from Shakespeare, extracts from the sermons of eminent theologians and, by way of contrast, humorous monologues and musical items.In February, 1875, the Mercury announced that 'the Seventh Reading of the Season' would be held at the rooms on Monday, and that "they will be enlivened with Vocal and Instrumental Selections by Lady and Gentleman amateurs. Mr A M James will give solos on the Harmoniflute and Gigelira. Mrs J W Clifft has kindly consented to preside at the pianoforte. The chair will be taken by R L Jones Esq. Programmes Half-penny each." Admission was front seats 6d.; Second 3d.; Back and Gallery, 1d.It was possible, you see, to have an evening's entertainment, with a copy of the programme. That Weston's Penny Readings were popular was obvious by the injunction in the advertisement: "To avoid the crush at the ticket box, tickets may be obtained during the week from the Secretaries".Many of the Penny Readings were in familiar Victorian tear-jerker vein, including ballads about broken hearts, and readings which brought out the tragedy of the life ill-lived.In the programme reproduced on this page Mr Lyon contrasted the singing of 'Friend of the Brave' with Mark Antony's Oration. Mr J Dare was in sentimental vein in 'Happy Be Thy Dreams', while Mr Wadley cheerfully sang "When thou are near me, Sorrow seems to fly". Mr James on his harmoniflute trilled 'Rippling Waltz', his own composition.There were also the humorous items, and in other programmes I note that Mr F Hook sang the comic song 'Never More', Mr W E Boycott 'The Irish Jubilee', and Mr F Taylor the comic song in character 'The Mashah up to Datah'.It must not be thought that the standard of these early Weston entertainments was poor. Weston in the Victorian era was fortunate in having some splendid musicians.There was the brilliant solo pianist and accompanist, Charlie Grinfield L.R.A.M. He was in demand everywhere and was a magnificent player. Some years after his death I remember making my choice from a great stack of his music piled high on a second-hand bookstall in Weston's old Market.Another Weston musician of the period was Corelli Windeatt, who achieved national note. He was a pianist, violinist, and composer, and his talented orchestra was booked to play at many of the notable balls in the West Country.A most interesting account of an entertainment at the Old Assembly Rooms was recorded by the famous diarist, the Rev Francis Kilvert. His diaries, most revealing of the man himself and showing acute observation of his day-to-day life, ran into 20 books. 'Kilvert's Diary', selections making three volumes edited by William Plomer, is on the shelves of Weston's public library, and makes fascinating reading.In September, 1972, he recorded in his diary that he was at Weston and that in the evening he and his mother went to the Assembly Rooms to a lecture on craniology, phrenology and mesmerism. The lecture was given by a Mr Hume, who had a table full of skulls on the stage."He talked a good deal of wild nonsense, and examined the heads of two or three of the audience whose moral and mental qualities he praised highly," Kilvert wrote."Then began the mesmerism. A number of men came up on the platform from the body of the room and offered themselves to be operated on. They were placed in a semi-circle on chairs with their faces to the wall and their back to the audience. A young lady went to the piano and began to play soft, dreamy music."The mesmerist passed between his victims and the wall, and after making a few passes over their face and arms and looking intently into their eyes he soon had eight out of the 10 prostrate on the floor in a mesmeric sleep."He took them by the hand and drew them after him, holding his hand against the side of their heads. 'Come, come,' he said authoritatively, and they followed as it seemed to me unwillingly, but unable to help themselves, though the mesmerist used no violence but appeared to draw them after him as if by the influence of a strong will."The young men and lads, whom Kilvert said were of the shop assistant class, were soon asprawl on the floor in all attitudes, wrapped in a deep mesmeric sleep."They lay like dead men and still as death," he went on, "with a ghastly unnatural look in their faces and at the mercy of the mesmerist. One by one he raised them up, stiffened them by a pass and a wave of the hand a stamp of the foot from the ground, telling them sternly as he turned away that they could not move."Then he bade them look at the stars, and they all stood with their ghastly faces turned up gazing steadfastly at the ceiling. Suddenly he assured them they were cocks and commanded them to crow and flap their wings. Instantly they flapped their arms violently and crowed in every key.""Next one of the mesmerised men was put on a chair and ordered to sell an imaginary clock. He did it most realistically, taking the bids quickly from the audience. Then suddenly the mesmerist said, "that isn't a clock, it's a donkey"."The youth looked dumfounded for a moment but then began to lead an imaginary donkey by an imaginery halter and to take bids for it. What he was really holding was a shawl bundled up."...Next the mesmerist had the men all waltzing in pairs, then rowing, and then swimming for their lives, the imaginery boat having been upset."At length the mesmerist waved his hand in passes over the heads of the lads and shouted 'Wake, all of you!' In a moment the boys were all awake, rubbing their eyes, yawning and stretching themselves, as if they had just risen from a sound sleep."The mesmerist told one of them that although he was now awake he could prevent him from lifting his feet from the floor and make him unable to strike."Though the young man who was laughing and struggling tried to do both, he could do neither." Kilvert recorded. "Hume said he had sometimes found this power very useful in street rows in preventing people from striking him."He asked the lads if they had ever seen him before or had any collusion with him and in the face of the audience they openly denied any knowledge of him. It seems they were all well-known young men from the town. The lads said they were perfectly aware all the time what they were doing, but they had no power to resist."I myself remember performing in the Assembly Rooms as the solo cornet player in the former Weston YMCA Boy Scouts' brass band. Through the generosity of the late Mr J J Jackson-Barstow we were equipped with a full brass band, including a row of eight cornets, French horns section, trombones, euphonium - in fact, the lot. Our tutor was the late Dickie Wort, a most memorable secretary of Weston YMCA, and the livest of wires in youth work and adult education. We used to rehearse in the cellar at the YMCA. The band made good progress, and eventually appeared playing on the march and gave modest concerts at the Rozel bandstand and elsewhere. For many years the Assembly Rooms were managed by William Fortt. Later they were converted into suites of offices with the title Royal Chambers. For some time the local Inland Revenue offices were there, and the place was so occupied when it was destroyed by incendiaries in one of the heavy enemy raids of June, 1942. The corner site was later redeveloped as shops and offices.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 31, 1967


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