Last updated: 02 July 2017
On 12 December 2015, the De La Warr Pavilion celebrated its 80th anniversary. In this article, guest writer Lucienne Corner took a look at the history of Bexhill's iconic building.
It is 80 years since an excited crowd gathered to witness the formal opening of the De La Warr Pavilion.
The much-anticipated arrival of the Duke and Duchess of York at 3pm was greeted by a roar of cheering. Their Royal Highnesses wafted inside preceded by the mace bearer where they met local dignitaries and pillars of society including members of the influential De La Warr family.
It was the 9th Earl himself who as Mayor in April 1933 cut through years of agonised local debate about the possibilities of municipal development with his new £50,000 plan for an entertainment hall on the coastguard site. A competition was announced in The Architects Journal in September that year and the closing date was December 4 1933.
230 designs were submitted, and when judging was done Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff won the contract and £150 first prize. The pair were praised for their design which "indicated a thorough grasp of the nature of the problem, is direct and simple in planning, and shows a masterly handling of the architectural treatment."
It was recorded in the Bexhill Observer reporting on the ceremony on December 12 1835 that the Duchess was dressed in black, with a halo hat and wore a magnificent rope of pearls, and the Duke was in a grey suit, with a double-breasted jacket and black tie.
As the procession reached the stage, which was banked on each side with flowers and greenery, the orchestra, hidden by a curtain, played the National Anthem, and Lady Kitty Sackville, daughter of Lord De La Warr, presented the Duchess with a beautiful bouquet.
The mace was placed on a table in front of the official party as they took their seats on the stage, and on it also reposed a model of a Martello tower in sterling silver.
In a splendidly delivered address , the Mayor Colonel Oscar Striedinger told them: "This handsome building, which we ask your Royal Highness to open to-day, represents an endeavour to anticipate the requirements of our rapidly increasing body of residents and visitors and to maintain or even stimulate the rate of increase. It has been designed with especial consideration of the unrivalled opportunities offered by the site, by a distinguished firm of architects after open competition. It has been carried out by contractors and sub-contractors, all of whom are recognised experts in their own particular line, under the careful supervision of eminent consultants.
It strikes a new and original note in buildings of its kind in the country, and represents the last word in the scientific employment of modern building materials and methods of construction. "
Both the Duke and Duchess were enthusiastic in their praise of the Pavilion and repeatedly expressed their appreciation to the Mayor. His Royal Highness was particularly pleased with the acoustic properties of the main hall, and said he found it extraordinarily easy to speak in. He was also very much impressed by the way modern materials had been used in the construction of the building. The only jarring note in all this civic glory was the choice of music played at that afternoon concert, which included Elgar, Bach and Liszt, and there was general complaint that it was an unsuitable choice for such an occasion, and a lighter note would have met the wishes of the majority of the audience.
The Pavilion has been been home to controversy in many ways ever since; for every visitor blown away by the glamorous sweep of the world-famous staircase and cool seamless lines of modernist dream, there's another who sees a concrete block falling far short of the promise of "a people's palace." But like it or not, fan or dissenter, this building has been at the heart of Bexhill life since that first day and in its latest incarnation draws visitors from far and wide who might otherwise never venture to this unassuming little seaside town.
Construction had begun in January 1935. During March, King George V and Queen Mary visited the 9th Earl at Cooden Beach, and expressed an interest in the model of the pavilion which was shown to them. They were so intrigued that they then made an unscheduled visit to the building site.
The Earl then made the gesture of laying a commemorative plaque on the Silver Jubilee Day of George V, on May 6 1935, and he said:
In doing so I mark a great day in the history of Bexhill, for which we have rightly chosen a great day in the history of our nation. How better could we dedicate ourselves today than by gathering round this new venture of ours, a venture which is going to lead to the growth, the prosperity and the greater culture of this, our town; a venture also which is part of a great national movement virtually to found a new industry - the industry of giving that relaxation, that pleasure, that culture, which hitherto the gloom and dreariness of British resorts has driven our fellow country men to seek in foreign lands. It is the expression of our determination to make a town, and therefore a body of citizens of which His Gracious Majesty King George V, even in this his jubilee, may be justly proud.
Opinion and reaction to the DLWP came thick and fast: the correspondent for the New Statesman of 1936 commented:
You could not find a stronger argument in favour of town planning than Bexhill, which is not so much a town as a chaotic litter of hideous houses sprawling higgledy piggledy along a lovely coast. Lord De La Warr, whose ancestors were responsible for this muddle has now made an act of reparation. The most satisfactory example of modern architecture I have seen in this country...One has the impression of being on a great transatlantic liner.
While Bernard Shaw wrote:
Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last, but I shall not give it a clean bill of health until all my plays are performed there once a year at least!
Shaw later attended a performance of his play ‘The Millionairess’ at the De La Warr Pavilion in November 1936 and afterwards went behind stage to speak to the cast.
Looking back at the history of the De La Warr Pavilion, Julian Porter of Bexhill Museum commented:
The De La Warr Pavilion is not Bexhill's only claim to fame but it is certainly the best known, in that the national and international significance of the building cannot be doubted. It was controversial when it was first built and the controversy has not diminished. By constructing the De La Warr Pavilion in 1935, Bexhill showed itself to be progressive and forward thinking and has never quite recovered from the shock. It is still startling to see such a radically different architectural design within a town of mostly Victorian buildings.
The Pavilion’s first stage manager was Leslie Steen. He was fond of recalling that Mendelsohn and Chermayeff had not designed a theatre before, which was why, when the inaugural concert was held, condensation built up so badly in the packed auditorium that members of the audience felt as if it was raining.
That first concert also demonstrated that the “rake” of the balcony seating was insufficient with the result that people in the rear rows couldn’t see the conductor. The “rake” had to be increased with the result that access to the balcony today is up several steps.
The original specification called for the balcony to be able to be screened off when not needed. The screen was never installed but the access doors at either end of the balcony rail remained in place until a comparatively recent refurbishment.
The specification also called for phosphor-bronze window frames. For cost reasons, this had to be down-graded to mild steel. War-time and post-war maintenance economies meant that these rusted badly.
It was Leslie who designed the stowage system which allowed auditorium seating to be out under the stage when dances and the like were held. The system was in constant use until the latest Pavilion refurbishment.
Post-war, Leslie Steen used scrap materials salvaged from the ruins of the adjoining fire-damaged and bombed Metropole Hotel to build a bandstand on the terrace. It survived for many years until a modern replacement was installed – later followed by the present portable bandstand.
Leslie was also fond of telling how during the post-war Austerity years he built stage lights using small oil drums for the casings.
The Pavilion’s Bechstein grand piano had mysteriously disappeared during the Second World War. It was later recovered from an officers’ mess in Folkestone.
The south staircase is one of the jewels in the Pavilion’s architectural crown. But its design meant that at their narrowest point the steps were so tiny that they were a trip hazard. A second bannister had to be installed in the Sixties to overcome the problem.
The Pavilion has a place in architectural history as the first major use of all welded steel construction in the UK. For this reason, when the Bexhill Observer’s photograph taken when concrete cladded was removed from the external joint between the south staircase and the auditorium was published it was not welcomed by the Establishment. It clearly showed that the joint had been riveted – though whether this was an original feature or a later repair was never established.
When the late Rupert Lockwood was appointed Borough Entertainments Manager one of his most successful innovations was the original Bexhill Festival of Music. He put together a comprehensive “package.” Patrons could go on coach tours to nearby beauty-spots, enjoy festival lunches and dinners at the Pavilion, wine-tastings and after-concert “club” events in the (then) East Wing. Club events were well patronised by members of the visiting orchestras.
The festivals built up a massive following. Each annual event was preceded by a service at the parish church of St Peter.
The Halle Orchestra performed at the early festivals under Sir John Barbirolli. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra also came to the Pavilion.
In the 1960s, the Pavilion hosted a publicity event staged by the West German airline Lufthansa. At the reception afterwards one the German pilots spotted the RAF tie being worn by Bexhill Observer photographer Jimmy Burke. “Bomber Command?” the German inquired. “Luftwaffe?” countered Jimmy. “When we are coming over here in the war to bomb London we are looking out for this building” the visitor added. “Being bright white it is showing up in the dark…”
The Pavilion was focal-point for the brief visit to Bexhill in October 1966 by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The East Wing was re-named the Elizabeth Room in honour of the occasion and the Lecture Hall became the Edinburgh Room.
When the Elizabeth Room was refurbished the curving false ceiling which was installed gave rise to the nick-name “The Bakerloo Line.”
For many youngsters who were brought up in Bexhill in the immediate post-war years their first experience of live theatre was via pantomime on the Pavilion stage. For this generation a visit to see “Uncle Jack” meant a Saturday trip to the Pavilion for the late Jack Fowler’s popular Punch and Judy and magic shows.
In its post-war days the Pavilion boasted a series of resident “orchestras” which played on the terrace and elsewhere. These attracted ardent followings. There was outrage when the borough council decided not to renew the annual contract for Neil Feiling’s orchestra one year.
Bexhill Lecture Society had such a following that there was an annual ritual in the Sixties with keen attendees forming such a long queue when the season tickets first became available that some brought folding chairs and “camped out” from the front doors and along the frontage.
The Lecture Society attracted top-name speakers – among them the likes of left-wing politician Tony Benn before he renounced the title Lord Stansgate.
When at the height of his fame in the Sixties Cliff Richard played the Pavilion he arrived and left in a swish American car. The crowds of screaming fans who saw him on his way didn’t know that the car journey ended at Bexhill West Station with a train ride on the Crowhurst branch line en route for London.
Among innovations that Rupert Lockwood’s successor David Blake introduced were regular rock concerts. Later, local organisers staged “Beat Raves” which attracted large numbers of youngsters. For many years the Penguin Players presented repertory theatre at the Pavilion in winter and at the former Bexhill indoor bowling pavilion in Egerton Park in summer when the bowlers moved to the outdoor greens.
Under their principals, Dickie Burnett and Peggy Paige, the Penguins gave valued experience at the start of their careers to a host of actors and actresses. Dickie Burnett wrote a series of pantomimes which were presented at the Pavilion by the Penguins.
The Pavilion – and, crucially, its iconic south staircase – was sheathed in scaffolding when a film crew arrived to shoot the b-for-Bexhill sequence in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. How could David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot be seen descending the stairs with this ugly spider’s web outside? The producer’s answer was to spray the windows to give a frosted-glass effect which was barely noticeable when the episode was televised.
During the 1960's Pamela Blake-Wilson was an employee at the DLWP and described this as "the best of times. "
She said: "Rupert Lockwood, the overall manager, employed me as the supervisor of the café and all special functions. I was in my early 30’s and had absolutely no idea of what I was meant to be doing."
"The café was on the left hand side leading from the vestibule covering most of the ground floor. At the furthest end was a cafeteria separate from the café in that it served food all day long. The café was open for coffee etc in the mornings and teas in the afternoons. Week days operated leisurely whilst weekends flourished with local councillors mulling over the current agendas and possible latest gossip. When I arrived, I was viewed with some concern as to my abilities."
"Apart from the café, which was usually busy, we had many functions, dinners in a room immediately facing the top of the stairs where women’s groups, men’s groups and all local events took place. It was my job to hire waitresses and oversee everything. Most of the waitresses were great reliable and loyal. We were like a family who met on certain occasions. Downstairs in the kitchen we had a variety of helpers lead by a rather uncertain tempered chef who if you made the mistake of looking at him on a bad day ( for him) would explode with food would flying all over the kitchen. It was here I learnt lessons in diplomacy. One day he made a bad mistake of popping a boiled potato into his mouth without first cooling it down. The result was gruesome- he nearly choked and died if we had not called in the ambulance to take him to hospital. After this, he was a changed man- quite nice! Rupert Lockwood was a sweet man, always dressed immaculately and always available if I needed him."
"Leslie Steen the theatre manager was usually busy with a full programme of plays and visiting actors. Sometimes I would sneak in at the back to watch the latest play.Summer seasons we had bands playing who after the years I got to know well . It was a lovely time where many people visited the pavilion, like Vic Oliver the Viennese comedian and many others who regrettably I have forgotten. It is a pleasure to celebrate the De La Warr for its history, its memories and all those who hold this special place in their hearts."
Bexhill Amateur Theatrical Society has enjoyed a long relationship with the Pavilion and is of similar vintage having traversed the years together. BATS is at this moment preparing for its January production of A Christmas Carol.
Director Mike Poole said: "The De La Warr Pavilion has been one of the jewels of Bexhill for 80 years. For some it is a café, meeting place, landmark, art gallery, but the main one for people like me its most important role is as Bexhill’s only purpose built theatre.
Appearing in a show at the DLWP is always special – a lovely auditorium, good sized stage, excellent light and sound facilities with excellent technical staff there to help – it can help make a good show into a great show, especially when coupled with Bexhill’s friendly enthusiastic audience.
BATS is also 80 years old this year, and has been mounting productions at the theatre for most of that time. An early show is pictured here – Road House, a comedy thriller, performed in 1936. The cast look like they are in good, period costumes, but, of course that would have been modern dress then!
80 Years later, we are putting on a large scale production of A Christmas Carol… Once again, we have a great number of people from across the area, including actors, dancers, singers, bell ringers all in period costume to bring Dickens’ classic to life. We hope to go on performing at the DLWP for another 80 years at least."
By Lucienne Corner
I would like to thank Julian Porter of Bexhill Museum and former Bexhill Observer Deputy Editor John Dowling for their invaluable contributions to this article.
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