Dramatic history of Lowestoft theatre group’s new surroundings
16:33 19 August 2014
In London, Queen Victoria was just months away from her final public engagement at the age of 80 – laying the foundation stone of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Were you married at the Bethel?
Lowestoft Players’ production of the stage musical Aspects of Love at the Bethel coincides with the 130th anniversary of the registration for performing marriages at the church.
Among the many weddings to be held there was one in August 1959 which saw Wendy Kirby, daughter of the Lowestoft port missionary James Kirby, marry John Gwatkin.
To help mark the 130th anniversary and reflect the romantic nature of Aspects of Love, the Players are looking for couples or individuals for whom the venue or the theme of the musical is particularly special.
The stories sent in be judged by Players’ social secretary, Annie Richards-Croft, and the three best ones will win a free pair of tickets for the show.
■Send your personal stories to: Annie Richards-Croft, c/o Players Theatre, The Bethel, Battery Green Road, Lowestoft, NR32 1DE.
In South Africa, events were spiralling towards what would become the Second Boer War.
In Lowestoft, meanwhile, a new church was being established to provide a place of Christian worship for the families of sailors and seafarers, and play an active role in the community by laying on a special tea party for 1,600 poor children as well as holding weddings.
The Bethel in Battery Green Road was officially opened as the Seamen’s and Fishermen’s Bethel in February 1899 – providing a vital spiritual hub at the heart of the town’s bustling maritime community.
Over the following decades, the building played a vital role – offering a place of celebration and solace for thousands of families who depended on the sea for their livelihoods.
With the decline of the town’s fishing industry and the decrease in port activity, its future looked uncertain when the British International Sailor’s Society putting it up for sale in 2008.
But the building was given a new lease of life as a community hub when it was officially opened as the home of the Lowestoft Players in early 2010.
Since then, the From Bethel to Theatre project has seen the creation of a new performance and rehearsal space for members of the town’s biggest amateur dramatics group.
And as the Players gear up for their first full musical at the Bethel next month – Aspects of Love – one of the group’s backstage stalwarts, Bob Dickson, has been busy delving into the history of the building.
Photo gallery: The Bethel, Lowestoft
STAGE DEBUT: The Lowestoft Players' Christmas Spectacular.
The Bethel (former fishermans church) new home of The Lowestoft Players amateur dramatics group. The building has been renovated and redecorated throughout. Picture: James Bass Copy: Hayley Mace For: EDP/LJ News Eastern Daily Press © 2010 (01603) 772434
RICH HISTORY: Stephen Wilson, of the Lowestoft Players, has been researching the history of The Bethel in Lowestoft. The former seafarers' church is now home to the players' theatre. picture: JAMES BASS.
The Bethel (former fishermans church) new home of The Lowestoft Players amateur dramatics group. The building has been renovated and redecorated throughout. Stephen Wilson from the group with some old peformance memorabillia Picture: James Bass Copy: Hayley Mace For: EDP/LJ News Eastern Daily Press © 2010 (01603) 772434
The Bethel (former fishermans church) new home of The Lowestoft Players amateur dramatics group. The building has been renovated and redecorated throughout. Lots of past peformance posters Picture: James Bass Copy: Hayley Mace For: EDP/LJ News Eastern Daily Press © 2010 (01603) 772434
BIG DAY: The wedding of Wendy Ann Kirby, daughter of Lowestoft port missionary James Kirby, and John Gwatkin at The Bethel in 1959.
SOCIAL HUB: A game of billiards is played at the new modern club for seafarers, next door to The Bethel, in 1948.
SPECIAL TREAT: The Bethel plays host to the poor children's tea party in 1931. George Robert Wilson, now 91, is pictured third from the front in the second rank
NEW ROLE: The Bethel in Battery Green Road, Lowestoft, is now home to the Players' Theatre. picture: NICK BUTCHER
Stephen Wilson director of Aspects in Love and whose father was in the photograph fro 1931 of the tea party Turning back the clock
LANDMARK: The Bethel pictured in 1955.
And his research has unearthed a special link to the Bethel’s past and present uses.
In 1931, a photograph was taken of a special tea given for poor children, where 1,600 youngsters were catered for. Among those in the photograph is George Robert Wilson (third boy from the front in the second rank) who lived at Cumberland Place in the town’s Beach Village.
Now 91, Mr Wilson is the father of Stephen Wilson, director of Aspects of Love, and who has directed, designed and played in a whole host of Players’s past productions.
The Bethel’s annual report from 1931 mentions the children’s party. It says: “With the help of friends we have been able to give a good substantial tea, consisting of ham and meat past sandwiches, buns, cake, pastries etc to 1600 poor children, followed by a lantern service, the subject being pick your own cherries and illustrated hymns.
“As each child left the Bethel, they were given a bag containing an apple, orange, bun mince pie and a bag of sweets.”
Set up in Victorian times, Bethel churches provided a network of support services for distressed seamen.
The first Lowestoft Bethel was founded in 1864 in Commercial Road. In 1868, its leader William Johnson held an astonishing 535 religious meeting, visited 1,200 boats and made 1,500 visits to families.
The larger Bethel church in Battery Green Road was opened on February 23, 1899 – having cost a grand total of £4,188 to build.
After the Second World War in 1948, the Bethel reinvented itself by installing a modern club for seafarers in the adjacent building. This new facility offered a meeting place for Navy personnel, complete with a restaurant, library, billiard table and what were called “modern” bathrooms.
In April 2008, the Bethel entered the next state of its existence when the British International Sailor’s Society put the building up for sale for £160,000 due to the declining number of seafarers in the town.
The following year the building was purchased by the Players as their headquarters and rehearsal space. The first rehearsal took place there in May 2009 and the building was officially opened on January 15 2010.
The first shows to be staged at the Bethel were the Players’ Christmas spectaculars of 2012 and 2013.
Since it opened, a performance space has been created, functions have been held there and 19 groups are or have also expressed an interest in using the building.
Mr Dickson said: “The present building has been a continuing and much loved presence at the heart of the port.
“In keeping with the long history of the building as a social hub, the Players have sought to be an inclusive as possible.”
Before moving to the Bethel, the Players were based at Stradbroke Road in a building loaned to them by the Catchpole family.
■Aspects of Love will be performed between September 4 and 13. For more information, and details on how to buy tickets, see today’s Guide.
■Several of the old pictures shown here are held at the Lowestoft Record Office, on the first floor of Lowestoft Central Library in Clapham Road South. It is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 9am to 5.30pm, Tuesday from 9am to 7pm, Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. As well as hundreds of old photographs, it holds thousands of documents, books and registers which are accessible to people carrying our local history studies or researching the history of their family or home. For more information, ring 01502 674680.