It took some time to decide on an image of the stage as the majority of us will fondly remember it. In the end, I chose this wonderfully evocative shot of House Performing Arts from December 2008. In keeping with our tagline ‘A Voice for Every Girl’, the stage can here be seen jam-packed full with happy, confident-looking girls – the Bamburgh House musicians to be precise – all totally at ease with their special celebratory moment performing in front of the rest of the School. The dictionary definition of a stage is ‘a raised floor or platform on which actors, entertainers or speakers perform’ and indeed a ‘platform’ is how it was described on WH Wood’s architect’s plans.
There is no reference to the stage in the very first newspaper report on the new building in 1888, although we are told the ‘Assembly Hall will be a handsome room, with panelled dado and open timbered hammer-beam roof.’ However, the first reference to the completed Tankerville Terrace building in the 1935 Jubilee Book actually focuses on the stage: ‘On May 3rd, 1890, the new building was opened by Miss Helen Gladstone [Prime Minister Gladstone’s youngest daughter], and the platform party included the Bishop of Newcastle, the Venerable Archdeacon Hamilton, Canon Pennefather, Dr Garnett, the Principal of Armstrong College, and other members of the Local Committee.’
The very first Newcastle High School prospectus held by Tyne & Wear Archives contains a photograph of the Hall which must closely represent how the platform would have appeared on this occasion.
As a truly independent Independent School, Church High had to raise its own finance should site developments be required. So it was in the early days of Newcastle High School too. The Jubilee Book tells us that by 1897 ‘the school had already begun its policy of trying by its own efforts to raise money both for itself and others.’ At that time, thanks to performing tableaux vivants and a sale of work, £22 was raised, £15 of which was spent on pictures: ‘seven for the Hall and one for each form room’. Some of these pictures can clearly be seen in the image above as can the beautifully-carved ‘reading desk’, so familiar to anyone who knew Church High, which was bought ‘a year or so later’ with £9 raised via more tableaux vivants.
Thanks to the 1935 Jubilee Book we know that ‘The Church Schools Company allowed the School honours boards for the Hall to record the names of holders of the school scholarship, which had been instituted in 1906.’ However, these were not the Honours boards we all remember, at present being stored in Tankerville House. ‘In 1911, the boards were replaced by the present Honours boards at the back of the platform, which were given by the Old Girls to record the names not only of the scholarship holders but of the winners of University honours.’
Again thanks to the Jubilee Book, we know that later on ‘a fund was started for buying a grand piano’ and that this fund also ‘received substantial help from the Old Girls who had already formed a dramatic club and were beginning to give something back to the school.’ On the evidence of photographs of the Hall in School prospectuses, the grand piano seems to have been successfully purchased by 1927/28.
Right up to Heritage Open Day in 2014, however, the Church High stage was synonymous with three pieces of wooden stage furniture.
Two splendid wooden items were purchased for the stage in recognition of the School’s Jubilee year in 1935: a chair and table. The Jubilee Chair, on which every Church High Headmistress has subsequently sat, was commissioned at a cost of £17 and presented to the School by the staff. If you ever looked closely at it, you would have noticed the following inscription at head height: ‘The staff of 1935 give this chair to mark the fiftieth year in the life of the school.’
A matching oak table was also presented to the School, this time by the girls, as part of the Jubilee celebrations. Every Church High Headmistresses up to Miss Davies has sat behind this table for assembly and it was always positioned with the engraved side facing the Hall displaying to all the following inscription: ‘The girls of 1934 – 1935 give this table to mark the fiftieth year in the life of the school.’
A later school prospectus (post 1935) shows the platform as most people will remember it: with Jubilee Table and Chair in the centre and with a wooden pelmet over-head to allow the introduction of stage curtains, which in this image look very dark. A wall clock (presumably for school examinations) has also been introduced and the observant will have noticed the stage has now also been boxed in.
I joined Church High in the Autumn Term of 1985, consequently just missing the Centenary Staff photograph taken in front of the stage.
The first school production I remember was ‘The Mikado’, but the first I photographed for the Senior School Magazine was ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, a lively production directed by Jill Mortiboys, Head of English. At that time, the stage curtains were a deep yellow gold velvet with a light grey velvet back-curtain for production use.
One of Jill’s finest productions, in my opinion, was ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in 1988. The design suited the Church High stage so well and amongst a very strong cast – including Mrs Cox as Lady Bracknell – was Lucy Webster (Gwendolen) who went on to have a very successful acting career under the name of Lucy Akhurst.
Church High’s most successful professional actress, however, is Andrea Riseborough who has received acclaim on stage, TV and also the big screen. She graced our stage many times as girl, of course.
In recent times, the stage curtains were royal blue velvet and with the advancement of technology it also gained a projection screen.
Just as Newcastle High School prize giving moved from the Hall to a larger venue, so the Church High school production – in latter years large-scale musicals – transferred to The Little Theatre in Gateshead and later The Peter Sarah Theatre, Newcastle College. However, House Performing Arts festivals continued to use the stage and who could forget those riotous Staff Pantomimes too?
With the introduction of A Level Textiles to the Creative Arts curriculum, the stage was extended via a catwalk for fashion shows.
Whenever I look at the modern platform at the north end of the old Hall, I for one still see all the dark natural wood and the shiny gilt of the Honours boards in my mind’s eye. For me, it will always remain peopled by those who gave so much of themselves to the life of Church High, as it was for the 2000 Millennium Staff photograph.
Even as all of the stage furniture accumulated over the life of the School was being dismantled in the summer of 2014, for me, the Church High stage still managed to retain its dignified presence.