In Days Gone By: When The Stage Really Was A Stage!

Newcastle High School for Girls Newcastle Church High School

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.

The stage end of the Hall as it appears on WH Wood's architect's plans (above) and on Oliver & Leeson's original plans (below).
The stage end of the Assembly Hall as it appears on WH Wood’s architect’s plans, pre-1925 (above) and on Oliver & Leeson’s original 1888 plans (below): Tyne & Wear Archives.

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.’ 

Miss Helen Gladstone, Barraud's 'Women of the Day.'
Miss Helen Gladstone, photographed as one of Barraud’s ‘Women of the Day.’

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.

Newcastle High School 1900s
The first image of the Newcastle High School stage c1900s. Note the Church High reading desk is already in situ by then.

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.

Newcastle Church High School Newcastle High School
The intricately-carved Newcastle High School reading desk was the first piece of stage furniture purchased at a cost of £9 c1899.

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.’

newcastle high school for girls Newcastle Church High School
The third prospectus in the Archives, produced sometime before 1918, shows the platform stage (a little higher by now, you may notice) with 1911 Old Girls Honours boards in situ.

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.

Newcastle high school for girls Newcastle Church High school
By 1927/8, the platform is still semi-circular in shape but the upright piano has now been upgraded to a grand piano.

Right up to Heritage Open Day in 2014, however, the Church High stage was synonymous with three pieces of wooden stage furniture.

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The Church High School stage on Heritage Open Day, 2014.

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.’

newcastle high school for girls
The Church High Jubilee Chair of 1935.

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.’

newcastle high school for girls
The Jubilee Table presented to School by the girls in 1935.

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.

newcastle high school for girls newcastle church high school
The Church High stage post 1935 with Honours boards behind, Jubilee Table and Chair in the centre, lectern to one side and wooden pelmet over-head to hold the stage curtains.

I joined Church High in the Autumn Term of 1985, consequently just missing the Centenary Staff photograph taken in front of the stage.

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The Church High Centenary staff of 1985 seated in the Hall in front of the stage.  Miss PE Davies (centre) was the Head.

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.

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The final curtain call for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ in 1987.

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.

newcastle church high school
Lucy Webster, centre: The Importance of Being Earnest, 1988

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.

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Andrea Riseborough (back row, far right):  A Level Theatre Studies production ‘The Trial of Louise Woodward’, 2000.

In recent times, the stage curtains were royal blue velvet and with the advancement of technology it also gained a projection screen.

The Church High stage in recent times: black stage-flats, a full lighting rig, overhead projector and screen for assemblies and the lectern was moved to the floor to support laptops.
The stage in recent times: black stage-flats, a full lighting rig, an overhead projector and screen for assemblies and the lectern now moved down to the floor to support laptops.

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?

newcastle church high school
Traditional end to the Christmas Term: the Staff Pantomime.

With the introduction of A Level Textiles to the Creative Arts curriculum, the stage was extended via a catwalk for fashion shows.

newcastle church high school
Jessica Kinnersley, Head of Textiles, surveys the Hall fully  set up for the A Level end of course Fashion Show (above) while Church High girls enjoy a dress rehearsal run through (below).

newcastle church high schoolWhenever 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.

newcastle church high school staff 2000
The 2000 Millennium Church High Staff fill the stage and the floor before it.  A tremendous group of people to work alongside. I stand second from the left on the second back row.

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.

newcastle church high school
The dismantling of the old stage begins,  summer of 2014.


7 thoughts on “In Days Gone By: When The Stage Really Was A Stage!”

  1. I promise you they are all safely in storage for the time-being, the oldest north wall boards in Tankerville House (because they were left in situ at handover for some reason) and the south wall boards with the rest of the Church High Archive post 1985 with Quicksilver. They are unlikely to ever get back into the building, sadly, but I am the named ‘protector’ within NHSG. An idea was mooted at merger time that they might go to Beamish Museum (and they provisionally agreed – Mrs Fleming works there now), but they and the Old Girls’ Archive could just as easily return to school to be stored alongside the Central Archive in Tankerville House. Any thoughts anyone?

  2. A former archivist at the Northumberland Record Office recommends that the archives go to the Tyne and Wear Record Office and the artefacts to the Tyne and Wear Museums Service; better environment for the paper archives and a nearer site for the artefacts to their source, Church High. More great pics of the hall, by the way; I remember it with great affection.

    Jill Mortiboys

    1. I remember you and Church High with great affection. You used to come in to the room and tell us not to be so like the wallpaper but to come a little closer to the middle of the room. You instilled in me a love of literature. I particularly remember reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and reading ‘Timothy Winters’. I hope you get to read this. I went on to teach and now lead a primary school. You were an inspiration to me. Thank you.

  3. At this time of year the stage reminds me of all those wonderful staff pantomimes rehearsed at the last minute and received with such joy and warmth by the girls! It was at those times especially that I felt such a rapport with staff as we excitedly waited for our “big moment” on stage!
    Thanks for all your superb ongoing work Christine.

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