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The Athenæum Centre, 18-20 High Street, Warminster, Wiltshire

Formerly - The Palace Theatre / Albany Ward's Electric Picture Palace / Warminster Arts Centre

A Google StreetView Image of the Athenaeum Centre, Warminster in 2011 - Click to Interact.

Above - A Google StreetView Image of the Athenæum Centre, Warminster in 2011 - Click to Interact.

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The Athenaeum Centre today - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for The Warminster Athenaeum Centre).The Athenæum Centre is a fine grade II listed building at the heart of the historic market town of Warminster. It has a long and colourful history of use, from a literary institution to a cinema, Theatre, and a vibrant centre for the community. The Athenæum is held in Trust by and for the people of Warminster and is operated by a dedicated team of volunteers.

Right - The Athenæum Centre today - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

In November 1850, a group of local professional men established an 'Athenæum' Institution for Warminster on the ground floor of The Literary Institution in The Market Place; "to afford intellectual enjoyment, cultivate literary taste and improve the education of pupils". It had a small library and reading room, and held lectures and concerts in the Town Hall. In time it outgrew the rented premises and a new building was planned. The vacant London Inn was chosen as a suitable venue having closed down after bankruptcy in 1854.

Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for The Warminster Athenaeum Centre).During 1857, The London Inn buildings to the west and north were pulled down and the site cleared ready for redevelopment. The property to the east occupied by a printer was not demolished and survives to this day.

Left - An Advertisement for the Athenæum Hall in 1861 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

The lecture hall was the first part to be erected followed by the main building - still in use today - at the front. This contained a reading room, a small library and recreation room on the ground floor, with two class rooms on the first floor - the larger for The Government School of Art.

The Opening Advertisement for the Warminster Athenæum in 1858 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

Above - The Opening Advertisement for the Warminster Athenæum in 1858 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

The Athenæum in 1864 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenaeum Centre).The building, designed by William Jervis Stent, and erected by John Barnden is in the Elizabethan style with an oriel bay window with a gable over and a gable at each side. There are two entrances on either side with pilasters, ornate pediments and carved satyr heads.

The low glass-roofed lecture hall was approached through the entrance hall from the street, and was capable of containing about 350 persons. It had gas lighting carried around the room on the cornice. The total cost to build was £1,190 - a debt that would last for sixty years.

Right - The Athenæum in 1864 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

The new Athenæum flourished as a meeting place and a centre of learning and entertainment, with lectures from eminent speakers such as author Charles Kingsley, science demonstrations, novelty acts such as Tom Thumb - 'man in-miniature', penny readings, concerts and recitals.

T. H. Wyatt's Plans for the Bleeck Hall in 1879 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for The Warminster Athenaeum Centre).

Above - T. H. Wyatt's Plans for the Bleeck Hall in 1879 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

An Advertisement for the Athenaeum, Warminster in 1890 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenaeum Centre).In 1879, the Lecture hall was demolished and rebuilt in memory of one of the Athenæum's founders, Dr Charles Bleeck to a design by T. H. Wyatt. This larger memorial hall, built by Henry Maxfield, with its platform stage, balcony with ornate iron front, exposed timber roof and committee rooms remains, for the most part, unchanged to this day. This auditorium entertained hundreds with plays, Music Hall entertainments, lectures and public meetings. It was on this same stage that Oscar Wilde lectured in 1884, General Booth in 1906 and Emmeline Pankhurst in 1911.

Right - An Advertisement for the Athenæum, Warminster in 1890 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

As the years progressed, the arrival of affordable books, daily papers and public libraries, along with a reduction in lectures made the Institution obsolete. By 1895, the building was under-used and in decline so passed to new trustees - the Urban District Council - who reformed the charity and adapted the rooms for more recreational use. The recreation room was extended and a skittle alley was added. Lectures were replaced with more popular variety entertainments, Music Hall acts and a social club.

The Palace Cinema, Warminster in 1927 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenaeum Centre).In the hands of the Council, the educational side of the building was expanded through an education committee and school classes. In 1897 the Government Education Inspectors insisted the Athenæum must expand if it was to continue to offer classes. An initial plan to add a floor to the front building was rejected in favour of a new school adjoining. This was completed in 1901, made possible by the demolition of the neighbouring Ship Inn. The new Athenæum school, designed by William Henry Hardwick and erected by John Ponton, made use of the first floor classrooms of the Athenæum too up to the school's closure in 1931.

Left - The Palace Cinema, Warminster in 1927 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

Plays and entertainments continued to be popular, but the lecture circuit began to dwindle and the hall was not reaching its potential.

In 1912, by public vote, the Bleeck Hall was converted into Albany Ward's Electric Picture Palace with alterations made to house the new cinema and projector. The first picture to be shown was a hand coloured film - Don Juan.

Plans for the Alterations to the Palace Cinema, Warminster in 1935 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenaeum Centre).Activities on the stage continued on certain days and later a billiards club was added in the old reading room. This survived as a gentlemen's club until 1990.

The Palace cinema served the community and troops through the Great War with films and variety shows, coming into its own with the dawn of 'talkies' in the 1930s. It showed two films, twice nightly, every night of the week. Around the same time stage performances by groups such as The Warminster Amateur Operatic Society and future Hollywood star Freddie Bartholemew kept the Theatre alive.

Right - Plans for the Alterations to the Palace Cinema, Warminster in 1935 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

The most extensive alterations to the building came in 1935 when the lower front bay was removed and an opening created through the centre of the building to the hall behind.

Linking walkways from the balcony to the first floor were also added, along with toilet facilities and dressing rooms.

A Programme of Attractions at the Palace Cinema, Warminster for September 1939 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).Outside, the front of the building had an ambitious scheme of neon lighting in red and blue, incorporating stars emphasising the company slogan "Where the Stars Shine". A new illuminated steel canopy was added, the entrance features stainless steel display cabinets inset into the stonework and black cellulosed doors with stainless steel, sun ray effects trimmed with brilliant scarlet handles of ultra modern design.

The new foyer was decorated in futuristic style, silver sun-rays, terminating in brilliant motifs in red, green and black superimposed on a groundwork shaded from pale lemon to vivid orange.

Left - A Programme of Attractions at the Palace Cinema, Warminster for September 1939 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

The lounge was reached through doors which are a replica of those at the entrance and a mural of Spanish scenery painted by Mr Laurie Carton, an artist who also worked on the scheme at the Vista in Westbury. Wide seascapes, quaint houses, trailing vines and wisteria, a fascinating little shop and roofed cottage, these being the chocolate box and pay box. The floors were made of rubber in a delightful colour scheme of lemon, jade and black with handsome central motifs in both foyer and lounge. The lighting was of a box type in chromium and opal. The willow furniture was finished in jade and silver.

The architect for the project was Ronald W. H. Vallis A.R.I.B.A of Rigg and Vallis, Frome. Messrs. Butcher and Sons were the contractors who carry out the work. The screen was also enlarged during the works and more room added between rows of seats in the balcony.

A Production photo from the 'Mikado' performed by the Warminster Amateur Operatic Society at the Warminster Athenæum in 1922 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

Above - A Production photo from the 'Mikado' performed by the Warminster Amateur Operatic Society at the Warminster Athenæum in 1922 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

Mirroring the national trend, The Palace reached its prime through the Second World War. The town's population was greatly increased by troops stationed locally and within the town, and The Palace became a popular place of entertainment. Alongside the daily films, entertainments and shows were presented on an occasional basis with the exception of 1947 and 1948 when the films were replaced with plays by the resident Frank H. Fortescue's Repertory Company. Television and radio comedian Eric Sykes performed weekly with the company at The Palace in Spring 1948.

The Palace Cinema, Warminster in 1964 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenaeum Centre).By the late 1950s The Palace was near dilapidated and struggling, having been sold to a Manchester based cinema circuit and facing competition from the larger Regal Cinema on Weymouth Street (purpose-built in 1936). After fifty two years and over thirteen thousand films, shows and plays the Palace cinema closed in December 1964. Much of the dormant building was leased by the local Arts Society with a view to creating a permanent Arts Centre for the town.

Right - The Palace Cinema, Warminster in 1964 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

After four years of closure for extensive repair, the building reopened as a cultural hub for Warminster on 5th March 1969. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Warminster Arts Centre presented highly ambitious programmes of arts: dramatic plays, contemporary dance and ballet, cultural films, classical and folk music, along with eminent actors, musicians and performers. In 1987 the volunteer organisation that operated the Centre formed a limited company - West Wilts Arts - seeking to expand its remit to the district at large and broaden its cultural appeal.

In 1993, extensive grant-funded refurbishment work was undertaken costing around £100,000. The majority of the building was redecorated, the foyer upgraded, the lounge turned into an enclosed gallery, the redundant caretaker's house was incorporated into the main building, with offices created for the staff. The following year a fund-raising drive replaced all the seats.

A Production photo from 'The Country Wife' performed at the Warminster Athenæum in 1971 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).By the mid 1990s a new director was employed to raise further the profile of the venue and meet the needs of the Arts funding bodies - at times offering a programme that was sadly too ambitious and costly for a provincial market town. Over thirty celebrity performers entertained from the venue in 1995 alone - including Sir John Mills, Wendy Craig, Timothy West and George Melly.

Left - A Production photo from 'The Country Wife' performed at the Warminster Athenæum in 1971 - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

An expanding workforce, to meet the demands of a professional venue, over-stretched the company finances and resulted in liquidation in 1997.

In the autumn of 1998 the District Council sought to relinquish its trusteeship of the building. A steering group of local supporters was formed and negotiations began to secure ownership and a new life for the Arts Centre and Theatre.

The Auditorium and Stage of the Athenaeum Centre - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenaeum Centre).

Above - The Auditorium and Stage of the Athenæum Centre - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

In the autumn of 2000 six members of the steering group were appointed trustees with, for the first time, all parts of the building coming under the control of the single 'Warminster Athenæum Trust'. The building was renamed the Athenæum Centre for the Community and re-opened for business. In the subsequent years, the trustees have worked to expand the use of the building to secure its long term future hosting: plays, shows, classes, lectures, resident drama companies, cinema and meetings.

Good progress was made to upgrade and restore the neglected areas of the building. Major works were undertaken to improve the heating, water supply, facilities, decoration and restore the roof surfaces. An old school classroom to the rear was converted into a dance studio.

In 2005 the trustees drew up plans to develop a large void between the main building and the hall to improve accessibility. The project, along with a community kitchen, accessible toilet, and lift was completed in Spring 2011 - the most extensive alteration to the building since the 1930s.

The Auditorium of the Athenaeum Centre - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenaeum Centre).

Above - The Auditorium of the Athenæum Centre - Courtesy Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre).

Most recently major improvements have been made to create new entrance steps, update the toilet facilities and hemp stage rigging. In 2020 the next phase of restoration was the asset transfer of the adjoining Close Centre School building. This ambitious scheme reunited the two parts of the building - separated since the 1940s - and allows the Centre to grow with added rehearsal rooms. Like the majority of Theatres and venues nationwide, the Athenæum fell silent for over a year during the Coronavirus Pandemic. During this time further repair works were made and the entire auditorium and stage wiring was overhauled and replaced.

You may like to visit the Warminster Athenæum Centre's own Website here.

The above article on the Athenæum Centre was written by Andrew Frostick (Archivist for the Warminster Athenæum Centre) and kindly sent in for inclusion on the site in 2021.

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