LOOKING BACK:  Dancing in the old music hall
LOOKING BACK: Dancing in the old music hall

THE work of history buffs who have been scouring the archives of Barnard Castle’s arts centre has resulted in an exhibition which opens at the complex this week.

Pills, Skills and Thrills: 150 years of The Witham charts the venue’s history from its foundation in 1846 as a dispensary for the poor to the present day. Tony Seward, who has helped to curate the exhibition, said the idea was to show how The Witham has always served the people of Barnard Castle through health, education and entertainment.

“The archive group came together this year and then some time in the early summer the idea of the exhibition came up, encouraged by Shelagh [Avery, chairwoman of The Witham trustees], whose idea was to have something on The Witham Then and Now,” said Mr Seward.

He explained the exhibition was a chronological and thematic look at the centre’s history. The dispensary had been established as part of a national movement for the care and treatment of the poor, while the Mechanics Institute served to improve the education and vocational skills of working men.

“Both the dispensary and the Mechanics Institute had already been started, but were in rented premises,” said Mr Seward. “Henry Witham had proposed there should be some sort of hall or building set up for them. When he died, people came together and said his wishes should be carried out,” he said.

The Testimonial Hall was opened in 1846, but such was the demand, a major expansion resulted in the construction of the New Mechanics Hall, which was unveiled in 1860. Mr Seward said the exhibition would deal mainly with how the building had been used over the years.

Although the life of Henry Witham is mentioned, he said organisers were keen not to cover the same ground as an exhibition on the philanthropist and lovable rogue when The Witham reopened after a major facelift in 2013.

The new display will feature a number of documents, drawings and artefacts telling the story of the hall – although Mrs Seward said it represented work in progress by the archive group.

He said the group was also keen to hear people’s own memories, mementoes, documents and photos relating to the history of The Witham. Contributions to the archive group can be made via The Witham. A preview evening for the exhibition is being held on Thursday, September 12. The exhibition runs until Saturday, September 28, during centre opening hours. Admission is free.