1864 The Glastonbury Assembly Rooms were built on the site of the White Hart Inn’s old stables adjacent to the Abbey Wall. The new building was originally proposed to answer the growing need for a permanent home to house the Literary Institution. This had been formed in 1848 with a small reading room in the back of a shop, and later moved to regular penny-readings at the Town Hall. These were “much opposed”, and said to be “only the resort of boys and girls to flirt and waste time,” and it was quite a question whether the Corporation would continue their permission for the use of their room.
A group of public-spirited citizens met on 13th February 1864 and resolved to build a new Assembly Rooms, with more space than at the Town Hall, room for public meetings and events, and a permanent library. The Glastonbury Assembly Rooms Company Ltd was registered that April with 49 founder members including John Austin and Walter Swayne. Local people bought shares in the company at £5 each in order to pay for the construction work. The site was donated free by John Austin, and the building was completed in November 1864 at a cost of £700.
Included in the building are some pieces of the ancient Abbey stone, and a number of interesting features including a row of gargoyles at eaves level along each side of the hall, and the original stone flags and solid stone steps at the entrance. The building has been described by one writer as “an unedifying barn-like structure”, built of reclaimed stone and rubble. It does not compare in size or facilities with a modern arts centre or community hall; but it has a particular atmosphere and charm which has made it a special place in the hearts of many people who have lived in or passed through Glastonbury.
The dimensions of the main hall are fifty three feet long and thirty-two feet ten inches wide. Dividing the width into the length gives a ratio of 1.614 :: 1- the value of phi, or “The Golden Section”. These are the classic proportions for instilling harmony into design, and they no doubt contribute to the particularly fine acoustics in the hall. Right from the start the Assembly Rooms somehow managed to attract notoriety. A newspaper cutting dated 18th December 1867 records the following: “Last night the Assembly Rooms were the scene of a most abominable swindle and disgraceful disturbance. A dramatic company announced to appear for six nights “An Eastern Spectacle.” One solitary individual appeared on the scene, apologised for the non-arrival of the company and proceeded to perform some badly arranged conjuring tricks. The audience loudly complained. The police were called and shut the man up in a room, but during the night he escaped.
The Conservation Society newsletter of March 1977 mentions that “… in 1889, when Home Rule for Ireland was a violently divisive issue, John Morland took the chair at a Liberal meeting where the Lord Mayor of Dublin was the principal speaker. This was a red rag to “… The Bluesâ who attempted riotously to break into the meeting.” The Morland family’s version of the story goes on to say that it was a group of Town Councillors who had got some yobbos drunk in the George & Pilgrim and encouraged them to break up the meeting. John Morland (who played cricket for Somerset and was an all-round sportsman) beat back the intruders on the steps of the Assembly Rooms single handed, while the poor policeman from Shepton Mallet, trapped behind the door, died of a heart attack.
Nevertheless, the Assembly Rooms had become a fully-fledged Community Centre. Music Hall, cabaret, theatre, and dances were the order of the day – it was the town meeting place, the venue for entertainment, a true communal space. For many years, the Assembly Rooms were the centre of social, literary, artistic and political activity. Glastonbury was smaller then than it is now, and a civic centre as spacious as this, in a town of such a size, was at that time a rarity.
1914-1925 The Assembly Rooms enjoyed it’s heyday when it became the home of the first Rural Arts Festival in England. Rutland Boughton, as producer and director, invited celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw, Alice Buxton, Thomas Hardy and T.E. Lawrence.
Boughton brought his vision of Music Drama to the Assembly Rooms, staging some 350 performances in his life time, including premieres of his own works, “The Immortal Hour”, “Bethlehem” and his Arthurian Cycle. The Glastonbury Town Players were originally formed as an amateur community group specifically to perform them and other pieces, attracting music lovers from around the world.
The Assembly Rooms became infamous as a place “frequented by bohemians wearing corduroy trousers” and Boughton as a man of dubious morals and socialist politics. The Assembly Rooms was not large enough to be able to become financially successful, events moved to an expanded Town Hall, and Boughton was forced to stand down. His work was partially carried on by Laurence Houseman, the dramatist and peace campaigner.
The Assembly Rooms returned to being a venue for sales and dances, still fondly remembered by some of Glastonbury’s older residents.
WWII The building was requisitioned for the use as a social club for American GI’s- the first time a black face had ever been seen in Glastonbury!
1945 After the war, the building was bought up by Morlands and used as a sheepskin warehouse.
1970’s/80’s By the 70’s, the building was purchased by Somerset County Council in a near derelict state and lined up for demolition. A group of festival goers decided to squat the building and this led to a revival of interest in restoring it as a community building. A number of trusts and resident groups took over caring for the building through the 70’s and 80’s and were responsible for much of the way the building looks and runs today.
1991 ‘The Assembly Rooms of Glastonbury Limited’ was formed under Industrial and Provident Society rules and a co-operative share ownership scheme was launched. This enabled the building to be bought outright and financed long overdue renovations. We now attract performers and audiences from all over the planet with a diverse calendar of events throughout the year.
2012-Present The Rooms obtained funding from the Arts Council in 2012 to enable the purchase of a new stage enhancing the events held across all genres. The venue has become a stage for the annual competition for the Bardic Chair of Ynis Witrin. The Glastonbury Players continue to stage wonderful theatrical performances, we host regular seasonal events to celebrate the changing year and most recently the Assembly Rooms has become home to AvalonVox Poetry Slam and Vesica Production family friendly events. Damh The Bard, Robin Williamson, Martha Tilston, Baka Beyond, Stevie P, Tim Hawthorn, and a whole host of talented musicians continue to grace the stage.