Rex Needle feature: The man who put magic into Christmas

A Stubley tableaux representing Pharoah's daughter on the back of a lorry for a 1924 Baptist Church pageant in Bourne. For Rex Needle's column
A Stubley tableaux representing Pharoah's daughter on the back of a lorry for a 1924 Baptist Church pageant in Bourne. For Rex Needle's column
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Magic and make believe were part of the Christmas season of entertainment for the people of Bourne in past times, conjured up by Alfred Stubley, a painter, decorator and paper hanger, with artistic talents that today would have won him a place as a designer for the West End stage.

But instead of seeking fame in the capital, he preferred to spend his life bringing pleasure to the people of his home town where the festive season had a special meaning and provided an annual challenge to his talent for fantasy, creativity and ingenuity.

Entertainment in Victorian England depended mainly on personal involvement and so amateur concerts and drama productions, galas and pageants, bazaars and sales, became extremely popular. Professional stage productions did come to the Corn Exchange but none attracted such large audiences as those produced locally and Alfred Stubley was always on hand to provide that special touch of illusion and make believe designed to delight and entertain.

His output was immense and his reputation soon spread to other towns and by 1900 few social or theatrical presentations were complete in Lincolnshire without his vision as a scenic artist although he also travelled to work further afield in places such as Nottingham, Birmingham, Basingstoke and Taunton.

But he loved Christmas and his colourful and spectacular productions at this time were among his best, one of his more notable successes being in 1887 when he designed the sets for a grand fancy fair with entertaining interludes rather similar to our modern pantomimes, which was staged at the Corn Exchange shortly after Boxing Day to raise funds for the Congregational Church in Eastgate [now the United Reformed Church]. The theme was a street of nations or a grand international bazaar with oriental and European architecture and we have a glimpse of the set from this colourful description published by a local newspaper:

“The scene was laid in Canton. The peculiar conglomeration of Oriental and European architecture was depicted with realistic effect. Proceeding down the left side of the street, the enterprising traveller passed in succession a Persian residence, an Indian cottage, a Chinese house, a delightful Japanese village, a Tyrolese chalet, a snug mountain home covered with snow and having icicles pendent from the roof, a magnificent Buddhist temple having its elaborate exterior embellished with representatives of the Oriental deity and dragons, and the last abode in the curious street was an Australian log hut. The articles exhibited on the various stalls were both useful and ornamental. Several entertainments were given in the evenings. Vocal and instrumental musical items and presentations were performed at intervals which were very popular. The promoters of the enterprise are to be congratulated on the success which has deservedly crowned their efforts.”

Another major triumph came the following year when he designed the sets for the Grand Bazaar, also held in the Corn Exchange, on Monday and Tuesday, May 28 and 29, 1888, when the room was adorned with his colourful banners and the walls covered with his various designs.

The event was a spectacular success and it was reported that “the interior of the hall presented a pleasing appearance. The roof was festooned with banners and the walls were adorned with ornamental devices. Mr Alfred Stubley undertook the decorations and the stalls were visions of beauty.”

There were many other examples of his art and Alfred’s imagination was particularly valued by local musical and drama groups such as the Bourne Amateur Operatic Society which presented annual performances at the Corn Exchange in the early years of the 20th century with his stage sets.

Born in the town in 1859, Alfred Stubley attended the Council School [now the Abbey CE Primary Academy] before learning his trade as a painter and decorator. He soon established his business at 28 West Street, next to the Post Office, where he lived with his family, working from the workshops and warehouses at the rear, now all demolished.

He earned his living painting, paper hanging, sign writing and plumbing but his private passion was the theatre and few stage productions, bazaars or big social occasions in the town did not bear his mark. One of his specialities was the design of floats and tableaux depicting historical and biblical events staged on the back of lorries for the many charity pageants held in the town, working long hours to ensure that all was perfect when they finally took to the road for the enjoyment of the people and to perpetuate a good cause.

He suffered a serious setback in 1897 when his workshop was destroyed by fire and as the building was made of wood and contained a great deal of inflammable material, the flames soon spread to the Baptist Church which was almost next door. The greater portion of his valuable scenery was stored in a building adjoining which was not affected but the church interior was badly damaged.

Ironically, Stubley was also a dedicated churchman who worshipped at the Baptist Church. In July 1924, when the church celebrated its centenary, he was honoured for his work with the Sunday School with which he had been associated for 50 years and was presented with the diploma of the National Sunday School Union and a Jacobean oak table from the congregation in recognition of his dedicated service. Equally distinguished was his 50 years as choirmaster at the church and his love of music inspired him to form the Bourne Town Band in 1887.

He died in London on Thursday , October 27, 1932, aged 73, and his body was brought back to Bourne the following Saturday for the funeral service at the Baptist Church he loved before being buried in the town cemetery where a stone memorial marks his grave. Hundreds turned out to pay tribute and the following day a memorial service was held to honour the man who had given so much time to provide pleasure for so many.