The Corn Exchange was built in the mid-19th century as a place for farmers and businessmen to buy and sell their grain, but a public hall for entertainment was included in the original design and this has proved to be the most lasting of the two original roles.
William Parker (1824-1909), chairman of the magistrates and one of the prime movers of the project, was an enthusiastic supporter of welfare for the working classes. He insisted that a public venue for lectures and concerts was a necessary addition for the town, where available space for public entertainment was limited and confined mainly to the clubrooms of local hotels and inns.
The Corn Exchange opened in October, 1870, at a cost of £2,000 and the building included a stage and dressing rooms, with an auditorium capable of seating 500 people at public events, musical and other entertainments – and the first of these was held the following week.
Ice skating was an attraction for a spell and later the first film shows in Bourne but as corn trading was phased out, live entertainment thrived to become synonymous with the building where a variety of concerts, musicals, plays and other dramatic productions have captivated audiences for almost 150 years.
A diversity of performances followed when audiences were entertained by lectures on learned subjects, a recital by handbell ringers, a Japanese troupe of acrobats and the London Opera, Burlesque and Comedy Company, giving a comedy entertainment entitled “Skits and Sketches”.
In 1880 there was great excitement in the town over a visit by General Tom Thumb, stage name of American-born Charles Sherwood Stratton, who achieved great fame under circus pioneer Phineas T Barnum.
He was born a normal baby but stopped growing after his first birthday and toured America at the age of five with stage routines that included impersonating characters such as Cupid and Napoleon as well as song, dance and comical banter. He was a huge success and a tour of Europe made him an international celebrity, appearing twice before Queen Victoria and with crowds mobbing him wherever he went.
His performances at Bourne were well attended but he was to die suddenly of a stroke three years later when he was 45 years old, 3 ft 4 in tall and weighing 71 lb. More than 10,000 people attended his funeral.
There were also presentations from local groups on subjects of topical interest such as temperance which was given by the Stamford Amateurs in 1880 and consisting of a selection of well-known songs followed by a five-act drama entitled “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” depicting the baneful results of excessive drinking.
Professional theatrical touring companies such as Pepper’s Ghost and Spectral Opera Company drew packed houses. The latter presented the popular Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1882 when the ghost scenes were enhanced through the use of an aetherscope, a device similar to the magic lantern which was popular in late Victorian England for showing projected and moving images incorporating limelight and shadows to create stage illusions that both surprised and startled audiences.
Magic shows were also popular and in March, 1884, Bourne was honoured with a visit from “Dr Lynn”, who by then had achieved a world-wide reputation as the most famous stage magician of the day, having toured Europe and countries including China and the United States.
His real name was Hugh Washington Simmons (1831-1899). He served with the British navy before becoming a magician and is credited with inventing many famous stage illusions, while his often repeated saying “That’s how it’s done” during his shows became a popular catchphrase of the time.
One of his most famous tricks was “to cut a living man to pieces”, also known as the decapitation act, involving the apparent severance of the left arm, left leg or head of a man, which was performed before excited audiences at Bourne.
Among the most spectacular stage productions were those produced by Alfred Stubley (1859-1932), a local painter, decorator and scenic designer, whose sets spelled success for many social events and amateur theatrical presentations, notably his fund-raising events that became part of the traditional Christmas season in Victorian Bourne.
In 1887 he designed the sets for a grand extravaganza similar to our modern pantomime, which was presented shortly after Boxing Day to raise funds for the Congregational Church in Eastgate [now the United Reformed Church], turning the stage into a street of nations with Oriental and European architecture, a spectacular setting graphically described by a local newspaper: “The scene was laid in Canton. The peculiar conglomeration of Oriental and European architecture was depicted with realistic effect including a street with 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 pendant from the roof, a magnificent Buddhist temple having its elaborate exterior embellished with representatives of the Oriental deity and dragons, and an Australian log hut.”
Over the years, the Corn Exchange has also become home to our own amateur dramatic and choral companies. Performances by the Bourne Amateur Operatic Society were staged there from 1913 until 1936, a series of shows that became the highlight of the year in the town’s social calendar.
Among them was a production of The Quaker Girl in 1930 when Raymond Mays, international racing car driver and designer, went on stage to delight audiences with two of the society’s stalwarts, Win Hassock and Kath Hinson. His love of the theatre was second only to his passion for motor racing but, said Kath: “He could neither act nor sing that well, but my goodness, he certainly looked good on stage.”
Much of the space at the Corn Exchange has now been given over to the Community Access Point which opened in 2012 when council services at town, district and county level were transferred there, but traditional entertainment continues on stage with regular productions from two amateur companies, the Bourne Players (formed 1937) and Bourne Footlights (formed 1991), as well as dance bands, pop groups, Christmas carol concerts and many more community and social events that are set to continue for the foreseeable future.
A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne web site at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.