Assembly Rooms 2

Early history/revival in modern times

David Kreps and Bruce Garrard
A5 booklet, 38 pages.
Published 1995
Now sold out. Most of the contents has been included and updated in Free State.
Nevertheless copies can still be printed on request.
Price £3.45 


The Glastonbury Assembly Rooms booklet has sold out and most of the material has been incorporated into the book Free State, which includes ten chapters on different episodes in the Assembly Rooms’ history. Important corrections and updates have also been made.
Nevertheless it is still possible to re-print copies, and if after reading this you would still like a copy of the original version then please click on “Add to mail-order cart” below, and when ordering please add a message to make clear that this is your intention.

The Glastonbury Assembly Rooms is a community centre, arts venue, and a place for community gatherings and celebrations. It does not compare in size or facilities with a modern arts centre or community hall; but it has a special atmosphere, particularly fine acoustics, and a history which has given it a special place in the hearts of many people who have lived in or passed through Glastonbury.

The real history of the Assembly Rooms is these people’s stories, of the magic moments, unusual events and hilarious disasters which have been woven into the lives of so many over the years; this small booklet gives an outline of the facts and dates in the Assembly Rooms’ history, the framework within which it all happened.
It covers the period from the building’s founding in 1860s, up to the establishment of the Community Share Ownership Scheme in the early 1990s.

Extract: Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals

The presiding figure in the early part of this century was the composer and director Rutland Boughton. Boughton was born on 23rd January 1878, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire and died in London in 1960.  During his career he mounted some 350 staged performances, including productions of six of his own music dramas, together with more than 100 chamber concerts and a series of related lectures and exhibitions.

George Bernard Shaw was one of Boughton’s staunchest friends and admirers, and it was his musical and ideological leanings that led Boughton towards his views on the social basis and function of music. Boughton published pamphlets such as ‘The Music Drama of the Future’, ‘The Reality of Music’, and ‘Music and Democracy’. The function of the music drama was not just to provide aesthetic pleasure, but to present a comprehensive philosophy of life that would make its appeal directly to the emotions rather than by intellectual argument. In Boughton’s view, the music dramas of the future were to embody the real experience of men and women, with a musical language rooted in English folk-song.

Boughton embarked on the composition of a series of music dramas based on the Arthurian legends. After completing the first,’The Birth of Arthur’, moved to Glastonbury, “the real home of our legends”, so that local  people  could become closely associated with his productions.

He laid down plans, in 1913, for a ‘National Festival Theatre of Music and Drama’ of which Sir Edward Elgar promised to lay the foundation stone.  At the same time, a national appeal was launched for money to carry out a full orchestral performance of ‘The Birth of Arthur’, which was backed by such luminaries as Shaw, Henry Wood, Beecham, Bantock, Holbrook, and Laurence Housman, amongst others.

Rather than wait until all the necessary conditions existed for the Arthurian cycle, Boughton decided in 1914 to go ahead with a production of the less demanding ‘Immortal Hour’, a music drama based on Fiona Mcleod’s Celtic legend about a woman of the fairy-folk and her human lover.  The response to this announcement was overwhelming and money to support the Glastonbury Festival began to come in. An orchestra, however, was still out of the question, and performances would have to be piano-based and could not take place in the open air as originally envisaged.

The first Glastonbury Festival began at 8.00pm on 5th August 1914, in the Assembly Rooms. There were recitals of songs, partsongs and dances; a summer school, with avant garde dancing classes for young ladies; a number of short plays; the Grail scene from Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’, and on the last three days the first performances of ‘The Immortal Hour’.
The festival was enormously successful and popular with some people, whilst others regarded it as dreadful. We can imagine that the response was similar to the modern ‘Glastonbury Festival’ which takes at Pilton. Amongst certain residents of the town there was an outcry.

The school in particular met with serious opposition from “that section of the community which regards all positive happiness as tending to evil, and all beauty as an endowment of the devil; for it did undoubtedly happen that the young things who studied with us acquired a liveliness and a physical carriage that marked them out from their fellows … Therefore it has been rather trying to be met with refusals from parents who seek to save the ‘eternal souls’ of their young from the satanic influences of the arts in general, and of the Glastonbury Festival in particular”. (Rutland Boughton, quoted in Patrick Benham’s ‘The Avalonians’).

The costumes, sets and scenography of the Glastonbury Festivals were the work of an extraordinary artist, Christina Walshe, who was to become Boughton’s second wife. An article in the June 1920 edition of ‘The Musician’ states:  “Of equal interest with the programme is the individual style of the productions. Thanks largely to the work of one artist … the [Festival Theatre] has seen the creation of a remarkably beautiful and original style of staging”. According to Dion Fortune, groups of men and women would be used to suggest buildings or landscape features by their costumes and attitude, without actual scenery.

The Glastonbury Players

The outbreak of the First World War terminated the activities of the new company as a professional group but Boughton continued his project with exclusively local amateur talent – The Glastonbury Players. Boughton had emerged from his first festival with a certain advantage: he had won for himself and his music a number of firm local supporters and friends. Chief among them were Roger and Sarah Clark, founders of the famous shoe manufacturers in the nearby town of Street. Without their financial and moral backing it is doubtful whether the festivals could have continued.

The choral drama ‘Bethlehem’, based upon the Coventry Nativity Play, and which incorporates several well-known carols, was composed for the Glastonbury Players and remains one of Boughton’s finest works, albeit obscure. This, and the second of the Arthurian Cycle, ‘The Round Table’, as well as other works that conformed in part to Boughton’s ideas, such as Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’, Gluck’s ‘Iphigenia’, and Bainton’s ‘Oithone’, were all performed by the local amateur group, at the Assembly Rooms, during the 1914-18 war.

After the war the Glastonbury Festival Theatre at the Assembly Rooms moved forward with every sign of becoming permanent.  The first two of the Arthurian cycle were produced in 1920.  In 1921 there was a Glastonbury Festival of Old English Music and Drama including four complete cycles of performances of Purcell’s ‘Cupid and Death’, and ‘King Arthur’, and Blow’s 1680 masque, ‘Venus and Adonis’. Boughton’s setting of ‘Alcestis of Euripedes’, and ‘The Death of Herakles’ formed part of The Glastonbury Festival of Greek Drama in 1922. Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Queen of Cornwall’ was produced in 1924.

Meanwhile, Boughton’s work was making an impact in London. The Glastonbury Players performed ‘The Immortal Hour’ to packed houses at The Old Vic in 1920, Sir Barry Jackson produced a run of this classic in 1922 at the Regents Theatre, and in 1924 ‘Alcestis’ was being performed at Covent Garden!  Elgar wrote at the time, in a letter to the ‘Musical News’:
“We believe that Glastonbury has in it the possible development of a movement of the greatest importance, both for British music and the regeneration of the life of the countryside.  It will form a musical and dramatic centre for the study of British music from the Elizabethan period down to the present time.  Its methods will be largely experimental.  We believe that at present Mr. Boughton’s work is unique, but we hope that it will also be an example and that centres may be started in other parts of the country on the same lines.”

‘The Immortal Hour’ still holds the record for the longest running operatic work.  Its London production in 1922 enjoyed an unprecedented 216 consecutive performances, and a revival in 1923 ran for a further 160 performances, with later revivals in 1926 and 1932 adding to the total.  Meanwhile “Bethlehem” was broadcast on the BBC in the late 1920s and again in the’30s.

Dion Fortune, the esoteric teacher living locally, recorded the operas of Boughton in her book ‘Avalon of the Heart’. She writes of ‘The Immortal Hour’: “The first scene started with broad daylight shining in through the uncurtained windows of the Assembly Rooms.  But as it progressed the dusk drew on, till only phantom figures could be seen moving on the stage and the hooting laughter of the shadowy figures in the magic wood rang out in complete darkness, lit only by the stars that shone strangely brilliant through the skylights of the hall.”  She writes of how many now well-known singers made their debut in the building, and that the twice yearly festivals attracted music lovers from all over the world.


However, Boughton’s clear and uncompromising advocacy of his socialist ideology were to prove his downfall. A political meeting about the Irish question ended in tragedy when feelings ran high, a fight broke out, and a policeman died of a heart attack on the Assembly Rooms steps.

When offered a knighthood Boughton had abruptly turned it down. His version of the legend of Arthur is the only one that ends with a peasants’ revolt!  He had never, out of principle, conducted before royalty, and his refusal to modify his approach in order to win would-be patrons resulted in the failure of the Glastonbury Festival in 1924.  As Elgar had written in 1920, “So long as these [performances] have to be given in the small Assembly Rooms at Glastonbury, they cannot pay their way because large audiences cannot be accommodated [there].”

Boughton was forced to step down. His work was partially carried on, in 1925 and ’26, by Laurence Housman, dramatist and peace campaigner, and author of a series of short plays about St. Francis of Assisi which were performed at the Assembly Rooms for the last Glastonbury Festival in 1926. Boughton meanwhile had joined the Communist Party. The production of ‘Bethlehem’ which he staged during the General Strike in 1926 had Jesus as a miner’s son and Herod as a cartoon capitalist in a top hat, smoking a cigar. The show toured across the country, ending up in Church House, Westminster. It was a financial failure, and the end of the Players as a company.

The Assembly Rooms had become infamous as a place frequented by bohemians “wearing corduroy trousers”, and Boughton as a man with dubious morals as well as politics. With the Festival defunct, the building quietly returned to being a venue for dances, sales and other activities, still fondly remembered by older residents. The Literary Institution continued as a penny library until the outbreak of world war two.

In 1930 community activities moved into the plush new Hall built onto the back of the 1818 Georgian Town Hall, and the Assembly Rooms went into decline. It was requisitioned for the duration of the second world war in 1939. Soldiers from as far away as Canada and America, billeted in camps on the Mendips – especially during the build-up to D-Day – used the building as social centre and servicemen’s club. It was the first time black faces had been seen in Glastonbury.

Sergeant Ginger Harris, local bobby, was famed for the legendary punch-ups he got involved in whilst trying to keep the G.I.’s under control. The former library at the back of the modern Glastonbury Galleries was used as a room to shoot ‘crap’ and play pool. In 1945 the Morland family bought the building to use as a sheepskin warehouse and the building was all but forgotten in the town, a ghost of its former prominence, hiding down the alleyway, out of sight and out of mind.