About the Venue
Situated in the mature gardens of the Walthamstow School for Girls’ lies the Greek Theatre.
Set amidst laurel, mulberry and cherry, the central circular performance arena sits between a stage to the east and a great stone Portico to the west.
The theatre was built after the First World War and was opened by Miss (later Dame) Sybil Thorndike on July 2nd 1925.
This is the story of the the Greek Theatre…
Mary Norris and Walthamstow County High School for Girls
The county high school for girls in Walthamstow originally opened as a private school in 1890. In 1911 it came under council control and in 1913 relocated to the purpose-build Georgian-style building it currently occupies.
In early 1924 Mary Norris took up the position of headmistress and brought with her a passion for classics and the culture of Ancient Greece. Having studied classics at university she had a reputation for building up formidable classics departments and for ‘getting things done’. She oversaw the building of a library, a laboratory and a gymnasium, introduced new technologies such as electric bells, radiograms and wireless, adopted charities and established a Parents’ Association.
Mary Norris was also responsible for the gardens laid to the rear of the school, the rose walkway and the “Thermopylae” plane tree and a pond (the latter two which are no more).
Norris was asked if she would like an open-air swimming pool in the school grounds. She instead chose to have a Greek Theatre.
Constructing the Greek Theatre
The Greek Theatre was conceived, planned, designed and built in 1924. It cost £1,600 for labour and materials, equivalent to around £65,000 at 2008 prices, although it would cost significantly more if built today. The distinctive pillared portico was added in 1926, as indicated by the Roman numerals above the central pillar, although it is unclear whether or not it was part of the original design.
The theatre was paid for with public money and was built by unemployed men of the borough. In 1924 unemployment in the borough had officially risen to around 10%, though the real figure may well have been higher. Benefit laws were still in their infancy and eligible claimants were only strictly entitled to fifteen weeks payment in any twelve-month period.
The alternative for those who could not receive benefits was the Poor Law, where a parish, or borough, provided charitable relief to its own “deserving poor” and this often meant food in exchange for labour. Boards of Guardians administered the Poor Law using funds raised through rates on local properties and the Greek Theatre was paid for by the West Ham Board of Guardians. This Board oversaw a borough with a population of over three quarters of a million, covering East and West Ham, Leyton, Walthamstow, Woodford and Wanstead.
The West Ham Board of Guardians also managed to secure a grant from the Unemployment Grants Committee (founded 1920) to cover 75% of the cost of the theatre.
It rained hard during the summer of 1924 with heavy flooding in many parts of England. Once the centre of the theatre was located the workers used a theodolite to establish the height of the land in order to connect to the public sewers for drainage. They used rope, staked at the centre point, to mark out the circle of the theatre, dug a saucer shape, laid the drains and paved the bottom. Each level of the auditorium was then marked out and cut back until a terraced earthen-work theatre had emerged. Wooden formas were then used to create moulds in which to pour concrete to form the circular seating area.
At the rear of the stage, the residue of building work was transformed into a rockery with flowering shrubs and tall herbaceous plants, which has since grown into the curtain of greenery and concealed pathways that form the stage backdrop today.
There are various examples of Greek-style theatres in the UK, but most feature the stage on one side of the auditorium with the audience on tiered seating opposite. This is one of the very few where the performers work ‘in the round’.
The Grand Opening
With construction complete in 1924, the opening ceremony was set for Thursday 2nd July 1925. It just so happened that one of Mary Norris’ cousins knew Sybil Thorndyke, (later Dame Sybil Thorndike), one of the most renowned and celebrated actresses of her generation, who kindly agreed to reprise a critically-acclaimed role and perform ‘Medea’.
‘Medea’ was produced by Lewis Casson, Sybil’s husband and director of the acclaimed 1922 West End production. Roles were taken by Thorndyke’s friends with her own daughters appearing as Medea’s children and fifth-formers at the school appearing as chorus, even though they had a Botany exam that afternoon.
The whole school turned out and the inaugural performance saw around 800 people packed into the auditorium.
Through the Years
The theatre remained unchanged for over eighty years until the school underwent massive redevelopment in 2009. The entire structure, apart from the portico, was given a fresh coat of concrete to comply with health and safety regulations, new lanterns were added and the surrounding landscape was also significantly altered.
The theatre remains a jewel of Waltham Forest and still stands all these decades later as a memento to the vision of Mary Norris and the men who built it.
(With thanks to Louise Hodges, Bob Hutt, Rick Savery, Helen Greenall, Mark Greenall, the Vestry House Museum, the Waltham Forest Guardian and the friends of the Greek Theatre for their contributions above.)