Scarborough LibraryTheatre in the Round at the Library Theatre was based on the first floor of Scarborough's public library and was opened by Stephen Joseph on 14 July 1955. As a result of this, Scarborough Library became home to the UK's first professional theatre in the round company and also, arguably, the first professional theatre company dedicated to new writing to be founded in England.
In 1862, it became the Literary and Mechanics Institute (generally known as the Mechanics Institute) and was altered by John Hall. This held a library but by the 1920s, the institute was in financial difficulties and there was a question as to whether the town should have a more substantial library.
Plans for a public library on the same site were drawn up during the late 1920s leading to Scarborough Town Council acquiring the building, enlarging it with the acquisition of an adjoining house and extensively remodelling the interior.
Scarborough Library, the town's first free public library, was opened on 19 June 1930 by the noted Scarborian Sir Meredith Whitaker, former mayor of the town, founder chairman of Scarborough & District Civic Society and former proprietor of the Scarborough Evening News.
The library was based on the ground floor with the Chief Librarian being William H Smettem - who played a key role in Stephen Joseph establishing theatre in the round in Scarborough 25 years later. The library held approximately 9,500 volumes with 1,200 in the reference library.
Of particular note was the first floor of the building, the majority of which was converted into the Harrison Room to house the collection of Colonel Jonathan Harrison containing glass plates, stuffed animal trophies, artefacts and documents obtained from his expeditions from throughout Africa and North America and which was purported to the the largest collection of its kind in the world. It's not altogether clear why Harrison's widow donated it to Scarborough as she lived in Beverly and there appears to be no connection between the family and the town.
During the latter half of the 1940s - probably 1948, Scarborough Town Council approved a plan to adapt what was now called the Harrison Room into a space for 'drama, music, films, shows and lectures'. In 1951, the Harrison Collection was moved to the Woodend Museum of Natural History in The Crescent - the former home of the Sitwell family, which had been acquired by the Town Council in 1934.
The Harrison Room was renamed the Concert Room circa 1954 (Stephen Joseph wrote to William Smettem in 1955 citing use of the Harrison Room and was corrected that it was now called the Concert Room) and it was this space Stephen Joseph enquired about using for his theatre in the round proposal when he contacted the librarian William Smettem on 17 February 1955. Smettem, less than a year away from retirement, agreed to let Stephen hire the Concert Room for the summer season (see The First Year for further details).
It is not known at what point the Concert Room began to be referred to as The Library Theatre for dramatic endeavours - it can be no earlier than 1952 and plausibly was dubbed as such by Stephen Joseph. From 1955 to the 1980s, the space was referred to as The Library Theatre when used by professional and amateur drama groups. It should be emphasised The Library Theatre does not refer exclusively to Stephen Joseph's use of the room, hence why Stephen and his successors publicised as 'Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre' from 1955 to 1976 to differentiate itself as a company using The Library Theatre space.
In 2005, to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Sir Alan Ayckbourn unveiled a blue plaque by Scarborough & District Civic Society on the exterior of the building which reads: "In this building on 14 July 1955 Stephen Joseph (1921 - 1867) founded the UK's first professional theatre in the round."
Scarborough Library is still in operation today and in 2023 underwent a £450,000 refurbishment. The Concert Room still exists on the first floor and retains many of the architectural features from when Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre was active. The Library was listed as a grade II building on 22 December 1953
References◦ Historic England
◦ British Listed Buildings
◦ From Local to Global
* Interestingly, a blue plaque on Scarborough Library as part of the Scarborough Heritage Trail reads "Public Library built 1840, as Oddfellows Hall, Later Mechanics Institute. Public Library since 1930." However, Historic England lists 1830 as the date of completion of the building and a glass panel on the first floor on Street reads "Established 1930."
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew
Holding: The Ayckbourn Archive
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