The Glastonbury Assembly Rooms is 135 years old this year. It was originally built to provide a permanent home for the Literary Institution which held regular penny-readings at the Town Hall, but was said by some to be “only the resort of boys and girls to flirt and waste time.” There was some opposition to the working classes having the opportunity to read and write at all, so there was “quite a question whether the Corporation would continue their permission for the use of their room.”
A group of public-spirited citizens resolved to build a new “Assembly Rooms”, and formed a company in April 1864 to carry out this project. Local people bought shares at £5 each to pay for the £700 construction work, reclaiming some ancient Abbey stone and gargoyles at eaves level. By that November it was open as a community centre. Music-hall, cabaret, theatre and dances were the order of the day, and it became the centre of social, literary, artistic and political activity in Glastonbury.
Right from the start it managed to attract notoriety. A newspaper cutting from 1867 records an “abominable swindle and disgraceful disturbance” at the Assembly Rooms, when a theatre company failed to appear and the audience was presented with “one solitary individual” who performed “some badly arranged conjuring tricks.” In 1889, when Home Rule for Ireland was a violently divisive issue, a Liberal meeting with the Lord Mayor of Dublin as the principal speaker was riotously invaded by “The Blues”. John Morland (great-grandfather of the John Morland recently retired from Glastonbury Galleries) is said to have beaten back the intruders single-handed, while a policeman from Shepton Mallet, trapped behind the front door, died of a heart attack.
The Assembly Rooms enjoyed its heyday during the years 1914–1924, when the presiding figure was the radical composer and director Rutland Boughton. The first British rural arts festival, the precursor of festivals such as Bath, Cheltenham and Glyndebourne, took place in Glastonbury and was based at the Assembly Rooms. The first, in 1914, featured Boughton’s The Immortal Hour, later produced in London where it enjoyed an unprecedented 216 consecutive performances — still the record for an operatic production.
The Glastonbury Festivals were extremely popular and successful, though they had to struggle through the First World War with an entirely amateur local cast. “The Glastonbury Players” later performed all over the country. The festival attracted names such as Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, and was greatly encouraged by Edward Elgar. Dion Fortune wrote of how many well-known singers had made their debut at the Assembly Rooms, while the twice-yearly festivals attracted music-lovers from all over the world. Among certain residents of the town, however, there was an outcry. Boughton lamented the attitude of some people regarding “the satanic influences of the arts in general, and the Glastonbury Festival in particular.”
Boughton’s uncompromising socialist ideology was to prove his downfall. When offered a knighthood he 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. The last festival, under the direction of Laurence Housman, took place in 1926.
The Assembly Rooms had become infamous as a place frequented by bohemians “wearing corduroy trousers”, or women with their hair too short and men with theirs too long. 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 the Second World War.
In 1930 community activities moved into the new hall built onto the back of the Georgian Town Hall, and in 1939 the Assembly Rooms was requisitioned for the duration of the war. Canadian and American soldiers used the building as a servicemen’s club, and the former library at the back of the modern Glastonbury Framing shop was used to “shoot crap” and play pool.
After the war Morlands bought the building as a sheepskin warehouse, and by the 1970s it was a tip which many people considered beyond saving. Ownership had passed to the county council, which had intended to demolish it in order to build a road. However, the building’s potential as a community hall led to the formation of the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms Trust in 1977 and, with much enthusiasm and hard work, it re-opened in June 1978 for the revived Glastonbury Festival.
The 1980s are remembered by many as one of the most exciting periods at the Assembly Rooms, with community gatherings, homespun cabaret shows and some of the most creative community theatre and music productions of modern times. But a number of its neighbours found it too much of a disturbance. The building had come to be managed by a loose association known as the Friends of the Assembly Rooms and it was eventually bought freehold, but complaints mounted up and never seemed to be adequately handled.
The situation improved in 1991 when the management was reconstituted as a Friendly Society, a new Assembly Rooms of Glastonbury Ltd with shares owned by members of the community. Recent years have seen this experiment in community management and ownership gradually evolve. In 1998 work was carried out to repair the roof structure and install soundproofing, with help from the town and district councils. The next phase of building work and improvements is now being planned in detail, thanks to support from Michael Eavis of Glastonbury Festivals Ltd.
As in former generations, the Assembly Rooms continues to be popular with some sections of the community while others regard it as “dreadful”. This seems to be in the nature of the building itself, or perhaps of the town of which it forms part. Whatever the case, those now working at the Assembly Rooms see themselves as continuing in the tradition of Rutland Boughton and others, and could make out a good case for saying that modern productions there do indeed — as Boughton had foreseen — “embody the real experience of men and women, with a musical language rooted in English folk song.”