Updated History of Shakespeare Hall Available

“What’s behind the Green Door” is an updated history of the Durham Community Association (DCA), Shakespeare Hall and North Road in Durham.

The 48 page book marks the 70th anniversary of DCA which started in Shakespeare Hall in 1948.

It also looks at the history of Shakespeare Hall which dates back to the early 1830s when the building was first known as the Traveller’s Rest Inn. It was bought in 1873 by a local temperance organisation who wanted a large hall to hold their meetings.. In 1874 it re-opened as the Shakespeare British Workman temperance bar and hall. Since then the upstairs hall and meeting rooms have been the venue for all sorts of social, educational and recreational meetings and events, as well as auctions, religious services, political, civic and trade union gatherings, and even dog shows.

As Shakespeare Hall and DCA are two of the longest established names in North Road, the opportunity was taken to include a brief history of the street, tracing some major developments since it was first built in the 1830s.

“Shakespeare hall has a fascinating history” says the author, local historian Ross Hamilton. “Over the years, thousands of people have gone through the green door and up the stairs for dances, events, talks, lectures, meetings, keep fit, disccusions and much more. The book is intended to capture something of the atmosphere of Shakespeare Hall and the Community Association- and the important role the have played, and still play in the City’s life”

Ross added “The story of North Road has many interesting twists and turns. It hasn’t had the same attention as the older parts of the city and I hope the brief history of the street starts to fill in some of the gaps”

The book is now available for a small donation from Durham Community Association at Shakespeare Hall, North Road, Durham, DH1 4SQ

The History of Shakespeare Hall – what’s behind the Green Door?

The history of Durham Community Association and Shakespeare Hall

Durham Community Association was founded in 1931 as Durham House Settlement and initially had premises in Queen Street (now Owengate) and then Moatside Lane, where workshop facilities were available.  After the Second World War the activities of the association continued on a much reduced scale until in 1948 Durham Community Association replaced the Durham House Settlement under a new constitution at the present building, which belongs to the Shakespeare Temperance Trust.

Shakespeare British Workman Public House

Shakespeare Hall owes its establishment to the strong temperance movement that grew in Britain during the middle part of the 1800s in response to the increase of crime and social problems among the new industrial workers.  They had flocked to the cities to work in the new factories and found solace for their exploitation in the rapidly increasing numbers of public houses.  Durham had the worst drunkenness record in Northern England, closely followed by Newcastle.  To combat this, the Independent Order of Good Templars – a Christian temperance organisation which started in America and had about 700 members in seven lodges in Durham City – decided to establish a “Public House without the drink” that could act as a centre for social activities and also as a hall for Templar meetings.

The Shakespeare Hotel, situated at 71 North Road, was originally called the Traveller’s Rest, and the Shakespeare Lodge of Oddfellows of the Manchester Unity met in part of the building from before 1847.  The Oddfellows bought the buildings in 1853 for £870.  The inn’s name was changed to Shakespeare Hotel in 1855.  In January 1873, it came up for sale.  The premises and location were ideal for the Templars’ purpose, but it was known the property would be expensive, particularly as it included a transmittable licence, and these were hard to come by.  Previous “British Workmen Public Houses” had been rented; this was the first time anyone had attempted to buy.

The Auction was held at the Three Tuns Hotel on Tuesday 28 January 1873, and in the previous 24 hours subscriptions to the tune of £1,500 had been donated.  It was expected that the price would be between £1,500 and £1,800, but in the event the bidding rose to £2,630, and the Templars succeeded on the 90th bid.  They appealed for more subscriptions and soon had £3,100 of the £3,700 necessary to pay for the building and effect the alterations.  A trust made up of the eight men who had played the biggest part in the purchase was formed.  They signed a legal declaration on June 24 1873 ensuring that the Shakespeare British Workman Public House should remain teetotal in perpetuity.  This was the beginning of the Shakespeare Temperance Trust.

Upstairs, the four bedrooms and the “spacious room used by the Shakespeare Lodge of Oddfellows Friendly Society” were converted into a large hall holding 300, an anteroom, a newsroom and a ladies toilet.  Downstairs, the original bar was kept and the other rooms became a smoking room, a ladies’ coffee room and a dining room. Facilities were free, but charges were made for food and non-alcoholic drinks.  The opening ceremony took place in style at 11 o’clock on Thursday 12 March 1874.  The House was open to all including women and children, and customers did not have to run the gauntlet of drunk or dubious company.  It was one of the most successful of the British Workmen Public Houses created, and was extensively used for self-education among the more ambitious working class families.

In 1893-94 the ground floor premises were converted to shops (all of which still share the number 71) by George Gradon and Son at a cost of £720.  In the Durham Directories, the name changes from the ‘Shakespeare British Workman’ with a ‘proprietor’ to the ‘Shakespeare Lecture Hall’ with an ‘attendant; hence the legend above the door.  The familiar entrance must date from that time.  During the First World War, the hall was requisitioned as a billet for soldiers, and during the Second World War the YMCA used it as a NAAFI for members of the Canadian armed forces.  The illuminated sign was made by Alf Crowe, a member of the table tennis section, and the original planning permission for its use was granted on 28 October 1955 by the City Planning department.  The first chair lift was installed in 1982, financed by Help the Aged, Durham City Council and the Association’s members.  This was replaced in 1997 with the help of Lloyds TSB Foundation.

A caretaker’s “cottage” was built sometime between 1853 and 1873.  The Trust stipulated that a caretaker should be in residence, largely for security reasons.  The cottage originally had a kitchen and living room downstairs, a bedroom upstairs and a toilet across the yard.  The space was very limited by modern standards and became a major consideration in appointing caretakers because it was unsuitable for more than two occupants; several potential caretakers refused the job once they had seen the premises.  In 1972-1973 when no caretaker was resident, a good deal of repair work was carried out and a bathroom was created for half of the common room.  In 1981-1982 central heating finally took the place of coal fires.  Eventually, in 1989, the Trust acceded to the request of the then caretaker and his wife that they should be allowed to live off the premises.  The change from ‘tied’ housing can be seen as much more practical in today’s world.  The three rooms became available for community use and have provided a welcome source of further revenue.

Durham Community Centre signed its first lease for Shakespeare Hall on 24 January 1948.  The Ministry of Education Report of 1954 allows us a good snapshot of its early years.  The large hall had a stage which had recently been “enlarged and made permanent”, with curtains and simple stage lighting.  This reflected the use of the hall to stage regular dramatic productions and concert parties at that time.  In fact and earlier stage had been removed to allow room for a badminton court, and then replaced by a temporary stage when the need arose.  It was this stage that was “made permanent”.  It was further repaired and improved in 1972 and 1976, but by 1986 the need for it had receded and it was removed, enlarging the hall for general use.  Major structural repairs to the exterior wall were also made then.  Finally, in 1997 the cloakroom was removed and cupboards put along the width of the room, paid for by the William Webster Charitable Trust.  The wooden floor was last re-laid in 1991.

The John Morgan Hall was originally called simply the Small Hall until it was renamed in 1990.  It was probably added in 1900 by a building firm called Gibson at a cost of £850, and was originally heated by a coke stove.  The special lights used for playing table tennis were brought from the Newton Aycliffe Ordnance Factory one at a time on George Dent’s bike!




Mr Russel Daniels

The Chairman, Trustees and Staff were saddened to hear of the recent death of Russ Daniels, our former caretaker with over 20 years of loyal and selfless service.  Our thoughts are with his family.


May 22