Holidays at Home: Theatre at Calderstones Mansion
In the first of our new series of articles exploring Calderstones' rich history, Heritage Coordinator Holly Gilson tells the story of the Mansion's Garden Theatre, brought to life for the national Holidays at Home initiative during the Second World War.
At the back of the entrance hall of the newly refurbished Mansion House at Calderstones Park, through the glass doors and up a few steps, you find yourself inside a remarkable art deco-style structure, at the very centre of the Garden Theatre stage. Added to the 19th Century Mansion in the 1940s, the theatre opens onto the Mansion’s Gardens - an arena where people once sat in deckchairs, awaiting outdoor performances... and still do.
But why was a theatre added to the Mansion? The idea for the multi-purpose extension was actually born out of the most testing of times.
The Second World War was a challenging period for everyone in Britain, for civilians and soldiers alike. Resources were scarce and the war effort was a priority, so people had to make sacrifices and lifestyle changes, including how they spent their leisure time. By 1939, railway station walls bore posters with the messages “food, shells and fuel must come first” and “is your journey really necessary?”. Travelling for leisure was no longer possible, and with a day out at the seaside off the table, people began looking for recreation in their local area.
Liverpool residents were encouraged to stay at home, and could visit Calderstones Park at this time for a walk, to play sports, or even to spread a picnic blanket on the grass and watch an outdoor theatre production. These performances were part of the government's ‘Holidays at Home’ scheme, which aimed to discourage non-essential travel by providing local activities and entertainment for all. This was particularly important in Liverpool, which, like many other major cities suffered heavy bombing during the war – particularly in the May Blitz of 1941. The Holidays at Home initiative was one of the many measures taken to encourage civilian morale in the wake of wartime atrocity.
By studying playbills from the era, we have been able to piece together some of the wartime programme at Calderstones, which included variety shows, bands, plays and comedians, and proved so popular that when the war ended the theatre became an official part of the park's cultural offer. In 1947, the permanent Garden Theatre, designed by city architect Sir Lancelot Keay, officially opened its doors, and in this photo from our archive, you can see an audience enjoying a show in the late 1940s or early 50s.
And the theatre still stands today. In September 2019 Calderstones Mansion opened as the home of The Reader, following a three year, £5million refurbishment, including work on the original theatre structure and private garden. Although this summer's Shakespeare's Globe on Tour has been postponed until further notice, the Garden Theatre will once again welcome troupes and players from across the country and continue to celebrate a cultural tradition that has been part of the park’s heritage for decades.
We look forward to welcoming you to see a performance once our doors are open again, and in the meantime, we will be bringing you regular online highlights from the archive, as our own form of Holidays at Home during these uncertain times.