The unkindest cut - closure of the Drill Hall, Lincoln

The unkindest cut - closure of the Drill Hall, Lincoln

There are many sorry stories as the Covid 19 pandemic roars on. Perhaps the news that hurts most in Lincoln – aside from the illness and deaths -- is the closure of our city’s main stage, the Drill Hall.

The City of Lincoln Council, inhibited by inevitable Government cuts, has reluctantly withdrawn £187,000 in annual grant funding. (The Council has slowly been reducing funding for the Drill Hall since 2013)

When added to months of cancelled events and lost income because of lockdown, that decision was enough to close the hall. When the Government’s furlough scheme ends at the end of October, and this bleak winter begins, the Drill Hall’s 19-strong staff will be made redundant.

No panto this year then, and no calling for a coffee. No comedy nights, and no folk musicians in the café bar. My tickets to see the legendary guitarist Albert Lee have been refunded.

The Drill Hall is controlled by the Lincoln Arts Trust who say they are striving to secure the future of other grants and talking to other interested organisations to protect the future of the site which is held under a charitable trust.

It is hoped to “redesign and repurpose” the venue – perhaps with a wider remit than just the arts. It appears on a wish list of 14 projects being drawn up in Lincoln in a bid to get £25m funding from the Government’s Town Deal.

To look back at the history of the Drill Hall is to realise that it is an essential part of the Lincoln story and it must not be mothballed! It contains important memorabilia of the Lincolnshire Regiment and it’s been everything from a typhoid ward to a rock ‘n’ roll venue!

It was built and gifted in 1890 by Joseph Ruston, the great engineering entrepreneur, as a centre for the Lincoln Volunteers to do their drill.

Local workers knew it as the “bread and cheese hall” as a result of a dispute with their employer Ruston.

The workers were on the trade union minimum but wanted a rise which Ruston refused. When some of them upbraided him, he replied: “I hope you’ll let me get bread and cheese out of my business.”

Ruston, thenceforth nicknamed ‘bread and cheese’, confided soon after to a young Congregationalist minister, who had delivered a sermon on social inequality, that it was his fear for other local engineering firms that made him refuse the wage claim.

While Ruston and Proctor were prospering, others were in great difficulty. Ruston feared they would close when faced with similar demands from their own workers and that much unemployment would result. (Story from the book “100 years of Good Company” published on the Centenary of Rustons in 1957)

In 1905, a typhoid epidemic, caused by the inadequate water supply, raged through the city. The hospitals were soon full, and emergency accommodation was required. The Drill Hall, the largest available, was immediately turned into a hospital ward with patients being delivered by horse-drawn ambulance to its Broadgate door.

For the typhoid story see our documentary at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/acitywithtyphoid

Or get Bygone Lincoln DVD 2 at http://blowbyblow.co.uk/website/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=53

On the day that the First World War was declared, the Lincoln territorials returned from training camp to muster at the Drill Hall and were told there to go home and prepare for embarkation. Within a few weeks they were fighting in France.

In World War Two, Lincolnshire was again a centre of military activity, and dances were held in the Drill Hall for RAF and US Air Force personnel.

In 1962, as a teenager, I made my debut - to see the rock ‘n’ roller Gene Vincent. To give an idea of my far from exquisite taste in that period, I also went to see Screaming Lord Sutch!

On New Year’s Eve 1963, a breaking band called The Rolling Stones were the entertainment. An excellent local beat group, The Sultans, were invited to support the guys from London.

The Sultans declined. They were already booked at a local village hall and the mother of one of them pointed out what bad form it would be to renege on such a booking! Next day The Stones went off to appear in the very first Top of the Pops.

As the 60s and 70s unfolded, wrestling at the Drill Hall was popular. Big Daddy, alias Shirley Crabtree, was a big softy under that vast exterior. He was addicted to Coronation Street and couldn’t miss an episode. The caretaker and his wife, who lived in a flat just off the main hall, would invite in the big man in to get his TV fix, only about 20 yards from the ring.

This same couple would allow me, a young journalist, to use their phone to ring in local election results from the Drill Hall count. No mobiles then.

One night in the early 1970s, Labour took control of the City of Lincoln Council after a tie between Labour and Conservative candidates in the one remaining ward to be counted. The issue was settled under electoral law by one “spoiled” paper. The voter had drawn a cross over the whole ballot paper as if to say “a plague on both your houses”. But because the apex of the cross was one-sixteenth of an inch on the Labour candidate’s side of the paper, the Returning Officer ruled that he should get the vote – and, as it turned out, the seat, and the council! I’m not kidding!

Come the 1990s and the Drill Hall electrics were old-fashioned and unsafe. There was a long close down but the famous Hall was back completely refurbished in 2004.

Since then everyone from political personalities like Tony Benn, Shirley Williams and the historian David Starkey have appeared (note how carefully I have selected left, centre and right) and all manner of famous names.

In comedy, John Bishop, Lee Mack and Sarah Millican. In jazz, Jacqui Dankworth and Jamie Cullum. In folk, Fairport Convention and Martin and Eliza Carthy. And countless other professionals of course. There have been scores of amateur performances. Blues and real ale festivals - these are only from my own memory. And lots of smaller gigs in the café and adjoining rooms.

One night in 2018 it was the only provincial venue to host a night in the BBC Proms which went out live on Radio Three.

A few weeks later, as the Centenary of the Armistice neared, I actually stepped on to the fabled stage myself as part of a night to recall Lincoln in World War I

I am quite used to addressing small groups but it was something else to be far above the audience and far away - and to see so little of them because of the stage lighting. There are professionals, struggling now for opportunities and income, who would take this in their stride and give anything to walk the Drill Hall boards once more.

Let us hope and pray that the long story of the bread and cheese hall is not over yet.

Andrew Blow  - October 15th 2020

Drill Hall picture by kind permission of Phil Hamlyn Williams

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