Newhampton Arts Centre – origins

Wolverhampton Higher Grade School now Newhampton Arts Centre – as it appeared on the Ordnance Survey map in 1901

Newhampton Arts Centre’s site has its origins in a meeting of Wolverhampton School Board on 5th October 1883 when it was proposed that an Upper Grade School educating children beyond the age of 13 should be investigated.

However, it was not until 1890 that they decided to visit other Higher Grade Schools to and set up a sub-committee which rejected a town centre site in Birch Street for a cheaper, larger site on Newhampton Road, Whitmore Reans, for 600 pupils.

Whitmore Reans was sparsely populated and had a reputation as an area of swampy ground giving rise to white fogs or mists, partially drained by gulleys or Reans,

Also allegedly known as the ‘Hungry Leas’, the area was empty except for Whitmore End House on the Tithe Map of 1842 and had less than 50 houses until 1850 when ironmaster Samuel Griffiths had Whitmore Reans Hall built.

Attempts to build up the area as a New Hampton or new town foundered except for Whitmore End Lane becoming Newhampton Road and growth continuing.

Streets and houses continued to be added – being joined by the creation of West Park on the old racecourse at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Board’s architect, T.H.Fleeming, produced plans for the school but these were revised over costs again before the board accepted building at a total cost of £14,300.

It was built in a style described as ‘Pont Street Dutch’ – the main features being a “a fondness for very bright red brick, a proliferation of enrichment and a passion for breaking the skyline with every variety of gable that the genius of Holland has produced and a good many that it has not.”

On Monday 21st November 1892 the foundation stone was laid but, as the school was being built, Wolverhampton Corporation called on the school board to drive a new street through from Newhampton Road to Waterloo Road.

It was called Dunkley Street after the chairman of the school board, the Reverend Charles Dunkley.

The school viewed from Newhampton Road, with Dunkley Street to the right

Jesse West was appointed headmaster at a salary of £300 a year and the school was formally opened on the 16th January 1894 with a fee of 6d (21/2p) per week per child on condition a quarter of the 600 places were free with the first examination for free scholarships on the 24th February 1894. 64 boys and 58 girls were successful.

As well as the three Rs the school offered singing, needlework and cookery, Freehand , Model and Perspective Drawing. An early arts presence on site.

In 1903 Wolverhampton’s School Board became the council education committee and the higher section of the school became the Higher Grade Secondary Day School.

Using the hall for Physical Training disturbed classes in the rooms around the hall and in 1904 the field opposite (now occupied by Whitmore Reans Children’s Centre) was secured for use as a playing field.

By 1907 the school’s official title was The Wolverhampton Municipal High School for Boys and Girls but this was a bit of a mouthful so it was referred to as The Municipal Higher Grade School.

The education committee regarded the Grammar School as the ‘proper’ secondary school for boys in Wolverhampton and they were thinking of a secondary school for girls on a new site.

Jesse West – who was headmaster from the school opening until it moved in 1921

Jesse West’s hope of giving a chance of going on to university to those who could not afford to go to the grammar school was foiled but they did manage to keep French, shorthand and book-keeping going.

A move by Wolverhampton and Staffordshire’s education committees to turn it into a secondary school for girls was turned down partly because two classrooms would have to be taken out to create an art room – even though it would be impractical to “obtain a northern light.”

Despite this it was invited by the Board of Education as one of “a few schools and institutions of special excellence” to contribute to a permanent exhibition organised by the Maharajah’s Government of Mysore to be illustrative of the “best types of British Education of an elementary and higher elementary kind.”

However, the pressure for the school to concentrate on industrial and commercial education increased as the Girls High School was established in 1911.

The West Riding Regiment move out of Dunkley Street and up Newhampton Road to catch their train to treturn to Salisbury Plain after using the school as a barracks in the 1911 national railway strike

The site had an odd industrial involvement in the same year as the school was taken over by the West Riding Regiment to be used as their barracks while they were in Wolverhampton to intervene in the national railway strike.

They were sent as to “aid the civil power” but were mystery visitors to Jesse West who wrote in the school log book during the summer holidays: “Visited the school. Found school had been used as barracks during the late strike.”

Although there were clashes elsewhere with deaths in South Wales and on Merseyside their stay in Wolverhampton seems to passed without any reported clashes before the strikers won and the troops were photographed marching out from the school and up Newhampton Road to the railway station to return to their base on Salisbury Plain.

Three years later a thunderstorm produced a stream 13 ft wide and 18 inches deep and a third of the pupils had to be sent home. Lightning hit a chimney bringing down bricks and mortar in the girls’ playground . “Prudentially no on was injured.”

The First World War produced new pressures as staff volunteered or were conscripted into the forces. Restrictions on married women being able to teach were also relaxed.

Staff and ex-pupils who had joined the forces would call in regularly during the war to report on their part in the war.

At other times parents would come in to report that ex-pupils had died or been injured in the conflict.

Part of the school was used to train women to be munitions workers in factories in Wolverhampton, Birmingham and the Black Country.

The work was hazardous and as well as sore throats the women – and men – workers found that their skin would turn yellow because of the chemicals they were working with.

Advertisements aimed at munitions workers during WW1 – one for women

Women ex-pupils also became nurses and Heidi McIntosh, Wolverhampton’s head of archives wrote in her Home Front WordPress blogpost about Staff Sister Bertha Mary Cooksley being mentioned in Jesse West’s logboook.

He wrote: “Read in last night’s Express & Star that Nurse Bertha Mary Cooksley, an old scholar of this school, a staff sister at the 1st Southern General Hospital has been awarded the decoration of the Royal Red Cross in recognition of her services in connection with the war.”

Bertha, born in Taunton in 1885, was the daughter of Mr A.Cooksley with an address of 156, Lea Road, during the war. After leaving the Higher Grade School she started her nursing training at the Queeen’s Hospital in Birmingham in 1910.

The Express & Star article, dated 5 June 1916 tells of ten nurses at Birmingham hospitals who were awarded “the decoration of the Royal Rd Cross in recognition of their services in connection with the war.” Bertha was one of these.

The school – now gallery -hall with an image of it when the Douglas Morris memorial photograph was there and a map of Wolverhampton’s memorials – including his

Among at least 90 ex-pupils to die was Douglas Morris Henry Harris, aged 19, who stayed at his post as a Navy radio operator on the drifter Floandi while under attack by much more powerful warships of the Austrian Navy on 15th May 1917. He was mentioned in despatches for his heroic action.

He was remembered with a memorial picture in the school hall and a bust created by the sculptor R.J.Emerson and unveiled in St Peter’s Gardens – where it is today.

The Italian tribute plaque to Douglas Harris

Another ex-pupil, Howard Davies, a motorcycle racer who joined as a despatch rider before becoming a pilot, had his obituary in the May 1917 edition of Motor Cycling after he had been shot down for a second time.

However, he had been taken prisoner of war and came back to continue to race successfully and set up his own motorcycle manufacturing company.

He was not as good at business as he was at racing and sold up after a few years. All his plant was bought and transferred South by the Vincent company who eventually produced the Black Lightning – the fastest production motorcycle in the world.

Ex-pupil Howard Davies with one of the many machines he rode

Another logbook entry, on Monday, 25th June, 1917 says: “Announce to the scholars after prayers the news of the success of Mr Charles Wheeler, an old scholar here, who won a scholarship to the local school of art.

“In connection with an Exhibition of Medallic Art in London (under the patronage of the King and Queen), Wheeler has been awarded a £10 prize for his work.”

Wheeler went on to produce numerous sculptures including the 20ft doors and figures on the Bank of England, statues on the Embankment and fountain figures in Trafalgar Square as well as on WW1 memorials here and in France and the statue of Lady Wulfrun in front of St Peter’s Church, St Peter’s Square, Wolverhampton,

He also became President of the Royal Academy in 1956 – the first sculptor to do so – and held the position for ten years.

After the war it was all change at Newhampton Road as Jesse West – and existing pupils – moved to Old Hall Street as head of the Intermediate School and the site became Wolverhampton Municipal Secondary School.

However, Jesse West was to return to the site on Wednesday, February 15th, 1922, to read the list of the fallen as a bronze memorial tablet was unveiled carrying the names of 90 ex-pupils who had died serving in the armed forces.

Among them was his son, Ernest, who died in December 1918 of Blackwater Fever while serving with the RAF in East Africa.

The bronze tablet has long disappeared.

It was not the only memorial to the fallen as 11 trees were paid for and planted by pupils in Dunkley Street on Wednesday 27th October 1920 in memory of those who died.

Tree at Newhampton Arts Centre at the junction of Dunkley Street and Molineux Alley – but not old enough to be the last remaining WW1 Memorial Tree on the street

On 11th April 1921 the Municipal Secondary School had been opened with “purely from the motives of economy, both boys and girls were enrolled.”

With Sidney Baker as headmaster, the school had a brown uniform with Wolverhampton’s coat of arms as the school badge.

The first speech day in October 1924 was addressed by Major John Hay Beith – then better known as the author, novelist, playwright, historian Ian Hay.

An Art Room was added in 1926 along with a Gymnasium (now the Newhampton Arts Centre Theatre), lab and more classrooms although two thirds of pupils subsequently completed the minimum rather than full five year course through to the 1930s.

The school was academically successful and had a sketch club, drama, orchestral and choral societies with a 60-strong orchestra before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

A production of The Pirates of Penzance in the school hall in 1931

Eight air raid shelters were built in the playground area and, as in WW1, staff volunteered or were called up for the forces. Geography teacher Mr J.W.Cooke rose to the rank of Major but was killed in action just before the end of the war in 1945.

Regulations about married women teachers were relaxed so that they could help ease staff shortages and, again as in WW1, the pupils raised money for charities and National Savings. Pre-war holiday camps were replaced summer harvest camps, helping in Herefordshire and Shropshire.

Pupils also joined in delivering and sorting mail during and after the war.

An escape for the school came after 1941 when the town’s emergency committee decided that council staff would take over the school if the Town Hall was hit in the war. The Town Hall and the school both escaped.

The school playing field avoided being transformed into allotments but the dining room was switched to become a British Restaurant – providing cooked meals at a reasonable price and supplementing rations.

It still supplied meals for the school in a seperate dining room.

A photograph of SS Ocean Freedom with details of the ship and its sinking underneath a scroll commemorating the presentation of the Red Ensign to the school – now displayed at Tettenhall Transport Heritage Centre

The British Ship Adoption Society had linked the school with Captain William Walker in 1938 and in 1943 the society presented the school with the battered Red Ensign of his ship – the SS Ocean Freedom.

It had been on convoys from Iceland to Russia during the war. Only seven of 33 ships survived in operations recalled in the book “PQ17 – Convoy To Hell.”

Ocean Freedom was bombed and sunk in Convoy JW53 on the 13th March 1943 but fortunately without any loss of life.

The Red Ensign – almost black now – at the Tettenhall Transport Heritage Centre

The Red Ensign hung from the balcony over the stage in the gallery hall and was also in a case but is now housed at the Tettenhall Transport Heritage Museum in the old goods shed at the former Tettenhall Station, Meadow View, off Henwood Road, Tettenhall. The museum is open 10-4pm Saturdays and Sundays.

From the 1st April 1945 fees were abolished for any school maintained by a local authority and the school became the Wolverhampton Municipal Grammar School.

In December 1945 Robert R.Stephens, was appointed headmaster, later saying: “I was firmly of the opinion that to educate girls and boys together made sound sense….”

In 1946 the education committee were looking at transferring the Municipal Grammar School – or Muni – to a new site but plans were put on hold.

It gave Mr Stephens the chance to introduce rugby, Spanish and German courses, give boys the chance to study house craft and girls to attend handyman classes.

Poor handwriting saw him enlist the help of physics teacher, Mr R.E.Arthur, who also taught manuscript writing at Wolverhampton School of Art, in introducing art as well,

The new school motto was “Jouyr Loyalment de Son Estre” – “To Yourself Be True.”

The school coat of arms which still hangs at the Newhampton Road site

Founders Day meetings were introduced – the first being at the Wulfrun Hall in April 1948. A minute’s silence was held to remember pupils who had given their lives in the Second World War and the school choir and orchestra performed.

Later Founders Days meetings – where parents attended – were promoted to the larger Civic Hall. The 1949 Founders Day started with the unveiling of a memorial to Mr Baker on an oak screen which also bore the names of all the head boys and girls from the opening of the school in 1921 to his death in 1945.

A memorial service was also held at the school on 7th November 1950 in honour of the 48 pupils and one master who died in the 1939-45 war.

A Book of Memory and a case for it was dedicated by the Reverend T.F.Kinlock and the inscriptions were created by Mr Arthur.

The binding was the responsibility of head of art Miss D.G.Outlaw. Miss E.Mountain and Miss R.Hughes researched the entries and the case was made by Mr E.Ford.

Dorette Outlaw was a friend of Charles Wheeler and his tutor at Wolverhampton School of Art, Robert Emerson. However, she was known as Doggie by pupils because of her D.G.O initials.

The potter and painter trawled Wolverhampton schools for pupils showing an artistic inclination and would try and get their parents to send them to Wolverhampton School of Art and Design – sorting out scholarships for them to go to classes.

Miss Outlaw was 67 when she retired in July 1960 but she kept up her school links as Honorary Secretary of the Friends of Municipal Grammar School.

She also kept contributing to the area’s history and heritage at Moseley Old Hall where she was still a room guide at the age of 95. She was said to have been adept at recruiting new volunteers for the National Trust from among her former pupils.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery holds craft and ceramic work by Miss Outlaw including this self-portrait which is in storage at the gallery.

Self-portrait of Dorette Outlaw which is held by Wolverhampton Art Gallery

In 1951 Mr J.A. Stace, the maths teacher, who had arrived thirty years earlier after serving in WW1, retired. He was also keenly interested in music and took responsibility for productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

These were revived in 1954 with Trial By Jury and again in the 1960s.

Gilbert and Sullivan at the Municipal Grammar School was a tradition

In the 1950s increased pupil numbers saw a new changing block built in the girls’ playground, next to the gym (now the arts centre theatre) as well as improved toilet facilities and showers.

The green and brown colour scheme of the school interior was replaced with brighter and more vivid colours and the dining hall converted into two classrooms so pupils had to eat at the Schools Meals Centre in Red Cross Street.

In April 1957 the education committee heard a proposal to close the site and transfer to a site at Chapel Ash Farm. This actually became the Paget Road site of Wulfrun- later Wolverhampton – College. Mr Stephens resigned as head.

New head Mr Gilbert J. Douel B.A., who was also a Baptist lay preacher, took over in 1958 and had to cope with the Sixties and newspaper reports of petting in West Park and holding house parties.

The ‘Swinging Sixties’ was also the time of the Cold War and the school made an appearance on a Russian map of the area during the period.

With 650 pupils in 24 forms it was difficult to cope with only 22 classrooms so a new dining hall was built on the playing field and new laboratories, new library and new staff room were provided.

PE Teacher from 1960 to 1964 happened to be Rachael Heyhoe (later Baroness Heyhoe Flint of Wolverhampton) England Women’s cricket player from 1960 to 1982 and captain unbeaten in six Test series from 1966 to 1978.

She and England won the first Women’s World Cup in 1973. This was the same year she became ITV’s World of Sport’s first woman sports presenter.

She was also the first woman cricketer to hit a six in a Test match and one of the first ten women to join the MCC.

At field hockey she played as goalkeeper for England in 1964, a single handicap golfer and played golf, hockey and squash for Staffordshire.

Wolverhampton Wanderers had her as a director from 1997 to 2003 and then a a Vice President.

The hall floor was renewed and a new stage built as the old woodwork room – which had been a dining room – then two classrooms – went back to being a woodwork room.

In 1964 a new art room and two new classrooms were built on the site of the old British (later Civic) restaurant. However, in 1965 West Park Junior School was built on the playing field, cutting sport facilities although Aldersley Stadium was used to compensate.

Despite overcrowding in the late sixties the school still had 17 active societies helped by constant involvement of staff. However, many were coming up to retirement including Miss R.Hughes – a former Higher Grade pupil who was appointed school secretary in 1921.

She retired in 1963 – three years after Mr F.Meacham who came to the school in 1922 to teach French after being awarded the Military Cross during WW1.

One of the pupils from this time – the actress Frances Barber (Brookes at school) returned to the school site in 2017 as part of a radio documentary with BBC Radio 4.

Dorothy Bennett (also pictured below second from the right on the first row down from the back) said: “She came to the school from Castlecroft Primary School, where I believe her mother was a dinner lady.

“The Municipal Grammar School used to hold annual House music and drama competitions, and became aware of Frances through these.

“I seem to remember she took part from her first year onwards, and it was clear even then she had talent in both drama and singing.

“She was soon involved in other productions. In one of the House music competitions I can remember her singing a duet “We’ll Gather Lilacs” with her friend Suzanne, she certainly had a lovely voice.”

Frances Barber, botttom row second from left, with other pupils

Frances, who won the Olivier award for Most Promising Newcomer in 1985 has had a long and distinguished stage career as well as having appeared in numerous TV productions such as Doctor Who and Benidorm.

At the Royal Shakespeare Company she played Gonerol opposite Ian McKellen as King Lear in Trevor Nunn’s production of King Lear.

In September 2006 she was given an honorary fellowship at Wolverhampton University and told the Wolverhampton Express and Star: “I went to the Municipal Grammar School and there was a teacher who was very keen on drama. He encouraged me, so I owe my career to Wolverhampton. It’s where it all started.”

She visited her old classroom and also the school hall while sharing her memories. Christine McGowan, then centre manager, said: “She was thrilled the school was now being used as an arts centre.”

Frances Barber, right, is interviewed for BBC Radio 4 in the Gallery Hall

The 1970s saw a new school called Colton Hills Comprehensive proposed amalgamating the Municipal Grammar with Graisley and Penn schools.

In 1974 Colton Hills opened – but on four sites – including the Newhampton Road site.

The four sites were Manor Road School (Years 1 and 2), Graiseley School (Year 3), Municipal Grammar (years 4 and 5) and some huts which previously belonged to the Health Service in Newhampton Road (6th form) north Of The site towards Waterloo Road.

Aldersley School also used it as an annex until their Pendeford site was completed. In 1977 another new school – Valley Park – was created at the Newhampton Road site before moving to Hordern Road in 1989.

Valley Park became one of 12 in the UK to take part in a management development exchange with the United States on Inner Urban Education. Head Brian Lee visited the US and teachers from Washington visited the Newhampton Road site.

Valley Park left in 1989 and the site was taken over in part by Wulfrun College (now Wolverhampton College) with the rear areas of the site set up as a mini-arts centre by the Wolverhampton Borough Council Community Arts Team.

Arts and community organisations including St Peter’s Unemployment Group, Central Youth Theatre – who are still on site – Zip Theatre and Zip Rock School were invited on to the site and the Arts in the Community Team also made it ‘home.’

They were joined by Caribbean Light, Challenge FM – the forerunner of Wolverhampton Community Radio – Foursight women’s theatre group, Motivate Music – aiming to keeping the tradition of the Jamaican sound system alive.

The Asian women’s language and needlework groups, Open Door Black Theatre group, Red Socks and Docs community theatre company, Sekwense dance and drumming company, Sweatbox, and the Flair Foundation youth music group were active.

Showability – a training project for adults with learning difficulties , the Rhythm Dance community dance training Project following on with Sweatbox, Youth Arts Group training and resource project were on site along with casual users doing activities varying from dress making to language classes.

Performing arts groups were supposed to be linked together under the Cornerstone Arts banner, to bring together the borough’s performing and participatory arts work with the community.

The way things looked in a photographic survey of the site in the 1990s

Temporary buildings were in a poor condition as well as the older buildings at the rear of the site. As a result planning started to refurbish the site in 1991/92 with site groups, the council, college and Wolverhampton City Challenge.

City Challenge was a five year (1992-97) urban regeneration programme focused on a 560 hectare wedge of north Wolverhampton. It aimed to make a total investment of £37,500,000 in the area – generating £150,000,000 investment altogether.

The cafe and a services block for Wulfrun College was funded by a £542,000 grant from Wolverhampton City Challenge and further £202,000 came from the European Regional Development Fund with an Arts Council feasibility grant of £45,000.

Total funding for completing the project was subject to a bid to the Arts Lottery for £1,841,794 and £93,000 to the Foundation for Sports and Arts.

The design philosophy behind the development said : “By remodelling the layout (of the courtyard/car park) and replacing. The tarmac with brick pavings in a complimentary range of colours and textures, the courtyard will become the unifying element to a rather disjointed group of buildings.

“A pedestrian friendly aesthetic will predominate to bring some sparkle into what is at present, a very dull car dominated space.

“The creation of a circular form at the centre of the courtyard, ringed with new trees, will provide a new focus to the whole site which can also be utilised as an external events and performance area and performance space.

The designs of metalwork artist Jon Mills developed for the arts centre site

“A metalwork artist has been commissioned to design and manufacture decorative railings, gates and sculptural lighing features to celebrate and express the principal entrances and pedestrian routes.

“In conjunction with the new paving these are intended to provide a cohesive framework to the disparate building elements and activities which make up the complex.

“A new central reception area serving both the College and Arts Centre is to be be created in the main Wulfrun block with access from the street and courtyard.”

It went on to say: “The new work is intended to make a contemporary statement whilst echoing important characteristics of the existing buildings.

“The new brickwork in particular matches both the colour and size of the old, and the Dunkley Street facade incorporates references to the piers, plinths, arches, fills and terra cotta detailing of the original block.”

From September 1997 works got under way in different phases which meant some groups had to move off site temporarily but the end of 1999 saw the Newhampton Centre (for Arts and Education) finally taking shape as a company limited by guarantee (March 1997) with new Articles of Association (August 1997).

There was a grand opening on Saturday 4th November 2000 at what was described as ‘The Old Redbrick School’ with face painting, mask making, dance movement sessions, music making, displays, Caribbean food and drink and lots more from 10am until 4.

An Official Opening preceded the Grand Opening which had been conducted by the Minister for the Arts, Alan Howarth, on Wednesday 12 April 2000 at 10.30 am.

An invitation to attend the official opening of the Newhampton Arts Centre

Semi-derelict buildings became purpose-built recording and rehearsal studios, dance studio, theatres (including the former gym – which incorporated a full sprung dance floor), offices, storage rooms and a cafe/restaurant.

In the college-owned building the community radio station with offices and up-to-date recording facilitie developed along with a separate BBC TV studio for radio and TV.

The Wolverhampton Community Radio Association had been set up in 1986 by Pete Whitehouse while he was teaching at the then Wulfrun College. He also became chair of Wolverhampton Community Radio Training and retrained to do a weekly interview programme from a small BBC Studio in Queen Street.

There was a one hour programme on BBC Radio WM once a week. It is now the longest running of the 2,000 community radio stations in the country.

While working at Wulfrun College Pete organised a small space for WCR to operate from at the Newhampton Road site. Four bigger purpose-built studios followed – opening in 2007 – at the site but it was hit in 2014 when the station lost a £46,000 annual city council grant.

Wolverhampton Campus Radio – the radio station for the college – had gone on air in 1999 – one of only two further education colleges in the country to have its own full time radio station.

Now relying on volunteers, advertising and some grant funding, 101.8 WCR FM (previously Challenge FM, Forge FM, One City FM as well as Wolverhampton Campus Radio) estimates up to 12,000 regular listeners.

Pete Whitehouse gave this overview of the development of the radio station.

WCR FM 101.8 FM……the station with more for Wolverhampton WCR FM on 101.8 FM and online is Wolverhampton’s community radio station and it has its offices and studios at the Newhampton Arts Centre. The radio station gained its Ofcom license and began broadcasting to the City on FM in March 2007 after a 21 year long campaign to bring a truly local radio station to the City. The station is one of just over 250 Ofcom licensed radio stations in the U.K.Partnerships were built with organisations across the town and the region to help establish the need for a community based radio station.Throughout the 1990’s, WCR strived to show how exciting and vital a service could be.An hour long weekly news and magazine show was produced by WCR and broadcast on BBC WM for 19 years using a BBC studio that at that time was based in Queen Street, Wolverhampton. In addition, WCR set up its own radio studio at the Newhampton Arts Centre in 1992. From there, short term, month long restricted service licensed broadcasts on FM were pioneered on a regular basis. These were usually known as Challenge FM due to funding that came from the City Challenge project.By the late 1990’s, WCR had progressed from a small room at the back of the space that now houses the main performance space at the Newhampton Arts Centre, to its present location in the main building. With the help of a range of funding, WCR established some of the best professional community radio station facilities in the country.The partnership with the college, which by now, following the merger with Bilston College, had become the City of Wolverhampton College, strengthened a great deal during this time. At this time, WCR took the opportunity to broadcast full time programming for the students on the medium wave frequency of 1350 AM. However, all the time, the longterm goal was the FM station for the City which became possible following the Communications Act of 2003.These days, WCR relies on over 60 volunteers to keep it’s programmes on-air. They are an important and vital component at the station. Funding for the station is from some grant funding and advertising. It’s a charitable company, led by a small team of directors headed up by Andy Walters, who’s day time job is as the Senior Broadcast Engineer at the BBC in Birmingham.For more information on the station go to their website and their Facebook site.

The Newhampton Cafe became Estrobell’s – a multicultural cafe open Monday to Friday but also open for for functions and catering for birthdays, conferences, weddings etc.

The West Midlands Concert Brass Band, with thirty brass and woodwind musicians were based at the centre alongside karate teaching while Wolverhampton College ran a 2 year full time course in drama as well as A Level Theatre Studies, A Level Dance and GCSE Drama.

Recently formed Wolverhampton Youth Theatre Network also launched Wolverhampton’s first International Youth Theatre Festival with young people from Italy and Austria travelling here for a five day July event with skill workshops, theatre training and creating a festival presentation at the end with all participants.

For more than a decade the site was run as a partnership between college, council and the Newhampton Arts Centre (NAC) site with college and council representatives sitting on the board alongside, site users’ and arts and community group representatives. The NAC chair was usually an independent drawn from the Midlands business community.

However, since the early part of the current decade – under the pressure of government funding cuts – council grant support was tapered down and eventually disappeared in April 2015.

Wolverhampton College – with a long term aim of locating all operations on new-build sites including a new one in the city centre – withdrew staff, classes and activities from the site in October 2013 and relocated them to their Paget Road site.

To prevent half the site being mothballed or lost the NAC board negotiated to take on management of the whole site and secured an agreement with the college to do this.

The arts centre moved to populate the vacant part of the site with artists, craft and fabric workers, a pre-military training college, the Women of Wolverhampton group, trainers and educators.

Events were hosted in the school hall – now called the Gallery Hall – including a winter beer festival, Northern Soul, conferences, arts and craft markets, the Paint The Day art competition and exhibition as well as other art and photographic exhibitions.

With the loss of council grant funding and the college not staffing or using site facilities an annual shortfall of £70,000 was threatened on a £200,000 a year turnover.

Despite having a dedicated and talented staff reduced by a third during the cuts to financial support and use by the college and council the NAC board set out – in the words of long time NAC manager Christine McGowan- to “survive and thrive.”

She and the board called on supporters, residents and site users to help in this drive and they came on board to support fund raising and events.

These included a June 2015 June benefit concert in the NAC theatre by Britpop Supergroup Blur to help NAC and site users RML Music who train young musicians and record a host of local bands – many of whom play at NAC.

How the Wolverhampton Express & Star covered the 2015 Blur benefit gig at NAC

Although many of the original arts and community groups who started NAC such as Zip Theatre, St Peter’s Unemployed Group, Foursight Theatre, Sekwense, Flair Foundation, Sweatbox, the Sam Sharpe music project and others no longer exist others have arrived to keep the creativity and community work going.

Central Youth Theatre, who also lost all their council direct grant, still continue to produce plays, films, workshops, educational project and training for 8-25-year-olds here and throughout Europe after more than 35 years in the city.

Wolverhampton Community Radio, once Challenge FM, also lost funding and all paid staff but, with volunteers, keeps broadcasting local community news and entertainment from the site.

Northern Soul, Mod, folk and local young band (Live and Picking) nights are held along with touring and locally produced drama, dance and musical theatre.

A huge help during the whole process has been the work of volunteers who have done practical renovation work around the site, helped staff events and raise funds for NAC to continue it’s mission.

The volunteers – the NACtivists – continue to be a great support for the work of NAC as it expands it’s work and mission during a four year programme as National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) of Arts Council England.

Success in becoming an NPO was driven by former centre manager Christine McGowan who retired on a high note in 2018.

This is a first draft marking the 125th anniversary of the Higher Grade School opening and it is hoped others might like to fill out/add to this year.

Thanks are already due to the Wolverhampton Municipal Grammar School Old Pupils Association, their excellent newsletter and Dorothy Bennett, also a member of the Newhampton Arts Centre volunteers – the NACtivists.

They also go to Pete Whitehouse for his account of the development of community radio on site, Stephen King of Whitmore Reans for the Cold War map of the area and cuttings about munitions workers.

Wolverhampton City Archives’ resources have been invaluable especially their material about the First World War.

3 thoughts on “Newhampton Arts Centre – origins

    • Excellent article, glad to stumble across it!!! I practised with my band in the music practice room during the early nineties, and did several gigs and a CD with the Flair Foundation group. It was a great team of people!

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