Sheerness Music Hall
Sheerness Freemason and his Wife Restore a Music Hall to its Former Glory
Tucked away behind the historic Dockyard of Sheerness in Blue Town is the Criterion Music Hall and Heritage Centre. The centre has a wealth of items, memorabilia and artefacts of historical interest to the Isle of Sheppey. The centre is run by Brother Ian Hurkett, of the United Service Lodge No 3124, and his wife Jenny. Ian and Jenny are supported by a team of volunteers and trustees all of whom are passionate about the project.
As far back as 1841 there was a wooden pub on the site called the Royal George. The building was renamed the New Inn in 1855 and in 1868 it was pulled down and rebuilt in brick. In 1876, it became the Criterion and that year saw the first appearance of Richard Nemo, a one-armed juggler and comedian. It was renamed the New Criterion Palace of Varieties in 1883 and there were performances by vocalists The Brothers Tabra, a sketch called the Lion Tamer by the Bunch family and the Hadji Troop of Arabs dancers.
Many famous stars of the heyday of Music Hall appeared there including, one of the founders of the famous Chelsea Lodge musical hall artiste, Albert Le Fre, who made his debut there aged 6 in 1878. (An OSM Conclave that meets in Gravesend is named after his son, Eric Le Fre, who was himself a variety artiste.) In a 1902 local directory it was listed as the New Palace of Varieties and Criterion Hotel. In 1917 it lost its liquor licence because the local authority said the 50 pubs already in Sheerness was too many. It became Gieves and Co which made uniforms for the Royal Navy. On June 5, 1917, it was bombed by a Gotha plane wiping out the frontage of the building. Manager Edward Perry was killed along with George Frier and Herbert Lucas, believed to be dockworkers, and Royal Navy Gunner Herbert Gandy. It remained Gieves up until 1927, in 1932 it was listed as HW Jeans automobile and in 1954 Sheerness Motor launch Co Ltd and in 1976 it became Swale Engineering Services Ltd.
When Jenny and Ian became the owners of the building it was cavernous and almost derelict. Initially they converted it into a kitchen showroom, warehouse and offices, and they ran a business there for several years. However, when Ian fell ill the couple were forced to close the business.
However Jenny had begun to learn about the heritage of Blue Town and the building she had taken on and said she was hooked on the history and couldn’t just let it be forgotten. "I just kept thinking why hasn’t anyone ever done anything about it" she said. "We have got this music hall and all the history of Blue Town, and people don’t know about it so, in the end, I thought why don’t I do it."
Jenny thought it would just be a little project and didn’t expect it to get as big as it has. Work to transform the building started in 2009, and “Remember Blue Town” was registered as a charity so she could apply for grants. Over the three-year period, the Hurketts and a team of dedicated volunteers worked tirelessly to realise the vision of an 19th century music hall. The revamp has cost about £25,000 and Jenny says: “A big thanks should go to the Queenborough Fisheries Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund for their input. I just didn’t realise how much heritage there is here and to restore it has been absolutely amazing. I was quite emotional and I just couldn’t believe we’ve done it."
The Criterion Music Hall opened its doors with a sell-out old time variety show on Sunday, June 3rd 2012. The Isle of Sheppey now boasts a 120-seater theatre as well as a museum packed full of local history, Sheppey’s only cinema and recognised tourist information point.
The Centre also offers rooms for hire for meetings, seminars and family parties. There is full access for the disabled, including disabled toilet facilities. Parking outside the centre is free at all times. You can also book a guided tour of Blue Town with a local historian as your guide or you can arrange for volunteer guides to join your coach and take you for a tour of the island including a lunch stop. But the journey hasn't stopped here; there are big plans to turn the first floor into an educational reference centre and an archive of the Isle of Sheppey.
The Centre is also available for hire by lodges for a really different social and fund-raising event. The evening can include a fish and chip supper and a good old-fashioned musical evening and sing-along.
For more information and forthcoming attractions, check out the Criterion Theatre and Heritage Centre website.