The Century Theatre is Britain’s oldest surviving travelling theatre. At the end of World War 2 in 1945 many city centre theatres had been destroyed and elsewhere performance facilities were very poor. The theatre was created to fill this need by being a completely portable stage, auditorium, and dressing rooms, together with box office, mobile living quarters, offices and stores.
It was the brainchild of John Ridley, a theatre enthusiast and engineer at the Sketchley works in Hinckley. The lightweight aluminium structure cost £22,000 (about £500,000 by todays prices) and all the money was raised by private sponsorship organised by the actor Wilfred Harrison.
It was designed and built by John Ridley, Dick Bull and Rob Robinson in Hinckley between 1948 and 1952. The name Century Theatre was chosen by the three founding fathers chiefly because it was non-committal, holding no political, social or religious implications.
The 200-seat auditorium and stage are built on four 33ft long by 10ft wide ex-military trailers. The idea was based on a wartime army command post and required the theatre walls to be easily removable. The floor and ceiling could then be folded up to create the sides of each trailer.
Inside specially hinged rows of seats rolled up to save space. The lightweight metal allowed the floor and roof to be lowered and raised into position with the hand pumped hydraulic rams. Hydraulic jacks and rack and pinion systems under each trailer allowed the theatre to be erected on the most uneven pitch.
Each unit had to be precisely aligned in parallel formation before erection could begin. Workers could pack up the theatre in a day and unpack in a day and a half. The only other requirements were the supply of drinking water and reasonably dry ground.
On tour, one tractor (ex-service Crossleys) would pull two or three trailers at an average speed of 15mph. The ingenious structure folded into the four 33 foot long trailers, with the other wagons and caravans in the convoy.
The staff formed a self-contained community, with all actors helping with the cooking, promotion, administrations well as erecting and dismantling the auditorium. The pay was £2 per week with all the food and accommodation found.
Life on the road was tough. Facilities were basic, but the “Centurions” saw the work of the theatre as a great adventure and many lifetime friendships were forged. The touring company performed a range of plays including The Miser by Moliere, The Seagull by Chekhov, A woman in Paris by Henri Black, Othello and Twelfth Night. A number of young actors later became household names, among them Eileen Derbyshire, Derek Fowlds, Tom Courtenay, Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench.
After opening in 1952, the Century Theatre toured Britain for over 25 years, travelling many thousands of miles and inspiring 18 towns to establish their own permanent theatres. However in 1974 changes to road traffic regulations meant the theatre could no longer travel the highways. Rather than close down, it was transformed into the resident theatre for Keswick in Cumbria and for a further 22 years it provided and served as the main cultural venue, with regular summer seasons introducing the theatre to a new audience of holiday makers. Many of the current visitors remember the Keswick years.
In 1995 the Century Theatre became redundant following a Lottery grant to build a new theatre by Derwent Water in Keswick. In the following year it was acquired by Leicestershire Museums to be based permanently at Snibston Discovery Museum, Coalville just a few miles north of its original construction site in Hinckley.
The acquisition and refurbishment was supported with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Leicestershire County Council and Single Regeneration Budget.
The theatre was carefully dismantled in November with the help, knowledge and support of people who had been involved with the theatre over the years. It was brought home to Leicestershire on the back of four low-loaders and was renovated and reassembled on a purpose-built site between the museum gallery and the historic mine buildings of the former Snibston Colliery.
It re-opened in October 1997 and since then has played an ever-increasing role in the cultural life of North West Leicestershire as a venue for a vast range of arts activities including classic drama, music and dance. A new 2-storey front of house was added in 2011 giving the venue an extra dimension and the opportunity to provide a spacious mezzanine lounge bar, toilet facilities and full disabled access. The auditorium has recently been fully redecorated and all of the seating has undergone refurbishment.
The Century Theatre continues to be a unique and special venue that provides high quality performances, shows, live music and films for local residents. It also happens to be the largest item in the County Museums collection!