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Our History

1844 The Headgate Congregational Chapel was built, drawing its membership from the west and south of the town, and being extremely well supported. At its zenith it had over 200 members.

1868 A balcony was added supported by slender metal pillars that you can still see in the foyer and auditorium, although they are no longer weight bearing.

1903 The premises further expanded to create a church hall and Sunday School. The church hall was used for local productions, as well as indoor gatherings and sports.

1929 A first floor was added.

Towards the end of the 19th century temperance was a firmly held principle in the Congregational Church. Many members and several Ministers espoused pacifism; in both World Wars a significant number registered as conscientious objectors. In the second World War the church operated a forces’ canteen and Prisoners of War were given friendship and fellowship. A centre for the unemployed was provided during the 1930’s depression. Since 1945, no fewer than four members of Headgate Chapel have been Mayor of Colchester –Walter Buckingham, Cyril Child, Bob Russell and Westley Sandford.

November 1968 The chapel was reduced “to a charred shell” after a fire thought to have been started by faulty wiring setting light to curtains stored in the balcony.

April 1970 The chapel re-opened with false ceilings and walls that hid the balcony but reduced the space heating requirements.

1972 Work to try and help different Christian denominations co-operate and explore the idea of Christian Unity resulted in the Congregational and Presbyterian churches coming together to create the United Reformed Church. At the same time, the building of Southway and Balkerne Hill meant that Headgate Chapel and St Marys-at-the-Walls Anglican Parish Church were left in cul-de-sacs, cut off from their communities. The members of both churches got together and decided to build a new church, Christ Church, in Ireton Road, which they would share on an equal footing.

1978 Christ Church opened and in the same year the Headgate Chapel was Grade 2 listed as part of a national drive to identify and increase the number of buildings of architectural interest that were at risk of being demolished as towns and cities expanded. After the chapel was vacated, it became the headquarters for the local Labour Club. When that relocated, it enjoyed a spell as The Palm Springs Ladies Health Club. The jacuzzi used in the Health Club is still in situ under the raised floor at the rear of the stage area (the original apse).

1987 The Theatre Arts Action Trust was formed by a small group of enthusiastic people who cared passionately about theatre and drama. All members of amateur groups in the town, they were struggling to find a place to rehearse and to mount plays and wanted to secure a permanent “home”. The Trust set about raising money to purchase or lease a property. A magnificent Music Hall evening was held with the support of the local Mercury Theatre, plays were mounted in order to generate a surplus towards the fund-raising and properties were visited. The search for suitable theatre premises was taking place at the same time as major changes in two of the long stay hospitals, who were looking for new community-based premises, and so the competition was fierce. Colchester Borough Council continued to be a great ally in this search, and eventually the current premises were identified and purchased by the Council for lease to the Trust. The dream was becoming reality!

1999 Following discussions with the local Colchester Borough Council, who continued to be incredibly supportive of their aims, the Trust was registered at Companies House.

Having the building was one thing – turning it from a Health Club to a theatre was another. Members of the Trust busied themselves with applying for grants – and Eddie McKay, then the Chair of the Trust took the paperwork associated with the Lottery application to London in a suitcase! The original adaptations were funded by

  1. A National Lottery grant of £99,663.
  2. The Hervey Benham Trust, a local benefactor, generously giving us £70,000
  3. Fundraising, sponsorship and existing reserves raising a further £70,000

A list of the original sponsors can be found HERE

September 2001 – March 2002 While the major conversion work was undertaken by local contractors, much of the work to set up the theatre area itself was done by volunteers. In 6 months a team of about 30 volunteers worked flat out to turn the dream into reality. David King, who was one of those volunteers said: "I remember the day we installed the lighting - there was three-and-a-half miles of electric cable that needed to supply 118 points. We had over 20 people feeding the cable off big drums to help run it safely around the building. Another job which, took us three days, was painting the auditorium ceiling - but worst of all was rubbing down and painting rusty scaffold poles which form the theatre's lighting grid".

April 2002 The Headgate Theatre opened. Regarded by some as an architectural gem, and an attraction in its own right, the auditorium seats 87 people and is an intimate space that makes members of audience feel as though they are part of the set.

July 2018 The adjoining premises, a former restaurant, become available. The generosity of former patron David Forder allowed the Trust to acquire a lease on part of the premises to help us to address the continued demand for studio space and the shortage of backstage facilities, whilst improving the facilities for disabled patrons and hirers. Again, while the major work was carried out by contractors, a team of volunteers worked to knock through into the premises and carry out extensive refurbishment of the dining area, bar, and kitchens.

April 2019 The 'new' Headgate Theatre was officially opened by Eddie McKay and David King, and we were lucky enough to have a visit from Sir Ian McKellen during opening week. Sir Ian's sister Joan had been one of our founding Trustees. In addition to the original auditorium, studio and bar area, the Headgate Theatre boasts an improved foyer, new rehearsal and performance space and meeting room.