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Most of the photos here are from the Peter Norman collection or from NOMADS.
Originally a St.Mary’s Board School was built in 1850, “near the Church”, the Master being John Clarke Rowlatt, this seemingly a boy’s school. Then in 1875 two schools were built, the girls and infants (girls Mistress Miss Elizabeth Murray – infants Mrs Neale) near the Rectory and a boy’s school at the top of Fitzroy Street (Master-John Turner).
The girls and infants’ school were enlarged in 1891 to take 160 girls and 280 infants. The boy’s school was enlarged in 1898.
August 1939 the girls and infants school closed. When the Secondary Modern School opened in September it took the boys and girls from St Mary’s School, leaving the infants using what was the boy’s school at the top of the street.
The girls/infants school became a British Restaurant (here known as Fitzroy Tea Rooms) for the war years. Originally “Community Feeding Centres”, Winston Churchill insisted on changing the name to British Restaurants. For 9 pence, (2018 equivalent £2) one could get a simple meal (only one serving of meat, fish, eggs, or cheese) without using ration coupons. A sweet course would be a further 3 pence.
After the war it was known as The Fitzroy Rooms (also the Fitzroy Street Rooms) and was used as a meeting place for groups such as the Queen’s Club for the over 60’s who held whist drives there.
An underused local facility, it was actually used at times as the Post Office Christmas Parcels office. It was bought by Captain Herbert Ryder King, the then Chairman of Nomads, in 1954 for the sum of £2,000. It then became the King’s Hall,
Captain King became quite influential in Newmarket and was Chairman of the West Suffolk County Council when he was awarded the C.B.E. on 1st January 1946. He also became a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Suffolk on 25th February 1958 and a Justice of the Peace.
At the time, N.O.M.A.D.S. (Newmarket Operatic, Musical and Dramatic Society) was an itinerant company of players who lacked permanent premises. Since the 2nd World War they had used the bomb-damaged ballroom of the White Hart but had to leave when the lease expired.
Captain King bought the Fitzroy Rooms and together with the Nomads of the day, set about turning the building into the theatre you see today and re-named it the Kings Hall.
Captain King handed the building to Nomads for a rent of 4 front row seats for each of their shows until his death. They opened with their first performance in March 1955 when they performed a lurid production of “The Murder in the Red Barn”, a melodrama described on the programme as being “unsuitable for children, adults, thoroughbred horses, urban councillors and gentlemen of the press.”
Work on the new premises was voluntary and most of the equipment and materials were donated. Everything achieved was through honest sweat and toil, it was a true labour of love for many members. Some are still with us, but others, whilst sadly long gone, are not forgotten. You may see pictures or plaques honouring them in various locations around the theatre, and many of our trophies (which are awarded to members at our Annual Awards) carry their names.
When Captain King died in 1971, aged 82, he bequeathed the theatre to Nomads (Newmarket Operatic, Musical and Dramatic Society). It was then re-named “The Kings Theatre” in honour of his generous donation in 1976 and remains their property in trust.
The theatre seats an audience of a 123 and the interior was restored with recovered seats, had its carpets replaced, ceiling/walls painted, and lighting enhanced in the 1980s. Pictures below show how it looked as a school, after it became a theatre in the 1950s, and from the outside. This was all achieved by the efforts of the members of Nomads along with grants from Forest Heath District Council and East Cambridgeshire District Council. Other improvements were made possible due to a grant of £60,000 from the National Lottery in 1994.
Over the years members have used their collective ingenuity and innovation to support and maintain the building. They’ve rescued chairs from the Clacton playhouse for the auditorium with their ‘Buy a Seat’ campaign, with further fundraising to ‘buy a brick’, which facilitated the purchase of furniture for the Coffee Lounge and the refurbishment of the bar in 1988 and even took out a loan to put in a new heating system in 1984. Many of our benefactors are on display at the back of the auditorium.
Further improvements included the installation of a mezzanine floor in the wings for the orchestra, allowing the pit to be covered over and the stage extended and various re-configurations of the backstage areas to improve dressing rooms and storage for all our own scenery, scenic cloths, props and costumes.
In 2006 the society became a limited company and a registered charity in 2007. The theatre is now run by Trustees who form the Nomads Board of Directors (usually 7 to 9 members) and are elected by the members at their AGM, serving a term of 3 years.