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Harborough Museum

Entertainment and leisure

This chapter is mainly going to focus on more modern times mainly due to the information available.  This is also reflects the reality that most ordinary working people didn’t have much spare time and certainly not much spare cash to spend on hobbies until relatively recently.  As elsewhere people made their own entertainments, some of which are still enjoyed today. There would have been high days and holidays and there were regular fairs.  There are references to these in Market Harborough, including a regular Horse Fair which no doubt was a good day out with other attractions to tempt the punters, even if they didn’t go there to buy and sell horses.  In 1788 a town hall was built including ‘Assembly Rooms’.  One can imagine all sorts of balls taking place there in Regency times, similar to those described by Jane Austen in novels like “Pride and Prejudice’’. There would also have been social activities linked with the various churches such as harvest suppers.

As mentioned earlier the town gained a swimming pool in 1896 and a men’s swimming club was set up that year. Its members were soon competing in local championships, being very successful in 1912 when they won several cups, including for water polo.  A ladies club was established in the 1920s.  The two remained separate until 1989. Going into the 20th century other sports clubs were established including for the most popular ones.

Symington’s also made a significant contribution to leisure facilities for the town.  For instance, in 1919 Symington’s provided a works sports ground which included tennis courts and a bowl’s club.  Following this in 1949 the Symington works hockey team joined the Leicestershire Mixed Hockey League for its inaugural season so it must have been in existence before that.  In the same year the Symington works Orchestra accompanied the newly established Market Harborough Musical Theatre’s society’s first production of HMS Pinafore, a popular Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta. 

These days in Market Harborough it’s probably possible to pursue what ever activity or hobby that you find enjoyable and interesting.  There are lots of clubs and organisations catering for all age groups. Perhaps surprising for a town so far from the sea there is even a branch of the Sea Scouts. There was a Scout troop as early as 1908. This must have been popular as by 1912 there were four troops.

There are probably many celebrities who live either in the town itself or its immediate area.  The museum features one from the first part of the 20th century, Ernest Elliot.  At first sight the display about him looks rather ‘creepy’ as it seems to consist of headless dolls and a rather sinister looking wooden doll.  In fact, they are marionettes, that is puppets used by ventriloquists.  A good modern example of one that you probably know about is Basil Brush. Ernest was a truly talented entertainer, he had started putting on shows with his friends when he was only 11 or 12.  At the age of 18 he formed the ‘Merry Vagabonds Concert Party’, a sort of touring theatre.  It gave local shows in the years just before the First World War.  After the war he carried on performing semi-professionally, whilst his ‘day’ job was in the family’s tailoring and outfitters business on Church Street.  In the early 1920s he decided to take his stage carer a bit more seriously.  His first professional stage performance as a ventriloquist in 1922 was a great success.  He went on to travel the country with his show, including entertaining members of the royal family and making television appearances.

On the subject of television most people didn’t actually have one until the 1950s at the earliest.  Before that one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the cinema, also featured in the Museum.  A lot of the information to be included about the cinema in Harborough has been taken from an article by Sam Mullins titled ‘Market Harborough and the Movies 1901 to 1940’ in the journal, ‘The Leicestershire Historian’ published in 1987. All credit to him, it’s a really interesting article and available on line. In 1901 Mr Warren East a photographer from Kettering showed a film in a building known as ‘New Hall’ on the square, of Queen Victoria’s funeral procession.  Whilst that might not seem terribly thrilling, it was a very important national event. 

In reality this probably wasn’t the first moving picture shown in the town.  There were a lot of travelling companies who included short films in their ‘Variety’ and Music Hall style performances such as ‘The Animated Picture Society’.  Mrs Holland’s ‘Palace of Light’ also came to the town.  It had 600 places on wooden benches and also more expensive upholstered seats.  The electricity was provided by a steam engine and there were all sorts of street entertainers to bring in the customers.

Warren East was also a pioneer film maker.  Later in 1901 he presented the town with his own short film “The work people leaving R&W Symington factory at dinner time 31st August’’. Whilst it might not sound very exciting to us, clearly the locals loved it!  They must have enjoyed trying to spot various friends and relatives.  Oh, Look there’s Uncle Albert!  In 1928 this was incorporated into a longer film about Symington’s called ‘A Trip to Liberty Land’. This is almost certainly the oldest piece of film taken in the town.  In 1902 he filmed the Church Children’s party, barges on the canal and the Horse show.  He followed this up two years later with a film of the Congregational Sunday School procession.

These were all shown at New Hall on the Square, which was built in 1872 to provide a reading room, a coffee room and some office space for hire. It was also used for lectures and theatrical events. In 1876 a Skating rink was added, a very ambitious venture. In 1906 this was bought up by a Mr G Eames and converted to a Roller-Skating rink.  Unfortunately, the craze didn’t last and in 1911 The United County Picture Halls leased New Hall to open ‘The County Electric Palace Cinema’.  This opened in November of that year with all profits from the opening night going to The Cottage Hospital.  In the following October significant alterations were made to the building.  These included private wooden boxes at the back that had to be booked in advance at the weekends.  The programme changed twice weekly, there would be a news reel and then several short comedies and dramas.  Again, local news items would be included.  For instance, in 1921 a film of the dedication of the War Memorial in the Square.

In June 1921 a new cinema, ‘The Oriental’ opened on St Mary’s Road. The décor included Egyptian mummies, Chinese dragons, palm trees and pyramids.  This was very much in keeping with the times when cinemas set out to provide the audience with an experience of total escape from their everyday lives.  The Oriental opened with a film called “The Call of the Road’’. News Reels from ‘Pathe Gazette’ were part of the programme as were films about local events.  This included a film about the opening of the Symington Recreation ground in 1921.  The silent films had a musical accompaniment; at the Oriental this was provided by the pianist Billy Norton who was billed as ‘England’s Premier Pianist’. This was probably because he was very skilled in matching what he played to what was going on in the film. The Oriental also had a reed organ and a small orchestra when required.

In 1927 the film The Jazz Singer staring Al Jolson was the first to have synchronised sound with the first words being ‘Listen! You ain’t heard nothing yet’ followed by a song. The Oriental got a sound system in 1929 and the first ‘talkie’ shown there was also an Al Johnson film, ‘The Singing Fool’. The County Cinema got a sound system in 1932.

On the outbreak of war in September 1939. The County Cinema was requisitioned (that is taken over) by the government and used for storage.  No films were shown there again.  After the war the building became a dance studio and also the ‘Embi Club’ which was a venue for ‘pop’ concerts.  This closed in 1968 when the building was demolished and Woolworths was built on the site. 

During the war the government appreciated that the cinema had an important part to play. It could help spread important information and keep people’s spirits up.  This was done through inspiring films like ‘Mrs Minivere’ and through Pathe news reels which always put a positive spin on events. For example one such was ‘London Can Take it’ which presents the blitz as a minor inconvenience that was bringing out the best in everyone even if they were sleeping on the platform of an underground station. As elsewhere cinema attendance at the Oriental was high during the war.

There was also another cinema in the town by then. The Ritz had opened on Northampton road just before the war in 1939, this cinema was part of a national circuit of ABC cinemas. In 1959 The Oriental (renamed the Orion in 1947) closed down.  This meant that The Ritz was now the only cinema in the town.  However, faced with competition from television, audiences were falling rapidly. From 1961 The Ritz also ran Bingo sessions but even these didn’t give it the ‘’Full House” it needed.  In April 1978 it showed its last film. This was the iconic martial arts film, ‘Fist of Fury’ staring the legendary Bruce Lee.

These days films are shown at the theatre as well as live screenings.  Covid 19 has also led to the development of ‘Drive In’ cinemas. Time will tell if these events become a regular feature of entertainment.

Market Harborough Drama Society has been putting on plays in its present building since 1947.  Don’t be deceived by its appearance.  It isn’t that old; it was actually built in 1935 but made to look like an Elizabethan Merchants house!  Perhaps this was to make it blend in with the Old Grammar school next to it.  In fact, it was built to be a bicycle shed for Symington workers.  Apparently, the Managing Director’s office looked out onto the square and he wanted a better view than a conventional looking bicycle shed. Before that it had been a coaching inn called ‘The Green Dragon’.  The inn didn’t have a very good reputation and local legend has it that the building is haunted by a murdered customer.

Originally the Drama Society rented the upstairs for its performances. After a fundraising appeal, they were able to buy the building in 1969. In 1980 further fund raising allowed its conversion into a proper theatre with ranked seating and a proper lighting box.

The town has strong connection with fox hunting. Although in existence before the 1780s, it from quickly from then with Leicestershire playing a prominent part, mainly due to its landscape. The owner of Quorn Hall, Hugo Meynell (1735-1808) became Master of fox hounds for the Quorn Hunt in 1753.  He continued in that role for the next 47 years.  He has been regarded as the ‘father of modern fox hunting’. There were also other local hunts such as the Pytchley and Fernie making Market Harborough a centre for the sport, along with Melton Mowbray.  Fox hunting with dogs was made illegal in 2004.

In 1950 the Inland Waterways Association held its first ‘Festival of Boats’ at the Union Warf Marina (that is the Canal basin previously mentioned).  Inspired by car rallies the event was designed to promote canals for leisure.  About 100 boats turned up and the event was deemed a great success, the start of a new era for the canals. These days the town regularly holds other events.  These include Harborough by the Sea, the annual carnival and more recently Harborough at War.

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Address: The Symington Building, Adam and Eve Street, Market Harborough, LE16 7LT (Car Park: LE16 7XA)

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