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Barnfield Theatre - Barnfield Road

Page updated 13th September 2011

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1890 - Present

This little theatre run by the Barnfield Theatre Ltd charity, plays host to many Exeter Little Theatre Company productions, talks, concerts and other events. Occupying the site of the Barnfield House garden, which was left to the Exeter Literary Society, the foundation stone for the building was laid on 15 October 1890 by Lord Coleridge.

It was the philanthropy of George Franklin Jn. Esq that largely paid for the building, although there were concerts and bazaars put on by members to help raise the necessary sum. The theatre/lecture hall was opened on 23rd July 1891 as the Barnfield Hall.

Built of brick it originally had a glass-covered way along the entire front to protect those waiting to go in from the weather. It was licensed for music and dancing and could seat more than 600. It used limelight for projecting lantern shows, which was considered the latest technology at the time.

To accommodate both theatre and dancing in the same space, the floor of the auditorium could be tilted, using screw jacks, and the seating had longer front legs to match the tilt. It is thought that this system was only ever used in one other hall, which happened to be the Buller Hall in Cowick Street. There was also a natural ventilation system that drew air from the auditorium, to be evacuated through the vent. In 1894, F J Widgery agreed to decorate the bare walls of the hall.

By 1894, the Literary Society, which was founded in 1841, had 1,040 members. A talk was given by Jerome K Jerome, author of 'Three men in a Boat', in November 1894, and illustrated talks with magic lantern slides were often given. Exonians had the chance in March 1896 to see the new fangled 'x-rays' when Mr Gifford gave an illustrated talk on the science. The hall was also the venue for the Exeter Camera Club annual exhibition, and from 1906, travelogues and nature films were regularly shown.

Cinema Shows - 1905

The Barnfield Theatre had long been known for magic lantern shows, often with an educational slant and accompanied by a lecture. In March 1906, the Barnfield presented its first film show with a “Bioscopic Lecture on Mountaineering”. In November 1909, The Furthest South Expedition Bioscope Company presented film of Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic at the Barnfield.

The blitz in May 1942 destroyed the city telephone exchange forcing the General Post Office to set up a new exchange in the Barnfield Theatre. Telephone girls moved into the auditorium putting through calls or taking and transmitting telegrams, all supervised from the stage by the Post Master. The delivery boys had a room reserved for resting and keeping their bicycles, while another was used as a canteen for the GPO and occasional holding room for those injured during raids.

After the war it was used by Civil Defence until 1968 when it was passed to the Exeter Little Theatre Company. The ELTC was formed in 1954 based in Colleton Crescent, but now has a rehearsal space in Preston Street. Exeter City Council supported the company and £50,000 was used to convert the interior back to a lecture hall and theatre, seating 287, and add the small Colleton Bar next to the entrance. The alterations included adding an apron to the stage, and building a new lighting box. The original lighting box could only be entered via a ladder on the outside of the building. The new performance space was opened by the Mayor on 24th February 1972 and includes a hearing loop for the deaf.

There is a second small space called the Clifford Room with raked seating for 60 or 80 on the level. The Box office was added in 2003. The theatre is used during the Exeter Festival every July and I have attended talks by Patrick Litchfield and others. The Devon Youth Theatre have also used the theatre to stage productions. One of Chris Martin's younger sisters performed at the Barnfield Theatre, where he sister in law Gwyneth Paltrow watched her perform.

Source: Various including verbatim notes taken during a tour

The Barnfield TheatreThe Barnfield Theatre in Barnfield Road – the building on the far right is the original Barnfield House.The Barnfield TheatreThe entrance, left, to the Barnfield Hall was built as an annexe a few years after the main hall was completed in 1891.

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