We promised last month to bring you more about the 40th anniversary of the Riverside Arts Centre so we met with chairman of the RAC, Eric Champion, who has been involved in the story from even before it’s existence. It really is quite a community story and many of us living in Sunbury may not realise quite how lucky we are to have this fabulous resource in the village, or how it came about in the first place.

The building itself (no 59 Thames St) was originally a family house with a drapers business next door. The house had a walled garden to the right (as you look at the building -see above with large tree and gate). The garden has long gone, replaced with what is now the studio of the RAC. The drapers business closed and the land was sold to the Ashby family (of brewing decent) who branched into banking. They built the white building to the right of the RAC on the land where the garden had been. Meanwhile no 59 Thames Street was converted from a family house.

The first record of the Assembly Rooms as the site became, goes back to 1893, when the venue opened with a performance from West End star of the times, comedian Charles Collette (who had played to HRH the Prince of Wales). What a coup for little Sunbury. It established the Assembly Rooms as the place for culture in the area and attracted crowds from around the Thames valley.

By the end of the 19th century there was a decline in the use of the Assembly Rooms for plays in the village as the village hall had opened and charged less. So the venue became a cinema, showing silent movies, but by the start of the first world war it had changed entirely to become an industrial site, first as a printing works and subsequently as a highly successful foil factory (see photo above. Do you recognise the Riverside Arts hall?

No, not really, but this is indeed how it used to look). This business ran from 1920 until the early 1970’s. At one time it was a major exporter of foil which was used in cigarette packets as well as tea and coffee packaging but by the 1970’s cheaper options were starting to become available from Europe so the company closed and the building fell into disrepair.

Meanwhile no 57 Thames Street had continued to function as a bank, having been taken over as a branch of Barclays which many of you will remember.

So how did a derelict factory become the Riverside Arts Centre we know today?

It started with Shepperton Players (yes indeed, Shepperton Players!). Various Sunbury residents were members of this group which, without a permanent base, were largely nomadic, rehearsing from the back rooms of various drinking establishments in the area. But a bequest of a piece of land from one of the members in the early 70’s changed the course of the Shepperton Players and also our own community.

It was decided to sell the piece of land and ringfence the proceeds to go towards a permanent base for the group. No 59 Thames Street was sitting empty and the council (the Sunbury Urban District Council at the time) were keen to see the premises used for the community. They were not so keen on the price tag of converting it on the other hand so they gave local groups the chance to propose it’s future use.

Tom Williams was chair of the Shepperton Players and spearheaded the idea of an arts centre, bringing together local cultural groups such as the Sunbury and Shepperton Arts Association and the Manor Players. A local angling club was also interested in using the site as their HQ, but the council awarded the lease to the arts group on a peppercorn rent.

That was the start of a huge amount of work. With limited funds, the group had no choice but to do the bulk of the work themselves. Where they didn’t have the skills they set about learning them. It was like a vast project of DIY SOS with some 40 volunteers playing their part. Dave de Jersey learned welding and single-handedly set about making the raked seating which is still in use today. Ian Dow applied his BBC lighting expertise and got a lighting system put in place.

Behind the scenes others were raising much needed funds. Daphne Clement thought it would be a wonderful idea to put on an auction and contacted many celebrities asking for a personal item to be sold, which was a novel idea at the time. She received donated items from Elton John, Margaret Thatcher, Tom Jones and Harold Wilson amongst many others.

Run by volunteers, the RAC is the heart of community life with events from flower arranging, exhibitions, plays, jazz, yoga and winter coffee concerts. There is an annual arts festival (July) and an annual drama festival (October). It is also home to the Riverside Youth Theatre which has spawned such successful actors as Ruth Wilson. (The RYT are putting on The Addams Family in May.)
We are incredibly lucky to have such a resource in our village, which manages to attract some seriously good quality functions and performances.

So do check out what is on at the centre. Pick up a leaflet from the entrance or have a look online at www.riversidearts.co.uk. You will find a lot more about the history of the place and the people behind it too.

Many congratulations to all those involved. Thank you to all the volunteers who make it possible.
We look forward to many years of fabulous events at the venue.