The first recorded performance at the Guildhall of St George is in 1442 making it the oldest working theatre in the UK. New research by the UEA confirms as highly probably the oral history of Kings Lynn that in summer 1592 William Shakespeare performed in the Guildhall. This is the only theatre in the world to claim to have hosted Shakespeare. Robert Armin (Shakespeare’s comedian) who created the roles of the fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night, and Autolycus in Winters Tale (among others) was born in Kings Lynn and performed at the Guildhall. The Guildhall has played host to famous actors, performers and artists for hundreds of years and enjoyed the patronage of HM The Queen Mother until her death. It was gifted to the National Trust by Alexander Penrose and refubished in a campaign of public subscriptions led by Lady Ruth Fermoy. It is currently still held by the National Trust and leased by the Borough Council. St. George’s Guildhall, which along with the Fermoy Gallery, Shakespeare Barn, Red Gallery and Old Warehouse, together with the Undercroft coffee shop and bar forms the Guildhall complex.
In 1406, the Guild of St. George (founded in 1376) acquired land — reclaimed from the Ouse — to build its hall, 107ft long and 29ft wide, and built on two levels. An undercroft, which ventured into the Great Ouse, allowed boats to moor inside the building.
The Guildhall was used for plays by the medieval Guilds of Lynn. The first known production was of a Nativity Play performed before a feast in 1442. Other special meals, such as a supper held for Lady Bardolf by the Mayor and aldermen in 1445 are recorded.
In about 1500 it was necessary for five buttresses to be erected against the north wall; it would seem because the magnificent roof of trussed rafters was in fact too heavy for the supporting walls. These buttresses are still to be seen outside the Guildhall, and the roof is still the original.
The Guildhall was primarily used for meetings, dinners and dances until in 1547, King Edward VI dissolved the Guilds of England. John Dynnesdale bought the out-buildings in 1560 for use as warehouses and the Guildhall itself became known as the Common Town Hall. Records show that for an annual rent of £7, a local sailmaker was allowed to “make and sow sayles in the said hall” in 1588/9.
Far more in keeping with its current role, Shakespeare performed in St. George’s Guildhall in 1593 and The Lord Admiral’s Men, with whom he was associated, were in Norwich that year.
Following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, various troupes from Norwich leased the Guildhall from the Corporation during the February Mart.
During the Civil War of the 1640’s, Royalists stored barrels of gunpowder and arms in the Guildhall. And in 1704 there was an unsuccessful attempt by the Corporation to open a button factory. The Guildhall was also home to the County Court until 1767. It had been leased to Joseph Cooper, a painter, at a peppercorn rent for 21 years in 1727 on the condition that he attended to the painting, woodwork, plastering and even gilding.
By 1766, the Mayor found it worthwhile to commission Thomas Sharpe to build a playhouse inside the Guildhall for £450 (a model of this theatre was constructed in 1950). In 1769, Thomas Snagg travailed from Norwich to Lynn with Herbert’s Company and found the town “a good one for comedians” with a “very pretty” theatre. One of England’s greatest actors George Cooke- appeared there in 1774, and overall the theatre attracted a wide sector of society; the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle noting the problem of rowdy audiences being one of “irregular persons mixing with their superiors”.
The success of the playhouse led to a modern theatre being built in St. James Street (destroyed by fire in 1936) and the Guildhall was sold to William Lee Warner for £557.10.0d in 1814. When his estate was bought by the Lynn merchant family of Everard in 1826, the Guildhall became a wool warehouse. The Everards, in turn sold St. George’s Guildhall to G.M. Bridges & Son Ltd., scenic artists (for £2,650) who in 1920 were already leasing the premises. However the impact of Cinema took away much of the firms work, and by 1945 the Guildhall was not only derelict but in danger of being demolished for the expansion of a nearby garage.
It was saved by Alexander Penrose who bought the building. The input of the Pilgrim Trust, Arts Council and a public subscription led to the Guildhall’s conversion to an Arts Centre with 367 seats (there are now 345). Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) opened the venue in July 1951 and launched the King’s Lynn Festival. Many of the trustees of the St George’s Art Trust which was set up to develop the Arts Centre and Festival, were also sponsors of seats and their names, originally on the seats, are now displayed in the window on the right hand side of the stairs. The Arts Centre Galleries, which were opened in 1963, were converted by the late Lady Fermoy (lady in waiting to the late Queen Mother) as a memorial to her late husband, Lord Fermoy, and indeed until recently, the Arts Centre was known as the Fermoy Centre.
Watch a 1960 Anglia News film from the East Anglian Film Archive, of the Queen Mother arriving at St. George’s Guildhall to attend a concert of the Welsh harpist, Osian Ellis.