The Witham has a rich history connecting Barnard Castle with the local community.
Concerned about poor living standards and lack of education for the working poor of Barnard Castle, Henry Witham and other members of the local gentry set up a Mechanics’ Institute in 1832 to provide classes in practical subjects, lectures and library facilities, at minimal cost. They also supported the establishment of a Dispensary Society, to help those who could not afford doctors’ and apothecaries’ bills. Henry Witham proposed a purpose-built permanent building in 1844 but died shortly afterwards. His fellow-trustees raised money through public subscription to create a building in his memory.
The Witham Testimonial Hall was built in 1845, to plans drawn up by noted Newcastle architects John and Benjamin Green. The Dispensary was well used. In 1853, for example, ‘the number of patients cured was 169; relieved, 8; remaining on the book, 15; had extra tickets, 17; died, 9; total, 218.’
The programme of lectures and other public events proved so popular that it soon became clear that what is now the Witham Room was not large enough to accommodate them. The answer was to construct a New Mechanics’ Hall to the rear of the Testimonial Hall.
Access was initially from Hall Street, through a former smithy, but later a corridor was built to link the two halls. While its exterior, which could not be seen from the main street, was plain and utilitarian, the interior was more ornate, with a decorated proscenium arch, elaborate cornices and ceiling roses.
The New Hall opened to great rejoicing on Thursday 6 December 1860. The shops closed at noon, and between 600 and 800 people were served tea (at 1s. a head) at 4.30 p.m., following a free concert of sacred music.
In 1855, maintenance and management of the hall was handed over to 12 Trustees, six from the Mechanics’ Institute and six from the Dispensary Society.
Serving the community, 1860-2013
So the scene was set for 150 years of The Witham providing education, entertainment and welfare for the people of Barnard Castle and Teesdale. It became the focus of the community, the main venue for events of all kinds, a meeting place for local groups and societies, and the location where important public announcements such as election results were made. As a classic Victorian music hall it hosted dances, concerts, theatre and magic lantern shows, both for local people and for the growing numbers of visitors coming by train and coach to explore and holiday in the dale and, later, the large numbers of military personnel based in the area.
In due course, the architectural importance of the complex was recognised by its being given Grade II listed status. In the early years of the 21st century, a major renovation took place.
The Witham remains to this day, as it has always been, a building of outstanding historical importance, a source of enrichment through its arts and cultural programme, of health and welfare through the classes held on its premises, and a welcoming place where local people and visitors can meet and mingle as a community.