The Witham, with its grand neoclassical façade, lends distinction to Barnard Castle’s market place. It was founded in 1846 as a Mechanics’ Institute and People’s Dispensary, with a spacious Music Hall added to the complex in 1860. Since then it has evolved through changing times, making a huge contribution to the health, education and well-being of the people of Barnard Castle and Teesdale.
Illustrated with a wealth of period newspaper reports, photographs, plans and drawings, this 48pp book – edited by Tony Seward and available from The Witham shop at just £4.99 – traces the development of The Witham’s role through nearly two centuries, culminating in the flourishing arts and community centre we see today. It will make a great present or souvenir from Barnard Caste.
Why is it called The Witham?
Concerned about poor living standards and lack of education for the working poor of Barnard Castle, Henry Witham was influential in setting up a Mechanics’ Institute in 1832. Its purpose was to provide classes in practical subjects, to offer lectures and library facilities, all at minimal cost. The Institute 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 before it could be built. His fellow trustees took his idea and raised money through public subscription to create a building in his memory.
The Witham Testimonial Hall was built in 1845 and the Dispensary was well used. The programme of lectures and other public events was so popular that what is now called the Witham Room was soon not large enough and a New Mechanics’ Hall to the rear of the Testimonial Hall was built.
The New Hall opened to public acclaim on Thursday 6 December 1860. Shops in town closed at noon, and between 600 and 800 people were served tea 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 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 the dale and, later also for the large numbers of military personnel based in the area.
In due course, it was given Grade II listed status, and after some years of physical neglect, in the early years of the 21st century, a major renovation took place.
The Witham remains a building of 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. That said, during the period of the pandemic – meeting and mingling will require visitors to wear a mask!