by David Shipp
How Saddleworth Players arrived in Millgate
The history of how the Players came to be in their Millgate home is well described in Trevor Baxter’s article for the Saddleworth Independent in September 2022.
Put briefly, the Players owned the Mechanics Institute on the site of the current Millgate carpark. The Old Coop building opposite was empty and had been for some years. The village library occupied part of the Mechanics Institute. A deal was done in the early 7Os between Saddleworth Players (the Players), Saddleworth Urban District Council (the UDC), Uppermill Cooperative Society Ltd (the Coop), and the West Riding County Council (the County Council). The UDC bought the Old Coop from the Coop, and the Mechanics Institute from SP. The UDC demolished the Mechanics Institute and laid out Millgate car park on the site. They refurbished the outside and the structure of the Old Coop and granted a long lease of part of the interior to the Players for conversion to a theatre, and for community use. They let the front section to the County Council to rehouse the village library. The main conversion work was completed before April 1974, when there was a major reorganisation of local government in England. The new Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council inherited the Old Coop building from the UDC. They also inherited the library functions in the area from the County Council, including the relocated village library.
Saddleworth Players saved Delph Village as we know it now
But what is perhaps not quite so well known is that this deal not only secured the future of Saddleworth Players but also saved Delph Village. And it was down to the tenacity and vision of two people in particular: Tony Doherty, the then Chairman of Saddleworth Players and Cyril Barton, the then Clerk of the Urban District Council.
My wife Phillida and I came to the north west in June 1972 with our son Jonathan, aged 2.
I came to work for Oldham County Borough Council. We were expecting our second son Oliver, who was born in December 1972. We lived for a few months in a new Council house on Sholver. By September 1972 we had found and bought an old stone cottage in Dale Lane, Delph. And we have lived there ever since!
We gradually got to know Delph and its people, and through my work I got to know people involved in local government in the area. I knew Tony Doherty and I knew Cyril Barton. I knew a lot of the other people mentioned in these old files. So I was interested to read the history that is revealed in them.
So how do I claim that the deal saved Delph Villlage?
Ian Shepherd and I dug through the old files from 1971-74
Well, the very first document in one of these old files is a report dated November 1971 prepared by the County Planning Officer in Wakefield for Saddleworth UDC.
It is headed:
COOPERATIVE BUILDING, DELPH
STUDY OF THE POSSIBLE FUTURE USE OF THE BUILDING
“The County Council , with District Council approval, has recently been negotiating for the purchase of the Cooperative Building at Delph with a view to the demolition of the building and the carrying out of highway improvements. Such improvements would be financed jointly by the County Council and the District Council and would include landscaping and the introduction of a feature such as a clock tower.”
The report goes on to say that there were consultations between interested parties, including the Civic Trust for the North West, in connection with the Tame Valley Improvement Scheme. In those consultations “the opinion was expressed by several parties that it would be wrong to proceed with the demolition of the building, since this would seriously damage the prospect of improving Delph village in a manner that would retain its present character.”
“The Civic Trust for the North West put forward the view that the somewhat narrow nature of the road alongside the Cooperative Building had positive value in reducing the speed of traffic through the village. If traffic speed were to be increased at this point, the next occurrence would probably be a suggestion for road improvement at Delph Bridge, some 200 yards to the north, with the consequent destruction of the character of the settlement.”
The report then recounts discussions between the Players and the UDC about the future of the Mechanics Institute (which was in poor condition) and the possibility of the Players taking over the Cooperative Building “for use as a Little Theatre and ancillary purposes”, and the relocation of the library in that building.
The report concluded that “The Cooperative Building is of undoubted value in adding to the character of Delph village. Its demolition would probably represent the first step in the eventual disappearance of that character. Possible acceptable uses are limited to those of a local nature, such as a library, reading rooms, community centre, art gallery, museum, offices, public hall, concert hall, and exhibition hall. In all these cases, car parking facilities close to the building are essential before approval could be recommended. A theatre for use by Saddleworth Players, public rooms, and the library could undoubtedly be accommodated within the building, though considerable expense would be necessary to finance the alterations required. These uses are unlikely to produce a large financial return on the capital invested”
The files then show in great detail the efforts of Tony Doherty and Cyril Barton in particular to get the deal done, raise the money for the conversion into a theatre, and get the basic conversion work completed by the autumn of 1973, when the first production in the new theatre was planned to take place – which happened in November 1973 with The Italian Straw Hat.
There was great pressure in those years prior to April 1974 on smaller local authorities to get deals done for the benefit of their local communities before “Big Brother” in the form of the new metropolitan councils took over.
I went on to work for the new Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council. So I was pleased to see on the files a friendly letter dated 5th April 1974 from the new authority. This is to Tony Doherty as Chairman of Saddleworth Players, from the new Director of Engineering and Public Services, John Crowther (whom I knew well) saying:
“ Millgate Centre, Delph
I am informed that you have an interest in the public clock at the above premises, and that you would like some modification to the striking mechanism in order to silence the clock during productions.
I do not anticipate any serious difficulty in achieving this and would suggest that we arrange a convenient time for my clock man to meet you and discuss the matter”
Delph village Christmas 1979
So in no particular order, and only because I knew or remember them, I would like to thank the following people whose names appear in these files for their efforts in securing the future of Saddleworth Players, and saving the character of Delph Village, which has been home to me and my family for over 50 years:
Anthony Doherty – Trustee and Chairman of Saddleworth Players, and Architect of the conversion scheme
Cyril Barton – Clerk of Saddleworth Urban District Council
Wing Commander Harold Jagger – President of the Players and County Councillor
John Nuttall – Trustee of the Players and Village Postmaster
Derek Postle – Treasurer of the Players
Patricia Kenworthy – Committee Member of the Players and subsequently Chairman
Millicent Mallalieu – Committee member of the Players
John Winterbottom – Committee member of the Players and local building contractor
Alice and Eric Lawton – Trustees of the Players
David Shipp was Treasurer of Saddleworth Players and of Millgate Arts Centre Limited (MAC) from 1996 to 2019. He is a Life Member of the Society.