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From baths to drill hall to cinema to theatre

Lyme Regis’s Marine Theatre site has had a long and varied history, here recounted by Jo Draper

Lyme Regis baths

The only photograph showing the Baths. It was a fairly simple brick building with curved parapets and arched windows. This must be in the 1870s or 1880s when it was no longer in use as Baths.

The current Marine Theatre at Lyme Regis has a long history despite its 1930s appearance. A series of three buildings on the same site has provided the town with a place of entertainment and instruction for 200 years, catering for both locals and visitors. There have been hot and cold baths, a home for bazaars, elections and public dinners, a drill hall, cinema, theatre, canteen and even displays of fossils. The site reflects both local and national trends.

The rather exposed site, right on the sea and on the eastern edge of the town, seems to have been empty until 1806 when Davies’s Baths were built there. In his 1834 history of Lyme, George Roberts records that the Baths ‘were built at enormous expense by Mr Giles Davies, whose name they long retained’. The Baths ‘were conducted so as to appear a rival establishment to rooms. A daily paper was taken in and the reading room was well attended.’ The reference to ‘rooms’ means the Assembly Rooms, which, like baths, were fashionable necessities for the well-off visitors who came to Lyme.

The Baths were medicinal, not for cleanliness. Bathing in sea water was thought to cure everything, and having a private bath rather than dipping directly in the sea was a luxury, especially if the bath was heated. If bathing didn’t work, drinking sea water was thought to be good. Assembly Rooms had the very expensive daily and weekly papers and usually offered card parties in the evening and dances. Lyme already had a central Assembly Room in the early 19th century, which Davies must have hoped to rival.

He doesn’t seem to have been very successful despite the fact that these were the first baths in Lyme. There were problems with the sea walls, and even though ‘the reading room was well attended’, the Baths were left empty for a few years until in 1824 they were ‘purchased by Mr Jefferd, who has excellent apartments for the hot, cold, and shower baths’. Jefferd advertised in about 1829: ‘The BATHS are the largest in LYME, although the same Price, and contain more water, which is regularly pumped every day, pure from the Ocean.’

Lyme Regis - the Drill Hall

Sergeant Britton in the Drill Hall in 1903 with the pretend gun used for practice. The wooden lining of the hall is clear.

We know what the Baths looked like because there are several drawings from the 1820s which include them, and even a plan of 1856. The Reading, Public or sometimes just the ‘Large’ Room at the Baths was used for all sorts of public events reported in the newspapers – a bazaar in support of Irish Schools in 1827, voting for the general election in 1832, and a dinner for 100 people to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Coronation in 1838. For this occasion the front of the Baths was ‘ornamented by the letters VR surmounted with a crown arranged in variegated lamps’.

The Baths were certainly in full use then, and it seems that the ground floor of the building was the Reading Room, with the Baths below. The Reading Room was clearly large enough to accommodate 100 people for a dinner, but, given that the Baths were less than half the size of the later Drill Hall, the whole area would have been needed for the dinner. It is interesting that the Baths are being used for events one would have expected to be held in the Town Hall or the larger Assembly Rooms. Maybe Jefferd simply charged less.

Drill Hall

Inside the Drill Hall, probably in the 1920s. The division between differently priced seats is chalked on the floor. Storing all the chairs must have been difficult. A 1922 advertisement with a similar photograph states that there is electric light and accommodation for 600 (this must be 600 standing up).

By the 1830s there were two other baths in the town, but Lyme was falling out of fashion and the others closed. Jefferd’s Baths continue appearing in the Directories until 1855, and were used by a local collector for summer displays of fossils in 1857 and probably other years. A hopeful note in the Dorset County Chronicle in July 1860 reports that ‘a saline spring has been lately discovered at Haye’s Hot & Cold sea baths (formerly known as Jefferd’s baths) which seems to possess extraordinary healing powers’, having cured a ‘highly respectable tradesman’ of Lyme who drank the water. This all sounds highly unlikely – the ‘saline spring’ was probably sea water.

The exposed site right on the sea gave problems, with the sea walls in front failing in the 1850s, and disputes with the Borough as to who should pay for repairs. The Baths disappear from the Directories and presumably were no longer used.

Lyme had other needs. From the 1860s the Volunteers – local soldiers – were common and Lyme had a very active group. In the 1890s a local benefactor bought the site of the Baths and had a large drill hall built for the Volunteers to train and drill in. The Mayor in his speech at the opening in March 1894 said that everyone was glad to see the back of ‘the dilapidated and disreputable-looking old ruin that for many years marked the site’.

The new building was designed by George Vials, who had virtually re-built the nearby Town Hall a little earlier. The local newspaper described the new Drill Hall: ‘The main hall, facing the sea, is of wood and specially constructed of double boarding to withstand the action of the sea.’ The building was dual-purpose, with a stage for theatre, and lighted throughout with gas. Fred Britton’s father was the ex-regular Army sergeant who taught the Volunteers and Fred remembered that there were ‘a good hundred’ of them in 1900. They were drilled four nights a week in the hall, with a big gun to practise moving and setting it up for firing. Others learnt signalling.

After World War 1 the Volunteers disappeared, and from 1920 the Drill Hall Theatre was let to W J Emmett and still used for theatre performances. From the 1920s the Drill Hall also showed films, being fitted for sound in about 1929. The Regent (Lyme’s current cinema) opened in 1937, but the Drill Hall continued to have films and was re-named the Marine Cinema. In the later 1930s the very Victorian Drill Hall frontage was adapted to make it simpler and more modern, and was rendered. During World War 2 the Marine Cinema was used as the American Forces canteen, but films and shows continued with James Cagney appearing, even.

Lyme Regis Marine Cinema

A later 1930s view of the Marine Cinema after the main front had been simplified and the tower removed. It was rendered and later painted white. The Town Hall and Museum are to the left.

The building was purchased by the Town Council in 1960, and in 1962 the renovated ‘Marine Theatre’ re-opened with improved auditorium, dressing rooms and new offices. The Bridport News reported that ‘one of the most outstanding improvements is the new Japanese Maple floor, laid by experts at a cost of £700. This floor, constructed on rubber buffers, provides an excellent dancing surface’, and indeed many dances were held there. In 1962 the Mercury Players, a professional company, took the theatre for the season.

The Marine Theatre continues to be important to Lyme, with theatre, music, fairs and all sorts of events. It seems very likely that much of the original Baths were below the level of the current Marine Theatre as the ‘Large Room’ seems to have been the whole of the ground floor. In 1980 the Lyme Regis News reported on someone who had sneaked down to the basement in the 1930s and who claimed that there were lots of rooms down there, cut out of the rock face. Certainly the current building includes virtually all of the Drill Hall of 1894, although with adaptations. Do parts of Lyme’s Baths of 1806 still survive underneath?

Lyme Regis- The Marine Theatre

The Marine Theatre today

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