The Plough Arts Centre, situated in Fore Street in the centre of Torrington, is a great cultural asset to the town and to North Devon. It hosts live events, films, workshops and art exhibitions and there is a café in the foyer. The Plough is home to the Torrington Players, the Plough Youth Theatre, Ploughcappella singers, the First Thursday Writers’ Group, and there is an annual poetry competition. The centre also has an extensive outreach programme that puts on events at twelve other venues across North Devon. The official staff, led by Richard Wolfenden-Brown, who has been Director since 2002, are helped in the running of the arts centre by a team of volunteers. Plough supporters help to keep the venue afloat by their financial contributions and receive price concessions in return.
It is thought that the original building where the Plough now stands was the town house of a wealthy merchant or, possibly, a building with some municipal purpose as a fine, large, iron fireback dated 1616 – now in the museum – bears the Royal Coat of Arms and the site has always belonged to the town.
In around 1750 the building became the Plough Inn run by William Waldon, ‘a Maltster’, and his wife Judith who are both buried in the churchyard. There is mention of the inn over the years in the Council Minutes, such as in 1855 when the Mayor, Silas Snell, invited the Town Council to a grand dinner at the Globe while the Beadles and Constables dined at the Plough. It seems the neighbouring establishments catered for a different clientele. The Minutes of 1875 note ‘complaints having been made of the bad state of the closets and dung pit behind the Plough premises’ and the ‘nuisance therefrom’.
The Plough remained as a public house until 1910 by which time the building was evidently in a shocking state of repair. The final indignity was a letter from Mr Parnell of the Globe, dated July 1911, requesting to keep a cow in the premises for a week! (Permission was granted!)
In 1912 the Plough Inn, its many stables and outhouses, was demolished and a drill hall was built on the site for the use of the Devonshire Regiment of the Royal North Devon Yeomanry and the Territorial Army. It was completed in 1914. By August, war had been declared and townspeople gathered to give the ‘D’ squadron of the R.N.D. Hussars (some 150 strong), based at the drill hall, a fitting send off.
The drill hall was uncompromisingly military and Spartan. It had a lobby, a 30 yard shooting range down the right hand side, storage for a large 25 pound field gun, and lots of space besides. It was used for training men and women who drilled with the army there. However, a music and dancing licence had been granted in July 1914 and, when not performing its military function, the drill hall was a venue for a variety of social activities such as badminton, concerts, jumble sales, coffee mornings, children’s fancy dress parties, and dances, especially during the Second World War when the Americans were based nearby.
The Territorial Army gave up the lease of the drill hall in 1968 but it continued to be used for Cavalier Bonfire dances, Christmas parties, hunt balls, and the May Ball where some well-known musicians of the time appeared, such as Nat Temple and his band from London and The Fourmost from Liverpool. The hall was painted dark green and was rather drab so the Cavaliers brightened the place up with a series of murals reflecting the theme of an event. One year they painted shields with rather tongue-in-cheek coats of arms depicting local dignitaries and tradespeople (some of whom were none too amused!). Monthly auctions were held there as well as other events, including a wrestling match modelled on the somewhat stage-managed wrestling shown on Saturday afternoons on ITV at the time.
John Lane from Beaford was one of a small band of movers and shakers who helped establish the Plough Arts Centre. He set up Beaford Arts in August 1966 and later heard that a group of people in Torrington had a vision of creating a community theatre. The late Clifford Quick, former Mayor and Town Councillor, was one of the leading spirits among this group who wanted to convert the drill hall into a theatre. John Lane linked up with the working group, which eventually became Torridge Arts Recreation Association, and they bought the lease of the building from the Town Council in 1974.
Work on the building took about six months and the centre was opened on 11th April 1975 by Col. J. E. Palmer who was thanked by the Mayor, R. H. Cotton. This was followed by a concert featuring the famous actress Edith Evans, who performed a number of poems and amusing pieces, and promising young musicians from the North Devon Music Centre who played Mozart’s ‘Quartet in G. Major’. There followed a month long festival of amateur and professional events culminating in May Fair. People turned up in droves to see George Melly and the Footwarmers, and the first film night was so successful that a queue of 200 had formed by opening time and two consecutive showings were put on of ‘King Kong’. One of the highlights of the 1970s was when the Royal Shakespeare Company came in 1978 and played to packed houses for three nights.
Not everyone in Torrington was supportive of the idea of an arts centre at first and there was some resentment when the drill hall was taken over by ‘luvvies’. There were people in the close-knit community, with its entrenched traditions and insular attitudes, who felt the whole project was alien and unnecessary and would cost money which would be better used for other more essential causes. However, as time passes and outlooks are broadened by easier travel, the media and the internet, suspicions have lessened and local people have realised that the Plough provides a variety of events, to appeal to a wide range of tastes, and is a hub of local activity for people from all over North Devon.