The building occupied by the West Walls Theatre was built between 1895 and 1896 as a coach house and stables for Mr R Crosbie, plans having been approved by the City Health committee on 16th August 1895.
The words ‘West Walls Mews’ can still be seen faintly on the outside of the building, however, and running under the road there is an old vaulted chamber which served as the main conduit or sewer from the Convent of Black Friars, built in the 13th Century. In the 18th Century part of this vault was used as an ice house, access to which was from the buildings on the east side of West Walls. In 1829, as workmen were preparing foundations for a warehouse to be built by John Taylor for the storage of spirits, a considerable part of the wall fell in leaving a large and dangerous chasm in the road. A door into the vault was made from Backhouse Walk and the Corporation let the vault for storage until Crosbie’s new buildings hid it from view.
The whole block, including the buildings linking the theatre with the Central Hotel, became part of the hotel’s property and was subsequently taken over by the Carlisle State Management Scheme. The Green Room Club having occupied premises in 20 Devonshire Street since their foundation in 1951, (when they were known as the Fortune Players), took over a lease of part of the present premises below the level of the street on 15th April 1954, paying an annual rent of £65. The members of the Club by their own efforts altered the inside to build themselves a small theatre, seating about 50 people, a club room, dressing rooms etc, and used the basement for a workshop and scenery store. The most heroic part of these efforts by the members was the removal of the concrete ramp, which originally ran from the basement to the ground floor at West walls level. It took the horses from the stables in the basement and at the second floor level to the coach house on West Walls.
After the closure of Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1962, there were several attempts to rekindle the flame of enthusiasm for live theatre in the City. This finally culminated in an initiative taken by the Green Room in December 1968 when it was decided to invite all interested groups and Societies to a meeting to launch a project for a new theatre. From this meeting came a proposal to take the advice of a professional theatre consultant who eventually, after many meetings and much hard work by a small band of enthusiasts, concluded that the best site for theatre in Carlisle was the City Hall, where a modern 350 seater theatre could be built and used by all organizations in the City and by professional companies. Nothing happened as a result of this initiative so the Club decided to go it alone. Plans were drawn for a smaller theatre, seating approximately 150, which with the Club’s landlord’s approval, could be accommodated within the Club’s premises, if they could takes the garages above the theatre at West Walls level. The landlords agreed and the initial estimate of the cost was in the region of £15000. The State Management’s interest in the Central Hotel was then sold to Greenall Whitley, which involved some further delay and more negotiating. Greenall Whitley agreed and fund raising began. Then came news of a proposal to bring the Century Theatre to Carlisle with the intention of eventually reviving the more ambitious project of earlier times. The Club called a halt to its own plans until the outcome of the City project was known. The project failed. Once again the Club was thrown back on its own resources, but by this time, December 1976, estimated costs of our modest theatre plan had rocketed from about £15000 to the almost impossible figure of £45000. With the help of its members, who submitted themselves to constant fund raising and a small devoted band, who never lost heart, the Club negotiated for grants from the City and Cumbria County Councils, Arts Council, the English Tourist Board and our landlords, Greenall Whitley.
With the help of a loan on generous terms, from John Laing Construction Ltd enough money was raised or promised to make a start. For about two years, between 1977 and 1979, the Club was without a home and had to produce its plays in the Art College or the City Hall, rehearsing in private houses, but using the basement for set painting. Pantomime and productions during Great Fair week helped to swell the coffers. Seats for our new theatre, acquired at a reasonable price from a disused cinema in Morecambe, were offered to existing members, whose names would be put on the seats to commemorate their generosity in subscribing £10. Members were invited to buy a brick and so make their own contribution to the rebuilding. Interest was sustained by press releases and by a never ending programme of coffee mornings and sponsored walks. Jumble sales and raffles of rugs and selling of ties (all contributed by the untiring work of one member who was also a leading member of the team who masterminded the fund raising) consistently added to the Reconstruction Fund. At last, by 3rd April 1979, the new premises were ready for opening. Those of who were involved in getting the builders out in time, cleaning the theatre, rehearsing the play, preparing the set for the gala opening will never forget that time, especially the last minute preparations and would like to add to that last sentence, ‘ready for opening’ but only just.
The financial struggle was not over. As a result of a breakdown in the arrangements with the Manpower Services Commission the Club still had to meet bills on the capital expenditure well in excess of £12000. Our creditors were very patient and we owe them a great debt, the money apart, for their forbearance. This is just another example of how the community as a whole supported the Club as there is surely a community investment in the bricks and mortar of the theatre. In addition to the urgent need to pay back the £12000, as quickly as possible, it soon became apparent that our old lighting board and circuits were in a dangerous condition. A member lent us £1100 on condition that the whole sum could be repaid within the year. We honoured this obligation by putting on extra shows in the theatre, by sales in the market, more jumble sales etc etc. Loans and grants from two councils continued to help us during these few fraught years and we were able to build up our stock of new flats and enhance the versatility of our lighting and staging by buying new lights and rostra – more community investment in the theatre. Our own efforts in the form of ten successful seasons of Club productions, contriving by directors and stage crews for lighting and sound, in set design and décor and in set construction, and careful financial management have ensured that we have paid our bills and repaid our mortgage.
In 1985 the Club became a member of the Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain after passing through its very stringent production quality regime. Membership was celebrated by producing the World Amateur Premiere of The Hired Man by Melvyn Bragg with music by Howard Goodall. This was put on in the form of a gala night after the national conference of the Guild. Throughout its life Carlisle Green Room has supported drama in the City and County. For a number of years after the closure of Her Majesty’s Theatre we were the only club in the City keeping the interest in live theatre going. In recent years small independent groups have sprung up only to fade away again. The Club has been the only consistent voice.