WHEN David Brooks arrived in Richmond as the new town clerk during the Second World War, he discovered that the council was using one of the oldest theatres in the country as a salvage store.

Indeed, he discovered it had suffered many indignities since the curtain fell on its last performance in 1848. It had been an auction room, a grain warehouse, a billiard hall and a wine stall, but, amid the junk dumped into it, he could see that it still had many original features, including the oldest scenery in the country.

But then, months after his arrival, there was a fire which destroyed the only proscenium door of entrance in the country.

The Northern Echo: David Brooks, Richmond Town ClerkDavid Brooks, Richmond town clerk in the 1940s

When the theatre had been built in 1788 by Samuel Butler, it had probably had several doors of entrance, each with knockers and bells on, on either side of the stage. These were elderly theatrical devices: an actor would leave through one door and re-enter through another so that the audience knew he was in a different room even though the scenery behind him remained the same. They soon fell out of favour, but somehow Richmond’s had survived – until the fire in 1942.


The Northern Echo: A 1940s picture of the outside of the Georgian Theatre in Richmond as David Brooks battled to save itThe Georgian Theatre on a 1940s newspaper picture from when Mr Brooks sprang into action

It galvanised Mr Brooks into action. In 1943, Richmond was to celebrate its 850th anniversary, and the town clerk, who hailed from Essex, realised this was an opportunity for the theatre. He was given permission to clear it out and put on shows during the two-week festival but only if it then reverted to being a dump again.

The Northern Echo: David Brooks's appeal for people to help save the theatre

Three short plays were produced, by the Richmond Players, the grammar school and the High School Old Girls’ Association, in August 1943, and were judged a triumph.

“Today, the old Theatre Royal is the proud showpiece of the borough, repainted, cleaned and ready for use,” said an article in the Yorkshire Post. “But it is not a glory achieved without struggle. Mr Brooks’ plan for its restoration was only achieved by grudging consent that allowed experiment for one month and imposed the condition that the theatre should then return to its old use as a salvage dump.”

Surely, said the article, the “sheer vandalism of such a reversion will not be permitted”.

In 1944, with the war continuing, the Government promoted “Holidays at Home”, and the theatre reopened again to match the holiday mood, this time with a Shakespearean theme. There were mishaps – alas, poor Yorrick’s skull was mislaid at the crucial moment – but among the actors was Lt Daniel Thorndike, from Catterick Garrison. He’d been run over by a motorcycle and so was not fit for active service, but in later life he went onto have a successful theatre career, including starring in one episode of Blackadder, with Rowan Atkinson, as the unforgettable Lord Whiteadder, a madly puritanical figure whose costume was covered in wooden crucifixes.

The Northern Echo: Richmond Georgian TheatreRichmond Georgian Theatre in the 1980s

Against such a backdrop, the council could not allow the theatre to become a dump again, but, equally, it did not have the money, or inclination, to pay for restoration, so Mr Brooks was instrumental in setting up a fund to save it. He organised money-raising events, researched its history – discovering its pit which had been lost when it was converted to a wine cellar – and enthusiastically showing visitors around the unique theatre.

“Unofficially, he is keeper of the borough’s artistic conscience and sense of history,” said The Northern Echo shortly before, in 1955, Mr Brooks left Richmond to become town clerk of Broken Hill in Northern Rhodesia.

“A particular cause which he had made his own was the restoration of the Georgian theatre, whose virtues he discovered and declaimed to the world,” said The Dalesman. “He discovered that it was a unique little gem… He campaigned for it, knowing that his campaign was unpopular, but he left for Africa knowing that the preservation and restoration seemed fairly certain.”

The Northern Echo: Georgian Theatre Royal, RichmondInside the theatre

Before he’d left, he’d introduced Lady Nancy Crathorne, wife of the Richmond MP Thomas Dugdale, to the wonders of the theatre, and she took up leadership of the project, becoming the first chair of the Georgian Theatre Trust which led to the restored theatre reopening in 1963.

In Rhodesia, Mr Brooks became such a respected public administrator that, following independence, he was one of only 10 Europeans to be presented with the Order of Distinguished Service of the Republic of Zambia.

He retired with his wife, Jean, to Alicante in Spain in 1970 and then to Canada, where his daughter had settled and where he died in 1979.

“He was the first person to recognise and demonstrate the potential of a restored Georgian Theatre and, without his inspiration, enthusiasm and hard work and that fortuitous meeting with Lady Crathorne, the old theatre might still be languishing as a corporation store or be the site of a now redundant 1960s retail development,” says Elaine Frances in an article in the Richmond Review 2023 which has recently been published by the town’s civic society.

“The lack of support he received from members of Richmond Corporation is mirrored today by the lack of recognition of the work he did,” she adds, but very recently, a little display dedicated to him has been placed in the foyer at the theatre.

The Northern Echo: David Brooks at his desk. Pictures courtesy of the Richmond ReviewDavid Brooks at his desk

  • The Richmond Review 2023, published by the Richmond & District Civic Society, costs £10 and is available from Richmond Information Centre in the Market Hall and Castle Hill Bookshop in the town.