THE ORIGINS OF THE SITE
Newhampton Arts Centre’s site has its origins in a meeting of Wolverhampton School Board on 5th October 1883 when it was proposed that an Upper Grade School educating children beyond the age of 13 should be investigated. However, it was not until 1890 that they decided to visit other Higher Grade Schools to and set up a sub-committee which rejected a town centre site in Birch Street for a cheaper, larger site on Newhampton Road, Whitmore Reans, for 600 pupils.
The Board’s architect, T.H.Fleeming, produced plans for the school but these were revised over costs again before the board accepted building at a total cost of £14,300.
It was built in a style described as ‘Pont Street Dutch’ – the main features being a “a fondness for very bright red brick, a proliferation of enrichment and a passion for breaking the skyline with every variety of gable that the genius of Holland has produced and a good many that it has not.”
Jesse West was appointed headmaster at a salary of £300 a year and the school was formally opened on the 16th January 1894 with a fee of 6d (21/2p) per week per child on condition a quarter of the 600 places were free with the first examination for free scholarships on the 24th February 1894. 64 boys and 58 girls were successful. By 1907 the school’s official title was The Wolverhampton Municipal High School for Boys and Girls but this was a bit of a mouthful so it was referred to as The Municipal Higher Grade School.
WORLD WAR ONE
The First World War produced new pressures as staff volunteered or were conscripted into the forces. Restrictions on married women being able to teach were also relaxed. Staff and ex-pupils who had joined the forces would call in regularly during the war to report on their part in the war. At other times parents would come in to report that ex-pupils had died or been injured in the conflict.
Part of the school was used to train women to be munitions workers in factories in Wolverhampton, Birmingham and the Black Country. The work was hazardous and as well as sore throats the women – and men – workers found that their skin would turn yellow because of the chemicals they were working with.
Among at least 90 ex-pupils to die was Douglas Morris Henry Harris, aged 19, who stayed at his post as a Navy radio operator on the drifter Floandi while under attack by much more powerful warships of the Austrian Navy on 15th May 1917. He was mentioned in despatches and was awarded the Italian Navy’s award for bravery.
WORLD WAR TWO
Eight air raid shelters were built in the playground area and, as in WW1, staff volunteered or were called up for the forces. Geography teacher Mr J.W.Cooke rose to the rank of Major but was killed in action just before the end of the war in 1945.
Regulations about married women teachers were relaxed so that they could help ease staff shortages and, again as in WW1, the pupils raised money for charities and National Savings. Pre-war holiday camps were replaced summer harvest camps, helping in Herefordshire and Shropshire.
Pupils also joined in delivering and sorting mail during and after the war.
The school playing field avoided being transformed into allotments but the dining room was switched to become a British Restaurant – providing cooked meals at a reasonable price and supplementing rations.
It still supplied meals for the school in a separate dining room.
THE POSTWAR ERA AND THE END OF THE SITE AS A SCHOOL
From the 1st April 1945 fees were abolished for any school maintained by a local authority and the school became the Wolverhampton Municipal Grammar School. The new school motto was “Jouyr Loyalment de Son Estre” – “To Yourself Be True.” The school coat of arms which still hangs at the Newhampton Road site
With 650 pupils in 24 forms it was difficult to cope with only 22 classrooms so a new dining hall was built on the playing field and new laboratories, new library and new staff room were provided.
The 1970s saw a new school called Colton Hills Comprehensive proposed amalgamating the Municipal Grammar with Graisley and Penn schools. In 1974 Colton Hills opened – but on four sites – including the Newhampton Road site as an annex. Aldersley School also used it as an annex until their Pendeford site was completed. In 1977 another new school – Valley Park – was created at the Newhampton Road site before moving to Hordern Road in 1989.
Valley Park left in 1989 and the site was taken over in part by Wulfrun College (now Wolverhampton College) with the rear areas of the site set up as a mini-arts centre by the Wolverhampton Borough Council Community Arts Team.
Arts and community organisations including St Peter’s Unemployment Group, Central Youth Theatre – who are still on site – Zip Theatre and Zip Rock School were invited on to the site and the Arts in the Community Team also made it ‘home.’ They were joined by Caribbean Light, Challenge FM – the forerunner of Wolverhampton Community Radio – Foursight women’s theatre group, Motivate Music – aiming to keeping the tradition of the Jamaican sound system alive.
THE OPENING OF NEWHAMPTON ARTS CENTRE
Temporary buildings by 1990 were in a poor condition as well as the older buildings at the rear of the site. As a result planning started to refurbish the site in 1991/92 with site groups, the council, college and Wolverhampton City Challenge.
City Challenge was a five year (1992-97) urban regeneration programme focused on a 560 hectare wedge of north Wolverhampton. The cafe and a services block for Wulfrun College was funded by a £542,000 grant from Wolverhampton City Challenge and further £202,000 came from the European Regional Development Fund with an Arts Council feasibility grant of £45,000.
Total funding for completing the project was subject to a bid to the Arts Lottery for £1,841,794 and £93,000 to the Foundation for Sports and Arts.
Semi-derelict buildings became purpose-built recording and rehearsal studios, dance studio, theatres (including the former gym – which incorporated a full sprung dance floor), offices, storage rooms and a cafe/restaurant. In the college-owned building the community radio station with offices and up-to-date recording facilitie developed along with a separate BBC TV studio for radio and TV.
For more than a decade the site was run as a partnership between college, council and the Newhampton Arts Centre (NAC). However, after 2008 and under the pressure of government funding cuts – council grant support was tapered down and eventually disappeared in April 2015.
Wolverhampton College – with a long term aim of locating all operations on new-build sites including a new one in the city centre – withdrew staff, classes and activities from the site in October 2013 To prevent half the site being mothballed or lost the NAC board negotiated to take on management of the whole site and secured an agreement with the college to do this.
Despite having a dedicated and talented staff reduced by a third during the cuts to financial support and use by the college and council the NAC board set out – in the words of long time NAC manager Christine McGowan- to “survive and thrive.”
She and the board called on supporters, residents and site users to help in this drive and they came on board to support fund raising and events.
Although many of the original arts and community groups who started NAC such as Zip Theatre, St Peter’s Unemployed Group, Foursight Theatre, Sekwense, Flair Foundation, Sweatbox, the Sam Sharpe music project and others no longer exist others have arrived to keep the creativity and community work going.
NAC rebounded from these cuts to deliver an increasingly ambitious programme, which was recognised by Arts Council England in the form of National Portfolio Organisation funding. This funding was secured by centre manager Christine McGowan who retired on a high note in 2018.
With great thanks to Jim Barrow and Bob Tame (Old Pupils Association) for all images