1914-1930: Building the Hall
It all began in a spirit of high optimism when, on June 3rd 1914, a large crowd gathered in County Square to witness the laying of the foundation stone for Ulverston’s proposed new public building, the Coronation Hall. It was commissioned by Ulverston Urban District Council to commemorate the coronation of King George V, and was to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the former County Hotel. Mr DJ Brundrit was Chief Architect, and renowned architectural sculptor Alec Miller was to provide the unique and ornate plasterwork which graces the interior of the Hall today.
Sadly, only 3 months later, the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-1918 produced serious delays to progress owing to rising costs and a serious shortage of men and materials. Major works were finally completed in 1916 but with the war still raging and the Council in debt it was not until 1918 that the Hall was first brought into use. Some minor events took place but the first fully-staged production was Ulverston Amateur Operatic Society’s presentation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in April, 1918. It then took two years more before the Hall was free of debt and fully equipped, so that an official opening ceremony could be performed – on June 3rd, 1920.
1930-1950: Turbulent times
In the 1930s, with the rise of cinemas rivalling the appeal of live production shows, increasing use of the Hall was made as a dance venue with weekly events usually fronted by local musicians ‘Oliver’s Lyric Orchestra.’ Dances proved such an important source of income the Council were able to fund several repairs and improvements to the Hall’s facilities.
When war was again declared in 1939 The Coro, as it was affectionately called, was requisitioned by the War Office for the accommodation of troops. Somehow it was possible for the weekly dances to continue alongside the billeting arrangements, though all the activity took its toll on the Hall’s interior with, post-war, financial help being sought from the War Office for essential repairs. Morale in the town had also taken a beating, but was the significantly raised in May 1947 by an impromptu visit from Stan Laurel, Ulverston’s famous son, along with Oliver Hardy. They greeted the vast crowds gathered in County Square below from The Coro’s balcony.
With the increasing popularity of television, many live theatres and entertainment venues were struggling to remain active; at this time The Coro’s survival depended more than ever on its role as a community resource. Thankfully many local groups and organisations had embraced the Hall, holding meetings, fund-raising events, and coffee mornings on a regular basis. Several amateur groups had also been formed and, along with UAOS, all found a permanent home at the Hall. Examples are local drama group the Ulverston Outsiders, the British Legion Pantomime, and the Furness Drama Association.
With local government reorganisation in 1974, South Lakeland District Council took over the ownership and running of the Hall, and were prepared to invest considerably in its future. The balance again shifted with the emphasis now placed on its identity as a key entertainment venue, and it went on to host many famous stars from the world of entertainment (Roy Hudd, Danny La Rue, Ken Dodd), celebrity lecturers (Ranulph Fiennes, Patrick Moore), nationally distinguished ballet and opera touring companies (London Festival Ballet, English Touring Opera). It also played host to several radio and TV shows, such as Gardeners’ Question Time, Dickinson’s Real Deal, and The Antiques Road Show.
2000-2015: 100 years and counting
With the help of government grants and lottery funding it was initially possible to ensure that The Coro was not only being adequately maintained, but was also keeping pace with modern technological developments. However times were changing and funding issues were soon to become a major issue. It was therefore timely to mark The Coro’s significant presence in the town, and a special anniversary concert took place on June 3rd 2014 to celebrate its centenary. Talented artistes from the local scene performed a range of entertainments from across the decades to a truly packed house.
2015: Save The Coro
In common with many other local authorities at the time, SLDC was forced to review its portfolio as it’s resources became increasingly squeezed and The Coro was threatened with potential closure. Public outcry and a large campaign led to the founding of ‘Ulverston Community Enterprises’ (UCE), an organisation dedicated to reclaiming assets for the common good, with the express purpose of ‘saving The Coro’. After successful negotiations with SLDC, The Coro became UCE’s first and flagship project, with a short-term lease and tapering grant spread across five years to help support the transition.
2016-2019: Finding our feet
In 2016 UCE established The Coro as a charity. Having inherited an annual deficit of approximately a quarter of a million pounds, the first few years were spent understanding the business and operations and working to establish whether the £250,000 deficit could actually be filled, with a view to eventually taking on a long-term lease.
Between 2016-2019 we more than doubled the number of events, grew a significant volunteer programme, saw more than 30% growth in visitor numbers and won several local awards. In 2019 we welcomed more than 60,000 people through the doors to enjoy more than 600 events and activities including returning annual festivals such as PrintFest, Ulverston International Music Festival and Furness Tradition; gigs including the renowned Floyd Effect, Kate Rusby and Ulverston’s own Jess Gillam; comedy giants like Al Murray, Jasper Carrot, Alister McGowan and Chris Ramsey; as well as hosting regular community events including coffee mornings, bingo and a whole range of private functions.
By March 2020 we were on a positive trajectory to closing the gap on the deficit. We had forecast that by June 2021, when the transition grant from SLDC expired, The Coro would be supporting itself financially, largely through generated income, with an element of charitable fundraising.
Then the COVID 19 pandemic hit. The Coro, along with venues across the country, was forced to close, eradicating its income overnight, forcing staff redundancies, and creating the biggest challenge yet for The Coro’s continued survival.
Throughout 2020 and 2021 we had to adopt a lean and flexible approach and adapt our way of working considerably in order to continue to deliver experiences that enrich lives, despite being closed for the majority of the time. We delivered a series of open-air installations and experiences, working with outdoor theatre companies, taking the work of The Coro beyond the building for the first time and engaging with some 70,000 people.
When it was safe to do so, we transformed the inside of the building into a gallery space for a month-long large-scale installation enabling people to visit socially distanced in designated timeslots. More than 11,000 people came to visit Museum of The Moon in August 2020 and while it was free, the exhibit was funded almost exclusively through donations from the public. We subsequently held an immersive theatre experience in the building that Christmas, and in summer 2021 repeated the previous year’s successful model with Museum of the Moon’s sister piece Gaia, under which we held an intimate programme of musical and theatrical performance, film screenings and topical conversations.
The impact of the global pandemic presented a huge challenge to The Coro at a critical point in its development. However, we used the time to develop new, bigger and more diverse audiences; launch a vibrant new brand; undertake extensive community consultation; and diversify our cultural offer.
2022 was a year spent in recovery as The Coro emerged from the aftermath of the global pandemic. While significant challenges remain, we are now looking ahead with optimism, energy, and an ambitious vision for the future.