Bridgwater: Somerset’s Red Exception

Bridgwater is a red island in a sea of blue; a rare exception to the Tory politics which dominate Somerset – and its pioneering 1940s Arts Centre offers an insight into the role of socialism in its past and present.

Opened 75 years ago, Bridgwater Arts Centre is not only considered the nation’s first such establishment but was also the first to be funded by the then recently-founded Arts Council. Tracing the Art Centre’s history is an opportunity to get a sense of how local and national governments have treated the arts in the postwar period, and can remind us of the importance of socially inclined local governance.

The Arts Centre is based at 11-13 Castle Street, encompassing two merchant houses that capitalist James Brydges had built in the 1720s. The 160-seat theatre was first constructed in 1919 to be a billiard room for a men’s club. In the 1930s, that room became the Bridgwater School of Music and Dance, a liberal initiative to bring ‘high culture’ to the masses.

Somerset-based arts patron Gwen Pollard, already involved in the Bridgwater School, caught wind of John Maynard Keynes’s plan to transform the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art into an institution which would distribute public money to projects based on assessments by arts professionals. She bought 13 Castle Street in 1945 and drew up a plan for an Arts Centre, and secured funding for all its expenses when the Arts Council launched the next year.

The Travelling Opera Group inaugurated the venue on 10 October 1946. Ernest Pooley, Chairman of the Arts Council, said in a speech that evening that art is worthwhile ‘because some appreciation of art does give to man an immense pleasure and makes for a much fuller and wider life.’

Keynes founded the Council on the premise that the arts are best served by artistic activity being free of political interference, but from the start, the funding and management of the Arts Council itself has been a political football. Following Keynes’s death, the Council was almost immediately diverted from its large-scale aspirations. One of the first things that was cut from its portfolio was the long-term support of arts centres such as the recently opened one in Bridgwater. Ever since, Bridgwater Arts Centre has survived from intermittent public funding, private donors, and revenue.

Bridgwater is a working-class town in a part of the country dominated by aristocratic landlords (such as its current MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger). One of the reasons its Arts Centre was a success during the era of artists extensively touring small towns is that it’s a middle point between university cities Bristol and Exeter. Its position in the South West is also what’s made Bridgwater a prime location for distribution warehouses. Shift work and construction, especially of the nearby Hinkley Point nuclear power station, has picked up the slack left by deindustrialisation. The town has also diversified, with Portuguese and Polish being two of its most prominent migrant communities. Prior to lockdown, Bridgwater was boasting its lowest ever unemployment numbers, and yet the town continues to suffer from economic hardship; according to data from 2016, at least one in four children in the ward of Hamp live in poverty.

Thanks to how the constituency boundaries has been effectively gerrymandered, while the town council is perennially composed of a resolute Labour majority, the parliamentary seat is safely in Tory hands. Bridgwater was a fallen red wall seat before the term existed; it has provided a blueprint for how to disenfranchise the working-class vote. The situation was a little different around World War II; opposing appeasement, Popular Front candidate Vernon Bartlett won the 1938 by-election and held the seat for twelve years.

Bartlett’s contacts in the media (he’d worked at national newspapers and the BBC) no doubt played a role in the 6th International Conference of Modern Architecture taking place at the Arts Centre on 12 September 1947. Unable to afford flights to New York, the organisers decided to ‘go into rustication away from the distractions of a great city’, and thus some of the most prominent figures of twentieth-century architecture, including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Minette De Silva, ended up convening in Bridgwater instead. Helping to keep costs low, the Arts Centre’s membership hosted the Conference’s 80 attendees in their homes. The people of Bridgwater were no doubt offered a very different view of architectural modernism a couple of years later, when John Betjeman gave a talk at the venue.

Sustained Arts Council support for the Centre waned from the early 1950s. Pollard continued to raise funds to keep the project alive. In 1965, while expressing concerns that there was dwindling interest in the Centre, the Borough Council bought the building’s freehold from Pollard.

Labour Leader of Bridgwater Town Council Brian Smedley has written that up until the 1960s and the arrival of rock ’n’ roll, ‘the Art Centre remained a small, exclusive little venue tucked away in the ‘posh’ part of town, accessible only to the perceived highbrow elite.’ Later, punk acted as something of a year zero, first as an explosion of libertarianism, and then—in some instances, including Bridgwater, as was the case with Smedley—a conduit for leftism.

Before Thatcher moved into Downing Street, Tory hegemony was already felt locally. The old Borough was abolished in 1974 and the new Sedgemoor District Council took ownership of Castle Street. The District had and retains a Tory majority and is mostly unrepresentative of Bridgwater town. It was at this point that the Arts Centre’s patrons radicalised the venue, making it a home to jazz and punk, much to the annoyance of the Tory town councillor who lived next door.

Though Bridgwater’s punks were anti-Thatcher, her Government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme put money into the pockets of artists without first checking the opinion of so-called experts. This policy was born from an individualist view of humanity, but it was a welcome alternative to the Art Council’s failure to provide transparency or avoid being subject to political meddling. The new generation clashed with many on the Centre’s board during the 1980s, which consisted of estate agents and other killjoys who weren’t too keen on the new noises or the New Left. The board banned an art exhibition because it had a CND badge on the poster, put the brakes on Billy Bragg playing a miners benefit gig, and were also keen to get the building converted into luxury housing.

By the time New Labour arrived, the Arts Council’s reliance on private funding had already been established. Blairism didn’t bring structural change, but it did throw money at the cracks. During this time, Sedgemoor District Council provided a healthy grant, and in the 2000s the venue had several paid staff. Then Cameron’s Big Society and austerity arrived, and overnight ten years of paid expertise was lost. For the last few years, it’s been up to a group of enthusiastic volunteers and one employee to re-energise the project.

It’s not only working-class votes, but also working-class culture that has been disenfranchised, thanks to how culture is conceptualised at a national level. 2018’s Active Lives Survey—led by Sport England in partnership with the Arts Council and other organisations—classified Bridgwater as a place where involvement in the arts is ‘significantly’ below the national average. This is an odd assessment of a town which hosts Europe’s largest night-time carnival, an event that annually attracts 100,000 spectators and involves the participation of 2,000 people all year round. The depiction of Brigwater as uncultured points to the fact that in public discourse ‘art’ continues to largely mean the fine arts when presented in formal contexts.

In a demonstration of the importance of local governance which cares about regional heritage, when the Tory led-District was unwilling to pay for necessary renovations, the Labour Town Council bought the building in 2019, securing the Art Centre’s future for the foreseeable future. Smedley says that the Council’s takeover is a demonstration of municipal socialism, and provides the Centre with financial backing while not interfering with its programming.

One of the main challenges facing the venue will be the continued decline of the high street. Councillors are hoping that, post-lockdown, regeneration projects will attract people living in the burgeoning suburbs to the town centre. The Centre’s co-ordinator Dave Edney tells me that ‘the one good thing that lockdown has given us is time to improve the organisation and the building, but we are itching to get back to being a functional community Arts Centre, and celebrate our anniversary.’

What has kept Bridgwater Arts Centre going are the same things that keep any creative endeavour rolling: sustained access to space and money. Johnson’s so-called regeneration funds, rightly criticised for being ‘tokenism’ and ‘short-termist’, will not solve the problem that people have increasingly less of both. England’s political elite are far from heeding the lessons that the case of the Bridgwater Arts Centre provides: when it comes to the arts, long-term positive impact is made by publicly-funded, socially-oriented, and locally-run institutions which have security, no matter the tastes of those in Westminister.