Heathfields Hall History to 2020
Heathfields Hall has been DAODS’ headquarters for nearly 30 years. As well as being the rehearsal base for our productions at the Orchard Theatre, it serves a range of other functions for the society and is an enormous asset.
Alongside our two main productions at the Orchard Theatre, we host several smaller scale productions at the hall each year including revues, pantomimes, plays, concerts and many more!
It is also where we hold our social functions and the hall is regularly used by other community groups for a range of different activities throughout the year. We asked Fred Hall, a life member and former chairman of the society, to tell the story of how DAODS came to acquire its very own home.
During the late 1980s the society was gifted some money from a former member, Joan Lodge. If you look up in the entrance of Heathfields Hall you will see the plaque raised in her name.
Until then we had used schools and church halls, but this was becoming more and more costly for our members. After much discussion the society decided that it needed its own headquarters.
After some serious fundraising, and following protracted discussions with Dartford Borough Council, the society was offered some land in Heath Lane, Dartford. This land had previously been used as the entrance to an old chalk pit and then as a land fill site. The area was divided up between several local groups:
Dartford Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society
Fleetdown Football Club
Dartford Lions Club
Air Training Corps
We agreed on a thirty-year lease and the building of Heathfields Hall commenced.
There was much consultation with regard to the foundations, and due to its previous use as a landfill area and the possibility of escaping methane gas, a special floating foundation slab was needed.
We were lucky that within the society we had a member, Peter Hook, who was also a civil engineer. He helped with the design of the foundation and put the proposal for approval to the council. The slab was considerably more money than the council or society had expected, but after much discussion and petitioning by members Ken Thornhill, Mike Hopley and Bill Leadbeatter, the council was able to come to our aid with a grant.
So, the work began. The construction was going to require considerable management and at this stage we didn’t have an actual building; only the foundations. Bill Leadbeatter and fellow society member John Berry worked at the Northfleet Power Station and standing in the power station grounds was a disused Social Club. Bill and John arranged for the building to be removed from Northfleet and brought to Heath Lane.
Many members from the society got involved and over many weekends helped dismantle the building and set aside the fittings, such as toilets, switches, lights, a bar, cabling, timber etc. All of this was then transported to the new Heath Lane site. The framework of the building was erected by a contractor until the building was watertight. As part of the new layout it was agreed to double the height of the actual hall space.
All of the work was supervised and managed by Bill, Ken and John, with many other members giving up their time and expertise to help with the reconstruction.
Although good progress was being made on the construction of the hall, money was being spent at an alarming rate, so the society set about raising funds. This was headed up by Mike Hopley with all kinds of fun and social events being organised. It was a time when everyone in the society pulled together, with members giving loans and donations - all of which were very generous and gratefully received.
Mike’s fundraising efforts were relentless, enabling building work to move on. If you look above the tea bar at the hall, you can see a tapestry with just some of the names of those who contributed. This tapestry was made and donated to the society by Pat Thornhill.
Work was progressing well, but now there was the consideration of a floor. We needed something multi-purpose, and durable to be able to move about and, more importantly, dance on. It looked like a hardwood block floor similar to what was used in schools would be the best option, but when quotes were sought, it was so expensive we just couldn’t afford it.
As luck would have it, a new Asda store was being built in Bexleyheath at the time; while this was being done an old scouts hall was to be demolished and Asda was providing a new hall for the Bexleyheath scouts. In this hall there was a wooden parquet floor that was available for free. A team got together and we uplifted the floor, piled it into manageable bundles and brought it to Heath Lane, where it was carefully stacked ready for installation. When the concrete floor was ready, we arranged for a specialist to lay it.
Now it was starting to look like a hall. The lights and wiring were being installed by Peter and Richard Wicks, both patron members of the society. The plumbing and heating systems were installed by Interskill Plumbing and Heating all at no cost, and the hall was decorated by members. The majority of the decorating work was done by George Smith (another patron member and father to Andy Smith, himself another long-standing member and former chairman).
Now it was looking really good, and became available for our use around 1992/93.
Since 1982 we had been staging our productions twice a year, in the spring and autumn, at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford. We were now using the hall as our base for all of our rehearsals and preparations for these shows. However, after much discussion, it was decided to stage a performance at the hall in addition to our ‘main’ shows at the Orchard. Margo Gwyn put forward the play “Stepping Out”, and as rehearsals began the hall team set about constructing a stage and proscenium arch.
The hall roof wasn’t strong enough to bear any weight, so we had a Trilite gantry made. You can see the aluminium frames at each corner of the stage. This gantry is used to support the tabs tracks and stage lighting.
How to fund this new venture? Our fundraising team applied for grants from many sources, including the Sports and Arts Aid Foundation, which awarded the society some £26,000. Nonetheless, we worked to a tight budget and so we borrowed anything we could in order to construct the new stage. Everyone worked hard, we had to. Stepping Out was cast and in rehearsal and tickets were selling like wildfire; now the pressure was on to meet the deadline.
With the stage making progress, we needed to build the set. We had never done this at the hall, but we had a team with plenty of experience headed up by Bill Leadbeatter. We managed to buy some lights and a basic lighting desk, a cassette player for some background music, and some second-hand disco speakers and an amplifier. Along with the construction work, this pretty much used all of the grant money. We finished just about a week before the dress rehearsal - phew!
The show went on, we had 120 seats for about five performances and we sold out! Our audiences loved it, although there were some complaints that, due to being seated on a flat floor, the audience at the back couldn’t see very well.
The hall team took this to heart after all the work that had been put in but, nevertheless, the show had made a profit. After much discussion it was agreed that we should have raked seating to avoid future complaints.
We began to look at buying in a raked seating system and looked at numerous different options, but all were too expensive and difficult to store when not in use. During these talks Roy Poole suggested we might consider building our own seating system that was purpose-made for Heathfields Hall, and that would enable us to use our own chairs.
Roy put a budget together and it was significantly cheaper than anything we had already looked at. Roy and I set about with the design of the seating, focusing in particular on how quickly and easily it could be put up – and also put away and stored. If it could be stored in the space below the newly-constructed stage, that would be ideal.
We arranged for a local company to make up the frames and after about three months it was ready. It was first assembled and used in 1997 for our play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. It worked well, except we had overlooked having a space for lighting and sound operators. We therefore made the ‘techie’s gantry’, which links in with and is supported by the seating.
As this was going on members of the committee once again set the society to fundraising and organising the hall for our own use and external hiring. With our own space we were able to expand the scope of our activities, and in the early 90s we formed a youth group, which was headed up by Mike Hopley and then Pat Thornhill. We had lots of young people at the hall learning drama skills and a professional leader who was supported by dedicated members of the society. From this the Dartford Youth Theatre Group was formed.
All this time the outside space was being used for fundraising events, and of course the grass and flowers needed to be looked after. Up stepped Mike Hopley, who continued to look after the grounds for many years.
Heathfields Hall is now used for all rehearsals and is equipped as a theatre for small-scale productions - no fewer than five in the 15 months up to early 2020.
Many members help out with set building and technical stuff, but we can always use more. I must mention Terry Brett; his expertise in electrics, theatre and staging have been invaluable for the society.
Our hall is a massive asset and we as an amateur theatre group are so privileged to have such a place of our own. It belongs to every single member. Let’s take care of it.
There are so many members and patron members who did so much for the hall and the society, I have only mentioned some of them. A massive thanks to each and every one who helped us.