Witham Amateur Operatic Society has been in existence since 1921 but as a Musical Society it can claim to date from the beginning of the 20th Century. Before World War One, Witham was noted for its musical activities supported by the families of Luard, Croxall and Richards.
Linley Howlett LRAM, ARCM, justly claimed to be the father of the society. A strict and very able teacher of music, he turned All Saints Church, where he was the organist, into a musical centre with a mixed choir as well as a male voice choir. They gave concerts of part songs and of oratorios such as Hiawatha, The Messiah and the Crucifixion. In April 1910, Witham Musical Society gave a performance of Haydn's Creation in the Public Hall with Kate Cherry, Alexander Webster and George Stubbs as principals. Mr. Howlett had connections with Kelvedon, and the two societies used to exchange visits. In April 1914 they gave a concert version of Merrie England together.
After the war it was decided that musical shows should be staged, and the Society gave its last concert of songs under its former name in April 1921 and Witham Musical and Amateur Operatic Society was born. The first show to be staged in April 1922 was H.M.S. Pinafore. Mr. Howlett was, of course, musical director and the producer was Ashley Cooper of the D’Oyly Carte Company who conveniently lived at Gidea Park. For the first five years, only G&S were produced but in 1927 and 1928 a departure was made by staging Dorothy and Les Cloches de Cornville. The shows were successful: the standard was high and there were no “talkies” never mind TV to provide competition.
Even in the happiest of societies the choosing of the principals arouses feelings. After Falka (1931) Mr. Howlett complained of members saying that in his casting he studied the interests of his pupils rather than those of the society. In fact he took a great deal of trouble and his decisions were never questioned unless it was a matter of bringing in outsiders. He put every applicant to join the society through the most stringent tests and communicated the result by letter. It was a great honour to be admitted at all.
Merrie England (1933) and Tom Jones (1934) were staged in the White Hall Cinema because the Public Hall was closed for enlargement. The sloping auditorium was pleasing for the audience but there was very little room backstage. For The Geisha the new Public Hall was used and after that it was decided to do Dorothy (1936) for the second time. Miss Lucy Croxall succeeded Miss Drake as honorary pianist. The Colchester Garrison beagles were engaged to take part and caused unexpected amusement by forgetting themselves owing to their handler having omitted to give them a precautionary run beforehand. But the costumes were expensive and the attendance poor. The result was financial disaster. There was a loss on the show of £36 (about £700 in today's values) which when set against income from social activities left the society with £7 in the bank.
In order for the society to survive all appointments would have to be honorary which meant the resignation of "the twins", but Mr. Edward Sherwood of Prested Hall came to the rescue, took over the musical direction and found and paid for an orchestra himself. Everything depended on the next show, and the expensive and difficult Maid of the Mountains was defiantly selected. The Maid of the Mountains brought a record profit of £65 which put the society on its feet again.
Things were understandably put on hold during the war but in 1947 the Witham “boards” were once again trodden in Miss Hook of Holland. In 1950 a producer for The Lilac Domino was needed at short notice and Dorothy L. Sayers, a Witham resident who took especial interest in the Society, obtained the services of David Peacock from R.A.D.A. He changed the casting round and produced an excellent show.
There followed a series of successful shows with different producers, in particular Gilbert Sutcliffe, David Walker and Derek Collins. In 1964 an autumn G&S concert version was introduced, rewarding for the singers and with little financial risk, which proved popular and persisted for five years when the autumn show developed, initially, into fully-staged G&S presentations which continued for the next twelve years.
Throughout the seventies and eighties standards rose, but against a background of rising costs the society was unable to build up reserves. Many shows lost heavily and it has become increasingly important in choosing a show to think first of its box-office appeal. A "box-office show” although virtually selling out unfortunately brings no guarantee of success if it clashes with the productions of one of the ever more numerous societies in the same catchment area.
In the nineties, new ground was broken. After staging Oliver! in 1995 it was realised that the huge response from would be Olivers and Fagin’s boys (and girls!) that there was a need for a junior society and Witham Operatic Workshop (WOW) was born and goes from strength to strength. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, A Funny thing happened on the way to the Forum, and Chess were certainly different from the more traditional style of show and not only appealed to a wider audiences but provided additional opportunities to members.
Today the society is holding its own against the various forms of digital entertainment available with two stage productions a year and occasional music-hall presentations. Hundreds of people in and around Witham have performed or seen their friends and relations perform with the society and look upon it as their own. It is still encouraging to hear people saying that they came to live here in order to join a society renowned for its friendly spirit and its long record of consistent achievement.
WAOS was initially started by interested families where quite often a husband and wife undertook management roles while their offspring performed in the shows. We are proud to say that this has continued to the present day where one often finds two generations in the same production while there are several families that have served the Society for over 40 years.
WAOS has embarked on a project of scanning all the hard copy archive material since the inauguration of WAOS in 1921, then called the Witham Musical and Amateur Operatic Society. This archive will grow as the data is uploaded. However, there is already plenty of material to browse through. Take a look by clicking on the link www.waosarchive.blogspot.co.uk. You are encouraged to leave comments about individual items in the archive if you have additional information, personal memories perhaps or relatives you recall in the society. To leave a comment click on an individual item and scroll down to the comment box at the bottom. Type your comment and save.