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The Artesian Well of Contemporary Art- Laurie Grove Baths

Laurie Grove Baths. Acquired by Goldsmiths, University of London in 1991 and converted into Art studios and teaching spaces. Image: Tim Crook

For decades it was a common sight- the morning ritual of crocodile processions of school children carrying a towel and their swimming costume to and from the Childeric Primary and Haberdasher Aske’s Grammar schools.

Distinctive blue and white glazed tiling. Image: Tim Crook

There would be a teacher at the front and a teacher at the back.

They would be on their way to the Laurie Grove baths.

The classes would snake up and down the New Cross Road.

The Childeric children would be carefully escorted while crossing Lewisham Way by the New Cross Super Kinema from 1925. It changed names over the decades eventually to ‘The Gaumont’ before becoming The Venue that we know today.

Trams and traffic would be held up as they crossed by the famous Marquis of Granby pub, a landmark coaching inn on the Dover Road through the ages.

When the pupils were hoping to gain their British Amateur Swimming Association gold, silver and bronze medal awards for life-saving their towels would also wrap around a pair of pyjamas.

That’s because the awards required swimmers to do a specified number of lengths in their pyjamas while carrying a brick at the same time, which was the equivalent of pulling and swimming with a small child.

And the brick would be provided to the children swimmers by the swimming pool.

Bronze personal survival medal issued by Amateur Swimming Association in 1969.

Academic Dr. Gareth Stanton first started lecturing at Goldsmiths when the baths were still open for business.

He recalled ‘that the pyjamas were also required for the silver and gold badges not simply to simulate swimming fully clothed but also because by inflating them when wet and tying the leg ends you made a temporary life raft of sorts.’

‘Later in life, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I remember photos of Afghan Mujahideen crossing rivers on goat stomachs similarly inflated. The images took me back, madeleine-like, to early school swimming lessons…’

Studios for art students at Goldsmiths in the converted swimming pools at Laurie Grove baths. Image: Tim Crook.

The memories of childhood swimming at Laurie Grove would be varied.

Some would recoil from the pungent smell of chlorine and the slimy feel of wet changing cubicle floors, and the echoing seagull style squalls of scores of children not exactly at play.

The blue and white glazed tiles and the bright shafts of light coming through the Victorian glass-house style ceilings would be slideshow images of that rites of passage experience when as a child you learned you could tread water and not sink to the bottom like a stone.

Image: Heritage of London Trust. Click through.

Autumn and winter days with wind, drizzle and rain blowing up from the Channel Ports would leave you feeling even more uncomfortable when returning to the classroom with damp tousled hair.

Mornings were for the splashing of school-children and swimming novices. Afternoons were preferred by adults.

Swimming pool interior. Note the partitions for studios. Image: Tim Crook.

Significance of Laurie Grove Baths in municipal and community history

It is not widely known that Laurie Grove Baths was the first significant public building project in Deptford in the history of the development of local government of this area of London.

That is why it is listed and a protected heritage site.

It was commissioned and completed before Deptford Borough Council was created by legislation in 1900, and, indeed before the building and completion of the Town Hall in 1905.

The project was designed between 1895-98 by local architect Thomas Dinwiddy. The commissioning body was the precursor to Deptford Borough Council with the quaint Victorian name of The Vestry Board of St Paul’s Deptford under the Public Baths and Washhouses Act 1846.

The baths were central to the commitment and campaign for public health.

The makeshift slums of the industrial revolution with its appalling legacy of deaths at birth, diphtheria, cholera, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis had to be left behind.

Britain was undergoing a slow progress towards representative democracy and that means people could vote in for themselves a better quality of life and some pursuit of happiness while life could be enjoyed.

The main priority was to create washing and bathing facilities for one of the poorest and most deprived urban areas of Great Britain.

The actual swimming pools offered a vital recreational resource. They were part of a great naval nation wishing to make sure the exponentially expanding city populations could learn to swim.

It also had the dual purpose of providing large-scale community meeting places. The pools could be covered with floor-boards and Laurie Grove Baths would transform into Laurie Grove Hall.

These spaces accommodated all kinds of entertainments and community organisations from wrestling, political meetings, to jazz and music concerts and dance hall events.

Laurie Grove Baths from New Cross Road. Image: Tim Crook

Laurie Grove Baths would become, apart from the collection of rates, Deptford Borough Council’s largest income stream.

The fact that it would be used by thousands of people every week meant that over the years it paid back the massive cost of its construction and substantially funded other vital local government services.

Cost and Construction

Laurie Grove Public Baths and Washhouses were opened on 20th April 1898 so the building complex is truly late Victorian Neo-Jacobean architecture on a grand engineering scale.

The total cost of £45,392 in today’s value (2018) would be £5,628,608.

The new Centre of Contemporary Art, CCA, has been created in what was the hugely impressive water pumping and water tank plant that provided thousands of gallons of water for two huge swimming pools, a smaller third one, and all the washhouse and slipper bathing facilities.


Original late 19th century floor. Image: Tim Crook

What is not readily understood in the early twenty first century, where new houses are usually constructed with several flushing toilets and two or three baths and ensuite bathrooms, is that at the end of the 19th and early 20th century more homes were without bathrooms than with.

Urban Poverty and the struggle to improve sanitation

Between 1898 and 1916 several thousand households in Deptford were one room only homes with full family occupancy.

Laurie Grove Baths were a vital public and municipal facility that enabled mainly working class and lower middle class people to have a bath once a week and to wash their clothes.

It was a tradition for all classes in Great Britain to bathe only one time a week or even less; a social habit that continued well into the 1960s and 70s.

Putting it crudely people were dirty and smelly, and this was not always necessarily true of the working-classes where pride would mean that overcrowded homes were much more vigorously scrubbed.

In 1926, the year of the General Strike, notices were put up in the baths imploring ‘Deptford bathers […] to have a hot shower before entering the swimming pool to keep the water clean for longer periods.’

The ‘Slipper Bath’ was something you would pay for. The current Laurie Grove Baths have preserved one such bath in all its glory, though when I visited the taps did not turn and the water was not flowing.

Goldsmiths has preserved one of the original ‘slipper baths.’ Image: Tim Crook

The degree of poverty in this part of inner London was agonisingly awful, though the Baths and Washhouse complex made a massive contribution to the improvement in public health.

It was a time when infectious diseases were still the scourge of everyday life and were often fatal.

Here is a record from 1907-8 of the common lodging houses that operated as hostels for mainly homeless people.

They were effectively hostels for single homeless people. The Laurie Grove Baths and Washhouse was the kind of place where they could bathe and clean their clothes. Image: Tim Crook.

The public Bath and Washhouse was a place where people in the depths of poverty and destitution could rescue some of their dignity, and indeed it became traditional for homeless single people to go to the Washhouse to have their last and final bath.

Stained glass and brass fittings- a people’s style palace mixing symbols of municipal splendour with the ecclesiastical. Image Tim Crook.

This may or may not account for the supernatural myth of there being a ghost called ‘Charlie’ who haunted the Laurie Grove Baths at night and weekends.

Death and tragedy would take place in the building in other ways. One diver misjudged the pool’s depth in 1952 when jumping from a high board and suffered a fatal fractured skull. There were the inevitable drowning incidents.

The Kent springs and water supply

The new Goldsmiths CCA. Image: Tim Crook. Appreciating Victorian industrial functionalism.

The new Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art Gallery has built its design heavily around the concept of the restoration of the original Victorian water tanks and tower complex that drew a massive fresh water supply from an Artesian well on the site.

This part of London was in the County of Kent during the 19th century and at the time of the original baths’ construction.

Kent Water Works operated in the area supplying 9 to 11 million gallons daily through steam power and drawing the supplies from rivers, wells and springs across 120 square miles.

The quality of the local water was such that it was the fountain of the Kent Mineral Waters Company whose business premises in the 19th century were situated in Dixon Road, adjacent to the then Royal Naval School. It’s the same site as the present College library, Warmington Tower, and the Education and student union buildings.

New gallery incorporates an impressive original water tower feature. Image: Tim Crook.

In 1883 Nathan Dews wrote: ‘The superiority of the Non – Intoxicating Drinks manufactured by this firm is, in a great measure due to the purity of the water supplied by the Kent Water Works Company, from their deep artesian wells, so highly spoken of by Professor Frankland, D.C.L., F.R.S.’

Surviving glass bottles bearing the Kent Mineral Waters Company name are occasionally and literally unearthed by diggers and collectors.

When the baths opened, as was traditional during this period of British social history, men and women had different entrances and gender segregated swimming baths.

Mixed bathing in public pools only began in Britain from around 1931 and then this was restricted to specific times. Dulwich Public Baths introduced a regime of mixed pools from 1946.

It’s not at present known when specifically men and women could ignore the gendered conduits to the two entrances, though it’s understood this happened post Second World War.

Men’s entrance. Image: Tim Crook

Women’s entrance. Image: Tim Crook

By this time Goldsmiths students and staff began to use the baths regularly because their own art nouveau pool had burnt down as the result of Luftwaffe action.

Alumni interviewed for the Goldsmiths History project have described that it was ‘a great way to make friends during the 1960s.’ Warden Richard Hoggatt, after whom the main building has been named, was a regular swimmer when he was living in New Cross.

It’s not known whether ambitious academics decided to take up swimming in order to catch his ear while he was breast stroking his exercise in the morning.

Goldsmiths’ College swimming pool constructed in 1891 when the Goldsmiths Company established the Recreative and Technical Institute. It was destroyed by enemy action in 1945.

So what was on offer at the Laurie Groves Baths and Washhouse at the time of the Battle of the Somme in 1916? A class system certainly. And the clearest discrimination against women in terms of time and access during the week.

If you were suitable and wealthy enough for the First Class pool it would cost you three times as much as the Second Class pool.

Page from Deptford Borough Council Yearbook for 1916.

Women had access only on Mondays and Tuesdays and then it was either the first class or the second class pool.

The statistics for the year 1907-8 confirm that well over a thousand adults and ‘scholars’ were using the pools and bathing/washing facilities every week. Nearly 106,000 paying customers throughout the year for all services.

That was roughly the population of Deptford at the time.

Some of the services and their charges do appear rather perplexing. The fact that there is no change in the price for a cold or hot first class bath. But a cold second class bath is 50% cheaper.

By 1961-62, the Borough Council’s Year Book revealed that about fifty years on the price of bathing and washing had not increased very substantially being nine old pennies- only three more pence than the first class charge of 1907-8.

And by 1961-2, the class division had disappeared. Equality, however, did require a contribution to the cost of a towel, soap and bath cube, all adding an extra nine old pence to the charge.

There was mixed bathing with men and women having equal access to gendered facility use if they wanted it, though the ‘men only’ option was consigned to the third ‘small bath’ situated in the basement area.

The Laurie Grove bathing and washing regime by 1961-62.

As previously Laurie Grove Baths had a summer and winter season.

These ran May to September and October to April.

It was during the winter season that the large bath was covered and used as ‘the Borough Hall.’

On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays it became an indoor bowling rink.

Culture and Politics

Much has been written about the cultural cachet of the Laurie Grove Hall as an entertainment centre. Jerry Lee Lewis playing a set in 1964, the Who doing a gig when it was on the Rock circuit, great bands of the 1930s playing regular Saturday night jazz.

South London’s Afro-Caribbean community felt safe, wanted and not turned away at Laurie Grove Hall; particularly through the 1960s and 70s, a time of racist violence and support for the National Front in Deptford and Lewisham.

Glass apex ceiling interior. Image: Tim Crook.

Limbo-dancing competitions were hugely popular. Local newspaper reports reference the baths for Water Polo competition, diving exhibitions and novelty races.

Women competitors swimming in pyjamas drew ‘a large number of entries’ in 1932.

In the 1970s professional wrestling from Laurie Grove was often shown on ITV sports with the famous Mick McManus top of the bill.

Mick was known also to frequent the nearby New Cross Inn.

He was born and brought up in New Cross and after the Second World War established his reputation as ‘The Man You Love to Hate’,  and ‘Rugged South London Tough Guy.’

He played up his apparent Achilles heel with his catchphrase ‘Not the ears, not the ears.’

The big pools also hosted boxing fights and benefits; particularly for widows left on their own after veterans of the Great War succumbed to war wounds and the lasting effects of mustard gas.

Politics and entertainment often went together.

Glass apex ceiling exterior. Image: Tim Crook.

In 1927 one of the first national woman trade union organisers, Mary Carlin, was reported to have said: ‘The Men will wake up like Rip Man Winkle in about 20 years’ time and find that their wives have displaced them in the labour market because they had been too slow to protect themselves against undercutting by refusing to work with unorganised women.’

She was speaking at a concert in Laurie Grove Hall raising money for the Transport and General Workers’ Union convalescent home.

In the early 1930s hunger marchers from Kent would be given accommodation and hospitality in the Baths under the auspices of local Labour Party activist and first woman Mayor of Deptford, Beatrice Maud Drapper.

The Town Hall and the Baths

The plan to build a new Town Hall in Deptford developed at the turn of the century.

The land originally bought for the baths and washhouse complex from the Christ’s Hospital Trust and Clothworkers’ Company in 1893 for £7,000 extended out to the New Cross Road and the Town Hall project conveniently paid back £4,300 of the original loan.

The brand new Deptford Town Hall only two years after its completion in 1907. Note the large door on the right for the new Motor vehicles.

The Centre for Contemporary Art has made imaginative use of the huge metal piping that drove the steam-powered machinery pumping Artesian well water up into the water towers.

It also had to heat the slipper baths and shower-cubicles, and mix the disinfecting chlorine with the water for the three pools.

The view of the driveway for the Town Hall from the water heating and pumping buildings shows how interconnected the baths were with Deptford’s administrative headquarters and centre for local democracy.

Only a stone’s throw away councillors in 1910 debated the problem of a crime-wave of thefts at the Baths, and its development as a centre for public meetings:

Kentish Mercury 29th July 1910

‘The Laurie Grove Baths – Alleged Robberies’

Councillor Strong further stated the baths in Laurie Grove would be ready for public meetings before Christmas. – Replying to Councillor Soper, who alleged that there had been robberies at these baths, the Town Clerk said that no complaint had been received.- Councillor Strong said that there was a book for complaints, but people did not trouble to write them down.

The future

It’s one hundred and twenty years since the Artesian well water flowed into the huge water tanks supplying Laurie Grove baths for the people of South East London.

Now it is creativity that runs deep through this remarkable building complex.

Philanthropy making the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art Gallery a reality. Image: Tim Crook.

It was largely made possible as the result of the vision of people at Goldsmiths, University of London as well as the generosity of graduates of Goldsmiths’ Art School who have been setting the agenda on what is art, and the role it should have in human society since 1891.

And this continues to be for the public as well as those enjoying all the privileges of higher education.

Except in 2018, it’s not six old pence for a hot and first class slipper bath.

The Head of the Goldsmiths’ Art Department, Richard Noble said: ‘What I wanted to do was build a space that would bring the art world to Goldsmiths.’

This project goes much further than that.

Yes, art is now coming to Goldsmiths perhaps in equal measure to the art going out.

While all this is happening the public can walk in gratis and experience art in all its complexity and beauty- freestyle.

That’s a civic spirit and democratisation that the university and local community can be proud of.

That’s So Goldsmiths– a forthcoming history of the university is being researched and written by Professor Tim Crook.

The George Wood Theatre- prayers, pageants and performances

Goldsmiths’ College staff and students from 1933 in front of the former Royal Naval School Chapel before its conversion into a theatre in 1964. Woman’s Vice Principal Caroline Graveson and then Warden Arthur Edis Dean are first and second left seated front row. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London.

The George Wood Theatre has been the site of prayers, pageants and performances since the building’s original construction as a chapel for the Royal Naval School in 1854.

Tucked away on the north west side of the College Green (formerly known as the back-field) it also served as the Royal Naval School’s biggest teaching space.

The Chapel’s Original Design

Architect’s design of Wren style chapel and floor plan. Image: Lewisham local archives.

The illustration above is from the special fund-raising brochure circulated in 1852 to accrue the budget for the building from donations.

The target for the ‘Chapel Building Fund’ was £3,000 which in 2018 would have a purchasing power of £406,767.36.

The floor design accurately shows the architecture of the interior that remained the same until the early 1960s prior to its conversion for professional theatre production.

The circular seating maximised the capacity for the 400 pupils for whom the original main building was constructed along with all the ‘servants and officers.’

The brochure said that ‘open seats are provided for the pupils, slightly radiating to the Pulpit, Desk, and Communion Table to the East, so as to afford perfect inspection.’

This aspect was situated on the spur of the building which later became the entrance to the theatre.

Restored Chapel 2018. Image: Tim Crook

The chapel appears to have had a gallery as a staircase is indicated in the plan along with a covered walkway to the infirmary which is now where the Music department is situated.

The view from the playing field was designed to be ‘ornamental and appropriate.’

In 1852 the biggest donor had been Vice-Admiral William Bowles CB with £1,000 followed by a Captain Gladstone with £110.

Bowles had seen action during the Napoleonic wars and served as aide-de-camp to King William IV.

He was MP for the Cornish town of Launceston and his late wife had been the sister of the two times Prime Minister Viscount Henry Palmerston.

The brochure also explained that the ‘primary object of this school is to board and educate the sons of Naval and Marine officers at the least possible expense, and to admit a limited number gratuitously, or on a very reduced payment, preference being given to the Orphans of those who have fallen in the Country’s service.’

The former chapel and lecture room in 1907 during sports day. The magnificent tower was knocked down by an out of control barrage balloon in 1939. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London.

Royal Naval School Chapel

It was even used for drama during the 19th century when the naval cadets put on a traditional Christmas play every year.

So much of its religious symbolism and furniture has been stripped away and lost to history.

This includes the velvet altar cloth, communion chairs, cushions, the stained glass, the massive silver alma dish inscribed with the words:

Produced for the use of the Chapel of the Royal Naval School by several former pupils, as an offering of gratitude, for benefits derived from the Institution.

Also lost are the tablets and commemorations to former cadet pupils who died on active service.

The spectacular marble monument to six men who suffered violent and terrible deaths during the Crimean War is now on the wall of the vestibule of the Royal Naval Hospital Chapel in Greenwich.

Illustrated London News 1858.

It is situated behind a bench and visitors would have no idea that the names of the fallen had been educated in the current Richard Hoggart main building in New Cross.

The monument to fallen heroes of the Crimean War now accommodated in the vestibule of the naval chapel in Greenwich. Image: Tim Crook.


Also long lost to history and probably obliterated into brick dust, is the special tablet sponsored by Major-General Sir Henry Floyd.

His son died on active service on HMS Marlborough at Gibraltar.

In 1860 he had erected a tablet giving testimony to the advantages his son ‘had received from the Royal Naval School and as a memorial to the high character he had obtained in the service.’

The Chapel was often used for annual prize-giving.

The most spectacular occasion was 1871 when Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, presented the awards.

So appropriate when his father, Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert, had laid the large slate foundation stone for the school in 1843, which has been preserved to this day and is such an impressive part of the entrance to the main building.

The Chapel was adorned with flowers and evergreens with a banner over the entrance exclaiming ‘Welcome to Prince Alfred.’

He told the cadet pupils about the close interest that his mother Queen Victoria took ‘in the Royal Naval School and the importance that my father attached to it.’

Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh giving out prizes at the Royal Naval School, New Cross in 1871. Illustrated London News.

The Chapel rang out with cheers as he said how much he looked forward to meeting the boys later on in Royal Naval Service.

He was a serving Royal Naval captain himself.

Prince Alfred was still recovering from a bullet wound received in an assassination attempt in Sydney while on the first ever Royal tour to Australia three years before.

In later life he would succeed to his father’s princedom of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

He had to endure the tragedy of his older son, Albert, dying before him from gunshot wounds inflicted in a suicide attempt after becoming embroiled in a scandal involving his mistress in January 1899.

Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and later Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Public domain Creative Commons.

Alfred died a few months later from throat cancer leaving his mother Queen Victoria with the grief and agony of outliving husband, son and grandson.

The Royal Naval School was not just an elite military school producing naval and army officers to expand and control the British Empire, and suppress rebellion.

In its own way it was an educational conduit for social mobility.

The school had been established to give opportunity to the orphans of Royal Naval officers and those from more challenging economic circumstances.

It operated as a philanthropic project and depended for its survival on grants, bequests and subsidies; many of them coming from the Royal Family.

One of the school’s famous graduates was the great Shakespearean actor Sir Ben Greet- born in HMS Vulture when moored on the Thames opposite the Tower of London.

Sir Ben founded Open Air Theatre in Britain and was knighted by King George V for making Shakespeare popular and accessible in modern education.

Sports day 1908 showing the former chapel with its distinctive pre WWII tower to the left. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London.

The Chapel was deconsecrated following the School’s move to Eltham in 1889.

And so it lost its ecclesiastical purpose.

Goldsmiths’ teaching and performance space 1891-1964

It became more important as a big lecture and performance space for the Goldsmiths Technical and Recreative Institute in 1891 and then Goldsmiths’ College, University of London from 1904.

Seating of the converted Royal Naval School Chapel used as a large lecture theatre in 1910. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London.

A photograph in the City of London Metropolitan Archives from 1912 shows a small orchestra being conducted with musicians playing classical instruments. The interior still has the appearance of a methodist or non-conformist chapel.

Its distinctive tower, which apparently contained the graffiti of Royal Naval School cadets scratching in their names and initials into plaster, was knocked down by a runaway barrage balloon in 1939, and never fully reconstructed.

After the Second World War it became the focus of the developing subject of performance and drama in teaching.

In the early 1960s Goldsmiths College alumna and distinguished journalist and novelist Val Hennessy recalled for the history project how much fun it was rehearsing in the old Chapel that was used as their theatre space: ‘We sat on the floor, or on those wooden block things; the chapel was hellishly dusty, and full of old chairs and pews stacked up. Very cold too, but we loved it.’

She remembered being involved in a successful production of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus that had so much local cultural resonance given the playwright’s killing in a nearby Deptford Inn centuries before.

The distinctly Wren style Chapel interior leant itself to theatrical improvisation and production through the use of curtains and the eccentric circular and tiered seating.

In 1964 the chapel was fully converted into a purpose-built interior theatre space for the expanding and increasingly popular drama and performance teaching courses.

Theatre 1964- to present day

Its walls and stage have echoed to the full range of classical and modern theatrical production.

South facing spur of the Chapel

These examples, randomly selected from the history of production by students in Drama and Performance and collaborating artists, give some idea of the intensity, power, passion, and richness of the work shown in the George Wood Theatre space. To do justice to the full programme would take up hundreds of lines of online text and space.

March 1979. Double-bill of two full length plays Female Transport by Steve Gooch and the Greek classic Ecclesiazusae.

February 1980. Meet Mr Macready by Frank Barrie (married to the then Senior Assistant Registrar Mary Barrie.)

March 1981. The Dog Beneath The Skin by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

June 1982. When We Dead Awaken by Henrik Ibsen and Plenty by David Hare.

George Wood Theatre 1980s to 2017. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London.

June 1983. Too True To Be Good by George Bernard Shaw.

March 1985. Die Driegroschenoper (in German) by Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill (music).

May 1985. Workshop by Sir Ian McKellen, then playing the title role of Coriolanus in a National Theatre Shakespeare production.

June 1985. The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton and Top Girls by Caryl Churchill having been toured during the Easter Vacation to universities in Budapest and East Berlin (at that time both behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.)

February 1986. Annie Wobbler by Arnold Wesker- a reading of his own play.

Restored buildings 2018. Image: Tim Crook.

March 1986. Kathchen Von Heilbronn by Heinrich von Kleist performed in German.

May 1986. Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett performed by Max Wall and a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, rehearsed at Goldsmiths’ prior to national tour.

October 1989. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare.

March 1990. Translations by Brian Friel.

May 1991. Betrayal by Harold Pinter. A Centenary production (Commemorating 100 years of Goldsmiths’ College history).

October 1991. The Rover by Aphra Behn.

Aphra Behn. Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Public Domain Creative Commons.

May 1994.  To by Jim Cartwright.

May 1996. Hindemtth’s one-act expressionist opera Sancta Susanna.

August 2003. Urban Tales: An Adventure in Hip Hop by Second Wave- a youth arts centre in Deptford with Goldsmiths College and a cast of performers aged between 15 and 24.

Political Debate on the Arts

The foyer was refurbished and the theatre modernised in 1978 when it was named after the College’s over-worked, much-loved and eccentric Registrar George Wood.

The then Director of the National Theatre, Sir Peter Hall, gave a lecture on 30th November of that year entitled: ‘The Theatre in its Place.’

He discussed the influence of buildings on the development of theatre from Shakespeare, writing for two to three thousand people in an open theatre, to the fashion at that time for fringe theatre operating in cellars and disused warehouses.

Sir Peter said his argument was ‘a corrective’- an attempt to redress the balance a little at a time when it was fashionable to decry buildings and the effect they had on theatre people.

The rebuilt foyer included the new plaque naming the theatre in memory of George Wood, and visitors included members of his family and the Chairman of the Arts Council, as well as the architect responsible for converting the theatre from its original chapel interior in 1964.

Restored ceiling with theatre’s new lighting gantry. Image: Tim Crook

May 1981. Melvyn Bragg, the broadcaster and novelist, presented the Dean Memoirial Lecture on the subject of ‘Television and Literature: Confluences and Contradictions’ organised by the Goldsmiths’ College Association.

April 1984. High noon challenge to Arts Council cuts. The then college Warden, Richard Hoggart, took up a challenge to debate heavy cuts in theatre grants he had been responsible for in his role at the Arts Council. 46 arts organisations had received the chop. The Stage newspaper described the confrontation as a case of ‘High Noon at Goldsmiths’ College.’ Richard Hoggart was joined by fellow Arts Council boss Sir Roy Shaw.  The paper reported that Goldsmiths student Beth Wagstaff had been organising a campaign of picketing of Hoggart’s Goldsmiths’ lectures in protest against the economies that included the National Youth Theatre.

Who was George Wood?

George Wood was College Registrar from 1958 to his death in 1977. A.E. Firth, Deputy Warden and author of Goldsmiths’ College: A Centenary Account, said:

He overworked constantly, took no exercise and very few holidays, and found it difficult to delegate authority. He did not maintain much in the way of a filing system, apart from those papers he took home each night in four bulging briefcases. There were occasions, after his sadly early death, when the College was surprised by the appearance of awkward documents, relating to contracts of employment, conveyances and the like, of which it had no record.

Warden Richard Hoggart remembered him as somebody who could get things done that nobody thought was possible. His ‘creative untidiness’ overwhelmed seemingly unavoidable obstacles. He was brilliant at external relations and able to secure deals with local, regional and national government for schemes and funding that were all to Goldsmiths’ benefit. And he was ‘a quite exceptionally nice man.’

The new theatre’s raked seating and light gantry 2018. Image: Tim Crook.

Peter Brindley in adult education recalled George Wood’s enthusiasm:

…for purchasing or renting houses across the road for the College, or in the surrounding terraces. He was rather like a keen Monopoly player: if he got three houses together on the board we could have a Sociology Department.

Another former Warden, Sir Ross Chesterman, confirmed that George Wood was a workaholic with an interest and absorption in his work for the College at a ‘total’ level of commitment:

George was a scientist like myself, and had an extremely clear and quick mind, especially in the early days before his first heart attack. He introduced a most effective and foolproof system of filing records of all kinds, which saved us hours of work and gave great efficiency.

But of all his contributions which helped me most, it was his personal support during the student troubles (1960s), when he would stand at my elbow, as it were, and clearly and quickly would suggest in a few words how each question from the floor should be answered. I am certain that trouble-makers at these student meetings must have felt disheartened in never being able to penetrate our defences.

Sir Michael Caine workshop 1994

Goldsmiths has conferred honorary fellowships on key figures in the history of contemporary drama including Sir Richard Eyre and Sir Michael Caine. They were both knighted after getting their Goldsmiths awards.

In December 1994 Michael Caine, as he then was, decided to do an actor’s discussion and workshop in the George Wood Theatre after accepting his honorary degree.  He said:

In ten years time, I will be 71. I will be going to the movies at 12 o’clock to get in for half price. In ten years time, I will still be working because I cannot not work!

This is certainly the case more than 20 years after Sir Michael was at Goldsmiths.

He was asked this remarkable question by one of the drama students and it elicited a quite remarkable answer:

Many successful actors whose work lies primarily in film and television see it as being similar to the relationship with their wife or husband, and work in the theatre as similar to their relationship to a lover or mistress. Have you thought about taking, or are you planning to take, a mistress? (Sir Michael’s wife Shakira who was in the audience was seen to find the question most amusing.)

I spent time in the theatre, I was 11 years in the theatre, Then I went into movies, and I have been there for 30 years. I never went back to theatre. I also did television. Someone asked me what the difference was between the three. I see that the theatre was a woman who you loved very much and did not care for you, and treated you like dirt; film was a woman who loved you very much and no matter what you did to her, she still came running back; and television was a one-night stand.

The future

In 2018 it will be re-opened after a 21st century redevelopment as a multiple-purpose theatre space funded to the extent of £2.9 million.

Architect’s plan for new multiple and flexible studio spaces in the George Wood Theatre 2018. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London.

Some of its original features were revealed when decades of panelling was stripped away to reveal the  original design and brick-work of the architect John Nash Junior who designed what is now the Richard Hoggart main building first built in 1844.

Artist’s impression of the new interior to be unveiled for opening in autumn 2018. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London.


The renovation space will provide the College with a contemporary theatre seating up to 200 people and two new studio spaces fit for 21st century creative practice.

Many thanks to Rory O’Connell for additional research at the Lewisham Archives Centre. 

That’s So Goldsmiths– a forthcoming history of the university is being researched and written by Professor Tim Crook.