The Plough Arts Centre can be found in the heart of the community in the centre of Great Torrington (9-11 Fore Street) which is located amidst beautiful North Devon countryside (Google StreetView)
The Plough Arts Centre provides exciting opportunities for all people to experience a wide and vibrant range of high quality arts events both as audience and participants. Through creative partnerships the Plough Arts Centre is a welcoming and dynamic venue for artistic expression and education, responsive to the needs of the local community and a beacon for the arts across North Devon - visible and valued throughout the South West.
From our stunning rural setting we offer a varied and exciting programme of arts events and activities. We aim to entertain, inspire, educate and challenge in equal measure. Our packed annual programme includes film, live events, exhibitions, workshops and educational outreach for people of all ages, interests and abilities. We think we are ‘the largest arts centre in the smallest town’ and we know our positive impact is felt across the region.
The Plough celebrates 42 years as an arts centre on 11 April 2017, though the building and the site on which it stands has a much longer and equally colourful history.
Originally the town house of a wealthy merchant in the late 1500s the building boasted the work of master craftsmen including wooden panelling, an ornate strapwork plaster ceiling and a fine large iron fireback dated 1618.
From 1750 to 1910 the house became The Plough Inn under licensees William and Judith Waldon. Other licensees included Mary Cock (1830 – 51) Sam and Mary Fry (1860 – 73) The Westlakes (1875 – 81) and Frank Gerrard (1897 – 1910).
The council minutes of 1875 record that “complaints have been made of the bad state of the closets and dung pit behind the Plough premises adjoining Potacre Street. Resolved that notice be given for the daily removal of the contents and the prevention of any nuisance therefrom”
By 1910 The Plough was in a parlous state and ceased to be a public house. The final indignity was a letter from Mr Parnell of The Globe Hotel next door dated July 1911: “Sirs, If you can allow me to put a cow in the Plough premises for a week I will undertake all risks. Resolved: permission granted”. (It was this story which inspired us in 2013 to call our new charity shop 'The Plough Cow' as a reminder that the arts centre must never again become a barn for a cow!)
The pub was demolished in 1912 with many of the fine Jacobean panels incorporated into the Council chamber in the town hall and other artefacts housed in the museum.
The building we see today was completed in 1913 as a Drill Hall for the use of the Territorials and Yeomanry. In July 1914 the new Territorial Drill Hall was granted a music and dancing license. By August war had been declared and the hall became the base for the departure of soldiers to the front.
As a base for the Devonshire Regiment and the North Devon Yeomanry the building was uncompromisingly spartan with a shooting range and storage for a large 25 pound field gun. When not being used to train soldiers it was used for badminton, childrens’ parties, grand parades, jumble sales, fancy dress, coffee mornings and dances especially during the second world war when the Americans were based nearby.
The army gave up the lease in 1968 but the Drill Hall continued to be used for Cavalier bonfire dances and Christmas parties, hunt dances and the May Ball.
In 1974 the Town Council sold the lease to T.A.R.A (Torridge Arts and Recreation) and following the efforts of many people including Dr Harry Cramp, Clifford Quicke and John Lane, The Plough Arts Centre opened on 11 April 1975 with a performance by Dame Edith Evans. One of many highlights from the 1970s was a three day visit by The Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978.
From 1992 – 2002 The Plough merged with The Beaford Centre (later 'Beaford Arts') and benefited from substantial public and private grants and loans for major refurbishment and alterations to the building. These improvements enhanced the facilities, including modernisation of the theatre/cinema and film projection facilities, a new gallery space, workshop and dance studio, storage facilities, as well as improvements to the bar/café/foyer on the ground floor.
Following a period of uncertainty and a threat of closure, in 2002 The Plough was re-established as a new independent company and charity. The strength of feeling locally plus the huge support and financial commitment from the local community was instrumental in making sure The Plough survived.
Since 2002 the organic growth of The Plough has been strong under the leadership of a new democratically elected Council of Management, director, loyal members of staff, volunteers and audiences. The important part played by John Wehner (2001 - 2009), John Eeles (2009 - 2015) and most recently Elizabeth Clinch, as Chairs of The Plough's Council of Management has been vital to the successful reincarnation of the organisation. Public funding has been replaced by new lines of income generated from Supporters, Business Supporters, fundraising events, individual donations, legacies, gift aid and successful funding bids for arts projects. In 2015 over 70,000 people entered The Plough for all purposes. Turnover, including catering, increased from £85,000 in 2001/2 to £460,000 in 2008/9 and £600,000 in 2013/14 with less than 5% of the turnover now coming from core public funding.
The trend of dramatically increased audience numbers, turnover, new revenue streams and arts activities has compensated for the overall decline in public core funding. Having achieved a plateau in terms of the levels of activity possible within the existing building, The Plough has recently expanded through partnerships with other venues, arts organisations and through increased arts outreach provision.
Having achieved over 95% financial self sufficiency, The Plough Arts Centre is proud to have a strong foundation from which it can look forward positively to a dynamic and creative future. Responsive locally and valued across the region, The Plough aims to make a positive impact on the lives of all who come into contact with its arts programme.
Since 1975 (and probably 1575!) many thousands of performers, artists, workshop leaders, speakers and teachers have shared their work at The Plough. Artists of all ages, covering all artforms, from every continent have visited Great Torrington to entertain and inspire Plough audiences and participants. Long may this continue and grow.......
(Thanks to Sue Scrutton: ‘The Plough – Past and Present’ 1994)