St Mary-in-the-Castle, the Grade-II*-listed structure built as a church in the 1820s in neo-classical style as the grand architectural centrepiece of Pelham Crescent beneath West Hill, remains one of Hastings’ primary concert and entertainment venues. It will host a full calendar of show events in the weeks leading up to Christmas:  a murder mystery evening; a burlesque, drag and comedy entertainment; soul music and zumba parties; a carol concert; and a charity fundraiser hosted by Miriam Margolyes. But there are cracks showing – not only in its fabric, suffering from cold and damp as its heating boiler has failed, but also in relationships between its own supporters.

PIC: Dave Young

The venue is owned by Hastings Borough Council (HBC) but is operated by a charitable company limited by guarantee (St Mary in the Castle Charitable Trust). The constitutional objects of this trust are “to promote the public appreciation and advance the education of the public in the performing arts, the creative arts and the visual arts, and in the furtherance of these objects to provide, maintain and manage St-Mary-in-the-Castle”. Its trustee directors, headed currently by HBC councillor Judy Rogers, provide their supervisory services unremunerated.  However, it seems that they have had an increasingly spiky relationship with another charitable group, St-Mary-in-the-Castle Friends (SMICF), whose members include secretary Ron Sollars, also until last year a trustee director of the operating company, and chairperson Barbara Rogers, formerly St Mary’s bookings manager. 

SMICF was formed to save the building from closure 15 years ago and has, over the years since then, raised significant funds to help maintain the venue. But last Saturday, in a special meeting convened at the Opus Theatre, its members voted unanimously to dissolve the group. 

Out of the surplus balance in SMICF’s bank account, £5,000 was agreed to be paid to St Mary-in-the-Castle to honour a pledge to contribute to the cost of repairs to lighting equipment there. The rest of the surplus was diverted away for sharing between other local charitable causes: the fund aimed at re-opening the Isabel Blackman Centre in Hastings Old Town will receive £2,250; His Place Community Church (which houses the Opus Theatre) will receive £1,800 towards its repairs fund; and £450 will be given to Gizmo, a children’s performance arts charity in St Leonards. There may be a further small surplus to be distributed on formal winding up of the group in mid-January. If so, it will be divided up pro rata between the same donees.

The Friends had suffered what Mr Sollars described as “rapidly declining membership”. Their last potential fund-raising initiative, a jazz breakfast at St Mary in October, made a significant loss. But, more fundamentally, Mr Sollars reported to his members that “the current Trustees do not appreciate our experience and knowledge”. Recent approaches to Cllr Rogers had not been responded to. Treasurer Michela Morley commented: “We’ve been frozen out despite providing contributions for 15 years. Now we don’t have a role”. The committee had accepted “with regret” that it was time to wind up. The members voted accordingly.

But it is not only the Friends who feel cold-shouldered. A number of unpaid volunteers who assist at the box-office reception and in marshalling the auditorium say they are also feeling under-valued. The failure of the boiler over an 18-month period has left them working in increasing cold. Car parking is also an issue. There were until recently ten parking permits available to volunteers. This allocation has been reduced to two, while no allowance has been made for the swingeing increase in charges levied by the local councils (East Sussex County Council in respect of the main road; HBC and/or the Foreshore Trust in respect of the seafront car parks). One volunteer compared their treatment with those who provide services at the Hastings Music Festival at White Rock. There they were all offered free parking, free refreshments and an end-of-festival get-together. “I’ve seen two trustees in five years at St Mary…I feel like saying ‘Do you know who we are, because we don’t know who you are’”. 

Cllr Rogers has responded on behalf of the St Mary board: “We are sorry to hear that the Friends have decided to disband after supporting St Mary’s over many years long before the current board signed the current lease. I would like to thank them for everything that they have done and their support both currently but also in the past to previous organisations involved with the building. 

 “The heating of the building has been a concern for the board. Older buildings, particularly those that are listed, pose issues with maintenance and upkeep. However, we are delighted to report that after receiving the news earlier this year that the heating system needed major repairs costing in the region of £40,000 we have successfully raised this sum through our events and some significant donations from generous supporters, and the work will be undertaken.

 “The board are also very grateful for the support we receive from Hastings Borough Council but are aware that because of recent rises in parking fees this creates an issue for our volunteers whose support is vital to our continued success.  Unfortunately the Board are not able to pay for all of our volunteers’ parking tickets at this time.”

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