The Marine is right on the seafront in beautiful Lyme Regis, part of a UNESCO world heritage site. The location—with wide views of the sea and Lyme bay—is very important to the Marine’s identity, which makes it appealing to both the public and performers.
While it’s called a theatre, the offering is broad: there’s a vibrant programme of entertainment including bands, films, comedians, plays, screenings, and community-led events. The Marine has become recognised regionally as a vital arts centre, distinguished through eclectic programming. It’s a destination for performers from across the country. Our events also feature local figures from the arts, as cultural practice in the community is celebrated.
Almost every time a performer comes on stage, they tell the crowd that we have the dressing room with the best view in the world. We laugh, but because we’ve heard it many times before!
The Marine is 125 years old – but has been called the Drill Hall, the Drill Hall Theatre, the Marine Theatre and a Cinema. Before 1894 the site was used as baths—part of the building still exists, in particular as our dressing rooms
The original building was a sea water baths, opened in 1806 by Giles Davies. It pumped water directly from the ocean below. The baths and the fashionable reading room were a busy meeting place for visitors and locals alike. Part of the original baths is the pump-house, which now makes-up one of our dressing rooms.
Sea water was a popular cure for ailments, but the healing powers of these baths was said to go beyond the doctor’s prescription. In 1890 the Dorset County Chronicle reported that ‘a saline spring has been lately discovered at Haye’s Hot & Cold sea baths (formerly known as Jefferd’s baths) which seems to possess extraordinary healing powers’. The claim went that a ‘highly respectable trademan’ had been cured by these miraculous waters.
The baths fell into disuse.
In 1893 T E D Philpot bought the site and paid to build a Drill Hall—a place for soldiers to practice and perform military drill. It was also a hall for performances used by the community. Philpot was a Lieutenant of the Volunteers, who played an important part in the town’s life—their band played at civic events. Drill halls were built from the 1880s following reform in the army. The idea was to link regiments with the counties where they recruited. Their previous premises were in Combe Street. George Vialls designed a wooden drill hall with slate roof, for army Volunteers. It was built by a builder and ironmonger called George Ernest Randall at a cost of £1053 and leased to the volunteer artillery for 23 years by Philpot. It had a turret in the South West corner and was gas lit.
‘Vialls appears to have removed a great deal of the bath building and created a ‘picturesque’ style entrance with turret and pedimented dormer windows, with a timber-framed hall behind, measuring 72 by 44 feet. It seated ‘from five to six hundred people’ and was paved with brick.’ (this is from Max Hebditch’s unpublished paper on Vialls). He also designed and refitted the Guildhall and Museum nearby. ‘Zacchary Edwards presented the shooting prizes as Mayor, and there was a concert in the evening. A year later Philpot built a new entrance on the street to the path leading to Drill Hall with residence for the sergeant major, now called Guildhall Cottage and the Town Council offices’ (Hebditch).
On 29 March 1894 the new drill hall was opened by Col Robert Williams of the 1st Volunteer Battalion, who was also the Unionist parliamentary candidate for West Dorset. There was a parade through the town under Captain JRC Talbot, the battery commander.
On 30 March 1894 The Bridport News described the old baths as ‘dilapidated and disreputable looking old ruin’. Paid for by a local benefactor this was a training facility for local soldiers and artillery men, but included the stage and many of the features you see in the theatre today. Drill halls were used for many purposes at this time—balls music, and plays.
This picture is of the Volunteers in 1896; Fred Britton recalled the people in this photograph in 1978 (his father took over the Drill Hall in 1897). Details of all the people in the photo are available on the photo on the right (courtesy of Lyme Regis Museum). People in this image include Sidney Warren (landlord of the Pilot Boat), Willie Brown (the Town Crier), and Will Emmett, who later on was the mayor of the town and advertised the theatre to rent (see further on for an image of this advert).
The picture below of the drill hall in 1903, featuring Sergeant Britton and a training gun. The beams behind the gun are still visible in the theatre today.
In 1895 Lyme Regis Musical and Literary Soc had monthly entertainment here.
The Drill Hall was used as resting place for the coffins of the men lost in the HMS Formidable disaster in 1915 during The Great War—a war ship that sank in the Lyme Bay.
The Hall was rented out by WJ Emmett to put on professional performances in 1920 (600 people could watch performances in those days). Will Emmett is seen in the 1896 photo of the military volunteers as a younger man above.
After World War One the building became The Drill Hall Theatre.
In the 1930s it became the Marine Cinema. It was used for entertaining visiting naval ships, HMS Rodney in 1930, and Destroyers HMS Vidette and HMS Westcott in July 1932.
The large tower on the front sea side corner was removed and the front of the building started to look at lot more like the theatre you see today. In the 1930s the front of the building was rendered and painted white.
During World War Two the Marine Cinema was used as an American forces canteen and hosted performances from the likes of James Cagney, who brought with him American heavyweight boxing legend Joe Louis.
In 1946 Lyme Regis Council took a lease on the theatre (referred to as the Marine Theatre) and in 1950 Lyme Regis Council transferred the Marine Theatre licence to Mr Sinfield, when it was used by professional companies for summer seasons. There was an advert saying ‘Theatre for rent from Town Council, seating approx 350’ in 1955. In these days the Marine was a theatre—with the current upstairs bar the upper circle.
In 1960 the Lyme Regis Town Council bought the building, and it reopened in 1962 as the Marine Theatre following renovations included new dressing rooms and improved auditorium. The Marine theatre and restaurant was let by the Lyme Regis Council to Ronal Govey and his repertory company.
With the renovations and the advance of television, the 60s saw the Marine return to a wider programme of entertainment. London promoter Bob Alexander held his ‘Big Beat’ nights every Saturday with appearances from bands such as The Troggs, Fleetwood Mac and Status Quo. Other acts that played here included The Searchers, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Geno Washington, and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich.
Bob Alexander also brought jazz acts such as Acker Bilk, Chris Barber and Kenny Ball.
As the decades rolled on, so the list of national and international stars who had visited the Marine Theatre grew.
A variety show was staged at the Marine Theatre commemorating the 1,200th Anniversary of the Dorset Holiday resort. Philip Evans organised the show in 1974.
In 2001 the people of Lyme Regis voted by referendum, run by the council, for a charitable trust to take over the Marine Theatre.
In the accompanying literature Arthur Askey, Jimmy Cagney, George Melly, Rodney Bewes and Danny La Rue are quoted as having performed here.
In 2003 the Marine was handed over to the Lyme Arts Community Trust, which has run it since. The future of this unique venue—with its incredible views and rich history—is very exciting.
Come along to a performance and continue to enjoy this piece of Lyme history.