The Eric Tolhurst Centre

The building was originally owned by a Mr J Grantham, a Blyth business man, and was known as the Assembly Rooms. The building has been used for many different purposes and has had many different names. It has been utilised for entertainment, political meetings, religious meetings, social functions, dancing (including an annual masquerade ball held by Blyth tradesmen), sales room, factory, and shipbuilder’s draughting office, gymnasium, youth training schemes and most recently as the Eric Tolhurst Centre, accommodating many voluntary and educational organisations.

Many well-known politicians, including Cabinet Ministers of the time, have spoken there, and one of the religious meetings was addressed by General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, in April 1901.

In the early 1900s the building was best known as a venue of entertainment, for which it was known as West’s Picture Palace, and the Gaiety Theatre of Varieties. The programme included stage turns and motion pictures by what was then known as the bioscope. Price of admission was 3d (1½p).

Following the death of Mr. Grantham in 1910, the building was bought by Mr. J Cooknell, a Blyth business man who owned a small clothing factory and shop in the town. During the First World War, the roof of the building was blown off and later repaired. Following the death of Mr. Cooknell in 1918, the property was left to his widow and later to his two surviving sons, Norman and Walter.

During the Second World War, a mine meant for shipping in the nearby harbour landed in Back Ballast Hill and again the roof was blown off. After the war (circa 1947) building materials were in short supply and special permits from the government were needed to obtain the strong roofing supports and coverings, the job was further complicated by the fact that the building is not rectangular, but narrows towards the river side. The work was carried out by the Cooknell brothers themselves, who then used the premises for the manufacture of plastic tableware and parts for televisions.

In 1961 a severe fire caused considerable damage to the building, however, because of the strong metal roof supports installed in the 1940s, repairs to the property were not too difficult and the business was resumed.

In 1969 the building was sold to Mr. E Taylor who manufactured greenhouse equipment. Shortly after this the premises were sold to Blyth Valley Council who used it as a training centre for young people who had recently left school without employment.

Text and research by Gordon Young (a descendant of J Cooknell).
Photo from Blyth Local Studies Group from their Blyth News negatives.