JOHN Mowlem, the son of a struggling Purbeck quarryman, encapsulated the classic rags to riches story - so it is quite apt that his legacy was the birth of his home town theatre.

Even after carving out a fortune as a stone merchant in 19th century London, where he worked on Nelson’s tomb and St Paul’s Cathedral, John Mowlem never forgot his humble beginnings.

After moving back to Swanage for his Autumn years, he handed over the original building, where the Mowlem Theatre stands today, together with the Mowlem Institute.

It was originally intended as a literary and scientific institute and reading room for the working classes, but in time local residents started putting on live music and theatre.

Today – now enjoying charitable status and run by trustees – the Mowlem Theatre is an undoubted cornerstone of the Swanage community.

The 384-seat theatre, recently renovated at a cost of £30,000, hosted around 60 nights of live entertainment and 260 cinema screenings last year.

And the community room, boasting stunning views across the bay, is used, predominantly by Swanage residents, five-and-a-half days a week.

Clerk to the trustees, David Bale, told the Daily Echo: “Last year around 20,000 people came to the Mowlem to be entertained – and almost as many used the community room facility during the same period.”

This festive season the Mowlem hopes to attract big audiences with their Magic of Christmas production, a live show billed as a ‘superb alternative to the traditional pantomime.’ And business is good, with the box office 51 per cent up on last year and cinema receipts growing by 23 per cent.

There is even a full schedule of live theatre bookings running until June 2012.

David said: “We would love to have people travel over from Bournemouth and Poole to our lovely theatre, where seat prices are lower.

“Come and see us, come and use us. We have lots going on.”

The compact theatre, which has recently installed £3,500 of new sound and lighting equipment, has10 part-time and two dedicated full-time staff members.

David stressed: “Contrary to popular belief, we are here to stay, and we have great plans for the future. All it takes is time, money and enthusiasm.

“Everyone that works at the Mowlem, paid and unpaid alike, believe one hundred per cent in what we are doing and have the enthusiasm and the energy to make it happen.”

But a huge part of what the Mowlem stands for remains its community facilities – namely the community room.

Trustee Ian Lomax explained: “We have regular clubs and associations using the room.

“On mornings when it is not in use, it is offered to older residents and they come and meet up for coffee, biscuits and to meet other people. This is all free.

“Any club and association can hire it from as little as £15 a session and we have three sessions a day.

“There are all kinds of events,” said Ian. And as he motioned to the stunning view from the window, he added: “The community is vital to the theatre, it is the reason we are here. And find me somewhere else where you have a vista like this.”

John Mowlem, whose bust is proudly displayed in the foyer, could not have said it better.

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