National Centre for Folk Arts

As Bill Rutter, who became the driving force behind the venture, was to write later, Frances Gair Miller, nee Wilkinson, was the society’s greatest benefactor. Similarly tribute must be paid to Marjorie Hunt whose imagination inspired the ultimate purchase of the manor. The support, also, that came from all over the country must be applauded as a real act of faith. There would be no Folk Arts centre without them.

The Society was incorporated in May 1965, its purpose to promote and preserve traditional English folk dance, music and song and to operate the manor as a residential centre to that end. It was limited to 250 members who had also to be members of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (a condition that has since been rescinded). The original Council of Management included prominent active members of the English Folk Dance and Song Society both in the Southwest and nationally. Mr P. W. (Gay) Gayler, another active folk enthusiast, was elected chairman and Mr W. A. (Bill) Rutter was appointed Company Secretary. Their wives, Hilda Gayler and Terry Rutter, were equally active and supportive, as were Mr Geoff and Mrs Bessie Rye who with Mrs M. Bradbury, Dr L. Luckwill and Mr. F. C. B. Fleetwood Hesketh were signatories to the original incorporation.

Donald and Marjorie Hunt were appointed wardens, a position they held for the next seven years, to be succeeded by David Whewell who died three years later. Ruth Cavill, a council member and one time assistant to the Hunts at the manor, relinquishing her council membership, served as manager until 1981. Bruce Green was manager until 1988 and a series of short term management periods followed. Malcolm Bowman, a retired businessman, gave up his membership of Halsway Manor Council and took up the post in 1992, the combination of his management skills and folk enthusiasm laying a foundation for the Society’s continuing success.

In the early days as a folk centre activities at the manor ran on a cost covering participatory basis, assistance with some domestic chores being considered an enjoyable part of the event. Day and weekend courses were organised by the Society or by individual groups from around the country; dances and concerts were held and used as a weekly venue for local clubs; social dance, morris and sword dance and other traditional activities. Summer holiday weeks and Christmas, New Year, Easter and Bank Holiday House Parties took place during each year. This pattern of activity has continued for nearly thirty years although many factors, especially financial, have made a more formal and controlled management structure necessary.

Folk activities alone, even with the generous fund-raising support of the Friends of Halsway, would not have provided sufficient income. It was necessary to generate income from weekday lettings to commercial and other institutions for seminars and conferences. These organisations expect a good standard of catering and accommodation, a demand which has been echoed increasingly over the years by the folk participants. Considerable expense is needed for the upkeep of this historic building and the drastic rise in costs generally coupled with government regulations concerning the health and safety of staff and patrons make a steady charge on income.

In 1982 the Mews was offered to the Society by Miss Twigg and Miss Anna Bennington, the other remaining occupant. Once again with the issue of debentures and countrywide support the purchase was made. Increased accommodation, though welcome, has also led to an increase in responsibilities.

It is a tribute to the many people who have supported the manor during the last sixty five years that we have been able to meet these challenges without losing sight of the aims of the Society. A separate trading company has been formed to run the manor and all profits are covenanted to the Society thus satisfying the requirements of the Inland Revenue. What was once a communal hostel now can claim as high a standard of service as any small hotel and Halsway Manor, as the only residential folk centre in Britain, stands as a surety that traditional English folk dance music and song remains a living part of our national heritage.

The society now employs over 300 artists to fill 350 days a year of folk activity. The charity is financially self supporting and ploughs its profits into caring for and upgrading the property and creative learning work with communities and young people to ensure the future of folk arts in England.

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