On the 17th September a rare and highly prized honour was bestowed on one of Bedfordshire’s flagship drama groups when The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre Trust was awarded The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service by HM The Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, Helen Nellis. Equivalent to an MBE, it is the highest award that can be bestowed on a voluntary organisation. A truly remarkable achievement!

The award recognises the work the volunteers have undertaken to transform the former redundant, historic water mill into a thriving community theatre, for more than 40 years.  Originally awarded in June 2020, the ceremony was delayed because of the pandemic. It was one of only 230 charities and voluntary groups to receive the award that year.

Situated on the River Great Ouse in rural North Bedfordshire, records about The Mill itself date back to a mention in The Doomsday Book when it was originally referred to as Stoke Mills and was owned by Countess Judith, a niece of William The Conqueror and Hugh de Beauchamp. It was subsequently improved and updated throughout the Middle Ages and the Tudor period. Today the oldest part of the building still standing dates back to 1703. It continued as a a working mill until 1969 when more modern production methods made it economically uncompetitive, and it was closed. Acquired by the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre Trust in 1975 under the Presidency of Lord Luke it first opened its doors in 1979, after 4 years of renovations, with a production of the musical Salad Days.

Originally founded as ‘Sharnbrook and North Beds Operatic Society’ by Bill and Poppy Lilley, Bunny Marks and Betty Benson in 1943, Sharnbrook first performed at the local village hall and apart from a short spell at the Ritz in Rushden in the mid 70’s have been providing local community theatre continually ever since. 

The evening of the award itself was incredibly special, not least because it was the first time an audience had been in the auditorium since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. The atmosphere was palpable with anticipation and excitement. I’d almost forgotten what a buzz it is to sit in a live audience as, after a superb sit-down supper platter and a glass or two of liquid refreshment we were ushered into the auditorium. That alone was worth the visit! 

HM The Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, Helen Nellis then presented to Douglas Pope, Chairman of the Trust, the scroll signed by Her Majesty and the domed crystal glass to Robert Hart the most senior member with 68 years membership. In his acceptance speech, Douglas Pope paid tribute to the many volunteers who had put in all the hard work over the years, particularly the late Brian Woodrow, ‘…who inspired us to feats of fundraising we never thought possible.

After the speeches we were royally treated to an evening of entertainment hosted by Tim Jackson-Waite, with snippets of past plays and musicals and even a taste of their first post pandemic production to be performed at the end of October, Duets. I can’t emphasis how good it felt to see live theatre again and I still had a smile on my face the next day just thinking about it.

The whole ethos of Sharnbrook Mill Theatre was for me perfectly summed up in this part of Douglas Pope’s speech:

The last 18 months have been extremely difficult, certainly different in every respect and presented us with challenges never experienced before. A dark theatre without the buzz of rehearsals or performances, no music, no audience …just a very silent shell. Well actually we seized an opportunity and decided to instal air-conditioning. We also embarked on re-decorating the auditorium and refurbishing the bar and foyer with the help of volunteers. Our production, marketing, governors and fundraising teams met regularly via the wonder of Zoom to make plans for as far forward as the end of 2022. I believe this represents the spirit I was referring to earlier.’ - It does indeed Douglas!

So, my personal congratulations to Sharnbrook Mill Theatre Trust, you are a true inspiration to amateur theatre everywhere and fully deserve this award. And my personal thanks for a superbly well organised and presented evening. 

For a full account of the evening please visit https://www.sharnbrookmilltheatre.co.uk/qavspresentation/ 

Richard Fitt
NODA East District 2 Representative


Captions to Photos

Sharnbrook Mill Theatre.

The Queen’s Award with Domed Crystal Glass and celebratory cake. 

Chairman Douglas Pope (left), HM The Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, Helen Nellis and the longest serving member of the Trust, Bob Harte.


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