History of Chesterfield museum
A museum for Chesterfield was first looked at seriously in the 1920s. The Borough Records and Museum Committee, formed in 1921, had the responsibility of looking after the town’s historic documents and objects with a view to creating a museum and in 1925, when Tapton House was given to the town, it looked like becoming a reality. Tapton House, however, was to become a school in 1930 and it was decided that ‘the establishment of a museum be postponed until a more opportune time.’
By the late 1980s, plans for a museum in Chesterfield were finally underway and in May 1994, after many years of planning and anticipation, Chesterfield finally opened its town museum at the Stephenson Memorial Hall.
As its name suggests, the Stephenson Memorial Hall commemorates the town’s connection to George Stephenson. Built in 1879 on the corner of Corporation Street and St Mary’s Gate, it was intended for adult education.
The project was an initiative of two local societies, the Chesterfield Institute of Engineers and the Chesterfield and Derbyshire Institute of Mining, Civil and Mechanical Engineers. The building housed classrooms for art and science, a public hall, lecture hall and a free library for the town. The library opened in November 1880, a year after the rest of the building’s facilities.
The first books were acquired through a donation of £100 by Charles Markham and a gift of books by the Mechanics Institute but the library struggled to fill the shelves until a subscription library was set up in 1884. Their books were transferred to the free library after a year in circulation. Books included the works of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Charlotte Bronte
However, the cost of the building, most of which was raised by donations, was too much and the trustees could not pay off the debt. As a result the property was sold to the Chesterfield Corporation in 1889 for £4,000.
After the Stephenson Memorial Hall came into council ownership, land was acquired at the east end of the building to enlarge the public hall and adapt it as a theatre. It opened in 1898 with a new stage and dressing rooms and became known as the Corporation Theatre, hosting a variety of plays, concerts and local amateur productions. In 1926, the theatre was leased to a cinema company and films were the main entertainment until 1948, when the lease expired. In 1949, it became a theatre once more.
The west side of the building also underwent changes. By 1902 the science and art classes were no longer running. As a result, in 1905 the ground floor was adapted for use as a council chamber, committee rooms and Mayor’s parlour while the library was moved to the first floor.
Following the opening of the new town hall in 1938, the library expanded to occupy the entire west end of the building and it continued to do so until 1985 when a new library was opened on Beetwell Street.
Today, the Stephenson Memorial Hall is Grade II listed and houses both Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery and the Pomegranate Theatre.