The Criterion Blue Town - it's future and the story of an interesting past in an article from Jenny Hurkett.

Swale Tourism

16th December 2021

The Criterion provides a welcome to you all, young and old, to our little gem hidden in Blue Town, Sheerness. We are a cinema, music hall, museum and show destination right here on the Isle of Sheppey. If you’re looking for a day/night out, then look no further.

2022 will be so busy. We start on the lift shaft at the beginning of January and hopefully new windows and doors will be fitted in our maritime room. This is part of a major reorganisation of this amazing space which will enhance the original beams and give us a multifunctional space that can be used all year round for schools, weddings and other ceremonies which will be enhanced by our maritime displays.   We will also be adding to our WW1 displays once the lift shaft is completed.

We will now have disabled access to all floors. Which is something we have been working towards for years and all of this will be achieved with grants, help in kind from builders and our fantastic volunteers.

However, all this may be in vain if we don’t get back to pre-Covid numbers so please support us and come the shows, and activities and become a Friend of the centre. We have such a lot to offer we just need people to feel confident to come back. Our venue is laid out to be socially distanced we follow the government guidelines and make every effort to make our visitors feel safe.

We have exclusive use days for groups and school parties for people who are still a little nervous – just talk to us about your needs. The seasonal shows are all socially distanced and you get fish n chips or a cream tea with them to make your visit to us even more special.

Our community events are on Thursdays with our “vintage youth club” offering  a wide range of activities and Friday is our Friends Friday film club.

We are available for private hire and events recently held here have been weddings, golden weddings, wakes and a film festival. So again, come and have a chat this venue offers your guests an opportunity to look around the museum as well as to enjoy your event.

If all this is too much just pop in for a cup of tea.

We rely on our visitors and Friends.

The team

The Criterion Blue Town is managed by a team of trustees for the charity Blue Town Remembered most of them have been with the project from the beginning. The day-to-day management is with the founder Jenny Hurkett who is a volunteer but works full time supported by 3 paid part time staff and a team of 25 volunteers. The volunteers run the museum and archives plus school visits, tours and talks, the staff do the administration and run the tea room and events with support from volunteers. Our volunteers ages range from 14 to 78 and they are learning new skills supporting their community and having fun. If you would like to join the team come and have a talk there are plenty of tasks to be done and new ones to be developed for our community and museum activities including being a trustee.

What is the Criterion Blue Town?

The Criterion Blue Town is a venue with a difference. From the outside it looks like a small building with a tearoom but step inside and you are welcomed by Figure heads, a large tearoom which specialises in cream teas and gluten free cakes, plus our well stocked preshow bar. Still on the ground floor we have a box office and gift shop which includes a selection of books about Sheppey. The main attraction is our Music Hall, which was built in 1868, closed because of WW1 and restored in 2010 by volunteers and our charity Blue Town Remembered. This room houses and 1870 Bechstein grand piano, chandeliers, and theatrical memorabilia. The stage and layout are as authentic as we can make it and this room is laid out with tables and art deco blue and gold velvet chairs and another bar.

The second floor is about the heritage of Blue Town which has several rooms and includes a Co-op shop, Blue Town school and Sunday school, with a working magic lantern, a 1940’house and yard, a WW2 bunker and a research / family history room plus our archives. At present this is accessed by a staircase with handrails but by early 2022 we should have our new lift installed. School children and adults love being taken back in time by our experienced volunteer guides.

The top floor is dedicated to our maritime heritage as we are adjacent to the site of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Sheerness. This room is undergoing a refit as we are insulating our 7metre high ceiling and replacing our windows, installing a lift, and creating a multi-functional accessible area that can be used as exhibition space, meetings and even wedding ceremonies. This room has original beams predating the 1868 building a full-size replica of a cannon, model ships and is laid out to tell the story of this amazing Dockyard and its connections with Nelson.

To fund our heritage we host shows, events, and screenings in the music hall. Like many original music halls, the Criterion evolved into a cinema and was the first on Sheppey, it is now the last. We host a community cinema for friends of the Criterion on Friday afternoons as well as a dementia film club and streamings of shows, in December we showed the Andre Rieu concert and Cliff Richard’s concert from the Albert Hall. The cinema allows us to enhance our education activities and is available for private hire. We recently hosted an Art house cinema festival.

The centre has evolved into a community hub, especially on Thursdays so we are expanding on this by putting together many of the community activities on the one day– similar to what happens in a youth club- so we are launching our” vintage youth club” for those of us that are still young at heart. In 2022 we will be starting rock n roll tea dances to go alongside our history talks, craft activities and games. Some things are free others have a small charge to cover costs.

Fridays are mainly about Friends and films and Saturdays shows. We have an eclectic offer ranging from Jazz to rock n roll and opera. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays we keep free for exclusive use for school trips and coach parties, so we don’t open to the public on those days, but we are still very busy. So do pop in and check out our cream teas and cakes or book a show online. Our friendly team are here to help make you visit enjoyable we hope that you may arrive as strangers but leave as Friends.

More on the history of The Criterion

The Criterion Music Hall was built in 1868 on the site of a previous pub with a hall for music with a skittle alley which dates back to 1841.

The music hall was behind the 3 storey Criterion Hotel and one of the first acts was a one-armed juggler and a one-legged dancer.

The music hall had several names before the building was bombed in 1917. This was one of the first air raids in WW1 and the target had been Sheerness Dockyard which is just across the road form us. However, they missed the dockyard and blew up the hotel. Shrapnel marks can still be seen on the wall.

The front was rebuilt and at one time it became and RAF repair base for vehicles. The music hall had several lives as a removal storage place to boat building and eventually both buildings were joined into one to expand the boat building. In later years it became an engineering works before being bought by Ian and Jenny Hurkett for their kitchen and bathroom business in 2004.

 They had no idea about the history of the building or Blue Town it was just a very large building which could house their warehouse, offices, and showroom.

In 2005 they became involved in a street festival to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar and with other businesses and residents in Blue Town formed Blue Town Remembered as we discovered how much history was in this small area and its potential. This group started to put on its own festivals, had an annual pancake race and tug of war competitions. They even designed a town sign, an information trail and orientation boards with the help of Swale Borough Council. They campaigned for improvements but over the years people moved away and this group folded.

In 2008 a local historian asked if they could show a history film on Blue Town in the building, Ian and Jenny said yes. They acquired some photographic paper on a large roll which became the screen and offered to make teas and coffees for everyone. No one expected that 100 people would turn up. This film was shown several times each time there were very large numbers attending. During this time the dockyard had restored two figure heads and had nowhere to put them, Jenny had become interested in the heritage of the area and was chair of the newly formed Island think tank. The docks approached her to house the figurehead in the showroom- these were displayed amongst the bathrooms and became a talking point. People then started bringing in items to go on display and a mini heritage centre started to grow.

2009 Ian took ill, and the business had to close, Jenny had just reached retirement age and decided to follow her dream which was to restore the music hall and promote and preserve the history of Blue Town and Sheerness Dockyard. She kick started the project with a lump sum form her pension found some people who believed in her vision and between them founded the charity Blue Town Remembered in 2010.

Since then, every year they have made improvements ploughing back any profits into developing the centre. Ian’s health improved and with his ingenuity and resources from the kitchen business, a team of volunteers and a lot of luck and community support the music hall has been restored and the heritage centre set up.

2020 Covid stopped this development, like many others we sought funding and with this we kept afloat. We managed to make improvements as well. With nothing else to do Ian and Jenny transformed the ground floor at zero cost and then volunteers took on the middle floor to make it into a series of rooms which tell the history of Blue Town during both world wars. This area was so important that internal passports were issued to come onto Sheppey and the Blue Town area. The items in these rooms and throughout the centre have all been donated by the community and the passion that the volunteers have put into this is really appreciated by our visitors, young and old.

2021 we reopened with new exhibits, new shows and the bookings were taking off we managed to get funding for 3 part time workers to support Jenny and the volunteers and then Omicron came and put a stop to the growth.

However, we have managed during the year to build up funds for a lift so that everyone can access the top floors. This work will take place in 2022 hopefully all will be done before Easter. Our fundraising has galvanised the community and more people are using the venue for community activities to combat isolation and loneliness so we are building on this, and Thursdays will become community days with our “vintage youth club “for those that are young at heart. Fridays we have a community cinema and most Saturdays there is a show or event. We also host 4 seasonal shows which run for a week or two, these bring in coach parties from all over Kent and neighbouring counties.

This project aims to educate, entertain, and enthuse – so we have school parties of up to 90 at a time - coach groups for exclusive use of the centre which include a tour of Sheppey, and these are done on Mondays Tuesdays and Wednesdays that is why we don’t open to the public on those days.

Like the building the project has adapted to meet new challenges and 2022 will be one major challenge with the lift, the remodelling of the maritime floor and our community projects and new shows that will suit the pockets and the need to have fun, meet people and be safe.

Jenny Hurkett - Founder and Manager at The Criterion

https://www.thecriterionbluetown.co.uk/

Tel: 01795 662981