01946 692422

Shopping Cart

Your Cart is currently empty.


Home About Us History and Heritage

Theatre history

Home About Us History and Heritage


(Referred to in 1959 as a rose-red silk-lined jewel box)

Rosehill Theatre was the creation of Sir Nicholas Sekers, who emigrated from Hungary in 1937 and founded the West Cumberland Silk Mills at Hensingham, Whitehaven (later Sekers Fabrics Limited). He became prominent in the fashion world and his interest in the arts led him into friendship with many of the great names in music and drama.

Nicholas Sekers was a founder trustee of Glyndebourne and in 1954 was instrumental in setting up the Friends of Glyndebourne Society, introducing the season brochure based on the brochure at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. As part of which he introduced corporate sponsorship through advertising, using his own company as an inaugural advertiser/sponsor. Quite a legacy!

Four years later he set up his own Arts Trust to convert a barn in the grounds of his home at Rosehill into a theatre, inspired by his experiences at Glyndebourne. The Arts Trust was established in 1958 under the Chairmanship of Sir John Kennedy. Founder trustees included Leopold de Rothschild, George Christie of Glyndebourne and David Webster of the Royal Opera House. Lord Harewood was a later trustee.

Nicholas Sekers took the first step towards building the new theatre by buying the interior of the Royal Standard, an old music hall in Whitehaven. Unfortunately it did not prove possible to incorporate this into the new theatre, although painted panels from the old music hall are still to be seen at Rosehill.

He reacted to the change of plans by asking one of the country's leading theatre and film designers, Oliver Messel to produce a scheme for the interior of the theatre. Many years later this led to Rosehill’s association with the V&A who made two long term loans of Oliver Messel’s work (having purchased much of this from Lord Snowdon, a nephew of Oliver Messel) to be exhibited at Rosehill.

A further loan, for an exhibition at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven, formed part of the national launch of Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design, the definitive work about Oliver Messel written by his nephew Thomas. There are only two public buildings in the UK with an interior design by Oliver Messel, the other is The Dorchester where he designed two suites. In addition to his work on film and stage, he designed many homes in the West Indies.

Nicholas Sekers set about raising funds for the new Arts Trust and was well supported by his colleagues in the Cumbrian business world as well as by many individuals who set up covenants to provide the necessary finance. Building work began in January 1959 and was completed in time for opening on 3 September. A prologue especially written by the poet Christopher Hassall was read by Peggy Ashcroft, and the concert featured the London Mozart Players conducted by Harry Blech with Barry Tuckwell (coincidentally Patricia, Lady Harewood’s brother) as horn soloist.

During the course of Rosehill's first season, there were 28 classical music concerts with some outstanding artists, including Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin, Clifford Curzon, Claudio Arrau, Gervase de Peyer and the Tatrai Quartet of Budapest (first performance in England). A week of drama from the Oxford Playhouse Company and performances by Emlyn Williams, Bernard Miles and Peggy Ashcroft were also featured during a year in which the theatre opened its door 43 times.

Over its first twelve years Nicholas Sekers continued to have a major input to the programming of the theatre. In a letter to Sir John Kennedy in 1960 he commented: "To get artists at the present level and the present fees can only be achieved through personal connections. So I have to use my friendship to persuade them to travel up to the north from London for a couple a days or to come from overseas for just a token fee."

These artists included Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Mstislav Rostropovich, Alfred Brendel, George Solti Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Jacqueline du Pré and Victoria de los Angeles, all in their prime! The list goes on including Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine (who were inspired by Rosehill to create a theatre in the grounds of their home near Milton Keynes, The Stables which thrives still) and a fledgling David Bowie performing with Lindsay Kemp.

Many were accommodated in Rosehill House where the Sekers hospitality was legendary. In 1965 Nicholas Sekers was knighted for his services to the arts. When he died in 1972 the theatre's range had already widened, with the 1971/72 season featuring 21 concerts of classical music and 33 performances of drama, in addition to two of folk and one of jazz.

HRH The Princess Margaret (and Lord Snowdon) visited Rosehill in July 1962 and HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother in October 1964 (who opened the new West Cumberland Hospital in the morning and visited Rosehill in the afternoon for a concert given by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by James Lockhart). Entries in the Visitors Book attached.

English Chamber Orchestra performed at two more concerts at Rosehill and, with English Opera Group, they performed Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw in 1961.

A distinguished past but following the untimely death of Sir Nicholas and notwithstanding the determined efforts of trustees and community volunteers, Rosehill Theatre slipped gradually into decline, certainly physically, until in 2007 it was decided to prepare for a major building development and rethink of Rosehill’s operations.

Carlisle based architects, Johnston and Wright were appointed to prepare an outline scheme for the theatre which was accepted by the trustees and a new director, Richard Elder was appointed in 2008 with the knowledge and experience necessary to deliver a contemporary theatre, and related operations, but with the essential rose-red silk-lined jewel box and Rosehill’s illustrious past, at its centre.

Andrew Johnston of Johnston and Wright was born and brought up in West Cumbria and was a pupil at neighbouring St Bees School. They were chosen because of Andrew’s knowledge of Rosehill from its early years and his practice’s work on sensitive mixed redevelopment and restoration projects. His work included Broughton House in Kirkcudbright for the National Trust of Scotland (opened/visited by HRH) and for the same client, Threave Garden near Castle Douglas.

Classical musicians appearing at Rosehill Theatre or through Rosehill on the Road since 2008 have included Paul Lewis, Alison Balsom, Amanda Roocroft, Nigel Kennedy, Nicky Spence, Miloš Karadaglić, Steven Osborne, Matthew Trusler, the Belcea Quartet, the Elias String Quartet (with their Beethoven Project performing the complete string quartets over six concerts presented in different venues throughout mainly West Cumbria but including Hutton-in-the-Forest) and the Simón Bolívar String Quartet. Among many other notable performers of all sorts.


Rosehill Theatre which is a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) of Arts Council England closed in October 2014 for this major building redevelopment, see press release attached.

The necessary funding (£2.7m) had been raised from a combination of Britain’s Energy Coast, Copeland Community Fund, Coastal Communities Fund (Department for Communities and Local Government), Garfield Weston Foundation, The Linbury Trust (Anya Sainsbury, née Linden was a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet and performed in the ground-breaking production of The Sleeping Beauty designed by Oliver Messel. This production opened the Royal Opera House after WW2), WREN and J Paul Getty Jr Charitable Trust.

Further sponsorship has been raised from the Savoy Educational Trust (in support of the apprenticeship and training opportunities provided in the new restaurant and other hospitality, see press release)and National Grid.

Building works are complete and the theatre is being recommissioned including the restoration of the auditorium. A Head Chef has been appointed and further hospitality positions are being recruited including apprentices in association with the neighbouring Lakes College and its catering school.

With the building works complete the auditorium is being restored to complete the project, returning it to its status as a rose-red silk-lined jewel box.

During the period of closure Rosehill has operated through a developing Rosehill on the Road programme of activity, presenting concerts and productions some of which have been with partner organisations (e.g. colleague NPOs Cardboard Citizens, English Touring Opera, Mahogany Opera Group and Royal Exchange, Manchester) in community centres, village halls, colleges, schools, historic houses and other venues around mainly West Cumbria. One such production, Brundibár, in association with Mahogany Opera Group(involving a group of primary school children from Aspatria and Maryport), won Cumbria Life’s inaugural Culture Award in 2015 for Production of the Year.

In addition, this time away from the theatre has made it possible to concentrate on developing Rosehill’s work with young people and in community arts - the Taking Part programme. The Rosehill on the Road and Taking Part programmes often dovetail with each other.

Work with young people is central to Rosehill’s purpose whether this is through the participatory programme or with the apprenticeships in prospect, particularly in hospitality.

This work includes the involvement of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and the development of singing with young people in support of performing opportunities (e.g. Snappy Operas involving five operas each of ten minutes especially written/composed and devised around children in association with Mahogany Opera Group which is a current project and Jonathan Dove’s Cantata for an Unknown Soldier to be performed with young and older people in association with London Mozart Player in 2018).

In December 2016, Rosehill presented English Touring Opera’s production of Bach’s St John Passion in a churchin Workington, involving approximately 70 local singers of all ages, performing alongside the professional singers and orchestral musicians of English Touring Opera, to great acclaim.

WestCumbria is an area of starkly contrasting socio-economics with high levels of financial deprivation sitting alongside high levels of disposable income. Rosehill’s developing programme of activity recognises this diversity and one such programme of work is with Cardboard Citizens who work with marginalised communities using forum theatre to involve and include people from many different backgrounds to consider issues of contemporary social relevance.

The work with Cardboard Citizens included presenting their production Benefit in 2015 considering issues associated with the changes in the benefit payment structure and their production Cathy in 2016 which was a reinterpretation of the iconic film Cathy Come Home timed to coincide with its 50th anniversary, considering issues of homelessness.

Working with Cardboard Citizens led to a three week residency in 2016 including people in residential care who had experienced homelessness and some of the addictions and issues that give rise to it. This culminated in the production of their own play, On the Edge performed to a public audience at the end of the residency. And in association with Homeless Link and Cardboard Citizens, Rosehill will devise and produce, Cardboard Camp to be performed in mainly open air settings throughout Cumbria from 2018.


A second phase of the building programme includes the development of the neighbouring barn which will be increased in size to include a courtyard theatre. This new building will become the centre for Taking Part activities and provide further space and facilities to drive commercial income in support of Rosehill’s artistic, cultural and participative plans. The facilities in the new theatre (notably the dressing rooms) will link with the new barn building.

It is estimated that this second phase will cost c £1.5m and fundraising will start in the 2017/18 financial year.

March 2017

We are grateful to the following organisations for capital funding:

We are grateful to the following organisations for revenue funding:


We are grateful to the following organisations for their in kind support: