Rowena Cade, Creator of the Minack Theatre

Rowena Cade, Creator of the Minack Theatre

Rowena Cade was born on 2nd August 1893 in Spondon, Derbyshire. The Cade family moved to Cheltenham when Rowena's father retired in 1906.

During World War I, she had a job breaking horses which were then shipped out to the front lines in France and Belgium. With the war finished, Rowena's mother sold their house in Cheltenham. Rowena rented a house at Lamorna, discovered the Minack headland and bought it for £100. There she built a house for herself and her mother using granite from a St. Levan quarry.

This was where she first got involved in the theatre. She offered to let local friends put on "The Tempest" in her gardens, using the rugged coastline as the backdrop to the play.

However there was no seating for the audience, and she considered alternatives to her garden. That was when she considered the gully above the Minack Rock, the site of the theatre today. It took six months for Rowena and her two Cornish gardeners to build some basic seating and a simple stage.

The first performance of "The Tempest" in the summer of 1932 was lit by batteries, car headlights and the feeble power brought down from Minack House.

The audience got their tickets from a table in Rowena's garden, and then scrambled down a gorse lined path to the theatre. The Tempest was a great success, and even attracted an article in The Times. Rowena Cade had enjoyed the venture, and decided to continue with The Minack as a theatre

During that first winter of 1931-32, she did labouring work on the theatre with her gardener Billy Rawlings and his mate Charles Thomas Angove. They cut granite from local rock, created the terraces and in-filled them with earth. The site was precipitous, but they managed it without any injuries. Each year the theatre was improved, until 1939.

World War II saw the army take over the area. Coastal defences were built, barbed wire entanglements spread around the whole site.

In 1944 it was used as a location for "Love Story" , a Gainsborough film starring Stewart Grainger and Margaret Lockwood. The unit arrived and began shooting, but storms curtailed filming, and the unit had to complete the film in the studio. The film did make the tune "Cornish Rhapsody" a wartime favourite.

During the war Rowena Cade became the local billeting officer for hundreds of evacuee children sent to Cornwall from London and the Blitz. By the end of the war, the theatre had disappeared back into the undergrowth. Rowena started again to restore it. She even converted the gun position into the theatre's Box Office.

She built a new access road, car park, and put in a flight of 90 steps up from the beach. Billy Rawlings, her gardener, died in 1966. Rowena raised him a fitting memorial, the only only granite seat in the whole auditorium is dedicated to him.

In the 1950s Rowena Cade approached a London drama school and the National Trust for financial help, but received none. The Cornwall branch of the National Council of Social Services helped for three years, then pulled out, leaving her to carry the financial burden alone.

In 1976 Rowena Cade gave the Minack Theatre to a Charitable Trust. The Trustees extended the season of plays, built a Visitor Centre which is open all year round and enlarged the retailing operation. These moves attracted bigger audiences and at last the Theatre was able to pay its way.

Rowena Cade worked away improving the theatre every winter in all weathers until she was in her mid-eighties. She died in 1983 just short of her ninetieth birthday.

 

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