The Assembly Rooms’ Historical Past

Thanks to a recently completed archeological report, The Assembly Rooms Theatre has been dated as building at around 300 years old! 

An archeological survey of the site during our renovations have unearthed some amazing information. The above map comes from the survey’s report, suggesting that parts of the theatre have been around since the 1820’s and likely before as the city’s Assembly Rooms. 

The survey also explored bits of pottery, glass, and animal bone dating from the 18th century. A jar was found with the inscription: ‘Thomas Fentiman of Gateshead’, most likely used to sell ginger beer or soda in the early 1900’s. 

The above picture shows what the front of the Assembly Rooms originally looked like! While the windows above appear to have changed very little, the doors below the archway show a very different layout. 

In 1909, the theatre was altered to a picturehouse by the owner Thomas Rushworth. The Durham County Advertiser reported: ‘The interior presents a very attractive appearance, and looks quite warm and cosy with its buff-coloured ceiling and walls and smart crimson dado’. Rushworth continued to use the Assembly Rooms as a picture house, until Durham University bought the building in 1930 from his daughter Grace. 

This picture from the report is of a exposed sandstone block, previously hidden underneath the floor of the Assembly Rooms’ basement. Work on the basement and the rest of the building continues, with exciting computer-generated images of the complete build available below.

The Assembly Rooms Theatre is planned to open in October 2019.


Thank you to Archeological Services Durham University, Derek Dodds, and PH Partnership Architects for the information and images used in this piece.

Essential Renovations Underway

Today, we have gone dark as a theatre to allow for essential renovations and repairs to the building. This work has come from Durham University £2.4 million redevelopment project to renovate and restore our building, the stunning and historic Assembly Rooms Theatre.

This development will see a dramatic change to our building for the benefits of audience and visiting artists. The redevelopment will drastically improve disabled access to the 220-seat venue, restore the 150 year old theatre’s original ceiling, and refurbish its Box Office area. The renovated playhouse will also include improvements to the workshop, dressing room, and toilet facilities for future artists to enjoy.

This renovation could not have been possible without the investment from the university to restore the historic building and continue to cultivate and promote arts in the region.

Durham University’s Director of Experience Durham, Quentin Sloper, said:

“The Assembly Rooms is a beacon of art, creativity, and performance – not just in Durham, but across the region. I’m delighted to announce this investment, which will make this popular and iconic local venue even better.”

Did you know…

The Assembly Rooms was first built in 1869 and served as the city’s first cinema, before Durham University acquired the site in 1930. Outside of term time, the theatre accommodates professional touring companies as well as a number of stand-up and sketch comedy groups that perform throughout the year.

What do the renovations mean?

The £2.4 investment will include:

  • Disabled Access
  • Restoration to the historic ceiling and walls
  • Internal redecoration throughout
  • Refurbishment of all toilets
  • Replacing existing heating system
  • Renewing the theatre seating
  • Renewal and repair of all windows and doors


This does not mean the end for The Assembly Rooms Theatre – in fact – far from it! We are excited to see these renovations as an opportunity for the theatre to go out into the community and connect with the region.

If we can’t create the theatre here – then we will bring the theatre to you!

We are hoping to use the time the theatre is closed for maintenance to strengthen our connections with our local artists to make sure we can be a safe and comfortable place to develop work and create as soon as we re-open. We ambitiously aim to help develop as many aspiring creatives in the region, be that as programming their work, offering scratch performances or using the building as a empty space. You can read our full artistic policy here. 

WAIT – There’s more!

In addition to these necessary repairs we are also hoping to fundraise an additional £300,000 to make some wonderful and important changes to the building. These changes will include:

  • Reconfiguration of the Box office
  • Creation of a bar / café
  • Access control throughout the building.

However, we can only raise this amount with your help! We are searching high and low for funding – and you can help!

We have various donation packages ranging from £100 for your name to be handwritten on the workshop wall to £60,000 to name the new bar / café area.

Donating is easy – simply follow the link here and you’re away!