We Are Hawkesbury, My Story: Margaret Thorne has been volunteering at the Richmond School of Arts for 40 years

LONG HISTORY: 80-year-old Margaret Thorne has been president of the Richmond School of Arts since 1981, and has been volunteering there since 1977. She and 13 other trustees manage the building. Picture: Geoff Jones
LONG HISTORY: 80-year-old Margaret Thorne has been president of the Richmond School of Arts since 1981, and has been volunteering there since 1977. She and 13 other trustees manage the building. Picture: Geoff Jones

IF you’ve had any involvement with the Richmond School of Arts over the years – hiring one of the spaces, taking classes, or watching performances – chances are you’ve bumped into Margaret Thorne.

An 80-year-old Grose Wold resident and long-time Hawkesbury local, Mrs Thorne is a fixture at the School of Arts located on the corner of March and West Market Streets, having volunteered her time there since 1977.

Mrs Thorne is one of the building’s 14 trustees, and has been president of the School of Arts since 1981. She has a life membership there, and knows its history like the back of her hand.

A singer, performing arts-lover, and repository of information about Richmond (past and present), Mrs Thorne has a true passion for her work, and is determined to see the School of Arts prosper long into the future.

You’ll find her there on Wednesdays and Fridays, managing the building’s workings (everything from bookings to maintenance and fundraisers), while greeting a constant stream of locals who pop-by to share news and enquire about the facilities.

She calls it ‘Grand Central’ on these days, when the building is bustling. But she doesn’t seem to mind much, and still has calls diverted to her home phone when she’s not on duty – such is her commitment.

A large portion of Mrs Thorne’s life has been intertwined with the Richmond School of Arts. She’s been a regular visitor there since she was a little girl, and it’s fitting that she has been entrusted with its care. 

Under the leadership of Mrs Thorne, the Richmond School of Arts is in good hands.

Hatches, Matches and Dispatches

Mrs Thorne’s family moved to Richmond when she was nine months old, so you could say Hawkesbury has been ‘home’ for her entire life.

She was schooled at Richmond District Rural (where Richmond Public School is now) until she completed her leaving certificate at 15, and then she went to work at her mother’s shop, The Patsy, which sold haberdashery and children’s clothing.

It was sold in 1966, and she went to work at the Richmond Newsagency, where she remained for 17 years. This was the hub of shops in Richmond, she said, and locals would meet there to learn the news of the day.

“On Wednesdays at about 2pm, people would start gathering in front of the shop waiting for the Gazette to be delivered!” Mrs Thorne recalled.

“The first thing they’d do is open it up and read the second page which was always: Hatches, Matches and Dispatches. It had engagements, babies, deaths, memoriums, anniversaries and other celebrations.

If you ask Mrs Thorne how she came to volunteer at the Richmond School of Arts, she’ll tell you it was because of the toilets.

She had been involved in running a blood bank in the building in the mid-70s, when someone remarked that Captain Cook must’ve left the toilets behind (they were so old!).

She set to work organising a fundraiser so they could upgrade the facilities. This was such a success, that the trustees asked her to join them.

“I thought it’d be for 12 months!” she said. “But it’s just one of those things: once you get involved, you want to keep making it better.”

CONNECTED THROUGH TIME: Mrs Thorne grew up in Richmond and has been visiting the Richmond School of Arts for almost her entire life. Picture: Geoff Jones

CONNECTED THROUGH TIME: Mrs Thorne grew up in Richmond and has been visiting the Richmond School of Arts for almost her entire life. Picture: Geoff Jones

A lifetime of arts

It wasn’t simply a coincidence that Mrs Thorne was helping-out at the blood bank that day. Growing up when she did, the School of Arts was a hive of activity, as there were no other large halls in the area.

“The School was a hub for a lot of things: it was used for lectures, debating and dancing. A lot of people had their wedding receptions here – they’d eat out the back and come in to the front hall to dance,” she said.

Mrs Thorne had also been a regular visitor to the building due to her interest in the arts. A talented singer, she used to enter the Hawkesbury Eisteddfods when they were held there during the 1950s, and before this, she competed in the very first Eisteddfod held at the Regent Theatre in 1948. She was 11 years old.

“I was singing ‘Ho ro my nut-brown maiden’, and I came second. I was told I came second because I was beating the time with my head! It’s funny how you remember these things,” she said.

She recalls a later Eisteddfod held at the School of Arts when she was 17 – but alas, she wasn’t to win this time, either.

“I entered a section where you had to sing something international and give your interpretation. I sang a Scottish song because my singing teacher was Scottish and so were my parents. But the judge said he couldn’t give me any marks because Scottish was my mother tongue and I had an unfair advantage! I had worked so hard!” she laughed.

At 16, she became an usherette with the Richmond Players theatre group. It was 1952, the very same year they formed and started using the School of Arts as their base. “I thought that was very important work!” she recalled.

Before long, she joined the group on-stage, and spent years performing and directing, before moving on to the management committee.

“We had so much fun and we had lots of good productions with good people. I still see all the performances I can,” Mrs Thorne said.

She recalls playing Laurey in Oklahoma!, Mrs Anna in The King and I, and Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music (the latter in 1972, when she was also the director), as well as two productions of South Pacific – as a performer in 1964 and director in 1984.

Picture: Geoff Jones

Picture: Geoff Jones

During her very first stage performance, there was a blackout: “Little boys would pull the fuses out of the fuse box for fun – it happened quite often!” she laughed.

Proud of her work

Over the years, Mrs Thorne and the other trustees have dedicated countless hours to planning, negotiating, fundraising, and lobbying for assistance to ensure the School of Arts remains both functional and relevant.

Their work includes painting, installing air conditioning, carpeting the walkways, rebuilding the Murray Wing as a function room, upgrading the wicker seating (which was giving way at the base), replacing the kitchen, installing audio-visual equipment, and of course upgrading the toilets (on more than one occasion!).

Of her 40 years volunteering (including 36 as president), Mrs Thorne’s proudest achievement is bringing the building into the modern age.

“We’ve had to wait to save the money to achieve all these things. After we pay for our expenses, what’s left we try to accumulate so we can make something better,” she said.

She recalls a few years back when the building’s water bills kept rising, and they discovered they had a slow leak which had been coming in under the tiled flooring. It cost them $9000 to repair. 

“You’ve got to always have something up your sleeve to be able to pay for things like that,” she said.

Upgrading the Murray Wing had been a dream of the trustees’ ever since Mrs Thorne joined in the late 70s. It wasn’t until 1998 when a grant was made available that they were able to proceed – but they still had to pay for half of it themselves.

“We’ve done a lot of voluntary things to save money – like the painting – and because we’ve helped ourselves, we’ve been able to achieve a lot,” Mrs Thorne said.

“The whole place has thrived on people that have put a lot of effort in. We’ve had a lot of members – some who have passed away or moved away – that have been very skillful and helpful to help make the place what it is today.”

Picture: Geoff Jones

Picture: Geoff Jones

The place to be

The Richmond School of Arts was opened officially by Sir Henry Parkes on August 27, 1866. It provided room for functions, public meetings and educational pursuits, and became the home for the Richmond Literary Institute, which began in 1861.

It initially consisted of the main auditorium only, and the library was located where the office is now (up until it closed in 1957). Other sections have been added over the years, including the annex near the main entrance which was built as a billiard room in 1914 to “help keep the youth off the streets”, Mrs Thorne said.

The building has been used by countless groups and organisations over the years, including Richmond Borough Council (established in 1872) which held its meetings there until 1913.

It has also been used for social events and leisure activities, including balls to welcome back soldiers from the Boer War in 1902, and then World War I in 1918.

The building was used for storage during World War II, and the RTA established an office there (the big counter is still in the front room).

Mrs Thorne was nine when peace was declared in 1945, and she remembers attending a celebration at the School of Arts, where she first tasted coffee.

“My parents were involved with the RSL and us kids were sent scurrying all over the place to get a pound of butter and sugar and so forth, so the women could make cakes and food for the supper,” she recalled.

“Sir Philip Charley, who was a dairy farmer and owned the big area up the back of the RAAF base, brought in a 10-gallon billy can of milk and they sat it in the fireplace so it would warm up. And they made coffee and it was the first time I ever drank it!”

She made “sandwiches and nice cakes” for the Richmond CWA Younger Set’s monthly dances held there in the 50s and 60s. 

“We had a great man that used to play the piano until midnight, then go home, go to bed for three hours, then get up and milk his cows!” Mrs Thorne recalled.

They also hosted Hayseed Dances around that time. “I’ve got a photo somewhere of me looking frightful – in a hat with all the corks around it and a pitchfork over my shoulder!” she laughed.

In the 1970s, a youth club took-up residence in the upstairs rooms, which had been home to the Horticultural Society in earlier times.

Today, the building hosts regular zumba and pilates classes, dancing with Sandra Deacon (who has been hiring the space for 47 years), an acting group for young people, a church group, the Hawkesbury Valley Lapidary Club (which has been based in the old billiards room since the 1970s) and Richmond Players.

  • We Are Hawkesbury, My Story, is a series of profiles of Hawkesbury personalities where we will attempt to showcase the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.