One day, in 1926, a lady walked through newly opened Graves Park and came upon an old quarry within Cobnar Wood. Well-known in musical circles, she was well-versed with acoustics and approached Sheffield Corporation with an idea.
This had once been Norton Rifle Range and formed part of land gifted by J.G. Graves to the city. In February 1927, undergrowth was cleared, and the ground levelled, in preparation for an open-air theatre.
“Around the natural cavity, at one side of which there is a wall of stone – part of the original quarry – the ground rises steeply and is covered with trees and bushes. On the left stands part of the Cobnar Wood, and it does not need much imagination to visualise the beauty of the scene on a fine summer evening. On the side of the hill accommodation will also be made for thousands of people to stand or sit.
“The theatre will not be confined to one class of entertainment. There could be music of all kinds – orchestral music, chamber music, bands, Pierrots, and others, chosen by the Parks Committee.”
A platform was erected under the quarry wall with seating arranged facing the stage.
The open-air theatre opened on June 16th, 1927, when a crowd of 3,000 people attended a concert in the presence of the Lord Mayor, who happened to be J.G. Graves.
“The beautiful natural amphitheatre became a vast arena of song when the first municipal open-air community singing concert was held. The basin, with its grassy slopes and fringe of trees, is admirably suited for events of this kind. The singing was led by the Sheffield Orpheus Male Voice Choir, conducted by Mr T. Ratcliffe, and although the audience was a little shy at first, they soon joined in the choruses lustily, and sang with real heartiness songs like Love’s Old Sweet Song, On Ilkla Moor Baht At and Pack Up Your Troubles. Four hundred chairs were occupied, and a good crowd behind the ropes.”
The success of this first evening led to further concerts by the Melody Minstrels and Motley Entertainers, and for the next ten years the public were treated to regular summer entertainment in the old quarry.
Despite its success, Sheffield Corporation brought an end to the concerts in 1937, the victim of unforeseen circumstances.
The quarry was to be no longer used because of midges. It had attempted several solutions including spraying the quarry before each performance and at the interval when attendants walked around with spray pumps.
As a last resort an outside expert had suggested spraying the surrounding woods, quarry walls and the ground with disinfectant and insect killer.
All attempts failed and the midges affected attendances causing one council official to say, “The day would come when performers would be singing to an audience of gnats.”
Alas, the open-air theatre was abandoned, and future concerts held in the Deer Park. Today, there is little evidence of its exciting past, the area overgrown, and only the old sandstone quarry walls providing a clue of its location.