A Brief History of Hillbark Players

Click here to see our 50th Anniversary celebrations.

In 2015 Hillbark Players were named by the Liverpool Echo on The Wirral Bucket List - one of 75 things to do before you die!!!

45. Watch open air Shakespeare in Royden Park with the Hillbark Players.


Hillbark Players was founded in 1964 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth.

The idea was the brainchild of Tom Gittins, a prominent local actor and Malcolm Ash, a prominent local director, who discovered that none of the local amateur companies on the Wirral planned to mark the anniversary. Also closely involved in setting up the production was Robin Nelson, a local musician, student and member of the Footlights Club in Cambridge.

Malcolm Ash Tom Gittins Robin Nelson

They set about finding a suitable venue for an open-air production and with the aid of Councillor Mrs D.M.C.(Dolly)Higginbottom - chairman of Hoylake Urban District Council, obtained permission to use the grounds of Hill Bark, which had recently been acquired by the Council for use as an old people's home.

Formerly the home of Sir Ernest Royden, Bart, the house was originally built in 1891 on Bidston Hill and was known as Bidston Court. It was taken down in 1930, every single beam and stone was labelled and cross-referenced and it was re-erected on its present site near the small village of Frankby. The half-timbered Tudor courtyard is a replica of Little Moreton Hall near Congleton. The ground behind the house sloped sharply down into Thurstaston Common, but in front of the house, up a flight of sandstone steps was a grassy area, just the right size for what Tom and Malcolm had in mind. Here they would build their stands, with the audience under cover and the house as a perfect backdrop.

                                     Hillbark House - pre-1964



Bidston Court

Hillbark - Original location

Sir Ernest Bland Royden, 3rd Baronet, High Sheriff of Anglesey. Sir Ernest married Rachel, daughter of Jerome Smith of the neighbouring Frankby estate of Hillbark in 1901.  They took up residence at Bidston Court in Noctorum, Birkenhead, a black and white, half timbered, mock Elizabethan mansion, heavily influenced by Little Moreton Hall in design and erected by Robert Hudson, the soap manufacturer, in 1891.  When Hillbark came into the possession of Lady Royden on the death of her mother, it was decided to move back home.  But Sir Ernest couldn’t bear to leave his house, so they decided to take it with them.  Every brick and every piece of wood was numbered and the complete house was dismantled, roaded to Hillbark and re-erected on its present site in Royden Park (the original Hillbark having been demolished to make way).  This massive undertaking took two years to complete.  A visit to the house and its surroundings today will dispel any doubts of Sir Ernest’s sanity, as its site is surely unrivalled by any other in Wirral.

Move of Bidston Court

Sir Ernest Bland Royden died in 1960.  By then business interests had diversified among the family offspring, many of them moving south, although the Royden shipping line (the Indra Line) operated in Liverpool until 1952.  Ernest’s eldest son, John Ledward Royden, having a business in London and a home in Battle, Sussex and no further interests in Frankby, sold Hillbark and land to Hoylake UDC, who reopened the house as a home for the elderly and the grounds as a public park.
Following the closure of the facility in the 1990s, Hillbark was converted into a fully modernised hotel, while still retaining much of its character both inside and out. Forton Hey saw the passing of the last remaining member of Thomas Royden's illustrious family living in the Wirral, when Mary Royden, sister of Sir Ernest, died in 1960.  She was buried in the family vault at Frankby Church, another local building owing its origins to the family.  (Forton Hey is now the residence of a local pop star and producer of Atomic Kitten).   Extract from 'The Roydens of Frankby'.

Click here to see a short newsreel clip of the workmen moving the original Bidston Court from Bidston brick by brick.


The play chosen was "Much Ado about Nothing" and it ran for a week from 6th to 11th July 1964. Unfortunately, due to high winds and driving rain, the second night was cancelled. The play was so successful that it was decided to put on another production the following year. The Hillbark tradition had begun. Productions were presented every year from 1964 until 1968, under the chairmanship of Mrs Higginbottom. The strain and effort of mounting an annual production eventually proved too much and the productions stopped.

Hillbark House in 1964.

There was an attempt to re-start the Players in 1972, with a production of 'Peer Gynt', but although auditions were held and the play was cast, the production never took place. This is how the local paper reported it.


At the same time, approaches were made to Glenda Jackson to become President of Hillbark Players. She remained President until 1992.

Then in 1975, under the chairmanship of Eric J Murch, a local business man and official of Riverside Players, Hillbark Players was re-formed.

The Players returned in the 1976 heat-wave with "The Comedy of Errors" and the tradition was reborn. It was decided that productions would be every 2 years and that has continued till the present day.

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Hillbark finally closed in 1989 and attempts were made to sell it. Although the House was empty, Hillbark Players got permission to perform in the grounds in June 1990.

After the 1990 production, the House was closed and ultimately sold to become a private hotel, so Hillbark Players went on the road. They presented their 1992 and 1994 productions at Poulton Hall, Bebington, the home of the Lancelyn-Greens, who already had a history of presenting open-air productions in the grounds of their home - see 1960 Midsummer Night's Dream. The Players were invited into Royden Park in 1996, in a location adjacent to Hillbark House ( on the old site of the tennis courts which used to belong to the House ).Thus Hillbark Players had returned, if not onto the grounds of Hillbark House, then as near as they possibly could.

A conscious decision was taken after the 1998 production to move performances to the odd years (when it would not clash with major European or World Cup football tournaments!). The next performance took place in 2001 and productions have continued every two years since then.

This is an article from Playlight magazine, for whom our Lighting expert Ron Lamb was a director. It gives a good idea of what the set was like in the days when we used stands provided by Jon Sanders and Company.


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         Hillbark Hotel in 2015