Theatrical costume charity faces final curtain after 46 years

Alex Graham with the Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe, which is in considerable debt

Carole Johnson, right, with Alex Graham

Alex Graham wearing the tunic of an Honourable Artillery Company soldier outside the storage hangar

First published in News
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Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Abingdon and Wantage, South Oxford and Kennington. Call me on 01865 425431

Wanted: a new home for 7,000 costumes, accessories and props, 3,000sq ft or more.

Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe (ODW) has hired costumes to Oxford colleges, private and public schools and am-dram groups across the county since 1968.

But now the charity will be evicted from its aircraft hangar home in Hanney Road, Steventon, on September 30.

The two women who run it, aged 74 and 88, say they have no idea where they will go.

With the rent currently at £890 per month, ODW has been unable to pay the full amount for several years and says it is in “significant” debt.

The friends have been relying on the goodwill of their landlord, MEPC, and hold no grudge against the property company for wanting to make a profit from the warehouse.

Alex Graham, 88, who has run ODW since 1968, said: “We are in dire, dire need. We don’t know what to do.

“We don’t blame MEPC. They have been as accommodating as they can but we have overstayed our welcome.”

Widowed Mrs Graham said she misunderstood the rental arrangement for the hangar, where they have been since 2006. They were served notice three weeks ago, and were asked to pay the money they owe, which they don’t have, as soon as possible.

Renting costumes for £20 a time, last year ODW took in £6,000 – its best year ever, but still not enough.

Carole Johnson, 74, said: “They have bent over backwards to try to help us, but we’re two rather elderly ladies trying to run it on our own.”

For Mrs Graham, seeing the end of the ODW would also be a crushing emotional blow.

She inherited the collection from her Quaker mentor, costume fanatic Beatrice Saxon Shell, of Henley, in the 1960s.

Mrs Shell began making costumes for one of her own productions, and other drama groups were so impressed they asked to rent them from her. She recruited Mrs Graham, then a teacher of horticulture and botany at what is now Oxford & Cherwell Valley College, as an assistant for the growing business.

Mrs Graham, who lives in Chiselhampton, South Oxfordshire, said with tears in her eyes: “This is sort of her legacy.

“She taught me all about making costumes.

“I owe her an immense amount.”

The collection, previously stored in primary schools in Dorchester-on-Thames and Marston, includes valuable antiques which are not rented.

Mrs Graham prizes an 1870s Victorian silk wedding dress, kept in immaculate condition.

Recent clients of the ODW include Oxford’s Magdalen College and Shrewsbury School in Shropshire. Both rented costumes to take to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Peter Hunt, of Chalgrove, used the wardrobe for the first time last week, renting pirate costumes for his seven-piece vocal harmony group Short Drag Rodger.

The 65-year-old said: “I think it is fantastic, I just walked in and thought ‘wow!’ “It would be a tragic loss to amateur dramatic groups.”

MEPC estate manager Chris Sills said: “Unfortunately they have come into a little bit of financial difficulty and we have a waiting list for that unit.

“They are good occupiers, they have given us no problems. I hope they find a more suitable place.”

  • To get in touch with ODW call Mrs Graham on 01865 891379 or Mrs Johnson on 01491 838200.
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