He graduated from Cambridge and, to his father’s consternation, went straight into the family plumbing business – and he’s never looked back
Robert Cowley from Sturminster Newton received an MBE for his services to the community in 2010. He has spent more than 30 years as a local magistrate.
‘It’s a big responsibility. I started in the days when there were courtrooms all round Dorset. Now there’s just Weymouth and Poole, but I’ve sat in Blandford, Sherborne, Bridport, Dorchester, Wareham, Wimborne … local justice really was local! But it’s a quick way of learning about life, and quite a life changer as well, if you’re prepared to learn from it.’
But the Cambridge graduate is probably just as well known as a leading light in SNADS (the Sturminster Newton Amateur Dramatic Society), as a passionate and tireless driving force behind the development of The Exchange – and also as the latest generation in the family’s 125 year-old plumbing business.
‘I’m not only Dorset born and bred – I was born just three houses down the road! My mum came from London, looking for a rest after the war. She had married very young, was widowed shortly afterwards, and moved to Dorset for a new beginning.
‘Father was a self-employed plumber, working very, very hard. Life was typical for an agricultural town in the 50s – pretty quiet, a lot of hard work and not a huge amount of money around.
‘Mother soon got involved with SNADS, the local amateur dramatic society. From really very small I remember the annual pantomime. It was magical.
But because my parents were involved with setting it up, for me it wasn’t just “going and seeing a show”. In those days we didn’t have a hall, just the British Legion hut. The stage was in pieces, stored above the coffin shop and the builder’s yard opposite. We would literally all head to Bath Road and the stage would be carried across the road and assembled! It was always second nature to know that there were the two sides of a play – back stage and on stage.
‘Everything changed when I was 11. My dad went to Blandford Grammar School, and hated it so much that he swore no child of his was ever going there.
And we didn’t.
I don’t know how he managed it, but we all went to Hardye’s in Dorchester. All three of us – my two brothers too – boarded in Dorchester during term time. I went from there to the University of Cambridge – I suddenly jumped into a completely different world. And I loved it, it was an amazing place to be. It was intellectually very stimulating and demanding, obviously. But I was equally fascinated really, by all the extras. Particularly because I was basically just a plumber’s son – I still used to come home and lend a hand in the business during holidays.
‘Theatre was still something that interested me, and it’s what I spent my spare time on – but it had suddenly moved into a different dimension. I did a three-week season at the Edinburgh Fringe, sleeping on a floor, doing three different plays and marching the streets in costume handing out flyers. We did a Greek tragedy in the open air in Cornwall … It was an amazing three years. Which I then wrapped up by coming home and joining the family firm – not actually my plan at all!
‘I didn’t have a very strong drive to do anything in particular – I was studying English, which is a pretty open-ended sort of subject.
‘My dad had always insisted that none of us would be going into the family business. In later years we discovered that he hadn’t been given the choice himself. He finished his school certificate, signed off school in the morning and started work for his father that afternoon. No choice at all.
So he said that wasn’t going to happen to his children, and he set himself to educate all of us as far through the system as we could go.
‘It just happened that as I was finishing my final exams, he came to Cambridge to visit me and was taken very ill. He was told he wasn’t going to recover, and certainly couldn’t carry on working. He didn’t want to let his customers down, and wanted to shut his business down in an orderly manner. At the time I was effectively spare – I was planning to go on to do a Certificate of Education, but came back first to help close the business.
‘And within six months, I thought. “I can see a lot of pluses here. It was all to do with the community – we were a well-known, well-established business, it was a lovely place to live … and the attractions of being self employed were quite substantial. So that’s what I did. Three or four years later, my next brother effectively did the same thing – finished his degree, went to New Zealand for six months farming, and then came back and joined the business too. With the two of us working, father actually recovered quite a lot – we had a few years of the three of us working together, which was great.
‘Father was a master plumber, a high level of achievement, and it’s a very old business. I’m largely retired now, and my brother’s still working at the moment, with his son giving him a hand. The business started in 1896 – by the time I retired, it had been going 125 years and three generations. We’re now on to the fourth, but that’s not long-term – he’s just helping out for a while.
(we’ve heard that somewhere before – Ed).
‘When I returned to Sturmisnter, I got heavily involved with SNADS again. I was married, had two daughters, was working exceptionally hard, and SNADS was my relaxation. But my marriage went to pieces, and I was working even harder trying to cope with two children on my own. And then I met Linda – strangely echoing my mother she had arrived in Sturminster from London. She’s a better actor than me, and also a good director. We met in a rehearsal room in 1983, fell in love on stage … and we’ve been together ever since.
‘Because of my association with the dramatic society, I got involved with the Sturminster Hall committee – by then we had a hall! It was opposite the police station – and ended up chairing the new hall sub-committee, around the time the cattle market closed.
‘And then there was this huge site left empty in the middle of town, and locals will remember it was a complicated story. I ended up moving from the hall committee to the new hall sub-committee, and then to the project group for the entire market site, which included what became The Exchange.
From that point on, I was involved in the whole redevelopment concept – but it was a very, very big thing. The way the whole site was developed was a community led project – by the time we had consulted, planned and seen off some unwanted developers, we had The Exchange drawn into the whole concept.
People thought it was completely mad – we were effectively replacing a one room hall with a big entertainment complex.
‘We then had to work through all sorts of dramatics, getting the actual planning permission that was necessary in order to unlock the money that was necessary to secure the site … but eventually we did it. Half the site’s depth was sold off for housing – but housing to the design that the community produced. And that left the near side of the site for the medical centre, the supermarket, offices and The Exchange, which sits on land given by the developer.
But beyond that, the building was built not by the developer, not by the council – it was built by the community – ultimately we raised 2.6 million pounds.
‘There were contributions from the councils. We got some huge grants. We were very, very lucky – and we picked … full stop after grants, We were told at the time: ’This is the last gasp. There’s going to be no more money. We just hit the right spot, if we’d been a year later, I doubt we’d have done it.
‘So it was built and paid for, no debts, the bills were all paid. But that also meant there wasn’t any money left!
‘We had rather naively thought that we would be able to run it as the Sturminster Hall functioned – with a committee and just a caretaker. If you hired it, you got the key, and if people wanted to have a bar, they’d get a one-off licence, and then run a bar on a table with an ice cream tub for the money. Strangely, The Exchange didn’t really work like that!
‘We’d been so obsessed with getting there that we haven’t really given that much thought to what happened next.
‘We tried to run it with volunteers – couldn’t do it. We took on someone part time, but that didn’t work either … we needed a manager, and eventually had to take on somebody without really having the money to do it, trusting they would generate the income. It took us ten years to stabilise financially, and then we really started to build some reserves, getting the whole thing really solid and secure.
‘And then came the pandemic.
‘We had the reserves, and we got a Cultural Recovery Grant, which saw us through the initial lockdown. But then things started to go pear-shaped because of course, it wasn’t just the one lockdown. And we’ve created eight jobs – eight people we’re responsible for. As we came out of the lockdowns, the confidence in the community was at rock bottom and people just didn’t want to be inside, sitting with other people. The income dropped to almost nothing.
Gradually, over a couple of years, that’s picked up. But now, as confidence has increased, so the cost of living problems have cut in. And finally, we’ve been hit by the fuel prices. That has created, for the first time in 16 years, a potential crisis. In the last few months we’ve had some sellout shows, so that is generating income. But most of our reserves have been used up just surviving since 2020. With limited reserves and depressed income, we now need to find £20,000 a year extra for electricity.
‘Somehow, we have to magic it up. So that’s where we are. Our priority over the next six months is finding money. We need to bring in money, we need our ‘village’, we need people’s goodwill. Because we have to fund this immediate crisis – we know we’ve got something that works, and we know, given time, we can adjust and adapt. But we need the funds now to allow that to happen.’
A life in music
And so to Robert’s eight music choices, in no particular order, along with how and why they have stuck in his life:
Stranger on the Shore
This is going right back to my primary school days! It’s one of the most vivid memories I have of Sturminster Primary School. Two things stick in my mind – an open coal fire in the corner of the classroom, and this music, the melody coming through from the staff room next door.
The headmaster, Fred Grinnell, played the clarinet. Stranger On The Shore was the thing in the early 60s.
Maybe 25 years later, I saw Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band playing at Bryanston. He played this song, and the effect on me was extraordinary. It never occurred to me it could do that – I was straight back to my primary school classroom. That’s the magic in a live performance.
We’ve Got Tonight
Well, this is simply Linda and me. When we were first together, as is often the case, there’s some piece of music or an artist that becomes ‘your song.’ – Elkie Brooks is ours.
When The Exchange first opened Linda, in the absence of any staff, was one of the people trying to book performers. She discovered Elkie Brooks might be available, and managed to book her. We let her manager know that we had a personal reason to persuade her to come. As a result, we have a programme from that night, which Elkie signed with “Thank you so much for inviting us to play for you.” It’s just extra special.
Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat – National Theatre cast
We’ve gone to the theatre all our lives together, and all over the place – we love all sorts of theatre, from a big King Lear to tiny local productions. Musical theatre, done well, is brilliant.
A couple of particular ones have caught our imagination – Showboat was probably the first one, a brilliant production of that by the RSC and Opera North. But we saw Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre, and again when they brought it back. It could be any one of a zillion things because we’ve seen so many, but it just happens Guys and Dolls is the last show that we’ve seen. It’s at the Bridge Theatre, a wonderful new theatre in London, and it’s a wonderful, innovative production. It is amazing. The whole show is done on a huge floor in and among the audience.
I simply had to choose one to represent our years of going to the theatre together.
It Started with a Kiss
This is because we acted together a lot – we have played parts opposite each other for years. I wrote and directed many pantomimes over the years in Sturminster, but Linda’s directed plays. And there was a period when I was so, so busy with the preliminary work for The Exchange and so on and I couldn’t do very much. Linda directed a production of Lucky Sods by John Godber. She asked me to produce it, to help get it on stage. We did something a bit different in terms of staging, borrowing something we’d seen elsewhere. We just thought “Okay, we’ll introduce this to Sturminster, even if it takes them a bit by surprise!”. And the music we used during the scene changes and so on was Hot Chocolate. That particular track just lights up that production. For me, it reminds me of working together with Linda, to put something on the stage that wasn’t quite what was expected.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
China Black ft.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
We’ve been fortunate to have visited Africa several times, so this is my Africa connection – though it is my slightly ‘easy’ African music.
But this particular track has two lots of music going on at the same time. The backing vocal is of a crowd singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – and it features me with my brothers and a group of friends (and the other 75,000 people who were at Twickenham that day!).
We have spent 30 years going to Twickenham together, to nearly every International, and on that particular day there was an announcement that they wanted to record the crowd.
So this is also 30 years of rugby with a very, very tight band of friends and my brothers.
Sotto le Stelle del Jazz
Paolo Conte: Concerti
This could have been any one of a number of Paolo Conte tracks. We were in Venice, and spent two weeks trying to ‘live in Venice’ and not just be tourists. One night we went out for a meal, and wandered into an interesting- looking place. We spoke no Italian, the proprietor spoke no English, we were the only people there … it defies description, and it was one of the best evenings we’ve ever had. We got the full on Basil Fawlty treatment, full on The Godfather … and throughout the entire bizarre evening there was equally bizarre music filtering through the wall from the kitchen. By the time we left we were really quite chatty with the proprietor – even in the absence of any actual language – and we did manage to communicate with him that we wanted to know what this music was. He wrote it down for us, and one of our projects the next day was to find a CD shop (not easy in the middle of Venice!). We bought The Best Of album, and since then we have bought more and more and more Paolo Conte. We even managed to see him live in London. He’s very unusual, it’s very distinctive. And to us, it’s Venice – and happiness.
Barrelhouse Blues Orchestra
This is The Exchange, absolutely The Exchange. Paul Hart, who lived a couple of houses up the road, was an athlete, a musician and an artist. Most local people will know the mural he painted in the Co-op. He ran the Barrelhouse Blues Club as a sort of rotating club at different bases. He had a huge number of musical contacts, so he could get some quite big names to come and do guest performances. And when The Exchange opened, it was absolutely what he’d been waiting for, for all these years. He was the other person who was really responsible for booking some of the bigger live acts. He brought in Andy Fairweather Low very early on. Alongside all this, the Barrelhouse Blues Orchestra was a flexible group of around 25 local musicians, with Paul leading it and Johnny Mars his partner in crime. It’s quite difficult with that number of people to play together – you need a really big stage. So again, The Exchange was perfect. They recorded a CD and most of the tracks on it were played on Radio Two, where they had quite a bit of air time, because they were a rather unusual outfit.This particular track on the CD is a live performance from the Coade Hall at Bryanston. Paul died not so long after The Exchange opened, sadly, but the Barrelhouse Blues Orchestra came back several times after that to perform there. It’s just a wonderful example of local talent, local enthusiasm.
And flippin’ good music.
The Boys of the National Defence
‘This is Greece for us. We’ve travelled a lot – only a few years after we got married, we had a serious road accident, I was very nearly killed. It was a long recovery time, and we decided after that life was for living. And although we were busy, and we had family – we have five children between us – we’ve always said we need to make time for ourselves to stay sane. After the accident, we decided that if we could do things, we would. So although we didn’t have that much time, we set about traveling when we could. The first holiday we had abroad was to Greece – though we knew nothing about Greece!
We absolutely fell in love with the village that we went to, and we carried on going back. The last time we went was five, six years ago. We’ve had many, many years of magic there. And part of that has been that we’ve always arrived and left from Mytilene, the main town. It’s just an absolute wraparound memory of eating in the tavernas of Mytilene, with Greek music as it should be.
The save and the book
There’s a tidal wave coming to your island, and you can only save one disc – which would it be?
‘I think I’d have to save the Paolo Conte. All the songs, you will have gathered, are there for the memories that go with them. I like music – I prefer it live, really, rather than sitting in a room listening to it, and there are other pieces of music that I might enjoy more for themselves. But everything on this list is just there for the memories. And Venice is a pretty good core memory for me.
‘Choosing a single book is very difficult … but I will have to go for Nicholas Nickleby.
There are other writers, and though I love Dickens he’s probably not my top-top favourite. But I was lucky enough, back in the early 80s, to see a particular production of Nicholas Nickleby. Trevor Nunn set out to dramatise the whole book – not to do an extract or condensed version, but the whole thing. What they eventually came up with ran for eight-and-a-half hours. If you wanted to see the whole thing in one day, you could, and break for meals. And it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on the stage. I actually have a copy of Nicholas Nickleby with illustrations from that show, and that unlocks extraordinary theatrical memories. So again, it scores on two levels.’
Click to listen to Robert’s playlist on YouTube