Murray Edwards came to Wakefield to take up the post of Director of the Theatre Royal shortly before the dawn of the new millennium. He has played a significant part in the cultural and social development of our City and District for well over 20 years. He retired from his most recent significant role, as Director of the Community Foundation Wakefield District, on 30th September 2021.
He grew up in Edinburgh, where he studied at the University, and where he was awarded a degree in chemistry. He joined the university drama society, where he became its finance and tour manager. He was the only member of the society who went on to pursue a career in the theatre, becoming the first Director of the Eden Court in Inverness in the 70s and working with the Mermaid in London in the 80s. He brought televised snooker to the Hexagon in Reading and opened the Barbican in York.
Wakefield Theatre Royal became his biggest challenge and his greatest achievement. In 2004, he set up the now thriving Performance Academy, which attracts young people from all over Yorkshire. He also set up a bursary system so that any young person who could not afford the fees could be subsidised, as well as the annual youth musical which still starts the Autumn Season. Young people audition from across Yorkshire and are exposed to professional direction, technical expertise, choreography and musicians. It continues to be a spectacular show and many performers have gone on to perform in the West End. His drive, tenacity, innovative thinking and enthusiasm transformed a theatre which was struggling to survive into the successful entity that it is today – an asset of which Wakefield can be truly proud.
During his career, there were many occasions when he had to turn around the fortunes of arts establishments and since his retirement from the Theatre Royal in 2016, he has worked in a voluntary capacity to assist other theatres and arts organisations to bring more rigour and an ethical approach into their governance. He is still a trustee of Settle Stories, helping them to thrive and is hugely supportive of The Yorkshire Festival of Story that takes place again this November to an online local and international audience.
But it is his involvement with the Community Foundation to which we now pay tribute. With the then Bishop of Wakefield, Steven Platten, and others, Murray worked to establish the Foundation, which came into existence in 2006. He became one of its founder trustees, taking on the role of Vice Chair. Since then, the Foundation has experienced challenging times, with substantial reductions in public funding for charities and cuts in national and local grant-giving. In 2016 the Foundation required major financial and reputational transformation and Murray stepped in to help turn its fortunes around. With his energy, commitment and dogged determination, he spearheaded the transformation of the Foundation into a leading force for good in the local charitable sector.
Murray set about building an organisation that engages communities, councillors, businesses and, most importantly, donors and members. He created new funds for the community, covering, fuel poverty, the elderly and isolated, young people, and women. He obtained match funding, spoke at meetings and generally promoted the Foundation, so that it was well-placed to respond to the huge demands resulting from the pandemic. Since its establishment, the Foundation has given grants to the tune of almost £2million to over a thousand local causes and is building an endowment fund which now stands at over £500K. It has created other funds and distributes money to address the needs of the Wakefield District.
Murray’s success attracted an active group of trustees. It also led to the appointment of other staff, starting with a paid part-time fundraiser and subsequently a Head of Development. He himself dedicates much of his time to the Foundation, but he has also appointed a team of volunteers, supported the kick start scheme by employing young people and with the support of local business and donations from the public, opened a charity shop in Wakefield’s Trinity Walk shopping centre which goes from strength to strength.
He has been instrumental in setting up and running the Foundation’s annual Unsung Heroes Awards, which recognises and rewards volunteers in the Wakefield District. The fifth awards have just been staged, sponsored by a number of well-known organisations and hosted by TV personalities. This event achieves greatly needed publicity for the work the Foundation does locally.
The Foundation bids a fond farewell to this remarkable man. He thoroughly deserves to enjoy a long and happy retirement, during which he will be able to watch the Foundation build on the sound base he established. The charity sector in Wakefield and District owes him a huge debt of gratitude, as do the countless residents who have benefited from the support they have received.
We, the trustees, staff and volunteers have had a true friend and colleague in Murray and, although we will see less of him from now on, we know that he will continue to show a close interest in, and support for, the work that we are able to do in the community as a result of his tireless efforts over the last 15 years.
Good luck, Murray. See more of your wonderful supportive wife, Barbara, and your daughters, stepsons and grandchildren, and make the most of your increased leisure time to enjoy your great passions – the theatre, travel and food both cooking and consuming. And keep in touch – we’re going to miss you.
Chair of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees