Neston Town Hall – the beginning
by Stella Young
Although the need for a public hall had been discussed before, it was in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (50th anniversary of her accession to the throne) that it began to look like a serious possibility. Other towns in the country were considering permanent memorials for the occasion and some, like Malpas, had decided on a public hall. At a meeting of Neston and Parkgate Local Board it was suggested that this would be a very suitable idea for Neston and John Gaitskell Churton, a member of the Board, suggested holding a public meeting to discuss how the proposal might best be implemented and the meeting was held in National School-room in Liverpool Road in March 1887.
That there had long been a need for it was not doubted. The National School-room in Liverpool Road (opened in 1859) was the venue which was most often used for public entertainments, balls and meetings. It was not, by all accounts at the time, a very attractive venue or even a healthy one despite improvements to the heating and ventilation carried out in 1886. Speaking at that first public meeting Thomas Comber, who lived at Richville (later the Parkgate Hotel) commented on conditions at the school, saying that-
‘…They were close, draughty, dirty, and uncomfortable. Quite a number of his friends had suffered in health in consequence; in fact if a public hall were built Dr Russell would find that his patients were falling off, and the returns of the medical officer of health would show a much smaller death rate. (Laughter)…’
Cheshire Observer, Saturday 19th March
Whilst the newspapers carried the official reports of meetings held and progress made in bringing the Town Hall project to a successful conclusion the opinions of the Neston populace on the matter can be gleaned from a regular column entitled Neston Local Gossip written under the byline Old Fogie. This was the pseudonym of Edward (Edwin) Kerns (see Neston Female Friendly Society – Secretaries and Club Day Discord). He provides a graphic description of conditions in the School.
‘…If any school could so far forget itself as to tempt little boys and girls to play truant among the buttercups and daisies instead of bringing themselves within the clutches of their pastors and masters, our local temple of learning would be the first to commit itself. Perspiring little boys, who have been crowded together in it in hot weather, before the ventilation pipes were put in, have stained its walls with their dank locks; and little boys, who have sat shivering in school upon rainy days when the fire-places were a farce, have left the impression of their little wet shoulders upon it until between the two the light- complexioned bricks have acquired the cheerful tints of a well-seasoned meerschaum. The building is about as bright and attractive on the whole as a second-rate undertaker’s shop and is rather more monotone. Then there are peculiar desks that, with mingled feelings, we remember to have sat upon at the entertainments. The seats are made of very soft wood and the knots are made of very hard wood, and the constant down sitting and uprising of little boys has caused the knots to grow and bulge out to an alarming extent. I have often thought that if any of those little urchins get lost their loving parents will be able to mention certain marks by which they may be easily identified and returned to their deserted hearths. And yet there are unfeeling people in the world who wonder why little boys can’t sit still…’
Cheshire Observer – Saturday 11th May 1889.
If the National School-room in Liverpool Road was considered inadequate for local entertainments premises used by the Neston Volunteers was also unsuitable; they met in the old school building which was in use before the National School in Liverpool Road opened in 1859 and it was now far too small and cramped to accommodate them now that their membership was in the region of 100. It was proposed that the new building should include a drill hall which would provide more suitable accommodation. This existing drill hall together with the field on which it stood was eventually bought as the site for the new Town Hall.
At the initial meeting senior magistrate Mr Duncan Graham of Lydiate House was elected chairman and letters of support were read from Rev. Canon Gleadowe and Mr Reginald Bushell, son of the late Christopher Bushell of Hinderton Hall. The meeting was well attended and it was decided to appoint a committee to consider the possible means of bringing the plan to fruition. The committee consisted of members of the Local Board, local magistrates, the Reverends Gleadowe, Barrett and Towert, Colonel Lacy and Messrs Reginald Bushell, Thomas Comber, Hugh Wyse and M and T Glover.
The first decision which had to be reached was how the cost of building it might be met. There were three possible ways: by the Local Board undertaking to meet the costs from the rates so that all ratepayers contributed towards the cost, by voluntary donations from residents or by inviting investors to buy shares in a limited company.
Old Fogie’s somewhat irreverent comments on the reaction to these proceedings in Neston are recorded in the Cheshire Observer, 23rd April 1887.
‘when it comes to a bit of practical jubilation, we button up our – well never mind- pockets and enquire cautiously – “well how much percentage will it pay?”… The shopkeepers thought the bigwigs intended to do it, and were prepared to laud them accordingly, and the bigwigs were preparing to do a little cheap loyalty by putting it on the rates, and making everyone pay, and so it comes about there is nothing done. The public hall of the ‘Neston Public Hall Company’ had nothing to do with the Queen’s Jubilee and the sooner we disabuse our minds of the idea the better.’
Despite Old Fogie’s scepticism things moved on and at a meeting of the committee in May it was recorded that ten plans with estimates had been submitted and that they were to be considered, with names removed, by a working committee of Thomas Comber, John Churton, Thomas Clarke, William Jones and Major John Lloyd. It was also decided that they should pursue the idea of setting up a limited company and see how many residents wished to purchase shares. The plans were for a building which would provide a drill hall for the Volunteers, a concert hall and office accommodation.
In August a public meeting was held to consider the committee’s report. The plans submitted had been shortlisted to three but the working subcommittee’s recommendation was for Plan no 2
‘…Three sets of plans were finally selected by the sub- committee, and it now remains for the executive committee to say which of those three shall be the adopted plan for the Neston Town Hall. It might, however, be desirable to state that in the opinion of the sub-committee plan No. 2 appears to fulfil the more desirable conditions. The estimate of cost to carry out this plan is very little in excess of the limit fixed by the executive committee, viz., £1,688, and this is supplemented by a builder’s approximate estimate of £1,688 2s. 3d. This plan provides for a concert room, measuring 64ft. by 36ft. ; drill hall, 64ft. by 36ft (which latter is free from columns internally, and with an independent means of access) ; board room, 25ft. by 17ft., which is sufficiently large to be used as a supper room if found necessary ; two ground floor offices, which might be adapted as library and reading rooms ; also kitchens, with separate approaches from the main street and the rear of the buildings; and lavatories, which are convenient of access from the adjacent rooms…
( Cheshire Observer – Saturday 13 August 1887)
The committee also reported on the take up of shares and the decision was made to establish a limited liability company to be called the Neston Town Hall Company with a capital of £3000.
Neston Town Hall Company
In September the Company was registered and Churton and Clarke were appointed to consult the architect, Mr David Walker of Liverpool, to discuss how the cost of his design might be reduced to £1500.
The Old Fogie recorded this progress with his usual levity
‘… We shall have our public hall yet. The ten leading citizens who have taken the matter in hand comprise all the intellect in the district that is worth talking about and they have sworn to bring it about or to lose £15 in the attempts. They have taken Time by the forelock as it were, and if the old scythe-bearer doesn’t cry out for quarter his front hair will come out by the roots sudden, and his hour-glass will be kicked into the middle of next week…’
(Cheshire Observer – Saturday 10 September 1887)
The Company was registered in October with a capital of £3000 in £1 shares. The initial subscribers were:-
Uvedale Corbett, J.P., Ashfield Hall, Neston
David Russell, M.D, Vine House Neston
John Gaitskill Churton, Wine Merchant, Manor House Neston.
John Caleb Lloyd, Neston, sadler, High Street, Neston
Colonel Richard Lacy, Moorholme, Neston
Reginald Bushell, merchant, Hinderton Hall, Neston
Thomas Clarke, cotton broker, Leahurst Hall, Neston
William Aaron, merchant, Broadlake, Neston
William G. Scott, cotton salesman, High Street
William Jones, wine merchant, High Street, Neston
A shareholders meeting in May 1888 reported on the tenders that had been received for building the proposed plan and they ranged from £1945 to £2963. Clearly the architect’s estimate of £1500 for the accommodation proposed was somewhat optimistic and it was evident that some adjustment would be necessary. The directors
offered two possibilities for consideration: to combine the drill shed and public hall instead of having two separate spaces or to reduce the size of the public hall. Mr Churton considered that a hall to seat 500 was somewhat excessive for the size of the town and that 350 seats with orchestra space would be sufficient. It was decided to opt for a separate drill shed and public hall and reduce the size of the hall.
In June the committee considered tenders from William Pritchard of Little Neston and Mr Shaw of Birkenhead. It was decided to accept William Pritchard’s tender of £1708 and to authorise purchase of the land at a cost of £550.
Building work begins
Work began in August 1888 and the date of 6th September was chosen for the laying of the foundation stone. John Churton’s wife was chosen to lay the stone and invitations were sent to friendly societies, Freemasons, school children, Volunteers and other public bodies. It was decided that the foundation stone should be formally laid on 6th September and that Mrs Churton should perform the ceremony. Beneath the stone were placed copies of The Times, The Chester Chronicle and the Birkenhead Advertiser. A full report of the day appeared in the Cheshire Observer. The ceremony began with a procession from the National School down to the site of the new building.
‘LAYING THE FOUNDATION STONE OF THE NEW TOWN HALL.
The foundation stone of the Town Hall buildings to be erected in High-street, Neston, by a limited company, composed for the most part of residents in the village and district, was laid on Thursday evening by Mrs J. G. Churton, wife of the chairman of the board of directors. An event of such importance locally was naturally regarded with considerable interest, and the village was for the occasion en fete. In addition to the ceremony of laying the stone a procession was formed, and walked from the Neston National Schools down High-street, which was gaily decorated with bunting, to the site of the new buildings. First came the Neston Company of the Ist V.B. 22nd Regiment (late Ist CRV) 60 strong, and headed by their band. The officers present were Captain and Honorary Major Lloyd, and Lieutenant Grundy (in command). Next in order were the school children numbering 350, with the teachers (Mr W. M. Hough; head master ; Miss Ritchie, infant mistress ; Miss Fairbrother, Miss Jones, Miss Jellicoe, Miss Caunce and Miss Cameen). The Pride of Neston Lodge of the Order of Druids, with their banner, followed, and the remaining portion of the procession was made up of directors, shareholders, and local residents, among whom were the Rev. J. Lyon, Rev. J. Towert, Rev. W. Pritchard, Rev. J. W. Aldom, Mr J. Gamon of the firm of Parry, Gamon, and Farmer (solicitors to the Public Hall Company), Colonel Lacy, Dr. Russell, Messrs W. Jones, T. Clark (members of the Neston and Parkgate Local Board), H. Gleadowe, C. Carter, T. Chesworth, T. Cottrell, W. Grocott, Bushell, W. Bulley, W. Briscoe, Bowers, T. Molyneux, W. Hancock, R. Ostle, Radcliffe, Thomas Jones, Maddox (Moorside), Williams, McDowell, and Dr. Riddock. On reaching the site of the hall the volunteers formed up so as to keep the crowd, which numbered quite 2,000 persons, from blocking the entrance to the ground, and the procession passed in to the position allotted to it. The whole of the temporary platforms, and every available position which commanded a view of the ceremony, was crowded with spectators, and an immense throng who could not obtain admittance crowded the approaches…’
(Cheshire Observer – Saturday 08 September 1888)
Mrs Churton laid the foundation stone and was presented with a silver trowel with the inscription –
‘Presented to Mrs J. G. Churton on the laying of the foundation stone of the Neston Town Hall.’
The inscription on the stone was –
‘This stone was laid by Mrs J. G. Churton, September 6th, 1883.’
The report also included a description of the building that Neston could soon look forward to seeing on the High Street.
‘…The building, designed by Mr David Walker, of Liverpool, is of the Queen Anne style, and will be built of red brick terra-Cotta and red stone. It is to include a drill- hall for the local volunteers, 53 feet by 32 feet, and above this a public assembly-hall of the same size, and capable of seating 330 people, as well as an orchestra of 40 performers. In the front the ground floor will be utilised partly as a bank and partly as a public library and reading-room, and the first floor as the offices of the Neston Local Board…’
The directors of the company were afterwards entertained at the Churtons’ home in Moorside while the celebrations continued in Neston with dancing on the green of the Golden Lion.
Building was completed in February 1889 and the first public event to be held there was a ball for the No 5 Company, 1st Volunteer Battalion, Cheshire Regiment given by Mr Duncan Graham. It was also the occasion of the Volunteers annual prize giving.
…and such a brilliant assemblage of “fair women and brave men ” has not been seen in Neston before. The lights which streamed from the windows were only partially subdued by the flags which had been placed over them, and the unusual sight, added to the continuous roll of wheels in the High-street and principal thoroughfare where the Town Hall is situated roused the good old town to quite an unusual pitch of excitement, and a large crowd congregated to watch the vehicles discharge their fair occupants at the principal entrance.
‘…Dancing commenced at eight p.m., and soon after that hour over 200 guests had passed into the Assembly Room, which was gaily decorated for the occasion with bunting. The room is well lighted from the roof with several clusters of sunlight burners, and the general effect of the uniforms of the Volunteers and the charming costumes of their fair partners commingled in the dance was very striking. The brass band of the company occupied a place upon the stage, and performed an appropriate selection of music….’
(Cheshire Observer – Saturday 16 February 1889)
Prizes were distributed by Mr Duncan Graham, formerly commanding officer of the regiment, who had only recently been elected to the County Council. The main prize was a silver challenge cup plus £5 7s which was awarded to Sergeant Small.
Before dancing resumed Mr Graham’s daughter Rosita, who was shortly to be married to Herbert James Torr , was presented with a gift from the Volunteers by Major Lloyd which consisted of a clock made by Russells’ of Liverpool with the inscription –
‘Presented to Miss Graham, on the occasion of her marriage, with the best wishes of No. 5 Company, Ist Volunteer Battalion Cheshire Regiment. Neston, Feb., 1889’
The conventions of the time did not permit Miss Graham to thank the company herself and it was her father who thanked them on her behalf, pointing out that had she been married, her father pointed, it would have been her husband’s place to do it. Dancing resumed afterwards with a programme which included polkas, quadrilles, waltzes and Shottische and the evening about 1.30 in the morning concluded with God Save the Queen.
As might be imagined opinions in Neston were mixed and some reactions were not wholly positive. Old Fogie in his column on Saturday 11th May 1889 certainly seemed to have been on the receiving end of enquiries as to his opinion.
‘…What do you think of the new Town Hall ?” is the question that has been addressed to the Old Fogie again and again … and almost invariably there has hovered about the inquirer’s features that frank and open smile which is such a characteristic of the Neston people, and which bespeaks their native innocence…’
Although Old Fogie insisted that his comments were limited to a non-committal ‘Well, it’s not so bad’, he was less than enthusiastic about the building’s exterior.
‘…Candidly speaking Neston itself doesn’t know what to think of it. It goes past that way often, stops in front of the building, thrusts its bands deep into its trousers pockets, gazes meditatively and critically upon it, and comes to no definite conclusion. As I have mentioned above, it is not so bad; and I may even venture a little further and say that it has its good points. It is really a modest, retiring, unassuming kind of an edifice, and there is something about it — though one can scarcely tell what — that reminds one of the young gentleman who commenced operations upon a Christmas pie by pulling out a plum. The only thing to be done is to move the veterinary surgeon’s establishment a little lower down the street, knock Cryer’s shop into Kingdom Come (giving the tenant time to advertise his removal of the business of course), and plant the space thus created with weeping willows and similar sympathetic vegetation…’
But he seemed happy with the interior and satisfied that it answered a need in Neston.
‘…These remarks only apply to the exterior of the building, however, and that does not so much matter. There is many a really nice human being buttoned up in a coat that would not know a West End tailor if it met him in the street, and the interior of the Town Hall is very much superior to the outside, or in fact to anything we have had in Neston before. After all, it was the inside we wanted…’
According to Old Fogey the dance floor was tried out before the official launch by two local residents who, finding the doors open, had wandered in to have a look around. Although he does not name them it is, perhaps, possible that one of them was Old Fogey himself.
Whether the young lady was a thought reader — most young ladies are— or whether she had some intuitive perception of what was passing through the gentleman’s mind I am unable to say, but this I do know, that when the gentleman crossed over to the young lady, who looked as if she could not do such a thing, she signified her intention in the usual manner by raising her hand and resting it lightly upon the gentleman’s shoulder. The arm attached to the latter immediately insinuated itself about the slender waist and off they went, one two three, one two three, one two three, round and round the room, until the gentleman was all of a perspiration, and the young lady was all of a glow — that, I believe, is the proper way of expressing it. — Whether the gentleman puckered up his semi-military moustache and whistled aloud, or the young lady compressed her rosy lips and hummed in a subdued murmur is not recorded, but when the county councillor for the Neston Division accompanied by some of the directors came into the room, and all but caught them, the artful creatures talked in unimpassioned tones about the stage, and the windows, and other matters, until they had succeeded in talking themselves out of the room and into the street. That, oh gentle reader ! is the true and only authentic description of the opening of the town hall.
There were it appears some initial ‘snags’ with the building –
The gentlemen of the Local Board had a narrow escape on Monday evening. The large gas chandelier of many burners and resplendent shade came down crash upon the board-room table just after the hon. gentlemen had retired. The smash attracted the attention of passers-by, who at once came to the conclusion that the members had blown themselves up with spontaneous combustion. Another theory was to the effect that some irritated ratepayer who had been compelled to “convert” his insanitary property had retaliated by using one of the new compounds for converting obnoxious Governments and other public bodies into jelly. When the room was at last entered it was found that soma piping which had withstood the heat of the gas since the opening of the hall had succumbed to the melting eloquence of one of the members, and so caused the catastrophe. It is rather a significant fact that the local ambulance class commenced on Tuesday to bold its meetings under the same roof as the boardroom.
The downstairs office space was let to the North and South Wales Bank and the hall and other rooms were now available for hire for concerts, dances and other entertainments.
Neston and District Literary Society
The Neston and District Literary Society which had been accustomed to meeting in the Schoolroom now made the decision to move to the Town Hall when it opened. The Society had a small library for its members and this was also accommodated at the Town Hall. The newly available facilities allowed their activities to be developed further and in June 1889 a meeting was held to discuss the provision of a public reading room, library and club. By August the Neston Reading Room Committee met to confirm that a Reading Room would be opened in the downstairs room opposite the bank and that an upstairs room would be used as a library. Their official tenancy began in October and in November 1889 the new Literary Society Library and Club was officially opened.
The first concert of autumn 1890 was in aid of the newly formed Neston Quoits Club. It included performances by the Neston Choral Society, a piano duet by Mrs Russell (Dr Russell’s wife) and Mrs Barret and a solo by Mrs Reginald Corbett. The highlight of the evening, however, was the Rev. W. F. Barrett’s rendition of a song composed especially for Neston, featuring references to Neston’s ‘local peculiarities’.
‘…Rev. W. F Barrett… proceeded to endanger the safety of the building by singing ‘In Neston, you know’. When a Neston audience finds a minstrel who can hit off their local peculiarities – their lamps one or two to the mile, which are never lighted if there is a considerable quantity of moon on the almanac, their drill hall which has several times threatened to combine the properties of a swimming pool, &c, &c..’
Cheshire Observer, Saturday 01 November 1899.
Hopefully it was the old drill hall which was subject to flooding and not the new one in the Town Hall basement (now used by the fish stall). As well as being used by the Volunteers the drill hall was often used by the Victoria Jubilee Lodge of the Ancient Order of Shepherds for their annual supper and by the Quoits Club, on occasion, for their prize-giving.
The Town Hall was essentially a business enterprise which was required to generate sufficient income and profit to pay a dividend to its shareholders. The first AGM after the opening took place in March 1890 (Cheshire Observer, Saturday 29th March, 1890) was marked by some disagreement amongst the directors and shareholders present. The first years accounts were discussed and showed the cost of building, including £550 for the site, was £2,811 3s 5d. They also showed receipts up to December 1889 as £114 14s 10d against expenditure of £102 3s 1d leaving a balance of only £12 11s 9d. Colonel Lacy, vice-chairman, who presided at the meeting pointed out that the Hall had not yet been open for a full year and that only rents which had been due before the end of December had been taken into account as ‘a debt could not be considered a debt until it became due’ . A heated exchange about about the way in which the accounts were presented then ensued. Mr Scott and Mr Clarke were of the view that that ‘the portion of rent which had been earned ought to be set down as an asset’ with Colonel Lacy insisting that it ‘It is not an asset until it is due’. Most of those present agreed with Colonel Lacy and the accounts were accepted. Mr Scott proposed that a chartered accountant be elected as auditor in place of Henry Bulley and he was again supported in this by Mr Scott. John Morris, one of the shareholders,(he was also surveyor to Neston and Parkgate Local Board), however, proposed that Mr Bulley be re-elected as auditor as he was perfectly able to do the work while ‘the accountants were simply a self-elected body, to which any duffer who cared to pay the fees might belong’. His proposal won by seven votes to five.
By April 1891 the Company was in position to pay a dividend of 2 ½ % to its shareholders, rising to 3% the following year.
Secretary to the Town Hall Company in these early years was William Tranter of Parkgate Road, He had come to Neston as station master and after a few years in business in Parkgate Road was appointed rate collector by Neston and Parkgate Local Board.
The Town Hall continued to operate as a limited company until 1934 when it was bought by the then newly formed Neston Urban District Council.