A very brief history of Houghton & Wyton Memorial Hall

by Gerald Feakes

I have been asked to write a short history of the Village Hall but as the history covers eighty years I shall have to do this over more than one edition of the Magazine. 

These notes have been complied from the minute books of the Village Hall Committee.  The quotations are directly from the minutes.

Part 1 – The beginning

The first mention about a communal hall in Houghton and Wyton is of a public meeting on the 17th October 1923 when the proposal, “this meeting desires a Parish Hall” was put and passed.  It is not yet known what led to this initiative but there must have been a strong desire to establish a hall because at the meeting a committee was formed, with members carefully selected from both Houghton and Wyton, seven from the former and six from the latter.  Additionally, the proposal “that 1000 debentures* be issued at 5s [25p]” to raise money for the project was also carried and the Rector of Wyton offered Wyton School for the hall for £1,100, “subject to the agreement of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners”.**

Nine days later the newly appointed Committee met and promptly rejected the Rector’s offer of Wyton School, “as the building is unsuitable.“  but eight days after that met again to propose “a hearty vote of thanks to Mr Whymper for presenting the site”  and that, “Mr Whymper’s gift be accepted.”  The gift cost Mr Whymper £200.00.***

At the same meeting the Committee proposed that, “the Secretary can get some plans out from Mr Whymper’s sketch”.

In only twenty-three days from the first meeting the village had acquired the site for the Hall and was considering the form that the building should take.

Mr Whymper’s original plans were for a hall measuring 60feet (18.3m) by 22 feet (6.7m) and it was agreed, “That the plan be adopted with alteration of the hall now to be 60feet by 20feet and the kitchen and cloakroom to be 10feet  making the length of the hall 70feet[21.3m] in all.”  An architect was appointed and advertisements placed asking builders to tender.

But after this short period of enthusiasm and hectic activity the pace slowed as references to architects, builders and money began to appear in the Committee minutes.

It seems that the tenders sent in by the builders were too costly and in December 1923 a Committee Meeting decided that the building should not cost more than £350.00 and “it was agreed to reduce the brickwork considerably and substitute lath and plaster and replace the wooden framework of the roof by a framework of iron and purloins of wood.”

Only one builder, Mr Wakefield from Houghton, was asked to tender on the new plans.

At the first meeting in 1925 Mr Wakefield’s tender based on the new plans was rejected, presumably because it was too high and it was reported that the architect had resigned because of ill health.  It was not until May that a tender of £370.00 from Mr Wakefield was accepted and new architects appointed. 

Money now became a problem. Borrowing was authorised and further subscriptions invited, with, it was noted, a good response.

But in spite of all these problems building continued and at a General Meeting on the 7th of November 1924 the completed building was handed over to the Committee of Management.

Thus, in one year and twenty-one days the Hall, from being but a desire of Houghton and Wyton villagers had become a building ready for their use.

* Debentures are a way in which an organisation can raise money.  Investors are invited to buy shares and are entitled to interest.  However, unlike many other forms of borrowing and lending money e.g. a mortgage, debenture holders do not have any security for the money that they have lent to the organisation.

** Wyton School was where Fosse Cottage in Huntingdon Road now stands.

*** Mr Whymper was an artist who lived in the house that he built and named after himself on the South side of The Green.  He was also Chairman of the Hall Committee.  The site Mr Whymper bought was the end part of the garden of the George and Dragon public house on the North side of The Green.  The pub closed in the early in the 1930s and the garden  is now occupied by Beer’s Garage. The vendors, Marshalls the brewers from Huntingdon, stipulated that a fence was to be built and maintained between the site and the remainder of the pub garden and that no alcoholic drinks were to be sold in the Hall.  Until recently it was thought that this ban on the sale of drink came from a concern for the moral and physical health of villagers but it is now clear that Marshall’s intention was to prevent any damage to the trade of the pub.

 

Part 2 – The first year

These notes have been complied from the minute books of the Village Hall Committee.  The quotations are directly from the minutes.

I left the story of the Hall the end of part one of my “very brief history” with the newly completed Hall being handed over from the committee that supervised the building to a Management Committee on the 7th November 1924,

The Management Committee held its first meeting the same night and the members began the task of turning the empty building into a facility that could be offered for hire.

Furniture was an essential requirement.  Fifty chairs were bought   from Mr Kiddle* for £10.00 and the purchase of twenty whist tables “at a cost not exceeding 2s 3d (11p) each”** was authorised in December though this expense was lessened by a gift of six tables.

A piano was thought necessary. One Committee member advanced money for this and an instrument was purchased on a month’s trial and shortly afterwards the purchase was confirmed.

The Hall was not fitted with lighting and heating during building and these were left for the Committee to provide. Oil lamps were purchased from Mr Whaleys*, “three large ones for the Hall at 33s [£1.65] each and three small ones for the anterooms at a cost not exceeding 20s [£1]“and heating stoves were purchased for 29s 6d (£1.47) each.  The Committee was grateful for the offer of an oil drum. 

The Committee fixed the hire charges.  Until 4.30pm 2s per hour was charged and after that time 2s 6d (13p).  Use of the piano was extra “6d (2p) per hour with a minimum of 1s and a maximum of 2s 6d.

A “demountable” stage was made.  The Committee passed the proposal “that we accept Houghton and Wyton Constitutional Association’s offer of 25s (£1.25) towards the cost of trestles for the stage and the Parish hall Society to find the remainder”.

Other essential items, curtains and rods, pegboards for the hanging of coats and cleaning equipment were also purchased.

The Committee insured the furniture and fittings for £100.00

At the first meeting a caretaker was appointed but he resigned two months later.  It was agreed that his successor should have the remuneration of 2s 6d a week with an extra 1s when the stage was required.

There are few mentions in the minutes of functions in the Hall unless the prior approval of the Committee was needed for them, the Committee sponsored them – usually for fund raising – or problems occurred while they were being held.

However, the first Committee meeting on the 7th November 1924 it was noted that the Social Guild was using the Hall and the Badminton Club was “able to mark out the floor providing this did not injure the floor”.  Two months later the offer of the St Ives Gymnastic Club to give a display for the Hall funds was accepted.

In December 1924 one important item that had not been included in the original design for the Hall was considered when the Committee was “offered wood for the erecting of a lavatory”.  At the meeting held a fortnight later it was noted that the wood was too wet to use but the vendor??? had some more which he offered at the purchase price of £1.6.6 (£1.32).  It was agreed to buy it.  It is not clear whether this wood was used as by March 1925 the Committee had obtained two estimates for lavatories, one for £11.0.0 and the other “which included concrete for both lavatories” was £14.0.0.  However, the meeting decided, “that the men’s lavatory should be dispensed with and in its place a urinal should be found”.  A fresh estimate for the revised plan was sought.

Six month’s later an estimate of £15.0.0 for a lavatory and a shed was accepted.  Apparently the building work went ahead as later in the year the Honorary Secretary was instructed to purchase a hurricane lamp for use in this new facility and the Women’s Institute provided a curtain.

By now, in November 1925, the Hall was one year old.  It had been furnished, given heating and lighting, a caretaker and a cleaner were in post and it was apparently well-used as, in November, “The question of a dance and entertainment by the St Ives Gymnastic Club was held over until the New Year as there were too many entertainments at the moment”.

* Kiddles was a furnishing shop in St Ives on the corner where Bridge Street meets Crown Street.  It closed in the 1980s and the site is now occupied by New Look.

Whaleys was an ironmongers and hardware shop situated opposite the present Eaden Lilley premises in Bridge Street, St Ives.  It also closed in the 1980s.

** It is difficult to give a modern equivalent of prices from the past but this table shows some amounts from 1924/5 with their approximate 2004 equivalents:

1924/5 2004
10p £1.81
50p £18.14
£1 £36.28
£10 £362.85
£15 £544

Part 3 – Raising the money for building the Hall

In 1924 the Committee was fortunate that the land for the Hall had been  given to it by Charles Whymper.  However, the Committee still had to raise the money for the building.  This was expected to be £350 though the contract with the builder was for £370. The Committee proposed to raise this amount by issuing debentures and at a General Meeting on 23rd of May “the Committee was authorised to borrow £500.00 at a rate not exceeding 4% against the security of the debentures”.(1)

The extant records show that 1304 5s (25p) debentures were bought by 80 people bringing in a total of £326..

The highest number bought by an individual was 400 but many people bought just a few; with eighteen buying two and four people just one..(2)

Each purchaser received a certificate showing their holding and the terms of the debentures.  The chief terms were that the rate of interest would be 4% per annum and that the Hall Committee could buy back the debenture at any time.

The certificates were printed on heavy paper and bound into a book.  Each certificate was in two parts, one of which was given to the purchaser and the other remained as a counterfoil in the book.

Debentures could be sold or gifted by the holder and when this happened a further certificate was completed showing which debentures were being transferred and who had sold and bought them.

The cost of setting up the scheme must have been high because in addition to the printing costs stamp duty was payable; 2.6d (12p) on each certificate for the issue of debentures and 1s (5p) on each transfer.

Unfortunately, no accounts, records (apart from those concerning the debentures), or annual balance sheets seem to have survived so the Committee minutes are the only source of information. It is not until 1938 the matter of debentures appears again in the minutes.

In January 1938 some transfer of debentures between holders is noted and in March there is a note that notices had been sent to relatives of deceased debenture holders and that some were surrendering them.  This probably means that the certificates were returned to the Committee without any payment. 

At the same meeting it was decided to hold a meeting of debenture holders in May.

The minutes of the May meeting state:

“The meeting had been called to put before the debenture holders the exact financial statement.

The Honorary Treasurer gave a review of the financial position since the hall was built.

In 1930 the Hall had a debit balance of £6.3.0 (£6.15) while a dividend [interest] of £9.1.3 (£9.06) was paid

He went of the say that in his opinion it was impossible to go on paying dividends while the finances of the Hall were in such a precarious position and he would like the views of the members on the matter.

After discussion it was proposed, “that all accrued interest on debentures up to December 1937 be cancelled”.  The proposal … was carried unanimously”.

This is the first indication in the records of how the interest payments on the debentures were such a drain on the finances of the Hall.

Strangely, the Hall prospered financially during the Second World War and at the first Committee meeting after the war the treasurer was able to report that the Hall now had £198.11.3 (£198.56) in its funds.

At the same meeting the debentures were again discussed and the decision was made to write to debenture holders asking their consent to be paid the face value of their holdings.

The reason for this was stated to be, “If The Houghton and Wyton Parish Hall Society paid out its debenture holders and the Hall placed in the hands of Trustees it would be eligible for the advantages offered by The County Association of Village Halls”.

By the meeting held in January 1946 the scheme for buying back the debentures holders seems to have gone well and a solicitor, who had been asked to advise the Committee, suggested “that those debenture holders who had not replied to the notices sent should be paid with interest less tax”.  This was adopted.

It was reported that there was no further action with regard to the advantages of The Village Halls Association and the organisation is not mentioned again.

Although it is not mentioned in the minutes the Committee’s desire to repay the debenture holders and have the Hall free of debt could been because of a major change in which the Hall was to be managed. That matter will be dealt with in the next article in this series.

notes:

(1) A debenture is a form of borrowing by an organisation. The organisation issues debentures of a fixed value at a fixed rate of interest and invites people to buy them. Usually they have a fixed time period, after which they are bought back by the organisation.  The debenture holders do not have any claim on the assets of the organisation if, for example, the interest is not paid.   In the case of the debentures issued by Houghton and Wyton Parish Hall Society the value was 5s (25p), the interest was 4% and there was no date at which the debentures would be “called in” and the money borrowed paid back.

(2) Five shillings (25p) might seem a small amount to pay for a debenture but in 1924 wages were low.  For instance, in 1920, one Railway Company paid its supervisory staff from £3.5.6 (£3.28) to £6.14.6 (£6.73) per week depending on grade and length of service.   

“Finance” might sound boring but, from 1924 when the first building plans for the Hall had to be scaled down so that the cost of the project was within the amount of money available to 2005 when there a requirement to modify the fire evacuation routes before the new Hall could be fully opened meant that expensive building had to be done, finance has been a constant concern of the Hall Management Committee.

Part 4 – The years of the Second World War (1939-1945) and the end of the Parish Hall Society

During the Second World War most of the effort of the nation was given to the survival of the civilian population and the needs of the fighting services.  The government took powers to direct activities that were normally uncontrolled.   Young men were liable for service in the armed forces, women became liable for work towards the war effort, workers could be directed as to their type and place of work, farmers were instructed as to the crops that they could grow and installations and factories changed from peacetime to military production. 

Additionally, by the process of requisition land required for airfields and military installations, and buildings that were not permanently or completely occupied could be taken over.

It is not clear if Houghton and Wyton Village hall was formally requisitioned but it appears from the rather infrequent war-time meetings of the Hall Committee that the Hall was used for “war purposes”.

At the Committee meeting on the 20th September 1939, only three weeks after the outbreak of the war, the minutes record that, “the chief business was to consider the position of the Hall Committee if the Hall was taken over by Mrs Gripper, the local Chairman of the WVS”(1) and it was noted that, “A letter has been received from BCH saying that from August the 26th the electricity meter would be debited to the WVS”.(2)  The Committee decided that the Clerk to the County Council was to be asked for his advice.

By the next meeting in December the situation had moved on as the Clerk referred the Committee to the Chief Billeting officer.(3)  The Clerk also asked the Committee to fix the rent for the hall.  The Committee decided on £1.10.0 (£1.50).

At the next meeting, which was in July 1940, evacuees had used the Hall but the County Council evidently thought that the Committee’s requested rent was too high as only 15s (75p) was paid each week.  The bank balance was now £40.00. 

At a second meeting that month it was agreed that, “The hall is to be used free of charge for “The Scheme for Preserving Surplus Fruit” as the said scheme was of National importance”.(4)

There is now a gap of over two years until the following Committee meeting in October 1942.  Perhaps this indicates the end of a period of use out of control of the Committee.  The minutes note, “There was a balance of £76.00 of which £35.00 was for dilapidation during the tenancy of the military”.  However, the necessary repairs and high costs (the minutes of this meeting record that, “It was decided to investigate the cost of a stove as it is impossible to use electricity owing to cost and shortage due to war conditions”.  Whether or not the stove was purchased is not recorded ) meant that by the end of 1943 the bank balance had reduced to £10.11.0 (£10.55).

There is again a long gap before the next meeting in May 1944 but by then it seems that the Committee had regained full control of the hall as a series of weekly dances was planned for the summer months with, “the proceeds going to improvements”.

At this meeting the Committee also decided, “The Hall is to be let to the authorities for school meals for £20.00 a year for forty weeks and five days a week”.  This profitable arrangement continued until the rebuilding of the Village School in the 1950s. 

The decision to hold the dances was justified as by at the next Committee Meeting in October 1944 the bank balance had risen to £112.11.0 (£112.55).

There is no mention in the minutes of the Hall Committee meetings about the next phase in the history of the Hall.  However, the minutes of the Parish Council do record what happened.  The first minute entry is on the 16th January 1946, “The Parish Hall Society wrote offering the Hall in St Ives Road to the Parish Council … It was unanimously resolved that ‘This Council accepts the Hall … and agrees to act as Holding Trustees for the benefit of the inhabitants of Houghton and Wyton’.  The Clerk was instructed to express the Council’s very grateful thanks to the Parish Hall Society and to their officials and Committee for their work in carrying on the Hall”.  It was also decided that the date of taking over the Hall would be the 1st of May 1946.

The day-to-day management of the Hall would be carried out by a Committee separate from the Council.

The next meeting was a Public Meeting on the 13th February 1946 held to discuss the provision of a local War Memorial. It was first proposed that playing fields be provided but a second proposal, “that the Parish Hall in St Ives Road, Houghton be adopted and improved as a War Memorial” gained more support and was adopted.

In this manner, in 1946, did Houghton Parish Hall change status from being a private venture to one owned by the Parish Council and which proudly shows the respect and honour in which Houghton and Wyton remembers the men of the village who were killed in both twentieth century World Wars.

notes:

(1) As the threat of war grew it became apparent that many attacks on the civilian population would come from the air and on the 16th May 1938 the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) for Air Raid Precautions was founded to assist the recently formed male equivalent. The aim was that every woman should be given the opportunity to contribute to the defence of the country against enemy air attack.

The organisation took on many other tasks.  Clubs and canteens were set up for the welfare of British troops and mobile canteens were used to take refreshment to those in outlying places. WVS members knitted, sewed and mended for the services. They ran mobile libraries; they made webbing belts, and wove thousands of camouflage nets.

WVS members were present in the ports and on railway stations to provide refreshments when, after the German army overran France in May 1940 about 338,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated from Dunkirk, and also (in greatest secrecy) to provide canteen facilities for troops waiting to be sent to Normandy on D-Day (6th June 1944).

Additionally, as the Normandy invasion force moved eastwards through Europe and into Germany the WVS was asked to take on further welfare services for the troops.

After the war against Germany ended in May 1945 WVS members were sent to South East Asia to do further welfare work for the troops and as the forces battling against the Japanese armies.

It was said the there was nothing that WVS would not take on as a job. Their only question was “Will it help to win the war?” Their unofficial motto became “Not why we can’t but how we can!”

During the war 241 serving members were killed by enemy action.

Today the organization (designated “Royal Women’s Volunteer Service since 1966) still carries out welfare work.

(2) BCH was the local electricity supply company. It is not known what the initials stood for.

(3) In the summer of 1938 the government began to make plans for the evacuation of all children from Britain’s large cities where heavy bombing raids could be expected.

People living in rural areas such as Houghton and Wyton were forced to take in these evacuees. Billeting Officers were appointed and they had the task of finding the necessary accommodation for the evacuees.

The evacuation of Britain’s cities at the start of World War Two was the biggest and most concentrated mass movement of people in Britain’s history. In the first four days of September 1939, nearly 3,000,000 people were sent to places of safety in the countryside.  Among these were your scribe and his mother who were sent from their home in Ilford, Essex (on the outskirts of London) to the village of Stonham Parva in Suffolk.

(4) The Women’s Institute (WI) in Britain was formed in 1915 in the First World War (1914-1918), when submarine blockades were preventing food from being brought into the country.  To aid food production WI members made jams and preserved fruit by bottling and pickling so that excess produce from gardens and smallholdings could be utilised.

In the Second World War, WI members were again asked to help with food production. In 1939 the organisation was invited by the Ministry of Agriculture to organise a Co-operative Fruit Preservation Scheme.   Between 1940 and 1945 over 5,300 tons of fruit was preserved, nearly 12 million pounds of fruit that might otherwise have been wasted, provided food for the nation.

WI members became renowned for this work.  The “Jam and Jerusalem” (Jerusalem being the official song of the organisation) tag has stuck ever since.

Part 5 – The Hall under new management and a few items from the Committee minutes of 1946 to 1965

I finished my last article about the history of the Hall with two events in 1946.  In February a public meeting in the village resolved that the Hall, “…be adopted and improved as a War Memorial” and in May Houghton and Wyton Parish Council became the owners.

The deed that conveyed the building and land to the new owners also set out a new management structure that is still in use today.

This was that the Hall should be managed by a Committee of Management  consisting of a representative from each organisation that used the Hall,  three members from the Parish Council and three members of the general public, the latter to be elected at each Annual General Meeting.

The organisations that were represented on the Committee in 1946 were: Houghton Parochial Church Council, Wyton Parochial Church Council, Houghton Union Chapel, Houghton Literary Institute, Houghton and Wyton Gardening and Allotment Association, Houghton and Wyton Women’s Institute, Houghton and Wyton branch of The British Legion, Houghton and Wyton Boy Scouts and The Bowls Club.

At the first AGM of the new committee a proposal that the name of the Hall be changed to “Houghton and Wyton Memorial Hall” was passed without dissent.  However, it was not until July 1949 that the decision was made to have the nameboard fixed to the front of the Hall.

The memorial plaque in the Hall to the men from the village who were killed in the two twentieth century world wars was unveiled on Sunday 7th November 1948.  However, the names to be listed on the plaque caused controversy. There are four such memorials in the village but each one has a different set of names. The memorial in Houghton Church has the fullest list with twelve names from the First World War and ten from the Second.  The Memorial Hall plaque lacks two names from the Second War, George Burder and Peter Childs (see note 1).

The reason for the omission of Burder was that his father, who was the Rector of Wyton, did not want the name of his son to appear on a memorial that was in a place of public entertainment.

A request from the Education Service in September 1950 to use the Hall as an extra classroom for thirty-six infants because of overcrowding at Houghton school in  caused the Committee concern.  During the discussion members mentioned that this would interfere with existing school lunch arrangements [the Hall was used as “the school dining room” form 1944 to 1958], the Committee might be liable for accidents, it would entail extra heating and lighting costs and there was the problem of the lack of sanitary facilities, this being “the worst feature”.  The Headmaster agreed that the Hall was far from ideal but was preferable to the overcrowding at the school.  The Committee decided that the County Education Officer must be informed of the conditions in the Hall.  However, the Committee did agree that the Hall could be let at 30s for a five-day week.

Nothing more was heard from the Education Department until March 1953 when a similar request was made.  After discussion the Committee decided to refuse, “as being not in the best interests of the children or other users of the Hall”. The Education Department must have pressed the request because at the May meeting a letter from the Director of Education was discussed and the Chairman was asked to meet him to, “to explain the Committee’s objections to letting the Hall for use as a classroom and to ascertain what would be the minimum needs of the school if a class was to be taught in the Hall”.

The Chairman reported back at the next meeting saying that the Director now thought that the school would be able to manage without using the Hall but he would like to know if the Hall would be available if actually required.  The Committee decided that the Hall could be made available.

In the actuality the Hall was not required. (see note 3)

In 1953 a Coronation Celebrations Committee was formed in the village that requested financial and material assistance from village organisations.  The Hall Committee agreed that the Hall and its equipment should be available to the Celebration Committee free of charge and that any organisation holding a Coronation event should be able to borrow the piano likewise without charge.

In September 1953 the Hall Committee accepted from items that had been used in village events; the banners and pennants that had been used to decorate the village and the sports ground, the coat of arms, emblems and initials that had decorated the canopy of the clock (but which had been designed so that, “it would fit into the angle of the [Hall] roof above the shelf supporting the stage curtains” and the balance of the Coronation mugs.

The Committee decided that a mug should be given to any child born in the village during that year and that a charge of 5s (25p) should be made if the banners and pendants were removed for use outside the hall but there should be no charge for use inside.

The Committee also accepted the balance of the Coronation Celebrations fund of £10.17s.1d (£10.85).

Lighting

In January 1953 the Women’s Institute asked the Committee to provide, “some form of lighting to use with the stage and suggested a baton to carry at least four lights to be fastened to the centre girder (see note 2).  Three estimates were obtained and a Committee member was asked to follow up information that the RAF Concert Party at RAF Wyton had just, “put some lights out for salvage”.  At the next meeting the member reported that the, “lights at RAF Wyton were unfit for use but he had obtained two lights and had them fitted but would prefer that they remained his property”.  When this member left the village in 1959 he gave the stage lighting equipment and the stage curtain to the Committee.

The general lighting in the Hall was also discussed.  In 1951 the Committee decided that the five lights in the Hall should have 75watt bulbs and in January 1953 the wattage was increased to 100 but it was agreed that fluorescent lighting would be too expensive. 

In 1956 the lighting was discussed again.  One member said, “fluorescent lighting would be too expensive owing to the high cost of replacing broken units.  He favoured painting [the inside of the roof] white instead of the present dark green”.  Another member suggested that the lights be lowered.

The inside of the roof was painted cream and in September 1957 it was agreed that fluorescent lighting should be installed.

notes

1. The other two memorials are in Houghton Cemetery, which omits Peter Childs name because he is from Wyton, not Houghton, and in Wyton church, which lists only the names of four men who lived in Wyton.

There is also a memorial to George Burder in St Mary’s Church, Huntingdon, where his father was Rector before he came to Wyton in 1935.

2. At this time the Hall did not have a ceiling; it was boarded and open to the roof which was supported by triangular metal frames that rested on the side walls.

3. The Chapel vestry was used as a temporary classroom at this time.