The Public Hall has been one of the most significant buildings in Witham for 117 years, since 1894. It is remarkable that it has been useful all that time, considering the many changes in our way of life. Recently some very generous local people volunteered to manage it for us. If they had not done so, Braintree District Council would have closed it.
It was put up in 1894 by “the Public Hall Company”, which comprised some of the better-off residents like Lord Rayleigh and Admiral William Luard. The hall was said to hold between 500 and 600 people. I’m told that this would only be possible if the audience was standing, and very close together! At present the maximum is about 300 in level seating.
When I visit the Public Hall, I often think about the events that took place there in the past, so I will tell you about a few of the earliest ones. and then perhaps continue another time.
There were many shows by local people, including the “Tuppenny” which was already in progress elsewhere when the Hall was opened. It was organised annually for 21 years by Miss Alice Luard, one of the Admiral’s daughters, and continued by others after she left. To begin with, it was a “homely play” by children, and then became more and more elaborate. When I used to interview elderly residents of Witham, many of them remembered the Tuppenny with great pleasure. It was one of the highlights of the year when they were children. The name came from the twopence entrance fee.
There were also well-known visiting performers. For instance, in 1904 the famous comedy “Charley’s Aunt” was brought to the Public Hall by “Mr Penley’s company”. It was originally written for William Penley himself, and first shown in 1892 in Bury St Edmunds, with him in the starring role. Eventually there were 1,466 London performances, smashing all previous records. There have also been many films made in various countries and languages.
In 1911, the Public Hall was full when some Conservatives met to discuss votes for women. Lady Rayleigh of Terling declared that women householders should be given the vote, and that Lord Rayleigh supported her. But Witham’s vicar, Canon Ingles, disagreed strongly, on behalf of himself and the nine women in his household!
In the following year, there was a “largely attended” meeting to explain the new National Insurance Act. This may sound mundane, but actually it was the very first step towards our present welfare system. Employers and workers had both to make contributions, from which unemployment and sickness benefits were to be paid. The special speaker from London was barrister Clement Attlee, who was to become prime minister over thirty years later, in 1945. He described the exceptions to the Act, including organists, sextons, bandsmen and some pea-pickers.
The photo portrays Collingwood Road (built 1869) and the Public Hall (in the centre). It also shows Pelican Cottage (built 1904), but not the Constitutional Club (built 1910). The trees look very new. Behind the Public Hall is the water tower, which was demolished in 1935.
A version of this article was published in the Braintree and Witham Times in October 2011.