History of the Village Hall
Newdigate Village Hall was built in 1901, the gift of Bessie Farnell Watson of Henfold. Her husband died unexpectedly just before Christmas in 1898 at the age of 44, and in the tradition of Victorian benefactors, she decided to give something to the village in his memory. Despite her husband’s money coming from a brewery, she disapproved of the village men spending their leisure time in the Six Bells, and decided to build a Reading Room and Club in which they could meet and relax in their leisure time.
She owned an ideal site: narrow strip of land beside the road at Kingsland. Unfortunately it had several cottages on it, including a pair of almscottages built only twenty years before under the will of her father-in-law to house two honest poor families; the remaining cottages were tiny and in very poor condition. Bessie Farnell-Watson had the two families in the almscottages rehoused (although they were not replaced when they left or died) and gave the other tenants notice to quit, probably within a week. It is reported that the foreman of the gang sent to start pulling down the cottages came back to tell Mrs Farnell Watson that the tenants refused to leave as they had nowhere to go; her response was, ‘Start taking the roofs off. They’ll leave fast enough.’
She formally opened the new building in September 1901. In a tin box under the foundation stone was a bottle containing papers announcing Queen Victoria’s death, a copy of The Times, the current issue of the parish magazine, and some coins of that year. The building was officially named Newdigate Village Club, and this name can still be seen carved over the arch of the porch, although the word ‘Club’ has now been filled in and replaced by ‘Hall’. In its earlier years it was often called the Institute.
The building housed the Men’s Club, to which women were not admitted until 1926. Suitable reading matter was provided, games such as cribbage, draughts, dominoes and billiards could be played, and soft drinks were served. Mrs Farnell Watson stipulated that alcoholic drinks should never be sold or served. The Club was managed by a committee but overall control was vested in trustees who included Bessie Farnell Watson.
The new building was a great success. The only other meeting place in the village was the schoolroom, so the Institute soon became the venue for a range of social activities open to everyone, including jumble sales, meetings, concerts, dances and whist drives. The village Lending Library, established many years before and open to anyone on payment of a small subscription, moved to the Institute and was open every Friday from 6 to 7 p.m. The school used it for classes in woodwork from 1911 onwards, and much later, after a kitchen had been built, the girls were taught cookery there.
The Institute was only half the length of the present hall, and there was no kitchen or toilets. Lighting must have been by oil lamps, as there was no electricity in Newdigate until 1932. A resident caretaker lived in the attached house, and one of his duties was to tend the big stove which provided heating and stood in an arched recess where the cloakroom and committee room doors are now.
Although Mrs Farnell Watson had given the Institute to the village, her gift did not include an endowment to maintain it. The caretaker had to be paid, the building lit and heated, and repairs undertaken. Rental from users paid the running expenses, but maintenance required fund-raising activities, and this is still the case.
By the early 1920s the building was too small for many functions, and in 1923 fund-raising for the Institute Extension Fund began. By April 1925 over £300 had been raised and work went ahead; the extension was completed by October. The final cost far exceeded the funds available, and a bank loan of £400 had to be taken out.
To repay the loan, the committee proposed to increase income by registering the club for the sale of alcoholic drinks. Unfortunately they had overlooked Bessie Farnell Watson’s stipulation in clause 1 of the original trust deed specifically prohibiting this. She appears to have put pressure on four of the trustees, who in November 1925 signed a document stating that ‘at no time hereafter should such be sold at the Institute or any addition thereto’, and voted with her against the proposal at the trustees’ meeting, resulting in its rejection by five votes to three. It was not until 1935 that the Social Club was built, on part of the village hall site but as an entirely separate building, allowing the trustees to circumvent the wording of the stipulation and apply for a licence to sell alcoholic drink there. Mrs Farnell Watson had little contact with Newdigate by this time, but she was extremely angry that the trustees had breached the clear intention of her stipulation, and ordered that the foundation stone which she had laid, with its memorabilia, be removed from the building.
The new Social Club provided a place for the club to meet without being continually displaced by other social activities. It also generated an income for the benefit of the hall, contributing steadily to the cost of maintenance and keeping down the costs for users, although fund-raising was still required for major work.
After the end of the second world war, Mrs Farnell Watson decided to sell her remaining properties in Newdigate, and a big auction was held on 30th July 1945. Lot 12 was ‘a valuable enclosure of meadow land’ totalling 12.589 acres tentatively scheduled by the council for housing development, and was bought for £1200 on behalf of the village as a memorial to the dead of both wars.
The field had historically been known as The Bookhursts, pronounced as ‘The Bookus’. After its purchase it was officially known as the Memorial Recreation Field, but a cottage on its south side was called Brocus, and although this was apparently named from a place at Windsor, it is likely that ‘Brocus’ was confused with the old name of ‘Bookus’, as the Memorial Recreation Field very rapidly acquired its present name of the Brocus. The Brocus was initially run separately from the village hall.
After the war the trustees took little thought to long-term maintenance of the hall, and by 1960 it had fallen into disrepair. A restoration fund was set up, but this proved entirely inadequate when the licencing authorities first required the floor to be relaid, and then that the hall provide a kitchen, toilets, and fire doors. Massive fund-raising efforts included the first Village Days, featuring such events as a medieval tournament and a balloon ascent, and the improvements were completed by 1970. Later additions were the cloakroom and committee room, and the shower block; the stage was taken out and replaced with three storage rooms under a mezzanine floor to provide further storage space; and recently a disabled toilet was added.
In 1966 the hall and social club were combined with the Brocus under a single trust deed. They now form the Newdigate Community Centre, and every group and society using any part of it may send a representative to the Trustees Meetings.
You can see more photos of the Village Hall in bygone days on the Newdigate Local History Society web site