Celebrating 100 Years of Village Halls

Show notes (summary)

For this special episode to mark Village Halls Week 2021, our guest Louise Beaton OBE talks about the history behind village and community halls. She also covers some of the important events through time that halls have played a key part in, including more recently, as well as what the future might hold. Please subscribe and join our listening community today.

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 1

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. I’m Johnny Thomson and for this our very first episode, we’re celebrating Village Halls Week, which is a special event taking place in the last week of January 2021 and organised by ACRE, which of course is Action with Communities in Rural England. Now, this year celebrations are extra special, as they mark 100 years of village halls, church halls and community centres bringing people together and serving local communities throughout the country. And so with this in mind, we’re going to be taking a look back at some of the fascinating history behind village halls, how and why they came about, and some of the major events over time that they’ve played an important part in. And for this, I’m absolutely delighted to be joined by Louise Beaton, who is a Trustee of ACRE, and someone who has worked tirelessly for over 30 years supporting voluntary organisations that manage village and community halls. Hi, Louise.

Louise Beaton 01:08
Hi, Johnny.

Johnny Thomson 01:10
Now, Louise has recently been awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List for voluntary service to rural communities, which she didn’t really want me to mention, but there you go, I have! So welcome Louise, and well done. It’s not a bad way to start the year.

Louise Beaton 01:25
No, and thank you very much, Johnny, but I have to say it’s huge credit to the tens of thousands of volunteers who run our village and community halls throughout the country, and also the ACRE network and the advisors within the network who support them, all of whom share their experience and have supported me over many years, when I’ve asked for help in raising issues, or they’re experiencing contributing evidence in raising issues with government, which has done something, hopefully, to help those volunteers carry on, move forward, deliver really good facilities and good activities for their communities.

Johnny Thomson 02:06
Fantastic. Well, congratulations to you all. In that case, for the award. Now, before we start talking about the history of village halls, Louise, tell me a little bit more about yourself and in particular, kind of what’s behind your passion for local communities?

Louise Beaton 02:22
Well, I dare say you could say it arose, it goes back to when I was about eight, when my Aunt Doris ran that the friends and neighbours club in a little village called Beatley in Norfolk, and I would help her by reading out the bingo numbers, friends and neighbours. And of course, at the time, I didn’t realise how important that was. But when I came to start working with village halls later on and I reflected back on that what really struck me was the chat, the way people really appreciated being brought to the hall getting together, and just how important that was for people. And of course, I understood that actually, my uncle, my grandfather had helped with the building of that village hall and I later met the people who were running the village hall now. So it was all about the people. And as I started working with village halls, you have to admire, the enthusiasm, the passion, the devotion that they put in over many years, and the sheer range of activities that go on in village halls. The more you get involved, the more passionate you get.

Johnny Thomson 03:33
Yeah, yeah, no, brilliant. So thanks to Aunt Doris. And it’s funny, it’s a similar experience for me because one of my first memories of village halls was my grandmother gone to the local bingo as well. And it was such a release for her I remember, you know, to kind of just get away and to, to spend a little bit of time out of the house and to spend time with her friends. So yeah, I know exactly what you’re what you’re talking about there. Anyway, onto the last 100 years, which I’m sure many people listening who have come across you before Louise, will know you well, but perhaps one thing they don’t know is that you love to delve into some of the history of village halls. And there may even be a book planned possibly in the future?

Louise Beaton 04:15
There is. During the course of this centenary year of the national village hall service that is being put together. So, by next year that will be available. But there is a short history of village halls available in the report of the 1998 National Village Halls Survey, so there’s information out there and we’re also building a centenary website and there’ll be more information about village halls on there. And if anybody listening to this will also be able to go to the ACRE Village Halls Week website and see a reference to a presentation put together by the Cambridgeshire ACRE, which is about the history of village halls in Cambridgeshire, which quite interestingly mirrors the history of village halls nationally. This was a national movement. But if we went back to say the 15th, 16th century, the first village halls were really the market halls. And you can see an example of one of those at the Weald and Downland Museum, the Titchfield Market Hall, which was moved to the museum from Titchfield in Hampshire, and they were open underneath and with a meeting room above. And then it was the 19th century when Victorian philanthropists began to realise the need for a meeting place and there were some magnificent halls built in the 19th century. At the same time, there was the creation of reading rooms and small chapel rooms, they tended to be very small facilities. So there was the beginnings of a sort of movement towards village halls towards the end of the 19th century. But it was really the First World War that was the impetus for the building of village halls. Lots of reasons for that. One was the awareness that many villages had lost a whole generation of young men and their desire to provide a memorial in the form of a building, a war memorial hall There was the drive to improve social and educational provision in rural areas, the development of the WI’s were part of that and they had nowhere to meet. There were returning servicemen who needed to get together. I mean we now know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that was a serious issue that was sort of understood in its own way. And then there was naturally the availability of old Army and RAF hospital huts, and many village halls were originally that kind of hut. And during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, a lot of those have fortunately been replaced because they had come to the end of their life. But there are still one or village halls that look modern, but in the middle of them there is an old Army or RAF hut, which is rather nice. It’s lovely to preserve that history. And what happened was that in the early 1920s, the newly formed National Council for Social Service set up initially a Village Clubs Association, which quickly became a village halls department and that was helped by grants from the Carnegie UK Trust and the Development Commission, which put forward a loan fund. And from then on, there was there was finance available to help with the building of village halls. So the 20s and 30s was the heyday and the National village hall surveys we have conducted every 10 years since 1988, have shown that was the heyday of village hall building. And in the mid 1930s. that’s when the powers were provided to local authorities to start providing grants for the building of community recreational facilities. So for me, obviously, in the Second World War, there was a pause in the building of village halls and right through until 1955, there were not the building materials available. So there were a few temporary village halls built by the National Council of Social Service, but it wasn’t until the government introduced a grant scheme in 1955, that really, the building of village halls got going again, and the replacement of some halls. And that grant scheme lasted until 1981, when the responsibility was passed over to local authorities with money in the rates support grant.

Johnny Thomson 09:05
Yeah. Wow, I mean, you mentioned the Second World War there and I guess, even though as you say the kind of building was paused, I guess the the village halls themselves must have paid a significant role. And I’m showing my age here and thinking back to the good old Dad’s Army, and I remember that, you know, the National Guard as it was that was a church hall or a village hall that it was actually set in. And I guess that’s just an example, isn’t it of the kind of facility that the village halls have provided at moments of real national need?

Louise Beaton 09:32
Absolutely. I mean, they were used for jam making by the WI, you know, sort of knitting garments for soldiers, but importantly, obviously, as a source of entertainment when people really needed entertainment, and some played a different part in the war effort. There’s a record in a book by Gordon Welchman about the Enigma files, of village halls in the Letchworth area of Hertfordshire being used as electrical sub assembly factories.

Johnny Thomson 10:06
Wow!. So you can almost say that the village halls contributed to the winning of the war as well?

Louise Beaton 10:12

Johnny Thomson 10:13
Yeah, wow, fantastic. And I guess then you take things through to the swinging 60s or the 70s and things, and I would imagine at that time that halls became particularly important for younger people as well, that was when kind of the youth movement more came to prominence, wasn’t it and youth clubs and things like that as well? So it’s not just about well, it’s about everybody in the local community isn’t it?

Louise Beaton 10:37
It is. And it’s, it’s quite interesting to look at the way in which use of village halls has changed over the century, which mirrors changes in society very much. So the 60s onwards, you have the development, for example of mother and toddler groups, preschools, which now are an important part of early years childcare provision. So about a third of village halls now are used by preschools or early years nurseries. And you talked about young people, obviously, young farmers, they’ve always been important to young farmers, but the development of youth clubs was important. And what we’ve seen from our surveys is that, sadly, fewer halls now are used by youth clubs than they were in the past. But you get different kinds of activities. So some are used, for example, by sort of gaming groups or model railway societies, it’s more interest group if you like, some of which cater for young people, and particularly sports for young people as well. What was interesting is that in the 60s, people were rather worried that the advent of TV would prejudice use of village halls. But no, what we’re seeing is, you know, you have shows like Strictly, and suddenly there’s a great boom in dance classes, tea dances for older people, etc. Gareth Malone did his series about the choir and there’s a great burgeoning of community choirs around the country. So actually, it’s been good.

Johnny Thomson 12:13
Yeah, yeah, everything just moves with the times, I guess. And as you say, things change as society changes around us.

Louise Beaton 12:21
Yes. And, and I would say, now, what we’re seeing, I mean, we’ll come on to the COVID crisis, I think in a minute, perhaps. But importantly, from the 1980s through to the 90s onwards, for the provision of Wi Fi facilities, broadband, and training, particularly for older people in using iPads, laptops, etc, has been really important. And now we’re seeing the benefit now of that with COVID.

Johnny Thomson 12:53
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I was going to bring that up to date, because it’s yet another time of national well of international emergency of course, as well. And yeah, village halls have always played a role at that time. And also, there’s been recent flooding events and things like that, which there’s been quite high profile involvement from from halls in terms of providing accommodation and, and of course food supplies, and so on. So tell me a little bit about about that now, how, how villagers are contributing and, and coping as well at this difficult time?

Louise Beaton 13:27
It has been a particularly difficult time for village and community halls throughout the country and I pay huge credit, massive tribute to all the volunteers who’ve had to deal with the changing regulations, the starting up of activities, the closing down again at different kinds of activities, and the need to keep them clean and COVID secure all the time. And frankly without the government grants to support them, this would potentially have been the death knell for some of the facilities and particularly those that operate often on a sort of financial knife edge relying on fundraising, which hasn’t been able to happen. So they have been doing very well. As you say, most villahe halls at some time or another have been used for some kind of emergency, whether it be flooding or snow or road disasters or whatever. But they do play that important role. With the COVID situation, many of them have actually been able to stay open for things like preschools, food banks, medical type provision, delivering medical supplies. Some have actually had some slightly diverse uses, being used by local sewing groups, people to get together to manufacturer PPE. Some have been used for training of health care workers because they provide a bigger training space. Some have been used by local businesses as packing facilities so that their staff can socially distanced safely. So you know, there’s been a slightly diverse use of village halls, they have played a part and many have stayed open for certain activities, but the difficult the two difficult things I would say have been that the loss of things like dances, wedding receptions, plays, concerts, all that kind of activity, film shows, which bring people together, which are a really important source of income for them. Those are the icing on the cake that enable these charities to subsidise the smaller community activities. So the loss of those has been devastating for people and also affected finances. But also, it’s things like the coffee mornings and lunch clubs, the craft groups, the activities that tend to be attended by older people, those who are on their own, now isolated, and that, I think, is a significant problem for individuals. And it’s something that will mean that as soon as this wonderful vaccination programme is complete, if we can get those people back out to enjoy the activities that are so important to them as soon as possible, that would be absolutely great. And it would be great to think that as a result of this pandemic, people have come to appreciate the importance of ordinary community activities and the importance of volunteering to help run their village halls, because most of them are charities, they’re not provided by the council as people think. And consequently, they do rely on volunteers and people can bring any kind of skills to the running of a village hall, they are all important. And we have unfortunately seen one or two village halls have lost volunteers over the course of the year. Others will emerge stronger, but some will need new people to step forward and help them move into the future and adapt as we move forward.

Johnny Thomson 17:16
Yes, and that brings us nicely to the final piece, I guess, which is to talk a little bit about what the future of village halls looks like. And I’m thinking really from a digital perspective, it will be one of the things because I guess one of the wake up calls from from this pandemic for us all has been the need to perhaps utilise digital facilities a little more. And also, that would be an important way of engaging young people perhaps as well, as we talked earlier that has slightly diminished over the years. And there’s environmental issues as well. So talk to talk me through a little bit of that, Louise.

Louise Beaton 17:53
Yes, I think on the digital side, we’re very keen to make sure that more and more halls are digitally connected. And that way young people can use them and will use them more which which is important. But it’s it’s important for everything, you know, if you are marketing the village hall, for example, or simply holding your wedding reception in a village hall, you know, the guests want to be able to take a photograph, put it on Facebook and get it out there instantly to all their friends. So you know, it makes sense for everybody. But it’s very important for people who work from village halls. And one of the things that we’ve become very conscious of through doing the National Village Halls Surveys is that there are about 70,000 people in England alone, who rural England, I’m not even talking about urban areas, who earn their living from using village tools, whether it’s acting as the preschool leader or worker, a children’s entertainer running children’s parties, keep fit instructors and people performers in rural touring performance organisations, arts organisations. There are so many people who need to get back into village halls to earn their living and who use IT in doing so. And that makes IT and connectivity very, very important. And that’s something you know for the country as a whole in terms of rolling out broadband and 5g is very important to bear in mind. The other thing that I’m very keen on personally is the whole question of climate change, and the contribution that village halls have to make towards reducing carbon emissions. And it’s twofold. One is it’s providing the activities locally that means that people don’t have to get into a car to drive to a keep-fit class in a town eight miles away. They can do it locally and walk there, which is even better. But secondly, it’s the buildings and with a stock of quite ageing buildings there is a massive opportunity to make them more energy efficient, and to install renewable energy. And I find it very sad when you see a hall that has an old oil fired heating boiler, replacing it with a new oil fired heating boiler because they cannot afford to invest in the modern more expensive heat pump technologies, which is the way we’ve got to go. So we need more investment in that environmental renewal of village halls and halls that have been able to do it are so proud of what they’ve done. And that has really engaged younger people too, which is brilliant. So I think there’s a lot about the future, there. There are one or two little things that we need to bear in mind. I mean, it’s generally investing in renewing, modernising the older facilities and making sure that communities that don’t have adequate facilities now have fit for purpose, 21st century facilities. We need that investment, which in the next few years we have to understand will probably be difficult because of the constraints on local authority and government expenditure. But we’ll need to carry on because it’s a constant need for investment with buildings, and communities need to be able to forward plan, it takes a long time to put together the plans for improving the facility. Some years. So one needs confidence that there will be the public support available for it. So there’s that. But I think we also need with it a sort of better understanding of the value of the people, the buildings, a better understanding of just how important they are to communities. So it’s sort of a bit of a community resurgence. Wrapping our arms around the volunteers who run our facilities would be just brilliant.

Johnny Thomson 21:56
Absolutely. And I think I mean, that’s one of the things about looking at history, isn’t it is that you ought to learn from that. And it’s clear from village halls that the massive contribution that’s been made over that period of time makes village halls such a vital resource for the nation. So I absolutely echo what you’ve what you’ve just said there. Is there anything else, Louise that you would like to touch on or perhaps any key messages that you’d like to get across at this time?

Louise Beaton 22:22
Well, I know that anybody that knows me would know that I would be unable to finish a podcast like this without mentioning the word VAT. It’s a really good example…

Johnny Thomson 22:34
That’s a bit left field!

Louise Beaton 22:36
I know, but it’s a really good example of where actually the volunteers, the ACRE Network Village Hall Advisors working with government have in the past and still have the opportunity to try and make it easier for volunteers. And that’s because we still have a problem with 20% VAT being charged on village hall improvements, which falls on fundraising by volunteers. So one of my private ambitions is to try and address that in the forthcoming years.

Johnny Thomson 23:06
Fantastic, okay.

Louise Beaton 23:07
And it has been really excellent to work with Defra in delivering their Village Hall Improvement Grant fund in recent years, which has done a great deal to improve village halls so that they are both environmentally friendly, IT connected and delivering for their communities.

Johnny Thomson 23:28
Well, wonderful. Thank you so much for your fascinating insight, Louise, I think the thing you’ve really highlighted for me is just how critical village halls have been over the years, and still are today of course Not just to local communities that they serve, but to the entire nation really. And we have to keep working together to preserve all of this for the future. So thank you so much for your for your contribution today. Really appreciate your time, Louise.

Louise Beaton 23:55
Well, Johnny, may I thank you very much indeed and also Allied Westminster for very kindly hosting this session. And I would just like to say that we because village halls were largely provided in the 20s and 30s, they’ll be coming up to their own centenary soon. And I would encourage them to think about holding their own centenary exhibitions of photographs, perhaps producing their own booklets. And there’s a lovely booklet called ‘The Walls have Talked’ produced by Lurgashall Village Hall in Sussex where I live, which is referred to on the ACRE website as an example.

Johnny Thomson 24:32
Okay, brilliant. Yeah, I think we’ve mentioned a few resources online available already. What I’ll perhaps try and do is on The Village Halls Podcast website, with this episode, I can maybe just make a list of different links there. And then people can can tap into those from from one place. And I’d also like to thank ACRE really for organising a terrific week of celebrations Louise. Things have been a bit different this year, of course delivering and supporting various events online, including this one. So please, if you haven’t done so already, visit acre.org.uk and click through to the Village Halls Week page to find out a bit more. I’d also like to mention a new blog article, which you can find on the ACRE website by Deborah Clark, who is Rural Evidence Manager there and really just sums up this special week. So please take a look at that. Other than that, I’d like to thank Louise once again for her time today. And of course, as you mentioned to our sponsor and specialist insurance provider, Allied Westminster, whose services you can discover more about at www.villageguard.com. There’s also a great article there actually covering 100 years of village halls by Jen Hazelton on the VillageGuard website, which you may wish to have a look at too. As I say I’ll provide a list of all of these links on The Village Halls Podcast website. So, you’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a brand new and unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back soon with another episode. So, please visit www.thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates, link through to our social media pages, and to find out more. But until the next time, good bye for now.