Bubbenhall: A fitting legacy

Show notes (summary)

Our guest Alan Roe tells a fascinating story about the village of Bubbenhall, where in the 1980s a former Japanese prisoner of war led an unlikely coup, took over leadership of a neglected village hall and built a brand new one for the community. With his tale of fortitude, sadness and lasting legacy, Alan provides an intriguing insight into British village life and history.

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 4

Johnny Thomson 00:01
Hello and welcome to another episode of The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now today, I’m joined on a call by Alan Roe, who is one of the Trustees of a Hall in the small village of Bubbenhall in Warwickshire, not too far from Leamington Apa. Alan got in touch after listening to our first episode, which explored some of the recent history of village halls to tell me about a fascinating book he’s written about his village, its Victorian reading room and the village hall. Hi, Alan, how are you?

Alan Roe 00:36
Good morning, Johnny, I’m very well. Thank you very much.

Johnny Thomson 00:38
Yeah. Thanks very much for joining me today. Now, Alan’s book is in many ways, a tribute to some of the really interesting characters from his village, including those who were behind the building of a new Hall in the 1980s. But before we get on to that, tell me a little bit about yourself Alan, and your involvement with the village hall, you’re a long term resident there, yes?

Alan Roe 00:58
Yes, indeed. I moved to Bubbenhall in 1972 when I took up a lectureship at the University of Warwick in Economics. I found myself living in a village which had a population at that time of about 500 people and the two young daughters I very quickly connected to the village school and met many locals on that basis and discovered, like many villages, that we had facilities like a church and two pubs, but also a very ancient village reading-room. And I got involved in some of the activities through my children.

Johnny Thomson 01:31
Yes, it’s clear from your book Alan that until the 1980s a lot of community activities took place in and around what was called the Reading Room there at Bubbenhall.

Alan Roe 01:40
Yes, and that had been the case for almost 100 years at the point I moved in. The Reading Room was bestowed upon the village in 1876 and it had served the village as a social centre, additional to the pubs of course, for that length of time. I got dragged into some limited management role with the Reading Room at a fairly early stage, but did not become formally a member of the management team until about 10 years after that.

Johnny Thomson 02:09
And I understand the Reading Room had got itself into a pretty sad state by the 1980s. Is that fair?

Alan Roe 02:16
That’s absolutely absolutely fair. It was trying to do everything. Running a football club. It had some very primitive showers. We had a doctor’s surgery, whichwas an outpost from a surgery in Leamington Spa that was running two days a week, but with no running water, believe it or not! How do you run a doctor surgery with no running water? We had the youth club, we had a scouts group, but over the 100 years of its existence, the hall had sort of suffered a physical deterioration and as the physical deterioration continued, the financial position became more and more difficult and ultimately unsustainable. And that was the situation in as of the early 1980s. In fact, just before that the local housing authority condemned the Reading Room as unfit for human habitation. We had at the time a sitting tenant there and it was deemed that the conditions of the hall was such that it was not suitable for anyone to live there. So the committee at that time had to scramble quite hard to find new accommodation for the tenant. And then, on that basis, were permitted through a mini improvement programme, to keep the hall open for social purposes for a few years from 1977 through to 1983 or 84. But it was still in a pretty poor condition.

Johnny Thomson 03:35
And then what happened next?

Alan Roe 03:37
Well, what happened next was that a committee that had manfully looked after the hall for that length of time, met up with other people at a New Year’s Eve party, in fact, in December 1985, and it was sort of decided very informally at two o’clock in the morning on the basis of a certain number of drinks that we needed, we needed some new faces and there was a very distinguished character turned up on the scene at that time, a Major Alan Gibson who was at the party, and he constituted sort of informally and during the party, a new Committee, which met more formally on 3rd January 1986, of which I became the Treasurer of the village hall and Major Gibson became the Chairperson and we were asked under his formidable leadership to not only create a new committee, but commit ourselves to building a brand new village hall We all agreed to do that because we were setting in a freezing a building on 3rd January 1986. and we thought it was best to agree with him rather than disagreeing, getting the meeting over with as quickly as we possibly can.

Johnny Thomson 04:40
So the Major performed a bit of a coup as far as the committee was concerned and then became the leader. Now, I understand he was quite a character, Alan, yeah?

Alan Roe 04:49
Yes, Alan Gibson was a very distinguished man. He, as a young man had joined the army. He trained to what he thought was going to be warfare in Scandinavia. So he learned to ski and that sort of thing. But then very quickly got posted to Burma and unfortunately, after just a few months, was imprisoned by the Japanese and was in one of the Burma railway camps, which as you know were pretty dreadful places. He suffered a loss of most of his senior colleagues in that camp and was there for some two to three or four years, I’m not quite sure how long. He went down from being a 12 stone, formidable rugby player to being a 6 stone person who was just about surviving. The camp was relieved eventually by the Black Watch and on the day this happened, Alan told me that he thought he’d died because he heard bagpipes. He couldn’t believe bagpipes in Burma, but it was indeed the Black Watch and he was charged by them as the surviving most senior officer to accept the surrender of the Japanese camp commander, symbolised by the handing over of a samurai sword, which he retained. So he returned to the UK, took up a job, which eventually became Production Director of one of the UK’s leading pottery companies and did that for many years and moved to Bubbenhall in retirement, which was good for us, because he became then the leading force moving from the old Reading Room to a new village for which we managed to build an open the end of 1986.

Johnny Thomson 06:15
Yeah, and I think you said they gave him a certain, his experiences in Burma give him a certain perspective on life, and it made him see that for him, the challenge of creating a new hall was kind of… wasn’t much compared to, obviously what he’d been through.

Alan Roe 06:33
It was trivial. I mean, we that first meeting in January ’86, no, I found as Treasurer I had 194 pounds and one penny, in the bank and, you know, we looked quickly at the bills that we had to pay during that winter and they would be easily in excess of three or 400 pounds. So we were in a dire position, but he basically said look, you know, we can sell this building, we can, but we’ll need to probably raise £20,000 to £30,000 on top of that. And we’ll just do it, we’ll just do fundraising and walk through the planning requirements, you know he had no fear of dealing with difficult planning, procedures. And lo and behold, that was that was achieved in a remarkably short period of time. I think helped by the atmosphere of the time we were in a fairy… Bubbenhall was an old village, it goes back to the Doomsday Book and most of its history, it had been an agricultural community. But the injection of new people in the 70s and early 80s, including myself, I think gave it not only increased the population, but brought in a number of people who had different types of experience. And it was also the period of difficulty in the British economy, if you remember, the 70s included the OPEC oil crisis, winter of discontent, a lot of power cuts, and the new younger population spent an awful lot of time together because you know, we had houses with no heat for periods of time and the two pubs were the obvious refuge. So it was a period of togetherness, I would describe it as and it became relatively easy in that situation to put events on and raise significant amounts of money through everyone sort of pulling together. A little bit like lockdown, really, you know, it brought out the best of the community spirit, the hardship of the times brought out that spirit in a way that might not otherwise have happened. But of course, it needed a fairly formidable amount of leadership. And we were lucky getting that from, from Major Gibson, And you had it you had the good fortune as well of being able to sell the old Reading Room for a little more than you expected. Yeah? Yes, I mean, these things do depend a little bit on serendipity. And the 1980s was a period of massive increases in house prices, you may remember. The Reading Room he went to auction, and our estate agents had estimated a sale price of £28,000. But when we went to auction, amazingly, we had about 30 people in a very small meeting room. And there was one property developer who had already had a house in the village, had aspirations, I think, to knock down the Reading Room and build a very large development of new houses there. And fortunately, he got outbid by £500 by the Brown family who eventually bought it. And Bill Brown, as it turned out, was a very competent architect and well able to deal with the challenges of converting this 1870 building into a modern home and eventually he paid something in the excess of upper £50,000s, almost twice what the estate agent had estimated value to be. So we got lucky there.

Johnny Thomson 09:38
Yeah. And then it was on with the, the new build and somebody locally played a significant part in that aspect as well, didn’t they Alan?

Alan Roe 09:48
Yeah, a lot, a lot. A little bit of serendipity. We had we were required obviously to go out to tender to award the building contract and the tender was won by a firm called Johnson Construction. As it just so happened that Graham Johnson, their senior partner, by then was living in Bubbenhall and close proximity to Major Gibson. And he did an extremely good job for us in building the hall to budget, but then took on in a voluntary way, the job of maintaining it, because he sort of saw it as his pride and joy. And the next 30 years, he actively engaged with the extensions that were able to build, but also the maintenance of the building, increasingly heavily used and therefore, subject to wear and tear And sadly he passed away with cancer in 2019, which is why the book that I wrote during lockdown has been dedicated to him, and why the proceeds from the sale of that book are being paid over to a cancer research charity in his honour.

Johnny Thomson 10:55
Yeah, and I gather he struck up quite a relationship with Major Gibson as well in the village and of course, Major Gibson sadly passed away before Graham as well?

Alan Roe 11:08
Yes, well, that’s right. I mean Graham was initially just a contracted builder, but I think he became, after building the hall he was appointed to the committee, the management committe. And I think he felt a deep obligation to the Major to sort of make sure that this project was successful, not only the build stage, but of the further stages of extension and maintenance that were required thereafter. So he had a, as we all did, we had a high degree of loyalty to our commander in chief if you can call him that.

Johnny Thomson 11:40
Yeah. And, and what’s, what’s the legacy, that these two gentlemen have have left behind.You must have a wonderful facility there now?

Alan Roe 11:51
Well we have, and it’s an extremely well used hall. The original building was built down to a budget, as we only had the money that was available. But another little bit of history, if you allow me, we’ve since 1986, we’ve done three or four major extensions to the hall. As a consequence of that the hall has got quite a lot bigger. The initial sort of rather primitive quality of the build has been improved in terms of the heating and the insulation, and the quality of the things that keep the costs the cost down and again Graham Johnson, the builder has taken a leading role in orchestrating that, or did until his passing.

Johnny Thomson 12:30
So great fortune as part of the story, but also tinged by some sadness, of course. You mentioned that Graham Johnson passed away with cancer, which takes us on to your book, of course. As you mentioned, you’re raising money from the book, which is going to cancer research?,

Alan Roe 12:48
Yes, indeed. But that was one motivation of doing the book. I mean, it. I think Graham’s passing, was the stimulus that really got me going and then lockdown turned up, so I had even even more time. And so with the help from a number of other people and not least, Vicky Airey whi is a proper historian, which I’m not. Someone who’s done previous work on the history of the village. I got kicking off on this on this book and in the end, I decided to call it ‘From Reading Room to Village Hall, Windows on Bubbenhall History’, I’m trying to sort of set the bricks and mortar of these two buildings in the context of the evolving history of the village. I think in the, in the 19th century, things like the Reading Room were established for reasons which are probably quite different from the ones that we would now associate with villahe halls. It was linked very much to the reforming zeal of the Victorians, workers rights, fairer deals, cooperative movements, savings movements, and so on. In its early years, there really was very much a facility that was used to improve people, If I can use that rather old fashioned expression, with lots of technical education. Courses in poultry keeping and nursing, needle work, and as well as the provision of books and newspapers for people who would otherwise not have access to them to, to make use of. And motivated by religious zeal as well. Because the second rector of the village, Reverend Harrison was clearly a very strong temperance person who preached sermons about the evils of drink. And we had to had two pubs in the religion, and a population of 250 people. So the church was clearly trying to stop that happening. And really, the Reading Room was one sort of alternative, if you like, to going to the pub in the evening.

Johnny Thomson 14:47
Fantastic, wonderful. And don’t give too much away Alan. Because the next question is, is how can how can someone get hold of the book? How much does it cost?

Alan Roe 14:56
Well, we’ve done this as a as a I call it a vanity thing I suppose, but we printed only 200 copies because you know, we have a very limited budget. And we are now selling the last few copies of this, we had 50 or 60 of these left. Anyone who’s interested in listening to this podcast who wants one can contact me directly, but could also go on to the village website We have excellent village website run by a colleague called Jan Lucas and that is accessible at bubbenhall.info and you’ll see a tab there for history and the book is referred to there. Jan, myself, the present Chairman of the villahe hall, Mark Holt, or a number of other people who are listed on that website would be more than happy to communicate with anyone who is interested in finding out a little bit more about the book or indeed about Bubbenhall generally.

Johnny Thomson 15:44
Okay, great. Well, I’ll definitely put a link up with this episode on The Village Hall Podcast website as well Alan. So if if anyone wants to book, which which is a great read by the way, while also contributing of course to hugely important charity, they can they can get in touch and and fascinating Alan. And as I said, it’s sad that the village has lost such wonderful characters and contributors to village life there, but but what a fantastic and lasting legacy they’ve left behind. And to be honest, the next time I’m struggling with anything, I’ll definitely be thinking about the Major and putting things into perspective. So thanks, Alan, I really enjoyed listening to you today.

Alan Roe 16:21
Well thank you very much Johnny for the opportunity to talk to you about that.

Johnny Thomson 16:25
Fascinating as I said, and thanks very much for your time. And good luck with a book. And if you’ve got any information out there to share or a story to tell around village halls, please get in touch like Alan did. You know, I’d really love to hear from you. And one last thing about Bubbenhall, you mentioned the Doomsday Book of 1086, and the village goes way back. That reminds me how ACRE are still encouraging village halls to sign up to their online Doomsday Book. So if you haven’t already done that, visit the ACRE website for this and again, I’ll make sure there’s a link to that with this episode. As always, many thanks to our sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible and whose services you can discover more about at www.villageguard.com. You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast a new and unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. Yes, we’ll be back again soon. So if you haven’t already, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates, link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until next time, good bye for now.