by Val Bott
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 4 (1985)
The core of Chiswick Town Hall was built in 1876 as the Vestry Hall. It was designed by W J Treherne, the Chiswick Improvement Commissioners’ Surveyor, at a cost of £5,400 and substantially extended in 1901 at a cost of £20,000.
The Vestry was the parish equivalent of the local council of today. The Chiswick Vestry decided to build a parish hall in 1874, two years after they adopted the Vestries Act which was designed to prevent the use of churches for meetings. Until the new hall was completed in August 1876, the Chiswick Vestry met at the Boys’ National Schools at Turnham Green which by then had become the main village in the parish.
The site chosen was on the south side of the green and cost £1,100. A sub-committee was appointed to decide on the plans and a fire engine house was added, for the use of the proposed volunteer fire brigade. The Local Government Board agreed to the Vestry taking out loans of up to £5,500 and the Vestry gave its unanimous approval for the project to go ahead on 17 June 1875.
Mr William Pike became the first hall-keeper at an annual salary of £25. He kept an account book which has been preserved in the Chiswick Local Studies Collection. In it he listed payments for the hire of the hall and other rooms, usually with some minor detail of the events concerned and the name of the person or organisation paying; he also recorded expenditure on the purchase of equipment, the fuel required to heat and light the building and repairs carried out on it. The account book covers the period from the opening of the building in 1876 until 1899 when the new Urban District Council formally took it over.
What can this account book tell us about social life in Chiswick during this period? Since William Pike was more concerned with recording the income from events rather than detail about them it is only possible to compile a rather general list of the types of activities taking place there. However, there is enough information to see that both private and public entertainments were frequent and that there were also public meetings, classes and lectures which were educational and informative as well as entertaining.
|Events at the Vestry Hall 1876-1899|
Balls and dances
Gas company exhibitions
Other events – no details
The hire fee for the main hall for a concert was £2.17s 0d (£2.85) but if the concert was a charitable fund-raising event then the fee was reduced to £2..2s.0d (£1.2.10). Amongst the concerts included in the total of 248 above were those organised by the Cricket Club, the Grove Park Society, the Horticultural Society and the Literary and Scientific Society. Star turns at other concerts included a number of minstrel groups: the Christy Minstrels, the Police Minstrels, the Arab Minstrels and the London and South-Western Railway Minstrels! Charitable concerts were put on to raise funds for the annual Robin Dinner held at Christmas for the children of Chiswick Mission, for the relief of the poor and for a soup kitchen.
Various private individuals held balls and dances at the Vestry Hall, presumably for their own invited guests. Some local organisations also used it for this purpose, including the Cycling Club whose dance was listed in the account book by Mr Pike as “Bicycle Ball”! Some regular dances during the winter were recorded as “Cinderellas”; these must have been dances which went on until midnight as extra payments seem to have been required for events which went on into the small hours.
Dances and fund-raising events must have been organised by the wealthier members of Chiswick society; certainly the cost of hiring the hall was a sum well over many working people’s weekly wage. Some of the entertainments and meetings must have drawn their audience from a fairly wide cross-section of local people and from further afield if they were especially popular. A number of local societies held their meetings at the Vestry Hall – the Grove Park Society, the Turnham Green Literary and Scientific Society, the Primrose League, the Ratepayers’ Defence Association, the Workingmen’s Conservative Association, the Choral Society, the Horticultural Society and the Turnham Green Radical Society.
|Monthly totals of events 1876- 1899|
|Average number of events each month 1876- 1899|
The account book also reveals the pattern and frequency of events at the Vestry Hall. The tables show that the hall was busiest in the winter months, especially in December and January with Christmas and New Year celebrations, and exceptionally quiet in August which must have marked the height of Chiswick’s holiday season.
Other sources of information can provide more detail about the activities at the Vestry Hall. The Minute Books of the Vestry record details of the meetings they held there and the political decisions they made; from time to time they discussed improvements or authorised repairs to their hall. In March 1879, for example, they decided to spend over £40 on new seating out of the income made by letting the hall. During the 1880s they discussed the possibility of extending the hall and plans were prepared by Maurice B Adams, an architect who had designed some of the Bedford Park buildings, but these talks came to nothing.
A new local newspaper, The Chiswick Times, was first published on 29 March 1895 and provides some detail about the events held in the last few years covered by the account book. A newspaper advertisement and an article about the event the following week in April 1895 shed a great deal of light on a particularly successful concert listed only as “Mr Chevalier (Concert) £2.17s.0d” in the accounts. This was in fact Albert Chevalier, the singer who was famous for My Old Dutch and Old Kent Road. He was supported by Mr Alfred H West, Miss Belle Clancy and Mr Charles Bertram, and the programme included his latest successes – Our Court Ball, Tick Tock and Our Bazaar – as well as the old favourites. The newspaper reports that the hall was packed with all standing room taken and hundreds turned away. Ticket prices were 5 shillings (25p) and 3 shillings (15p) for reserved seats and 2 shillings (10p) or one shilling (5p) for unreserved places. With all seats taken, Mr Chevalier must have made a very healthy profit on his £2.17s.0d (£2.85) investment in hiring the Vestry Hall!Not all events were so successful; the paper reported in February 1896 that Messrs Spur and Crowson’s Minstrels gave an excellent entertainment but “unfortunately there was not a large audience”. The Chiswick Postal Athletic Club put on its first concert there two months later and provided a good programme which resulted in a crowded hall; the newspaper report also remarked upon the stage which had been “tastefully decorated with palms”.
In the first issue of the Chiswick Times, there was also a story about proposals to erect a rival hall on a site near the Roman Catholic Church. The article described the Vestry Hall as “not the most desirable place for concerts or entertainments of any kind” as “only a powerful voice can be heard at the rear and then the words can be heard by no means distinctly”. It went on to say that the “structure of the interior seems to render it unfit for concert or dramatic performances and it is only once in a way that the floor is planed and rendered convenient for dancing”. The article was intended to encourage local people to invest in the project to build the new hall. It cannot have succeeded for the new hall was not heard of again. By 1901, however, the Urban District Council had added major extensions and turned the Vestry Hall into the Town Hall we know today.
The building remained the Town Hall until Chiswick became a part of the new London Borough of Hounslow in 1965. The most recent departments transferred to the new Civic Centre in Hounslow in 1985 were the Rates Office and the Registry Office; at that time the Hall housed the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and a variety of local classes, public meetings, bazaars and theatrical performances once again. It twice provided the venue for the Annual Local History Conference organised by West London’s local history societies and also for the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society’s 25th Anniversary Dinner in January 1983.