The Story of the New Public Hall

Opened on 28 September 1938

Based on a presentation to The Harpenden Society on 7 December 2017. Information drawn from the HUDC Committee minute books, and copies of press cuttings in the archives. We hope someone will search the local newspaper archives for more detail and comment.

In 1978, The Herts Advertiser celebrated the 40th anniversary of Harpenden Public Hall with the headline “A Waste of Money or an Asset?”. Ernie Ackroyd, recalling the public outcry at the cost, was in no doubt that the “The public hall has been a wonderful asset to the town.” And Charles Pitts, a member of Harpenden Drama League, commented: “It made a big difference moving to the new hall. We could play to audiences of 440 instead of 200. We had better facilities and were asked to help with the lighting arrangements.”

The Old Public Hall

The Old Public Hall, 1911, proclamation of George V. Credit: LHS archives – HC 137

The Old Public Hall, 1937, with Coronation Sign. Credit: LHS archives – HC 003






Harpenden Urban District Council (HUDC), formed in 1898 set up the Council Offices and Chamber in the old British School on Leyton Road. The main schoolroom became the Public Hall and was used for lectures, meetings and entertainment after the school, now run by Hertfordshire County Council, had moved into its new buildings in Victoria Road in 1896. Before that rooms at both the British School and the National School (St Nicholas C of E primary school) had been used for meetings of organisations such as the British & Foreign Bible Society. The Lecture Institute and Reading Room (now the Friends Meeting House in Southdown Road) was another small public venue.

Ideas for improved public facilities were in the air soon after the Great War. An anonymous letter to the Herts Advertiser in January 1919 suggested that a fitting memorial to the fallen could be “a building in which shall be centred the civic and social activities of the District, including … a Hall suitable for public meetings and entertainments of every kind, dancing”, as well as many other sports, cultural and practical facilities which have mostly been built over the ensuing century.

In 1931 the HUDC bought Harpenden Hall, which had recently been vacated by the Sisters of St Dominic, when they moved their convent and school to The Welcombe. In setting up the council’s offices, they did offer the Assembly Room for meetings, but excluding music, cinematic shows, dances etc. It was strictly ‘no smoking’.

Dennis Wilson, brother of Theodora, wrote in 1933 to the HUDC with the suggestion that they should make a new Public Hall on site adjoining Harpenden Hall and apparently he included plans.  He was thanked, but informed that the Council was “not in a position at the present time to entertain the question of erecting a new Public Hall”.

The gardens of Harpenden Hall, when it was St Dominic’s convent, 1920s. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 2088

The view of Harpenden Hall gardens from Arden Grove, c.1936. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 12646






Nevertheless the idea was germinating and a public inquiry was held during 1934, as a result of which a sub-committee was set up and the Council’s Surveyor, Mr WH Johnson presented a draft scheme – in which the main hall was on a north/south alignment. Meanwhile, Mrs Scattergood, who lived at Bennetts on the opposite side of the Common, wrote suggesting the gardens alongside Harpenden Hall should be made into public gardens.

In November 1934, it was decided to proceed with more detailed plans for a main hall to seat 500, capable of future extension to 650, plus stage & dressing rooms; also a small hall, cloakrooms and kitchen – all at the estimated cost £12,000 and a 1.5d (half a penny) rate. The Council and Ministry of Health (then in charge of local government) approved in principle – “it being a propitious time, period of stability, low interest rates”. The scheme would make the Old Public Hall available for a library, ambulance or other services. It was however felt to be desirable to obtain alternative designs. So in January 1935 the RIBA was consulted about regulations for running a competition and in March 1935 Mr Robert Lowry ARIBA was nominated as RIBA assessor on an open Architectural competition.

Design competition

The competition evidently took place over the following year, so that in March 1936 the winners were chosen: Messrs Yeats & Bull of Welwyn Garden City. Alec Bull, son of Thomas Alfred Bull, has recently told us that his father was still a student at Sheffield University though his builder father had moved to WGC for work. He and his mate Reg Yeats heard about the competition and submitted their design. They were each awarded £500, and Alec says his parents married on the proceeds. His father always thought it was done as a competition because the prize money was considerably less than the cost would have been commercially!

After Thomas Bull’s death in 1975, Mrs Bull found the plans and arranged for them to be presented to the then Public Hall caretaker, who was surprised and delighted because these plans helped identify the position of pipes and cables which had been causing problems. Let’s hope the plans have been kept and can join others in the care of the Local History archives!

Over the following year the sub-committee worked with the architects to prepare plans and specifications for approval by the full Council, and tenders were invited in December 1936.

Public dissent

Though there may have been rumblings of dissent in the local press, it was not until reports of the Council meeting on 19 July 1937 to pass a resolution to seal the contract that the correspondence columns came to life. The cost had meanwhile risen from £12,000 to over £21,000. Mr C A Watson of Hartsmead, Arden Grove launched an attack on the cost and application for a loan and Mr Ernest Hasseldine (a founder member of Harpenden Preservation Society, which was formed during the controversial building of Bowers Parade in front of Bowers House in 1930) also complained of the burden on the rates, and difficulties already experienced in fund-raising for Nursing Centre; “rarely does a Public meeting ever fill the present (Park) hall and yet we contemplate spending over £20,000 on a new building mainly for play acting”. In the following week he proposed a garden instead – and urged the public to send postcards to the UDC – “if ratepayers are too lethargic to take any action then they cannot complain if the rates go up and up and up”. Mr Rowan of Bloomfield Road proposed  support for the Nursing Centre and a Swimming Pool – for potential use as a decontamination centre, since fears of war were growing.

The ‘white elephant’ nearing completion, April 1938. Credit: LHS archives – BF 25.12

In November 1937 the sub-committee was in contact with the Architects about the programme of work and matters relating to floor levels, forecourt levels, facing bricks, emergency lighting, types of flooring, roof tiles. A grant of 10/- per week for expenses of Clerk of Works was agreed. In February 1938 the sub-committee was consulted over the provision of a Coat of Arms panel to be cut in Portland stone at cost not exceeding £33, which was placed over the main entrance. They also approved the reduction of the height of the boundary wall between Harpenden Hall and new Public Hall, at same level as flower beds and walls of [forecourt].

The 1937 coat of arms, designed by Frank Salisbury, cut in Portland stone

On 21 April 1938 the sub-committee, with the addition of Miss Busby and Mrs Raban were asked to draw up plans for the opening ceremonies. As the building was nearing completion this seemed to provoke Ernest Hasseldine to a final outburst of protest: “This ultra-modern building would have passed muster standing by itself in a setting of trees, but erected next to the quaint architecture and mellow brickwork of Harpenden Hall it is sheer vandalism” (letter to the Herts Advertiser, 30 April 1937).

His cartoon highlighted the nightmare for Harpenden ratepayers. In referring to Bowers House/Parade he wrote: “The Harpenden Preservation Society has, from time to time, raised its voice, but the anger of Councillors and the apathy of the residents have effectually stifled any protests. In its wisdom Harpenden Council refuses to accept the services of an architects’ panel, so the community must accept such outrages to happen, such as the erection of this ‘white elephant’.”

Ernest Hasseldine’s cartoon, accompanying his letter to the Herts Advertiser, 30 April 1938. Credit: LHS archives – BF 25.12

However, in the same column Mr Ordish of 17 Milton Road wrote: “The design approved by the Royal Fine Arts Commission for Scotland for the new building of the National Library of Scotland is almost exactly on the lines of our new Public Hall.  Need one say more?”

Preparing for the official opening

The New Hall, ready for opening alongside the oldest house in Harpenden. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 10802

Meanwhile Preparations went ahead, and the Herts Ad of 23 September announced the Official Opening on 30 September with a full front-page spread, including the long history of the project, and a description of the building inside and out. The general contractors had been Messrs Richard Ginn & Sons of Hertford, with many sub-contractors. The reporter remarked that: “The exterior of the building has not met with general approval, objections having been raised on the ground that the modernity of the design and the colour of the bricks do not blend with the surroundings …. [but] one should not judge things on their face value.”

The lengthy description of the interior included:

  • Burma teak floor in the Main Hall, covered with a carpet of light and dark blue colouring; walls panelled with walnut to 9ft height.
  • 440 gilt-framed tip-up chairs, upholstered with blue rep
  • Globes for diffused lighted fixed on the walls and concealed lighting arrangements on the ceiling
  • Projection room over the foyer
  • Provision for a future extension of seating by adding a balcony, access to which will be by stairs already constructed at each end of the foyer.
  • Large, well-fitted kitchen, which will be a boon to caterers – with separate hot water supply
  • Small hall, also accessible from the terrace, has a maple floor
  • Electric fan to extract foul air from the Main Hall
  • Heating provided by low-pressure hot water feeding radiators – boiler house under the kitchen
  • “Electric clocks in the two halls and the foyer, and the latter’s pendant lighting arrangements are among the modern accessories which give the finishing touches of dignity and luxury of Harpenden’s New Public Hall”

    Modernist clock in the foyer

  • 40 parking spaces behind the halls

In applying for the theatrical license, Mr Harris, Clerk to the HUDC, asked  the Magistrate that the condition “that smoking should not take place during a performance”, which had applied in the Old Public Hall, should be removed from the license for the New Public Hall.

The opening – under the cloud of the Munich crisis

Cllr Ronald Taylor addressing the crowd from the steps of the New Public Hall, 28 September 1938. Credit: LHS archives – BF 25.12

The Chairman of the HUDC, Cllr Ronald Taylor started by asking everyone to join in singing “O God our help in Ages Past” in view of the anxious times through which England was passing. In his speech he stressed that “the hall was not for one section of Harpenden only: it was for every man, woman and child in the town, and should be used as a community centre where the different sections could meet together and it will be for the benefit of whole population of Harpenden – not only those living today, but for future generations”

The Rector, the Rev Veitch, dedicated the building, followed by Sir John Russell, Director of Rothamsted who said: “It is in a way an accident that the opening of this Hall coincides with anxious times which are now upon us. I would like to confirm what has already been stressed – that the hall is built for everyone: it is more than ever essential in these times that we should all be united, that we should have a building where common action can be discussed and then taken.”  The public were then invited to tour the building.

At 8 pm a Variety Entertainment by Albert H Grant’s “White Notes” was mounted, and with the slight easing of the international situation on that Wednesday evening, both players and audience were in a happy frame of mind.

Concert on the opening night. Credit: LHS archives – BF 25.12

The same issue of the Harpenden Free Press on 7 October advertised the first of the Season’s Cookery Demonstrations at the Public Hall on Wednesday, 12 October, organized for free by the Home Service Bureau of the Watford and St Albans Gas Co.

Public Dinner and Venetian Masked Ball

On Thursday, 29 September there was a Public Dinner followed by Short Plays by the Harpenden Group of the British Drama League. Frank Salisbury stood in for Leslie Burgin MP, who was at Westminster. He proposed the toast to Harpenden: “May Harpenden, root and branch, prosper”. In replying Cllr Ronald Taylor said the town “rightly regarded Mr Salisbury as an illustrious native of the village.” He then referred to the Old Public Hall saying some people had memories, both grave and gay, in connection with the hall, and in his own time he remembered George Williams performing under enormous difficulties, marvellous plays.

The mayors of Luton and St Albans had been invited. According to the report Mr Baum, Mayor of St Albans “was filled with admiration and envy to see the new Hall, because they had not got a hall in St Albans approaching it, and, while they had in mind building, in the future, municipal offices and a hall, he was afraid it was ‘very much in the future’.  In St Albans they held Harpenden in very high regard, and one of things they did when they received visitors was to bring them to Harpenden and show them the beauties of the Common.  It did not seem that it would be very long before Harpenden would be looking to the possibility of claiming a Charter and having a Mayor and Corporation of its own.”

On Friday 30 Sept a Venetian Masked Ball, organized by the Centrepedes and presided over by Mr and Mrs Nott, which according to the Herts Ad report on 7 October. celebrated “the joyous news of the keeping of the peace in Europe and the Prime Minister’s triumphant return from Munich which ended days of anxiety and strain”.

Guests resting, during the Venetian Masked Ball, 30 September 1938. Credit: LHS archives – BF 25.12

The ball was one of a series of events for “hospital week” in aid of the Red House Appeal. With tickets sold out long before the event, there was a waiting list of 80. Likened to the Chelsea Arts Ball, it was a ‘kaleidoscopic’ scene, with colourful decorations, lovely dresses and music from the Grenadier Guards.“The most striking feature of the decorations in the ballroom were the Venetian boxes which had been designed by Mr Vyvyan Salisbury and carried out by H S Gray of Harpenden”.  Another feature was a fountain in the foyer, with pink dahlias floating in the water – provided by Kingston House Stores.

The following week on Sunday, 9 October, the hall was filled to overflowing for a united service of thanksgiving for ‘Peace in our Time’, which was followed by a procession organised by the British Legion, including the Legion’s Women’s Section, to the war memorial for the observance of International Peace Sunday – a day set apart by ex-Service men of all countries who took part in the Great War, to meet at war memorials in the towns and villages of each country to express their earnest wish that all international problems shall find a peaceful solution.

The packed congregation for the United Service, 9 October 1938. Credit: LHS archives – photocopy of Herts Ad report, 14 October, 1938

Later entries from the minutes of the General Purposes subcommittee

On 18 October 1938, complaints had been received about parking of cars on the forecourt and neighbouring streets, and the adequacy of the car park was questioned. The official reply: “The car park at the rear of the Hall is capable of meeting the requirements of most lettings and that, in special cases, the use of the triangle on the common has been authorised.”

In December 1938 – one dozen large-size bakelite ashtrays were to be purchased at 7/6 each and in January 1939 an additional 12 bakelite ashtrays were being purchased – showing the effect of not banning smoking. A pay phone was installed in the Crush Hall.

In March 1942 they agreed that wooden posts and rails, painted white, be erected on the dwarf wall in front of the Hall, as an additional precaution against the possibility of persons falling over this wall on leaving in the blackout.

For how the New Public Hall was used, see entries from the Engagements Register.

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