Look back with Little: Hall stories highlight community at its best

Middle Cheney Coronation NNL-180102-153116001
Middle Cheney Coronation NNL-180102-153116001

Back in the early 1940s a survey by the Agricultural Economics Unit of Oxford University revealed a serious lack of public meeting places in the parishes between Banbury and Chipping Norton.

This became even more apparent if you viewed a delightful film entitled, 24 Square Miles.

The few village halls that existed were made possible by money raised from fetes and other special events. Alternatively village groups could approach a variety of organisations with an interest in encouraging social activities in rural areas. Just three of the villages surveyed had halls. A few alternatives included an inappropriate former schoolhouse and school halls, which had limited availability for community dances, concerts and socials. These were ‘run by villagers for villagers’. The ideal situation existed in one village where the hall had a bar. No wonder ‘the surveyors were told this was the best pub in the village’.

A Banburyshire village with a most interesting history of meeting places is Middleton Cheney. Today the local hall stands adjacent to a footpath known as Middleway but where originally there was an orchard attached to the house at the corner of Middle Green.

In the 1940s the orchard was bought by Lady Mildred Hailsham of Middleton House who visualised the establishment of a village hall, which would be known as the Lawrence Memorial Hall in memory of her first husband and put under the direction of a Trust consisting of Lady Hailsham, Mrs Kekewich, Mr Baker (Headmaster) and the local Rector.

The first hall was a large wooden hut with a tin roof. It had been bought from RAF Chipping Warden at the end of the war. It had a kitchen area and toilets but the heating was a lottery as it depended on two old-fashioned stoves. Amongst the hall’s many uses were Conservative Party meetings that were often disturbed by sods of turf landing on the roof.

A regular event was a baby clinic where an enthusiastic nurse tried to persuade one of the mothers to demonstrate the finer points of breast feeding: the challenge fell on deaf ears.

By 1958 Middleway Hall as it was known was the object of improvement grant applications but the building did not fulfil the criteria. There was a further problem of conflicting demands of a sports pavilion and a new village hall. During the 1960s people in the Stanwell and Horton housing estates were looking for a better hall as were the WI drama group (later the Lynden Players). Unsurprisingly the whole community got into the fund raising mode and local surveyor Spencer Narracott was engaged to produce a plan which would meet the various demands. The outcome was an opening ceremony by Lady Birkenhead in 1969.

The new hall was built in two parts and later extended to provide a bar and additional toilets. Apart from meeting local demand the hall was let out to generate much needed income. Events included dog shows, pantomimes, weddings and club meetings.

Village histories and booklets have been an invaluable source of information about halls elsewhere. Bloxham’s story is especially interesting. The Ellen Hinde Hall was a memorial to her son who fought in the Second World War. Virtually at the very last minute she had a change of mind about the hall’s use. It became a store. Ex-servicemen responded by erecting their own hall in the High Street. In 1948 this was presented to the village and used by many clubs for meetings as well as hired out for the likes of antiques fairs.

Last week was dedicated to the village hall. We have come a long way since the early 1940s. Nevertheless it remains the case that much depends on the efforts of villagers themselves. They are the best people to understand the local needs and to appreciate the significance of that well-known cry, ‘if wet, in the village hall’.

> I am most grateful to Denise Howes and Nancy Long who have allowed me to use their research on Middleton Cheney village halls.