The Wise Hall, St John the Baptist Church

The Wise Hall

Dr Hitchman

Dr Hitchman

St John’s Parochial Hall (aka ‘The Wise Hall’)  was built originally by Dr. John Hitchman. It was used by him as a place of worship for people connected with his  Arboretum Hydropathic Hospital which opened close by in 1862.  After the formation of St. John’s Parish in 1875, it was given by Mrs. Hitchman at a nominal rent to the Parish [Dr. Hitchman had died in 1867].  At the time it was known as “St. John’s Temporary Church”.  The Rev. T. E. Franklyn was in charge of this temporary church until the nave of the new St. John’s Church was ready for use in 1878.  On 4th June 1883 Mrs. Sarah Hitchman, then living at Fenton House, Stoke-on-Trent, gave the building to the Parish, along with a small strip of land.  Her instructions were that the land was a gift to the Vicar and Church Wardens for the site for a school for children of the poor of the Parish, or the site of a school masters house.  The Rev. William George Wise built a school house.

St John's Church(1) c. early 1960s © Joyce Heath

St John’s Church(1) c. early 1960s © Joyce Heath

After the consecration of the church nave, the hall was used as a day school until the scholars were moved to other schools in the town.  Afterwards it was used as a Sunday school, for social gatherings, and meetings of all kind.

After the First World War the building was considerably improved through the generosity of Mrs. Wise, but the rapid growth of the Parish in the 1920s rendered it totally inadequate.  New housing schemes on Tachbrook Road and the Rushmore Estate added over 200 houses, [almost a parish in themselves], so that the population was over 7,000.

In 1926 work started on altering and adapting the hall to plans by architect Mr. Frederick G. Cundall (descendant of the architect of the church), to meet the needs of this growing parish.  The work was carried out by Messrs. Standbridge and Parker.  The new hall was to be used primarily  as a Sunday school as well as for parochial meetings. The old building was thoroughly restored and equipped and an imposing entrance and vestibule with an oak staircase leading to the Hall was added.  A two-storey extension was erected at the south end of the old room creating two rooms, each 40 feet by 20 feet.  They were well lit and were finished with a Columbian pine dado.  The upper room had a panelled ceiling with ‘handsome pitch pine roof principals’.  A new ‘Morganite’ electric heater was introduced – and it had to be explained that it was a ‘system of heating by radiation as opposed to convection and was found to be most successful’.  It was the first time that it had been used in the town.  The old room was 50 feet by 25 feet and had a large open boarded roof which was closed as part of these works.  A ventilating ceiling was built at a lower level which enhanced the appearance of the room. There was a large opening about 14 feet by 11 feet at the south end, communicating with the new room, and as the floor of this portion was about 2 feet 6 inches above the other, it formed a natural stage upon which concerts and plays were performed.  The room under the old Hall was very damp.  Work was done to improve this – it was then divided up into cloak rooms, toilets and a large kitchen along with a new lower room which was then available for use as a refreshment room for social functions. The following words were inscribed on two mural tablets on either side of the main entrance to the building which from that time on would be known as “The Wise Memorial Hall”: “This Hall was enlarged and reopened in May 1927 by Caroline Augusta Wise and Louisa Elizabeth Skirving, in memory of Elizabeth Wise, William George Wise and Henry Edward Wise”. The re-opening ceremony took place on Sunday 22nd May 1927.  The Vicar, Canon Hubble, extended a welcome to the two benefactors, after which Miss Wise, assisted by Mrs. Skirving, unlocked the doors and declared the Hall open.

The Wise Hall in WW2

The Wise Hall was requisitioned by the military on 6th July 1940, the letter being signed by a Major Lovett.  The formal agreement was signed on 26th August 1940 showing a payment of £80 per annum for the privilege.  The basement was not requisitioned at this time and was used to store furniture but this changed on 5th April 1944 when the basement was also requisitioned. The Leamington Spa Courier reported that during the Second World War Wise Hall was used as a military detention centre.  However, the father of Tessa Whitehouse told her that it was used to billet Czechoslovak troops.  I think that it is fair to say that the Hall was used for a number of military purposes over the period of requisition.  Certainly in the early part of the war it was used by 213 A.F. Company Royal Engineers attached to 95th H.A.A. Regiment Royal Engineers, but they ‘marched out’ on 28th March 1941.  It is also known that the Belgian military police were billeted at Wise Hall.  A letter dated 1st March 1946 from Capt. D. L. Milner, on behalf of Lt. Col. T. M. Lovett, Quartering Commandant for Leamington, who was based at 14 Newbold Terrace, said that he was making application for authority to surrender the Wise Hall – which it was on 29th August 1946.  Following ‘de-requisition’ various works took place to bring the Hall back up to standard as well as replacing the stage in time for Christmas 1946.  The remainder of the effects were returned in March 1947.  H. Wilson-Wood, a Chartered Architect and Surveyor of 26 Northumberland Road was employed to negotiate with the War Office for ‘rehabilitation’.  He recommended that an amount of £502.17s.5d. be accepted from the War Department.

The Wise Hall as an extension of Shrubland Street School

On 12th August 1950 the Warwickshire County Council Architect wrote to Rev. J.W. Crank to say that Shrubland Street County Junior School was overcrowded and it had been suggested that two rooms at Wise Hall would be suitable.  He asked whether the Trustees of the Hall would be prepared to let the Hall to the County Council and indicated that they wanted to start using it from the start of the new school year on 28th August 1950.  On 1st March 1951 a tenancy agreement was signed between Rev. James William Crank and Warwickshire County Council for the use of the main hall, two rooms on the ground floor and offices in the basement of the Wise Hall as additional educational accommodation for Shrubland Street County Junior School.  The main hall was to be used for physical education, the two rooms on the ground floor for classrooms and the room in the basement as a covered playground in wet weather.  Also included was the use of a piece of grass land outside the hall for use as a playground in fine weather.  Lavatory accommodation for the staff and the children was in the basement.  The school had agreement to use the site between 8.45am and 4.30pm on weekdays at an annual rent of £200 per annum.  Two years later, on 1st January 1953 the rent was increased to £230.

Tessa Whitehouse, local historian and a child resident of Tachbrook Street talks very fondly of Wise Hall.  She says, “The Wise Hall that I knew is not the modern building standing beside the gravel drive.  The Wise Hall that I knew was the old hall full of character and built on two levels.  A heavy dark green door fronting Tachbrook Street led into a small hall, then two or three steps led up into the main hall with a wooden floor full of splinters.  When my class first started using the Wise Hall, the heating was provided from two old fashioned boilers which were soon to be removed as they were deemed to be unsafe.”

“At the opposite end of the room was a small stage, up three or four steps.  The windows at the back of the stage were the ones from where I would look down onto the vicarage garden.”

“A flight of stairs to the right of the main front door led to a corridor leading to the downstairs hall with a cold concrete floor.  In this hall was a large old fashioned billiard table with heavily carved legs.  I never did know who used it or if it was ever used.  Along the corridor leading to this hall were the ladies and men’s cloakrooms, and a big kitchen.”

“A small door at the side of the Hall opened onto a staircase leading to the main hall and a small dressing room adjoining the stage; stairs also led to the downstairs hall.  Leading off the driveway at the side of the Hall was a huge mound of coke to heat the building and the church.  Many pleasant times were spent playing on the coke until we were moved on by Mr. [Ernie] Sargent who was the verger and caretaker.  We climbed through the hatch at the top of the drive, ran down the mountain of coke to the bottom, then we came back up the steps near the front entrance, and repeated the process as long as we could.”

“The Wise Hall was multi-functional and used for church activities, jumble sales, Christmas fayres, whist drives and beetle drives.  The Vicar also obtained an annual music and dancing licence.  Monday evening was devoted to the girls Friendly Society meetings.  The junior section, [to which I belonged], was held between 6 pm and 8 pm and was then followed by the senior section – a youth club for girls.”

“Miss Cox and Mrs. Boiles ran the junior section, and we made raffia mats and played games.  One summer we helped to make paper flowers to decorate the float for Warwick Carnival.  I stayed in the junior section until I was eleven, but I never joined the senior group as we were hoping to move to Lillington, and then later I had homework to do.  Tuesday night was for the boys; first the cubs meeting, followed by the scouts.  Wednesday night the Hall was free of any regular activities, so it was always available for meetings etc.”

“Thursday was the night I loved, as it was Brownies night!  This was from 6.30 until 8.00 and I was always trusted to go to these meetings on my own, even when it was dark.  Our first few meetings were spent learning the Brownie Promise, the Brownie Law and the Brownie Motto.  I remember being told in 1952 that the words of the promise must be changed from ‘Do my duty to God and the King’ to ‘Do my duty to God and the Queen’.  We learned semaphore signalling, Morse Code, and various household tasks, including making Brown Owl a cup of tea.”

“At each meeting we had an inspection of our uniform to make sure that we were correctly dressed; shoes were polished, and Brownie ties were fixed with a reef knot and not a ‘granny knot’!  On enrolment I received a lovely little brass badge which I dutifully cleaned with Brasso every week.  During 1953 the whole of the Brownie pack were presented with the Coronation Badge which was mainly red, blue and gold.  This was stitched to my tunic alongside my Golden Bar and First year Star.”

“From time to time the Brownies joined the Guides to give a concert and the only one I attended was when our pack’s new pennant was paraded for the first time.  The concert ended with the rousing singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, us Brownies standing with the Guides on the steps of the platform.  The National Anthem brought the proceeding to an end and proud parents took their daughters home.”

“On Saturdays the Hall was the venue for jumble sales – if the Hall was not already booked for a wedding reception.  A queue would form quite a while before the doors opened.  We liked to watch potential customers charge into the Hall with their brown paper carrier bags in search of bargains – but we children never dared to venture into a jumble sale and Mother never ever went to them.”

“Each year a Christmas Bazaar was held – an old toy or discarded book made its way to the White Elephant stall.  We always knew that Christmas was imminent when we saw the kissing boughs (mistletoe) fixed to one of the lights.  How Mr. Sargent managed to reach the very lofty lights was always a source of wonder to us children, but he always did a grand job.”

Tessa goes on to talk of her time at Shrubland Street School when one of her classes was based at Wise Hall.  She says, “And so it was in September 1951, that I entered school through the Junior’s playground – I felt so grown up!  I was initially placed in class 1B and our teacher was Miss Duggins.  At the end of the first week another teacher, Miss Slater, arrived in the classroom and read out a list of names, including mine.  We were told to collect our coats from the cloakroom, line up in the hallway and wait for Miss Slater.  She led us across the playground and into Tachbrook Street and we made our way to the Wise Hall.”

“We were now all in Class 1A and Miss Slater was our teacher.  Being a Brownie and regular church goer, I was familiar with the Wise Hall, knew its layout,  and felt at home straightaway.  Class 1A was housed on the stage and the desks were of a much newer style than those in the Infant’s school.  A heavy brown curtain divided the stage from the main hall, but this was rarely drawn across.  A second class, the 1A / 1B overflow class was housed in the small dressing room adjoining the stage, with Mrs. Rachel Chesterfield as their teacher.”

“Miss Slater’s experience and seniority were necessary, being in charge of 70 or more children in a church hall, with no gate securing it from the main road.  Working in these very pleasant conditions, she made it very clear that her word was final.”

“In some ways, for me anyway, the Wise Hall was Paradise.  The classroom always seemed bright and sunny and warm.  The toilets [all two of them for about 40 girls] were indoors.  Sometimes it took most of playtime to go to the toilet.  We were allowed to play on the grass at the rear of the church, except in winter and rough weather.  A little slope led down to the wall of the church and this was officially out of bounds.  We weren’t supposed to play there, but it was nice to sit there in groups and talk.”

“The two cellars beneath the church [now bricked up] were definitely out of bounds but we dared the boys to go down the steps into them and to see how far into the cellars they were prepared to go.  We made up all sorts of tales about these cellars, but they were really dreadful – dark, dirty, lots of little lizards lurked in them, but above all they were dangerous.”

“We had everything that we wanted, we were self-sufficient and had no need to go to the main school although the boys did once a week for football and the whole class marched down there one hot sunny afternoon to have our school photograph taken.  Days at the Wise Hall were amongst the happiest at Shrubland Street School.”

“Each morning at the Wise Hall started in the same way.  Both classes combined in the main hall for morning prayers, with Miss Slater playing the piano and leading proceedings, with Mrs Chesterfield sitting beside her.  We then sat on the floor crossed legged for what seemed an eternity while we listened to a bible story and talked about it afterwards.”

“We were all intrigued by the white porcelain type ink wells in the right hand corner of our desks.  Miss Slater filled the inkwells with school ink, which was made from powder and was horrible stuff, – it got everywhere and didn’t wash out of clothes very easily.  We were all asked to take a pen and nib to school.  We bought these from Woolworths for a few pennies.”

Wise Hall Coronation Party 1953 Terry Kean

Wise Hall Coronation Party 1953 Terry Kean

“February 6th 1952 was a dull cold winter day.  Going to school that morning, none of us were aware of what had  happened at Sandringham early that morning.  I went home for my midday dinner and my mother told me that she had switched on the wireless to listen to ‘Music while you work’ and ‘Mrs. Dale’s Diary’, but all she could hear was solemn music.  She later heard  that King George VIth had died peacefully in his sleep during the night and that his valet had found him when he went to call him in the morning with a cup of tea.  My mother told me that we now had a Queen and one day she would be crowned and there would be parties to celebrate.  On the day of his funeral we held our own service for him in the big hall and we prayed for our lovely young Queen and her family for all that lay ahead.”

 Cheerio Concert Party 1952 ©John Knibb

Cheerio Concert Party 1952 ©John Knibb

In the early 1950’s John Knibb and his brother Brian approached the Rev. James Crank with an idea to start a football team, which they did.  This developed into a youth club that operated from Wise Hall.  John enlisted a number of ‘leaders’ who were responsible for various social activities.    One of the activities that John and Brian were very involved with was a Concert Party.  Although the performances started at, and were mainly at Wise Hall, the group went on to perform at other venues locally and further afield.  Brian later went on to be involved in local football elsewhere in the town.

Cheerio Concert Party c 1952   © John Knibb

Cheerio Concert Party c 1952 © John Knibb

Some years later in 1999 Amy Nora Slater was chosen to be the first centenarian to receive the Queen’s new-style 100th birthday greetings card.  She had joined the teaching staff at Shrubland Street Junior School in 1947 and had stayed until her retirement in 1960. In 1955 builders Stowe and Co. of 111 Regent Street relayed the floor at Wise Hall.  The Vicar instructed them to carry out the work during the summer holidays between 23rd July and 3rd September. In August 1960 the County Education Officer indicated that the County Council would only require the use of Wise Hall until the Aylesford High school was moved into their new buildings in Warwick.

The End of an Era

St Johns Church Hall ©A Jennings

St Johns Church Hall ©A Jennings

The Parochial Church Council took the decision to demolish Wise Hall and replace it with a new building in December 1966.  The PCC had sought advice from an architect who told them that it would cost £8,000 to £10,000 to give the hall a new lease of life – but that it would only prolong its usefulness for about another ten years.  The Vicar of St. John’s, the Rev. Robin Noise said, “No real maintenance has been carried out on it for 25 years.  It is coming down in 1967.  If it isn’t pulled down it will fall down.”

Following the demolition of the Wise Hall a new church hall was erected and opened in 1971 at a cost of £20,000.

Allan Jennings – October 2015

Many thanks to fellow Leamington history group members Frank James and Tessa Whitehouse for their information and support in helping me put together this history of the Wise Hall.

Sources:

  • Leamington Spa Courier 27th May 1927
  • Morning News 23rd December 1966
  • Tessa Whitehouse – Leamington History Group
  • Warwick Records Office [Reference DR836/58/1-281]

Photographs

  • John Hitchman
  • Postcard of St. John’s Church and Wise Hall [circa 1910]
  • John’s Church and the Wise Hall in the early 1960s – Donated to the Church by Joyce Heath
  • 1953 Coronation party – courtesy of Terry Kean
  • Cheerio Concert Party in 1952 – courtesy of John Knibb
  • Cheerio Concert Party ‘Chorus Line’ circa 1952/53 – courtesy of John Knibb
  • ‘New’ Church Hall photographed on 21st October 2015 © Allan Jennings

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