The Reading Room – One Hundred Years Old
(1887 - 1987)
To most of you this is just history, a past thing that can be read because someone has written it. To a few, much of the story is not history but experiences. I have listened to one of that few, Mr Jessett, who was secretary or treasurer (or both) of the Reading Room for a good deal of the time between the end of the first world war and 1952. It would have been better to listen to others too, but I haven’t given time to it; and apart from the short piece I know from my own experience I have worked the story out in the usual way historians use, from the documents I found. The chief of these are the original Deed of Gift and the minute-book that runs from 1925 to 1974. Therefore I begin with two requests. I have guessed at some facts, as well as trailed my coat in interpreting them, and would those who can correct my mistakes or fill my gaps from memory please tell me what they know or better still write it up the next newsletter, and if anyone knows where the first minutes or the earliest accounts are (or even where they once were) would he or she please tell me. They are not in the County Record Office where they would be safest.
The Fairbrothers had farmed in Helmdon for I don’t know how long; and then in the nineteenth century they moved away. In 1887 Charles Fairbrother, then of Wappenham, built the Reading Room on land he owned in Church Street, and gave it to the village “to be forever hereafter used as a Reading Room by all the inhabitants of … Helmdon, and also of … Stutchbury, Astwell and Falcutt”, in memory of his parents James and Sarah Fairbrother and others of his family who had lived here. There was a ceremony of some kind and a meal was served in the room. Mr Jessett’s grandfather, some years after he came from Herefordshire to farm here, was one of the committee who formally received the gift in the village’s name.
It was an impressive gift. It was built, I’m told, of Helmdon stone though the quarries were already disused. At one end was the main Room with a big window east and west like the front one, and divided across the middle by a folding shutter so that the smaller room could easily be made. In each hall was an open grate, and a hanging paraffin lamp. The remainder of the building was a two-storey house for a caretaker. This caretaker was a very important part of Mr Fairbrother’s scheme, and the job was a full-time one if not always onerous, because by the original rules the Room was to be open from ten in the morning till about nine at night, all the year round except Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The caretaker was responsible not only for cleaning the room, carrying fuel, lighting fires, filling lamps and emptying the toilet, but also his house provided all the kitchen facilities there were, and his parlour. later the committee room, was commandeered as an entrance and cloakroom for dances, when he also had to make a room upstairs available for a ladies toilet. It sounded as though the job fell heavily on the “caretaker’s” wife, because the pay for the work and responsibility did not include actual money: the caretaker was paid by accommodation rent and rates were free, with free fuel. The accommodation was very good, though not quite private, and in one respect was privileged above every other house in Helmdon but the blacksmith’s nearby: it had piped water to the kitchen. This came from a strong spring near Hinton’s Close, on land Mr Fairbrother owned. At that date he could have done more to make the Reading Room a building of modern convenience, because there was no gas, electricity or sewerage system in the village.
At that time a “reading” room was a public room where newspapers and other reading matter were provided and perhaps lectures and public readings, and where membership by subscription entitled people to use the room as a club, to read, talk, and do whatever else the membership decided upon. It was a standard Victorian institution to give men an alternative meeting place to the pub, and somewhere for a little self-education, especially in public matters. (The large majority of men had a parliamentary vote from 1884.) (W.P. Ellis, who brought his little book on Helmdon up to date at the end of the century, seems to have been very happy in its effect. He wrote that the Reading Room was “a pretty building and a great attraction to the young men of the village during the winter evenings” and “there is no doubt that it has an excellent influence on the rising generation!” Mr Ellis lived at Fountain House, and was a man of education: he is said to have been at one time the only man in the village who took a daily paper.)
The original rules for the Reading Room, drawn up in 1888, seem to have been lost. Mr Jessett remembers that alcohol had not been permitted. He also declares that the rules specified that the Room was to serve as a working men’s club. Should that have capital letters and refer to a society that excluded women, gentlemen and children? Or is the expression a general one in the sense I used the world “club” earlier? I don’t think there were ever many to exclude as gentlemen, who did no work in any way. The Deed of Gift says explicitly that the Room was to be used “as a Reading Room” by all the inhabitants ….” And in rule three, that “No Inhabitant …. Shall be prevented from the use of the Reading Room by reason or on account of his or her religious or political opinions.” But I think no women ever became a member. Club membership for women, especially country women, would not have been attractive at that date, and their rights were lost by default. Nor was the Room, although very suitable in size and amenities, used for the main public meetings in Helmdon, for many years. It was used as a men’s club room.
Mr Ellis at the turn of the century said young men used it. Mr Jessett says that after the first world war the members ranged from the middle teens upwards including much older men, and “it didn’t matter what creed or practice they were.” A daily paper (The Express then) was taken until the end of the twenties, and weeklies such as John Bull, Tit-Bits and Everybody’s, which was the last paper of any kind taken and came until during the war. The members had community singing with Mr Hunt, arranged concerts and dances for funds (and fun, presumably), and had an annual dinner cooked at the Old Bakehouse. Before 1925 a billiard table was bought for some £22 which took a good deal of raising when a fair jumble sale made about £8. From then on billiards became an increasingly important part of the club’s activities, and the Working Men’s Club becomes recognizable by it to Helmdon sixty years later. It had already changed.
Mr Jessett believes that the first world war destroyed the original Reading Room, and it is hard not to agree with him. Before the war the Reading Room was open all day all the year round. Its subscription of two shillings a year sufficed to finance it. During the war it closed, most of the time, at least. A large proportion of Helmdon’s men were away, and twenty men were killed. The population of Helmdon with Astwell and Falcutt fell from 577 to 459 between 1911 and 1921, presumably because of war losses, a fall in births during the war and some exodus because of unemployment when men returned. The Reading Room no longer valid. It was never again open all day as a Working Men’s Club and in the 1920s the Club had a winter session and was only experimenting with opening between April and October a few evenings a week.
The war had another effect, not destructive but creative. During the war women everywhere had taken in responsibilities and work that had been men’s; and they too had learned the enjoyment of a social life outside home, family and the garden fences. Even if the Rector’s pushing was needed in the first year of Helmdon Women’s Institute, the women soon had an organization entirely their own. It needed a meeting place. The terms of Mr Fairbrother’s Deed of Gift suggest that if he could have foreseen the change in the social life of women, he would not have set his face against it. From the first, indeed, there had been and annual ball in the Reading Room for those Mr Jessett calls the elite. And there were other dances, concerts, sales, etc. But the regular meeting for social purposes of their own would admit women not at occasional visitors but as regular users of the Room. They wanted only a monthly meeting or they might not have overcome the prophetic jealousy of the men. The concession that was yielded was in the end the thin end of a very thick wedge. Other organizations followed, led by the Choral Society, and included children’s ones, and some who met weekly. But the WI seem to have made themselves a special position. As regular users they enjoyed a privileged rate of hire, and with the church’s societies and the British Legion free use of the committee room. They used up (or broke up) the crockery the Room had, and replaced it with their own marked ware which they hired to others. They demanded kitchen facilities, from bowls to cookers as time went by. It was natural and sensible that in 1930 when improvements to the aging building were discussed, the Reading Room committee should consult the WI; and they formed a joint Improvements sub-committee.
Such enterprises would test the Reading Room’s management. Mr Fairbrother’s gift to the village community had required trustees to be responsible for its use and preservation. He appointed himself one of these for his life. He was in Sussex when he died, at ninety, in 1932, and he had not attended the meetings from 1925 at least. For the others he had appointed the Rector and churchwardens by virtue of their offices, whoever they should be. In 1887 this was the obvious choice, for the sake of an indefinite continuity. Parish Councils such as we have now were not established until 1894, and the Tudor tradition remained unchallenged that the parish church and its officers were the proper place to rest secular responsibilities. This particular responsibility seems to have been carried out quite seriously by the church as well as by the rector and churchwardens. The earlier evidence I chanced on for maintenance work shows the proceeds of November jumble sales in 1906 and 1907 were used for improving the water supply, papering and whitewashing in the caretaker’s house, and painting the outside of the Reading Room. These were advertised and reported in the Parochial Magazine, apparently as church functions. Apart from this support, however, the Reading Room committee did its own fundraising. But when the needs went beyond routine maintenance and care or their own equipment, the Working Men’s Club wanted allies, because the Reading Room committee was no more than the committee of the Working Men’s Club and the three Reading Room trustees.
A new kitchen was proposed in 1930, and conveniences. There was apparently a Reading Room kitchen already, of some sort, to save the caretaker’s; but here was where the WI would urge their needs, and female standards. The new joint committee’s minutes, if any were kept are lost, though it had its own separate funds. The WI seems to have been the eager partner. In 1932 they were writing to the Reading Room committee urging that “the Reading Room Improvement Scheme should be carried out without further delay.”
In response the Reading Room committee called a public meeting just before Christmas. That meeting suggested “a larger committee should be formed comprising of representatives from every club and association using the room, to take the place of the existing committee.” The Working Men’s Club nominated two members to serve on it. The minute book shows no sign, however. that this wider committee ever came to birth. It seems to be the same Working Men’s Club which continues to use the book, and in 1933 and 1935 they are referring the question of new grates and repairs to the sink to the Improvements committee. The idea of general village action is also strengthening, and perhaps overtaking the old Reading Room committee. In 1935, for example, the WI asked the committee for a new urn, because the old one was “completely useless” and would not do for the Jubilee celebrations. The committee agreed on an aluminum one for fifty-one shillings. However, the new urn was bought out of the Jubilee fund “for the use of the whole village” and was inscribed to commemorate the Jubilee.
The next war brought a need for blackout, lettings at low rates for Red Cross fund-raising and the Home Guard, and exemption of servicemen from charges to use the Room. A slow combustion stove was installed in 1945, and water-heating and electricity was provided in 1950. But the management was still only the Working Men’s Club and the trustees. The Improvements committee seems to have died during the war.
In 1952, the Rector Mr Rowbury addressed an AGM that was better attended than such meetings had been for some years. Presumably his intention had been advertised. He made the point that was made at that pubic meeting just twenty years before: the Reading Room should be managed by a wider committee – because in the sixty years of its life it had in fact ceased to be a Reading Room and had become a “Parish Room”. He thought a committee “representative of the whole village” “would be in no way inconsistent with the purpose of the Gift and would …lead to a revival of the prosperity of the room around which the social activities of the village could revolve.” A rather confused financial crisis had predicated this action by the new Rector. The Reading Room lettings and billiards had made an inexplicable but large loss, and other funds were in a separate account. It was agreed by the trustees to merge these funds to cover the losses, and the Reading Room’s proposed committee was chosen – a delegate from the Baptist Chapel, WI, Mothers’ Union, Working Men’s Club, Sports Club, Parish Council, and Girl Guides. The Working Men’s Club were confirmed in their foundation privilege of using the Room whenever no one else booked, as well as on their regular nights.
The committee set to work with energy, under new rules, to re-establish the Reading Room’s prosperity, as recorded for nearly fifty pages in Mr. Packer’s firm and fluent hand. One economy reduced the caretaker’s importance to the Room: the concession of free fuel was withdrawn, and in return the caretaker, Mrs Southam, was relieved of the responsibility of supervising “the boys” in the Room, which the Working Men’s Club undertook, and of lettings which the committee would see to. The job was now calculated at an average eight hours a week for the year in return for the house free of rent and rates and lighting charges. The committee room continued to be shared. The emphasis was now on lettings, for an income to cover insurance and maintenance. In this way village use must grow and the Working Men’s Club fall to equality with other organizations.
But the village still did not feel responsible. In 1953 the AGM was attended by only seven people all told (the committee itself was ten strong even now the Guides had withdrawn), and the Rector had to call a special public meeting a fortnight later to make his appeal for help with urgent repairs and decoration. It was in course of these works that the big folding shutter was sold.
It is possible that the very energy with which Mr Rowbury, with Mr Packer as churchwarden, served the reading Room inhibited a general response. Mr Jessett has mentioned to me the mistaken belief, from Mr Fairbrother’s having appointed the Rector and churchwardens as trustees, the Reading Room was a church room. He thought this belief was not held in the early days, but only after the last war. Such dating of our notions is very difficult, but supposing he is right, then perhaps Mr Rowbury’s conscientious activity did mislead people. Maybe the coincidence that the Baptist Chapel completed their long-planned schoolroom in 1952 helped them feel less concern with the Reading Room. Yet Mr Harold Gulliver who represented the Chapel on the committee was one of the loyal attenders. More significantly, perhaps the Parish Council still met in the School and even held their parish meetings there, instead of doing what they might with their feet to indicate the Reading Room’s village character. This was strikingly short-sighted; and yet Mr Gulliver was chairman and Mr Packer a councillor.
Whatever the cause the apathy continued. The 1954 AGM was of six people all told, still including Mr Gulliver, and the Reading Room had a debt on the work that had been accomplished. The Rector said the new management committee “had failed, since delegates of village organizations had not attended meetings”. He could only suggest that the Parochial Church Council took over as the committee to help the trustees administer the property, to prevent the Room from having to close. This was what was done, though funds were kept separate, and for the next seventeen years Helmdon Reading Room was administered by a purely church body, though Mr Gulliver kept up his interest and sometimes the Working Men’s Club would attend an AGM. Ironically now, I think, did the PCC itself meet in the Reading Room instead of in the School. Too late, the Parish Council moved there too in 1955.
Thenceforward the minutes record the continuous struggle to balance costs in running the Reading Room and leave a margin over for maintenance. For further improvements there was talk of applying for grants from the local authority or from charities. Fund-raising was the constant subject. Periodically more general support in the village was looked for. It is interesting that from now through the sixties the Reading Room was managed by a committee largely of women such as had not made themselves useful to it since the thirties. But one hopeful sign in that decade was that much of the decorating was done by other voluntary labour, organized by Mr Townley. The Room went on to electric heating, which would later facilitate dispensing with the resident caretaker. But meanwhile the house was modernized, for which a Rural District Council grant was available. The cost, however, meant that a future caretaker would have to pay rates and electricity.
Meanwhile the Working Men’s Club which had originally enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the Reading Room had sadly dwindled. In 1967 it had twenty members. It was no longer “a great attraction to the young men of the village”. Perhaps the Club, too, like the Room, should adapt itself to changing times and habits, and give effect even belatedly to Mr Fairbrother’s phrase about the place being “used as a Reading Room by all the inhabitants”. If women as well as men could use it as a club, down to the minimum age of fifteen established in 1919, would the young men of the village find it attractive again? After all, girls play billiards and snooker nowadays – as well as make tea and coffee as their mothers did.
Though Mr Rowbury had become a Parish Councillor, it was his successor Mr Thompson who began to ask for Parish Council support. In answer, Mr Alan Watson and Mr Duncombe (names that appear in the Reading Room minutes in the forties when the committee was the committee of the Working men’s Club) proposed that the Council’s little “Free Fifth” be given to the fund. The Parish Council wrote that they wanted to send a representative to serve on the committee, and stressed that the Reading Room served the whole village. At the Reading Room AGM in 1971 the misconception of a “church room” was discussed and a more widely based but smaller committee urged. This was achieved in 1971 – a committee of the trustees, secretary, treasurer, and four others: but they were all more or less associated with the church.
Thus the old history took on a new pattern. On the one hand the church trustees attempted to be the agents for a secular social responsibility as Mr Fairbrother had in the traditional way assumed they would be, and to lead a body wider than their own faithful. On the other, three quarters of a century after its establishment the Parish Council came slowly to recognize that whatever the cost to the rates (and indeed whoever else but the ratepayers should pay?) the maintenance of a Room for the whole village was the Parish Council’s obligation as the one body elected by the whole village to act in the interest of all. The rejection of the very old idea, and the choice of one by no means new, could not be made until the village as a whole – that is, enough of its members – become willing to carry the work and the cost of having a Room for the use of all. This was the achievement of the seventies.
The last few years of the church trustees and a wider management committee were so much to their credit that one might wonder why they came to an end. Within a couple of years the committee was enlarged, and some third of the members did not particularly belong to the church. The committee was loyal, energetic and ambitious, even while the Rectory was vacant in1973. The desire for grant aid for the Room itself brought them up against the Deed of Gift which was their foundation deed. The Charity Commission made it clear that for a village hall to register as a charity and to qualify for public grant as such its trustees must be quite separate from its management: Mr Fairbrother’s trustee managers would not do. The committee were not willing yet to dispense with Mr Fairbrother’s trust. Flung back on themselves, they raised money frantically by every kind of scheme. They evolved improvement schemes, Mr Kimber investigated loans, they blenched … plunged … and borrowed £3000. They built the new kitchen big enough to serve teas in, and toilets, and had nearly paid for it all by Summer 1976. At the fete in Shortlands field in 1974, they had all the village organizations helping. There were no easy ways. Mr Frank Sanders bequest of £2000 in consols was immensely cheering, till it was found that the income of £80 was absorbed in tax and bank charges. The slog went on and the committee ran itself into the ground.
On their side, the Parish Council were learning. As late as 1979 the church connection was being spoken of as a reason why rates support could not be given – because the Reading Room was not “for the whole parish”. That was in flat contradiction to Mr Fairbrother’s Deed of Gift. Nor was it sensible. As Mr Alan Watson had insisted four years before, the Parish Council had an obligation to provide a village hall if one was wanted, and it was foolish to let the Reading Room go if it could be made to serve the purpose. When Mr Caldwell wrote to the Parish Council in the summer of 1976 and asked them to take over the management of the Reading Room, he found them ready to meet the management committee and to consider accepting the responsibility for making the Reading Room a village hall. In November the Parish Council accepted the principle that they should take over the trust, and then warily considered the cost. Finally they asked the county Association of Local Councils how to qualify for a grant and voted to recommend to a public meeting that the Parish Council should take over the trust. Then it all happened and rather comically, Mr Alan Watson moved the so important proposal in the Parish Council meeting afterwards under “any other business”. No space had been provided in the agenda.
But the nub of the matter had been touched by Mrs Lidgley at the end of the discussion in the public meeting. Under a trust the Charity Commission would approve of for applications for grant aid, the Parish Council could do all the work and all organizations in the village must send representatives to serve on that committee whether they used the Room or not. Mrs Lidgley was on both the Parish Council and that energetic but exhausted committee. The nub of the matter was real to her: if the Reading Room was to be claimed as a village hall (claimed by the goodwill of Mr Fairbrother, from the monopoly of the Working Men’s Club, and from the protectorate of the church), then the whole village must carry the responsibility for it.
The committee was formed at once in a public meeting and had its plans drawn and decided on and its application made for the 75% grant available, while the legal trust from the Rector and churchwardens to the Parish Council was still being made at the Charity Commission. The committee got their grant, built their extension, and paid their debt.
Commitment may have declined since then, but the Reading Room is fairly and squarely on the village’s shoulders now, and it will be as good as they deserve their village hall should be, as well used and as useful as the village can make it.
Yet the village has very much for which to be grateful still to Mr Charles Fairbrother. Not only have they a hall which is an interesting building in Helmdon stone grown over with lichen; but that generous provision for a resident caretaker so that the Room could be open every day resulted in accommodation that is let ninety years later for an industrial use in a quiet way, at a rent that protects the public rooms from all immediate anxiety. Charles Fairbrother is still taking care of his Reading Room “for all the inhabitants of Helmdon.”
Taken from Talkabout 1987 (the then village newsletter)
Editor's note: The date of the Reading Room is 1887 on the Fairbrother memorial plaque, which is probably when the foundation stone was laid. However it was not officially opened until 1889, according to The Banbury Beacon.