History of Village Halls

So, what is a Village Hall?

In general terms, a village hall in the UK is described as a building that is owned by a local government council or, as in our case at Mapplewell & Staincross, ‘a community property being held in trust for the community by a group of independent trustees’. They are responsible for the building for the benefit of the whole community.

Village Halls tend to be used for a wide variety of public and private functions, such as:

  • Sports and exercise groups – yoga and tai chi are typical examples.
  • Art classes and groups of similar interest
  • Dances
  • Social clubs and events
  • Private parties such as birthdays, wedding receptions, baby showers and funerals
  • Conferences and business meetings
  • Consultation provision such as DIAL, Citizens Advice and other advisory services

Village halls are generally run by committees, and if not already part of a local government body such as a parish council, then these committees are eligible for charitable status. They may also be identified by other names, such as a Village Institute, Community Halls or a Memorial Hall for example, but they all serve a similar purpose.

In some localities a church hall or community centre provides similar functions.

Typically, the hall will contain at least one large room, that may have a stage at one end for drama productions or other presentations. There is often a kitchen for preparing food and toilets to one side. Larger halls may incorporate further smaller rooms to allow multiple activities to run simultaneously.

As a comparison, Mapplewell & Staincross Village Hall consists of four large halls, one of which is used permanently to house the library, the second is rented off as a private Nursery whilst the other two are hired out for various activities and events to the general public.

In addition to this, there are two smaller conference or business rooms, a small café and kitchen area and six business offices that bring in revenue that help to support the upkeep of the building and help fund the charity.

The early history of the traditional Village Hall

The history of the ‘Village Hall’ as a useful building, can be dated back as far as the 1880’s when workers started to enjoy a little more leisure time. It was in this Victorian period that there were a number of significant developments taking place; each having a ‘claim to fame as one of the many founders of the development of the Village Hall or Community Building. However, it is a more an accumulation of different activists that would eventually result in the ‘Village Hall’ movement.

As you would expect, Churches recognised that there was a need for a ‘social space’ that was family friendly – unlike a ‘public house’. For this reason, many religious facilities started to build halls or parish rooms that were away from the central ‘ceremonial-areas’ associated with services and the following are simply some examples of such early halls:

Toynbee Hall – Whitechapel

In 1984, a Reverend Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta founded Toynbee Hall as a settlement house. Settlement houses were lodgings for young university graduates who would organise educational and recreational activities for the local poor in meeting rooms and classrooms similar to those offered today.





St Mary’s of Long Ditton

Another very early example is St Mary’s in Long Ditton Wikimedia Commons. A campaign by the then rector led to the building in 1887/88 of a parish room and workers’ club. These were reportedly used for religious discussion (as you would expect), but also provided a safe and less formal environment for teas, concerts and meetings of the horticultural society as well as being used by the local cricket club for their activities.





The Quakers

A similar movement that brought adult education, handicrafts and other cultural activities, initially  to the Welsh Valleys was the Quakers’ Educational Settlements Associations. This came about as a result of the collapse of the Welsh mining industry at that time. In this instance, the Quaker settlement movement spread to the United States, Australia and even pre-revolutionary Russia. In the US, a Presbyterian minister, Edward J. Ward, advocated using schools for adult education and recreation, leading in 1916 to the foundation of the National Community Center Association.





The Women’s Institute.

The Women’s Institute, on the other hand, claims that the Village Hall ‘development’ is attributed to their group. This movement began in Canada in 1897 and crossed the Atlantic, landing in the UK in 1915, where it also contributed to the war effort. By previous dates and records their claim to initiating the Village Hall can be countered, although their subsequent involvement will have done the development some good.

A parallel movement in the UK was led by the National Council of Social Service, founded in 1919 by many who had worked in the settlements previously mentioned, like Toynbee Hall.




Communal Spaces

As you can see, to find the original root of the Village Hall is very difficult to identify, but they naturally evolved by many different organisations, all recognising the same growing need for a communal space where people are able to meet, socialise and be educated.

The first Village Halls as a dedicated building.

It is reported that the first dedicated village halls were as a response to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. One of these was the Jubilee Hall at Newton-on-the-Moor, near Alnmouth, Northumberland.

The Village halls, however, began to be built in sizable numbers in the 1900s with some named examples being the hall at Tatsfield, Surrey, that was built in 1908 to 1909 on land donated to mark the jubilee. The Coronation Hall at Mundesley, Norfolk, was built in 1910 to mark the accession of George V.




The Impact of World War 1

A large number of village halls were built after the First World War, many as war memorials for those lost in battle. Like most countries, Britain was facing a social crisis. Through this one conflict over 880,000 men (6% of the adult male population) lost their lives, many leaving behind widows and young families. In addition to this, over 1,675,000 were wounded, many trying to return to civilian life unable to work or socialise.

The concept of ‘Pals’ the initiative that actively encouraged groups of friends and families to enlist and fight together, was a powerful incentive used to recruit entire communities of young soldiers. Peer pressure and moralistic expectations meant that whole communities trained, were shipped, fought and often died together on the frontline and so whole communities were impacted.

Although it meant that loss of life was spread unevenly throughout the country, some population sectors were hit much harder than others. In rural communities, where the population was lower to begin with, this was often overwhelming.

It is estimated that only 41 parishes throughout England and Wales suffered no loss of life as a result of this ‘Great War’.

It was recognised that those armed forces members who eventually returned home after the war, needed a place where they could redevelop a sense of belonging and become more involved with the communities they had left behind. Unique to Britain, large numbers of village halls were created which provided places in which to mourn the lost, and also generated spaces and amenities for social gatherings so that people could socialise and work towards a brighter  future. 

The Halls answered the need for recreation and mental stimulation for people of all ages and social classes and were created and managed by the very people of the community that they served. In many cases, it was the same communal spirit that had driven people to enlist together became the driving force for social change. Village halls quickly became a central feature of rural areas, in part due to their multi-purpose usage but also because of the efforts of the earliest committees doing their best to help with rural regeneration. 

Many of the village halls were built specifically as communal buildings with funds being raised locally for this sole purpose, whereas others simply took over older, existing buildings, Some of the these are very picturesque such as converted medieval hospices, guild halls, and occasionally even older structures. In our case, it was an old workingman’s club and sports club that was ‘sacrificed’ and put to good use.

Due to their original purpose, many village halls either contain war memorials or are memorials themselves. There are also a small number of ‘peace memorial halls’, or halls in ‘thankful villages’ which celebrated the return of everyone from that village who had gone to war. 

Village Halls and the 21st Century

Village halls have enjoyed more than a century at the heart – and often in the hearts – of rural communities, providing a wide variety of services and acting as a focal point for community life.

With many local businesses – including pubs, village shops and post offices – closing, it is a tribute to the success of the village hall (and those that run them) that they are taking over the responsibilities of these discontinuing organisations.

Like many businesses and organisations, they have had to diversify so In addition to their original purpose as community-led special interest and public groups, many halls now run other essential services such as doctor’s surgeries, MP surgeries, outreach post offices and polling booths, allowing people to access these key services without having to travel to more urban areas. Some even act as emergency evacuation centres in case of flooding or any other crises.

In some villages the only village amenity that remains open is the village hall. 




Volunteer Armies

None of these community buildings would survive  without the amazing work carried out by then many thousands of trustees and volunteers across our country who meet regularly to keep the halls alive.

They are the real heroes in every community, giving a lot of their time and expertise for free to ensure these halls stay open so that communities can continue to benefit from them. Those of us who live in rural areas are luckier than we perhaps realise to have such places at our fingertips, and our ongoing support is vital for their continued existence.

But they still require your support and contribution for as with every community building and Village Hall it is still a case of ‘Use it or Lose It!’