100 Years of Village Halls100 Years of Village Halls
A Celebration of One Hundred Years of Village Halls, by Jen Hazelton, Allied Westminster. Jan 2021
One hundred years ago, Britain was facing a social crisis. A million men had lost their lives in the First World War, many leaving behind young families in an unprecedented situation. The idea of ‘Pals Battalions’, the initiative encouraging groups of friends and families to enlist and fight together, had been used to recruit entire communities of young men. This meant the devastating loss of life was spread unevenly throughout the country and some population sectors were hit much harder than others. In rural communities, where the population was lower to begin with, this was often overwhelming.
Both groups, those who came back from the War and those who had remained behind in England, needed a place in which they could redevelop a sense of belonging and participation in their communities. As a result, uniquely to Britain, large numbers of village halls were created after the First World War for people to gather together. This gave them places in which to mourn the lost, and generated spaces and amenities for social gatherings so that people could look towards the future.
Village halls were also part of a new social movement driven by those affected by the War. They 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 who they served. The same communal spirit which had driven people to enlist together became a 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 facilitate rural regeneration.
Whilst many village halls were built specifically as communal buildings, some were housed in repurposed older buildings, including some picturesque converted medieval hospices, guild halls, and occasionally even older structures. 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 went to war.
Village halls have since enjoyed 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 village halls that they are taking over the responsibilities of these discontinuing organisations. In addition to their original purpose as community-led special interest and public groups, halls run essential functions 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 other crises. In some villages (including mine) the only village amenity still open is the village hall.
A village hall is so much more than just a building. Thanks to the work of the trustees, it’s a resource which can be used to combat loneliness and isolation in the elderly, and which gives children a place to learn and play and parents a place to socialise. It’s a place for celebration and commemoration, for gathering and learning. It is a particularly important space for elderly people and young families who may be less able to travel, and who may otherwise be isolated or unable to take part in community life. Involvement in village hall activities can increase social cohesion and integration in rural communities, making the community a nicer place to live and drastically improving the quality of life for many.
A village hall can be used in myriad ways. Common activities range from coffee mornings to pantomimes, from parents and toddler’s groups to children’s parties. Innumerable special interest groups reside there, along with dementia cafés and many other fundraising activities organised to raise money for charitable causes, including the hall’s upkeep. Many village halls offer wedding packages, bonfire night events and entertainment evenings such as music performances or murder mysteries. Some put on events like sumo-suit wrestling, fun runs, obstacle courses and treasure hunts. A number of halls have playing fields and playgrounds, which enjoy pride of place amongst the activities on offer and are particularly important for children. Not forgetting man’s best friend, halls commonly run kennel clubs, puppy training courses and dog shows, allowing our dogs a place to socialise along with their owners!
It is not unusual for a village hall committee to run an annual fête, a beer festival or a music festival. Some organise events which are a bit more out of the ordinary, such as an annual scarecrow competition encompassing the entire village. Some village halls arrange carnivals with street parades, and one manages a large annual market which can trace its origin back to the 13th century, involving people from all over the community and attracting visitors from far and wide.
The importance of the village hall to the community is often noticed most keenly when it suddenly becomes unavailable. If major damage occurs due to a catastrophe like flood, fire, a car colliding with the hall or a tree falling on it, the hall can be out of action for weeks or even months. As the saying goes, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’.
An instance of this occurred in one of the many Somerset villages submerged by floods a few years ago. In this hamlet, the village hall was one of the many properties ruined by the flood. The community knew what a valuable resource their village hall was, so they rallied together and worked alongside the insurers and loss adjusters to restore the hall to full working order. The insurer also realised the importance of the hall to the community and as a result the village hall was restored and reopened even before some of the villagers’ own homes were fully refurbished! This was celebrated by a party at the village hall attended by the insurer, the local council and other local organisations, and residents from the whole village.
This is not an isolated incident. A similar scenario happened in a village in Cumbria which was hit by severe flooding. The villagers felt it was so important to rebuild the hall that they allowed it to take precedence over other buildings. A year later the hall hosted a celebration of the community’s and the insurers’ arduous work to restore the damaged buildings in the village to their former condition.
At Allied Westminster, we take the time to get to know our clients and the individual circumstances of their village halls because we know they are places unlike any other. We take enormous pride in the services we offer, which include expert help and advice on many aspects of running a village hall. We provide insurance policies which are tailor-made to suit the needs and circumstances of individual village halls, and we go on to provide personalised help at the time of a claim.
For many of the halls we work with, we are their first port of call if they have any queries about the running of their organisation, and we take particular care to champion these committees. We also provide support to ACRE as a whole.
None of this would be possible without the amazing work carried out by tens of thousands of trustees and volunteers across our country. 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.
Jen Hazelton, Allied Westminster