Westbury Village Hall celebrates 150 years
Report by Hilary Long
Westbury Village Hall was looking at its very best on October 19, ready to welcome a special guest of honour to celebrate its 150th anniversary year.
Graham and Jane Plummer, as Chairman and Secretary of the Village Hall Trustees and Management Committee, welcomed the Queen’s representative, HM Lord Lieutenant, Mrs Peaches Golding OBE to a reception, where she unveiled a plaque celebrating 150 years of the Hall’s existence and the installation of 12 new decorative leaded windows together with a new bar, both now fully displayed in celebration of this historic occasion.
In the year 1869, which saw the launch of the Cutty Sark (the world’s fastest sailing ship) and the opening of the Suez Canal, a momentous event happened here too, in the small Gloucestershire village of Westbury-on-Trym. It was presented with a grand Concert Hall, architect designed in the fashionable Victorian Gothic style and financed by the wealthy Ames family of nearby Cote House.
In his will of 1901, Henry St Vincent Ames its founder, left the hall to the village with future Bishops of Bristol, Vicars and Wardens of Westbury parish as its Charitable Trustees. His inspiration was to provide this part of South Gloucestershire with a hall to rival that of the recently opened Colston Hall in Bristol, with concerts, lectures, exhibitions of art and industry and ‘‘innocent recreation’’ for residents of the many surrounding country houses, but also music, education and a penny library for the “social and moral improvement” of its farming community.
After the war years the hall became very run down, eventually being used just as a dinner hall by the former Westbury C of E School on Eastfield Road. Unable to fund its restoration, the Trustees handed on the responsibility in 1972 to a new management committee of local volunteers, following a campaign to save it from demolition, organised by a group that became known as the Westbury-on-Trym Society. The rest is history - as they say - and this celebration of the Hall’s 150th year was in part for its restoration and continued success for the community, as well as a great tribute to its founder Henry Ames and his wife Charlotte.
The Chairman, Graham Plummer, opening the celebration to an invited audience of long term supporters and organisers, said how honoured he was to have the privilege of standing there in Westbury’s beautiful hall, to greet HM Lord Lieutenant and to mark this great occasion with the spectacular colourful windows and new bar.
“They represent the summit of all our volunteers’ achievements, at the end of nearly fifty years of hard work, dedication and fundraising, to restore and modernise the fabric of the hall, while carefully retaining its essential architectural beauty,” he said.
“I am personally so pleased to see the windows and bar here after three years of planning for this day.”
Graham paid tribute to the vision of its founder Henry St Vincent Ames, whom he felt would be very proud of how Westbury had valued and extended his gift for everyone and thanked Carl Tantum, a descendent of the Ames family, and his wife, for travelling here for the occasion and for his continued interest in the hall’s good fortune. Finally, he praised all the dedicated volunteers, who since 1972 had contributed so much time and talent to running events, looking after the décor and the garden, improving facilities and helping to run the bar, which now makes the hall a regular and dependable income from the many weddings and parties of all kinds held there.
Five short speeches outlining the recent history of the Hall were followed by a champagne toast to its continuing success and a delicious buffet served for all the guests.
Carl Tantum MBE, representing the Ames family, talked enthusiastically of his ancestors’ interest in Westbury and its Parish Church, where the family grave lies, and of their former home at Cote House on the Downs. He spoke of Henry’s many interests in travel, photography and music, mentioning that Henry conducted the opening concert himself on June 3rd 1869 and later had a superb organ installed, which now resides in St Peter’s Church Henleaze. Carl said how superb the hall looked and was pleased to see the hall being so well cared for. In conclusion, he presented the Chairman with a shield showing the Ames’ family coat of arms, to be displayed later at the hall in commemoration of today’s celebration.
Brian Pickering went on to describe the local shock and concern in 1970 when people learned of the Church's intention to put the hall up for sale and possible demolition. Saying that as a charity, the Trustees were duty bound to first call a public meeting, he went on to explain how a small campaign group to save the hall was formed as a result and that this was the start of the Westbury-on-Trym Society. Together with its founder John Lodge, Frank Richards, who became Chairman of the new management committee, he and his wife Joan, then young parents, began the restoration that was to last for the next thirty years. He recalled the many days spent scraping down old woodwork and regularly repairing sinking floor boards so that fundraising events could begin! He looked back on many happy hours spent organising and participating in later events there with Joan and their friends.
Brian Richards son of Frank and Rhoda, and his wife Janet, travelled from Hampshire to be with their former friends and colleagues. Still a student in 1972, Brian described the Sunday mornings spent at work with paint pots and ladders and how the management of the hall became the substance of his father’s life for many years as he gathered in more enthusiastic young parent supporters, oversaw the first of many modernisations, including the first rather primitive Bar and some very basic kitchen equipment. The Hall and its future for Westbury life had been his parents’ chief interest and concern and they had dedicated most of their waking hours to achieving its success with the help of friends and business colleagues.
Hilary Long, current Chairman of the Westbury-on-Trym Society and long term volunteer supporter at the hall, spoke of the years in the 70s and 80s, when a small team of young families, including her own, became the nucleus of a lively fundraising events group. Varied in the talents they could offer - musical, dramatic, artistic and literary, together they staged historical pageants, Christmas feasts and Balls, ranging over the years from medieval days to VE day celebrations and held imagined journeys to foreign countries, gambled at casinos and race nights and sang at music halls to name but a few.
“The Hall was our creative inspiration and the canvas on which we painted our stories and inventions and a community grew inside it,” said Hilary.
“Sadly, those collaborative years have passed, never to be repeated, but now younger people use talents in other ways, hiring the hall for their own parties, discos and weddings in modern style.”
Geoffrey Gollop, a former Lord Mayor of Bristol and Westbury’s principal and longest serving Councillor, paid tribute to all those who had worked at the hall over the years making it into such an unusual feature of Bristol life, since the incorporation of Westbury into the city. He praised the superb condition of the hall and emphasised the importance of having such a centre for the local community, helping to identify its own particular character and holding it together. He wished all those concerned a great future, with the hall continuing at the heart of Westbury’s local activities, drawing in many more admirers from around the city to enjoy its welcoming atmosphere and elegance.
The Lord Lieutenant, Mrs Golding – replying - after cutting the ribbons from the commemorative plaque, said how delighted she was to be present at such a happy event and how important it is to keep every means possible alive for socializing and meetings in person, in these days of multimedia, but impersonal, contact and regretted how many younger people were missing out these days on the experiences of those who grew up in earlier generations, able to share in so many real happenings. She hoped that a lively and interesting social life would continue at the hall in future years and praised the achievements of all present for the celebration.
Photos courtesy of Bill Long