Reading Rooms were a characteristic feature of communities in East Anglia in the Victorian era. This is from Tim Cockerill’s account: they ‘were a phenomenon of the late Victorian period, often being imposed upon the working classes by the upper classes and reflecting the latter’s attitudes to philanthropy, recreation and self-help. Reading Rooms provided a venue for the reading of books and newspapers but they were run on strict lines. Our Reading Room banned alcohol…Generally Reading Rooms were seen by the Establishment as a desirable alternative to the public house, of which there were three in Weston Colville in the late 19th. Century. The agricultural labourers…had spent most of their limited free time and money in these pubs.’ More on Reading Rooms can be found in an excellent chapter by Carole King in Rural History (CUP 2009).
“A reading room, a public place for private thoughts.
In the twighlight, half light of a candle- long ago
He opened a book.
And the world opened for him
He dreamt of faraway places and people ”
Weston Colville’s Reading Room was built in 1885 by close friends William Henry Hall and Sedley Taylor, contemporaries born in the 1830s. Though it is a mystery whether Taylor’s connection with Weston Colville or with Hall came first, we can conjecture that the two would have met ‘in society’ and discovered a common interest in helping the poor.
Sedley Taylor, the son of a Surrey doctor, later founded the first Children’s Dental Institute in England and was fellow and librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge where this portrait from 1898 still hangs. He wrote ‘Profit Sharing between Capital and Labour’, so was clearly interested in the working people and their wellbeing and was an early supporter of Girton College, Cambridge, the first to invite women to study. The fact that he was at least as much interested in the common man as in academic life is summed up in the obituary in the Cambridge Chronicle in 1920 subtitled ‘Philanthropist and Public Benefactor’. A week later, a report appeared in that newspaper of his funeral which ‘took place at Weston Colville’ where ‘the Committal Service was performed by Professor Stanton’. Taylor having directed that he should be cremated and his ashes buried in Weston Colville churchyard, where they lie in an unmarked grave.
William Henry Hall, seen left alongside Sedley Taylor in this frame that hangs in the Reading Room was the most interesting in a long line of curious and varied Weston Colville squires bearing the name ‘Hall’ before him. A true Victorian, he began life in 1837, the year Queen Victoria began her reign, as William Henry Bullock. He grew up in Bury St Edmunds, and after being a renowned sportsman at Rugby, he went to Oxford, did a Grand Tour, dallied with law studies, helped the Italian liberator Garibaldi, reported on troubles in Mexico and the Franco Prussian War and settled back in England, in Surrey.
The death of his uncle, Charles, brought him back to East Anglia and, as a condition of inheriting the Six Mile Bottom Estate, he adopted the Hall surname. He served as Deputy Lieutenant, was a magistrate, and High Sheriff in 1891. The Estate included Weston Colville and William Henry Hall owned most of the cottages and thousands of acres of the land in the parish, employing many of the villagers on that land. He was also the epitome of the Victorian philanthropist, highly intelligent with liberal views. Between 1880 and 1900, he said, he spent £40,000 on building and improving his cottages in Weston Colville and his labourers had 3 acre allotments. Less popular with his tenant farmers than with their labourers, he supported the downtrodden in their fight for higher wages and shorter working days in the agricultural depression. In building the Reading Room, his interest in helping the ‘have nots’ extended to providing them with a meeting place and broadening their minds with newspapers, periodicals and a modest library in a peaceful, attractive and communal setting. It was important to Hall and Taylor that this provision continue beyond their years: the fact that the Reading Room was bequeathed to the village is clear from this 1912 map that accompanied the auction catalogue when the Six Mile Bottom Estate went up for sale. The lots are colour coded, while as you can see near the fold, the Reading Room remains a triangular white island, beyond the reach of buyers.
Before we sigh at this bucolic scene, we should note three details that detract from it. First, in true Victorian fashion, the reading material was censored, second only men were allowed inside and third, Henry felt that the villagers should have shown more gratitude, noting in his diary ‘Drove through the rowdy, ungrateful village where good cottages with as much allotment as anyone has asked for, Reading Room, recreation ground; labourers’ threshing barn; brew house; Xmas gifts of coal, beef, tea…have rendered Weston Colville the rowdiest and most radical village in the county.’
There’s an irony here as William Henry Hall’s support for the workers, together with the education provided by his family’s school, may well have been the twin cause of this rowdiness he so disapproved of. In Tim Cockerill’s words, ‘It seems the advent of an agricultural trade union, coupled with a smattering of education began to sow the seeds of discontent amongst the labourers in the village. Ordinary people began to realise that they could have a say in their own lives and that education was the key to bettering themselves. The Reading Room gradually began to become popular, especially amongst those that had learnt to read. Members were asked to pay something like a penny a week, thus making them feel part of the set up…with the spread of education and the extension of the franchise, its original concept suddenly seemed old fashioned and largely irrelevant. As late as 1933 the Revd. Lewis Carter Jonas, the Rector of Weston Colville, was still listed in Kelly’s Directory as the Secretary of the Reading Room and Library. However, by this time the Reading Room was re-inventing itself. Although never changing its name it became in effect the Village Hall. Its trustees, previously the farmers or those living in the larger houses, were replaced by various representatives of local organizations, such as the Women’s Institute and the Cricket Club.’
Indeed, women were only allowed
with the establishment of the Women’s Institute in Weston Colville in 1925.
“I joined the WI when I was 14, it was well attended, and I remember making tinned fruit, it was surprising what effort went into the WI.” Rosemary Westley, WI President. As well as square dances and a fashion show, and this wonderful wedding cake, “The WI used to do a big panto in the Reading Room, like Snow White and it was really professional” Susan Chapman wrote in Sharing Stories. Rosemary Westley adds “Mrs Jenkinson put on pantomimes, Mr Jenkinson had floodlights, that was unheard of in a village like this and he had a little band…my mum used to make our costumes”. Click here panto to see a cast photo from one of the performances.
A handwritten memoir from 1953 tells us that it had ‘Mrs F.M.L. Slater as President and is still going strong with a membership of 34. Members have benefited and enjoyed the lectures and demonstrations, competitions, social half hours….Twin members of the W.I. wrote the following on how the village celebrated the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. 1953. Weston Colville formed a Coronation Committee at the beginning of March and through subscriptions, sales and Whist Drives raised approximately £102. The Coronation Day dawned wet, and it was decided to hold a short service in the Reading Room at 1.45pm. This was followed by a Fancy Dress Competition for children.’
Here are some extracts which help to give a flavour of what went on with the WI in the seventies. They come from handwritten monthly WI minutes in lined notebooks kept at County Archives at Shire Hall in Cambridge.
After Jerusalem was sung, Mrs Griggs read the minutes….David & John, Hairdressers from Haverhill, gave us a demonstration (with the help of a model) of the Cut & Blow Dry Styles. Mrs M Garrod was brave enough to have her hair washed, cut and restyled. After refreshments, members enjoyed a game of Whist.
The forthcoming barzaar…in the Reading Room, stalls to be…Produce, Cake, Jumble, Good as New, Fancy Goods, Bottle Stall, Straws, Cake Raffle, Doll Raffle and Main Draw, prizes as follows Pyrex Box of Fruit Bottle Sherry and box Chocs: weather permitting Ice Cream and Squash, Balls in Wellingtons Treasure Hunt and Candles outside
As funds are very low, it was decided, as a fundraising effort, to hold a Valentine Dance on February 12th… Members each to write out ten tickets and sell if possible.
Mrs Griggs said she would thank everyone who gave food or prizes or helped in any way. Mrs Potter said she would write to the Butcher, Baker and Milkman who also gave prizes. It was decided that as Mrs Farrant wouldn’t give an exact charge for the use of the Reading Room, to pay £5 for this, when everything had been paid, a profit of £58.45 was realised.
Next on the agenda was the annual Xmas Party, and the committee thought that if members agree, it would be nice to have the over 60s together with us on the same night instead of entertaining them separately. Also to invite a husband or a friend the cost being 75p per head for members and a friend, and free for the over 60s, also to have a licensed bar for the evening.
The annual Xmas party was discussed…the menu…spring vegetable soup, French bread, ham, pork, salad and jacket potatoes, Xmas pudding, fresh cream, cheese and biscuits with celery and all the trimmings. Members said they would also like to decorate the hall and perhaps put up a small Xmas tree, Mrs Potter said she would see to the tree and lights. Sherry would be served before the party and sherry and cake afterwards.
Everyone was pleased to see the Carol singers who kindly called in on us and sang some Carols and played the handbells.
Click here to see handwritten WI minutes
March 21st 1984 AGM
…owing to so few members we would have to close…We agreed to have a message about having to close printed in the Challenge.
Beyond the WI, the Reading Room crops up frequently as part of village life. Of course the Parish Council has met there – click here to see a newspaper write up held in the Cambridgeshire Collection of a meeting on 23rd December 1976 parish-council-report. The Reading Room was for also many years the post office and meeting place for the Over 60’s. A 1948 marriage-record held at Shire Hall in Cambridge shows that it was still a residence: 21-year old Ivy Ena Brown was recorded as living there. Also, among the births in 1956, was baby Graham Henry, born to Henry and Betty May walker whose ‘Abode’ was the Reading Room. Kate Murdoch, who grew up in Horseshoe Lane in the 1960s, remembers “village fayres in the Reading Room when Carol, my cousin, won the fairy doll for me.” An account held in the Cambridgeshire Collection of a fortnightly meeting of the ‘Happy Circle Club’ on 16th August 1968 tells us that ‘Twelve members and three visitors attended…and the committee were grateful for the way they were entertained. Birthday sweets were presented to no fewer than six members – Mrs. Burton, Mrs. Brown, Miss. I. Heath, Mrs. Dawson, Mrs. I. Heath and Mr. Bradman, and holiday greetings from Devon were received from Mrs. Wimpress and Mrs. Taylor.’ Click here to see the happy-circle-report
As a conclusion to all this, we can quote Freda Lawrence from Sharing Stories: “Whatever was on in the Reading Room we all got together, everything was more or less done in the Reading Room, but nobody went in there to read.”
Susan Chapman with her mother Freda Lawrence
Click here to see photos of the Reading Room across the decades
- Do you have any questions or comments about this account of the history?
- Do you have any photos we can put on our website? Any memories to share?
…then please contact Jacqueline Douglas: 01223 291475