178 Years at No. 39 – A brief History of the Commemoration Hall

The building which sits at No 39 Huntingdon High Street, known to all as the Commemoration Hall, was originally known as the Huntingdon Literary and Scientific Institution. It has been a feature of the High Street since the Grand Opening, which took place on 7th September 1842 and it looks almost the same now as it did then. Now a Grade 2 listed building, the front section of the Hall, the foyer, the Octagon, the basement and the Minerva Room would still be recognised by the original users over 170 years ago. Only the rear section of the modern building, housing the main hall and stage date from the 1959 extension, opened on January 6th 1960 has been added since.

Back in 1840 a group of interested people met at the George Hotel to consider a plan to establish a Literary and Scientific institution. Dr Robert Fox, a Godmanchester man, with advice and support from his friend, Thomas Winter of Grantham, persuaded the meeting to adopt the Grantham model. By August that year £460 had been raised. Other shareholders for this Public Building were sought and by July 1841 contracts were agreed and building work had begun. The “Pocock and Glover” design was also to be adorned by a Coade stone statue of Minerva, donated by Mr Glover himself. With the exceptions of a replica Minerva (to replace the damaged original) and replaced windows, that is exactly what can be seen from the High Street today.

At the Grand Opening, a “cold collation” meal was held in the afternoon for a significant ticket price of 3 shillings (15p) per head and followed by a public meeting of the Huntingdon Literary and Scientific Society at 7.00 p.m. The building was filled to its limit, with many forced to stand. It was a pattern which remained for some time, with one meeting in June 1843, with Bright and Cobden as speakers and attended by over 3000 people, which has to be adjourned to the Common.

By 1850 the Library contained some 2000 volumes and the Times newspaper was laid out daily for all to read. Membership of the Institution had grown to 69 annual subscribers and 123 quarterly subscribers. In those somewhat conservative times, the Hall was host to evangelical preachers like Charles Finney and an attempt was made to force non-conformist users and publications out of the building- the polar opposite of the current Trust’s non-political and non-religious position.

It is clear from early records, that making the Hall financially viable required constant effort and innovation with the introduction of “Penny Reading” sessions where up to 600 people would pay their penny to be read to by a number of well-educated readers. Cellar space was rented to a Mt Margetts and The Socrates Lodge of the Freemasons paid £8 annual rent.

By the 1880’s the nature of events held at the hall had shifted somewhat, with billiards bringing in a revenue of £58 to offset the £37 spent on books and periodicals. In another parallel with today, the Huntingdon Union hired the venue for vaccinations. 100 years later the National Blood Service regularly held blood donor sessions. By 1891, it was noted that the chess room was not much frequented though the museum section remained popular. Europe was heading towards conflict and the mood of the times was changing. So too, must the Institution.

Between the two World Wars attempts were made to raise funds for general repairs and redecorating of the building and the 1938 plans for that purpose were themselves delayed due to the outbreak of World War Two. The cellar space was, at the County Councils behest, converted into an air raid shelter- evidence of which still remains in the structure today. At least the War brought greater footfall to the building as foreign servicemen based locally- Americans, Poles, Australians, Belgians and Norwegians frequented the billiards snooker and cards rooms.

A glimpse of the hall through the throw open doors of Trinity Church mid demolition, c. 1965.

After the war, times were tough in England and the Institution slipped into decline both in use and financially. Fortunately, as things turned out, Lord Sandwich (of Hinchingbrooke) was Chairman of the County Education Committee and set up the Huntingdon Commemoration Fund to provide an education and relaxation facility for ex-servicemen, which raised £3000 in its first year. Plans came and went. Sites were proposed and fund raising continued to meet spiralling projected costs. After a site had been bought and then sold, the Institutions remaining trustees resigned and handed the whole organisation over to the “custodian trusteeship” of the Town Council. It was they who took the decision and arranged for the rear extension of the present site to add a maple floored dance hall and stage area- the lay out we have today. It was named the Huntingdon Commemoration hall and opened as a public facility and Memorial to the dead of previous wars, on 6th January 1960 by General Sir Roy Bucher.

The hall then settled into a pattern of usage which was to last for almost a half century, but sadly never a pattern which generated sufficient income to allow the Hall to flourish and re-invest. Huntingdon Drama Club took up residence in the building in 1960 and stayed for 50 years. Performing up to 3 plays each year. Panto ‘89 was formed to bring annual pantomimes to the Hall, which it did for the best part of two decades and in 1997 Huntingdon Youth Theatre began its residency, which continues to this day and has seen over 400 young actors and actresses grace the Commemoration Hall stage.

Commemoration Hall on the far left of shot on Huntingdon’s high street, in the 1970s.

Regular weekend dances and celebrations have been a feature of the Hall’s use and local community groups like Huntingdon Town Twinning Association and the Tai Chi Society have been stalwarts of the venue. The U3A met at the Hall and the Town council made use of its space for Mayor Making, Mayor’s Charity Galas and other civic functions.

Sadly, by the end of the 20th Century, the Town Council was under increasing financial pressure and began to withdraw its support from the Hall. New Trustees took over the running of the building but eventually their dwindling resources forced the reluctant closure of the Hall to the public in order to avoid bankruptcy. Two years later, in 2019, a new board of trustees took over the running of the Hall and its current renovation and rebranding continues apace (Covid 19 notwithstanding) and it is fair to say that Huntingdon Commemoration Hall remains, as they say in cricket, 178 not out.

Visit the Commemoration hall website to find out more: http://www.commhall.org/

Dominic Whitehead is Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Commemoration hall. He has been involved with the hall since 1989 when he joined Hunts Drama Club, then in 1990 joined Panto ’89. He is Chairman of Huntingdon Youth Theatre, which he and his wife Beryl-Anne set up in 1997 and they are both still active in running HYT at the Commemoration Hall.

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