Bishopsfield Lecture Hall and Reading Room
Most of the building which is now Hoole Baptist Church (Hoole Lighthouse Centre) in Westminster Road was originally built as a Lecture Hall and Reading Room. It opened in 1863. Sited on Peploe Street (as Westminster Road was formerly known), in this original role it was described as being located in Bishopsfield, the early name for this part of Hoole derived, it is believed, from the land vesting in St. Werburgh’s Abbey during the medieval period. The name appears on some maps but only survives today in the modern social housing known as Bishopsfield Court on School/Walker Streets. Peploe Street was re-named Westminster Road in 1893.
The only public building in Bishopsfield at that time was Christchurch National School, also on Peploe Street, which had opened in 1855. It was largely due to the efforts of three men, Rev. R.D. Thomas, the Minister of Christchurch, Rev. David Adams, a Chester City Mission worker and Frank Palin, a local resident and land surveyor who designed the building, that this “general place of public resort” was made available.
The Reading Room concept had evolved out of the national adult education development that accompanied the industrial revolution. Numerous mutual improvement societies and institutions aimed at offering instruction to the working man sprung up. In particular, the Mechanics Institute movement offered classes in scientific and technical principles to underpin processes workers were operating. They became famous for their libraries and newspaper reading rooms but, although filling a gap, they had mixed success. For example, although one had been proposed for Chester as early as 1810, it was 1834 before it launched and then struggled financially. After 21 years it closed, re-opening briefly in 1856. The fees were pitched too high, and they failed to supply the less academic level of learning opportunity for the average worker.
Reading Rooms, often in smaller out-of-town locations were aimed at combining education and leisure, although run on similar lines. It is unclear whether there was any demand from Bishopsfield residents, increasingly railway workers, retail traders and artisans. Rather, maybe it was an idea that reflected middle-class attitudes towards local society, the growth of these institutes being set against a background of a vigorous temperance movement. The sponsors were usually the local “great and the good” who acted as fund-raising organisers and managers and Bishopsfield’s hall was no exception. Provided for “harmless and rational entertainment”, it became the second public building in Hoole. However, as early as 1867, complaints about the tone of content being too ‘religious’ were the subject of letters to The Cheshire Observer.
Design and costs
It was intended that one apartment of considerable dimensions, apparently 53’ long and 28’ broad would be used as a reading room and place for public meetings and lectures on six days a week and on Sundays “serve as a theatre for the delivery of addresses by the city missionaries and others”. Yet, it was apparently intended to be non-sectarian as was made clear seven years later when the Cheshire Observer issued a correction after it had been reported that Vicar of Hoole had assisted at the stalls of the Christmas Bazaar.
The external style of the building was described as Plain Roman ornamented with blue and red bricks and being quite novel. It was designed by Frank Palin and built by Thomas Lockwood who was a local resident and partner in the building firm Lockwood & Farrimond. It was calculated to accommodate from 500 to 600 people, being “light, comfortable and spacious”. The total cost of the building was about £500 of which only £200 had been raised by voluntary subscriptions. Money was borrowed to build the room and was to be paid off in monthly instalments. An extra cost incurred in September 1868 when the Trustees were asked to pay £10-2s-8d as their apportionment of the costs of paving and kerbing New Peploe Street, as it was then known.
Foundation stone laying ceremony
The foundation stone was laid by the Rt. Hon. Earl Grosvenor on Friday 7th August 1863.
A newspaper report describes the procession which preceded “this imposing and important ceremony”, the 49th Regiment providing the music.
Beneath the foundation stone was placed a box containing a newspaper and several of ‘Her Majesty's coins’. The silver trowel presented to Earl Grosvenor was provided by Lowe’s, Chester’s well-known goldsmiths. The provision of reading rooms was seen nationwide as being very important and an extract from the Chester Chronicle of 25th July 1863 summarises Hoole’s position:
“The district considered both in regard to the character of its population and its distance from the City has strong claims upon the public for such a provision. It is in fact an urban population upon a rural site with the thirst for knowledge and self-improvement which should stimulate example and the growing intelligence of age. It has been the misfortune of more than a few of our suburban districts to have attained far too large a growth and extent before any suitable provision has been made for their harmless recreation and rational entertainment. Under these circumstances the public house and its appendages have presented attractions far too strong for resistance, and thus habits have been formed which have ruined the character and effectually stopped the way to the advancement in life of many a hopeful and promising young man”.
The building was formally opened with a tea for a large number of people on Tuesday 24th November 1863.
The books in the Reading Room were donated locally and it was supplied with newspapers and periodicals, the Cheshire Observer providing free copies. A reasonable rate of only one shilling per quarter was charged. In the first year, nine lectures were held in the Hall plus a musical entertainment which was “a complete success”, the latter type of event appearing to be particularly popular. Disappointingly the Reading Room was less successful with only 60 members whose “attendance and payments were irregular”.
Successive anniversaries reported the same trends, although the Lecture Hall was being used for meetings, lectures and concerts. However, there were exceptions. A “Magical Photograph”, used to illustrate a lecture on “Natural History, or a Glimpse of the Wonders of Nature” by local resident chemist, E. Hassall, was favourably contrasted with “ineffective” similar events elsewhere in the city.
In April 1869, the room was crowded for the last “Readings” or entertainments in the current series and there was much merriment and enjoyment with extended applause for some contributions.
The Hoole Local Board, inaugurated on 25 March 1864, met there and, contrary to the claim of its intent to be non-sectarian, the building was occasionally used for political meetings.
“Penny Readings" - a mixture of songs, prose and poetry – were arranged on Tuesday evenings. At the height of their popularity in the 1860s, they were deemed “rational recreation” for the price of a penny admission, so accessible to the working man, as was the possibility of opening a savings account by depositing one penny. In February 1867 a branch of The Chester Penny Bank opened at the Hall, this later transferring to Westminster Road School.
Bazaars and fetes were held for fund-raising purposes, an advertisement in 1869 showing the ladies of the largest houses in Hoole and Newton as patronesses.
Indeed, that Christmas the Ladies Committee, by decorating and displaying the three Christmas trees raised enough money to fund some alterations that were already required to make the room more comfortable. A beam was removed, gas fixtures were raised, and ventilation improved. As a result, the Cheshire Observer reported that increasing numbers were benefitting from using the venue with its good supply of papers and periodicals. This had improved from two years earlier when an anonymous letter written to the same newspaper complained that the reading material consisted of “old novels and the men think it a waste of time to read them”. The quality of the reading material available was confirmed later when a list of 400 books to be sold was published.
The immediate problem though was to pay back the loan and during the years 1865 to 1867 a great fund-raising effort went into organising a Grand Bazaar and Industrial Exhibition at the Music Hall in Chester in January 1867. Many distinguished patrons and patronesses were approached to give their support, as were manufacturers and industrialists to display their wares and craftsmanship. A description of the stalls and their contents appears at the end of this article. £468 was raised over 4 days.
Closure of Reading Room
The optimistic newspaper reporting could not disguise the fact that the use of the Reading Room continued to be poor and became an increasing concern of the Trustees for the next few years.
By 1870 attempts to attract more subscribers to the Reading Room were deemed to have failed. These had included a penny subscription, the provision of a bagatelle table and permitting smoking in the building. Even allowing free entry had resulted in the average attendance of six extra persons. The loss on keeping the Room open for reading over two years was £63-15-0. It was resolved in January 1871 that the Reading Room should be closed. Sad confirmation of the closure appeared in an advertisement in August 1873 for the sale of its books and the ill-fated bagatelle table.
The Hall continued to be available for hire. Occasional concerts, especially in aid of charity, carried on. For example, an amateur concert, the proceeds of which were to be used for providing coals for the local poor was organised in the same year.
The Building is sold but remains useful
The Lecture Hall Trustees permitted the Hoole Local Board to use the adjacent yard for storage of road maintenance equipment and materials and, with the Trustees’ permission, in November 1871 the Board installed a well and pump for inhabitants who had no pure water, paying the Trustees one shilling per annum to do so. It was built by Mr. Killon of 5 Seller Street.
By 1873, Mr. Arthur Potts of Hoole Hall had acquired the building and yard from the Trustees. The Board approached him for a formal grant of the land on which the well and pump had been installed, but he refused. The Board agreed to give up most of the yard except for a small area at a new rent of £1 per annum.
The following year the Board received a complaint that one of their members and a former Lecture Hall Trustee, Mr. Henry Richards, was using the public pump for the washing of his cart, the residue going back into the well, making it not conducive for public use. Mr. Richards conducted his business as baker and grocer from 1-3 Charles Street, providing a delivery service. The discolouration allegedly caused by his activity meant local inhabitants had stopped using the well, but the Board’s Surveyor discounted this. It was December before the water was running clear again.
By 1878, Mr. Richards had acquired the whole of the property, constructing a cart shed and stable on the yard. He suggested that the well be closed as it was of no use, but “was a source of mischief and damage to its surroundings”. The Board's Surveyor agreed with Mr. Richards saying that its principal use “was by small children pumping water on even smaller ones. The houses in the neighbourhood were now all supplied with town water” and the pump was closed with Mr. Richards having enclosed the site.
More information on the Richards family can be found in the article The Baker and the Accountant.
The Lecture Hall continued to be used for meetings and concerts. On Tuesday 1st March 1881 it was used for a concert “of a very successful character” with “full attendance” to raise funds for All Saints Church Sunday Schools. An amateur dramatic performance over two evenings of a comedy in November 1881 aimed to support the General Infirmary and the General Station Cricket Club. Meetings of political parties and temperance organisations are also reported as taking place in the 1880s and 90s.
In 1883, Ebenezer Baptist Church of Milton Street held a mission meeting there, which was so successful that weekly services were established, and a branch of the Baptist Church was formed. The Church eventually became the principal user and purchased the property in 1911 (see Hoole Baptist Church).
Another Reading Room
In 1891 the Hoole Literary Institute opened in Faulkner Street. Col. Hammersley, the Chief Constable of Cheshire, whose residence was Hoole Lodge, and who was a member and one-time Chairman of the District Council, was its instigator and first President. Charles Belfield and John Dinwoodie were successive Secretaries. The Institute was reported to have some 100 members, 40 attending its Annual General Meeting in October 1892. Lectures were organised and weekly meetings of members held. Besides books there was a billiards table, a draughts club and even a football team was organised. Fund raising concerts were held to support it. The Institute appears to have been accommodated on the upper floor of 10 Faulkner Street before that became the Headquarters of Hoole Liberal Party. It seems however to have been even more short-lived than its predecessor, no records being found after December 1895.
Details of the Grand Bazaar and Industrial Exhibition 1867
- Article researched and written by Ralph Earlam and Ruth Ludgate, March 2022
- Cheshire Observer, 28 November 1863
- Kelly, Thomas, (1962), “A History of Adult Education in Great Britain”, Liverpool University Press, p.117
- Cheshire Observer, 14 April 1855
- Cheshire Observer, 13 December 1856
- See Kelly’s Directories 1851 - 1871
- Chester Chronicle, 25 July 1863
- Cheshire Observer, 2 and 16 November 1867
- Cheshire Observer, 28 November 1863
- Cheshire Observer, 15 January 1870
- Chester Chronicle, 28 November 1863
- Hoole Local Board Minutes, 1864-1877, 7 September 1868 (CRO ZTRH/44-45)
- Chester Chronicle, 8 August 1863; Chester Courant, 8 August 1863
- The trowel remains in the custody of the Grosvenor Estate at their London offices (2013 correspondence with the Estate’s Archivist)
- Chester Chronicle, 28 November 1863
- Cheshire Observer, 3 December 1864
- Cheshire Observer, 23 April 1864
- Cheshire Observer, 17 April 1869
- Cheshire Observer, 14 November 1868
- Cheshire Observer, 23 February 1867
- Chester Chronicle, 18 December 1869
- Cheshire Observer, 6 September 1869
- Cheshire Observer, 20 April 1867
- Cheshire Observer, 16 August 1873, p.1
- Chester Chronicle, 5 January 1867
- Chester Chronicle, 12 January 1867
- Cheshire Observer, 14 January 1871
- Cheshire Observer, 16 August 1873
- Cheshire Observer, 8 March 1873
- Hoole Local Board Minutes, 1864-1877, 18 September 1871 (CRO ZTRH/44-45)
- Hoole Local Board Minutes, 1864-1877, 3 March 1873 (CRO ZTRH/44-45)
- Hoole Local Board Minutes, 1864-1877, 4 and 8 August 1874 (CRO ZTRH/44-45)
- Cheshire Observer, 7 September 1878
- Cheshire Observer, 5 March 1881
- Cheshire Observer, 19 November 1881
- Cheshire Observer, 21 March 1896
- Cheshire Observer, 15 October 1892