Dorian Kelly researches the Hall

Historical poster for an event at St George's HallAdvert in the Essex Standard, 12 Dec 1851

The above Hall is now READY TO LET for public meetings, lectures, concerts etc., either by day or in the evening. Its dimensions are 60 feet by 38 feet, with a height 25 feet; in addition to which there is a Platform 16 feet by 12. In direct communication with the platform is a retiring or robing room.

The Hall which is abundantly lighted by gas  is well adapted for sales by auction and for any purpose requiring publicity. Having direct communication with the new corn exchange onto which it opens and through which there is a right of way, its situation offers unusual advantages for business occupations, particularly on market Days.

A brief history

Charles Wallis, an ironfounder, lost his house in the great fire. He needed to rebuild and sold land at the back to group of men to build a hall to finance the house.

The Hall was known as the Public Hall and Mechanics Institute. It was opened in 1851, the year of the great exhibition as home for the Mechanics Institute. It was funded by a Trust of the leading Liberals of Colchester. The Liberals wanted somewhere to call their own for political and public meetings since they could not trust the mayor (who was always a Conservative!) to let them use the town hall. Despite efforts by radicals to call it the People’s Hall, they settled on the title the Public Hall. Here many a political rally was held – often of the good old riotous example. One trick by their political rivals was to turn off the gas, creating darkness.

It is a large brick built lofty hall, with an apse at the far end, which you can still see from the W and G car park. On the wall above the entrance “science art and literature” was spelled out in dahlias.

In 1867 the Colchester Harmonic Society performed Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”. A successful “Messiah” led to the formation of the Colchester Musical Society, and in 1876 “The principle parts of Bach’s sublime oratorio, The Passion were given” ( The St Matthew Passion?).

As well as music there were displays of clairvoyance, military concerts, spelling bees, panoramas and so on, including Herr Adalbert, who gave his extraordinary entertainment consisting of mid air extravaganzas, spiritual clairvoyance and deceptions, and the “original and only American Slave Troupe and Brass Band” and with it a negro dwarf named Japanese Tommy. There was also an appearance by General Tom Thumb. The Peppers Ghost and Spectral Opera Company presented Gounod’s Faust.

Mark Downe writes My own earliest recollection of public entertainment are associated with the gas-vitiated atmosphere of the old public hall where we children were taken to see the one-man performance of Thurton the Suffolk entertainer with his impersonations of “odd folks” and Woodin, the marvelous quick change artist. Whether Woodins performance would today retain the charm and glamour that it had in the sixties would be questioned, but as it lingers in memory still, it seems almost unparalleled in the wonder of it all.

The curtain over the front of the public hall apse revealed the coming glories of that coming entertainment. When it was at last withdrawn – and how long the interval of waiting appeared – there was a screen in the middle of the platform from which emerged the immaculately attired Woodin in evening dress. After a few words of an introductory character he dived behind the screen and to the amazement of the crowded hall reappeared a few seconds later from the other side of the screen dressed as a lady- low necked, adorned with ringlets and attired in a gown of flounced silk. He had transformed himself in an instant into a contralto or soprano, and in a bewitching voice sang such songs as “Beloved Eye, beloved star” in a manner that captivated the audience. For two hours he kept this up in this astonishing programme of quick change with impersonations of every worthy from Lord Dundreary with his whiskers down to a boor-boy in cap and apron. It was a truly exhausting variety show for one man to carry through nightly and probably has no counterpoint in our time…”

After the Institution’s closure in 1860 it was used as a library and reading room, lecture room, and theatre until the owners, the Colchester New Public Hall Co. Ltd., went into liquidation in 1897. The hall then changed hands several times and had a number of uses: as a magistrates’ court and cells, a clothing factory, a print-block making factory for Benhams Press and a club for the troops in the First World War, with 4 million visits by soldiers, 1,750 000 meals served, 100,000 baths taken 2,250 000 sheets of paper and a million postcards issued. In the 1890s the Club St George was held here (I think, above the shop rather than in the main hall) for young men, which became the Ist Colchester Scouts when the leader read ‘Scouting for Boys’ and realized that this sort of organization was exactly what the Club St George was already doing. One could therefore claim that the Scout movement began here in Colchester before Baden Powell (who knew Colchester well) invented it.

The neighbouring Repertory Theatre used the hall as a workshop from 1937 ( or 1946, sources vary) to 1967. Cullingford and Co. bought the premises in 1948 and rented the basement out separately to Clubb and Rabett, metal workers. From c. 1960 Cullingfords used half the hall as a stockroom and took over the whole of the ground floor in 1967.

Dorian Kelly, February 2015

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