A Brief history of ECH

The headline from the Isle of Ely & Wisbech Advertiser aptly described the report, written in the delightful prose of the time, which began with “An idea that has been in the minds of the parishioners of Emneth for several years - that they should have a central hall in which concerts, whist drives and suchlike amusements could be held, has at last been converted from an abstract term to an absolute fact, and since last Easter Monday, such a building is open to any organisation which might feel fit to use it, on the payment of a very small fee.”

The date in question was March 26th 1921, but the concept of a Church House had been born some time before the First World War began. The first meeting following the Armistice was held on the 19th January 1919, when a committee was formed under the chairmanship of the Vicar, Rev. A.A. Hancock, to resume the work of raising funds for the project. There was to be a public appeal and plans were made for a garden fete and other social events including a whist drive, concert and sports. The fete was held at the vicarage in August; the net proceeds totalled £9-5s-0d (£9.25). Translated into present day values, that would probably be in the order of £320-00. Thinking back, that was no mean achievement.

At the time, there was a village social club and a prospective branch of the National Discharged Soldiers and Sailors Federation and their representatives were included in the committee. The latter organisation were desperate for a room in which they could hold meetings so that they might be properly constituted and entitled to a grant estimated at £35-0s-0d. A meeting held at the school on Tuesday July 27th 1920 formalised the arrangement and a resolution was passed to unite the three committees. The Church House fund stood at some £80-0s-0d and the Social Club had approximately £13-0s-0d plus a quantity of tables, chairs and other equipment to contribute.

The choice of name was made in September with “Central Hall” being selected from a shortlist of three that also included “Gaultree Hall” and “St. Edmund’s Hall”. A prominent site in the centre of the village had previously been acquired when the owner, Miss L.M. Neale, a former resident of the parish, gave her agreement to an extended lease of 99 years in a letter that arrived on May 28th. The tenant, a Mr Wells, it is said, willingly gave up his garden plot. The Trustees eventually purchased the freehold from the Neale Estate for the sum of £65-0s-0d at auction at “The Swan” Public House (better known today as “The Gaultree Inn”) on July 15th 1944.

The search for a building began in earnest and delegates, with authority to purchase, were appointed to attend a Government Sale at Narborough near Swaffham. The first visit in August proved fruitless but by November the committee were the proud owners of a former Army hut, measuring 60ft x 20ft, at a cost of £120-0s-0d delivered to Emneth Station.

A sub-committee comprised of Messrs J.F. Racey, J.T. Handley, T. Stamper and J.W. Banks was to oversee the erection of the hut and they engaged Mr T Windley and Mr W Hood of Elm for the task. They began by building a three-foot brick wall upon which to support the structure and gain extra height. The original corrugated iron and asphalt floor was abandoned at Grantham after lengthy correspondence with Lavender & Co of Wisbech confirmed that it could not be successfully recovered. A wooden one was built in its stead – other refinements included a stage with ladies’ and gentlemen’s dressing rooms to the rear in a lean-to extension. (Who could possibly forget the trek across the stage to visit the toilets?)

An estimate from Mr Barratt of Wisbech, in the sum of £11-18s-0d was accepted for the supply of two “Tortoise” slow combustion stoves. Two cartloads of ashes were procured from the Great Eastern Railway to make up the paths around the hall.

Regrettably the grant application by the N.D.S.S.F. fell through, and in order for the committee to achieve its goal, a loan of £100-0s-0d at 7% interest was taken; the guarantors, Rev Hancock, Alderman Hunter and Messrs J.T. Handley and J.F. Racey, each signing a promissory note for £25-0s-0d. The hall and contents were insured for a total of £400-0s-0d and hire charges were set at 3/6d (17½p) per hour with a maximum of 12/6d (62½p) for parishioners of Emneth. It was agreed to let the garden to the rear (later to become a tennis court and home to the village club) to Mr N. Edgoose at a rent of 30/- (£1.50) per annum and the ticket office was loaned to the railway company for 4/- (20p) per week. Besides the station on the branch line from Wisbech to King’s Lynn, which despite having a postal address in Emneth was actually in Walsoken, the Wisbech & Upwell Tramway, of course, also ran through the parish.

Easter Monday 1921 was fixed for the opening and an invitation went out to Miss Neale to perform the ceremony. The day’s events also included a public tea and were rounded off with a popular dance and whist drive. Miss Neale had donated a clock to mark the occasion and the newspaper report concluded, “It only now remains for a few more such gifts to follow in its train, and a few more subscriptions, then Emneth will be able to boast of having one of the best village halls in the district.” That sentiment was to be emulated, almost fifty-five years later to the day, in 1976 when the present building was unveiled to the public.