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Leaf Hall stands as an important monument to Victorian philanthropy and concern for the needy working class of Eastbourne East of the Pier. It is the town’s oldest public building.
He had 11 children. He stayed at his holiday home on the Grand Parade in the early 1860s; now the Claremont hotel. He would take an evening stroll around the dark, unkempt area behind the Sea Houses.
Here fishermen dwelt alongside blacksmiths, building labourers and laundry workers. Uneducated and often impoverished by chronic seasonal unemployment, many sought solace in the ale houses and taverns which had begun to proliferate in the area. Leaf saw them “Looking about the streets at night, as if they had no place to go”.
An evangelical Christian and a member of the Total Abstinence Society, Leaf’s zeal led him to approach the 7th Duke of Devonshire whose new resort depended on, but made little provision for, the working classes who would service it. The Duke, a fellow liberal, donated a piece of land and construction began in the autumn of 1863.
The foundation stone, laid on November 3rd, can still be read in Leaf Hall Road, and succinctly states Leaf’s aims: “To promote the social, moral and spiritual welfare of the working classes of Eastbourne.” The architect was Blessley, who a decade later designed Eastbourne’s Grand Hotel.
The Hall’s accommodation consisted of a public coffee room, a library and reading room, a serving bar and smoking room, large kitchen, and a lecture room to seat 200.
The Hall’s church-like style was deliberate, setting out to encourage feelings of awe and reverence from those who entered the building. These included local fishermen, and a candle was lit in a niche on the stairway whenever the small fishing fleet put to sea, not being extinguished until their safe return.
Men were able to use the reading room and recreation rooms and for two old pennies (1p) a week they could borrow books from the Hall’s library. The town had no municipal library until the end of the century.
However, the link with the Temperance Movement had the effect of putting many working men off the place.
There were few other meeting places in Eastbourne in the Hall’s early days and so it became a popular venue for penny lectures and other worthy entertainments. General Tom Thumb of PT Barnham’s circus appeared there for several nights in1865.
Over time, the Hall was used for weekend gatherings of groups such as Chartists and Trade Unions who would come to Eastbourne from across the region and stay in local hotels and boarding houses. It can be argued that this was the beginning of the town’s conference industry.
In addition the Hall quickly became the gathering place of various Temperance groups including the Band of Hope during the years before the Salvation Army established a permanent base in Eastbourne. The Salvation Army was both resented and feared in its early days and there were several attacks on the Hall by hooligans. The windows were reinforced to give protection against stone-throwing.
This was the precursor of the town’s Salvation Army riots. The Council, along with several other towns, had introduced a bye-law prohibiting marching with bands on a Sunday. This was aimed at suppressing the activities of the Salvation Army. However, the law was disobeyed and this gave licence for a ‘skeleton army’ of ne’er- do-wells, supported and fuelled by local publicans, to attack and disrupt the procession. The Council did nothing, and the Police looked on. For a time in 1891 and the year following, the attacks on the Salvation Army became a spectator sport and crowds flocked to see the spectacle. Eventually the Government put a stop to the nonsense and ordered the bye-law to be rescinded.
So did Mr Leaf’s project fail in its objective of keeping working men out of the pubs? Sadly, yes, at least in the view of George Meek, a local Socialist in the early years of the 20th century. His book George Meek, Bath Chairman By Himself with an introduction by H G Wells, was published in 1910, and the Eastbourne Chronicle carried a weekly column written by Meek. In January 1919, he described the Leaf Hall’s history in stark terms:
“..an institution which has existed in the town for over half a century and which has always been a failure. This building – which by the way, looks like a cross between a Sunday school and a police station – was erected for the benefit of Eastbourne workmen to keep the returned soldier (who in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred be a working man) out of the public house.
"Has the Leaf Hall done this? Do you see the working man crowding into that building for cocoa and buns, or ginger beer and gingerbread, as he flocks into the four-ale bar? Never! Never once in its long history; and the late Mr Leaf’s good intentions have ended in this well-meant institution degenerating into a mere private cook-shop, which would probably do better business if it were carried on in ordinary business premises.”
Meek’s gloomy assessment perhaps failed to recognise the efforts made at Leaf Hall to provide working people with a basic meal.
In the winter months Victorian Eastbourne was a depressing place; with the well-heeled visitors gone and building work stopped during icy weather, grinding poverty and desperate hunger became the lot of many in the neighbourhood. The 1880s were particularly bad for people living in the area. There was a general economic slump and the winters were harsh. The Hall became a centre for the distribution of food and fuel to the needy; handing out 3,000 pints of soup, 3,000 loaves of bread and 10 tons of coal per week. Food banks are not new.
When Mr Darnell took over as steward in 1882, he invited ‘charitably disposed persons to purchase books of tickets for distribution. “A very seasonable way of giving aid when work is slack.”
The Curling Drinking Fountain, which you can see in Sea Houses Square, was commissioned by Mrs Elizabeth Curling and erected in 1865. Two years previously the area had suffered a serious outbreak of Scarlet Fever caused by poor quality water. It was restored in 2000 and moved to its current location, but originally it stood almost outside the front door of the Leaf Hall in the centre of the main road. In its original position, the stepped base of the fountain was used as a platform for public speakers and became a rallying point for political and other groups.
In the 1920s there was no National Health Service and access to doctors as a private patient was too expensive for most ordinary people. Instead, they contributed weekly to Friendly Societies and this entitled them to basic treatments. Doctors would seldom visit people in their own homes due to the conditions. They used the Hall as an occasional medical centre where they would hold surgeries. One such doctor was the infamous Bodkin-Adams.
Today the Hall is a community hub, used regularly by various local groups. It plays host to the Bourne Academy of Performing Arts. It is also open for lunches and refreshments using good wholesome produce.
Tourist Information Centre
Leaf Hall Community Arts Centre,