Leconfield Hall

The Leconfield Hall

The Leconfield Hall

 

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The Leconfield Hall

Leconfield Hall circa 1900
The Leconfield Hall - Circa 1900
Leconfield Hall circa 2000
The Leconfield Hall - Circa 2003
Colonel Mitford's troops return from the Boer War
Colonel Mitford's troops return from the Boer War
Cyclists outside the Hall circa 1885
Cyclists outside the Hall circa 1885
The Vienna Piano Triio
The Vienna Piano Trio performing in the Hall
Swann Inn Sign
The Old Swan Inn sign, on display in the Hall
The Half Moon
The Half Moon Inn before the Bank was built
The Square circa 1899
The Square circa 1899
The Leconfield Hall
The crumbling stonework before restoration
Leconfield Hall Passive Stack
The "passive stack" vent on the Hall roof
National Lottery

The Leconfield Hall was built in 1793. In the mid 1990s a major restoration was undertaken. The following is the story of that restoration by a former Hall trustee and architect, Raymond Harris

THE LECONFIELD HALL PETWORTH
My story by Raymond Harris

1 HISTORY

As a Market Town, Petworth would always have had a Market Square of some sort.  In the Square since Tudor times – perhaps earlier - there would have stood a Market Hall.   Documentary evidence, such as it is, leads to the assumption that the Leconfield Hall we now see was built in 1793 on the same site as the timber framed building which preceded it.  Nothing is known of its form, but it may well have had an open ground floor market area for stalls with a first floor enclosed chamber above on the lines of the Horsham market hall now re-erected at the Weald and Downland Museum.  It would have been narrower than the present site since houses on the west side were standing until the 1860’s when the present building was enlarged.  There has been much controversy over the site since the late 19th century when a spurious drawing appeared showing the building at the north end of the Square, Teelings, now a ladies dress shop, as the old town hall complete with bell tower.  This structure may have been a market building, possibly the corn market, as the layout of the present ancient timber structure shows.   Some details of the same drawing are proven by what we can still see on the ground.  At the rear of Teelings there is evidence of an open courtyard in which the present post office and newsagent’s building was constructed much later.  In the document accompanying the drawing, a post is shown in the centre of the yard indicating that it may have been used for bull baiting in the 16th century when such cruel sports were permitted - to improve the quality of the meat and to provide entertainment for the ladies of those times!

To move on to firmer ground, in 1793 the 3rd Earl Egremont gave instruction for the construction of a new Market Hall in the Market Square.  Some houses on the west side of the present site remained until the 1870’s, so the demolition of the old hall provided about 2/3 of the present building.  The east side was built level with the street at the north end, the present entrance.  As it had an open ground floor, public access could only be gained by a wedge-shaped set of steps like we can see on the west side today.  At some stage, the ground floor was fully enclosed and the wedge-shaped steps removed.  Evidence of this can be seen by examining the structure around the present windows inserted into the open arches.   Below the cills the infilling piece of wall is not integral with the stone piers between the windows.   Then in the 1870’s the remaining houses on the west side were demolished and the stone building was extended westwards but in rendered brickwork.   Time and pollution have almost completely smudged out what would have been starkly different at the time, but the junction between the two phases of construction can still be seen.  A thick wall divides the two phases internally, creating nasty structural problems for any attempt to create open internal spaces and the support of the roof, our engineers’ problem in the 1990’s.

2  THE WORKS - External

I was elected as a trustee representing “the people of Petworth” in 1993 at a noisy public meeting.  I had been proposed by two Petworth ancients not, shall I say, of the ruling party.  Rumour had therefore been spread that I was a terrorist who wanted to demolish the old place to expand car parking in the Square.  I felt the radiation of their animosity as if I were Guy Fawkes himself.  I was elected after supporting Peter Jerrome whole heartedly (of course) and got myself a job for my remaining years!

The building was in a sorry state, from the roof to the foundations.  At the south-east corner the main East wall was parting company with the weather-beaten South wall overhanging the twitten; large flakes of stone were about to be shed on to the waiting bus queues; the roof and the lead gutters were in a poor state; the interior had the atmosphere of a wartime recruitment hall. The facilities were sad and did not reach minimum standards for a public building.  The reason for this apparent neglect were simple.  The cost of renovation was prohibitively high and the income from hirings was too low to undertake any capital works of this magnitude.  The hiring rates could have been raised, but never enough.  In any case, the committee members themselves represented the principal hirers, whose own vested interest would be best served by keeping rates low.  There were no endowment funds.

In the season before I came on to the scene, a welcome legacy had just been received from the estate of the late Miss Gwenda Morgan, a Petworth resident, a fine and successful artist in wood engraving.  The handsome sum of £50,000, * could not do the whole job, but it could and did prime several pumps which enabled us to start raising funds.  In my position as a retired architect I could not rest until the building had been made safe at least.  I immediately ordered a scaffold around the building, we stitched up the falling corner, removed all loose stonework and surveyed the condition of every surface and with the help of an architect specialising in the restoration of stone buildings, drew up plans and specification for the work.  English Heritage joined us in these inspections and said we were likely to get their assistance.  The Leconfield Estate submitted the best tender and were appointed to do the work as soon as the grant had been approved.  As soon as other organisations and individuals could see that the work will definitely proceed, they were far more willing to help.  All their names are commemorated on the board in the Hall. 

A programme of limited stone restoration was undertaken.  The original quarry above Little Bognor, whence the original stone probably came, is now reduced to rubble.  A quarry still producing Greensand stone was used near Midhurst.  All sound stones were left or trimmed and repointed to reduce further damage.  The overall appearance remains of a venerable weathered building, not a new replica.  This is in accordance with the policy of English Heritage who were supporting us generously.  

When I originally examined the building from the first scaffolding I noticed a tell-tale circular stone in the centre of the pediment east side – evidence that there had once been a clock there.  Looked at from the inside, there was a structure behind the circle for the clock’s support.  Then we looked at old prints from about 1860 and there it was.  I made a hardboard replica, painted it blue and gold and fixed it to the stonework.   It found favour all round and English Heritage offered a grant – but restricted to the cost of the face and hands!  No better than the clock abandoned in the 1860’s which always read the same time, to the confusion of many.  West Sussex found a special fund and bought the works!

The other curiosities we found were the old fire bells under the stairs.  Old prints revealed their rightful home on the ridge of the pediment over the clock where we fixed them.  They can be rung by opening the oak box on the ground floor wall immediately below, then pulling on the handle.  They are all on the same arm – no change ringing here!

We restored next the badly worn and treacherous steps on the west side  
using a good Purbeck stone – as used in the old streets of Chichester - but surrounded here by original cobbles up to the edge of the public footway.  The work to the west side would all have been carried out after the demolition of the houses in the 1860’s.  I replaced the stone steps in the 1990’s as an extension of the building restoration project.  West Sussex County Council took a very responsible attitude particularly as it had become quite difficult not to trip on the uneven nosings.  Having found an active quarry in the Isle of Purbeck, Peter Jerrome and I went to visit the proprietor, Mr Bonfield.  We found him on a very blasted hill beside his works, a corrugated iron shack with a crooked crane perched alongside.  Concerned lest we had picked a rough jack for a fine job, I asked him if he felt up to the quality of the work we needed.  I was almost blown away by the ferocity of his reply:  ”A Bonfield built Corfe Castle!”  He did an excellent job at an acceptable price. 

There had stood on the top step where the seats are, a Listed red telephone kiosk a vintage edition of Giles Gilbert Scott’s 20th century icon.   I thought it a stupid position, inaccessible to the lame, halt and mums with push-chairs.  To re-locate it at street level required the installation of a fresh kiosk of identical design installed in the new position and checked by a planning officer that it really was the same design as the existing one – which we were then permitted to break up as it was cast iron and could not be dismantled and re-used!

The final item of external work was the most interesting – the bust of William the 3rd on the north side.  The marble original which had been put there on the 3rd Earl’s instructions, was in danger of decaying in the polluted atmosphere of Market Square where the vehicles of several A roads pass and re-pass daily.  It was taken into Petworth House much to the concern of the then committee.  Marble is not the best material for an external sculpture of such high merit. The finest public sculpture to adorn a public building, and it is in Petworth!  In “The Buildings of England”, Pevsner/Nairn, it is referred to as “one of the finest baroque sculptures in England”. “The King’s proud patrician face turns right with a breath-catching yearning expression; a swaggering asymmetrical wig hangs down over one shoulder, his torso rises out of the froth of draperies dancing diagonally around the bust…”  It is ascribed to Honore Pelle, or perhaps to Proust of Dijon who did the trophies now at the Main Gate in Park Road.  I proposed that if we could not have it back we should have an accurate replica in a durable material and I proposed a highly skilled modeller to do the work.  He made a soft mould and then cast the new piece in a resin concrete to resemble marble.  Lord Egremont insisted on paying for it and it was unveiled by him. Which more or less completed the exterior in grand style

3  THE WORKS  Internal

After nearly four years of fund-raising, brow-beating, design and construction, there were still no improvements to the amenities of the Hall which remained just as out of date and institutional.  I drew up the outline of a scheme for disabled access, an acceptable fire escape, a new stage, a lighting scheme which could be adapted to all the uses it might be put to, a new kitchen and toilets and a disabled toilet, and a general internal face-lift to appeal to 21st century users.  I was joined in the development of the design and the contract drawings and specification by Terry Adsett, FRICS who then administered the contract.  The Leconfield Estate again won the contract in competition and appointed the same team as for the external works: Mr Roger Wooton, the Estate’s Clerk of Works ran the contract with Stemps as main contractor for building works controlled by Mr Richard Stemp.   At last an excellent grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund was awarded and many other donors enabled us to proceed in 1998 with the intention of re-opening on Millennium night 1999/2000. 

The principal aims of the internal works were to bring up the standards of accommodation to current legislation, especially fire escape and access for the disabled; equipment to enable a wider range of uses by hirers; improved standards of comfort; improved facilities for concerts, meetings etc; but still retaining priorities which had always been central for the regular users of the hall: sales, parties, Masonic activities, a poling station and activities of the Petworth Society and the Petworth Festival.  A passenger lift close to the entrance made it necessary to reverse the use of the first floor by locating a lower stage at the south end and providing retractable raked seating.  Providing a secondary staircase for escape in case of fire, better kitchen and toilet arrangements

The exterior had been plain-sailing.  But opening up the old structure revealed a can of serpents – three stages of previous constructions hooked together and made up to look like one building.  That was above ground.  Below ground level there were really interesting secrets.  The first task was to investigate the foundations for the passenger lift.  After a foot of digging we came to the top of a fine brick vault,   A small hole and a plumb line through it and we found about twelve feet of water before the lead reached the floor of the vault!  It was one of several underground cisterns in Petworth.  Nearby in the pavement was a manhole which revealed some of the truth.  We had to pump out all the water before all else – all 55,000 gallons, and discharge it, not into the drains but on to Leconfield land somewhere.  It was indeed a noble sight, beautifully finished in cement render and in perfect condition.  Our consultant engineer calculated the considerable loads which would be imposed on this structure, but by the time we were ready to carry out the work to strengthen the vault, the vault had re-filled from the surface water of the streets of Petworth.  So another 55,000 gallons had to be carted away to another piece of Leconfield land.  Most probably this cistern was a part of the system of water distribution in the town and connected to works in the Park undertaken by Capability Brown in the 18th century.  Before any proposals for the Hall were settled, there was a faction in the town that a new swimming pool should be built here! There was one already. 

Then there were the vestiges of prison cells to note: one at the south end of the ground floor, one below ground alongside the water cistern, and one in the roof space over the entrance.  It would have been a case of “send the prisoner up!” instead of down.  This one can still be seen.

Several changes had been made to the roof structure during its enlargement and later when the upper Hall was opened into one space from two separate buildings.  All kinds of nasty problems arose from past alterations.  A temporary steel structure had to be constructed before the escape stair could be built.
The first floor auditorium was given a new semi-sprung floor for dancing; the new lower stage meant that the whole volume of the first floor could be used as one space for exhibitions and sales; the new lighting suspended below the old acoustic ceiling enabled uplighting as well as downlighting, dispelling Victorian gloom; blinds matching the wall colour improved the appearance when blacked out; theatre lighting and controls were added, but re-using the old serviceable stage light fittings.  Access to the gallery was now by an elegant staircase matching the Georgian balustrade from the old court house.  Both Gallery access and secondary escape had been via an unprotected spiral staircase, unacceptable for both purposes.  Later, a theatre lighting control box was created out of the lobby to the lift motor room and a dimmer rack was supplied.

Throughout these works, the help and encouragement given by Lord Egremont both personally and through his offering the resources of the Leconfield Estate cannot be over-emphasised, neither can the services of our honorary treasurer, Tim Wardle who has been so helpful in managing the finances of all the projects I have initiated.  And all the time, Peter Jerrome as chairman has backed every proposal, as I promised to back him when I was elected.    

4  LATER WORKS

The building you now see was practically completed for the great Millennium night and it opened “amid general rejoicing”.  Subsequently many improvements to the equipment and usefulness of the Hall have been added, mainly by generous benefactors whose names are inscribed in the entrance.  A hearing aid “loop” system at both levels with extra microphone sockets,  additional built-in kitchen equipment, double windows to sound-proof the upper Hall;, a DVD and Video projector and automatic screen to enable films to be shown regularly; a Green room for artists; improved and simply controlled heating, and a fine new grand piano belonging to the Festival.

Hirings have stood up well since the year 2000, but there is never enough surplus to build up an adequate endowment fund.  All these later additions have been made possible through the incredible generosity of many donors – as indeed all the 15 years of work has been made possible by donations, some by the same trusts and individuals who supported the very beginnings of the works..   It is a valuable asset for this small town and in the future it will always need funds to keep up maintenance and new demands.  Do look after it well please, Petworth!  One way would be to become a Friend of the Leconfield Hall.

Raymond Harris (Vice chairman 1993 – 2008)