One hundred years ago Bookham was very different from the Bookham of today. Great and Little Bookham had distinct identities with their own manors and churches with the population of Great Bookham about thirteen hundred and Little Bookham about two hundred. This compares with the combined total of twelve thousand today. Two ways of life existed – the life of the gentry in their vast houses and the ordinary working families. This story begins with a partner in a London solicitor’s firm moving into ‘The Grange’ in Little Bookham in the year 1897. His name was Arthur Bird and amongst other roles he was a ‘Justice of the Peace’ in Epsom. Considering ‘Great’ to reflect his true standing in his profession he manipulated a boundary change to get ‘The Grange’ included within the parish of Great Bookham. He went on to buy all the land between ‘The Grange’ and Great Bookham village including the whole of what was then Sole Farm. He could walk from ‘The Grange’ through to the village completely on his own land, indeed the footpath still exists today going across what is now the recreation ground in Lower Road. The large farmhouse of Sole Farm and the farmyard were in Church Road opposite the parish church of St Nicolas. Apart from the High Street itself and just a few cottages, the area was divided into fields of corn or grazing for cattle, sheep and horses. The farm and its buildings were there in the early 1600’s and are listed in a 1614 survey.
Arthur Bird wanted to provide a hall for the use of the villagers. Before this the only meeting places were local inns and he felt that ‘the working man had nowhere to go in the evening apart from the public houses’. This was a very philanthropic thought but must be weighed against his acquisition of a vast area of land, the destruction of Sole Farm and breaking up the farm into plots for sale – anathema to the Residents Association of today. He undoubtedly foresaw the possibilities of a vast growth of the Bookham population now that the railway served Bookham (from 1885) and gave easy access to the centre of London. It was an entrepreneur’s dream!
Reading between the lines there appeared to be some ‘atmosphere’ or rivalry between Arthur Bird and the other philanthropist of the village, Mrs Christie. Mrs Christie’s name is with us to today in such places as the Christie memorial recreation field in Dorking Road and she is known for her temperance work. It may be no coincidence that just prior to this time Mrs Christie had built and had given Little Bookham its own village hall and one can only surmise whether this generosity triggered any rival feeling.
Behind and to the side of the Sole Farm farmhouse was the farmyard – stables, sheds and barns surrounding a yard. One of these buildings was a very large barn mainly used as a granary for corn. Nearer to the road were several other farm buildings including yet another sizeable barn. Along from the farm was a large pond fronting on to Church Road just 80 yards or so from the farmhouse. The pond itself had given the name to the farm, the old Anglo-Saxon word for a muddy pool being ‘sol’ – hence ‘Sol’ farm.
The large granary barn in the corner of the farmyard seemed to be ideal in size and position for use as a hall but it would need a great deal of conversion to be viable. This conversion would require many of the other surrounding buildings to be cleared to make it accessible from the road and to take it out of its farmyard setting. Between the barn itself and the road something had to be done to the buildings there including the second sizeable barn.
It was common during this time for barns used as granaries to be set on ‘staddle’ stones. Some way had to be found to stop rats from getting into the grain and the simple solution was to raise the floor of barns with these stones. The normal staddle stones looked like giant mushrooms and were set under the main uprights of the barn with the floor laid upon them. The picture shows one such barn, this one at Sherfield-on-Loddon, Hampshire . The efforts of the rats to climb up these supports were thwarted by having nothing to hold on to on the underneath of the mushroom. Poor rats! The other use of staddle stones was for hay or straw stacks. Planks were laid on top and across the stones and on top the stacks were built – again for exactly the same reasons, to keep the rats out of the straw.
Why introduce staddle stones into this description? Today at the entrance to the Old Barn Hall car park set into the curve of the wall are 18 black posts. They were originally staddle stones. They don’t look like mushrooms as they are made of cast iron but they did serve the same purpose and all originally held one or more building structures up off the ground. They probably had flat stones laid across their tops. We now enter into a slight world of surmise. Nothing is firmly written down or known as to their exact origin or use and unfortunately nobody is now alive to know the answers. The obvious explanation is that they came from the Sole Farm buildings close by where they now stand but they could possibly have come from some other local farm but so little is remembered. Turville Kille, in the book recording his memories, said they may have come from Eastwick Park Farm but it must be remembered that Turville was only a lad of 5 or 6 years of age at the beginning of the 1900’s and could well be mistaken.
The barn situated nearest to the road was an obstruction to the larger barn behind but it would have been a shame to pull down a splendid barn with plenty of life and still a sturdy structure. The answer was simple – just move it out of the way!
How do you pick up a large barn (some 54 feet long) and move it? If it were of normal structure its main vertical timbers and floor would have been set well into the ground – a terrible problem to move as a unit. There are however contemporary pictures showing how simple it was to move whilst keeping its shape and its roofing tiles securely in position – it was lifted up, placed on large beams and rollers and winched, pushed, pulled and turned to a position some 100 yards away.
However, if the barn had originally been set on staddle stones the problem would look simpler to resolve. Beams and rollers could easily have been pushed through the space beneath the floor created by the staddle stones to create a ‘float’. By taking away the stones the building would have been left seated on this movable frame and it would have been a straightforward task to roll it along to a new position. This solution is made feasible by the presence of the staddle stones in the wall. A barn of this size would have probably needed 8 or 10 staddle stones to hold its weight (this does not account for 18 which we now have). Although supposition it does offer a simple solution to what otherwise would seem like a major problem, although in America it was not uncommon to move complete buildings of this type.
The ‘barn that moved’ was rolled and winched along to where ‘The Moorings’ is today. It took a major reconstruction as the photo shows to make it into a residence. Over the subsequent years another house took its place and fairly recently the whole area has been redeveloped. ‘The Moorings’ presumably took its name from being originally the land next to the old pond, the original ‘Sol’ although a distant thought from mooring a boat here.
The question remains whether the main barn did or did not stand on the other staddle stones – this barn has become the present Old Barn Hall. The structure was some 70 feet in length and 24 feet wide – its height today can be seen standing high above the original ground level and could possibly be explained by having originally stood on the staddle stones, giving it an extra 2 feet. It was certainly a very large barn.
Today the inside framework is exposed to view. Twelve oak posts, each up to a foot square and forming the frame, surmounted by large roofing timbers. The roof was tiled much as it is now and the walls would have been timber slats and there would probably have been a window higher up at each end. The artist’s impression gives a good idea of the appearance of the barn as it was but perhaps the staddle stones might not be correct. When you next visit the Old Barn Hall just stand in the hall, look about you at the timbers and envisage the barn as it was all those years ago.
It was this barn that Arthur Bird determined to make into a hall to give to the village. The plan was to retain the framework but to build up the foundations and walls, to provide proper entrances and windows and to take it out of its farmyard setting. The roof could be largely retained although more was done to allow enough light into the hall. Then a pathway would have to be made from Church Road to make access easy and the surrounding ground prepared. The muddy pool would have to be filled in to provide the facility that Arthur Bird imagined.
Bookham architect, Richard Lee, was called in and a builder, Cummings of Dorking, was appointed to carry out the reconstruction. Later on Richard Lee took advantage of the many excellent plots of land made available by Arthur Bird in Bookham by selecting one in the new Sole Farm Road and building his house there. The wooden side slats round the sides of the barn were removed, foundations laid and the sides were bricked in with doors and windows set into the walls. A porch was placed at the front. The roof was partly opened out and dormer windows placed in the tiles at the sides and the front to allow more light into the hall. At the back of the barn a building was retained which had been a cowman’s cottage and a door at the rear of the hall led into it. This attached building was developed to form a storeroom, cloakroom and toilets.
The inside was plastered and panelled so that only the tops of the supporting beams were visible, different from the hall today with its exposed beams. The present stage is a later addition, but a moveable stage was provided at that time. In the early 1900’s there was no mains electricity but mains gas existed and this offered lighting with incandescent mantle gas lights. The hall was fitted out with three gas fires, ten tables, six of which were made of walnut wood, 150 bentwood chairs and eight armchairs. The furniture was supplied by Maples of London.
The reconstructed building was a magical transformation from its origins as a barn and provided a magnificent hall for the village. The area was landscaped and sectioned off from Sole Farm farmhouse – the picture shows a view of the hall in all its glory after all the work had been completed.
Arthur Bird conveyed the hall to the village on 24th of May, Empire Day, 1906, just one hundred years ago. Empire Day in those days was celebrated as a national holiday, the British Empire was still at its peak, ruling around a quarter of the world. The hall was legally ‘conveyed’ into the care of an appointed body of Trustees and was handed over ‘to be of some benefit and help to the inhabitants, both rich and poor’. It was a magnificent gift.
A grand opening ceremony took place on Saturday 23rd of June with a band and vast decorations of flowers. The local paper reported ‘the picturesque features of the building have been happily retained and, while no village hall could be more up to date in its arrangements, there is not that air of newness about it which is so repulsive to artistic sense and detracts so much from many of our otherwise excellent modern buildings’.
So the Old Barn Hall started its history and the dozen or so societies (compared with the hundred or so of today) made full use of its facilities including as a rifle range which takes some imagination and would certainly be discouraged today!
The subsequent years give a varied history of its use and upkeep. Over the years the care of the hall passed from body to body. In 1925 control passed from the original but ageing Trustees to the Parish Council and then in 1933 to Leatherhead UDC. After the second world war the UDC wanted to set up a Community Centre in Bookham and rather than first choosing the Old Barn Hall as its centre the UDC proposed Bookham Grove. After a public meeting the proposition was turned down and in its place in 1947 the UDC offered the Old Barn Hall to the village for this purpose. It was in 1948 that the Bookham Community Association was set up. The hall was already registered by the Charity Commissioners and it was agreed that the BCA should act as Trustees for the hall. So it was that the BCA, as Trustees, would be responsible for its maintenance and upkeep, the role the BCA has today.
By the time the BCA took over, the hall was showing its age. It was said that it had almost reverted to its state as a barn it was in such bad condition. Everything was in a state of disrepair with the interior and exterior falling into decay. The BCA set about raising funds to re-establish it as a centre of village life. After all attempts by 1958 there were still signs up saying ‘Save the Old Barn Hall’. In 1960 more room was needed and a sectional hut was put along the south side to serve as an additional meeting room and was named the ‘Waterfield Room’ after the first BCA president.
Construction then went ahead to the front and north wall (right-hand side looking at the hall) aided by grants from the Government and SCC and an extension to the hall itself, kitchen, cloakrooms and entrance hall were opened in 1964. It was not until the early ’70s that a Hall Manager’s flat was added in place of the then tumbledown cottage at the back and the ‘Harrison Room’ was built, the ‘Waterfield Room’ hut was moved to the back and the new and present ‘Waterfield Room’ was built together with the south extension to the Old Barn Hall itself to make it symmetrical again.
In 1965 the hall had been turfed all the way round and it was not until 1982 that the necessity was seen to provide a car park and in the next year tarmac was laid at the front of the hall.
A hundred years have passed and the Old Barn Hall could tell a multitude of tales but it still provides a wonderful centre for village life. It is now a Grade II listed building of architectural and historic interest. The BCA has some hundred affiliated clubs and societies and all centred about the Old Barn Hall. The village ‘own’ the hall and it owes its existence to the hard work put into it by the villagers. It is easy to name some of the main benefactors but much of its existence is due to all the work put in by so many in so many ways to ensure that it provides the facility we see today.
(The above article has been assembled from many sources. Readers are directed to some of the sources for further information. Above all the Leatherhead & District Local History Society have an archive of information available and have given considerable assistance. The editor would be very pleased to receive any additional information.