Barbara’s memories of 30 years as Hall Manager

Woodford Memorial Hall

Deborah: So Barbara, you have been associated with the hall for over 30 years. Tell me how you came to be involved.
Barbara: In 1975 I went to the hall for the first time. I went to enroll my 3 year old son into the Woodford Pre-School Playgroup. When I left my son had a place at the playgroup and I had a job as a member of the playgroup staff.
How come?
I had trained as a nursery nurse and had worked with the under fives in local authority children’s homes and as a private nanny.  The playgroup was looking for a new staff member and I must have suited their needs.
You came out with a job, which was an advantage with a little 3 year old, you could keep an eye on him. Was it a him or a her? 
It was my son Christopher.
But I know that your involvement was greater than that. How did you go from the playgroup to running the hall?
When I first worked in the playgroup the Memorial Hall buildings were tired, neglected and unclean. I understood that there were no funds available to make improvements. It was being said that the hall would be closed or pulled down and that the playgroup ought to be looking for new premises. I had worked in the playgroup for a year or so when George Bunyan (the hall-keeper) asked if I would stay behind to clean the area that was used by the children. I was pleased to undertake the extra work, not least because the playgroup area would then be cleaner and more hygienic for the children.
Some time later I was asked to undertake more cleaning and later still, when George Bunyan retired, I was offered the job of Hall Manager. I accepted the job and gave up working in the playgroup. At that time (in 1981) I still did the cleaning but was also responsible for taking booking enquiries, confirming bookings, sending invoices, and daytime caretaking . My husband (Frank Slaney) was employed to cover evening security and oversee evening and weekend bookings. He had a daytime job but would help with the cleaning during weekends. The hall had an honorary treasurer (Malcolm Swallow) who dealt with all money matters. I liked the hall architecture, especially the main front hall and could see that the hall buildings could be improved if I could increase the annual income. There was still talk about closing or pulling down all or part of the hall buildings and I thought that this was stopping the general pubic from using the halls for their clubs and private functions.
Meetings of the Trustees were called three times each year and I was invited to attend. At one of the first meetings that I attended an architect/trustee proposed that the rear buildings be taken down and replaced with flats. The flats would be let to provide extra income to the hall trust. I provided figures to show that the rear buildings, though not as attractive as the main hall were multi-functional and were sometimes let two or three times every day.  The rear buildings therefore generated most of the hall income. The proposal to pull them down was not carried.
Local people thought that the Memorial Hall would soon no longer be available to them so they were looking elsewhere for venues to use for clubs and private parties. I asked the Trustees to agree that they would allow me five years with no talk of major changes to the buildings. Thankfully the then Trustees gave me their full support and I was then able to promote the Memorial Hall as an important facility for the people of Woodford.
How did you start that process? You obviously had your own ideas. How did you start? You are obviously a very determined lady and I’m presuming you thought to yourself “I’ve got five years. What am I going to do?”
During the first few years that I was Hall Manager a lot of time was spent cleaning, polishing and buying new equipment. In 1981 cleaning equipment had consisted of a broom and a floor polisher. I had to buy a vacuum cleaner and other cleaning materials.
The future of the hall depended on increasing bookings to the public to generate funds that would allow us to improve the facilities. In the 1980’s all advertising was done through local papers and the number of bookings improved. Gradually there were more wedding reception bookings which themselves provided the most successful advertising. Some reception guests then booked the hall for their own wedding and on some Saturdays we had a party in both the front hall and the rear halls.
So basically you managed to get the community more and more involved in the hall so you advertised in the local paper.  Where there other things you did?
Not so much in the beginning.
So it was just word of mouth and advertising?
In those days most people held their weddings reception in halls.  At every wedding reception there were probably 5 or 6 couples who were planning their own wedding so the reception itself was the best advertising we ever had.  We had a whole family of sisters who’s wedding receptions followed one after the other.
So, 5 years come to an end and you promoted the hall and its becoming much more used – did the economic figures begin to make up a bit more?
Yes, gradually the income improved and little by little it allowed us to make small improvements.  Tired decoration was repainted. Leaks in the roof were made good and the very slow job of improving the building began.
Who helped you with that? 
In the early 1980’s there was no money to spend on employing builders or decorators.  John Goldsmith, introduced the use of a government-run scheme which helped unemployed youngsters. The hall paid for  the materials and labour was provided free with a senior man overseeing the work. We had some painting done which although it was not good quality work it did improve the buildings.
Ian Noble, who is sadly now deceased, was an architect trustee and, like me was keen that the hall should be renovated with it’s original features intact. Surprisingly, this was not the opinion of some Trustees. Ian Noble helped me to make a priority wish list of all that needed to be done. When funds allowed he introduced contractors to undertake the work and most important of all, he introduced the builder Nick Connor to the Memorial Hall.
In the early 1980’s the wooden floor in the rear hall was the most worn of all the floors and it splintered badly. This was especially dangerous for the playgroup children. Ian Noble prepared a specification for the complete removal of the old floor. The sub-floor structure was to be strengthened and refurbished and then covered with 18 mm ply wood. The covering was to be a high quality cork linoleum. Nick Connor was the chosen contractor. This work was undertaken some 15 years ago and the floor has remained in excellent condition. My husband Frank and I then spent our weekends repainting all the walls in the rear hall. I sanded and varnished other wooden floors myself and gradually the halls started to look cared for. From then on Nick Connor was the main contractor that we used and he undertook most of the renovation work for more than 20 years.
And how was money raised?
Other than when appeals were launched to renovate the spire and again recently to replace the front hall floor and ladies cloakroom, renovation funds were raised from increased bookings and from the income from 4 Chelmsford Road rents.
The Chelmsford Road house was purchased by The Trust after the house which was called ‘Lyndal’ was sold. 4 Chelmsford Road was converted into flats that were meant to be used to generate funds into the hall itself but by 1981 the building had fallen into disrepair. There was no heating and the interior and exterior was in need of a complete overhaul. Each flat was occupied by an elderly lady each paying only a few pounds in rent so no funds were generated even for the upkeep of the flats. The ladies were sitting tenants so The Trust would not have been able to gain vacant possession but there was also a moral obligation to protect the welfare of the ladies. I was sad to see such a valuable asset wasted so  the refurbishment of the flats became my aim for the future. I saw this development as the only way to totally insure the future of  The Memorial Hall. As the hall finances improved I was able to set aside funds for the sole purpose of enabling these refurbishments to take place once the flats were no longer occupied. At the end of the 1990’s the tenant in the upper flat went into permanent residential care. By then funds were available to completely refurbish the upper flat and it was successfully let at a good market rent. Some years later we were able to refurbish the lower flat and it was also successfully let. By 2014 the property was itself in good repair and was generating just under £2,000.00 per month in rents most of which financially supported the hall. From time to time the Trustees have debated selling the property to generate funds to be used to upgrade the hall. I have always strongly apposed this move. I truly believe that without the income from the flats, the Memorial Hall would not survive. 4 Chelmsford Road is an important part of  The Memorial Hall Trust. If it were ever to be sold and the funds from the sale were spent the hall would lose an essential asset.
So as the hall grew and developed you grew and developed with it so you grew up together – lovely!

Yes, In 1985  I  employed a daily cleaner as my job had become mainly hall management and administration. I asked the trustees to provide me with a computer. Philip Swallow’s son brought me an old Amstrad computer saying, “there you are. There’s a computer”. I had no technical experience of computing and never really came to terms with the Amstrad. A few years later the trustees agreed that I could purchase a new iMac.

They didn’t send you on any training courses?
No, Amongst the Trustees there were a few people who’s brains I could pick whenever they called in. Philip’s partner Jesus spent a few Saturday mornings helping me to understand the basics of computing and the rest was gradually self taught. I became responsible for letting the accommodation, invoicing, banking, record keeping, obtaining quotes for and overseeing renovation work Later I prepared the end of year accounts and financial statement to the Charity Commission. There had always been an accountant/trustee who would take my records to complete the end of year accounts.  One such trustee had to offload this responsibility in the middle of the year and the trustees were not successful replacing him. The hall had never had to pay an accountant and so other avenues were investigated. I discovered a government body that would offer this kind of support to small charities. They did send someone to help but she made a hash of it so …..
You had to do it yourself?
Yes. It took me some time to teach myself how to do it but I managed it and then got stuck with it until my retirement.   It was difficult to concentrate on accountng work in the hall office with constant telephone calls, enquiries and visitors.  One mistake would mean that the balance sheet wouldn’t balance and then I would have to work through weeks of work to find the imbalance.
OK. Now another thing, you had this thing with “The Iron Lady”.  Was that the only film that was done at the hall?
No it wasn’t the first. Prior to the Iron Lady filming part of a documentary about Alan Davis was filmed in the hall. He had spent his childhood in this area and was educated at Bancroft’s School in Woodford Green. A group of his school friends had booked the hall for their own band to perform to the public and he came to support  the  band. The booking was not a good one for us although the young people had obviously had a good time. The audience had not been seated but had stood up drinking and slopping beer from cans. They had obviously smoked a lot so that ash, cigarette stubs and beer had been trodden into the slopped beer on the polished floor. A leaded window had also been broken.
It left a bad taste in your mouth?
Yes but the young organisers of the event returned to the hall on the following Monday. They were very respectful and paid for the damage so it could certainly have been worse. The biggest problem was that the floor had to be stripped and re-waxed which had to be done over several days – and I had to do it myself!
So at the beginning you were taking bookings from groups? 
I always took bookings from anybody who I thought would respect the premises but sometimes my judgement was proven to be wrong. I wasn’t often approached by groups.  Before my time and much earlier in the history of the Memorial Hall groups did play there.
Did you ever hear them? Did you know who they were?
Barry Mingay will tell you more about that period.  He met his wife at one of the dances in the front hall so he can paint a much better picture than I. I was told that ‘The Who’ played there once and there was a local band called ‘The Saracens’ who played regularly.
Unfortunately the only minutes I’ve got are up to 1956.
A car that contained minute books was stolen. Phillip Swallow will tell you about that but I don’t know whether he’ll be able to tell you dates. I read all the earlier minutes when I first came across them.
I read my way through them – right from the early planning.  They’ are quite hard going because although the writing is beautiful it’s quite hard to read.  They really are very interesting. You must have learned a lot about the early history.
I have its just been wonderful.  . 
There were a few strange incidents that happened at weddings.
At the end of one wedding Frank went to carry out caretaker duties which involved making sure that the event finished on time and then securing the building. Frank arrived there to find that the bride had smashed the windows of the bridegroom’s car because she had caught him in the rear part of the building being much too friendly with one of her bridesmaids –  and I really mean much,  much, too friendly.
On her wedding day …..
Oh my goodness … in flagrante
Another of Frank’s ‘adventures’ happened after a function when he was checking and locking up the empty front hall. He was on the stage turning the lights off when he felt there was another presence nearby. He found that a man was hiding behind the curtains. The man claimed to be waiting for his son who, he said, was attending a dance lesson in the rear hall but nobody at the lesson knew him. Frank wouldn’t let the man leave and asked the dance teacher to call the police, There had been an attempt to break open the office door but it hadn’t been successful.  The man suddenly went to grab something from the inside of his jacket so Frank, thinking that he might have a gun or knife,  restrained him on the floor and sat on him until the police came.  You may have noticed the heavy brass nozzle that is attached to the old fire hose that hangs inside the front hall. The man had the brass nozzle inside his jacket pocket so it might not have turned out too good for Frank.
Good old Frank!
At the end of another wedding reception the father of the bride, who had been perfectly well behaved earlier had become very intoxicated. He became very agitated when told that was time to vacate the hall and blamed Frank for “spoiling his fun’.  They were alone together in the middle kitchen and the man wanted to fight Frank.  He kept throwing himself at Frank trying to attack him so all Frank could do was to hold him against the wall.  Frank tried to reason with him but every time he let him go he he tried to attack Frank again so Frank would put him back against the wall.  As this was happening the man’s two sons walked into the kitchen.  Frank was a little nervous because to them it may have looked as if Frank was the aggressor.  However, the sons were very reasonable and apologised for their father’s behavour.
In the end did you and Frank take it over or did Frank continue to work in a normal job but always help?
Frank has been an enormous help to me but has always had a separate daytime job. From 1981 he was employed by the trustees to look after the hall from 6pm until 11pm on weekdays. He was also responsible for overseeing all Saturday bookings.  I usually went to the hall with Frank after Saturday evening bookings. I would help with persuading people to leave and to help with clearing up. All booking agreements stated that parties must finish at 11pm with a half hour extra for removing themselves and their belongings. However, although it was not difficult to stop the music it was much harder to get the partygoers to remove themselves and their belongings. Realistically, we hoped to be locking up by 1am but quite often it would be nearer to 2am and sometimes, even later.
In terms of the groups that you initially booked in comparison to the time you left, was there a difference or was it all very similar?
Although over 30 odd years there were bookings that came and went, the bookings themselves were of a similar nature. Weekday bookings usually consisted of  dance lessons – ballroom, ballet and for some years line dancing. We had yoga and meditation classes. The dog training club was a very successful group for many years. Several different childrens’ tutoring groups and different martial arts classes ran successfully. Girl guides and brownies groups always met on Friday evenings. Slimming World and Weightwatchers have also used the halls for long periods. Sundays were always used exclusively by St Mary’s Church for Sunday School groups as well as some functions.
There was a time when wedding receptions were held as often as two per month during the summer period with a few less during the winter. Gradually hotels began offering attractive packages so that family and friends would be relieved of organisation duties. Receptions were also being held in licenced clubs and on exotic beaches and this meant that The Memorial Hall lost much of the revenue that had been raised by Saturday wedding receptions.
What about the pianos? Apparently there used to be 2 pianos and there’s one now.
Actually, there are still two. The grand piano that stands in the front hall has been there since the hall opened. There is a lovely artistic receipt of the purchase  price which was paid which  was 79 guineas.
A second piano, which I understand was donated, stood at first in the meeting room and later in the rear hall.  It was very old and was eventually replaced. A very nice piano was then donated to the hall by Anna Booth the wife of Edmund Booth who was a trustee for some years. That piano now stands in the upper hall.
The upper hall, which is just, I think it is the most beautiful building, did it come into use much later, because it’s immaculate.
No it was built in 1904 at the same time as the lower rear buildings which were paid for from public subscriptions.
It doesn’t seem to have been used as much as the other rooms and it’s just so beautiful.
In fact, it has been used a lot but as a dance studio and for yoga and medition which are all amongst the more gentle activities.
Yes I have to ask about the ballet studio there’s not one here now. Do you happen to know the name of the person or the name of the school?
The most long standing booking was ‘The Del Sarto School of Ballet’. The proprietor was Juan Sanchez. Juan had previously been a principal dancer with one of the big ballet companies. He was very sweet and the children loved him.

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