A History of the Forest Row Village Hall

The following history of the Village Hall is taken from “A Centenary Celebration of Forest Row Village Hall 1892–1992”, edited by Eric C. Byford, and also from an interview with Reg Harding who was the caretaker from c1965-1992.

1892 – Foundation Stone

The Village Hall is built as a memorial to Henry Douglas Freshfield, who died on the 16th September 1891, aged fourteen.

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The hall was a gift from the Freshfield family of Kidbrooke Park, built as a memorial to Henry Douglas Freshfield, the fourteen-year old son of Mr and Mrs Douglas W. Freshfield, and grandson of Mr and Mrs H.R. Freshfield, who had died on the 16th September 1891.

Henry Douglas Freshfield

This tragic family loss was turned into a memorial gift for the people of Forest Row; a building to be used as a parochial hall and institute. Thus is was that on 4th November 1892 at 3pm the hall was opened by the Hon A.E. Gathorne Hardy, MP, who had laid the foundation stone, giving the opening speech.

It is quite possible that the Freshfields decided to build this type of gift for the village because a precedent had been created at Ashurst Wood, where Mr Larnach of Brambletye had given the ‘New Room’ on the 28th November 1891. Before proceeding further with the subsequent history of the hall it would be useful to indicate what is known of the site and of previous meeting places. In the census return of 1861 there is a strange entry: ‘Forest Row Hall uninhabited’. It appears to have been part of the complex we now know as the Brambletye Hotel, previously known as ‘the Catt at Forest Row’. What this implies is still unknown, but we do know that very shortly after, in 1865, Brambletye Castle Hotel was opened by Henry Histed on the site, so that even if some hall was available before that date it was certainly not after 1865. Where then did the events of the village take place? It would seem that those of a major nature took place in the schools in Hartfield Road, and those of a lesser degree took place in Mr Easton’s room (a large room over what is now [1992] Aspidistra Antiques, 16 Hartfield Road) or at the schools.

Architecture & Building Site

At the time of the purchase the island site was occupied by at least two buildings: a smithy and a pair of single storey dilapidated cottages.

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The building was designed by architect Mr J.M. Brydon, of 2 Cambridge Terrace, Regents Park, and built by Job Luxford, the local Forest Row builder, with orange red bricks from Swinley Forest, Bracknell, and local sandstone, the upper part being covered with ornamental tiling from St John’s. It cost about £2000 to build, but more to equip. It was 43 feet long and 23 feet wide, with the disposition of the rooms in the fore part of the building very much as they are today; and the hall and the stage.

Forest Row Village Hall c1904

Warmth was provided by a large open fire place behind which were hot air chambers into the room through the mantelpiece. The site was enclosed with a very neat dwarf park fence with oak gates communicating with each entrance to the building — a crush door next to the stage, with a third door giving access to the caretaker’s rooms. Thus is was that on 4th November 1892 at 3pm the hall was opened by the Hon A.E. Gathorne Hardy, MP, who had laid the foundation stone, giving the opening speech.

The site of the village hall appears to have been in the possession of the owners of Kidbrooke for many years before the hall was built, and may have been acquired when Kidbrooke was first purchased in 1733 by the Abergavenny family. Certainly it was owned by the Colchester family who probably sold it to Henry Ray Freshfield after he bought Kidbrooke in 1874. At the time of the purchase the island site was occupied by at least two buildings: a smithy and a pair of single storey dilapidated cottages. Earlier, the Finch family, blacksmiths, had practised there, but James Cook was occupying the smithy when the hall was being built. This smithy is indicated on the first 25″ Ordnance Survey map of the area, and it can also be seen, albeit vaguely, in a photograph taken of this part of the village before the hall was built.

1895 – Village Hall Burnt down!

The first Freshfield Hall was very short-lived, for on 14th February 1895, the day after Henry Freshfield’s burial, it was burnt down, leaving the shell of the front part of the building, although the firemen saved much of the rear.

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Forest Row Village Hall Burnt Down 1895

A strange story is told about the event, which took place on a bitterly cold day. At the time of the fire Mrs Crittle and other women were engaged in preparing vegetables for the soup kitchen, which the Freshfield family provided for the poor of the village, when Mrs James May, the caretaker’s wife, came rushing in in to say her apartment was on fire. Mrs May is reputed to have said when Mr Freshfield dies that the place ‘would never be any good now’. She also made a statement that she had lost eight gold sovereigns in the fire, but they were never found. Gossip had it that one or other of the ladies in the hall had caused the fire but investigations found no evidence of that, and it is hardly likely that Mrs May would start a fire in her own part of the hall, so their innocence must be assumed. The Forest Row Fire Brigade was severely hampered by their poor equipment and the freezing conditions to such an extent that the water from the little pond on the green in Lower Road froze in their hoses and burst them. The grandfather of Peter Jackson of Hartfield Road watched the fire burn and the water freeze. The East Grinstead Fire Brigade was summoned by telegraph from the station and, with their longer hoses, they were able to obtain water from the Medway and contain the fire to the fore part of the hall. A faded photograph [see above] of the hall soon after that time gives some indication of the extent of the damage.

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