Unseen demise of the Royal Victoria Hall

Almost exactly one year ago, the Royal Victoria Hall was mid demolition.

In December 2016, with plans to progress the Southborough Hub project further, councillors voted for Southborough Town Council to forward fund Kent County Council £100,000 to demolish the beloved RVH earlier than planned. What was the rush?

Anyone could have predicted that building works rarely run on time and the centre of Southborough would be reduced to a mini version of the Tunbridge Wells cinema site itself blighted with years of inaction. It seemed like a ploy to get rid of the one building that caused such a strong response in the town; there would be no more grief from the public when it was raised to the ground, no going back.

The demolition was eeked out over weeks. As the roof and ceiling were removed the Victorian plasterwork and velvet curtains were exposed to the elements.

As a condition of its status as a heritage asset the hall had previously been photographed. Though I doubt it was documented throughout the demolition process. I was fortunate enough to record the remains of the site before it finally bit the dust. On a bright April morning the grand interior looked dramatic against the blue sky with the sunlight pouring in. Its skeletal structure a testament to its robust Victorian construction.

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It’s all gone very quiet on Hub front since and the remains of the RVH now stand as a pile of brick rubble. Its replacement, the once promised ‘state of the art theatre’ now looks like it will be ‘value-engineered’ down to a small hall with whatever Southborough Town Council can scrape together to kit it out. So far it looks as if they have over promised and under delivered.

In November 2017 Southborough Town Council agreed to contribute further £500,000 to the project. No one seems willing to say when the project will be completed and no one will agree to publish a timeline. At the same time Southborough’s High Street has reached its nadir –  with 137 London Road the epicentre of graffiti tags and ply board hoardings.

Tomorrow night is the Annual Meeting of Southborough Town Council at Southborough School, starting at 7pm. Here is your chance to ask questions or share your comments. I look forward to hearing something about how the Hub site is progressing.

For the Project Board it will be an ideal opportunity to share with residents the updated plans for the site, talk us through the changes and present the architect’s latest visuals.

Back in 1900, on the 27th January and the opening night of the Royal Victoria Hall, The Courier commended Southborough on its brand new theatre,

“The whole of the work has been admirably carried out, and the building should be one of great public usefulness.”

I do hope for Southborough’s sake that our own Hub enjoys a similarly impressive legacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir David Salomons’ Two Theatres

Last weekend we spent the early afternoon walking in the grounds of Salomons Estate, to investigate any similarities between the Science Theatre and our beloved Royal Victoria Hall.

Salomons Estate houses an excellent museum which records the lives of the three David Salomons who made Broomhill their home in the 19th and early 20th Century.

40613Over the last few years the house and grounds have undergone extensive restoration and although institutional elements from its former life as an outpost for Christ Church Canterbury and as a nurses training college – still remain, the grounds are being remodelled, the water tower has been restored and plans are afoot for a new, partly subterranean luxury hotel which will occupy the space once given to a large greenhouse in the produce garden.

Sir David Lionel Salomons, the second of the three Davids as well as being an early advocate for the motorcar (and one of the  first two British owners of a car in 1894) was a scientist, engineer, writer, photographer, architect, inventor and philanthropist.

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Facial hair that would make any hipster weep.

Salomons gave 3000 of the £5000 to build Southborough’s Royal Victoria Hall,  wanting to build a venue “exclusively for purposes of amusement…whether it be stage plays, tableaux vivants, amateur theatricals, concerts, bazaars, dances or other entertainments or meetings, political or otherwise”.

In an article taken from the Courier on 26th October, 1898, you can see the builders who tendered for the contract to erect the theatre. Next to the article is a photograph of Sir David proudly standing  in front of the hall published 29th October, 1909.

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Four years earlier, in 1896, Salomon had built his own ‘Science Theatre’ which at the time was said to be the largest private theatre in the country. The science theatre is now  fully restored and Grade 2 listed although all the original scientific apparatus was removed in 1929 and donated to Cambridge University. The Theatres Trust website describes the theatre thus:

It was a flat-floored room, originally benched, with a gallery supported on columns on three sides. Rectangular-arched proscenium and ante-proscenium, both higher than wide. For the demonstration of scientific effects and theatrical illusions, it had projectors, painted scenery and electrical apparatus for producing the effects of thunder and lightning.

It produced the effects of thunder and lightning! In 1896! I wish I could go back in time when I read about such amazing things!

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Above each column is a hand painted shield bearing the name of a notable scientist.

I was particularly keen to see examples of ironwork here as it would have been similar to the ironwork on the original façade of the RVH. The spiral staircases backstage were most likely manufactured by the Saracen Foundry, Glasgow, who also made the ornamental ironwork on the original RVH frontage.

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Salomons’ Science Theatre and the Royal Victoria Hall share features such as varnished pitch pine, iron work columns and balcony. The traditional Victorian colours of deep oxide red and dark bronze green have been repainted here (although the RVH interior is now painted in garish pillar box red and a flock wallpaper that someone thought was the height of sophistication in 1976).

Upstairs had some interesting early electrical equipment and a very early rise and fall lamp that he had designed and patented (and would be very fashionable today).

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Back down on ground level exists some original Victorian wallpaper preserved behind clear Perspex.

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The museum is small (just two rooms) but packed full of interesting artworks, documents, objects and original furniture, fittings and wallpaper.

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Before entering the inner room with the beautiful domed light well, you notice the elaborate designs above the entrance.

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Walking around the museum and the Science Theatre made me think just how amazing the Royal Victoria Hall could be with a little investment. The RVH was recently photographed to support an application for listing as a Local Heritage Asset, here are some of the highlights. See if you think there are any similarities…

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If you are keen to view more images from the Royal Victoria Hall, Southborough News features them here.

So as we wait to hear if Tunbridge Wells Planning will agree to designate the RVH as a Local Heritage Asset, fingers crossed; it will go some way to convincing the local powers- that-be to think twice about demolishing Sir David’s gift to the people of Southborough.

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/southborough-deserves-better-reject-the-hub-plans

Love Where We Live?

This week was the last week to support or object the proposed plans for our town centre in Southborough, the so-called ‘Hub’ (I just can’t bring myself to use the word).

The planning application involves the demolition of the Royal Victoria Hall and the erection of unsightly, unsympathetic building clad in polycarbonate. The campaign to save the hall was given an unexpected boost this week with support from renowned architect, Ptolemy Dean:

‘I think it is a shame that the replacement scheme is so poor when something more thoughtful and careful might have been created that incorporated the existing building, which would have still satisfied the council’s brief, but enabled something of the old character to survive.’

It was so pleasing that it made front page news locally, you can read the whole article here.

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After a few late nights this week writing our planning objections and then reading through over the other comments on the planning portal, we decided we needed to get out and get some fresh air.  Perfect weather for a walk into Tunbridge Wells, passing the beloved hall on the way.

My previous post here has more detail about the campaign to save the hall and Southborough News has excellent and up to date coverage of the development.

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This is the old Fire Station, parallel to the Council Offices, currently used as a groundsman store. Built with local High Brooms brick. This could be a beautiful building for a market, artist studio….

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St John’s church were having a ‘Party on the Green’. 

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We had been in Amadeus Antiques a few times but in the last year or two it seems to always be closed. The building’s exterior remains largely unaltered, it has beautiful ironwork, a generous balcony to the front and side and all original windows.

Sadly the side of one front bay window is slowly rotting away and the ledge is now detached from the window, leaving a wide gap. This is a property on my wish list! Oddly the  four Regency period shops are listed buildings. This one isn’t – I can’t think why.

Alastair Hendy are you looking for a project in Tunbridge Wells?

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Views from Mount Ephraim…

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The old Homeopathic Hospital.

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Pretty hand painted signage from the old Rose Hill school site on London Road – almost gone.

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Lovely little garden/homeware shop, Le Petit Jardin, near the Pantiles. It boasts the largest sash window in Tunbridge Wells.

 

Arriving back home after the walk, I looked again at an old postcard and a photograph of the Royal Victoria Hall taken almost one hundred years ago. What happens when we have destroyed everything that gives our sense of place? When a town becomes a commuter dormitory and a quick fix housing quota?  Ian Nairn, the melancholic Architectural Review writer, was eerily prophetic when in 1955 he railed against substandard town planners and anonymous buildings:

“The Outrage is that the whole land surface is becoming covered by the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns … Subtopia is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern.”

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We are so fortunate to live in a town and borough with such a rich architectural heritage, writing in Country Life in 2010, Ptolemy Dean hits the nail on the head:

‘By placing no value on its civic buildings and what they represent, the authority is about to perpetrate an attack on the very civilization of the town, which these public buildings, for all their stuffiness, serve to uphold admirably. If there can be any doubt about the extent of local official ignorance of the true values of urban living, then this was proved six months ago, when road signs were introduced onto the main routes into the town that proclaim: ‘Love where you live.’ One is tempted to add: ‘…before your elected local authority entirely destroys it.’

 

Six years on – are the powers that be,  ready to listen?

The more things change…

There has been a lot of change recently in Southborough and Tunbridge Wells, lots of old, interesting buildings being demolished to make way for housing and other developments. The old Kent and Sussex Hospital and the Dairy Crest site and the being two notable examples.

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Postcard from the 1930’s.

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Images of the Dairycrest site partially demolished recently. I never knew it had this pretty arsenic coloured tiling inside.

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But the closest example to me (personally and geographically) is the Royal Victoria Hall in Southborough which is in a sorry state but by no means a lost cause.

The hall officially opened on the 17th January, 1900 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Local philanthropist Sir David Salomons donated £3000 of the total £5000 (with Southborough Urban District Council meeting the additional cost) and it became the first municipal theatre in England.

The Theatre Trust describes the aim of the hall ‘to provide theatrical and other rational amusements to people who could not afford to go to theatres in the adjoining towns‘.

The Trust describes the theatre in its original form…’A red brick, rectangular building with a low fly tower and, originally, a chapel-like facade set back from the road. A pretty cast iron porch was removed (and purchased by a Councillor who thought its removal regrettable) and replaced by ‘modern’ canopy. The auditorium was designed with a scenic stage, permanent seating in a straight-across end balcony (on two decorative columns) and a flat floor. Square reeded proscenium arch with decorative panels featuring swags and drops either side. Panelled dado with red flock wall paper above reaching to deep plain coving and decorative ventilation grilles’.

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Imagine the council offices restored to their former glory; trees out the front, people with a sense of civic pride…

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Determined to stop the closure in 2012, the Friends of the Royal Victoria Hall was formed and lead a concerted campaign to safeguard the future of the hall. A petition with over 11,000 signatures to save the hall and a sound business plan to keep it open was presented but then dismissed by Southborough Town Council at a packed out meeting, as loud cheers and horns honked outside to show the support for the RVH. Never before had the council had such a protest outside.

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Sadly, it all fell on deaf ears and unsurprisingly when 11,000 voices are ignored, that the turnout for the public consultation would be poor. That is a lot of people, me included, thinking ‘what is the point?’.

369 out of 11,000 residents in the town responded to the choice of two options; part-retain or new build in the public consultation in 2015. Of the 369 respondents 58% opted for the new build, so the 214 people of Southborough and High Brooms have spoken! *note the sarcasm here* The decision was made to go with the new build option which has been described by some as ‘cheap and nasty‘ and ‘like something from the planet Zanussi‘.

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I like how the above image shows a couple of perplexed members of the public staring up at their image reflected in the giant orange disc.

 

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Then then Mayor, Cllr Oakford scoffed at the business plan put together by the group at that meeting saying it would not meet standards he would expect in his previous career in the oil industry; strange as to date there is no business plan or financial projections at all for the Hub despite planning permission currently being submitted.

A local resident, Martin Webber, has published some excellent interviews with residents and Town Councillors on his detailed blog, Southborough News.

You may think this is an improvement on the original theatre, but I’m all for conserving the historical aspects of our town. It’s what gives us soul and makes us unique and attractive. 

Where I’m from (check out About) this would be considered a beautiful and valuable asset to a town worthy of respect and restoration. There are plenty of examples of where buildings have been restored and it has clearly added value to the street scene, like the recently opened One Warwick Park in Tunbridge Wells.

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Photograph from Times of Tunbridge Wells

Best case scenario is Southborough Town Council actually start listening to residents’ concerns and even it the Hub takes a few months longer to change the look of the building at least it could be something the town can be proud of.