Monday, 20 June 2011

News - A stately home in a different class (Wortley Hall)

FOR centuries it had been the home of landed gentry and stood at the centre of a vast estate, where staff catered for the every need of a family who had become used to the luxuries of aristocracy.

But it was to become a people’s palace for the working class rather than aristocrats – and now celebrations are planned to mark the stately change of fortunes.

Successive generations of landed gentry had ensured its gardens and rooms were sumptuously appointed with the finest plants and furnishings.

But by the time of the Second World War, Wortley Hall, north of Sheffield, had fallen on hard times, and parts of it were requisitioned by the Army, with soldiers leaving its magnificent rooms wrecked.

The Earl of Wharncliffe, who owned the house, was left with a major problem in 1945 and began looking for someone who would be willing to take on the lease – which was when the socialists stepped in.

Vin Williams, a miner and union leader during the General Strike, heard about the hall, and in an address to his comrades is reported to have said: “Why should the only the wealthy occupy grand houses?”

That marked the point where Wortley Hall became a home to the workers of the region.

Initially, the agreement with the Earl was for a 15-year lease, with rent of £50 for the first year and £500 a year afterwards, with all renovation costs to be met by the local union movement.

By 1951, the work was complete and Wortley Hall, now styled Labour’s Home, was officially opened.

Celebrations are now underway to mark the six decades since the house passed into collective ownership.

Ian Enters, who is helping organise a series of events for the celebration through arts group Steel Valley Beacon Arts said the history of the hall and its takeover by the working class was “remarkable”.

He added: “The story is that when the Earl put the hall up for lease, a couple of lads from the unions broke in to have a look and reported back to Vin Williams, who was a member of the Communist Party.

“He decided to launch a fundraising drive to try and raise the money for the lease, and when surveyors went in to have a look at the damage they told him it would cost £50,000 to put the place right. So Williams launched another appeal, this time for labour, and by the time members of the respective unions had been in and done their bit, the whole place was made good for just £9,000”.

The hall and a small part of its estate was bought outright in 1954 for just £10,000 by the co-operative Williams had set up after the Earl died and his family faced swingeing death duties.

Since then it has been run on collective lines laid out by its founder, with shareholders investing money for the right to have a say in the building’s future and how it should pay for itself.

Today it is used as a conference centre, and also offers a place where people can marry with hotel facilities and banqueting rooms.

Mr Enters hopes that the 60th anniversary celebrations will bring the historical importance of Wortley Hall home to people.

He added: “Many people really don’t know about Wortley Hall, it is amazing. We recently went to Stocksbridge, which is nearby, to talk to schoolchildren about it but they didn’t know where it was.

“It isn’t really represented to people in a way that sparks the imagination, but we hope our events, including a evening of promenade productions which will tell its story will help address that.

“People who come along will tour around the hall and its grounds as part of the production, so they won’t just be watching the play, they will be getting a unique view of the house as well.

“We want to make all the history more accessible, starting from a time when the Earls of Wharncliffe were still living in the house and moving on to where it is today. The audience will really be a part of it.”

As well as the promenade productions on July 7, a series events have been organised to celebrate songs of 60 years ago and compose new ones for the next six decades. For more details call 0114 288 2100.

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