Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pambula Town Hall - The Heart of the Community

As the only institution of its kind in Pambula, the local Town Hall (formerly School of Arts) has long been the social & cultural heart of the village.

It was in response to public interest in establishing the facility that the Commercial Hotel hosted a public meeting in July 1882, during which about £43 in donations were promised. Tenders for construction were advertised the following year, & in June, Candelo resident Mr. Bouquet’s was accepted. Measuring 63 feet (about 19 metres) in length by 24 feet (almost seven & a half metres) in width, the structure included a hall, stage & two rear rooms with passage. A November report noted that “The School of Arts approaches completion…” while the December opening ceremony was described as a “…great success…”

Schools of Arts, or Mechanics Institutes as they were also known, were originally established to provide educational facilities for working-class adults along the same lines as their British counterparts. Eventually though their focus changed, tending to attract more middle-class patrons. Some were later absorbed by educational facilities, whilst others, such as the Pambula facility, became social rather than educational organisations.

Pambula School of Arts ballot paper, January 18, 1899.
Originally located on the opposite side of Quondola Street next to what is now known as Toad Hall, land for the Pambula School of Arts was donated by Mr. John Behl, while public subscriptions contributed £287/7/-. With the inaugural committee consisting of John Martin Snr (President); Messrs O. Wrightson & J. Behl (Vice Presidents); A. Earl (treasurer); E. J. Cornell (Secretary); & Messrs G. Davis, J. H. Martin, P. Doherty, W. Gahan, A. Neilson, M. Woollard & J. Doherty, the organisation’s first annual report, read on January 30, 1885, showed a membership totalling thirty, with a library of 126 volumes.

It was the School of Arts that for many years was responsible for maintaining the town’s only public library facility which, by 1904, had grown to boast 1,153 books, in addition to regular newspaper, magazine & periodical subscriptions. Lectures, magic lantern shows & other educational activities were also frequently held at the institution. As the local community’s sole public hall, the building became the centre of Pambula’s social life, the home of balls, plays, concerts, recitals & dances – in fact virtually all public entertainment held in the township.

By 1901, however, the rapidly swelling needs of the community meant that the old hall had been outgrown, but upon investigation, the committee concluded that the existing site ruled out the necessary expansion. Thus began the very drawn out process of acquiring new land & erecting another hall, a process that would ultimately take about eighteen years to achieve. A sub-committee called for tenders to remove the hall, but little appears to have been accomplished, & by 1904, a new site was back on the agenda. At a meeting that year, members unanimously agreed to spend £66 purchasing a block from Mr. W. J. Tweedie on the opposite side of Quondola Street, about 100 yards (around 92 metres) to the north of the original site. After the purchase was reported as duly completed in August, Mr Martin suggested that they move immediately towards construction of a new building, the Pambula Voice reporting the same month that “If any member of the Pambula School of Arts can offer a suggestion or submit a rough plan suitable for the proposed new building, no doubt it will receive consideration by the committee.”

The Pambula School of Arts in the mid-1890s.
Estimated to cost £450, plans & specifications for the new School of Arts were tabled at a November meeting, where it was resolved on the motion of Messrs Small & Wrightson that tenders be called. By July 1905, plans were hands of the government, & the trustees had given consent to sell the old site & building, by which time the idea of purchasing the lot adjoining the new lot had also been put forth.

Although the Department of Public Instruction’s approval for the new premises was forthcoming, they refused to sanction the sale of either the original site or building, despite the fact that the land had been donated by a private individual & funds contributed by the community. Nor did they give permission for a loan to be raised to fund the project. Although they claimed that they would look into the matter, by 1907 the committee were still waiting for an outcome, & when no communication from the Department had been received by 1908, the committee decided to push for permission to sell the original building & land to enable construction of the town’s new School of Arts.

This was followed by a number of public meetings to devise means of raising the necessary funds, including sale of the original property & securing a bank loan. However, despite motions being passed to that effect on a number of occasions, little seems to have been achieved in the way of actual construction work, & in 1911 the Pambula Voice was complaining of the dreadful state of the School of Arts hall.

Pambula School of Arts shortly before its relocation to the present site.
 By 1913, the project was once again on the agenda, by which time a building fund had been established, & declining membership also received a boost, reaching 92 in May 1914. June that year saw further plans & specifications forwarded for government approval, & when this was received in August, it was accompanied by news that the Department of Public Instruction would also subsidise the project of a £ for £ basis for all locally raised monies. By this time, the community was staging events including annual balls & bazaars to contribute to the coffers, while rent obtained from the vacant block of land added further funds.

During September, several rough plans were produced by Mr. Wilkins on behalf of the building sub-committee & following lengthy discussions & the approval of one design, they were authorised to procure a more complete plan, along with specifications & costings. Despite the best of intentions, however, this was to be the first of at least three submitted for the new building.

The Pambula School of Arts, C. 1900s, pictured next the two storey.
 Amongst the factors contributing to the ongoing delays was the outbreak of World War I, & as the local community began to channel efforts towards patriotic efforts, fundraising for the new hall was forced to take a backseat. And despite their desire for a new building, the School of Arts committee nonetheless decided to allow hire for patriotic purposes at half the normal rate.

With a committed fundraising effort, the committee began 1915 with every prospect of starting construction of their new building early in the year, but with the ongoing hostilities in Europe, all government subsidies for new buildings were withdrawn, & so the wait continued. November saw the committee receive advice from the Department of Public Instruction that the Commonwealth Bank was prepared to advance money to Schools of Arts for new buildings, & when the secretary announced that the 1914-15 subsidy claim had been approved, the decision was made to fence the new block.

A Pambula Red Cross fancy dress fundraiser during WWI behind the Pambula School of Arts hall.
Despite the many challenges confronting the committee, the original structure remained an ongoing source of community discontent, with the Pambula Voice pointing out in 1916 that "The School of Arts’ present building is a standing disgrace to the community & funds to assist the new building project are urgently needed." By the end of the year, the fund stood at around £240 & novel methods were developed to boost the bottom line – Bald Hills resident William Watson collected livestock & produce from various farmers throughout the district, auctioning the lot off on Christmas Eve to add £11/4/4 to the coffers.

Nonetheless, by 1921 little progress had been made, so the committee decided on a new approach. Rather than building a “new” hall, they resolved to pull down the old structure & re-erect it on the new site, recycling as much material as possible to reduce the financial outlay & reasoning that, as funds became available, the new location would provide the necessary space for expansion.

Pambula School of Arts next to the two storey, C. 1910s.
 With local builder Job Koerber employed to draw up plans & specifications, it was decided to enlarge the size of the hall to provide both a stage & supper room, also increasing wall height two feet. After the committee approved the design, they were sent off to the authorities controlling public halls, & after so many years of waiting, this was finally received in May.

No doubt after so many years, the committee would have been excited to reach this stage, but the struggle for their new facility had yet to reach a conclusion. Their next hurdle came as a result of the local police sergeant’s condemnation of the hall. As the local jockey club was preparing to stage a dance in May 1921, Sergeant Noble prevented hall caretaker Arthur Kennedy from opening the premises, maintaining in a letter to the Pambula Voice “I don’t take orders from any committee, much less one whose hall it was my unpleasant duty to have condemned, & for which no license under the Public Hall & Theatres Act can be obtained because of not being in accordance therewith, & most especially on account of its sanitary inconveniences, which are a standing disgrace to the committee & to civilised society."

Nonetheless, it would seem that the move did not last, because before the month was out dances & other events were again being held in the hall. This was not, however, to be the last time the committee & local police were at logger heads over the facility.

After tenders for removal & re-erection of the hall were finally called in August 1921, the contract was awarded to Job Koerber for £617, & after so many problems & delays, work was finally completed in 1923, although by the time the project was finished, costs had blown out to around £900, with the committee forced to borrow £300 from a local bank to meet the shortfall. This was to create a situation of financial hardship that remained the bane of management for many years to come.

In a concerted effort to pay the loan off, fortnightly social functions were held & at the 1923 annual meeting, the School of Arts Club was formed, with a quarterly membership fee of 2/6. By August that year, membership had already grown to number more than thirty.

It was around 1920 that the Pambula Pictures began business, screening their silent moves in the School of Arts on a monthly basis initially in aid of the facility’s new building fund & then later in an attempt to pay off the loan. Messrs Les Anderson & E. Pearson had taken over operations by July 1921.

Pambula's Red Cross WWI Roll of Honour was saved from the town's post office when it was destroyed by fire in 1936, and now hangs in the Town Hall.
By the late 1920s, Godfrey brothers were operating the venture, & in September 1932, W. E. Godfrey installed a talkie picture plant, screening the inaugural movie to a crowded house the following month.

The involvement of Godfrey Brothers with the School of Arts’ picture screening enterprise had resulted from somewhat interesting circumstances. Planning to inaugurate an electricity supply for the township, the brothers, in proposing the service, maintained that they would only be able afford the scheme if they were granted use of the hall for Saturday night picture shows, along with the Progress Association contributing to the cost of street lighting. They pointed out that the scheme would otherwise be too expensive to be generally useful to the township. Not wanting to stand in the way of advancement, the committee agreed to the proposal & so Godfrey Brothers began their picture shows in the hall.

Unfortunately though, this was to be the catalyst for the hall committee’s next clash with local police. Soon after these arrangements were entered into, new regulations regarding the fire safety of picture screening boxes were introduced. Because of the volatile nature of the nitrate film then commonly in use, restrictions stated that picture screening box had to be removed outside the main part of halls, so the then Police Sergeant refused to approve renewal of the Pambula School of Arts license unless the committee immediately installed a new room to elaborate specifications.

Still in debt to the tune of about £300, this placed the organisation in an unenviable position – chose to divert funds raised for other improvements or face losing not only the town electricity supply & a regular source of income, but also a popular form of local entertainment. Estimated to cost another £70 to £100, the new picture screening box needed to be built at the opposite end of the hall to the existing facility, but despite the increased financial pressure that was envisaged, the committee opted to construct the new room, & in about 1929 the picture screening box was installed.

Despite their motives, many in the community failed to recognise the choice the committee had been faced with, & the fact that they had opted to spend funds earmarked for other works only served to stir up resentment. As a result, support for the School of Arts began to fall, & in 1936, with the committee still £240 in debt the committee noted the general public’s apathy towards the institution. By 1939, they were pointing out that if the situation didn’t improve, the town was in danger of losing the hall altogether. By this time, committee numbers had fallen to just five & no meetings had been held for several months, Dr. Jones drawing attention to the fact that there was every prospect of the hall becoming insolvent.

The picture screening room of the Pambula Town Hall, which was added in about 1929.
 With this in mind, the Pambula Progress Association decided that it was time to take action to assist the committee, resolving at their June 1939 meeting to write to inform the School of Arts that they viewed the situation seriously, requesting that a public meeting be called. At a well-attended community gathering, the state of affairs was thoroughly discussed for more than two hours, clearly indicating that support was on the rise. Plans for wiping out the £200 debt were discussed, after which it was proposed that the hall be further extended. Other proposals tabled included changing the institution’s name, re-valuing facility assets, deleting the library from that list & making subscriptions at most a nominal fee. In the wake of this meeting, the Pambula Voice reported that the position & prospects appeared brighter. The recommendations were followed up at the annual meeting in August that year, when the name of the institution was changed to the Pambula Hall & membership fees were reduced from five shillings to one.

By the 1960s the same apathy that had plagued the hall two decades earlier were again an issue, the Magnet-Voice reporting in August 1963 on the concern expressed by the committee as to the lack of public interest. Only six members had turned up for the annual meeting, resulting in its postponement & with no President, it was stated that if more concern wasn’t shown, the remaining committee would have to consider closure of the facility.

Pambula School of Arts, pictured to the left, C. 1960s.
Fortunately though, a number of citizens stepped up, & the Town Hall continued to be the centre of the community. Some years later, along with most similar facilities throughout the region, local government took over public halls, although even today management continues to remain the responsibility of a voluntary committee of Bega Valley Shire Council. It is thanks to the dedicated efforts of this small band of residents that the structure has undergone a significant restoration & renovation process to ensure it remains as relevant to the community today as it was more than a century ago.

Above and below: Pambula Town Hall in 1996.


© Angela George.

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