When Suffragette leader Pankhurst held court at Warrior Square

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CH 5 SUS-171206-112434001

This week, in his continuing series, Ion Castro looks at when Warrior Square was a major centre for culture and hosted political speakers.

He writes: October 1879 saw the opening of the Warrior Square Opera House and Concert Hall in Warrior Gardens, at the top of Warrior Square.

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It was built mainly of wood and had a seating capacity on a single level for exactly 1,000 people and boasted an organ that had once graced Lichfield Cathedral.

This large hall would later be renamed “The Royal Concert Hall”, and immediately became the leading centre of entertainment and social functions in St Leonards; built on the site of an open-air roller skating rink the hall was to become the venue for many famous artistes to appear and was the arena for large meetings, circuses, balls, banquets, speeches and exhibitions.

Winston Churchill MP, correspondent for the Morning Post during the Boer War, gave two lectures illustrated by limelight on March 13th 1901 on ‘How I Saw the War’ and how he escaped from the Boers in a cattle truck.

A year later, in March 1902 The hall was filled to overflowing when The Liberal League held a major rally to hear a speech by Mr Herbert Asquith. It was around this time that child prodigies were the latest craze and were filling the town’s theatres and concert halls, on one fateful occasion a young prodigy was performing on Hastings Pier when the ladies in the audience began ‘shrieking like guinea pigs and squawking like cockatiels and then persisted in bombing the poor child with nuts, apple cores, flour and water bombs’.

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The Royal Concert Hall was so outraged that they placed the following advertisement in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer: “We hope that the ladies will restrain their feelings on this occasion and that there will be no repetition of that foolish scene when little Florizel Von Reuter played his violin on Hastings Pier. How on earth a host of ‘Well-bred’ and ‘Sensible’ members of the fair sex can behave so badly as to mob a young musician is utterly beyond us. The screaming, in which we are sorry to say, even ladies of quality engaged, was hardly in keeping with the dulcet tones rendered by so gifted a child”.

The hall was to prove popular with the emerging Women’s Suffragette movement and on April 16th 1904 The Liberals and Tories united to hold a meeting in the Princess Room to establish a branch of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage and on 26th March 1908 Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the national movement, gave two powerful speeches for equality between the sexes there;

In the first meeting, in the afternoon, men were denied access, but were admitted to the evening meeting, with many young males congregating at the back of the hall to show support for suffragette demands.

The following year, on March 13th 1909, the hall hosted a big public meeting ‘in a high state of excitement’ - the Hastings and St Leonards Women’s Suffrage Society (formed in 1883) affiliated itself to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.’

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Dr Flora Murray of the National Union was the main speaker and the campaign opened with the passing of a resolution that the borough MP Arthur Philip du Cros, (son of the previous MP Harvey Du Cros whose home, Levetleigh had allegedly been burned down by suffragettes in 1906) would be asked to present a petition seeking votes for women to the Commons.

At the same time, March 1909, the American Roller Skating Syndicate transformed the Hall into a first class skating rink. In September 1910, Mrs Mary Clarke, a sister of Mrs Pankhurst. visited on behalf of the Women’s Social and Political Union for a meeting at the Hall and The annual general meeting of the Women’s Suffrage Propaganda League took place at the Vita Studio at the hall on October 16th 1911.

On May 13 1913 hostile and violent crowds attacked a procession of suffragettes who were protesting at the sale of goods taken from women refusing to pay taxes without representation and a suffragettes meeting scheduled to be held in the hall that evening had to be abandoned when these violent crowds barred entrance to the building.

The women inside could not leave safely until far into the night. The suffragettes’ complaint was that, although they owned property, many of the fine large houses in St.Leonards in fact, and paid taxes they were not able to vote on how those taxes were spent. They suspended their demonstrations during the first war for patriotic reasons.

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The Hall was popular with early socialist movements too, and on 2nd December 1908 a large audience heard the famous Social Democratic Federation (SDF ) founder Henry Hyndman give an address on ‘Socialism and Current Politics’ at a meeting organised by the SDF.

The meeting was organised by the local Social Democratic Party and was presided over by the Rev TW Jamieson of Park Road Wesleyan Church. The socialists at the end sang the Red Flag instead of the National Anthem. Author of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, Robert Tressell was a supporter of the Hastings SDF,

The Royal Concert Hall was abandoned in 1918 and remained unused until 1921 when it was given a new lease of life by doubling as a cinema, the Elite Picture Theatre, with the capacity increased to 1600 when a circle was built.

Talkies arrived in February 1930 when it was re-named the Elite All Talkie and occasionally Elite Talkie Theatre. All was well for the next ten years but the Elite would later go down in history as the unluckiest cinema in the United Kingdom - on Wednesday, 26th September 1940, the frontage of the Elite was badly damaged in a bombing raid, which totally flattened St Columba’s the church opposite. Fortunately no one was killed and the only injuries were sustained by the doorman who was blown through the front doors. £50,000 was spent on repairs and the Elite re-opened on Easter Monday 1942.

Six months later, during an air raid in October 1942 the cinema hit and half destroyed, luckily with no fatalities but was not rebuilt and the site was the used as an Admiralty store for the rest of the war.

Once the war had ended, and after a £100,000 refit, the cinema was again ready to open to the public. The new Elite Super Cinema was set to re-open on Monday, 23rd June 1947 with ‘Wild Harvest’. The following week’s attraction was to be ‘Blaze of Noon’ and posters outside the cinema read: ‘Our Next Presentation ... At Great Expense to the Elite ...The Blaze of Noon.’ This was to be a bad omen for the cinema because on its re-opening day, at exactly 12 noon, the cinema burst into flames and burned to the ground and all that remained were three outside walls with the ‘At great Expense to the Elite ... Blaze of Noon’ posters.

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Ten minutes into the fire, 12.10pm flames were leaping over 50 feet in the air and is still regarded as the biggest-ever fire in St. Leonards with reports that it could be seen in France and a thick pall of smoke hanging over the entire Borough.

Apparently the owners returned from lunch and as they watched helplessly a telegram arrived wishing them luck in their new venture. By all accounts nearly a quarter of the local population walked out of their jobs, trolley buses stopped and pubs closed because everyone had come to see the spectacle. Within 20 minutes of the fire breaking out, some 5,000 people were in Warrior Square, swelling to 10,000 ten minutes later and finally as many as 15,000 crammed into St. Leonards to see what was happening.

The site remained vacant until the Royal Terrace warden-controlled flats opened in April 1986.

All illustrations throughout this series are from Ion Castro’s own collection and he can make available copies of many of the historic images used in this series. There’s more local history on Ion’s website, www.historichastings.co.uk

Captions:

1925 Programme Cover.

A free monthly programme was published detailing forthcoming events and included gossip, ‘Filmland Flickers’, about the stars, Percy Marmont is particularly noteworthy – ‘Went on the stage at the age of 16 and appeared with Sir George Alexander, Sir H. Beerbohm Tree and Cyril Maude, after which he toured South Africa, Australia and America. While in the latter country he made his first acquaintance with motion pictures. Height 6-ft., weighs 150 pounds, has blonde hair and blue grey eyes, and, like all Englishmen, is an able sportsman. Non-film related articles included ‘a page that will educate and amuse’ and another on how to keep potatoes, painting tips and how to curl feathers! and a page of puzzles.

1925 June attractions.

The centre pages of the programme for June 1925 advertised forthcoming attractions including long-forgotten silent epics such as ‘The Narrow Street’, ‘The Bandolero’, ‘Never Say Die’, ‘The Silent Watcher’, ‘Drums of Jeopardy’ etc. with a very brief synopsis of the plot.

1925 Ads.

Advertising of local businesses helped to finance the publication and filled several pages, this one shows what a well –dressed boy looked like in 1925

Royal Concert Hall Ad.

F J Parsons, in their Hastings & St Leonards Review, an almanac published in the 1890’s carried this advertisement.

Royal Concert Hall.

F J Parsons’ Hastings and St Leonards Review in the 1890’s provides us with a contemporary view of the Royal Concert Hall.

Invitation Luncheon 1882.

The Royal visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales in June 1882 included an ‘invitation luncheon’ at the ‘Warrior Square Concert Rooms’ and the title ‘Royal Concert Hall’ came into use soon afterwards! The special supplement to the Hastings & St Leonards Observer of the time carried this illustration of the banquet in progress and gives some idea, allowing for artistic licence, of the size of the interior.

New Frontage 1932.

This sketch published in the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer shows the Elite’s new frontage in 1932 after it started showing talking pictures.

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