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Early memories of the Town Hall

by Mary Felgate

My earliest memory of being in the Town Hall was a Grand Bazaar held one evening, arranged by the Congregational Church. I remember all the lights being on and many stalls all round the Hall, all decorated gaily, and filled with many hand-made fancy goods, etc. The many small things were displayed pinned all along the fronts of the stalls, and down the wood sides, and every stall had a coloured crepe paper roof on it. The whole place was thronged with many people, and was very hot, I remember.

I was with my mother, and imagine my dismay when a lady came up to us, and mother took off my coat and hat, and the lady gave me a wooden tray held by a wide bad round my neck. The tray was filled with small bars of chocolate unwrapped, and I was encouraged to “go along, dear, and ask the seated ladies to buy some chocolate from you”. I remember being quite terrified at being asked to do something like that as I was an extremely shy child, but I was given a little push, and had to go along the row of ladies, but was far too shy to speak to them. I remember them buying chocolate from me and putting some money on the tray, and moving on miserably from one to the other. I must have been perhaps four or five years old at the time. I don’t remember any more about that.

Another memory is an afternoon one of a concert and dancing display for parents of girls of the Basingstoke High School. We all wore pretty frocks. I must have been about seven or eight years old, and we had been taught a pan pipes dance to music. We all had to make a little curled paper pipe at home, and I remember going to Webber’s at the top of Church Street to buy various baby ribbon in all pale colours which had to be cut into short lengths about six inches long, fastened together and fixed to the paper pipe. When the music began, we all danced from the corridor into the hall through the double doorway. I danced too near a lady sitting almost in the doorway with a baby on her lap, and that wretched baby snatched at my pipe and took it from me. Imagine my feelings when I had to continue dancing in formation with my hands up to my mouth but with no pipe.

When I was about ten or eleven years old I started going to Dr Barnado’s Children’s Party near Christmas time, but held in the afternoon. It was really arranged for all the children who used to collect or have collecting boxes for Dr Barnado’s, but I was invited to go with a little friend of mine who had a collecting box. Sometimes we wore party frocks, and other times we wore fancy dress, a great excitement as there was a parade and judging, as we all walked slowly round the Hall, nervously passing the several judges, and wondering if we would get a prize. All fancy dresses were made by our mothers. One I remember was a Pierrot, black and white and orange diamond pattern; another was a Dutch girl with red and white check dress and a muslin wired Dutch bonnet, and another a Persian princess (This one survived and has now been sent to the Red House Museum).

In my late teens I was allowed to go to dances in the Town Hall, and it was delightful to dance to music played by a small orchestra. Many of those popular songs are still heard on some of the radio programmes of old melodies, etc. When one needed to rest one’s feet for a while, one could sit on the window ledge and look out on the Market Place which was always filled with people coming and going, as in those days every shop was kept by the people who lived upstairs, and consequently there were always lights in the upstairs windows, and the town was always “alive”. Most lights in the windows were out before midnight, and it was exciting to go home in the dark or by moonlight, as the street lights also went out at midnight. Sometimes we went up the stairs to the little balcony to just watch the dancers down below, and up there you were almost on a level with the wonderful chandeliers. Sometimes their glittering lights were put out and we had a “spot dance”, when we circled to the music with only one spotlight moving to and fro. When the music stopped suddenly you were lucky to be the ones in the “spot”. My memory fails me, but I think we were given a small prize.

An orchestra was formed by Dr Leslie Housden and consisted entirely of local musicians. I was asked at one stage if I would learn the “timps”, but I felt I was not adequate, although I did take a few lessons on the flute, but was a dismal failure, as I also was on the violin. The piano was my “forte”, and later on the organ.

A memory I have of one of the orchestral concerts was an occasion when a very lively piece was being played. The muscular lady on the “timps” which were precariously sited on the left hand side of the small stage, banged so hard on one drum that she knocked it right off the stage, and it bounced and rumbled its way right through the door into the ante-room – such a noise and consternation.

When very young it was an interest to see the Town Hall Caretaker up on the top of the Clock Tower pulling the cords and raising the Union Flag for one of the special days, e.g. the King’s birthday, etc. I always thought the man was brave, for the circular balcony only reached up to about his waistline, and I felt if it was me up there I should certainly feel giddy and fall over.

I also remember one occasion when the flag was flying, we had a severe gale in the night, and in the morning the poor old flag was torn and tattered, and consequently a new one had to be purchased later.

It was also an event when we were taken down to the Town Hall to witness the Mayor and Corporation in their splendid robes, standing on the balcony over the main doorway to make some special announcement.

On sunny mornings there were always old men sitting on the stone slabs below the main ground floor windows, chatting and “watching the world go by”. One of Diana Stanley’s pastel sketches shows this by-gone scene.

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