Working Men’s Club and the Great Hall

After its beginnings in small premises behind the Corn Exchange (See Guide 2), the Working Men’s Club moved, in 1873, to a large Georgian house in South Street previously owned by the Gee family. The site is now occupied by No’s 12a–16b.

It was bought by Henry Parry Gilbey – brother of Sir Walter Gilbey – who then rented it to the Club for a nominal amount. He also became the club’s first president, which at that time, because of the Gilbey family’s political persuasion, was called the Liberal Club.

With its many rooms, members were offered a wide range of activities, including lectures, concerts and drawing classes. The top floor housed a library containing 3,000 books, as well as a reading room that overlooked the garden and a field opening onto Portland Road. By 1913 both reading room and library, by now boasting 3,730 books, was relocated in the lodge house that stood alongside the club.

The Working Men’s Club was a success from the start, but it soon became apparent that more space was needed for academic studies and entertainment. In 1879, Henry Parry Gilbey, along with his brothers Walter and Alfred Gilbey and the club’s Vice President J. L. Glasscock, journeyed to Kilburn in London to view the old Agricultural Hall that was due for demolition. Proving ideal for the club’s needs, the large wooden structure was subsequently purchased, dismantled and brought to Bishop’s Stortford where it was re-erected on land behind the club.

Its numerous lobbies, anti-rooms and chambers were soon put to good use and a stage was built at one end for entertainment purposes. Because of its immense size (800 people could be seated) townspeople labelled it the Great Hall, and for the next fifty years it served most great occasions in the town’s life. It also catered for band concerts, trade exhibitions, travelling theatre, municipal meetings, midget circuses and operatic events – even the famous Carl Rose Opera Company played here. Leisure facilities included billiards, indoor bowling and ice-skating. It was the annual venue for the Hunt Ball and Firemans Ball, and for 14 years the meeting place of the Salvation Army (See Guide 14). Up until 1903 it was also used as the County Court House every two months.

When Henry Parry Gilbey died in 1905 the premises and land, as part of his estate, was to be sold at public auction. The club’s trustees submitted an offer but the trustees responsible for Gilbey’s Estate negotiated over the price, the emphasis put on the value of the land and not the buildings. An agreement was finally reached and £1,625 was paid, securing the future of the Club and the Great Hall.

Four years after Cecil Rhodes died in 1902 a Rhodes Memorial Hall was proposed, the president of the club, Sir John Barker, suggesting it should be combined with the Great Hall. Nothing came of the idea although a bust of Cecil Rhodes, created by Henry Pegrum in 1902, was kept on the premises for some time.

To celebrate the opening of St Joseph’s Church in 1906, a luncheon was held at the hall attended by the Rector of St Joseph’s, Oliver Vassall-Phillips, Cardinal Bourne, and 200 dignitaries and friends. That same year part of the hall’s frontage in Portland Road was sold off as building plots for £412.

During the First World War (1914–18) both hall and club were used as a billet and canteen for soldiers stationed in the town, but the iron railings that ornamented the outside of the building somehow managed to survive requisition to aid the war effort. Then in 1920 the Council, after being given the club’s forecourt for dedication to the Highway, insisted the railings be removed. The club complied and they were later sold at a Sworder’s auction sale.

From the very beginning, club membership included the town’s most notable names: Henry Parry Gilbey and his brothers Walter and Albert; Tresham Gilbey; Sir John Barker; Herbert Sworder; Henry Sparrow; Arthur Boardman; Joe Brazier; Alfred Slapps Barrett, and J.L. Glasscock. Mr Glasscock is renowned for being one of the town’s foremost historians, and Slapps Barrett was a club member for fifty years.

By the 1920s the Great Hall had become an institution, but in rapidly changing times townspeople began to find alternative places to socialise, including the newly opened Long’s ballroom in North Street. The effect on the Great Hall was dramatic: by 1925 the club’s membership was down to 203 and it had to be subsidised by the club.

In the 1930s, commercial interest in the land on which the club and hall stood led to its sale, and the subsequent building of the present Working Men’s Club in (Lower) South Street (See Guide 14). Both the Great Hall and club were demolished around 1937.

In June of that year a public meeting was held to decide how to commemorate the forthcoming coronation of George VI. But the suggestion that a Queen’s Hall be built to replace the Great Hall was greeted with very little enthusiasm and the idea dropped. No trace of the Great Hall now exists, its former site replaced long ago by new development.

Holland & Barrett

This shop stands on the former site of the Working Men’s Club, the narrow thoroughfare alongside it that once gave entrance to the Great Hall, now replaced by Waterstones (formerly Ottakar’s) bookshop.

Since 1870 the name Holland & Barrett was more familiar to North Street, a business formed by the partnership of Alfred Slapps Barrett and Major William Holland. There, they bought a grocery store formerly owned by Dodd & Burls, but not wanting to restrict themselves to selling just groceries they also sold mens and womens clothing from the same store. An advertisement from 1874 describes Holland & Barrett as a ‘clothier and grocer’. It was a strange mix!

But the partnership proved extremely successful and by the early 1900s they owned two premises in North Street – the grocery store at the corner of Barrett Lane and a clothing store a few doors along near to the corner of Bridge Street (See Guide 6). The grocery business was then sold in the 1920s to Messrs Alfred Button & Sons. They kept the familiar and popular name of Holland & Barrett, but around 1970 it was sold to Bookers. The same company later bought out another town shop named Heath & Heather (founded by Samuel Ryder of golfing Ryder trophy fame), and similar stores nationwide.

For a short while Holland & Barrett’s North Street shop traded as Budgens grocery store, but eventually many such premises under the Budgens umbrella were renamed Holland & Barrett and marketed as health food shops. Now a household name, the chain of shops (currently around 420) has belonged to American supplement manufacturer NBTY, Inc. since 1997.

The Grapes Public House

The building at the south-west corner of Apton Road is of prefabricated construction and houses three shops – No’s 2, 2a & 2c. It would best be described as an architectural aberration. On this same site, some 350 years ago, stood a house of slightly more substance and character that was part of the estate of Doctor Peter Mark Sparke, one time physician to Charles I. He is buried in St Michael’s church.

Around 1850 it was licensed as a public house called the Cherry Tree, taking its name from the pub of that name that had previously stood in the Causeway (See Guide 8). A man by the name of John Usher later owned it, and Apton Road was once called Usher’s Lane.

The pub was then renamed the Grapes and in 1898 licensed to Severin Klosowski, alias George Chapman. Ten years earlier he’d been questioned in connection with Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in London’s East End, and though any connection with the grizzly murders was later dismissed, a dark side of his character soon emerged.

Born in Poland in 1865, Klosowski came to London in 1888. The following year he married another Pole, Lucy Baderski, but in 1890 lived with a woman named Annie Chapman and adopted her surname. In 1895, now calling himself George Chapman, he claimed to be married to Isabella Spink, but when she died he married Bessie Taylor and moved to Bishop’s Stortford as landlord of the Grapes.

His tenure lasted just eighteen months, the couple moving back to London where Bessie died in 1901. That same year he set up home with his barmaid, Maud Marsh, but when she died shortly after, her mother’s suspicion at her daughter’s early death was endorsed by the family doctor. A post mortem confirmed she had been poisoned. Chapman was arrested and at his trial it was proved all three of his wives, Spink, Taylor and Marsh had been poisoned. He was hanged for their murder in 1902.

The original Grapes public house stood much closer to the road than the present building, but the pub that replaced it – built by Ind Coope in 1934 and also named the Grapes – was set much further back with a pull-in for cars and delivery vehicles. When that pub finally closed for business on Saturday 26 March 1966, the site was bought by Pearl Assurance Company for £85,000. They demolished it the following April or May then redeveloped the site to give us the monstrosity that stands today.

On the opposite side of the road is The Dells, the former site of Firmins rope and sack factory in the 1920s