In 1919, the seeds were sown for an idea to provide a Men’s Club as a memorial to those who had died in the First World War, the purpose of which the Chairman of the committee, the Reverend Cowen, was later to explain was to “provide pure and reasonable amusement for the men after the day’s work was over.” There was opposition from the start from those who thought the scheme too ambitious, that it would be impossible to raise the estimated £1,000 cost of the project. Despite the scepticism, the committee were undeterred and committee member Mr Smythe commented “those who disagreed or disapproved of the proposal did not trouble to attend the meetings or make any alternative suggestions [and] he regretted the apathy shown and the poor attendance at the meetings”.
In 1920, a door-to-door collection raised £47 2s which together with other donations gave an initial fund of £73 8s 11d. The East Wickham and Welling War Memorial Association was thus formed and an entertainment committee was elected to fund raise in earnest by means including concerts, whist drives and dances.
A group of ladies formed a sewing party to help with the fund raising efforts towards the Men’s Club. The Reverend Cowen commented that “It was of course known that ladies liked their husbands to spend a certain amount of their spare time at home, but when the ladies said they agreed it was absolutely necessary that there should be an institute of the kind suggested, [they] formed their sewing party in order to help.”
The ladies in the sewing party threw themselves into fundraising. Their efforts included, in December 1921, a two day sale of work, with entertainment and a cake baking competition, judged by Mr Tom Kirby, the local baker, whose two brothers were killed in the war. The sale was opened by the Countess of Limerick, when, it was reported in the local paper the Reverend Cowen, chairman of the East Wickham and Welling War Memorial committee enthused “he had been in many parishes, but he could say he had never known a committee quite like this one, which had the war memorial at hand. They had met every fortnight for two years and they never missed. It was quite a social club (Hear, hear). They were great optimists and believed they could carry the scheme out.” The Countess of Limerick was greeted with three cheers and the newspaper reported that “She had spent her life since 1914 trying to help those splendid men whom God had allowed to come back from the war … Referring to the Glentworth Club in Dartford, which her ladyship was instrumental in founding [as a memorial to her own son, killed in the war], she said it had been a great comfort to many. They encouraged their men to bring their wives there, and would suggest that they might do the same thing at East Wickham. If she had the power, she would provide a club for every village in England”.
A newspaper report in December 1921 described residents of East Wickham as having “performed marvels in the district in the past few years” and noted “when they undertook to raise a sum of over £1,000 to erect a club and institute as a war memorial, there were many who were inclined to be sceptical about the result”.
Despite the early scepticism, the ambitious scheme moved forward under the enthusiastic committee and the sewing party had been particularly successful, raising £146. In 1921 they acquired a building in Station Approach, Welling (now William Foster Lane) that had been used as a canteen by the local council’s housing estate for £150. The building, far from luxurious, “consisted chiefly of corrugated iron and required thorough construction as far as the interior was concerned”. Committee meetings took place in the building, by candlelight and with boxes, planks and anything else to hand used as seating. The energetic committee turned their hands to renovating the building with past and present members of the committee undertaking bricklaying, carpentry and painting. Drains were laid, water, lighting, electricity and gas were installed, windows were replaced and a stage erected. The renovation cost just £250 due to the enormous amount of voluntary labour given.
£100 was spent on a piano, 200 chairs, 20 forms, 33 whist tables, 10 trestle tables, 2 full sized billiard tables and accessories and crockery. Despite additional financial problems when a further £100 had to be borrowed to matchboard the roof, for which two trustees stood security, the hall was finally finished. In 1925 the East Wickham and Welling Memorial Association was disbanded and Governors were appointed to manage the hall. Lady Limerick’s plea for the men to take along their wives may well have influenced the committee as whether or not the hall was ever purely a Men’s Club is in doubt. Its purposes were set out as “a social club for the benefit and enjoyment of the residents of East Wickham & Welling”.
In April 1930 a “very fine and imposing tablet [was] placed in the middle of the main hall”, made possible by the donation from the Welling Volunteer Fire Brigade, which after disbanding sold most of its equipment and gave the proceeds to be used for the tablet. The tablet was unveiled in 1930 and included names from both East Wickham and Welling.
In 1932, a local paper described the hall as the “chief centre of the social activities of a rapidly expanding district”.
In 1939 the hall was requisitioned by the Government for the War Effort and was never returned to community use. The main hall was leased to the Government after the end of the war to be used as the local labour exchange until the 1970s. It was also let to a number of local businesses including the somewhat notorious “Inferno Club” in the 1960s, which lived up to its name when it unfortunately burned down around 1965. Sadly the War Memorial Tablet disappeared at some point and over the years the origins of the Trust were virtually forgotten.
In 1992, following an article in a local newspaper, which expressed outrage at the forgotten origins and purpose of the forgotten hall, Bexley Council’s Chief Solicitor, the late Leyland Birch, and Welling Councillor, Nigel Betts, acting independently from the Council, made enquiries of the Charity Commission which confirmed that, although dormant, the Memorial Hall Trust was indeed still registered as a charity. Negotiations began between the Charity Commission, the Trust’s solicitors, TG Baynes, and newly appointed Trustees, in order to revive the Trust.
The Charity Commission agreed, after lengthy deliberation, that there were now sufficient public halls in the area and it would be of greater public benefit for the hall to continue in commercial use, and to utilise the rental income within the local community and in May 1995 the Charity Commission sealed a scheme, to allow the Trust to operate as a grant giving charity. However as the years passed it became clear that the asbestos roof needed replacing and the rest of the hall needed major renovation. It became clear that it was not viable to repair and after careful consideration, so the Trustees decided to put the land up for sale.
In 2007, a major fire started when one of the occupiers burned rubbish in the yard, setting fire to a fence which spread to the lorries in the transport yard, let to another tenant of the Trust. Fortunately the hall, which was used primarily as a local children’s gymnasium at the time, did not catch fire. The Trustees had fortunately found a buyer for the site which they sold to developers. A block of apartments has now been built on the site.
Funds from the sale of the land have been invested and the income generated is used to give grants to the local community of East Wickham and Welling. In 2013 the Trust received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to undertake a project, WElling WILL REMEMBER THEM, to research and tell the stories of the local men who fought in the First World War.