Comment: Why we must save Horsham’s historic Drill Hall

As chairman of Horsham District Council one of duties I had the greatest pleasure in attending was a lunch in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s Regiment at the Horsham Branch held in the Drill Hall, Horsham on Sunday, March 26, 2017 where I thanked all those who had served our country in the Queen’s Regiment.

Friday, 17th January 2020, 2:13 pm
Updated Tuesday, 21st January 2020, 9:57 am
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s Regiment at the Horsham Branch held in the Drill Hall, Horsham on Sunday, 26 March 2017. Outside of the Drill Hall the Chairman of the District Council Cllr Christian Mitchell (centre), Colonel Piers Storie-Pugh OBE TD DL (centre left), Chairman of the Queen’s Regimental Association (Horsham Branch) Steve Bell (second centre left), President of The Queen’s Regimental Association Colonel Antony Beattie (centre right) and with former members of the Queen’s Regiment.

Horsham District Council has signed the Military Covenant. The Drill Hall is a physical manifestation of a military covenant. The Hall was designed by Lt. Col G R B Godman, paid for by the officers of the 4th Royal Sussex Regiment for the men, with the intention it should serve as both a military headquarters - and a social space. The Drill Hall was home to the 6/7th Battalion Headquarters.

The Drill Hall today stands a proud 93 years of age – just one year younger than her Majesty the Queen! It has been Horsham’s Community Hall since 1927 and is now in care of HDC. But not for much longer.

A proposal contained in a report has come forward to HDC’s Cabinet to flatten it and replace it with 20 affordable flats. The Cabinet vote on this on Thursday, 30 January 2020 at their meeting at 5:30pm at Parkside, Chart Way, Horsham. And all can attend.

It is quite inappropriate and insensitive to suggest – as the report to the Cabinet argues - that providing affordable housing on the Drill Hall site should be welcomed as an alternative to this community space. This is an unattractive and frankly distasteful way to frame the argument. As a council, we should be building and providing for all the different needs for our town and district and not just providing housing. We can all agree that affordable housing is important, but so too are the facilities that help a community to come together and which build social networks. That is what builds society.

When the Territorial Army moved out, HDC became owners and custodians of the Hall. There is a covenant with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to preserve the Drill Hall for community purposes but HDC think they have spotted a loophole.

The first I learnt of this appalling proposal was on Wednesday, 15 January 2020 at a briefing for councillors. I was angry to hear of plans that have not been properly thought through and cannot be said to have been consulted upon properly. This proposal has no regard for our rich history in Horsham town and district and the need for preserving and enhancing this historic and valuable community asset.

At the briefing councillors were told that the Drill Hall needs “£1m+” spent on it (why is it always these large round figure – just like when it was proposed to demolish Broadridge Heath Leisure Centre!) The £1m is needed – we are told – as much of that would have to be to increase the building’s “thermal performance”! What a risible argument. How desperate can one get to use to use the climate emergency as a reason do flatten our community asset.

The report to Cabinet also seeks to argue that the Drill Hall is not used. But that is just not true!

The Drill Hall has the largest sprung wooden dance floor in Sussex and dance groups use it.

It’s used for conferences, election hustings, awards ceremonies, church, political and campaign meetings, social dances and rehearsals, charity and disability events, community shows, concerts, dance competitions, Sussex Artists’ exhibitions, Guides, Scouts and club functions, beer festivals and a wealth of other activities including Microbiz jobs and skills fairs and wellbeing, environmental and safety courses and seminars.

Sir Robert Whigham, who opened the Hall, was reported as saying: “In the Territorial Army your military training should go hand in hand with your civic duties, and the more you can combine the two, the better it will be for all of us,” indicating quite clearly how the Hall was built to combine both military and civic life.

We must all stand up and be counted and save the Drill Hall. The district and town are having evermore houses thrust upon them and finding land for 20 affordable flats will not be difficult at all. If the council wish for land in the town centre to be used what is wrong with areas of space at the Telephone Exchange car park?

The report to the cabinet proposes that the replacement to the Drill Hall is a small community hall being built at Highwood. But that is just under 4 miles away from the town centre – so an 8 mile round trip - as you have to drive down the A24 to access the Highwood estate.

The community facility at Highwood – that is already to be built anyway as part of the legal planning obligations - is hardly an appropriate replacement because Horsham town still needs central easily accessible accommodation for local community events.

HDC’s own Town Vision 2017 states (paragraph 5.41) that the ‘town has poor community facilities’. So why remove one that is so important and loved? When the commercial lease was signed on the Old Town Hall it was promised by HDC that the Drill Hall would become and remain the town’s community hall. That covenant with the resident must be upheld.

The Drill Hall is an instantly recognisable Horsham landmark. The public has lost enough iconic sites in our Town already. There is a shortage of community halls to rent in the town centre.

The Cabinet must reject this proposal and save our Drill Hall for others to continue to use it as a community facility just as it has been for the last 90 years.

Christian Mitchell is a Conservative Horsham District councillor for Holbrook West and was chairman of the authority from 2016-17.

Below is the speech he made at a lunch in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s Regiment at the Horsham Branch held in the Drill Hall, Horsham on Sunday, March 26, 2017

It’s a great honour to be here and thank you for inviting me to speak today on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s Regiment.

It really is splendid for us to meet here today on this special occasion in the Drill Hall which was home to the 6/7th Battalion Headquarters.

First and foremost, let me pay tribute to all those who served our Country in the Queen’s Regiment and forebear Regiment soldiers. And I wish to pay tribute to those who serve across the armed services today to protect the security, independence and interests of our country at home and abroad.

I’ve been asked to say a few words on the relationship over the years with the Drill Hall – Horsham’s Community Hall since 1927 and now in the care of HDC - the Armed Forces Covenant and with Horsham District Council.

Today we talk about the Military Covenant and as I will mention later Horsham District Council is very proud to be linked to such an arrangement.

We sit here in a hall that is a physical manifestation of a military covenant. For this hall was designed by Lt. Col G R B Godman, paid for by the officers of the 4th Royal Sussex Regiment for the men, with the intention it should serve as both a military headquarters and a social space.

It has the largest sprung wooden dance floor in Sussex, so the hall could hold dances. Godman of Godmen and Key also designed the town’s war memorial and the Capitol Cinema - the original cinema in the Carfax run by another officer of the 4th Royal Sussex, Captain (later Major) Rupert Middleton MC who formed the Blue Flash Company, taking the name from the blue shoulder flash on the regimental uniform. He employed ex-bandsmen to play music during silent films. As for the then local council, after WWI Horsham Urban District Council took up the challenge of employing not less than 5% of the workforce as disabled ex-servicemen. That continued throughout the 1920s.

The Drill Hall continued to be used by both military and social functions throughout the 1930s to 1960s. With the coming of World War II the site held the Observer Corp - later Royal Observer Corp.

On the day this Hall opened the local newspaper ran a fulsome account: The principal architect was Lt Col G. R. B. Godman who was also the “popular commanding officer of the 4th Royal Sussex Regiment”. The paper described how the Drill Hall, built by the well-known local company of Rowland Bros, allowed for ‘proper training of territorials’ as well as being a ‘modern club’ for members and ex-members of the Regiment.

It also provided regimental headquarters offices, and quarters for the Regimental Sergeant-Major. There was a miniature firing range, baths and other recreational facilities.

The Hall was seen as a focal point to keep the Territorials ‘more closely together and inculcate in them the spirit of comradeship and esprit de corps.’

Later on the newspaper describes the parade of officers and men to the railway station to meet the G.O.C.-in-Chief Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Whigham who arrived by car with other officers to inspect troops before marching back through the town to the Drill Hall where it was officially opened.

Sir Robert Whigham, who opened the Hall, was reported as saying: “In the Territorial Army your military training should go hand in hand with your civic duties, and the more you can combine the two, the better it will be for all of us” indicating quite clearly how the Hall was built to combine both military and civic life.

Horsham is extraordinarily fortunate to have the Drill Hall and is used today to host many interesting community activities.

When the Territorial Army moved out, Horsham District Council became owners and custodians of the Hall.

The Hall has always been used for a wide range of social activities – in the 1930s the Hollywood Circus put on a show featuring 40 artists and, incredibly, 1,500 people attended an Empire Day celebration, clearly well before today’s health and safety considerations (capacity is 400).

And, photographs in the building show a very popular old time hunt ball, and an equally packed dinner for staff of a local company. More recently the battle of the bands attracted a 500 strong audience.

This Hall is used for conferences, election hustings, awards ceremonies, church, political and campaign meetings, social dances and rehearsals, charity and disability events, community shows, concerts, dance competitions, Sussex Artists’ exhibitions, Guides, Scouts and club functions, beer festivals and a wealth of other activities including Microbiz jobs and skills fairs and wellbeing, environmental and safety courses and seminars.

On 29 June 2014 Horsham District Council signed the Armed Forces Community Covenant. That is a voluntary statement of mutual support between a civilian community and its local Armed Forces Community. It complements the Armed Forces Covenant which outlines the moral obligation between the Nation, the Government and the armed forces at the local level.

But today is about all former Queen’s and forebear Regiment soldiers and Royal British Legion.