The History of Leaf Hall – Eastbourne’s oldest public building
William Laidler Leaf was a wealthy silk merchant and philanthropist who lived in Streatham, south London and had a holiday home on Eastbourne’s Grand Parade.
In the early 1860s, he would take an evening stroll around the dark, unkempt area behind Seahouses. Here fisherman dwelt alongside blacksmiths, building labourers and laundry workers. Uneducated and often impoverished by chronic seasonal unemployment, many sought solace in the ale houses and taverns which had begun to proliferate in that quarter. Leaf observed them “Looking about the streets at night, as if they had no place to go.”
An evangelical Christian and a member of the Total Abstinence Society, Leaf’s practical zeal led him to approach the 7th Duke of Devonshire whose new resort depended on, but made little provision for, the working classes who would service it. The Duke, a friend and fellow liberal donated a piece of land and construction began in the autumn of 1863.
On 3rd November the foundation stone was ceremoniously laid by Mr Leaf and the inscription, which can still be read in Leaf Hall Road, succinctly states Leaf’s aims: “To promote the social, moral and spiritual welfare of the working classes of Eastbourne.” The building was officially opened on 9 June 1864.
The building has frontage of 42ft. by a depth of 150ft. The style of the architecture is Continental Gothic and the edifice is built of red, white and black brick with bath stone windows and doors.
The Hall provided the following accommodation
public coffee room,
library and reading room
serving-bar, smoking room and hot closet
the means of cooking for about 200 people, when required
large lecture hall capable of accommodating about 200 persons with gallery opening into it for orchestra
a retiring room and private staircase for lecturers
a yard for a skittle-alley
a place for smoking out of doors
The architect was Mr. R.K. Blessey; the builder, Mr. W.H.Standing of Eastbourne.
The Hall’s church-like style was deliberate, setting out to encourage feelings of awe and reverence from those who entered the building. These included local fishermen and a candle was lit in a niche on the stairway whenever the small fishing fleet put to sea, not being extinguished until their return.
Men were able to use the reading room and recreation rooms and for two old pennies a week they could borrow books from the Hall’s library. The town had no municipal library until the end of the century.
Unfortunately, the link with the Temperance Movement had the effect of putting many working men off the place. A certain Reverend T.P Hill clearly foresaw this when he asserted that the Hall “was in no way connected with the Temperance cause” at a meeting shortly before the foundation stone was laid.
In reality the Hall quickly became the gathering place of various Temperance groups including the Band of Hope during the years before the Salvation Army established a permanent base in Eastbourne.
Catering was provided at the Hall from its earliest years. In the winter months Eastbourne was a depressing place; with the well-heeled visitors gone and building work stopped during icy weather, grinding poverty and desperate hunger became the lot of many in the neighbourhood.
A soup kitchen was run in the coldest months. In December 1869 the Hall offered “Good soup at 1d per pint daily.”
The Hall was used as a place of entertainment throughout the 1860’s as, perhaps surprisingly, there were no theatres in Eastbourne at that time.
The Bourne to Sing Community Choir rehearses at the Hall every week and often hold performances with all proceeds being donated to the restoration fund.
In its role as a community hub the Leaf Hall is also the main base for:
Seedy Sunday – an annual seed swap event which this year attracted over 300 visitors.
Edible Eastbourne – which aims to provide access to fresh, low cost healthy food for everyone, especially those on low incomes.
Cotton Candy – encourages people with learning differences to develop a creative interest and become a ‘crafter’.
Devonshire West Big Local Events Team – helping people make lasting and positive differences to their own communities.
The Leaf Hall Café is a Stone Soup Station offering homemade soup using locally grown vegetables and a home baked roll at an affordable price.
Additionally ‘Leaf Teas’ take place once a month offering vintage tea and homemade cakes. Local residents are encouraged to come along and bring their memories of the Leaf Hall and surrounding area to add to the Hall’s collection of local stories.
In September 1865 General Tom Thumb, who at just 102cm (3.35 ft) tall became an
international celebrity appearing twice before Queen Victoria, gave five performances
at the Hall whilst he was on tour with the equally famous American showman
P.T. Barnham to whom he was distantly related. Both are pictured to the right.
By August 1877, Mr S Powell, the Hall’s Managing Steward, was advertising:
Commodious Dining and Coffee Rooms
Hot Joints Daily from 1 to 2 o’clock
Tea and coffee always ready
Large or small parties provided for on the shortest notic
Well aired beds
At some point before World War One, the Leaf Hall Commercial Hotel and Dining Rooms were built over the original skittle alley.
After the Great War took its terrible toll, the hotel offered injured and blind ex-servicemen holidays by the sea.
During the 1920s before the establishment of the National Health Service, the Hall became a forerunner of the medical centres of today. Friendly Societies would encourage local families to pay a weekly fee which would then be used to pay a doctor to come to the Hall and run a surgery. Local GPs often did not wish to visit families in their homes due to the poor living conditions.
The doctor in charge of arranging the surgeries was the notorious Dr Bodkin Adams (pictured left), general practitioner, convicted fraudster and suspected serial killer.
Parallels can be drawn with this case and that of the more recent one featuring Dr Harold Shipman.
Later, during the 1930s it became a Temperance Hotel run by various businessmen who leased the property form the Leaf Hall Trust.
During the 2nd World War Christ Church School was hit by an oil bomb which resulted in the school being moved to the Leaf Hall.
Organisations using the Hall during the 1970’s included the Eastbourne Silver Band and the Trade Union representing the employees of the food processing company Bird’s Eye.
Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s there was a regular, well attended antiques market.
In 1985 a Mr. Osbourne opened a karate club which proved very popular with the local community.
In 2000 the Hall underwent a massive renovation by the Sovereign Church. This included major restoration work to the clock tower which won a European award for the local company SMG.
After that the Hall was used for four years as a nursery school.
By 2009 the building had become almost derelict. The present Trustees took over and immediately launched a campaign to establish a restoration fund.
The stone plaque above the door of the main entrance (pictured right) contains the words 'Folium non Defluet' which was the motto of the Leaf Family and can be translated as ‘The leaf does not fall’ has been the inspiration for the campaign: The Leaf Hall Must Not Fall.
Currently the Hall is the home of the Bourne Academy of Performing Arts offering classes in dance and drama. The Academy is also is a centre for Arts Awards the nationally recognised qualification which supports young people to develop as artists and art teachers.