From churches to settlement houses to village halls, here are some key early buildings that led to the modern community centre.
Church: an alternative to the pub
In the 1880s, churches recognised that people had more leisure time. They began to build halls or parish rooms as alternatives to the public house.
An early example can be found at St Mary’s in Long Ditton, Surrey.
A campaign by the rector led to the building in 1887-8 of a parish room and workers’ club, which was used for religious discussions, teas, concerts, and meetings of the horticultural society and cricket club.
The settlement house: a space for education and recreation
Meanwhile, a very different movement was taking shape in the poorer parts of central and east London.
In Whitechapel, Reverend Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta founded Toynbee Hall in 1884 as a settlement house.
Settlement houses were lodgings for young university graduates who would organise educational and recreational activities for the local poor in meeting rooms and classrooms.
Those who learned from this practical experience included the future Labour leader Clement Attlee and social reformer William Beveridge.
A similar movement was the Quakers’ Educational Settlements Associations, which brought adult education, handicrafts and cultural activities to the Welsh valleys following the collapse of the mining industry.
The settlement movement spread to the United States, Australia and even pre-revolutionary Russia. In the US, a Presbyterian minister, Edward J. Ward, advocated using schools for adult education and recreation, leading in 1916 to the foundation of the National Community Center Association.
A parallel movement in the UK was led by the National Council of Social Service, founded in 1919 by many who had worked in settlements like Toynbee Hall.
The village hall
The first village halls were a response to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. One of the first was the Jubilee Hall at Newton-on-the-Moor, near Alnmouth, Northumberland.
Village halls began to be built in numbers in the 1900s. The hall at Tatsfield, Surrey, was built in 1908-9 on land donated to mark the jubilee. The Coronation Hall at Mundesley, Norfolk, was built in 1910 to mark the accession of George V.
More village halls were built after the First World War, many as war memorials. They were encouraged by the National Council of Social Service to develop educational and social provisions in rural areas.
Key to the growth of village halls was support from the Women’s Institute. The movement began in Canada in 1897 and reached Great Britain in 1915, where it contributed to the war effort.
By 1927 there were nearly 4,000 Women’s Institutes with 250,000 members, providing village halls and community centres with dedicated users and managers.
Model villages and garden cities
Splendid community halls became the focus of model villages such as Port Sunlight on the Wirral and New Earswick in North Yorkshire.
The latter was a model village developed by the social reformer Joseph Rowntree centred on the Folk Hall, built in 1908 by architects Parker & Unwin.
Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were also the architects of the first garden city in Letchworth.
This was a new town built according to the philosophies of urban planner Ebenezer Howard to bring the best features of town and country to a self-contained settlement of housing, industry and commerce.
The Mrs Howard Memorial Hall commemorating Howard’s late wife Elizabeth was the first public building in the garden city, built in 1905-6 to bring the new community together.
Community centres also featured in new industrial settlements such as East Tilbury in Essex, built by the Bata shoe manufacturers for its workers in 1938, complete with cinema facilities.
A second garden city at Welwyn was begun in 1920. A large community centre became a valuable resource at Woodhall, a neighbourhood built in the 1930s at a considerable distance from the main town centre.
Community centres were essential in new towns to provide facilities for scouts and guides, or music and drama societies.
The first residents had to make their own entertainment but, unlike the garden cities, the new town corporations had no budget for building halls.
In Essex, Harlow Development Corporation converted a former vicarage into the Moot House, its first community centre opened in 1952.
Most new towns were planned as a series of neighbourhoods, each with its own primary school, shopping parade and community centre, as at Harman’s Water, Bracknell, from 1963-5.
Smaller new settlements also featured a community centre. At Stewartby in Bedfordshire, a model village built from 1926 for workers at the London Brick Company, a community centre was built in 1955-6 alongside housing for pensioners.
New Ash Green in Kent was a model village built privately with housing for sale, and a community centre was included in the first phase by Span Developments and its architect Eric Lyons in 1966-9.
Post-war housing estates
By 1939 the National Council of Social Service had supported over 1,400 village halls. It also campaigned for community halls in urban areas.
The model for post-war estates was Quarry Hill in Leeds, where a social centre was built in 1940-2 with a special handicraft room and youth club facilities. It became a nursery before its demolition in 1978-9.
The Ministry of Education published guidelines on building more halls in 1944 and in 1955 launched a national grant aid scheme which lasted until 1955.
On housing estates, the pioneering example was at Golden Lane in London, designed in 1952 and opened in 1957.
Community centres today
Since 1981, community centres have had to rely on local authorities for support, and to develop their hire facilities. Many now have bars, very different from the teetotal principles on which the first halls were founded.
Community centres remain important spaces for physical, creative and social classes and events. They provide much needed facilities for community groups and projects.
Do you use a community centre near you? Let us know about it in the comments below.