Woodhall Community Centre, Welwyn Garden City.
A brief introduction to Architecture

A Brief History of Community Centres in England

Community centres emerged in the late 19th century through a variety of social movements.

From churches to settlement houses to village halls, here are some key early buildings that led to the modern community centre.

A photograph of a 2 storey, 19th century stone building. Above the entrance, a carved scroll is inscribed with 'MEDICAL FUND HOSPITAL'. Below this is later-applied 20th century letting for 'CENTRAL COMMUNITY CENTRE'.
The Central Community Centre in Swindon, Wiltshire, was formerly a Medical Fund Hospital. © Historic England Archive. DP263258.

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.

A photograph of a 19th century stone church.
St Mary’s Parish Church, Long Ditton, Surrey. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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 to 1888 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.

A photograph of a 2 storey, 19th century red brick building.
The main 1894 building of Toynbee Hall, Commercial Street, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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 sepia photograph of a group of adults and children standing on stairs.
Children and adults at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in 1918 in East St. Louis, Illinois. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A photograph of a 1 storey, 19th century stone building.
The Jubilee Hall in Newton-on-the-Moor, Northumberland. © Historic England / Contributed by Alan Murray-Rust. See the List entry.

Village halls began to be built in numbers in the 1900s. The hall at Tatsfield, Surrey, was built in 1908 to 1909 on land donated to mark the jubilee. The Coronation Hall at Mundesley, Norfolk, was built in 1910 to mark the accession of George V.

A photograph of a 2 storey, 20th century painted-white building. Above the entrance, lettering reads: 'CORONATION HALL (1910).
The Coronation Hall in Mundesley, Norfolk, opened in 1910 to mark the coronation of King George V. © Elain Harwood.

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.

A photograph of a 1-storey, 20th century red brick building.
The Women’s Institute hall in Parbold, Lancashire, was purpose-built, with the initials ‘P. W. I.’ inscribed proudly on the gable. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A photograph of a 2 storey, 20th century pebbledash and whitewashed brick building.
The Folk Hall in New Earswick, North Yorkshire. © Historic England Archive. DP071344.

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 to 1906 to bring the new community together.

A photograph of a 2 storey, unusually shaped 20th century building made from a variety of materials.
The Mrs Howard Memorial Hall in Norton Way South, Letchworth, Hertfordshire. © Historic England Archive. DP088205.

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 photograph of a 2 storey, 20th century building.
East Tilbury Village Hall, Bata Estate, was built in 1938 by architects Frantisek Gahura and Vladimir Karfik. © Elain Harwood.

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.

A photograph of a 2 storey, 20th century red brick building. Above the entrance, lettering reads: '1938 WOODHALL COMMUNITY CENTRE'.
Woodhall Community Centre, Mill Green Road, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. © Historic England Archive. DP088309.

New towns

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.

A photograph of a 2 storey, 19th century brick building.
Moot House, The Stow, Harlow, a former vicarage of 1841 remodelled as a community centre by Frederick Gibberd in 1952. © Elain Harwood.

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 to 1965.

A photograph of a 2 storey, 20th century brick building.
Neighbourhood Centre, Harman’s Water, Bracknell, built in 1963-5 by Bracknell Development Corporation Architect’s Department. © Elain Harwood.

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 to 1956 alongside housing for pensioners.

A photograph of a 1 storey, 20th century red brick building.
The Common Room, Sir Malcolm Stewart Homes, Stewartby, Bedfordshire. © Elain Harwood.

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 to 1969.

A photograph of an unusually shaped 20th century brick building.
Community Centre, New Ash Green, Kent, built in 1966-9 by Eric Lyons for Span Developments Ltd. © Elain Harwood.

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.

A black and white photograph of a housing estate.
The Quarry Hill housing estate in Leeds, photographed in 1939. © Historic England Archive. OP09009.

The model for post-war estates was Quarry Hill in Leeds, where a social centre was built in 1940 to 1942 with a special handicraft room and youth club facilities. It became a nursery before its demolition in 1978 to 1979.

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.

A photograph of a 20th century housing estate.
The community centre at the Golden Lane Estate in London, built between 1953 and 1962. © Elain Harwood.

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.

A photograph of a person looking at a noticeboard.
A community centre noticeboard in the Excalibur Estate, Lewisham, London. © Historic England Archive. DP021354.

Community centres remain important spaces for physical, creative and social classes and events. They provide much needed facilities for community groups and projects.

A photograph of two 2 storey red brick buildings.
The Raza Madrassa & Community Centre next to the Hanafi Sunni Muslim Circle Mosque (Raza Masjid) in Preston. © Historic England Archive. DP143547.

Do you use a community centre near you? Let us know about it in the comments below.

Further reading

6 comments on “A Brief History of Community Centres in England

  1. Yes. Both Mycenae House(fairly regularly) and Shrewsbury House(occasionally), which, sadly, has a tendency to rip us off.

  2. There’s a bit of an overlap here with the role fulfilled by Mechanics’ Institutes and similar institutions in the 19th century. https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/iha-mechanics-institutes/

  3. BrianBowman

    Wonderful English History. Wonder if The Ship Inn is currently being used for anything? Brian Bowman

  4. Inspiring blog. Many thanks. For enthusiasts of communal club life and culture I recommend Bridget Smith’s ‘Society’, a marvellous collection of photographs of London’s club interiors published by General Public Agency.

    Ken Worpole

  5. Interesting post. I’m sure this line is an error, but unfortunately a reflection of grant aid support today …. 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″

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