Hall enjoying new lease of life

Members of the Bourne Academy of Performing Arts
Members of the Bourne Academy of Performing Arts

THE LEAF Hall has been given a new lease of life - as a community arts centre.

The iconic Seaside landmark has been lovingly restored to its former glory over the last 18 months by a team of trustees led by Gina Leonard.

It is also home to Gina’s Bourne Academy of Performing Arts, which runs dance classes for all ages.

There are dance studios and a main hall to hire and a drop-in Soul Cafe.

Three choirs meet at the hall, art classes take place, there are guided meditation sessions and there will be workshops taking place during the Eastbourne Festival Week.

The trustees say the building is remarkable and stands in a corner of town that is often neglected but full of social history. The aim now - apart from raising £50,000 for a new roof and getting the famous clock working again - is to get more and more people using the building.

Gina said, “When we first took it over it was in a terrible state. It had stood here empty for so long and just decaying.

“But it’s a beautiful building and a big part of Eastbourne’s history. We want people to use the facilities here so it becomes an integral part of the community here.”

The building, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this decade, was the brainchild of wealthy silk merchant and philanthropist William Laidler Leaf who, while staying at his holiday home on Grand Parade in the early 1860s, would take an evening stroll around the dark unkempt area behind the seahouses.

There he would see fishermen, building labourers and laundry workers living uneducated and depressed by chronic seasonal employment who, when they weren’t seeking solace in alehouses and taverns, had nowhere to go.

An evangelical Christian, Leaf contacted the 7th Duke of Devonshire, who gave the land, and the Workmen’s Hall opened its doors in 1864.

Among the clientele were fishermen and a candle was always lit in a niche on the stairway whenever the small fishing fleet put to sea and was not put out until their return.

There was a reading room where men could borrow books and in the 1860s when there were no theatres in Eastbourne, the large upstairs room was used for public entertainment.

The building later became the Leaf Hall for Working Men - popular with Friendly Societies and with weekly concerts in the Edwardian period.

During the Second World War, the hall was used by Christ Church School after its own building was hit by an oil bomb.

Organisations using the premises in the late 1970s included the Eastbourne Silver Band and the Bird’s Eye Trade Union.

From 1982 the Apostolic Church rented the hall and a karate club was also established.

By this time the council owned the hall but sold the building, then home to the Sovereign Church, to the Leaf Hall Trust for just £1 with the responsibility of restoring the building.

With the cosmetic restorations completed the studios and main hall are available for hire through Gina on 649097.