When Victorian philanthropist William Leaf built the Leaf Hall in 1864 to keep men “out of the pub” and re-educate them, he could never have imagined that some 150 years later the building would have become something of a labour of love with the community rallying round to restore it to its former glory.
But that is just what has been happening behind the scenes at the Seaside landmark where a team of craftsmen have been giving their time freely to stop the “leaf from falling” – ironically the Latin motto Folium non Defluet inscribed on the crest above the door referring to the Leaf family motto – and help keep it a community hub.
Since last year workmen from all sorts of trades have been carrying out improvements and refurbishments to what is Eastbourne’s oldest public building.
The William Leaf Working Men’s Hall was founded by silk merchant Leaf, one of the wealthiest merchants of the City of London, and built on land donated by the Duke of Devonshire.
Leaf’s stated aim was to provide a building which would “promote the social, moral and spiritual welfare of the working classes” – in other words, get the men out of the many hostelries of Seaside back in the day and train them so they could find work and put their time to better use.
It was used for the education of working men in Victorian and Edwardian times; there was a library and reading room, and talks on different topics were given and various different kinds of meetings were held there.
Since then the hall has been used in a variety of ways and over the last few years has become a vibrant community hub thanks to a band of trustees and the efforts of volunteers.
It’s home to the Bourne Academy of Performing Arts, the Bourne to Sing Community Choir meets there, various groups use the rooms, there is a cafe and it’s at the centre of many events in Seaside.
But by late 2013 prolonged and heavy rain fall in November and December and into the New Year had taken its toll on the building, particularly at the point at which the clock tower meets the deeply pitched roof causing extensive leaking and damage both to the exterior and interior.
In early 2014 Leaf Hall volunteer Anne Davies told Gina Leonard, chair of the Leaf Hall Trust that help may be available.
Anne, a resident of the Central and Archery Panel of Eastbourne Homes, suggested the Leaf Hall apply for funding from the panel which has a budget for environmental improvements to enhance the local area and the application was successful with £5,000 being donated to a restoration appeal, the maximum award possible.
That was matched by funds already raised by the Leaf Hall Trust and another generous donation of £3,000 meant that work could start and repairs were carried out to the damaged section of the roof and the Leaf Hall was “dry” at last.
But the extensive damage caused by the leaks were plainly visible and it became clear there was still a lot of work to do.
Fund-raising events were held and a “Sponsor a Slate” campaign collecting funds for the whole roof to be replaced went on and continues to this day with £22,000 still needed.
In the meantime Gina made contact with the Mears Group, the repairs and maintenance contractor for Eastbourne Homes, to ask whether it would be able to support community projects like the restoration of the Leaf Hall.
Mears is the leading social housing repairs and maintenance provider in the UK and a major presence in the home care and support market. It employs more than 17,000 people throughout the UK and its vision is to make a positive difference to the communities it serves.
Matt Atrell, Mears’ Eastbourne’s customer care officer contacted Gina, visited the hall to make an assessment of work that needed to be done in the short term.
Matt recommended the Leaf Hall be taken on by Mears in Eastbourne as one of its “Serving Our Community” or SOC projects and the rallying round began.
He then contacted companies working as sub-contractors for Mears, explaining the project and asking for their help.
“It’s definitely been a love job,” said Matt.
“We have called in favours from all sorts of tradesmen who have given their time freely and continue to do so. It’s a fantastic project.”
The result is an amazing collaboration.
Mears has provided the skilled manpower with materials, equipment and further labour donated by Austin’s Cradles with exterior scaffolding; Brandon Hire providing a stairwell platform for interior plaster works; Builders of Sussex whose staff cut out pointing and remove weeds growing in the down pipes and brick work; Gibbs & Dandy which provided materials for pointing and plaster work; HSS Hire for hardware for cutting out old pointing and blockades for the closure of Leaf Hall Road so exterior work could be completed; Newey & Eyre which donated lighting; and Travis Perkins which provided the materials for pointing and plasterwork.
“It’s great that Mears can bring something like this to the community,” said Matt.
“Working on a building of this age and design has presented our guys with some interesting challenges.
“It has also given individual craftsmen the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and abilities.
“They have had to think on their feet and come up with solutions to problems not usually found in modern building work and they all really enjoy working on the hall.”
By autumn 2014 the Leaf Hall had become one of Mears’s biggest SOC projects and the company intends to continue its involvement drawing up a schedule of further work to be carried out in 2015.
Gina said, “There is no doubt that Mears has bought in to the future of the Leaf Hall.
“It’s not just a question of a bit of plastering and a lick of paint, they are in it for the long haul.
“As Matt says, Mears Eastbourne is leading the way with this, carrying the flag for the company and it is great to bring the trade community together for such a good cause.
“The Mears project has made such a difference already.
“The entrance hall used to be a mess of blown plaster with a huge crack running down the entire length of the clock tower reminding everyone of the state the old place was in as soon as you walked through the door.
“To see it now – expertly repaired and skilfully plastered is just amazing.
“It really cheers you up and keeps you going.”
The trustees are delighted with the progress so far but help is still needed.
“Although a huge amount has been achieved, there is still a way to go but the main obstacle preventing Mears from carrying out further work on the hall is the need for internal and external scaffolding,” said Gina.
“If a local scaffolding firm could come forward and help us with this then we will all be able to take our unique community hub into the next phase of its long and varied history.”
At the same time the Leaf Hall Trust and volunteers will continue their fund raising work with renewed energy and are always on the lookout for more volunteers to join their number.
Volunteer Terrie Rintoul said, “We are desperate for volunteers. It’s a great place to volunteer. You just get this feeling that you don’t want to let the old place down.”
William Leaf himself would be delighted to see the work being undertaken and the transformation of the building in just a few months thanks to the generosity of the tradesmen.
He himself was the pioneer of generosity and many say his generous spirit served him well after the loss of six of his 11 children.
It was obviously a family trait as two of his daughters opened the Leaf Homeopathic Cottage Hospital in 1888 at numbers 1 and 2 Marine Road in Eastbourne before it moved to St Anne’s Road. It is also thought that Leaf Road off Ashford Road was named after Mr Leaf too as a thank you for being such a generous benefactor locally.
The last word goes to one of his surviving relatives Guy Leaf who said he knew nothing about his great great grandson until he came across the Leaf Hall website.
“It’s nice to know that his legacy lives on,” said Mr Leaf. “Folium non defluet.”
For more information visit www.leafhall.co.uk