Monday, December 9, 2013

Robert Hope-Jones

In the early 1900s, members of the council working in the Town Hall began to consider ways of providing public entertainment to Battersea.

“Progressives in Battersea pioneered the public provision of music, arguing that free concerts were 'delightful counter-attractions' to the public house. Through his efforts on the borough council, Mr W Lethbridge managed to establish a municipal choir and orchestra, erect an organ in the town hall, hire an official borough organist and institute free public concerts.” - British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture, 1884-1914. Below is the first page of the 8 page organ proposal from 1900.

In 1901, the Grand Hall became the home of Robert Hope-Jones’ electric organ. With 4 manuals, 41 speaking stops and a complex structure stretching far into the depths of the building, it is the largest remaining Hope-Jones designed organ in UK. It was once the heart and soul of the building, enjoyed by a diverse audience for recitals and even musical accompaniment to silent movies. Sadly, the complexity of the instrument made it difficult and expensive to maintain, and eventually it fell into disrepair. 

The first modern repairs were undertaken in the 1980s, when David Pawlyn managed to fix the organ so it was fit for a few concerts to be held. Unfortunately after this initial work, it sat silently until 2006 when P Hammond assessed the extent of the damage. The blower rebuild began in 2008 and loving work continues to restore this magnificent example of Hope-Jones’ work.

Robert was a telephone engineer but became famous for his work developing the tonal and technical development of the classic organ design. He left for the USA to continue his work with Rudulph Wurlitzer Co, where his ideas helped to create the Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ, installed in cinemas across the States and the UK. For more from the archive about the Robert Hope-Jones organ, please click here.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Bee is for Battersea

In the 1960s the mosaic bees that so beautifully adorn out entrance were hidden beneath concrete, after a row about how expensive they were to maintain. Fortunately they have been salvaged from the brink of destruction and are a much loved symbol of BAC. The bees have taken on many meanings over the years, and no one is quite sure why they were first chosen. One theory suggests it was due to the very land our building was built on – Lavender fields.

The bees are perhaps a nod towards the double B of Battersea Borough. When the Town Hall was originally built, Battersea existed separately to Wandsworth and the word “Batterseaness” came to describe a certain way of life. “Batterseaness” was epitomised by the working class politics of the late 19th century, when the Town Hall was built.

It is especially interesting that bees are also considered a symbol for workers, especially apt for a building with so many political links to communism and socialism, and especially  to many prominent campaigns for workers’ rights. The building became the local headquarters during the General Strike of 1926, and on several occasions was the site of the Communist Party National Congress. There is also speculation if George Potter, who eventually settled in Battersea, was inspired by the symbol when he called his mid-19th century labour newspaper “The Bee Hive”.

Whatever your take on the bees, radicalism continues to buzz about BAC.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Exploring the Archive: The Café

This week, Tref Davies, our Capital Administrator, continues with our staff picks from the archive and tells us why he adores this photo from the café.

"This is one of my favourite pictures. From the late 1970’s, it shows the café staff behind the server counter, and I love everything about it – the style, the people and the moment that’s captured. It’s probably because I worked in that same few square metres for a couple of years, but it’s also such a great example of a part of the building which has changed so much over the 120 years."

These days our café is looking very different indeed, but you'll still find the same smiley service and delicious food. For more information about our newly refurbished Scratch Bar, click here

Monday, November 11, 2013

John Archer's Centenary: WWI and The Town Hall

100 years ago, on November 10th 1913, John Archer was elected as the 10th Mayor of Battersea. This achievement was also a momentous triumph for equality, with Archer becoming London’s first black mayor. Born in 1863, Archer is famed for his political passion, particularly his campaigns for workers' rights, improved local living conditions and the removal of young people from the workhouse. One particularly heated argument saw Archer seized by his head and feet and ejected from the Council Chamber.

Much of the press surrounding John Archer’s mayoral campaign was speculation regarding his ancestry. The Daily Telegraph reported that “his features and colouring are eloquent of his origin, but his conversation shows no trace of accent, and he is a man of good education”, whilst The News Chronicle wrote that Archer had “the bronzed skin and black hair of a Hindu or Parsee – he laughingly declines to say to what race he belongs, but one might place his forebears among the lighter people of India – and his well-dressed, well-groomed appearance is that of a busy and prosperous business man”. Indeed, Archer is easy to spot in the photograph below, stood to the far right, the only man not to sport a dark suit.

During his election speech, Archer announced to the crowds "You have made history tonight. For the first time in the history of the English nation, a man of colour has been elected as mayor of an English borough. That news will go forth to all the coloured nations of the world and they will look at Battersea, and say 'It is the greatest thing you have done. You have shown that you have no racial prejudice, but recognise a man for what you think he has done.” 
This powerful speech was still not enough to quiet many sceptics. Archer finally declared to have been born “in a little obscure village in England probably never heard of until now - the city of Liverpool”.

Less than a year after his election, World War I shook the town of Battersea. The Town Hall played a vital role within the borough, becoming a recruiting office, with a stall outside offering free Woodbine cigarettes to all the men who signed up. The Lower Hall became a scheduled air raid shelter, whilst the Council Chamber became a courtroom, trialling conscientious objectors. 25 town hall workers died, commemorated by a plaque in our upper corridors. 

This letter documents John Archer's efforts to instruct local residents about the events leading up to the war. At BAC we remember Archer for his humour, fire and determination to bring about change, and remember those who lost their lives both in Battersea and beyond, during World War I.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Exploring the Archive: Staff Favourites

However you've made use of Battersea Arts Centre, be you a coffee sipper or Bee's Knees nipper, our artists or our audience, you’ll have noticed that there is something just a bit special about our building. It might be the shiny new sign that lures you inside, the sumptuous smells from the café, or the mosaic floor buzzing about your feet, but it’s hard to step into BAC without the overwhelming feeling that this is the kind of place where history is made… and indeed it is!

It can be quite unbelievable that so much could occur beneath one roof. In the same room that air raid warden Elsie Young’s fingers blistered from gripping a pencil, newly-weds now share their first dance and downward facing dogs escape the bustle of Battersea for a stolen moment of tranquillity. From The Blitz to brides, organs to Orpheus, and poetry to protest, we want to shake out the dust sheets from our past and make all this incredible history a little more tangible. Over the upcoming weeks, we’ll be asking our staff to select their favourite tales from the archive, shining a spotlight on the lesser known stories of our Town Hall home.

This week we begin with Jo Hunter, Capital and Strategy Consultant:
My favourite are the notes from Elsie Young when the bombs were falling on Lavender Hill. They are so evocative and give such a clear picture of what it must have been like. It makes you able to, in some small way, put yourself in her shows. Her detailed description of her bleeding fingers makes your spine shudder... lest we forget.

Listen to Elsie's oral history at our 120 Years of Battersea Town Hall exhibition in the Waiting Room, or read more about her time as an air raid precaution warden here.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Living Radically: 120 Years of Battersea Town Hall

This year, we are celebrating the 120th anniversary of our Victorian Town Hall...

From its early days as Battersea Town Hall to its current use as Battersea Arts Centre, our building has always hosted radical thinkers and their ideas.
Over the last 120 years, the building has witnessed feminist speeches, socialist uprisings, tea dances, air raids, and boxing matches.

John Archer, the first black mayor of a London borough, was based here. Battersea MP John Burns, the first working class member of the Cabinet and proud "son of a washerwoman", gave many speeches here, as did Suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. For over 30 years, the building has been home to Battersea Arts Centre.

BAC pioneers new practice in contemporary theatre with the development of Scratch in 2000, the creation of Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death in 2007, and the support of UK theatre artists such as Kneehigh, Nic Green and Kate Tempest. But we are also interested in the many thousands of people who have passed through the building, such as the people who worked at the Town Hall, or audiences who have seen shows here.

In the Waiting Room off the Main Foyer you'll find a collection showing a snapshot of our history and the people who have passed through our doors.

Open Monday to Saturday 10am until 11pm, alongside our Scratch Bar, serving fresh local food and drinks, come and explore the exhibition before or after a show, or relax in our welcoming spaces.

This display has been made possible through the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and Wandsworth Council, and thanks are also due to Wandsworth Heritage Services.