For the most part, the histories presented in this Wokingham Remembers page are of events steeped in a past which can be recounted but not recollected by the people of Wokingham. This week however, we review JIM BELL’s excellent history of the Town Hall from 1947 right up to 2005. Review by Mike Churcher
Jim Bell’s latest offering (over thirty books on local history and still rising) is titled ‘Memories of Wokingham Town Hall 1947 to 2005’. Following an introduction to the initial building of the Hall, Jim presents six further chapters representing each decade and draws from sources such as local newspapers, magazines, books and Council Minutes.
Jim has an eye for spotting not only how the town operated following World War Two, but also the anecdotal details of life in a middle sized, middle Berkshire town. In 1973 for example, a developer approached the Council to ask if they would consider disposing of the Town Hall for future redevelopment. It does not take much imagination to discover the response from the Council. Although such proposals might seem bizarre to us today, it does indicate the post war attitude to all things old and all things new – we therefore wonder how the developers would have changed the Town Hall if they had managed to acquire it!
In 1954 the local newspaper reported on Wokingham’s carnival with the headline ‘Wokingham goes gay for carnival’; a reference, presumably to the fun times that were experienced on the day. It’s funny how times change even in subtle ways. The carnival, which took place on a Tuesday evening involved 2000 ‘revellers’ including a ‘rag’ activity, with such jolly japes as a ‘pub to pub’ pram race. Ragging, many readers will know as part of the student calendar which is ‘rag week’ and involved raising money for charity. ‘Ragging’ it is thought, goes back to Victorian days when it meant nagging or harassing people for charitable causes and possibly had a link in the rivalry between University College and Kings College in London. Even in the seventies, ‘rag week’ could be a fairly brutal affair especially after a few visits around the pubs, all in the cause of charity. In 1954 however, the report noted in Jim’s book is altogether more civilised as it included the participation of the Mayor and Mayoress. It should be stressed at this point that they were not a part of the pub crawl, but were on hand to greet the year’s Carnival Queen; a lady by the name of Audrey Frost (are you still out there Audrey? Let us know!). The Mayor however, did not get away with it completely – this was carnival and rag week after all. In one beautifully politically incorrect activity (but not in 1954) there was a mock cutting of the Mayor’s throat – all done in good fun of course. Mayor Brindlecombe was hauled from the Town Hall and onto a platform (pre-staged it is hoped) and underwent a shave with a whitewash brush and a large wooden razor. Of course, the shave does not go according to plan and the Mayor suffers a mock execution. The paper delightfully states ‘… and the red velvet proved a satisfactory substitute for blood’. No worse for wear, the Mayor is then escorted to the borough boundary for the ‘beating of the bounds’; a national custom to re-establish the boundaries and have them blessed, usually on Ascension Day. Mock assaults on the Mayor were still taking place in 1989; the papers announce ‘Wokingham brings back the death penalty’ and this time it was Fred Clark who was for the chop. ‘Heads rolled in Wokingham on Friday when a guilootine and stocks were set up in the town centre’.
Not only did Councillor Clark have his head vicariously lopped off, but he and his wife Elsie were thrown into the stocks for good measure. All in good fun of course and it was Alec Stewart, the England and Surrey cricketer who conducted the ‘execution’. Unfortunately no one recognised him on account of him wearing a black hood and mask, which seems to negate the opportunities brought about by inviting a celebratory guest.
Mia Farrow in 1970 arrived in Wokingham to shoot a scene from her latest film: ‘Buff’ I haven’t heard of it either, but do remember her from Peyton Place, Rosemary’s Baby and The Great Gatsby. Whilst filming in Market Square, Wokingham’s Mayor John West seems to have unknowingly walked on to the set believing it was a real market stall. Having been requested to ‘clear off’ by the members of the film team, the Mayor retaliated by asking if they had paid for the stall and requested permission to film in the area. After discovering it was the Mayor they were pushing around, the film team went some way to calming down the situation by apologising and inviting him to lunch the next day. The fiasco however continued into the evening, when Mia Farrow was accused of kicking a photographer at Wokingham Railway Station.
Who said nothing happens in Wokingham ? All this and other stories are brought to you by Jim Bell in his latest book ‘Memories of Wokingham Town Hall 1947 to 2005’ and can be purchased at the Town Hall Information Centre (open between 10am – 2pm) for just £4.