Act now to preserve historic town hall and Fenton’s unique war memorial

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

I received an email, out of the blue, at two minutes past four on Sunday morning.

It was sent by a man I don’t know on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean who wanted me to pass on a message of solidarity to people here in the Potteries.

Ryan Daniels is a teacher who lives in Braintree, Massachusetts.

He had spotted a video on the internet and was moved to contact The Sentinel to give his best wishes to campaigners here in Stoke-on-Trent who are campaigning to save Fenton Town Hall.

I say save because I genuinely fear for the future of this historic building, and its hidden treasures, if Fenton Community Association loses its fight.

As we approach the centenary commemorations of the start of the Great War, Ryan Daniels is one of those who is fearful that our city is about to lose something very precious indeed.

For inside Fenton Town Hall is a memorial to hundreds of men from Fenton who gave their lives for King and country during the First World War.

It is a memorial that very few people will actually have seen – unless, that is, you have had cause within the last 40 years or so to visit what was the City Magistrates’ Court.

The large plaque, made from Minton tiles, features the name of almost 500 men from the town and was commissioned just a few years after the war ended as a permanent memorial to their ultimate sacrifice.

They are names that will be familiar to Sentinel readers. Among many others, there’s an Abberley, a Bourne, a Clewlow, a Colclough, a Cope, a Durose, an Egerton, two Finneys, a Goodwin, a Holdcroft, a Meakin, a Mottram and a Povey.

The list goes on and on. All common Stokie names. All names you’ll recognise.

But you can’t visit this memorial that so few have seen because since the Ministry of Justice relocated its magistrates’ court to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Fenton Town Hall has been closed to the public.

It is now up for sale and campaigners face the daunting task of trying to raise £500,000 in just six months to purchase the building under the auspices of a community trust.

They would like to make it a focal point for the community once more. They would like local businesses to operate from inside the town hall.

But first they have to persuade the city council and the Ministry of Justice that the previous use of the building known to Sentinel hacks as ‘Fenton mags’, benefited the local community.

Given its history, I fail to see how Fenton Town Hall can be viewed as anything other than a building which has served the people of the Potteries for generations.
But perhaps that’s just me.

All that said, could it really be that the Ministry of Justice is still about to visit a great injustice on the people of Fenton and our city as a whole?

As the bean counters in Whitehall attempt to raise whatever funds they can through the sale of public assets, one has to fear for the future of the memorial.

Imagine it being bulldozed to make way for, perhaps, housing or new retail premises.

As it stands, these are very real possibilities.

Let us not forget that it is only by a quirk of fate that Fenton Town Hall finds itself in such a precarious position.

Some 10 years ago the building which brought all of the city’s magistrates’ courts under one roof in 1968, passed from local ownership to that of the state.

Suddenly, the future of one of Stoke-on-Trent’s six town halls was no longer in the hands of local people or even the local authority.

To make matters worse, Fenton Town Hall isn’t even a listed building.

Why? Because a man with a clipboard – a man perhaps used to grander architecture than this ‘portly’ Gothic edifice in red brick and stone and without a feel for the history of our city – once said so.

Personally speaking, I find it hard to conceive of a Potteries where one of the Six Towns doesn’t have a town hall – an iconic civic building to call its own.

The building of Fenton Town Hall in 1889 was funded at a cost of £6,000 by local pottery owner and philanthropist William Meath Baker.

It suppose it was no real surprise when it was chosen three decades later as the location for the impressive, tiled Great War memorial.

Fentonians of the day would doubtless have considered this a building that would last for many hundreds of years.

Yet here we are in 2013 with a huge black cloud hanging over the town hall and its hidden war memorial.

As we turn our thoughts towards commemorations for the Great War, I find it inconceivable that anyone would wish to dismantle or move this tribute to the fallen.

I hope you feel the same and are moved to sign the petition to help protect it and thereby honour the men immortalised by that long, sad roll call.

I will leave the final words to my new American friend Ryan Daniels whose great, great grandfather fought in France with a U.S. cavalry regiment during 1917-18 and, unlike the men on the Fenton memorial, was fortunate enough to make it home.

Ryan wrote: ‘I suppose I am sending this email to show that complete strangers separated by a vast ocean do care and wish goodwill to the people of Fenton in their struggle to preserve this vital piece of UK history’.

Sign the petition at: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/stop-the-desecration-of-this-great-war-memorial

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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