Tomorrow the first of The Sentinel’s four Great War centenary supplements is published and I can honestly say it has been a privilege to be involved in the project.
Occasions like this, when we are required to delve deep into the newspaper’s archives are rare, and the process has thrown up some astonishing tales, some wonderful images and – I have to say – some terrific writing by my predecessors.
Slowly but surely the 100th anniversary of the start of the ‘War to end all wars’ is seeping into the nation’s consciousness and here in North Staffordshire we are uncovering just how the conflict changed lives forever.
It was a war which altered Britain beyond imagining and had a dramatic and often devastating effect on communities and families across the land.
Among them, of course, were the 498 men of Fenton who paid the ultimate price for serving King and country and whose names are recorded on the unique Minton Hollins tiled memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.
For many of those brave souls that memorial is, to all intents and purposes, their grave marker.
They include Frederick Heath, of Mill Street, Fenton, who historians recently credited as being the soldier most likely to have written the definitive account of the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914.
Sadly, in the year that some of the £50 million the Government has set aside starts to be spent on a variety of projects to commemorate the Great War, this memorial – and indeed the building which houses it – remain under serious threat.
Fenton Town Hall, created for and bequeathed to the people of Fenton, is up for grabs with a price tag of around £500,000.
A moratorium on its sale has just expired and campaigners seeking what is snappily-titled a ‘community asset transfer’ are concerned that officials at the Ministry of Justice – which somehow acquired the building during its time as a magistrates’ court – have gone awfully quiet all of a sudden.
The positive meeting which took place in December between the Friends of Fenton Town Hall and the man who will ultimately decide the building’s fate gave everyone hope that Whitehall’s bureaucrats were perhaps listening at last.
After all, a 10,000-signature petition calling on the building to be given back to the community was handed in at Downing Street late last year and campaigners have, to their credit, made an awful lot of noise.
Even the national treasure that is Stephen Fry Tweeted his support for their cause.
But having been fobbed off for weeks now I can understand why campaigners are growing increasingly worried that this historically important building may be sold off from under their noses.
If that were to happen then, irrespective of any protection order placed on the memorial as a condition of sale, its safety could simply not be guaranteed.
Also, I suspect it is unlikely new owners would want members of the public trooping up their stairs to view the memorial or pay their respects to relatives.
I find it hard to understand why the cenotaph outside Fenton Town Hall – which links directly to the memorial inside – was given listed status and yet the unique tiled memorial was not.
Sadly, a man with a clipboard from English Heritage decided not to list Fenton Town Hall and, therefore, its interior – including the Minton tiling and the memorial itself – is unprotected.
I am in full agreement with campaigners and the Victorian Society who are urging the MoJ to work with Stoke-on-Trent City Council to find a new role for Fenton Town Hall which ensures that its vaulted chamber and First World War memorial remain intact and accessible to the public.
I believe the town and people of Fenton need this building as a focal point. The city owes it to philanthropist William Meath Baker who built it, and to the men whose names are listed on the memorial inside, to preserve it for future generations.
How can we, in all good conscience, sit idly by and allow it to be sold off in the year when we commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War?
Wouldn’t it be great if the city’s MPs and the city council could help to broker some sort of deal whereby the campaigners – and indeed the people of Fenton – were given a chance to resurrect the Town Hall for community use?
The campaigners are doing their bit and I would suggest it is time for the powers-that-be to stand up and be counted.
Ultimately, of course, the decision on the building’s fate lies with civil servants in Whitehall.
The department these taxpayer-funded civil servants work for is called the Ministry of Justice. So let’s see some justice for the 498 men of Fenton who gave their lives in pursuit of the freedoms we all enjoy today.
*Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel