Why Fenton and our city need the Town Hall and memorial to be saved

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

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

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Time is running out to save Fenton Town Hall and its unique memorial

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

In less than two weeks’ time a group of campaigners from Stoke-on-Trent will take a trip to London to hand in a petition at 10 Downing Street.

This symbolic gesture is hugely significant because it takes the fight to protect and preserve what I believe is one of the city’s most important buildings to the heart of Government.

Last year Prime Minister David Cameron committed more than £50 million to commemorations of the Great War – including millions of pounds to encourage young people to learn about the conflict.

Consider then the irony of the fact that, as the nation gears up for four years of events to mark the ‘war to end all wars’, here in Stoke-on-Trent we are having to wage a battle to save a building which is inextricably linked to the First World War.

You see, despite what anyone says, the reality is Fenton Town Hall – and its Great War Memorial composed of Minton tiles – are under serious threat.

There’s a £500,000 price tag on the building which is now owned by the Ministry of Justice.

How it came to pass that the fate of a building bequeathed to the people of Stoke-on-Trent should rest with a Whitehall department is beyond me.

Yes, the future of Fenton Town Hall – for more than 40 years the central hub for North Staffordshire Magistrates – will not be decided upon by local people or even the local authority.

Rather it will be at the whim of civil servants who have no knowledge of the building or its heritage and no affinity with our city.

Civil servants presumably akin to the man with a clipboard who decided, inexplicably, a few years back that this historic gem wasn’t worthy of Listed Building status.

Since the Fenton498 campaign was launched a few months ago, more than 7,500 people have signed a petition to stop the desecration of the Great War Memorial inside the building.

The number 498 is important because that is how many local lads killed in the First World War are named on that tiled memorial inside a building none of us are allowed to enter.

The impressive memorial – which links directly to the cenotaph in the square which Fenton Town Hall dominates – was funded by local people who presumably thought it would stand the test of time.

But while the Ministry of Justice has given assurances that the memorial will be ‘preserved’ no matter what the future holds for the building, I – and those campaigning to have Fenton Town Hall transferred into community ownership – remain unconvinced.

For starters, if a private concern was to purchase the building I am not even sure this organisation would guarantee access for the public to allow people to pay their respects to the fallen – let alone look after the memorial it inherits.

The harsh truth here is that everyone on the fringes of this campaign is waiting for someone else to take a decision. The question is: Who will blink first?

Rest assured our MPs are well aware of what’s at stake. Officers at the city council seem at a loss to know which way to jump.

All the while a small band of campaigners are trying desperately to make their voices heard – stressing the importance of the building and its memorial while underlining the fact that Fenton really needs a community facility such as this.

Of course, the fight to save Fenton Town Hall and its Great War Memorial isn’t just about Fenton.

It’s about our city as whole and what we, as a wider society, think is important.

I, for one, think it’s vital to remember the sacrifices of past generations. I also think it’s crucial that future generations have impressive civic buildings of which they can be proud and in which they can come together.

In some respects, Fenton Town Hall can be considered a grave and, as such, I believe we should accord it due respect.

One of the campaigners travelling down to London on October 20 is Jane Jones, whose great-grandfather Ernest Heapy’s name is on the memorial.

I’d like to think that as the Great War commemorations begin Jane, and anyone else who wants to, can visit this breath-taking memorial to say thank you for his supreme sacrifice. If you agree with me, please make your voice heard.

*To sign the petition, log on to: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/stop-the-desecration-of-fenton-great-war-memorial-1914-1918

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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

How can this sort of a prison life be a deterrent?

My ‘feed them to tigers’ approach to dealing with criminals doesn’t go down so well in these politically-correct times.

Everyone deserves a chance, they say. Prevention is better than punishment, we’re told. Rehabilitation is the way forward, apparently.

Tell that to anyone who knew Gregory Baker – the disabled man who was murdered in his own cottage in the Staffordshire Moorlands village of Alton in 2007.

The 61-year-old was suffocated in order that Yvonne Purchase, of Meir, could collect the £60,000 Mr Baker had left her in his will.

Purchase had two accomplices – Shane Edge, of Longton, and her son Lance Rudge, also from Meir – who was one of the subjects of a television documentary screened last night.

The 24-year-old convicted murderer was featured in ‘Lifers’, a Channel Four documentary looking at the day-to-day lives of prisoners serving life sentences at Gartree Prison in Leicestershire.

During the course of his interview for the documentary, Rudge showed no remorse for his awful crime and clearly viewed his murder trial as a little more than a ‘boring’ distraction.

He told viewers he was enjoying prison life because he has a TV, stereo and three meals a day.

Rudge said he ‘has it nice’ behind bars because he doesn’t have the ‘nightmare’ of trying to get a job.

He thinks life outside the prison would be ‘horrible’, adding: “I wouldn’t like to be out there at all now. I’d prefer to stay inside a while and wait until it calms down.”

While I am delighted that this low-life won’t be let out in the world until at least 2025, I can’t be the only one who is appalled that having committed such a heinous crime he now lives a life of comfort.

Just look at his ‘cell’. If you ignore the bars it looks to me more like a teenager’s bedroom.

Rudge is absolutely right, of course, in saying that by being inside he is shielded from the economic downturn which has many of us fearing for our jobs and wondering how we can pay our bills.

While we worry about keeping a roof over our heads, we’re all paying for Lance Rudge and his ilk to sit there in cosy rooms watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, listening to Radio One and eating meals which are no doubt nutritionally-balanced for them.

The question I would pose is: Can this really be termed ‘punishment’?

Is the denial of Lance Rudge’s liberty enough of a punishment for an horrific, pre-meditated killing?

Not in my book it isn’t.

If I had my way I’d strip him off that Stoke City shirt and baseball cap and have him wearing a fluorescent orange overall and he’d be hand-cuffed for much of the day.

His cell would contain only text books to supplement the daily education he received which would be aimed at making this toe-rag employable when he is finally released.

Those lessons would be interspersed with back-breaking labour akin to that once inflicted on chain-gangs in American prisons. (One U.S. state still allows you to volunteer for this, apparently).

Yes, I’d have Lance Rudge breaking rocks, carrying timber and sewing mail bags for the duration of his stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Meanwhile I’d have someone telling him every day that what he did was evil and despicable until he got it through his thick skull that other people matter and that he is responsible for his actions.

If this all seems incredibly draconian then I come back to the central point that prison is supposed to be a deterrent.

However, here we have a bloke who murdered someone actually preferring to stay inside where he has all the comforts of home but doesn’t have to earn a living like the rest of us.

We are told our prisons are bursting at the seams. I would suggest this has much to do with the fact that imprisonment itself isn’t much of a deterrent to people with little or no moral compass like Lance Rudge.

Clearly there is a problem with the prison system and, as a senior prison officer told me, it is failing because so many prisoners go on to re-offend upon their release.

According to the latest Ministry of Justice figures, a record number of offenders sentenced for serious crimes last year had committed previous offences. Ninety per cent of those sentenced in England and Wales had offended before – and almost a third had committed or were linked to 15 or more crimes. The figures showed that re-offending rates were highest among serious offenders who had been jailed.

Ministry of Justice officials say the figures show a “clear trend” of a rising re-offending rate.

I read that as a clear acknowledgment that being in prison doesn’t put people off coming out into society and committing more crime.

Of course rehabilitation is important. Of course reaching those who may be at risk of falling into a life of crime is important.

But surely the final resort is important too – and not simply for keeping the public safe.

Until prisons are more of a deterrent then I would suggest that rapists, paedophiles, armed robbers and murderers like Lance Rudge are simply laughing at us for funding their cosy existences.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel