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

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Our proud links with the Staffords must never be severed

In September of 1918 another stalemate loomed in the War To End All Wars.

The German Army had retreated behind the Hindenberg Line – a vast system of defences in Northeastern France stretching from Lens to Verdun.

Fortifications included concrete bunkers and machine gun emplacements, masses of barbed wire, tunnels, deep trenches, dug-outs and command posts.

Built by Russian prisoners of war, it was considered nigh on impregnable by the German commanding officer – General Ludendorff.

However, he hadn’t factored in the men of the British 46th (North Midland) Division.

On the morning of September 29, under the cover of a dense blanket of fog, the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – formed up and fixed bayonets for what seemed to many to be an attack that couldn’t possibly succeed.

They had to wade across a wide waterway – the St. Quentin Canal – and faced 5,300 Germans in heavily fortified positions.

But just over three hours later the Staffords and their comrades had completed all their objectives – smashing a hole in Hindenberg Line and ultimately penetrating 6,000 yards into enemy territory.

On that day the 46th Division captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns and suffered less than 600 casualties which, given the enormity of the achievement, could be classed as nothing short of miraculous.

This spectacular success, the breaching of the German Army’s last line of defence on the Western Front, undoubtedly shortened the Great War and saved countless lives.

What’s more, it was potters and miners from our neck of the woods who were instrumental in that decisive blow.

Men of the Staffords.

Fast forward now a quarter of a century and the 2nd Battalion (South Staffords) is part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade which arrives in North Africa and routes a battalion of crack German paratroopers.

Two years later, in September 1944, a butcher from Burslem by the name of John ‘Jack’ Baskeyfield wins a Victoria Cross for his actions in the Battle of Arnhem.

While defending the Oosterbeek perimeter three days into the battle, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield commanded a pair of anti tank guns that destroyed several enemy tanks before their crews were killed.

Despite being badly wounded himself he crawled from one destroyed gun to another and continued to fire upon the advancing German armour before he was killed. His body was never found.

Jack Baskeyfield VC served with the 2nd Battalion, the South Staffordshire Regiment.

His comrades in the 1st Battalion, South Staffords, formed part of the Chindit Force which flew into Burma in 1944 and were never defeated in a series of battles against the fearless Japanese.

Some 30 years later, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Staffords establish for themselves a reputation as firm but fair peace-keepers. It leads one veteran helicopter pilot to describe them as ‘better than the Marines and the Paras’ at the difficult helicopter missions around Armagh where road travel was impossible.

More recently, during the Iraq War the Staffordshire Regiment was posted to the hot spots of Al Amarah and Basra where the lads were attacked, as their C.O. told me, ‘on an almost daily basis’ by insurgents.

Their textbook Christmas Day raid on the infamous Al Jameat Police Station on Christmas Day 2006 made headlines across the world.

That year the regiment was voted BBC Midlander of the Year by television viewers and in 2007 the Staffords picked up The Sentinel Editor’s Award just months before they became part of the Mercian Regiment.

These are mere glimpses into the long and distinguished history of our local regiment.

However, they perhaps go some way to explaining the response of the people of North Staffordshire to the Ministry of Defence’s decision to disband 3Mercian.

Most people in the Potteries know someone, a relative or a friend, who has served or is currently serving with the Staffords.

This has been a fertile recruiting ground for the Army and North Staffordshire has a proud history of producing fighting men.

In September 2007 General Sir Richard Dannatt was espousing the need for the British public to better support our Armed Forces personnel.

What perhaps he didn’t know was that 12 months earlier the people of North Staffordshire, through The Sentinel newspaper, were sending boxes of treats to Staffordshire Regiment soldiers on the frontline in Iraq as part of our Operation Christmas Cheer campaign.

On their return from operations, Staffordshire Regiment soldiers were invited to watch Stoke City and Port Vale matches free of charge – long before it became commonplace for football clubs to show their appreciation of what our Armed Forces were doing for us overseas.

Our current campaign – entitled ‘Save Our Staffords’ – has attracted more than 10,000 signatures in less than two weeks.

It has touched a chord with young and old alike and not simply ex-service personnel or people who have direct links with 3Mercian.

So we have a rich heritage and hopefully that will count for something in the coming weeks as Army top brass sit down to plan the reorganisation of the Mercian Regiment.

But if it doesn’t then I would just ask the powers-that-be the following questions:

Why should an 18-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle or the Staffordshire Moorlands in the coming years choose to join the Mercian Regiment over say The Rifles or any other another unit which seems to offer greater possibilities?

If our proud local links with the military are severed why should young recruits from our patch or the people of North Staffordshire consider what’s left of the Mercian Regiment as their local unit?

I would suggest those charged with reorganising the Mercian Regiment don’t put themselves into a position where these questions need answering.

The Staffords are our boys and that precious name must be saved.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel