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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My hopes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

As we approach December 31, it’s a time to reflect but also to look forward to what 2014 may bring.

Top of my wish list for the New Year is a hope that a little girl from Burslem will move further down the road to recovery.

I’ve not met Francesca Allen but I’m one of the hundreds of people locally who’s done a little bit of fund-raising for her.

In August she was diagnosed with leukaemia and since then her courage and beautiful smile have inspired many of us.

Whatever 2014 brings, let’s hope it is a happier and healthier one for a three-year-old who has touched the hearts of people across the Potteries.

In February pop superstar Robbie Williams turns 40 and here in his home city we’re having a bit of a do to celebrate.

RWFanFest is a month-long festival which honours the achievements of Britain’s top-selling music artist and someone who has given £5 million of his own money away to worthy causes here in North Staffordshire.

There’ll be an exhibition of never-before-seen memorabilia and photographs at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, a charity gig in aid of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice, a fans’ art exhibition at Burslem School of Art and bus tours around the ‘Robbie trail’.

That’s not all. Expect a lot more too as Stoke-on-Trent finally embraces its celebrity son. Watch this space…

This year Sentinel readers campaigned hard to help save the name of their local regiment.

The Staffords, or 3Mercian as they are now known, had been under threat from Ministry of Defence cutbacks.

But a 17,000-strong petition taken to 10 Downing Street showed the strength of feeling locally and Army top brass gave a commitment to preserve the name.

Our boys are currently on active service out in Afghanistan so spare a thought for them as you tuck into your left-over turkey and mince pies.

Here’s hoping they can complete their final tour as 3Mercian successfully and ALL return home to their loved ones safely.

Sticking with the military theme, 2014 promises to be a big year for commemorating conflicts.

It marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and events and initiatives are being planned all over the country.

The Sentinel has a number of special supplements planned – including the re-publishing of interviews with First World War veterans as well as letters from The Front.

We will also be working with a variety of organisations to ensure that the county’s rich military heritage is celebrated.

On that note, June marks 70 years since D-Day and world leaders, veterans and tourists will gather in Normandy to pay tribute to the fallen of arguably the greatest invasion the world has ever seen.

The Sentinel has interviewed surviving veterans from all three branches of the services – both for the newspaper and on film for our website – and will be producing a souvenir pull-out to coincide with the anniversary.

Regular readers of this column will know I’m a big believer in celebrating our heritage and so I’ll be supporting Fenton residents in their campaign to save Fenton Town Hall and its unique Great War Memorial.

The fight has already received the backing of celebrities including Stephen Fry, and thousands of people have signed a petition calling for the building to be returned to public ownership rather than sold off to a private buyer by the Ministry of Justice.

Let’s hope justice prevails and the people of Fenton are allowed to retain this civic gem in 2014.

I’ll also be doing my bit in the New Year to help raise the profile of RW388.

That’s the serial number of the city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, housed in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which is in urgent need of some tender loving care.

Here in the birthplace of its designer Reginald Mitchell, I think it’s vital we do all we can to help restore and conserve this wonderful aircraft for future generations.

Expect plenty of coverage of the battle to save RW388 in The Sentinel and, if you want to make a contribution, you can pick up a copy of a fund-raising Spitfire calendar comprising terrific archive photographs from our reception, priced at £7.99.

If you do pop up to Hanley you’ll notice that work on the much-maligned Central Business District continues apace.

Given that I can’t see the powers-that-be at the council changing their mind about plans for the city centre, I just hope the CBD progresses quickly and there is movement on the long-awaited City Sentral shopping development.

I’m not holding my breath for the latter, given the delays and curious lack of communication from the developers but perhaps we will see a scaled-down version of the original plans. Anything would be better than nothing at this stage.

Turning to sport, I’d like to wish Peter Coates and Stoke City all the best for the remainder of the season.

Potters manager Mark Hughes is lucky to have such a passionate and reasonable bloke at the helm – one who will give him the time and resources to mould his own team in the hope of taking them to the next level.

Meanwhile, at my beloved Port Vale my only wish is for a period of stability – or rather, an end to any financial uncertainty.

Fingers crossed Micky Adams signs a new deal, anyone who is owed any money by the club gets paid, and Vale fans are given closure with regard to the activities of certain individuals who brought the club to its knees in 2012.

I know I speak for The Sentinel when I wish chairman Norman Smurthwaite and his team all the best for a successful and prosperous 2014 – hopefully free of media bans and full of goodwill to all fans… and journalists.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Once you create a social media account, you’re on your own…

I can fully understand Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s rationale behind issuing its members with a social media rulebook to help them mind their Ps and Qs.

The powers-that-be want to ensure that the authority’s good name isn’t besmirched by some clever dick with a lap top.

The only mystery is why it took the council’s internet police so long to issue a rule book.

Any politician (or journalist, for that matter) brave enough to use social media learns pretty sharpish that it’s a double-edged sword.

Twitter, Facebook and the like can be wonderful tools for promoting whatever you want to promote.

Of course, the problem arises when not everyone likes your agenda.

You see, we’re not all Stephen Fry. There’s a good reason why a national treasure like the man who gave us Blackadder’s Melchett, among other unforgettable characters, has the best part of five million followers on Twitter.

A comedy genius, Fry oozes wit and wisdom in equal measure and the 147 character limit for Tweets seems perfect for him.

That’s why I don’t mind occasionally reading about the minutiae of his life or his streams of consciousness – especially as, like me, he’s a cricket-lover.

Unfortunately, most mortals simply aren’t as engaging and, crucially, cannot draw upon the huge reservoir of goodwill and respect that Stephen Fry enjoys.

This is why many people get sucked into unseemly and unedifying slanging matches which everyone (well, anyone who follows them or is their ‘friend’) can see.

An ill-advised post, written in the heat of the moment, can have catastrophic consequences for a person’s life, career or popularity.

It may take less then a minute to vent your spleen on such very public forums but, once you have, there’s a chance the world and his dog will have seen your missive and drawn instant conclusions about your worth as a human being.

If the pen is mightier than the sword then I would suggest the keyboard is infinitely more powerful than both.

The harsh reality is that some people simply shouldn’t be allowed access to a toaster – let alone the internet.

These are the kind of people who could start an argument in an empty room.

They are simply not good with, well… words – their common sense deficiency and GCSE grade G in English regularly exposed in the cold expanse of cyberspace.

Worse still are those who actually revel in being provocative and argumentative or making every other word an expletive – believing themselves to be somehow edgy and cool.

These keyboard warriors are legends in their own computer rooms and are to be avoided, blocked and ostracised because, as I’ve learned from bitter experience, there’s simply no point debating with an idiot.

Which brings me neatly on to the use of social media by politicians.

I should say first that I’m all for anything which helps MPs and councillors better engage with an electorate which is, generally speaking, apathetic about politics – particularly at a local level.

Social media gives councillors a measure of freedom and a voice beyond the confines of the council chamber or their own party.

While I understand the local authority’s desire to police the use of the likes of Facebook and Twitter by councillors, I think some of the advice reads rather like excerpts from a rule book for stating the bleedin’ obvious.

The city council’s words of wisdom include: “Treat others with respect; avoid personal attacks and disrespectful, rude or offensive comments; do not publish anything that might be considered sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic or anti-faith.”

To me, the very fact that PR officers feel the need to remind elected members to be respectful to other people seems absurd.

Other guidance such as telling councillors to avoid discussing ‘controversial topics’ such as politics or religion is patently nonsense.

After all, what’s the point of members having a social media profile if they’re banned from talking about politics?

Ultimately, the internet is a vast, ever-changing and unpredictable environment into which politicians – and everyone else for that matter – venture at their own risk.

Irrespective of what advice is issued, once someone creates an account they’re on their own.

At some point someone viewing their profile will undoubtedly take exception to something they’ve written.

When this happens, as it inevitably will, the trick is not to be intimidated or cowed and to remember that, whoever you are arguing with, is not a Bond villain.

More likely, it’s a bloke sitting in his box room, wearing slippers and supping a mug of Ovaltine as he sets the world to rights.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel