The ‘Queen of Villages’ will reclaim her throne when an ambitious project returns her neglected hall to its palatial former glory.
History-mad restorers hope visitors will flock to Wath Upon Dearne after ex-council offices are reborn as a heritage centre, business hub, events space and much more.
Originally a private manor house, an imposing Georgian white building is set to become a very public amenity with the involvement of a charitable trust.
Rotherham Council has finally agreed to sell Wath Hall to registered charity Wath Hall Ltd, after years of negotiation. Its four directors – Alex Fleming, Steve Bradwell, Alan Sherriff and Tim Binns – have been battling since 2015 to save the building, which had become surplus to council requirements and was facing ‘vandalism’ by speculative commercial developers.
They have recruited volunteers, written funding bids, raised thousands of pounds and negotiated short-term leases to allow works to begin. Each director brings decades of practical, business and project management experience to the project. Each is putting his skills to the test, as they work together to give the grand, white building back to the village it once served.
They hope that the project will be complete in just five years, setting a benchmark for similar schemes around the region. The partially-renovated hall previously hosted a photography contest and an art exhibition in 2016. The following year it hosted a book launch after 15-year-old author Patrick Binns penned a history of the building. That was followed by another art exhibition and a craft fair.
Future plans include creating underground exhibits for curious tourists to see the hall’s medieval foundations, vaulted strong room and other construction quirks.
Work in the basements – which previously stored the town’s treasury, a wine merchant’s vintage reserve and wartime secrets – has revealed a rich tapestry of building materials and fixtures.
Hand-cut stone flags, bisected beams, bricked-up fireplaces and gaslight mantles will be even more apparent when museum-like labels have been added.
“The basement is on the same level as the floor of the adjacent church. It’s only about 20 yards from the nave,” says Steve, an experienced builder.
“Most people don’t realise what this big, white building is sitting on top of. It would be a great school trip, once we’ve labelled everything.”
The crypt-like, subterranean spaces might even find new life as a cosy little restaurant if the directors have their way.
The ground floor has already housed small exhibits and work on the upper and lower levels is now well underway. Upstairs, modern partition walls and false ceilings are to be removed to restore a grand old council chamber spanning the hall’s depth.
Steve’s apprentices unveiled hardwood floors and 1920s art deco mouldings that will be restored to their former glory.
“It will be a very grand room. The original herringbone parquet floor is still there – that will be lovely for dancing on,” Steve says.
The team are hoping to turn the upstairs space into a salon which could host dances, recitals, conferences and weddings with the potential for it to be used by the wider local community.
Crowning the building will be a restored four-metre diameter glass cupola, which once allowed light into an enormous upstairs chamber of 100 square metres, but which is currently boarded up.
Former history teacher Alex is piecing together its heritage, ensuring the work is sympathetic to its past as well as creating exhibits and research rooms depicting local history.
“The involvement of the building in the social and economic life of the area is immense,” he says.
“During the General Strike of 1926 there was a soup kitchen here and when Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1953, Wath celebrated with a stage built here and a pageant put on, telling the story of the nation. This will be a great opportunity for children to come and learn about world events and the part Wath played in them.”
The restoration team hope that wider Wath will also become a destination for fellow heritage-lovers, to discover more of the abounding history hidden within Wath Hall’s walls.
For example, the captain of the first Royal Navy warship sunk in 1939 was born in Wath, while botanist William Keble Martin, who published The Concise British Flora in 1965, was parish priest at Wath.
“We would also love to develop a cultural quarter,” says Steve.
“We have a 250-seater theatre next door in Montgomery Hall with an annual folk festival which is nationally famous, but a lot of people don’t know about it.” Alex adds: “It’s not just the building but everything that could happen around it. We would also link with RSPB Old Moor, the Swinton pottery kiln and Wentworth Woodhouse – it’s a gateway to the culture of the area.”
There is still a lot of money to raise – around £235,000 – before the venue can be finished to a habitable standard. The team would like to raise over and above this, to realise their dream of restoring the cupola. The trust will be selling shares to buy the Hall and raise the early working capital and hope to attract lottery funding to create the phased development plan, realising their grand ambitions.
The Heritage Lottery Fund has already financed structural surveys and admin costs, suggesting confidence in the venture. Alex finishes with a poignant message: “The area has been hit hard in recent years, but Wath used to be called the Queen of Villages. We’re confident that we can regain that crown.”
Visit www.wathhall.co.uk for more information and updates on the project.