Home History of Rode Clubs and Institutes United Counties Institute (Reading Rooms)

United Counties Institute (Reading Rooms)

Extracts from The Jubilee Clock, A History of the Clock and the Reading Rooms, by P Harris, and early pictures

At this time the building proposed to house the clock, the United Counties Reading and News Rooms and Public Hall (the Reading Rooms), was nearing completion. It was being built at the expense of Capt. Batten-Pooll, who with Rev. Brickmann and others had for some time been planning to provide a place of learning, a literary institution, and it was often to be referred to as the Institute. It was to be for everyone in Road and Roadhill, hence the name of the premises for it was to serve the inhabitants from two counties, Road being in Somerset and Roadhill in Wiltshire.

In 1887 most children had to leave school as soon as they were able to work, to help earn money to buy food for their family. It was not unusual for children to be sent to work at the age of 11 or 12 years old, so they received only a very basic education. Furthermore, there were no colleges where they might continue their education in the evenings. Capt. Batten-Pooll wished to help the local people to further their education and increase their knowledge, for the benefit of themselves and the community as a whole. He and Rev. Brickmann also wanted the Institute to be ready and open in 1887 as a celebration of the Jubilee.

As well as providing an institute of great educational and social value, Capt. Batten-Pooll wanted the building to be an impressive and long lasting feature in the village, befitting of a memorial of the Queen’s jubilee. A historical survey carried out in 1998 prior to development of the area gives the following description of the exterior of the Institute, which provides a good insight into the quality of the original building and its fine decorative features:

The Exterior

The building known as the Reading Rooms is situated on the southeast side of the High Street, immediately to the east of the Cross Keys. In plan it is an “L” shaped building consisting of the gabled fronted hall, perpendicular to the High Street, and a wing to the west. It is two storeys high, with an attic storey in the west wing.
The street elevation is of squared and coursed limestone rubble with dressed stone quoins, door, and mullioned and transomed windows with hood moulds, in the late Victorian institutional style. At the top of the gable is the Jubilee Clock, in a stone moulded surround. The back elevations are in uncoursed rubble.
At present the building is roofed with double Roman tiles. Notching on the fascia board indicates that the previous roofing was smaller plain tiles. This is confirmed by a photograph showing the Reading Rooms around 1920, in which the roof has ornate bargeboards and is covered with fish-scale tiles alternating with plain tile bands. (A few fragments of the tiles can be found inside the roof.) The photograph also shows a porch, now gone. The existing ornamental ridge tiles, and the weathervane and bell finial of wrought iron, which surmounts the main gable, evidently formed part of a highly decorative scheme.

There are two brick chimney stacks: one at the apex of the gable of the western wing, the top part of which is a brick repair; the other stack is half way along the eastern side of the building. The 1920 photograph shows that this was also originally constructed of dressed stone.

Reading Rooms, circa 1930 (the boards list the names of villagers who served in the First World War)

With the Institute nearing completion a committee was formed to run it, the main officers being: the Rev. Brickmann, president; Capt. Batten-Pooll, treasurer; Radulfe Lennox Lambert, of private means from Mayfield House, secretary; G. W. Stokes, assistant secretary; and Edwin Blick, of private means from Woolverton Villa, librarian. Capt. Batten-Pooll entered into an agreement with the committee for undisturbed tenancy provided interest only was paid on about two thirds of the value of the site and the cost of its erection. He also insisted that there should be no politics in the use or working of the Institute and that this was to be enforced as a strict rule of conduct. In March 1887 a news correspondent passing through Road, noticed the Institute being constructed and wrote the following account which he distributed to all the local newspapers and which they printed.

Village Improvement

Passing through the principal street of the village and arriving at what in former days was the Market Place, we notice a very pleasing and well proportioned edifice now in course of erection, and on inquiry find it is the “United Counties Reading and News Rooms” and Public Hall. We enter and on the left of the main corridor pass into a capacious Reading Room fitted in modern style and comfort. Adjoining it is the Committee and Business Room and beyond a well planned Bagatelle and Chess Room. At the side of this is a sundry room and staircase leading to the platform of the Hall above. Retracing our steps to the front Lobby on the right we come to the Caretaker’s Cottage consisting of front and back sitting rooms with sleeping and other rooms above. Ascending the principal staircase we enter the large room or Hall, the dimensions of which, with the open and lofty roof, and bold mullioned window etc, strike one as being well conceived and adapted for the uses intended. It will be capable of accommodating about 300 persons and available for all purposes not inconsistent with the objects of a literary institution. The building is being erected at the expense of Captain R. P. H. Batten-Pooll, J.P. who we learn has signed a deed of agreement with the Committee for undisturbed tenancy upon payment of an interest on about two thirds of the value of the site and cost of erection. On perusing the admirable code of rules especially noticeable is one – that nothing political shall be allowed in the use or working of the Institution.

By early June 1887 the clock was in place and working as planned.

There were many activities, one of them being a performance beneath the Jubilee Clock at 1.15pm Wednesday 22nd June by the Farleigh Castle Brass Band led by the bandmaster, Edward Woolley of Road. At 1.30 pm the teachers and schoolchildren of the Roadhill National School and Sunday School (some 140) assembled beneath the clock, as did the Baptist Sunday School (about 70), and then the oldest village Sunday School, the Wesleyans (also about 70), and many other villagers and children also gathered there. All in all it was estimated there were between 300 and 400 people beneath the clock in the old market area of Road.

Before the end of the year the Institute had 130 ordinary and 15 honorary members. The members presumably paid a subscription, which would have been used to pay the rent, heating, lighting and the caretaker’s wage. The library held 175 books, donated by supporters of the Institute, including bound volumes of Shakespeare, Lytton, Scott and Dickens. Two years later this number had increased to 300.

Above: Reading Rooms, circa 1902

The Institute was not used just for educational purposes. The Public Hall served as the major entertainment venue and meeting place for the village. It was a large space, capable of accommodating around 200 people and suitable for many events. The performances held in the Hall were not modest affairs, but grand entertainments, patronised by the leading gentry of the district. Capt. Batten-Pooll thus brought music and theatre to Road, entertainments seldom available to country residents. The Hall was also used for large village meetings. In later years the annual parish assemblies were held there, hence the name the Assembly Rooms used by some. These gatherings were originally held to elect, by a show of hands, the parish councillors for the forthcoming year, but as time passed, were also called to decide important events in the village’s history, as will be related later. The Committee Room was used by the many organisations and clubs that flourished in the village, such as the benefit club with 120 members, cricket club and rifle club.

The Woolley’s daughter, (Hilda) May, was born in the caretaker’s cottage in 1898. May lived all her life in the village and, on her death in 1995, left her whole estate to be used for the improvement of the village hall and playing field. While living in the cottage, her father started to look after the clock on a regular basis. With the arrival of their second child, the Woolleys found larger accommodation in Lower St., and another young couple, George and Lavinia Short, moved into the cottage. Lavinia became the caretaker of the Reading Rooms but Woolley continued to care for the clock.

In 1925, Wilfred Barnett and his wife, Winifred, moved into the caretaker’s cottage. Their son, Geoffrey, was born there in 1926.

1928 – end of an era in Rode

The Reading Rooms, crowned by the Jubilee Clock, had been the centre of village social activities for 40 years and for most of that time the parish had been under the stewardship of G. W. Stokes, ably assisted by E. Blick. In March 1928 the Reading Rooms were used as the meeting place of the parish council and the annual parish assembly for the last time. After their long period of service Stokes and Blick, chairman and hon. secretary of the Council, decided to stand down and their places were taken by Percy John Fussell (Fig. 14), head of Fussells brewery and F. Newman Stacey. Stacey was the schoolmaster at the Wesleyan School and this became the new venue for the parish council. The United Counties Reading and News Rooms and Hall closed 2 years later, possibly as a result of dwindling support due to the reducing population in the village and lack of funds during the years of the Great Depression. R. P. H. Batten-Pooll, their founder, patron and owner, died later in the same year, as did their long-serving librarian and secretary, Blick.

In 1931, Batten-Pooll’s son and heir, Captain Walter Stewart Batten-Pooll, sold parts of the estate, including the disused Reading Rooms, to Sidney Fussell & Sons Ltd, owners of the neighbouring Cross Keys Inn and brewery, although Frome Rural District Council Rating Valuations show that in 1933 and 1936 the Reading Rooms were only being leased by the brewery. The ground floor became the canteen for the brewery workers but the hall above was still used for public functions.

In September 1938 the whole country was preparing for war and the parish council received a letter requesting them to create an Air Raid Precautions organisation in the village. The chairman, P. J. Fussell immediately offered the use of the Reading Rooms as the organisations headquarters and action was taken to start instruction classes there.

By 1938 the Barnett family had moved to 1, Fairfield Cottages (19 Rodehill), one of the new and more comfortable houses built by P. J. Fussell for his brewery employees. The caretaker’s cottage was never again used as a separate dwelling. Perrott continued to look after the clock until his death in 1944.

In 1962 the whole of Fussells brewery was taken over by Bass, Ratcliffe & Gretton Ltd. for use by the Bass, Mitchell & Butler group, as its depot and distribution centre for the southwest. Brewing operations were phased out and with no further need for the canteen, the whole of the Reading Rooms was used for storage. Michael Sparey, who carried out various building work for Fussells Brewery, thinks that it was at some time after this date that the caretaker’s cottage was amalgamated into the living space of the Cross Keys Inn by making an access at first floor level.

Bass Ltd. closed down their operations and vacated the site, including the Reading Rooms, in October 1992. However, Paul Stacey, chairman of the parish council, persuaded the manager to leave him a key to the Reading Rooms for access to wind the clock. There was no lighting in the building so, when Bryant was unable to wind the clock during the day, the whole exercise had to be carried out by torchlight. The site remained empty and the buildings derelict for nearly 8 years, but with access to the building the clock continued to strike the hours throughout.

At last in 2000, the development of the brewery site began. Swan Hill Homes Ltd. had bought the whole site but was only interested in building new houses. They sold the Cross Keys Inn in 2002 to Michael Moore and Nicola Robinson, to be refurbished and used once more as an inn together with the Reading Rooms. The new owners planned to use the ground floor of the Reading Rooms as a restaurant for the Cross Keys and the first floor as office space.

Meanwhile, Moore led the extensive repair and modification work to the Cross Keys Inn and Reading Rooms. The Cross Keys re-opened for business in 2004, with the restaurant on the ground floor of the Reading Rooms opening a few months later. Refurbishment and repositioning of the clock was delayed due to the extensive work programme of the chosen restorer, Peter Watkinson of Chard. Work eventually began in February 2006 when Harris and Hornsey dismantled the movement and winding gear in preparation for its collection by the contractor.

19 December 2023
Last Updated
15 March 2024