The Empire Hall – A Brief History

The Empire Hall was built in 1907 for the village by James Buchanan (later Lord Woolavington) of Lavington Park. It was originally built to accommodate 400 (including 75 in the gallery!) and was constructed entirely by men working on the Lavington Estate and in the village under direction of Mr Buchanan’s agent. A room at the new Hall was reserved as a Reading Room and Library, another for the local Conservative Unionist Association. James Buchanan is commemorated in the plaque above the front door of the Hall.

The Hall was opened on 19th October 1907 by Andrew Bonar Law, a Conservative MP who subsequently became Prime Minister, and whose speech was largely concerned with political issues of the day rather than the affairs of Graffham!

Mr Buchanan also had strong political opinions, however his stated aim was to provide a hall for the use of all, independent of views or party. In keeping with the ideals of the Edwardian era he named it “Empire Hall” to suggest imperialism, patriotism and nationalism.

In his own words at the opening ceremony –

“This Hall is built … to be the means of giving amusement, pleasure and improvement to the people living in this neighbourhood. I am sure that with the co-operation of those who, with myself, are anxious for the good of the people of Graffham and East Lavington and the district, we shall be able to do some practical good.”

He also promised to arrange a series of interesting lectures, and concerts, and by many other ways “to give pleasure and add to the improvement morally and physically of the people who surround us here.”

The programme at the Empire Hall in its first year included a lecture with lantern slides by one Mr. Frederic Villiers, a famous war correspondent of the day, who gave a talk on his adventures and experiences, entitled “Armies I have marched with”. A second lecture was provided on “Women’s Work in China”. A children’s Christmas Entertainment was put on that year, with songs, dances, games and recitations. In keeping with the name of the Hall and the spirit of the age, the program ended with the cantata “Britannia’s Sons” and songs were sung and flags displayed from England, India, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

Much of the Lavington Estate (though not the Stud) was sold in 1937, but the Macdonald-Buchanan family still continued to own and support the Hall. In 1962 they granted a 99 year peppercorn lease to new Trustees and in 1983 they conveyed the freehold to the Trustees, together with an initial endowment contribution. The Hall’s leasehold and freehold titles are held by the Charity Commissioners on behalf of the Hall.

Over the years, the Hall has accommodated a wide variety of village activities as well as private parties and concerts. In days gone by it provided a library and reading room, which doubled up as doctor’s surgery and waiting room for many years. From 1919 to 1977 it was the base of a local branch of the WI, and for many years it hosted a playgroup, toddler group and Youth Club.

The Hall celebrated its Centenary in October 2007 with an Exhibition of photos of Graffham taken over the past 100 years, a dance and a retrospective by the Graffham Rustics.

Current regular users include Brownies and Guides, Thursday Club, Ladies Circle, the Garden Group, Badminton Club and Parish Council.Graffham Rustics first appeared at the hall in 1951 when they were founded by Eddye Loring, and the original platform for speakers was adapted into a stage with a proscenium arch.Their popular productions of plays and musicals have continued ever since. Films were occasionally put on by the Hall Committee, but these took a new lease of life in 2006 with the establishment of “Graffham Empire Movies” (GEM) which donates its profits to the Hall.

Memorable and well attended annual events in the Hall include Burns Night, the Flower Show, the Parish Harvest Supper, the St. Giles Christmas Fair and the Malcolm Sargeant Christmas Concert.The Hall is also the venue for occasional meetings put on by the Parish council, and the Graffham Down Trust and it is the village’s Polling Station for local and national elections.

In the century since James Buchanan built the Empire Hall for the village we have moved from lantern slides to DVD technology, and from “Rule Britannia” to “Roots Around the World”. Nonetheless we hope that he would still recognise that the Hall continues to give amusement, pleasure, and even improvement to the people of the neighbourhood and that he would be happy that his generosity had made a long term contribution to village life in Graffham!