This year marks the centenary of the Pirrie Hall in Brook; a village hall, cricket pavilion, tennis club and site of the popular Brook Fête. In the below article, PAULA BURTON looks back over the past 100 years and the role that the hall has played in the local community...
The hall was built and given to the community “for the use and benefit of the inhabitants of the hamlets of Brook, Sandhills and adjoining district” by William James Pirrie, Viscount Pirrie, of Witley Park as documented on May 17, 1923.
Viscount Pirrie (1847-1924) became a shipbuilder and ship owner. He was born in Quebec City in Canada but moved to Ireland, at the age of two, upon the death of his father. He and his sister went to live with their grandfather, Captain William Pirrie, a Belfast ship owner. Pirrie was apprenticed to the Harland and Wolff shipbuilders in Belfast at the age of 15.
By 1895, Pirrie had become chairman of Harland and Wolff, elected mayor of Belfast in 1896-97, and was latterly involved in the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic. In May 1909 Pirrie and wife Margaret bought the extensive Witley Park for a sum “not far short of £200,000” according to The Times of the day.
His nephew, Thomas Andrews, oversaw the design of the ill-fated Titanic, the largest and one of the most luxurious liners of its time. Notoriously described as ‘practically unsinkable’, the 1912 sinking of the Titanic became one of the most famous tragedies in modern history.
Viscount Pirrie was advised not to sail on the Titanic’s maiden voyage due to illness, but his nephew was on board the ill-fated ship. His body was never recovered.
Eleven years later, Pirrie was persuaded by the ladies of the Sandhills and Brook Women’s Institute (WI) that a community hall and recreation ground was needed. With an increasing membership they had outgrown their regular meeting venue at Institute Cottage, Sandhills, and were in need of a dedicated space. The WI was at the heart of village activities for most of the last century, with over 60 members in its heyday and a post-war old-time dancing club with over 100 members.
Included in the plans for the community hall was a purpose-built billiards room, cricket pavilion and ground, bowling green and tennis court.
Fashions may ebb and flow, but the Pirrie Hall has remained an active part of the Brook and Sandhills community over the past 100 years, with an annual Christmas party, Friday youth club, nursery and various entertainments that long-standing residents recall with great affection.
The Brook Cricket Club is a significant part of the Pirrie Hall and Brook community. Originally the Brook and Sandhills Cricket Club, games were played in the ‘Cricket Field’ at Sandhills Farm, but in 1923 ‘the field’ was abandoned in favour of the newly built Pirrie Hall, with its cricket ground stretching towards the Dog and Pheasant pub. The club is proudly celebrating its 100 years at the hall.
Shown on the adjacent page is a picture of the Brook team to play the first game at the ground in June 1923. Second from left is Ernie Hardy, uncle of Roy and Alan Hardy, both lifelong players. Alan is Brook CC honorary life-president and backbone of the club, having played cricket at Brook since he could walk. He has captained every side and can still be found at each game in his 86th year.
In talking about his life in cricket, Alan said: “Cricket brings you a sense of being and helps you face adversity – I was very ill in my younger years and cricket pulled me through. Life wouldn’t have been the same without it.”
The cricket club would be interested if any of the readers can identify others in the picture.
The actor, artist and Sandhills resident W Graham Robertson was one of the original trustees of the Pirrie Hall and vice-president of Brook CC, and used to bring teams of celebrities to play at Brook, including the famed artist Augustus John. In its centenary year at the hall, Brook will be playing the MCC on Sunday, July 9.
Brook Cricket Club has through the years shared in county glory, the 1987 and 1992 sides competing at The Oval for the Champion of Champions Cup (winners and runners-up for the Flora Doris Cup and Surrey Cup). The 1992 side went on to win the cup.
It is also the ground where the now internationally renowned cricket brand Woodworm originated in 2001. The innovative sculpted bats were the outcome of a quick repair to a woodworm-eaten bat, the result of which was an innings of 142 not out by Joe Sillett, who thus went on to found the company.
The brand has been the choice of Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen and James Anderson, to name a few.
The picturesque ground in its rural setting and with its excellent wicket remains a popular venue for cricketers from far and wide – including touring sides – while local boys and girls are actively encouraged to play for the Juniors team, which continues to grow in popularity. New members of all levels are always very welcome.
Today, community spirit in Brook and Sandhills remains as strong as ever, with village activity centred largely on The Dog and Pheasant pub, the cricket ground and the Pirrie Hall. The hall is also home to the Brook Tennis Club as well as hosting many local groups, ranging from regular table tennis to dance classes. It also provides a venue for weddings, birthdays and local celebrations – the most recent of which was the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee picnic.
The highlight of each year is the Brook Fête, held in the grounds of the Pirrie Hall each May. This year Monday, May 1, marks the fête’s 75th anniversary (having missed a few years to Covid), making it one of the longest-running village fêtes in the south-east. It is a real team effort and provides the majority contribution to the running costs of the hall as a self-sufficient charity that receives no external funding.
Throughout the 75 years, the fête has established a reputation for a traditional village fête with good old-fashioned fun. However, when the Bentall family (of Bentalls department store in Kingston) moved to Witley Park in the 1950s they introduced a whole new level of tombola prize that became legendary. Gerald and Joy Bentall insisted that each department from the store find prizes for the fête, for the benefit of prize winners and the community! Residents still talk of the exceptional items to be won, including rugs and tea sets.
Another family of note through the fête’s history is the Ashwells. Four Ashwell generations have been involved in the running of the fête as well as being central to the running of the hall and village life generally.
“This year we have the ever-popular attractions and entertainment planned, including dog show, tombola, bric-a-brac, barbecue, plant sale, vintage cars, kids’ rides and games, cakes, tea tent and Pimm’s tent. We are keen to retain the feel of a traditional village fête and offer something for all ages,” says fête co-organiser Jim Langham.
“Just as local residents were keen to come together and celebrate in the aftermath of the Second World War, today’s committee is focused on putting on an event that will put a smile on the face of the thousands who come along each year.”
Looking back over the previous 100 years and in appreciation of the generosity of Viscount Pirrie, there are plans to bring the community together in celebration through 2023.
“There is a renewed drive within the community for more celebratory events that bring people together,” said Jim Burton, who recently took the role of chair of the hall.
“The events of the last three years have made everyone realise the importance of community. In its centenary year I believe the ambitions of Viscount Pirrie and the WI remain just as relevant today as they were then – to provide a heart of the community.”