Worts and all story of Labour’s home

Pictured at this Nether Edge is  John Cornwell with HIS NEW BOOK
Pictured at this Nether Edge is John Cornwell with HIS NEW BOOK
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DODGY potions, ration-book feasts and political power - the history of Wortley Hall is more than mere nobility. Star reporter Rachael Clegg looks at the hall’s 60 years as the region’s headquarters for the working man.

DODGY potions, ration-book feasts and political power - the history of Wortley Hall is more than mere nobility. Star reporter Rachael Clegg looks at the hall’s 60 years as the region’s headquarters for the working man.

WORTLEY Hall’s long winding drive, landscaped-gardens and four-star status reveals nothing about the illustrious building’s history.

Its Georgian facade and sweeping stairs are, in fact, misleading.

The hall has another history to it, a one that is the very antithesis of nobility.

This week the hall celebrates its 60th anniversary as one of the most important socialist headquarters in the north of England.

And to mark the occasion, former teacher and councillor John Cornwell has written a book about the hall’s political past, Voices of Wortley Hall, which documents its socialist aspirations and its life as home of the Labour movement.

Wortley Hall originally belonged to the Earl of Wharncliffe, who was chairman of the Manchester and Lincolnshire Railway, and the hall was the seat of the Wharncliffe family until the Second World War. But during the war, like so many other stately homes, it was handed over to the British Army and later as a base for black American servicemen - their white officers lived in the hall itself and the soldiers camped outside.

Throughout the war the home was neglected and gradually fell into a state of serious disrepair so, in 1949 the Earl placed an advertisement in the local press for the short-term lease of the hall.

But the building was in such a state of disrepair that few people came forward - despite the cheap rent.

But there was one very keen candidate: Albert Vincent Williams.

Vin, as he was known, was a colourful character, an idealist and something of a polymath. Vin was born in 1893, in Woodhouse, worked in the pits as a young boy, lectured for the National Council of Labour Colleges and was a part-time potion salesman, selling formulas such as the ‘It’s It’ potion.

When asked what ‘It’ was, Vin would say: “You can either clean carpets with it or, if you drink it, it will cure your cough.”

But Vin’s charisma went beyond Del Boy-like salesmanship. He was also something of a visionary, with a dream to create a one-stop socialist centre for running educational courses for people who, like himself, hadn’t had the opportunity to study.

Vin had already been booking hotels in Derbyshire and holiday camps in Lancashire to run his NCLC classes, so the opportunity to lease Wortley Hall - in his hometown on Sheffield - seemed too good to be true.

With the help of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Vin kick-started Wortley Hall’s life as a centre for leisure activities, trade union meetings, educational workshops and later - a posh wedding venue.

There was also a political agenda to his centre - Vin was a staunch socialist and, like many socialists during the 30s and 40s, Vin visited the Soviet Union.

With no money, Vin had to travel as a stowaway, hiding in a barrel. But as the ship crossed the rough North Sea, he became violently sick, causing him to rock the barrel and attract the captain’s attention, who then returned him to the port.

The Sheffielder also named his son Lenin, a name which was, at the time, extremely difficult to register.

And as a socialist, the idea of taking over an aristocratic home and transforming it into a centre for working men and women had an added sense of irony. By 1950 they had signed the lease.

“This was the stuff of socialist dreams, taking over the nobility’s home and running it as a socialist centre and holiday base for working people,” says John, 72, from Nether Edge.

“A lot of aristocrats were struggling after the war - death duties, which increased under the Labour government after the war, made a huge impact on the finances of aristocratic families.”

But Vin and the AEU had their work cut out. The house was in a shocking state and the cost of repairing it in 1950 was estimated at £50,000. Neither Vin or the AEU had that sort of cash. But they did have the political pulling power and idealism to attract the co-operation of other unions, all of which had access to an abundance of skilled craftsmen and tradesmen.

“In the end they completely repaired the dilapidated building for just £9000 - a fraction of the estimated cost,” says John.

The unions, which John lists in his book, included the Amalgamated Union of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, the Co-op Insurance Society, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied TU, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and National Union of Mineworkers.

It was a symbolic restoration. The working man was, quite literally, building his institution from the ashes of the aristocracy. By 1951 it was a fully-fledged centre for the Labour Movement and leisure and educational centre.

“They made a huge transformation and rented it until 1959, when they bought it,” says John. “It became the base of Sheffield’s Labour movement.”

It also became - as Vin always wished for - a centre for education and holiday retreats with food, entertainment and social intercourse. The hall was described as ‘Labour’s Educational, Recreational, Holiday Home’ and indeed it was.

The hall’s July 1951 pamphlet advertised ‘Motor Coach Tours to the lovely dales of Derbyshire and Yorkshire’, a ‘syllabus of lectures’, golf, fishing, bowls, tennis, billiards, concerts and dances.

Residential facilities were basic, but nonetheless there were guests, the first being a Scotsman who travelled to the hall to teach the catering staff how to make porridge, Scottish-style - with lots of salt.

The hall was run as a co-operative organisation and guests were treated as if they were staying in any seaside hotel, with a full menu available offering dishes such as ‘soup, meat, potatoes and two veg’ and high tea, which was taken at about 5.30pm and included salad or poached egg on toast, a trifle, a pot of tea and some caked bread.

Guests were also asked to bring a ‘light mackintosh, soap, a towel and ration books.’ The ration books were important - already Margaret Williams, who oversaw catering at Wortley, had been called into the council offices and accused of feeding her guests so much food they must have been ‘living like kings and queens’.

But the truth was far from it. The building smelled of damp and there were buckets along the corridors collecting water from all the leaks in the roof.

The hall remained a popular hotspot for working men and unions until the 80s when, suddenly, union leaders started to demand a higher standard of accommodation. From 2004 it was completely revamped and is now one of the most popular wedding venues in the region, with four star status.

The four stars may be misleading as to the hall’s gritty, make-do and mend history, but its underlying philosophy is still intact.

As John says: “It’s been described as an ‘oasis of socialism’ but it’s hardly an oasis - this is Labour’s strongest area in England. It’s still a co-operative and it’s great, and it’s my second home.”

The South Yorkshire Festival takes place at Wortley Hall on July 2 from 12noon to 5pm.

Wortley Hall’s Socialist Links

Wortley Hall was the seat of the Wharncliffe family but was leased in 1949 by Vin Williams with backing from the Amalgamated Engineering Union.

It has been referred to as ‘the home of the Labour Movement’ ever since while also serving as a holiday destination for the working man, with good food and sporting activities on offer.

Vin Williams worked in the pits from a young age but educated himself at the newly-built Sheffield Central Library. He was knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, and even wrote letters to his children which covered a range of subjects including politics, classics, Biblical studies and sociology.

His work ranged from lecturing to selling potions door-to-door.

The hall officially opened as a Labour movement centre on May 1951 - only eight months after signing the lease.

The hall was known for its socialist principals - when Russian and Romanian firefighters visited the hall Vin Williams arranged for the Soviet flag to be hung alongside the Union Jack outside. But Labour’s own newspaper, the Daily Herald, denounced this as pandering to Moscow. In 1964 the paper then became The Sun, now a Rupert Murcdoch-run title.