Hall History

Umborne Hall is a green painted Nissen Hut, invented in 1919 by Lt. Col. Peter Norman Nissen (1871-1930) of the British Royal Engineers. In 1941, the Americans built and used huts called Quonset Huts, which were an adaptation of the Nissen Hut. These type of huts were used as makeshift housing for American soldiers and their families at Dunkeswell aerodrome in World War Two.

1945: Umborne WI were meeting in April Cottage, Umborne, the home of Miss Kinnings. A great organiser, she was also the instigator of the “Hall” idea. Country people were not too short of food during the war but money was very hard to come by and so, when Mr Maeer, who rented Umborne Farm from the Shute Estate at the time, offered a triangle of land at Painter’s Cross as a site, the WI began fund raising.

Dick Gillingham of Seaton Junction recounts how his mother Evelyn, with her piano playing ability, helped raise funds for the WI at the time. She sadly died the year the new hall was opened.

1947: Two years into fund raising and the WI felt that a tendered price of £600 for a brick building was fair, but beyond their means. Meanwhile meetings continued at April Cottage, now home of the Gush family. One of the regular tasks was the sorting and distribution of food parcels sent to the valley from Victoria in Australia. Some time later a suitable alternative building was located at Dunkeswell aerodrome. A Nissen hut, at an estimate of under £200, was thought more realistic and the process of moving it to Umborne was commenced. The winter was truly awful – one of the worst in living memory – but the job was finally completed by the end of 1947.

1948: January 10th, 2.30pm, the Hall was officially opened by Lady Cynthia Carew Pole. The Hall was heated by a small coal stove, lit up by gas lamps and had an Elsan chemical toilet – perilously close to the stream!

1949: Shortly after the opening, correspondence between the Umborne WI and the WI National HQ confirmed Miss Kinning’s suspicions that if the local branch were to fail, the Hall would become the sole property of the Nation WI and could be sold as they thought fit. Funds were still desperate, but a way out was sought and, by appointing local Trustees, on August 3rd, the Hall was secured as the property of the local community.

The Fifties: Wages were low, but there was full employment and people chose to remain in the valley for their entertainment, so the Hall was very popular for events such as dances (about 7p to enter!) whist drives (1st prize a Pig or £5 if preferred!). 5 dozen cups and saucers were bought for just over £5.

1957 The Trustees were concerned as to their security, since they did not own the site. This was alleviated when Sir John Carew Pole issued a deed of gift of the land. All was in place! Then, at last, electricity! – installation cost £39, allowing for second-hand fittings.

The Sixties: While people started to travel further afield for their entertainment, the Hall was never busier. New building works were funded and the Hall became as at present – with inside toilets as well. At difficult moments the Trustees generously donated monies to keep things afloat.

The Seventies: The farming industry was on a more stable footing and this meant that the Hall was always in the black. In 1972 the Hall was a target during the “ 3-day Week” and windows were broken and a gate pulled off its hinges and thrown over the hedge!

The Eighties: saw more changes. Few young people used the Hall and the membership of the W.I. Took on an older profile. Funding was easier and a new kitchen and electrics were introduced. In 1981 the Hall was inspected and given a life of only 10 more years! So it is now 28 years past its “sell by date”!

Most of the above history of the hall was researched and written by Mr Terry Warr- for which many thanks.

2010Umborne Hall, a wartime Nissen hut, is to go home to Dunkeswell and be replaced by a new building. It will be dismantled in March and delivered back to the airfield, where during the war it accommodated American airmen. For more than 60 years it has stood on a junction of narrow country lanes in the hamlet of Umborne, providing the scattered community with its only meeting place. It was the WI later to disaffiliate itself from the national body and become the Umborne Ladies Social Club which bought the corrugated hut and turned it into what it has since become: Devons most quaint, draughty, damp, leaky, and loved village hall.

For many years the Umborne Institute trustees have been trying to raise the funds to replace the hall with something more suited to 21st century peacetime. And at last they have nearly succeeded. Having raised £41,000, most of it from community events in the hall, they have also attracted £27,000 in grants. As a result they have accepted a quotation from Harris Timber Products, based at Whimple, to erect a timber-framed building on the site of the old hut. New footings will be dug, a new hall will arrive in sections on the back of a lorry and a new age will begin in Umborne. On March 8, subject to final approval from building regulation officials, the Nissen hut will come down and be transported by the South-West Airfields Heritage Trust back to Dunkeswell, where it will become a museum of wartime artefacts. A fortnight later, building work will start on the site, now being expanded with land generously given by farmer Lilian Bird for a larger car park. It is expected that the new hall will be built and fitted out in 12 weeks, so that the first events in the community hall can take place before the end of the summer.

But, before the job can be completed, the trustees still have to raise about £20,000 the difference between what they have now and the total cost of the new hall. Chairman Rob Summers, whose family have farmed in the area for generations, said that the trustees had two choices: to accept the grants being offered through the Community Council of Devon, knowing that more money had to be found from somewhere, or reject the offers that would probably never be made again. We chose to go ahead, he said. We felt we had to do something for local people even if we had to go to them again for more money. We had been promising it to them for so long. So in March the trustees will call and visit all local families, asking them to buy Umborne bonds and the chance of a big prize in an annual draw. The bonds will be loans, to be repaid on demand or as soon as the trustees have raised enough money to clear them. Alternatively, people can make gifts under the Revenue and Customs Gift Aid scheme that will then be worth a further 25 per cent to the halls rebuilding. The trust continues to make grant applications to fund different parts of the project, and friends of the community are generously helping in many ways.

Geoff Elliott