Faversham Assembly Rooms in 1853. They are now being restored after use as a Drill Hall
Appearances, and even names, can be deceptive in Faversham. People who skipped the Drill Hall because the name suggested something drab were missing one of the town’s least-known treats - a ‘sleeping beauty’ in fact.
The Assembly Rooms in their Drill Hall days
The building’s Italianate facade, hardly military in character, afforded a clue. It wasn’t built as a drill hall, but as a suite of assembly rooms, with a home for its caretaker at the back of its courtyard.
The hall has had many years of use by the local Army Cadet Force (ACF), and the house by the Air Training Corps. Opposite the hall in the courtyard is a rare survival - a purpose-built gun-shed, recently restored, which was added to the complex in about 1870. All are listed buildings.
Now a charitable trust is restoring the former Drill Hall for its orginal purpose of assembly rooms
Suites of assembly rooms began to be provided in county towns, such as Buckingham and York, and spas, like Tunbridge Wells, in the 17th century.
They were private ventures, supported by subscribers, and in a society that was becoming more sophisticated they met a new need for venues where gentry-class people could meet socially, in particular for balls, banquets and indeed ‘assemblies’. Scenes from the novels of Jane Austen come to mind. No risk of mixing with the ‘riff-raff’!
By the end of the 18th century, Faversham, in common with most other important towns, had its own assembly room (in the singular) at 12 Market Street. This was probably a modest affair, either converted from part of an existing building or added to it as a rear annexe.
Still, it was ‘numerously attended by most of the genteel families of the neighbourhood’. During the Napoleonic Wars, with scores of dashing young officers billeted in Faversham, it must have proved a god-send, and one can picture the Darcy-like impression they must have made on eligible local spinsters.
Inside the Drill Hall during its military use
But it was too small, and by the 1830s had been superseded by larger purpose-built premises in Preston Street, on the site of the present building.
Here took place such events as in 1841 a Conservative banquet to celebrate the return (unopposed!) of Sir Edward Knatchbull as MP for East Kent.
Unfortunately the buildings were destroyed by fire on 3 September 1848. Nothing daunted, the proprietors had replacement facilities up and running within a year. As before, these included a caretaker’s house.
The architect was the talented, and versatile, Martin Bulmer, from Maidstone, and the builder a local man, Thomas Ware.
Bulmer’s own watercolour of the interior (picture at top of page), available as a picture postcard at the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, makes clear that it is a minor masterpiece. As originally decorated, it was a colourful, gracious space - almost a classic double-cube (54’ long x 28’ 6” wide x 16’ 2” high).
Its restrained classical elegance made it ideal for its purpose. For privacy, there are no windows - just big octagonal lantern-lights in the roof. At the Preston Street end, there is a fine musicians’ gallery, though this is now boarded in. The acoustics are excellent. This is one of the very few suites of Assembly Rooms left in south-east England.
For many years the Rooms proved a great success. In 1850 they hosted a crowded meeting which roundly condemned the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in England - perhaps this is why Cardinal Newman complained that Faversham was the most Protestant town in Britain?
Eight years later, when the railway finally reached the town, the Lord Mayor of London and many of the company directors held a celebration dinner here.
However in 1862 competition arrived on the scene, in the form of the new Faversham Institute in East Street (where John Anderson Court now stands). Of all Kent Institutes this had the biggest membership, and had accommodation to match, including a splendid multi-purpose first-floor hall.
Big functions began to forsake the Assembly Rooms and in about 1869, to make ends meet, the proprietors hired them long-term to the ‘Volunteers’ - the counterpart of today’s Territorial Army. From 1908 until very recently, use has been confined mainly to military purposes, because in this way less rates (Council Tax) were payable.